HELL FEST (2018) – Horror Movie Gets Better As It Goes Along

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Bex Taylor-Klaus, Christian James, Reign Edwards, and Amy Forsyth in HELL FEST (2018).

HELL FEST (2018) is one of those rare horror movies that actually gets better as it goes along.

And that’s a good thing, because it didn’t get off to such a hot start. In fact, after a lackluster opening sequence which could have appeared in countless other slasher films, I thought that this was going to be a pretty bad horror movie.

I was wrong.

HELL FEST opens at a Halloween attraction where a young woman is murdered by a man in a mask who’s obviously taking his job of scaring people a little too seriously. Of course, he’s not working there at all.  He just snuck in, and no one notices him because it’s a Halloween attraction and all the employees are wearing masks. As opening sequences go, this one is as derivative as they get.

The action switches to a couple of years later where we meet a group of college students on their way for some Halloween fun at Hell Fest, a horror-themed amusement park. Of course, our masked friend from the movie’s first scene is also planning to be there.

The characters here include Natalie (Amy Forsyth), Brooke (Reign Edwards), Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus), Quinn (Christian James), Asher (Matt Mercurio), and Gavin (Roby Attal). Natalie and Brooke are best friends, and Brooke is trying to set Natalie up with Gavin, but she doesn’t have to work too hard because they hit it off immediately.

Too bad for them they choose Hell Fest for their first date.

After its initial ho-hum opening, HELL FEST continues its sloppy start with the introduction of its main characters. All of these folks seemed like they had ten cups of coffee each, and there’s so much excitement about going to Hell Fest, these college kids act like toddlers on Christmas morning. It just didn’t seem all that real to me.

The dialogue didn’t help either. There was just something off about the film’s early scenes. The script gave us lines that didn’t seem real, the way people today talk, and the direction was choppy.

I also had an issue with the look of the film. I’m guessing this was done on purpose, but HELL FEST looked like a 1980s slasher pic, in particular Tobe Hooper’s THE FUNHOUSE (1981). But this movie isn’t taking place in the 1980s. It’s taking place in the here and now.

Moreover, the characters didn’t exactly look like college students here in 2018. They looked like 1980s college students. I found this to be rather distracting early on.

Now, the actual amusement park, Hell Fest, was pretty cool.  I’ve never been to a Halloween attraction as elaborate as this one, but I thought, well, if this film remains bad, then at least I can enjoy all the horror elements from the amusement park. And this really is a plus for this movie. It doesn’t take place in a house, haunted or not, and we don’t have to suffer through long boring scenes where characters walk alone in dark corridors looking for trouble. The Hell Fest setting really helps.

But then a funny thing happened. The movie actually gets better and becomes a decent horror flick.

The moment this occurs is when Natalie meets the masked killer in one of the haunted attractions, and he’s got a victim pinned to the floor, and of course Natalie and her friends all believe this is just part of the show. Natalie, who’s into this less than her friends, has been trying to make herself more resilient and less scared, and so when her friends exit the room, she remains to watch. The killer has the knife pointed at his victim, and finally Natalie says “Just do it, already. You’re here to scare me.” And he does. He stabs her to death in front of Natalie.

The expression on Natalie’s face when she realizes that what she has just seen looks real is one of the best moments in the movie. Amy Forsyth who plays Natalie doesn’t play this scene in a clichéd manner, where she suddenly screams outright. No. The camera lingers on her face, and it’s one of those moments where she’s so good an actress that the audience knows exactly what she’s thinking and feeling.  She goes from confidence to suspicion to anger to uncertainty to fear. It’s a great moment. And the movie never looks back. It takes off from that scene and keeps on going.

There are plenty of well-done horror scenes. Gavin’s encounter with the killer is a good one, as is a memorable sequence involving a guillotine. There’s also a very suspenseful scene in which Natalie wears a mask to hide, and another bit where she’s trapped in the rest room by the killer.  The ending is not half bad either.

The film also put a nice spin on the jump scare trope. Pretty much all the jump scares in this one are from the masked employees at the amusement park, and so they all work. The filmmakers use them here very effectively, as they are caused by people who are supposed to be causing them. The real horror here, the killer, operates outside the jump scare scope.

And the very ending of this one is a welcomed improvement over “the killer is dead but then leaps back up at the camera” routine. I liked how this one ended. It achieves the same result, setting up possible sequels, without the traditional way of doing it.

