Hell Fest has the makings of a fun variation on the slasher formula, with a killer running loose between the plastic body parts and spooky, sweet-smelling fakery of a Halloween haunted house—the place where giggly young adults actually come to be chased and scared by people with cleavers and chainsaws. But even slasher junkies desperate for a fix will find themselves bored by Gregory Plotkin’s lame second feature (after Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, advertised under the immortal tagline, “For the first time, you will see the activity”); it delivers the tedious, heavy-breathing buildup associated with the genre, but skimps on the scares and the gory, gooey good stuff.
The Hell Fest of the title is a humongous horror-themed fairground, where a maniac with a mask and the patience of a Buddhist monk stalks college student Natalie (Amy Forsyth), her crush Gavin (Roby Attal), and their very horny friends (Bex Taylor-Klaus, Reign Edwards, Christian James, Matt Mercurio). They’ve all scored extra-special VIP wristbands to this carnival of animatronic mad scientists, clawed hands, burlap-bag-wearing creeps, and evil clowns, where another generic bogeyman—the hulking, faceless slasher in dirty boots—can hide in plain sight.
In a twist with some potentially queasy consequences, Natalie actually stumbles in on the killer as he’s about to knife his first victim to death in a maze; she mistakes the attack for another cheesy act, pointing to the whimpering girl’s hiding place. But the audience-implicating possibilities of this scene are as underutilized as the themed backdrop. Hell Fest, with its roving costumed ghouls, is just an excuse to throw a bunch of rubbery, ineffectual jump-scare boos—plus a cameo from Tony Todd as the carnival emcee—into the killer’s dragged-out pursuit of his new targets. (Another wasted possibility: After splitting one victim’s melon with a high-striker mallet Gallagher-style in the film’s sole moment of split-second gruesomeness, the killer takes his phone and proceeds to text back and forth with Natalie, leading the group to believe that their friend has just fallen behind.)
Aside from one scene in a bathroom stall that makes competent use of high and low angles but never succeeds in creating claustrophobic suspense, Plotkin’s direction is functional yet overemphatic, stretching Hell Fest’s brief running time with too much horndog banter and too many shots of the killer patiently skulking around; the result is one long waiting game with no payoff. On TV, its prettified close-ups and rave lighting might even pass for proficient, but for a slasher film to transcend the basic formula, it needs to be pushed to extremes of style or outrageousness. Plotkin can’t even bring the movie’s one torturous set-piece (involving a prop guillotine) to its sadistic conclusion. The implicit irony of setting a horror film in a series of mazes and ghastly, house-of-the-dead sets is that they’re the only places one is sure to be safe from real bodily harm. Hell Fest takes it a step further: Here, there’s nothing to be afraid of.