Blood Fest

**

Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Blood Fest
"It's not that it's bad - it's certainly entertaining in places - but genre-aware meta-commentary can all too easily feel like the kind of parody where the 'joke' is in the relief of recognition."

There are a couple of good moments in Blood Fest, but because of its general clumsiness and dependence on ideas better executed elsewhere and previously, I find it hard to credit that they are purposeful and not coincidence. This may be an unkindness too far - in and among numerous references in tone and scene and explicit mentions of other films an early scene is set in a video store. The shelves are full of spines, mostly illegible even with close shots and a big screen, but two copies of Get Out are visible with colours reversed. A tiny outpost of blackness in a sea of white uniformity seems a trenchant observation in a genre whose treatment of BAME characters is such that their place in the running order is a lazy trope.

It's one that finds itself in the company of numerous others in a film whose associated materials at Edinburgh's 2018 Film Festival explicitly mentioned Joss Whedon. The Scream films are mentioned in the text, and there was probably a Hawaiian shirt somewhere. A film where one of the better early lines seems a paraphrase of a line from early Buffy (to wit that hitting things in the head, as with putting a stake in their heart, kills most things) already owes debts to his previous works, whether conscious or otherwise, but (to borrow from Top Gun) its intent is writing checks its execution can't cash.

It's not that it's bad - it's certainly entertaining in places - but genre-aware meta-commentary can all too easily feel like the kind of parody where the 'joke' is in the relief of recognition. "I understood that reference", if you will. There's some stunt casting - fans of Chuck and Rapunzel take note - but casting restrictions rather than creative intent may be responsible for one of the film's unifying ideas, a horror series called The Arborist. Its star is to be an attendee at Blood Fest, but he is not alone.

There's an old trick that Star Trek's various forms used, one that (if memory (alpha) serves) involves naming great scientists, like Newton, Einstein, and Surak. A similar trick is used to plant The Arborist, but it's an effort that fails to bear fruit. It too is not alone.

Dax (Robbie Kay) is going to Blood Fest, against his father's wishes. Various circumstances reunite him with an ex-girlfriend (Barbara Dunkelman as Ashley), one whose genre grasp is such that she apparently mistook it for Blood Feast (1963) which is a line that would seem to sit better with an audience who objected more to The Last Jedi than I did. He's got a comedy sidekick too (Krill, played by Jacob Batalan), and one of those cool girls (Sam, played by Seychelle Gabriel) who don't only like girl stuff and are strong and independent and knows things about horror movies but not enough to not ask a love interest for help, a character type so unique that Joss Whedon's only created some of them.

The kids are good - Gabriel's various TV and voice roles are a better reward for her talent than her time in The Spirit was, and Batalon's turn(s) as Ned in the Spider-man-inclusive Marvel Cinematic Universe are a better indicator of his quality as an actor. Robbie Kay is good in the centre of the film, but any actor would struggle with some of these lines. As the actor who portrayed the first Arborist, and is therefore a hero to the Blood Fest crowd, Chris Doubek continues his push towards 'that guy' territory. Tate Donovan (absolutely a 'that guy', beyond being the voice of Disney's Hercules) is the forbidding father figure, but the consequences of his actions are more complex than his motivations. There's a lovely scene between Doubek and Kay about the craft of acting, about improvisation, but their chemistry (and its payoff) is not enough to save the film by any stretch.

There are various machinations at hand, and I don't think it gives too much away to suggest that the titular Blood Fest is designed to serve two masters. An oddity, perhaps, when one considers that it has a single writer/director, but there is a similar pull between attempting to have one's cake and not be eaten by it. Or, perhaps, between comedy and horror - one relies upon suspense, the other punctures it, but a vein rich for one purpose might be sullied for another.

"Why do we watch horror movies?" is a question asked on screen, and I must admit that for me the answer is not to have a woman murdered at the beginning of the film as instigation for the plot. Not to comment on "fridging" beyond having the killing occur in front of a fridge isn't something I find forgiveable, even when Ryan Reynolds is the one it makes sad (Deadpool 2). It's even less forgiveable when something's being pitched as genre-savvy and metatextual (again, Deadpool 2) when it's bound up in relentlessly heteronormative practise (mostly Deadpool 2) and ultimately even less so when it's in something that is attempting wry but just makes one cynical (Scary Movie).

The best line is a throw-away, and again it might be unintentional - it's a particularly American impulse, but there's an observation that you don't need zombies or vampires, you just need a gun. It's talking about problem solving, but it could have been talking about horror. This observation is buried in a film where stereotypical gamers control corpses reanimated by a form of galvanism that suggests Mary Shelley's Swiss writing session had been fuelled by Mountain Dew. The minor bureaucrat in me was less upset by this or the instruction manual for mail order vampires than by the fact that Blood Fest appeared to lack metal detectors or sufficient car parking, and that an event of this size would require a significant number of permits.

There are other elements of the festival that don't quite work - an early scene suggests that the festival also lacks metal detectors, and one later plot twist might have been more easily achieved by reducing the number of phone charging stations rather than glueing a SIM card to a, well, I'll not give it away. I don't feel that cruel. I'm otherwise all for villanous intent, but even to get that villainy into a tent will usually require a sign-off from City Hall. There are rules, after all, and not just to horror movies. One of them is not to waste what time you've got. So in the words of something much more genre-savvy, don't.

Reviewed on: 23 Jun 2018
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Fans flock to a festival celebrating the most iconic horror movies, only to discover that the charismatic showman behind the event has a diabolical agenda.


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