What do you call six writers thrown together to create a horror movie? The groaner of a punchline is Hell Fest, whose use of “Pop Goes the Weasel” as a leitmotif lays bare that its sole scare tactic is akin to watching a jack-in the-box for 87 straight minutes.
The best that can be said of Hell Fest is that it’s not the worst movie Tucker Tooley has produced in 2018. It has the good sense to run about a full hour shorter than Den of Thieves and at least its badness is rooted more in blandness than belligerence.
The title comes from a setting that’s something like Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights on a Lionsgate-and-CBS-Films budget. It’s a traveling show of spookhouse scenarios spread out over several-thousand square feet, including a “Deform School,” a ride called “Night Bumps,” a sign-your-waiver-so-the-workers-can-touch-you spot called “The Dead Lands” and, of course, the ultimate attraction: “Hell.”
Maybe the idea was matching one writer to each cardboard-cutout college student character, whose names might as well be Boorish, Bashful, Buff, Bohunk, Boring and Blah. At least Bashful and Blah share a fumbling chemistry that’s modestly charming before one of them takes a mallet to the melon.
They’re all the prey of a creepy-masked slasher who has made a habit of stalking Hell Fest stops on past tours and killing people for real, yo. Yes, Hell Fest asks you to entertain the idea that multiple people have been murdered at its events in the past. Set aside punitive premiums or likely lawsuits. They probably wouldn’t let that Sno-Cone salesman just have an icepick laying around for our villain to snag after he’s passed the metal detectors.
No red herrings. No eccentric supporting characters at whom to chuckle. No reason to trot out Tony Todd as Hell Fest does other than to encourage more discerning teenaged horror fans to say “I think that’s the Candyman!” No meaningful ideas about the desensitization or cynicism with which lazy movies like this have armed us to the teeth. No moment in which any victim of the killer — even when fleeing into very public crowds — loudly insist this is very real, that someone is about to kill them and they are, indeed, truly terrified for their life.
Meanwhile, the usually reliable composer Bear McCreary works overtime to make you feel like you’re watching anything more than a production designer’s sizzle reel. And not only is the killer’s look as milquetoast as his motives, Hell Fest can’t even get right his number of fatalities after a character decides to report his shenanigans to someone. Plus, that final stinger concerning a circumstance about his life is an unsalted lump of nothing, just like the rest.
At one point, a skeptical security guard quips: “Are you scared? Yeah? Well, I can’t arrest people for doin’ their job. Welcome to Hell Fest.” Perhaps that’s the real payoff to the joke that is Hell Fest, the notion anyone involved could at all consider this to be a job done.