31 by 31 Challenge #22: HELL FEST (2018)

@craiggors

Lovers of local haunts will find this bloody little gem to be right up their alley, and an excellent film to enjoy in October and bask in all the Halloween happiness that comes with it. It’s our time once again, Chatters. Let us fly into the dark, dark night…

Perma-studier Natalie (Amy Forsyth) comes to visit her best friend Brooke (Reign Edwards) during Halloweekend in the hopes that they can reconnect after drifting apart from attending different colleges. Natalie is dismayed to find that she won’t get to hang out with Brooke alone, however, as Brooke’s wild friend Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus) and her boyfriend Asher (Matt Mercurio) have secured six tickets to Hell Fest, a traveling horror carnival made up of rides, haunts, games, and other assorted frights. It’s all jump scares and cuddly moments with Gavin (Roby Attal) until Natalie realizes that their group is being stalked and taunted by a masked serial killer posing as one of the actors.

Hell Fest accomplishes two feats that make it worth your time. One, it delivers an old school slasher story straight out of the 80’s slasher heyday, with heads getting pummeled by hammers, eyes jabbed with syringes, a group of relatable, obnoxious teens who are somehow all likable, and a creepy, silent killer with an equally creepy mask and a creative repertoire of kill tactics. Add in the themed, expansive-yet-contained amusement park setting, and it’s like watching a lost Carpenter or Cunningham film. The production team nailed the set design and clearly did their homework when it comes to professional haunts. The various mazes and rides look like they could have been lifted from your hometown haunt; colorful, crazy, scary, and detailed. And they’re pulling double duty as well. Not only do the sets and extras serve to establish a sense of authenticity, but they’re the source of a lot of the film’s scares as well. As such, Hell Fest becomes the one horror film where excessive jump scares don’t wear thin.

The leading ladies (Forsyth, Edwards, & Taylor-Klaus) shine, and their chemistry is natural and believable for college students. Taylor-Klaus in particular brings a perfect energy to her character and steals every frame she’s in (something she did in the Scream TV series as well). Any annoyance felt with the characters is due to the writing, not their portrayal, and it’s lucky that the performances are so strong because the writing is certainly the film’s weakest point. This clunkiness is likely due to the fact that there are three credited screenwriters and two story contributors, which is far too many cooks in the kitchen for such straightforward horror fare.

What’s perhaps most interesting about Hell Fest, however, is that it’s not actually frightening until the final scene; or rather, the implications of that scene and the resulting question of whether or not we are safe anywhere in society anymore. It’s a chilling coda to end the movie on, while also opening the door to a potential sequel or franchise, and I for one would not be opposed at all. As long as any future properties adhere to the standards of the original, they’re sure to be one hell of a good time.

Hell Fest

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #11: THRILLER (2018)

@craiggors

Earlier this year, Netflix surprise-dropped several low profile horror films from Blumhouse. Such a strategy is always a gamble, but it can occasionally pay off, as in the case of Mercy Black, which dropped at midnight and hooked viewers with its eerie, Slender Man-esque story and glossy visuals. Less successful was Thriller, a standard slasher that gets caught up in it’s own mechanics and forgets to actually slash until it’s too late.

In South Central LA, a group of middle schoolers lures a shy outcast into an abandoned home in order to play a cruel prank. Chauncey, the loner, is sweet and crushing on Lisa, the only vaguely nice girl out of the group of popular kids. She’s reluctant to punk Chauncey, but is pressured to go along with the gag anyway. When the prank goes awry and results in someone’s death, the group bands together and pins the accident on Chauncey, who is sent to a juvenile detention center. Four years later, Chauncey is released and the pranksters, now seniors about to enjoy their Homecoming weekend, find themselves getting sliced and diced by a masked killer.

There’s a lot of time spent establishing who’s who in this film. It’s made especially challenging because the group of kids that pull the prank is unnecessarily large, and they’re all recast with older actors after the opening time jump. Many of the characters fit into slasher stereotypes as well and could easily have been combined for digestibility, but this may be because Thriller quickly pushes the horror to the background in favor of a social study on what it means to grow up in a neighborhood like Compton and how that affects young residents. For almost an hour, we explore how some characters seek to escape their home streets, and their various plans for doing so, while others have decided to embrace the roughness and the hard life as a means to either survive or thrive. These are interesting ideas to explore, and getting to spend time with our characters helps break down some of those tropes and make them more human so that when the killing does start happening, the audience feels each death.

