Toward the beginning of this routine slasher flick from director Gregory Plotkin (Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension), there's a genuinely disturbing scene. Our college-age protagonists are exploring a horror-themed carnival, making their way through a "haunted maze" full of blood-spattered actors, when they encounter a young girl screaming for help. A knife-toting masked man follows in hot pursuit.
Natalie (Amy Forsyth) wants to show her friends she's totally over this whole Hell Fest thing, so she directs the masked man to the girl's hiding place. He proceeds to haul out the weeping, pleading victim and stab her. By that time, Natalie's gleefully crude friend Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus), has stepped out, finding this scene a little too gnarly even for her. But Natalie stands and watches. Gaudy carnival lights strobe over her face as doubts begin to dawn there: This is all fake, right?
Of course not. Thanks to an opening teaser, the audience knows the masked man is an actual serial killer taking advantage of the cover a house of horrors provides. Even Natalie should probably be clued in, since she and her vapid pals were discussing the discovery of a real corpse at a previous Hell Fest not an hour ago. Yet she stands by and watches a murder happen — facilitates it, even — because she's in a context where it's not supposed to be real.
Savvy viewers already know Natalie is the "final girl," the only member of her friend group demure enough to be assured of surviving the slasher's reign of terror. This scene suggests a tantalizing psychological horror premise: What if the final girl lived to the last reel only to spend the rest of her life tormented by her own thoughtless complicity?
It's a question a filmmaker like Michael Haneke (Funny Games) might be prepared to address. The makers of Hell Fest, not so much. After engineering this unsettling moment where real and fake briefly merge, Plotkin and his team of screenwriters drop the issue. The plot proceeds as you'd expect: Natalie is too busy watching her friends get picked off by the masked man, and then running for her life, to give much thought to anything else.
As slashers go, the main strength of Hell Fest is its setting, and production designer Michael Perry is the MVP. If you're bored of watching attractive young people get stalked (which you will be, quickly), you can focus on the elaborately designed mazes whose every room offers a new flavor of horror art design. Or revel in the gory kills, if that's your thing.
Moments of actual horror are rare, however, because the director never does much to build cat-and-mouse tension. Nor do we bond to the thin characters, though that's par for the course in this genre. Occasionally the film offers mild reversals of expectation — for instance, in a scene involving a prop guillotine — but these feel like jokes that don't quite pay off.
The slasher genre has a lot in common with a carnival scare-house. Once they figure out when the jolts of terror and gore will arrive, viewers and visitors alike tend to feel a sense of mastery, even of superiority, as if they've conquered fear itself. Because she's trying to maintain that superior, ironic attitude, because she doesn't want to admit she's scared — because, perhaps, she doesn't go with her gut feeling that something's wrong — Natalie allows the unspeakable to happen. It's a strangely resonant moment in an otherwise forgettable film.