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When you see the price they paid I’m sure you’ll come and join the masquerade.

(2019) Thriller (Cinedigm Hope Raymond, Eliza Bolvin, Brian Smick, Zachary Cowan, Valerie Fachman, Hans Probst, Ashley Raggs, Mioyoko Sakatani, Perry Fenton, Vicky Lopez, Mira Gutoff, Hunter Ridenour, George Arana, Jaime Soltys, Tony Clark, Wendy Taylor, Wendy Wyatt-Mair, Trevor Ossian Cameron, Malachi Maynard, Ethan Fry, Amber Tiana, Celina Garcia. Directed by Scott J. Ramsey

 

There are movies that exist in a larger universe, whether it be a shared cinematic universe like Marvel or the Friday the 13th franchise, or in our own reality. Then there are other movies that seem to exist in their own space, separate from what we know and understand. They create their own reality – that’s not necessarily a bad thing, by the way. It’s not necessarily a good thing, either.

In a beautiful mansion on the rugged Central California coast, a monthly masquerade ball for charity is about to take place. Run by a group called the Foundation (which is also the name of the production company for this and other films, something that might feel a bit uppity to some), the privacy and security of those attending are taken very seriously. The ball is by invitation only. Everyone is required to wear masks and I’m not talking the kind that the CDC recommends. Nobody is allowed to use their own names – they’re all assigned letter-and-number code names, like B7 or G8. I’m not sure if this makes them sound like spies or bingo numbers.

The grand muckety-muck of the Foundation is Christian (Raymond), also known as the Queen, and she and a select few realize that the charity ball is just a pretense; once the checkbooks are put away and the more repressed sorts have gone home for the evening, the party turns into a huge sex party where anything (and everything) goes, so long as those who attend are not forced to do things they don’t want to do. At this particular party, Christian notices an interloper and she eventually susses out the identity of Stella (Bolvin), an old rival from high school. She is now a fairly well-known sex cam performer, although her boyfriend Jackson (Cowan) isn’t aware of that fact – he thinks she’s teaching night school. She was invited by Christian’s right hand man Danny (Smick), ostensibly to add some notoriety to the mix, but in large part to get under the skin of his employer.

It doesn’t seem to faze Christian much, and she ends up inviting Stella to the next one, urging her to bring along Jackson – whom Christian had a serious crush on back in high school. At the next party, things start to go horribly wrong for Christian as her secret perversion is revealed, her mother Lynda (Fichman), a former pop star, and who suffers from dementia, turns up and all of this threatens the entire structure of the Foundation.

This is described – accurately enough – as an erotic thriller mixed in with LGBTQ+ camp with, I might add, some dark comedy thrown in for good measure. But the real meat of the movie is as a character study, as the movie really looks in at the fragile reality behind the façade of a strong capable woman that is Christian.

The movie enjoys some sumptuous production values considering its low budget, and enjoys a really nifty soundtrack. The movie missteps a bit with the acting performances – the acting is like what you might find at a Broadway audition circa 1957 and is a little overly broad and stiff for the movie camera. Some of the dialogue is cringeworthy, even though (I think) it’s meant as satire. The film owes a lot to Kubrick’s final film Eyes Wide Shut in terms of the set-up and the overall air of decadence, but there’s a very thin line between pushing boundaries and coming off as pretentious.

This isn’t strictly LGBTQ+ either – I would categorize the sex more as pansexual than anything else – and while there is a certain amount of fluidity in the lead characters’ sexuality (particularly Christian’s) there is all kinds of hooking up going on that will titillate those of any sexual preference, although there is surprisingly little graphic sexual content considering the setting.

The ending is not at all what you would expect; normally I find that to be a good thing, but to be honest, it didn’t feel earned and the more I thought about it as time has gone by since I screened the film, the less it felt right. To be fair, this was never meant to be a movie for a wide audience; this isn’t going to be everyone’s brand of vodka. If you’re the sort who delights in the erotic (particularly the fringes of same), this might well be the kind of entertainment you’re looking for and then some. For most though, it’s going to be a hard sell.

