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Horror contemplates in great detail how young people handle inordinate situations and all of life’s unexpected challenges. While the genre forces characters of every age to face their fears, it is especially interested in how youths might fare in life-or-death scenarios. The column Young Blood is dedicated to horror stories for and about teenagers, as well as other young folks on the brink of terror.

Not all haunts are made equal. While some are cut and dry with their scares, others go that extra mile when stirring up frights and fueling future nightmares. The amusement park seen in Gregory Plotkin’s Hell Fest belongs to the second category; a class of attractions known as extreme haunts. The movie’s namesake is massive and decked out from start to finish. Even as visitors enter the venue’s more daunting regions, they feel rest assured knowing nothing can actually harm them. After all, these haunts are all about controlled scares. What Hell Fest and other places like it failed to consider, though, is the possibility someone might not be playing by house rules.

In Hell Fest, the six main characters visit the eponymous horror park on its busiest night of the year — Halloween of course. The already frazzled protagonist, Natalie (Amy Forsyth), has an inkling something is amiss when one of the haunt’s supposed actors, a menacing and masked figure in a black hoodie, relentlessly trails her all night. Bit by bit Natalie realizes this is not a part of the show and she is in danger. Unfortunately, convincing those around her something is wrong proves impossible in a place where everything feels outside of reality.

Hell Fest

Hell Fest draws inspiration from several sources, but after having seen the opening scene, the one that springs to mind is a classic urban legend. In this contemporary myth, a real corpse is discovered inside an attraction; someone recently died there and has since been mistaken for a prop. Another variation of the same legend has the haunt knowingly using a cadaver as part of its decorations, but the former is the one weaved into the movie. The script begins with a random woman being murdered by the antagonist, known only as ‘The Other’ (Stephen Conroy), at a different haunt several years ago. Later on, Natalie’s friends bring up the same crime in hopes of spooking her as they enter their own damned destination.

Hell Fest acts on the idea of very bad things happening in plain sight. The backdrop of Halloween only enhances the confusion at hand; devilry is acceptable and encouraged on that night. As in the original Halloweenproducer Gale Ann Hurd pays respects to her friend and mentor, Debra Hill, with Hell Fest — everyone’s sense of reality is thrown off by this one day’s foolery. People dress up in costume, play tricks on each other, and let loose their most macabre tendencies. In places like Hell Fest where the imagination is overstimulated, and death is hardly a taboo concept, a person has to work harder to distinguish between truth and fantasy once something out of the ‘ordinary’ happens. In short, it is the perfect time for someone such as The Other to act on their dark urges and get away with it under the guise of Halloween mischief.

Hell Fest

As the apparent ‘final girl’ character, Natalie is naturally more cautious. Coming to Hell Fest with Brooke (Reign Edwards) and their friends is Natalie’s way of stepping out of her comfort zone and getting away from the daily grind. Yet when Natalie finally gets into the spirit of the night, she attracts the unwanted attention of The Other. As the killer bears down on another one of his random victims, Natalie comes out of her shell and helps what she thinks is an actor looking for his scene partner. What her friends ultimately find too troubling to watch only intrigues Natalie; she spectates in morbid anticipation as The Other hovers a knife over his squirming target. Giving the killer permission — “Okay, just do it” — only puts a bull’s eye on Natalie’s forehead. The antagonist’s M.O. includes singling out the braver folks at haunts and giving them something to be really scared about. While a character facing their fears in a horror movie is typically empowering, Natalie’s boldness is what sets things moving toward chaos.

A slasher coming out today has to work harder than something tied to a franchise. They often have to feature a gimmick to get noticed, but what makes Plotkin’s movie stand out is really its back-to-basics attitude and execution. Not only is the story straightforward yet engaging, but there is also a spiritual return to the slashers of yesteryear. The tried and true routine of stalking young people out in the real world and away from their safe spaces is something the subgenre did so well and often in the ‘80s. Hell Fest takes the same route while also sprinkling in surprises along the way. On top of that, the setting is modernized without making the movie feel timely.

Here stands a movie that twists the idea of safe scares. In addition to the fairly likable characters are an immersive atmosphere and high production values. It is unclear if what was intended to be a new and annual horror franchise will ever be more than a one-off; the first movie’s open ending leaves room for a  sequel. As for now, Hell Fest is a welcome addition to both the orders of slashers and horror movies set around Halloween.

Hell Fest

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