Hell Fest isn't much as a movie, but there's one thing I like about it: it's a good excuse to do some theorising about horror cinema. You know, that thing we all like to do in our spare time.

I'll get to the specifics of what I have in mind in a little bit, but the basic problem with Hell Fest is that it completely fumbles some important gradations of what the audience feels versus what the audience watches the characters feeling. Perhaps we could say that it over-relies on the idea that we identify with the characters, rather than empathise with them. Regardless, the end result is a fascinating misfire in that it's kind of not a misfire at all: the film has splendid atmosphere, that most important of all ingredients in a horror movie. The design is superbly creepy, dripping with inspired clichés from every age of campfire story and urban legend; the characters, for their part, are scared out of their wits. And absolutely none of this works.

It's a pretty basic slasher film set-up, right down to the opening scene set a year prior to the rest of the action, and doing pretty much nothing to foreshadow anything we'll actually see (it is, indeed, somewhat hard if not impossible to perfectly square the implications of this scene with the rest of the plot). There's this thing called Hell Fest, which is a scary theme park of some sort, dominated by interactive mazes that are each themed to a horror genre, and God knows how many masked actors wandering around lunging at parkgoers. It is implied to be a traveling fair that goes around the southeastern United States every October, which already strains credibility to the limit: what we see of Hell Fest clearly requires permanent, purpose-built structures, along with at least tens of dozens of of actors with rather specific improv training (and a working knowledge of local harassment laws on top of it). The ideas that this is traveling or that it could possibly function if it only existed 31 days out of every year are patently absurd. But let's run with it: enormous horror theme park with several walk-through mazes.

Our party of pretty young murder victims whose trip to the park forms the movie's story centers on Natalie (Amy Forsyth) and Brooke (Reign Edwards), dear friends who've fallen on somewhat hard times: the film's backstory is a bit cloudy, but I think they were BFFs in high school who went to different colleges, and somewhere along the line, Natalie started to be flaky and unreliable, so much so that Brooke openly admits that she didn't expect her friend to make it to town for this promised visit. There's also Brooke's current roommate Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus), whom Natalie has greatly disliked since whenever it was in the past, as well as Brooke and Taylor's boyfriends, Quinn (Christian James) and Asher (Matt Mercurio). Last and certainly not least is Gavin (Roby Attal), who has a crush on Natalie, who has a crush right back on him, and the whole trip seems to have been conceived at least in part to try and get the pair of them to hook up.

The first long chunk of the movie - certainly more than half of its 89 minutes, maybe even a full two-thirds - consists of watching the six of them wander around Hell Fest, while elsewhere in the park, a man disguised as a park employee (Stephen Conroy) has been obsessively stalking a young woman, Britney (Courtney Dietz). He catches up with her in a maze right when Natalie is walking through; assuming that she's witnessing one of the many acting routines populating the park, she watches with mild indifference as the killer murders the girl - in fact, she even gives away Britney's hiding place to hurry the skit along. And now, the killer has a new subject for his obsessive stalking.

But I don't want to lose track of the actual movie, which is watching people walk around a scary amusement park. I will say of the screenplay, concocted by six credited screenwriters, and the direction by Gregory Plotkin (a really fine editor, of films like Get Out and Happy Death Day, and he would perhaps be advised to go back to that), that they all combine to make a pretty convincing set of six horny young people who feel drawn from life, in that obnoxious twats who make haunted houses and themes parks absolutely unbearable really do exist. With an added bonus in the form of Natalie and Gavin's stunningly neurotic courtship, which occupies a massive quantity of running time despite having been introduced to us with its conflict already resolved.

The fascinating thing about Hell Fest is that it looks terrific enough to be a masterpiece. Hell Fest, in all its blatant physical implausibility, really does look like an incredible array of neat locations that would be genuinely uncomfortable to walk through, trying to navigate all the various twisty terrors on display. Cinematographer José David Montero has used some deliciously gaudy lighting in a host of florid colors to make the place look sickly and overwhelmingly gloomy, it has been doused in a perfectly oppressive haze, the costumes are all elaborate and weird and appropriately inhuman, and the dark ride we see has a good mix of old-fashioned kitsch and more interactive forms of horror.

We are not walking through Hell Fest.

Instead, we are watching a movie, and since the film openly begs us to be fans of '80s-style slasher movies before we ever set foot in the theater, we likely have a good sense of exactly the story beats we're getting ourselves into. So all of that dripping atmosphere, all of that color and those costumes and rickety buildings and the rest, is somehow rendered completely, unsalvageably boring. It would be a neat trick, if it wasn't such a dismal thing to watch: we're watching people being fake-scared, which is true of every movie, except this has a second level of remove, so we're actually watching people pretending to be fake-scared. If there was some level of meta-narrative commentary attached, that would be something - probably something smug and shitty, but something. Instead, it's a film that almost constantly for its first hour shows us all the mechanics of horror working, but makes it virtually impossible to actually enjoy those mechanics. The moment that the characters reveal knowledge that they are play-acting themselves in a "scary" environment - and this happens before they ever arrive at the park - they have effectively neutered that environment for us.

That would be bad enough if the eventual third act was any interesting, which it's not, outside of some fairly intense gore effects. And it would be bad enough if the characters were good company, which they're certainly not. Insofar as they're realistic, they're realistically the kind of person who are incredibly bad company to spend time with, especially the unbearable Taylor (I'm not sure if Taylor-Klaus is outstanding at playing a supremely irritating human being, or if she's just got that obnoxious of a screen presence; at any rate, she's the liveliest cast member). Hell Fest is fundamentally nothing but a walking tour through nice sets in the company of these awful people, and I'm sorry, but the sets aren't that nice.