REASONS TO SEE: The production values are surprisingly strong.
REASONS TO AVOID: Well over the line into pretentiousness.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and sexual references as well as some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A companion album featuring music by goth-pop artists The Major Arcana (of which director Scott J. Ramsey is a member) entitled At the Devil’s Ball was released in conjunction with the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eyes Wide Shut
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Earwig and the Witch

Hell Fest


Seeing a guy in a hoodie and a mask carrying a knife is never a good thing.

(2018) Horror (CBS) Reign Edwards, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Tony Todd, Amy Forsyth, Michael Tourek, Courtney Dietz, Christian James, Matt Mercurio, Elle Graham, Benjamin Weaver, Mason Pike, Roby Attal, Brooke Jaye Taylor, Stephen Conroy, Markus Silbiger, Ashley Ueker, Quandae Stewart, Alicia Rosato, Kimberly Battista. Directed by Gregory Plotkin

Let’s face it; getting scared is fun. It makes our hearts beat faster, our adrenalin spike and our breath quicken. For young men, it gives us a chance to be protective of our dates who might even be suitably grateful afterwards. It’s why we go to horror movies and why we go to haunted attractions.

Natalie (Forsyth) has returned home from school. Her best friend Brooke (Edwards) is happy to see her – Brooke’s roommate Taylor (Taylor-Klaus) not so much. But young Gavin (Attal) really wants to see Natalie after a summer flirtation. So much so that he’s gotten VIP passes to Hell Fest for the three girls as well as the boyfriends of Brooke and Taylor. Hell Fest is one of the biggest haunted attractions here is, a traveling amusement park with horror-themed rides and mazes. It’s a big deal every time it shows up. Brooke and Taylor are very psyched for it; Natalie is less enthusiastic, not being terribly fond of being scared.

The real difference at this particular edition of Hell Fest is that there is an actual psycho among the costumed actors who can dispatch young girls in full view of the patrons – it’s all part of the show, right? – with nobody being the wiser. He’s done it before, as we see in a prologue.

So when a terrified girl who knows that fantasy has crossed the line into reality begs Natalie to save her from The Other (Conroy), as the killer is known as here. Laconically, Natalie tells the masked figure “Do it. That’s why we’re here – to be scared.” And so the killer obliges. And now he has a new target to chase around the park.

I suppose the concept of having an actual killer hiding in plain sight in a haunted amusement park has some merit, although something similar was attempted earlier this year in the independent Blood Fest – which was actually much better than this although as my British friends might say, that film was also daftier. The other main difference is that while that film was obviously made by people who not only believed in what they were doing, they were having a great time doing it. This movie appears to have been approached with all the joy and enthusiasm of a high school student approaching a term paper on Pilgrim’s Progress.

It’s not that Hell Fest is a bad movie; it’s not. It’s just not a good one. It shows little imagination or passion in any aspect, from the writing to the acting to the directing. Only the production design seems to have been approached with any sort of zeal. There are no real sore spots anywhere; neither are there any real bright spots (again, other than the production design).

The characters are literally just cookie cutters without depth and all ready to be ground into crumbs. The inevitable string of murders is neither imaginative nor particularly frightening. They’re just…there, like a misunderstanding in a rom-com. The last thing you want from a horror movie is a feeling of meh. Even a bad horror movie has its merits; there is nobody who itches to see a mediocre scary movie. That’s really what you have here; the horror equivalent of Wonder bread slathered with mayonnaise and American cheese. Horror fans deserve better. Heck, all of us deserve better. Natalie herself said “We’re here to get scared.” It’s a shame the folks who made her film didn’t listen to her.

REASONS TO GO: It’s not really bad in any category.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s not really good in any category either.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of violence, some gore, a bit of profanity and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Many of the scare characters walking around the park during the beginning of the film are actually employed by the Netherworld haunted attraction in Atlanta, one of the top ten in the country.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/30/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: 25/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blood Fest
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness concludes