The horror genre is all-too-often negatively typified by its conventions. Make no mistake, breakout hits such as THE EXORCIST, HALLOWEEN, and THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT gained their reputations as top-tier terror movies by breaking new ground and refusing to lean on then contemporary tropes. That said, the slasher sub-genre often suffers when its approach is altered. In the early ‘90s, just before and perhaps contributing to the Great Horror Drought of that decade, stalk-and-slash filmmakers scrambled to include all manner of ludicrous gimmicks to in order to “keep it fresh”. Let’s not fool ourselves here: the rare successes of this period—POPCORN, anyone?―were grossly outweighed by the missteps.
That’s the current conundrum that today’s horror practitioners find themselves trapped inside: how to avoid making a carbon copy of existing films and at the same time not alienate the fanbase by straying too far from the formula? Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson already mined self-awareness to its agonizing limit, so what’s left?
Thankfully, Gregory Plotkin’s HELLFEST threads the line with enough precision to feel like comfortable slippers and not a pair of non-slip work boots masquerading as fashionable sneakers. Channeling Tobe Hooper’s (somehow still tragically underappreciated) 1981 carny epic THE FUNHOUSE as a jumping off point, Plotkin weaves in other influences without ever stepping over the line into plagiarism: the character dynamics strongly reflect Tom Desimone’s HELL NIGHT, for instance, but have been updated and refined for modern viewers.
The plot…ahem, story follows three couples on a Halloween night’s out at Hellfest, a traveling haunted carnival that appears as large as an amusement park and much better funded than any farmstand seasonal attraction I’ve ever seen. Handled differently, this could tip into parody, but here it comes off as a celebration of the holiday…which is unlikely to find resistance from the movie’s target demographic. The college-aged youths are unaware that they’ve been followed inside by a madman with his own twisted ideas about a fun Halloween outing. There’s not much more to say, really, except that there’s a coy sensibility at work in regard to the bodycount-thriller aspects of the story. Few of the death scenes play out as expected. One in particular, involving a guillotine, exhilaratingly subverts expectations. Another on paper would seem like a verbatim facsimile of a classic HALLOWEEN II (1981, of course―I did specify “classic”) murder, but plays out here much more brutally.
A trio of strong lead actresses anchor HELLFEST’s narrative. Amy Forsyth’s Natalie, telecast early as the Final Girl role, has a relatability and vulnerability that makes her slight character arch resonate. Although Akela Cooper and Blair Butler’s roles aren’t written with as much depth, they both project enough charisma and charm to sell what otherwise could have been shallow caricatures. The three boyfriend characters are portrayed well enough, but there isn’t any substance for the actors to work with; it doesn’t take long to recognize them as Red Shirts (though in the interest of leveling the playing field with the science fiction genre, can we start calling these Banana Hitchhikers or something?).
Tony Todd appears as briefly as pure fan service, but of course brings his unmistakable gravitas to his scene and voice-over work. Fans of the FINAL DESTINATION series might feel a tinge of déjà vu in how Plotkin uses the veteran actor’s talents.
Is HELLFEST the best slasher film in years? Maybe. Probably, even. Is it perfect? Are you kidding? The slasher subgenre is in part defined by its imperfections. Even masterpieces like Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN and the original FRIDAY THE 13th have serious flaws. When the material is approached with care, however, those untidy moments and tiny flaws become an effective part of the movie’s identity. The fan waiting for a CITIZEN KANE, VERTIGO, or SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION to emerge from the heap will wait for a very, very long time. If instead, you’re in the mood for an reflexively old-school thrill ride with a serious fetish for the greats that came before it, HELLFEST is a perfect early Halloween treat.
Directed by Gregory Plotkin
Screenplay by Seth M. Sherwood, Akela Cooper, and Blair Butler, .
Story by William Penick and Chris Sey
Starring Amy Forsyth, Reign Edwards, Bex Taylor-Klaus.
--ABOUT THE AUTHOR--
Lorne Dixon grew up on a diet of yellow-spined paperbacks, black-and-white monster movies, and the thunder-lizard backbeat of rock-n-roll. He is the author of five published horror novels, including his most recent, Bleak December.