Blood Fest is a perfect film to premiere in SXSW Conference’s Midnighter film slate. It’s a jubilant and wild celebration of horror and gore across subgenres, embracing everything from vampires, slashers, and ghosts to convoluted backstories and splashy violence, all with an irreverent humor and deeply nerdy attitude.
Written and directed by Owen Egerton, this self-aware horror comedy centers on the titular genre fest, where fans gather to check out a dark woods decked out with recreations of sets and characters of their favorite scary movies. An enticing map reveals that the film’s heroes can visit creepy locales like Vamp Camp, Clown Town, and Tortureville (to name a few). Now, because this is a low-budget film, you won’t see licensed characters the likes of Halloween’s Michael Meyers or Saw’s menacing puppet Jigsaw. Instead, there are cheeky spins on iconic figures that take silly turns, like The Arborist, who slaughters on Arbor Day using landscaping tools.
But this fun night of fandom turns frightening when Blood Fest’s Master of Ceremonies reveals all these fictional fiends have been made real, and they’re hungry for homicide. In the blink of an eye, the revelry turns to rioting as pig-masked butchers split the crowd literally in two with merciless, flesh-tearing chainsaws. The only way to make it through the night is to follow the rules. So, four friends must use their knowledge of horror to survive these vicious and eviscerating trope-traps.
Blood Fest’s premise is a horror fan’s darkest fantasy brought to life! As these teens stumble upon an ominous graveyard or across a campfire flanked by sultry women, you can’t help but think how you’d try to survive this horror cliché. Egerton delights in spinning each into garish, ghoulish spectacle, whether it’s ripping a screaming victim limb from limb, trapping teens with sharp-toothed clowns, or spraying blood and bile with absolute abandon. Blood Fest keeps its energy up, thanks in no small part to its totally game cast.
Heroes: Reborn’s Robbie Kay stars as Dax, the everydude hero who has a dark backstory and a deep love of horror that makes him the go-to leader once Blood Fest turns deadly. He’s plucky and earnest but is easily outshone by his cool-girl crush, played by Seychelle Gabriel (Legend of Korra). As Sam, she brings eye-rolls, machete skills, and a no-nonsense attitude to the group, along with a crackling charm that had me wishing Blood Fest would switch focus and embrace the Final Girl trope amid its hodgepodge of subgenre cherry-picking.
Jacob Batalon, who stole scenes as Peter Parker’s bestie in Spider-Man: Homecoming, brings fun and a blushing vulnerability as the virgin who was looking to lose it at this carnival of carnage. Meanwhile, Barbara Dunkelman (RWBY) plays the dumb blonde so often maligned in horror and brings some welcomed depth to what’s usually a thankless role. Her best scene is by far when she goes full fangirl, meeting Zachry Levi (A.K.A. “Flynn Fucking Ryder!”). In a brief but bright cameo, Levi plays himself as a celebrity guest of the fest. It’s random and fun, which is really when this movie works.
Blood Fest kicks off with mayhem, murder, and gore, and is at its best when its mindless fun. It’s when Egerton tries to get clever that things fester. His script explains the how of every single creature in this violent wonderland, even urging viewers to look-up the plausibility of its more convoluted explanations. Instead of feeling witty or thoughtful, it feels like that time when your friend kept pausing The Ring to tell you something from the director’s commentary. Maybe the information is clever or cool, but mostly it’s taking you out of the experience, and distracting you with details that aren’t really all that important.
Beyond that, Blood Fest lacks the self-awareness of the sharpest horror comedies, like Zombieland or Cabin In the Woods. Its heroes have the advantage in knowing they are in a horror movie and yet they still fall victim to that tedious trope where they use a weapon once, and then drop it without explanation. (Here Egerton could have used an explanation!) I hate to get caught up on such minor details when that’s precisely the thing horror movies tend to encourage us to ignore. But if you’re going to make your whole premise that your horror movie’s heroes have to be smarter and savvier than all those who’ve come before don’t let them drop the damn machete!
After an incredibly spirited and entertaining first hour, Blood Fest gets tripped up on its laborious explaining about the hows of this terrifying event. Then, in the final act, the fun and pace screech to a dead halt for the biggest, least sensible exposition drop yet. All this plodding plot makes this goofy and gleefully gory movie all of a sudden feel long and overwrought. And then there’s an extended low-stakes showdown sequence that burns off a lot of audience goodwill. A midnight crowd amped up on adrenaline, queso, and beer may not mind. And don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of fun to be had here. But when you get your chance to check out Blood Fest, you might wish it stuck to what it does best, keeping things gory, goofy, and wild.
Blood Fest made its world premiere at SXSW Conference on Friday, March 9th.