Adam Green’s Hatchet – a 2006 pastiche of ‘80s slasher movies like the Friday the 13th sequels or Hell Night or Humungus – was a likeable, in-joke heavy exercise in the sort of horror that’s ‘for the fans’. Green has made much more interesting films – Spiral, Frozen, Digging Up the Marrow – but feels an obligation to his mutant child to keep coming back for sequels, though he let BJ McConnell direct Hatchet III. This was made in secret (!), which has become a ‘thing’ lately in genre offerings as varied as 10 Cloverfield Lane and A Ghost Story – and is a risky stratagem in that the Hatchet films are perennial mid-list items (a cut above Wrong Turn sequels shot in Eastern Europe, but not within hailing distance of a Saw reboot) and their bogeyman Victor Crowley doesn’t have the name-recognition value outside devotee circles that, say, Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers have. I’d not be surprised if the longer-established franchises do eventually turn out films named after their leads – a titling model set by Rocky Balboa or Jason Bourne and currently hot in horror with Leatherface and Jigsaw in the offing. Crowley always was an identikit bogeyman – a deformed kid burned by bullies and resurrected as a murdering hulking physical ghost – and he doesn’t exactly get (or need) andy depth here, where Kane Hodder’s shoulders and a lot of prosthetics do most of the heavy lifting and the emphasis is on broadly cartoonish characters getting killed. In gross-out ways.
After a 1964 prologue which segues from a sick joke about Patsy Cline’s death (stay classy) to mucus and gore, the film revolves around Andrew Long (Parry Shen), survivor of the three previous films (which took place over one massacre-heavy Halloween) and now a minor celeb even if most people think he’s a mass murderer rather than a lucky escapee. The field is so crowded that Green and Shen have to work hard to make Andrew a distinct character from the similar cash-in ex-victims played by Liev Schreiber in Scream and Sean Patrick Flanery in Saw 3D … and he’s got an entourage of hangers-on, frenemies, fans, exploiters and enablers to drag into the swamp to get got by the hatchetface killer. As a genre/fest insider who has often played a joke version of himself (in the FrightFest intro shorts and the TV show Holliston and, especially, the underrated Digging Up the Marrow), Green wavers between affectionate portraits of genre folk and strident caricature. Here, we have Felissa Rose (ex of Sleepaway Camp) as a pill-popping crass agent/manager and Krystal Joy Brown as a tabloid talkshow host (who is also Andrew’s ex-wife) strutting about while the writer-director thinks up extreme ways to get rid of them (Rose suffers a particular vagina-related indignity). But Brian Quinn, as a sound guy, and Kali Cook, as his pregnant girlfriend, are more credible, grounded people and Cook’s quandary – which might be distantly inspired by Richard Jaeckel’s memorable fate in Sometimes a Great Notion – would be more upsetting if the film slowed down to pay attention. Similarly, aspiring filmmaker Chloe (Katie Booth) – who isn’t the final girl – is so well-realised as a character that the treatment she gets almost seems like a horror dudebro punishment meted out for any women who want to get in on the act.
Though Green is back on board, there’s a sense that this is a smaller-scale film than the earlier Hatchet trilogy – it’s mostly set in a crashed plane (though we didn’t see a pricey crash scene) in a dark swamp and all the money has gone on gore effects rather than the matey horror celeb cameos of the earlier films (Green and Joe Lynch do play pilots in a brief bit). Even Tony Todd literally phones in his micro-appearance, reciting the voodoo curse that gets the franchise ticking over again. This is the sort of horror which serves up its kills after the manner of throwing Christians to the lions, expecting a whoop of approval from the audience as some poor girl gets her head stamped flat – this, incidentally, is THE horror trope of 2017, seen in at least half a dozen FrightFest movies and elevated to a recurring trope by the forthcoming Brawl in Cell Block 99, which is to heads stamped flat what the Scanners series is to exploding brains – or yet more gallons of gore are sloshed over appalled bystanders. Shen keeps his head down, leaving the heavy lifting to series newcomers Laura Ortiz (Ruby in the Hills Have Eyes remake) and Dave Sheridan (from the Scary Movie and Haunted House films), who have cute goth (with long speech about the crassness of TV talkshow hosts) and wannabe male lead (with Dick Shawn-in-It’s-a-Mad-Mad-Mad-Mad-World gurning) down pat.
An end credits dedication to Wes Craven and George Romero – on a film which premiered the day Tobe Hooper died – is appreciated, though there’s a sliver of doubt as to whether these filmmakers, who all felt the seductive lure of franchises as they struggled to get more personal work done, would have wanted Green to get back on the Hatchet bandwagon rather than make something as original as Digging Up the Marrow.