I thought Amy Forsyth was superb as Natalie. The best part of her performance is she makes the character her own. She’s not a traditional “scream queen” constantly running away screaming, nor is she the traditional “bad ass heroine.” She’s someone in between.  She plays it as the thinking person’s heroine. A lot of thought goes into her actions, and she’s one of the smarter characters to take on a masked serial killer.

Likewise, Reign Edwards is excellent as her best friend Brooke, who early on acts all bad ass, but later becomes so incapacitated by fear it’s up to Natalie to save the day.  Bex Taylor-Klaus is fun as Taylor, the quirky loud and abrasive friend. Both Christian James and Matt Mercurio as Quinn and Asher make for stand-up boyfriends, and Roby Attal as Gavin shares a natural chemistry with Amy Forsyth’s Natalie and so their romance came off as likable and real.

Michael Tourek is believable in a brief role as a security guard, and has one of the more memorable lines in the movie, when he tells the girls he can’t help them since they weren’t harmed, and that it’s just the employees doing their job. He says rather dismissively,  “You’re scared? Welcome to Hell Fest.”

And Tony Todd plays the masked killer. Todd has some experience in this department, years ago having played  The Candyman in CANDYMAN (1992). He really doesn’t have to do all that much here other than walk around and look scary.

The actual mask used in this movie is indeed rather creepy, and I certainly liked the look.

Director Gregory Plotkin stumbles to get out of the gate with some unconvincing and awkward early scenes, but he more than makes up for it with some effective horror scenes in the film’s second half.

The screenplay by Seth M. Sherwood, Blair Butler, and Akela Cooper also struggles early on. The initial dialogue between the main characters came off as forced and phony, but once the horror elements settle in, the script, like the direction, improves.

I also really enjoyed the music score by Bear McCreary, who also does the music for TV’s THE WALKING DEAD.

HELL FEST certainly hearkens back to the slasher films of yesteryear, especially from the 1980s. In fact, this one looks a lot like a 1980s slasher flick, which at times distracted me because it looked more like the 80s than 2018.

Which also got me to thinking. Forty years ago, when I first saw the slasher film that really got these films started, John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978), I was 14, and subsequent films continued to be from my generation. But now here we are in 2018, and the main college age characters in this film are actually from my sons’ generation.

And so I got to thinking, and this is one of the things that rubbed me the wrong way early on with HELL FEST, that forty years have passed, and characters from 2018 shouldn’t be acting the way characters acted in 1978, which in effect, was the way they were acting in this film. I remember clearly as a teenager watching films on TV like THE BLOB (1958) which had teens from my parents’ generation, and teens from the 1950s definitely were different from teens from the 1970s.

Forty years is a long time to be dealing with movie serial killers without bringing anything new to the table. Horror films like HELL FEST need to do a better job of bringing their characters into the here and now.

Which brings me to the worst part of HELL FEST: it’s a slasher movie. There’s only so much one can do with this trope.

But the best part of HELL FEST is that in spite of this, it has a talented group of young actors, led by Amy Forsyth in the lead role, and it does make full use of its horror elements, and so once this one gets started, about midway through, it really becomes a decent horror movie. Sure, we’ve seen all this before, and we’ve seen it done better, but we’ve also seen it done a lot worse.

Is HELL FEST as ambitious as GET OUT (2017) or A QUIET PLACE (2018)? No. But it’s certainly a fun horror movie, and with Halloween on its way, you can’t ask for much more than that.

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE FUNHOUSE (1981)

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Tobe Hooper, the famed horror movie director who passed away on August 26, 2017 at the age of 74, is mostly known for his classic horror movie, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974).  Many horror writers swear by this movie and cite it as their inspiration for entering the genre.

Other fans prefer Hooper’s work on SALEM’S LOT (1979), the chilling made-for-TV adaptation of Stephen King’s vampire novel.

A smaller group opt for today’s movie, THE FUNHOUSE (1981), Hooper’s entry in the 1980s slasher flick craze, a genre which received a nice kick in the pants with John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978).

I’m a sucker for films which take place at amusement parks or carnivals, and so, while THE FUNHOUSE is not my favorite Tobe Hooper film, it does capture what it’s like to be a teenager at a carnival on a sultry summer evening.  The sights, the sounds, and even the smells, as you can easily imagine the aroma of fried foods, hot buttered popcorn, sweet cotton candy, and of course the repugnant stench of full garbage cans, and the occasional sour sting of leftover vomit on the cement pathways.

