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.