In 2018, the horror film zeitgeist was obviously fest-related, with Blood Fest, Hell Fest and Fright Fest (strictly, American Fright Fest) released at about the same time and riffing on very similar premises – as carnage erupts at horror-themed funfair attractions. Given that there was another little blip about crazy violent outbreaks in dance venues – Ravers, Climax – and the minor sub-genre of clown horror (Clown Town, Terrifier, Coulrophobia) kept busy too it’s possible that a carnivalesque spirit is running through the genre … though just about the only thing all these films really have in common is being a lot better than Rob Zombie’s several attempts to do something along these lines.
Written and directed by (and starring) Texas auteur Owen Egerton (of the more downbeat Follow), Blood Fest is among the best of its unambitious pack, delivering something lightly likeable in the vein of The Cabin in the Woods and piling on so much self-referentiality that Randy from Scream would rather watch Brady Bunch reruns than footnote it all (one non-horror fan is dissed with ‘she thought Black Christmas was a Tyler Perry holiday movie’). Young Dax Conway (Tristan Riggs) spends Halloween watching White Zombie with his horror fan Mom (Samantha Ireland), only for a masked killer to invade the house and kill her …which, in one of the hoariest clichés in the book, turns out to be a flashback dream as older Dax (Robbie Kay) wakes up in his room, which is plastered with horror memorabilia (especially for the fictional Arbor Day series). Have you ever had a dream which replays an exact, accurate memory of something that happened to you? People in films do all the time.
Dax’s psychiatrist father (Tate Donovan) now campaigns against horror films – the murderer was one of his patients, presumably warped by exposure to screen violence – and his sister Jayme (Rebecca Lynne Wagner) is blithely dismissive of his interests. Dad takes away Dax’s ticket to Blood Fest, an all-night lock-in horror show created by filmmaker Anthony Walsh (Egerton), which he plans to attend with cool gal pal Sam (Seychelle Gabriel) and sweet round geek Krill (Jacob Batalon, from Spider-Man Homecoming). Dax’s actress ex Ashley (Barbara Dunkelman) walks him in and we get some parody bits with an asshole horror filmmaker (Nicholas Rutherford) and the grouchy typecast star of the Arborist films (Chris Doubek) before Walsh reveals his big plan to shoot a mondo reallo horror film all in one night by letting a bunch of pig-masked chainsaw goons and an acrobat with a kung fu potato peeler knife slaughter all the fans.
The small group of main characters gets smaller at each locale, where we get parody homages to various subgenres (Hodderston High from the Arborist series, a torture porn trap, a theatre full of broken dolls, a zombie graveyard, a campfire with vampire girls) and Dax tries to parse the rules to get out. In cutaways, Walsh and his crew sort of riff on Jurassic Park but the film has at least one decent, personal twist that complicates the last act – though, frankly, the film does drag on for several beats past its optimum length, including Marvel-style mid- and post-credits stings. Though it’s full of fan service lines, it doesn’t go the obvious route by co-opting horror convention headliner guests to cameo – though the roles of the horror impresario and the jaded horror star could probably have done with stronger casting. The only ‘as himself’ participant is Zachary Levi, who everyone will know in a few months as the star of Shazam, but is here subjected to amusing ribbing for his previously best-known role as Flynn Rider in Tangled (hey, he was the voice of Indominus Rex in the Lego Jurassic World series too!).
Buried in all the chaos is an affecting little story about the way people feel about horror films in the wake of personal tragedy, though Egerton is more interested in ‘80s-style physical effects gore gags (recreating a key scene from Day of the Dead, for instance) and riffing reasonably well on the styles of James Wan and Darren Lynn Bousman. A few scenes of quieter, simmering menace involving dolls, a night-time circus and a vampire girl (Olivia Grave Applegate) at least make a change from escalating carnage.