As a result, THE FUNHOUSE is a guilty pleasure for me.

I mentioned HALLOWEEN, and one of the weaker parts of THE FUNHOUSE is its opening sequence, in which it pretty much copies the opening sequence in HALLOWEEN, complete with the child killer with a knife and the point-of-view shots from the child’s eyes as seen through a Halloween mask.  I’m sure Hooper intended it as an homage, but since this movie came out just three years after HALLOWEEN, it doesn’t come off that way.

This same scene also includes a shower sequence, and so there’s also an obvious nod to Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960).  This homage works better than the nod to HALLOWEEN since it’s less derivative.

In THE FUNHOUSE, teen Amy Harper (Elizabeth Berridge) can’t wait to get out of the house, away from her stifling parents, and if you spent five minutes with the folks playing her parents in this movie, you’d want to get out of the house as well!  They sit like zombies watching television and speak in monotones and spew parental clichés when they talk to their daughter.  With these parents, it’s a wonder that Amy isn’t the masked killer in this movie!

Anyway, on this particular summer night, Amy sneaks off with her friends and heads off to the local carnival, even after her father told her she was not allowed to go there, which, of course, is exactly why she decides to go to the carnival.  Well, actually, to her credit, she tries to resist at first, but her friends convince her to go, and she gives in.

At the carnival, since they’re crazy teenagers, they come up with the daring idea to sneak into the funhouse and stay there overnight.  Too bad for them the guy working the ride wearing a Frankenstein mask happens to be a murderous psycho.  It’s going to be a long night, Amy.

So, what was supposed to be a wild night goofing around inside a funhouse turns into a night of terror as this insane monster chases Amy and her friends through the funhouse with the intent of killing them in various nasty ways.

And there you have the plot of THE FUNHOUSE.  As horror movies go, it’s a fun enough story.

That being said, for me, THE FUNHOUSE has always been a poor man’s HALLOWEEN.  It comes off as cheaper, the acting isn’t as good, and the scares are nowhere near as effective, but it’s still a heck of a lot of fun to watch, especially on a hot summer night.

One of the more memorable parts of THE FUNHOUSE is the Monster, played by Wayne Doba.  At first, he wears a Frankenstein mask, which is creepy enough, but when he takes his mask off, his face is hideous.  It’s a cool looking make-up job, which is no surprise since the man behind the make-up here is none other than Rick Baker.

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Wayne Doba as the Monster in THE FUNHOUSE (1981).

Actually, the creepiest part of THE FUNHOUSE isn’t the Monster. It’s Kevin Conway’s performance as three different ride operators.  He plays the Freak Show Barker, the Strip Show Barker, and the Funhouse Barker, and he’s effectively unsettling as all three.  He’s really creepy, and the funny thing is, he reminds me of a lot of ride operators I used to see at amusement parks and carnivals when I was a kid.  Yup, there used to be some pretty unsavory looking characters running those rides back in the day.

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“Come on, kiddos.  Ride my ride!  It’s fun!”    Kevin Conway operating a ride in THE FUNHOUSE (1981).

And Conway’s Funhouse Barker gets the most screen time as it’s revealed that he’s the stepfather of the Monster.  How about that for a family portrait!

Also working against THE FUNHOUSE is in spite of its premise, it’s never all that scary. The scare scenes for the most part involve the Monster chasing the teens through the Funhouse which sounds scarier than it actually is.

The best part about THE FUNHOUSE is the way Tobe Hooper captures the essence of a summer time carnival.  That’s the main reason I like to watch this one.

Lawrence Block wrote the screenplay, and the story it tells is compelling enough:  a group of teens spending the night in a creepy funhouse, and it has a frightening looking Monster, but pretty much everything else about this one is rather standard.

Tobe Hooper will be remembered most for his work on THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.  But it’s always fun to look beyond an artist’s best or most popular work and look at those projects which weren’t the best things they ever did. It’s how we gain and understand the complete story of the artist.

With that in mind, grab a cotton candy or a candy apple, sneak past that guy wearing a Frankenstein mask, and when no one’s looking, hide.  Now, you’re all set to spend the night inside THE FUNHOUSE.  You’re sure to have a good time.

And with a little luck, you may even survive.

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