Eye candy without much to offer the brain or emotions, “Hell Fest” is a competently crafted slasher film rendered instantly forgettable by its disinterest in character, plot, and motivation, let alone original ideas. An early Halloween salvo, it will be gone from theaters before that holiday (or even the latest screen “Halloween”) arrives, but should in the short term satisfy that seasonal itch among horror fans before bigger, better fright-fests arrive.
After the obligatory prior-victim’s-fate prelude, we meet the film’s college student protagonists, who are young and cute but not much else. Natalie (Amy Forsyth) reunites with ex-roomie BFF Brooke (Reign Edwards) — the movie suggests there’s some reason why they haven’t seen each other for a while, but never gets around to explaining it — while less enthusiastically renewing acquaintance with Brooke’s irksome new flatmate Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus).
Nonetheless, all three are soon off to Hell Fest, a theme-park-like Halloween extravaganza, with their respective boyfriends. Brooke has Quinn (Christian James), Taylor has Asher (Matt Mercurio), and Natalie has Gavin (Roby Attal) — who’s not her boyfriend, at least not yet, but after tonight he might be. Unless, of course, a homicidal maniac should interrupt their first date.
And wouldn’t you know it, the guy who killed the girl at a similar attraction in the prologue is also attending this one — and his idea of a good time comes at the expense of others’ enjoyment. First he stalks a young woman who gives him attitude. He finishes her off in full view of Natalie, who at first assumes it’s just part of the general performance by paid actors dishing out various forms of fake mayhem.
Then she’s not so sure, a doubt that the perp (Stephen Conroy) duly notes. So he spends the rest of the night stalking her and her friends, drastically shortening several lifespans en route. While Natalie soon susses that something genuinely sinister is going on, the authorities dismiss her suspicions as nervous overreaction to spook-house thrills — and of course, it’s hard to spot a real corpse when there are so many phony ones laying about.
“Hell Fest” gets nice visual mileage out of its primary setting, with lots of neon, blacklight, lurid disco gels, and original haunted house (or tunnel-of-terrors ride) interiors designed for the film. (They are purportedly being replicated at select Six Flags parks during October as a promotional tie-in.) The candy colors against dark nocturnal backdrops pop in Jose David Montero’s cinematography.
But as there seems to be no overall theme at this fictive Hell Night, and the attractions run a miscellaneous gamut of horror scenarios (carefully avoiding direct copyright infringement), there’s little connective tissue to stylistically heighten the suspense — just a lot of pretty lights and people in costume jumping out for boo-scares.
Nor is there much to distinguish the actual threat here, since “The Other” (as stuntman Conroy’s figure is named in the closing credits) is just your generic Michael Myers-type ghoul. He hides behind a mask and under a hoodie, saying nothing (he does mumbly-sing a bit) as he advances toward victims in ponderous slo-mo, apparently an ordinary mortal yet almost supernaturally omnipresent. Despite a shrug-worthy coda, we never really find out who he is, or what motivates him.
Somehow it took the efforts of six writers to draw that blank, as well as to deprive the protagonists of any backstory or other points of interest. No one expects dramatic depth from this kind of joint. Still, a token effort in that direction is always appreciated, and very much absent here. Neither does the film compensate much in terms of basic “kill count” payoff. “Hell Fest” is moderately gory, yet its best deaths (while not particularly memorable) are in the middle, with the climactic Final Girl(s) action a bit flat. When the film should be at its most pulse-pounding, it’s already past its mild peak of tension.
Editor-turned-helmer Gregory Plotkin’s prior directorial feature was “Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension,“ the underwhelming final chapter to date in that franchise. (He’d edited all but the first prior entries.) Freed from its found-footage constraints, he’s assembled a Georgia-shot movie that looks and sounds good on likely modest means.
But having also edited “Get Out” and “Happy Death Day” — two recent movies that constitute a gold standard for combining horror content with clever writing — you’d think he and the producers would have noticed that “Hell Fest” barely has a plot, let alone anything that could be termed a “plot twist.” They’ve made a colorfully wrapped package whose content turns out to be just styrofill.