Tag Archives: D+

HELL FEST

Producer: Gale Ann Hurd and Tucker Tooley
Director: Gregory Plotkin
Writer: Seth M. Sherwood, Blair Butler, and Akela Cooper
Stars: Amy Forsyth, Reign Edwards, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Christian James, Roby Attal, Matt Mercurio, Tony Todd and Stephen Conroy
Studio: Lionsgate/CBS Films

D+

A straightforward slasher movie of the old school, editor-turned-director Gregory Plotkin’s second feature (following “Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension”) is adequate enough as a technical exercise but lacks any distinction whatever. “Hell Fest” keeps the gore level to a merciful minimum, but offers little suspense or excitement to compensate, and with David Gordon Green’s “Halloween” ready to own that holiday, the distributor was wise to slot this similarly-themed but distinctly anemic cousin a few weeks earlier, so that it can rake in a few bucks in theatres before disappearing into its proper afterlife on the streaming services.

The innovation-free script—much less imaginative than Tobe Hooper’s 1981 “Funhouse,” which might have served as inspiration—is credited to no fewer than three writers (with another trio given “story” credit, such as it is). It focuses on three girls and their boyfriends spending a night getting scared at a Hell Fest, a massive theme park set up for Halloween. The most prominent of them is ultra-nice good girl Natalie (Amy Forsyth), who comes to town to visit her extroverted BFF Brooke (Reign Edwards). She’s a little nonplussed to learn that Brooke is now rooming with Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus), an irritating motor-mouth, who will be joining them.

Then there are the guys. Brooke’s boyfriend is Quinn (Christian James) and Taylor’s is Asher (Matt Mercurio). Natalie will be joined by Gavin (Roby Attal), a slightly geeky but pleasant fellow who has obviously been infatuated with her for awhile.

None of these characters have been given much character at all by the scripters, so we’re not very emotionally invested in them as they feign having lots of fun when costumed characters jump out at them from the shadows, or even when they attract the attention of the masked, hooded figure (Stephen Collins) that begins following them around, knife at the ready. We’ve already seen him slice up a girl and hang her body alongside bloodied mannequins at a previous incarnation of the Fest, and just in case we’ve forgotten that prologue, Taylor reminds us of it.

This year, though, the unnamed stalker is out to achieve a higher body count. Eventually he will off no fewer than four of the six friends, along with a number of other fair-goers who get caught in the cross-slashing. Most of the murders are simple blade jobs, though the villain shows a bit of imagination when he takes a mallet to one victim, drives a syringe into the eye of another and takes advantage of a guillotine featured in an act presided over by a creepy ringmaster (Tony Todd) to deal with a third. These are the grisliest moments in what is otherwise a pretty discreet show of violence.

In any event, the killings are pretty brief, and the movie spends most of its time simply following the youngsters around the park, walking through corpse-strewn hallways, riding through “tunnels of terror,” or being threatened in bathroom stalls. At the end the survivors are shown under police protection, but naturally the perpetrator gets away (one of the reasons for his escape, the picture explains in a rather dumb twist, is that he’s not the only person wearing his unexceptional costume), and although he’s been wounded, by the time he gets home he seems to have suffered no real aftereffects. Obviously the close leaves room for a sequel.

As in some many cases, though, another installment is unlikely, because although production designer Michael Perry gives “Hell Fest” an occasional burst of visual pizzazz and José David Montero’s camerawork is adequate, for the most part this is pretty dull going, flatly directed by Plotkin and edited (by Plotkin and David Egan), and featuring a cast that’s almost uniformly bland (the sole exception being Taylor-Klaus, who’s so annoying that you’re likely to hope she’ll be an early victim).

The result is a movie that isn’t hellishly bad, but is hardly any sort of fest either.

THE BASEMENT

Producer: Brian M. Conley, Nathan Ives, Sean Decker and Mark Heidelberger
Director: Brian M. Conley and Nathan Ives
Writer: Bruan M. Conley and Nathan Ives
Stars: Mischa Barton, Jackson Davis, Cayleb Long, Bailey Anne Borders, Tracie Thoms, Kreem J. Grimes and Maria Volk
Studio: Uncork'd Entertainment

D+

You might be inclined to dismiss Brian M. Conley and Nathan Ives’s movie as a bargain-basement version of the “Saw” and “Hostel” franchises, if it weren’t for the fact that they were actually bottom-of-the-barrel examples of the torture porn genre themselves and have already had many cruddy imitators. “The Basement” tries to add some clever touches to the unpleasant formula, but it fumbles them. The result is a very minor addition to an ugly horror subgenre.

On the surface the story is a simple one. A serial killer called Gemini is terrorizing Los Angeles, leaving behind victims he’s decapitated with a blowtorch. One evening musician Craig Owen (Cayleb Long) leaves the mansion he shares with his wife Kelly (Mischa Barton) to buy a bottle of champagne, but he’s abducted as he leaves the liquor store and wakes up tied to an old school desk-chair in the titular dungeon-like basement.

His captor is Bill Anderson (Jackson Davis), who is in fact the Gemini Killer. But his technique is of a role-playing sort, not unlike the sort of thing Rod Steiger’s Christopher Gill utilized to lull his victims into a sense of complacency in Jack Smight’s “No Way to Treat a Lady” (1968). In this case, though, Anderson simply dons a series of disguises to portray various characters who parade through the basement accosting the bound Owen on the way to his coming execution at 6am. He will start out as a cop and an interrogator before moving on to becoming another prisoner, a lawyer, a doctor who tends to the victim’s wounds (he loses a couple of teeth and a few fingers along the way) and Craig’s mother and father before winding up as a priest and an executioner.

Frankly it isn’t a conceit that makes much sense, but Bill is a wacko after all, so maybe it doesn’t need to. The problem with it is more cinematic: Davis is simply no Rod Steiger. He wears different clothes, lots of makeup and plenty of wigs, and he adopts different accents and voices, but he never really changes much, and his line delivery is as theatrical as Steiger’s was, but much less fun. It’s a stab at a virtuoso performance by a jobber actor who just doesn’t have it in him, though to be honest the dialogue provided by Conley and Ives is awfully stilted and flat.

On the other hand, Long is quite good as Bill’s hapless victim. He convincingly shifts from anger to attempts to outmaneuver his captor, and even carries off Craig’s collapse of composure at the very end. In a way it’s as showy a role as Davis’, and he manages it with much greater success.

The two men’s verbal jousting is the centerpiece of “The Basement,” but it’s periodically interrupted by scenes involving Kelly, who goes to the store to question the clerk (Tracie Thoms) but mostly sits around her living room talking to her best friend Bianca (Bailey Anne Borders), whom—as we see in an early scene—Craig has listed on his phone. These scenes are utterly dead air, especially since neither actress seems able to muster a shred of credibility (though Barton, presumably because of her time on TV, gets first billing). Then there’s the twist ending, which not only stretches one’s ability to suspend disbelief past the breaking point but most viewers, familiar as they are with such stuff, will probably predict far in advance.

For what must have been a poverty-row level production, the picture looks surprisingly good, with Kenneth Stipe providing solid, if not terribly imaginative, widescreen lensing. The other technical credits are adequate, though Brady Hallongren’s editing is hobbled by the need to shift constantly from the basement scenes to those with Barton.

“The Basement” is a bit better than you might expect for a lesser entry in the torture-porn genre. Unfortunately, that’s not saying much.