Nostalgia is big business. Look no further than the massive success of Netflix’s Stranger Things, an unabashed nod to the golden age of Stephen King and Steven Spielberg. Furthermore, since Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s double feature Grindhouse in 2001, throwback genre films have cropped up with greater frequency: Machete, The Void, Hobo with a Shotgun, Turbo Kid, and Mandy, to name a few. The best throwback films, however, do not merely copy elements from cult cinema but instead subvert and reinvent the clichés. Directed by Gregory Plotkin (Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension), Hell Fest attempts to revitalize the slasher genre but winds up as a serviceable popcorn flick that, more often than not, stumbles like a final girl fleeing from a masked maniac.
The premise is slasher gold: friends gather for a frightful night at a horror-themed amusement park, but the festivities suddenly turn violent when a masked killer—the Other—inexplicably begins to stalk them. Picking them off one by one, the friends learn the hard way that it’s nearly impossible to thwart the madman when the park is filled with costumed scare actors and skeptical security guards and attendees.
The setting, although vibrantly designed, is underutilized. The problem is, Hell Fest feels more like a late ‘90s slasher (i.e. I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend) than a devil-may-care ‘80s horror flick, with tongue-in-cheek humor and stomach-turning gore. For instance, the killer is not particularly inventive (although there is one squirm-inducing carnival-themed kill) and the script lacks the self-awareness of satirical gems like Scream or Cherry Falls. What remains is a paint-by-numbers, jump scare-laden retread of slasher tropes.
Hell Fest, to be worth the price of admission, simply had to not be boring, but whole segments are meandering: characters rattle off tired jokers (Taylor, portrayed by Bex Taylor-Klaus, is a major offender), the killer is predictable, and the maze designs feel like afterthoughts. There’s little suspense because Hell Fest follows beat for beat the slasher formula: person gets separated from the group and is quickly dispatched. Rinse and repeat.
Verdict: 2.5 out of 5
The film is nearly redeemed in the final act when the remaining survivors find themselves trapped in a maze. In fact, if the events of the last act occurred earlier, Hell Fest would have lived up to its name. Instead, the film falls short of more recent genre offerings like You’re Next or Don’t Breathe, films that surprised audiences by keeping them on their toes. At the end of the day, Hell Fest is a good-intentioned home haunt: occasionally scary, shamelessly cheesy, and a bit slapdash—the perfect date night diversion.