The trouble is that most of the kills happen off screen, and a bloodless slasher is a boring slasher. Combine that with a group of unseasoned actors who can’t sell their characters and the result is a watered down fright flick that leaves little to be desired. Final Girl Lisa (Jessica Alain) is bland, receiving the least amount of development despite being our focal character. Chauncey (Jason Woods) is all brute and no brain, a revenge-fueled monster without layers, and Kim (Pepi Sonuga) is a sweet party girl chasing a local rapper that only has a personality disorder in which she speaks in the distorted voice of her dead sister. Huh? It’s all too strange, or familiar, to have any real impact, and genre fans will be able to call every expected turn before it happens, all the way up to the final, lackluster finale.

Unfortunately, Thriller‘s uninspired title is an accurate reflection of it’s uninspired plot. What could have been a nuanced, updated, urban version of Prom Night (1980) instead fizzles as a generic “seen it before” slasher. I have to wonder if first-time director Dallas Jackson originally envisioned an entirely different type of movie, given how much time is spent exploring the daily lives of these characters, and if the horror element was shoehorned in during later stages of writing/development. I’m not sure what the story there might be, but I have to assume that it’s far more thrilling than the result.

Thriller

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #6: HELL NIGHT (1981)

@craiggors

An ear-piercing scream worthy of consideration for the Jamie Lee Curtis Scream Queen Award (that I just made up). Party-going teens in costume. A pitch black night where anything and everything can go wrong. This is the opening to Hell Night, a once forgotten slasher that failed to attract on its debut, but is far more unique than its basic premise and rote setting would suggest.

It’s Hell Night at the local college, a night of debauchery and ritual hazing meant to induct nubile young co-eds (played by actors clearly pushing thirty, obviously) into Greek life. King of frat life Peter (Kevin Brophy) leads four likable teens to nearby Garth Manor, a Victorian mansion left locked and vacant since the brutal slaughter of the entire family by the deranged father, and the disappearance of the deformed youngest son. If Marti (Linda Blair), Jeff (Peter Barton), Seth (Vincent Van Patten), and Denise (Suki Goodwin) can survive the night alone in the massive house, they’ll be initiated into Alpha Sigma Rho. But as they’ll soon find out, Garth Manor isn’t as empty as it first appears.

Hell Night did not premiere to great fanfare or box office success. Even in 1981, the newly minted slasher genre was overflowing with Halloween (1978) knockoffs and Friday the 13th (1980) copycats. Some of them, like Prom Night (1980) stood out from the crowd, while others floundered. There was just too much competition. It’s a shame, because despite Hell Night‘s paint-by-numbers premise, it’s not quite as cookie cutter as we might think. Take Peter’s monologue explaining the mythology of the house and the massacre that occurred there, for example. In most slashers, that speech would be accompanied by a gauzy flashback where we see the murders committed in pantomime, but not here. Instead, it’s straight dialogue. The film trusts it’s audience to fill in the blanks themselves, a brilliant tactic.

Sure, there’s still lots of slasher tentpoles present. Sex, drugs, isolated locations stalked by a mythic maniac. But then there’s the Gothic set dressing of the manor, an unusual choice for a slasher, which as a rule catered to contemporary teen audiences and moved away from anything too grand or eccentric. It makes the film feel a bit Poe-ish, which is a surprisingly nice touch amidst the standard silliness. Equally unusual for a slasher, there’s no nudity involved in the more titillating scenes. Instead, the film earns its R rating based solely on the violence and though it takes awhile to build to the slice-and-dice, when the kills do happen, they’re quite creative.

Hell Night isn’t Halloween, and that’s okay. It’s not trying to be–and that’s what makes it so fun. Director Tom DeSimone knew his audience, and you can tell the cast did as well. The result is an ideal sleepover movie best watched in early autumn with a heavy blanket, some popcorn, and a mug of warm cider. Snuggle up and give it a watch, you won’t regret it. This I pledge.

Hell Night

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror