HELL TOWN review by MEDIA DETOUR
High school can be a difficult time. Hell Town tackles the issues that present themselves when the teenagers aren’t studying, doing work or playing sports; it is about the drama that occurs outside of the classroom, when they are left to their own devices. It is about the relationships that form, both sexual and romantic, and the way that they interact with one another as friends. They deal with the problems that arise when there is a girl who seemingly sleeps with everybody in school, or how it would be for a homosexual jock who is wrestling with the fact he is gay. A goth kid is misunderstood and ignored by mostly everybody while another girl tries to make ends meet by working a minimum wage job.
There is also a killer, nicknamed by the media as the “Letter Jacket Killer”, running amok.
Hell Town is an exercise in genre mashing that luckily doesn’t lose sight of its goal. We witness three episodes of the titular fictional melodramatic soap opera, only the twist is that the film makers inform us that seasons 1 and 3 have been lost in a fire and these episodes are remastered versions. We get dropped into what is most likely the middle of a season, and we get the typical prelude which tells us what happened previously. We essentially have a movie where the actors are playing actors who are playing characters on a television show.
Which means that what unfolds on screen is hammy. Incredibly and intentionally so. The actors are given cheesy lines that they deliver with true conviction because they are in a soap opera. Anybody who has ever watched one knows that they have a deliberate pulpy charm but are rarely known for any form of excellence. Some of the worst lines ever committed to film are said here, and watching Owen Lawless, as Jesse Manly, excellently declare “I don’t want to be gay” is a sight to be seen. It’s funny and that’s what counts. None of the actors are giving award-winning performances but to expect that from this movie is missing the point.
Sometimes I struggle with reviewing films that are purposely bad, just like I don’t know what to score a movie like The Room which is unintentionally terrible. Any schmuck can make a bad movie but not crossing the line between good parody and excessive, unoriginal crap can be a challenge. Soap operas are ripe for the picking so this could have been well have been just another bland mockery of something that is easy to make fun of, but it’s so much more than that.
In an attempt to switch things up, directors Steve Balderson and Elizabeth Spear have also embraced another genre with conventions so silly that it would take a brain dead idiot not to notice them: the slasher flick. Interestingly enough, the slasher has gotten a little bit of recognition — at least in my eyes — over the past two years, because of the fantastic film The Guest. The concept remains the same but like the soap opera aspect of the film, it is self-aware. There is blood and guts, but it’s not over-indulgent.
Incorporating this brand of horror into the movie only heightens the experience and adds more substance. It makes Hell Town more original than it would have been had they merely stuck to the soaps. While it is very easy to enjoy the absurdity of the characters on that level alone, there is also the mystery of who is going around terrorizing them.
It’s over-the-top and the people are vulgar. Since it is a low-budget, independent feature, it has to work within certain constraints that bigger pictures don’t have to. While it strives to be nothing more than an entertaining time, the nature of it hides talented film making. While it may get lost among the main talking point (how silly it is), the cinematography here is excellent. The angles, the lighting; all of it brilliantly mimics soap opera conventions.
In that same sense, I also got a Lynchian vibe from the whole ordeal. It lacks the surrealism of Twin Peaks, but there’s a menacing cloud hanging over the town at all times, where even someone running track seems more sinister than it should. While it is filmed differently than Blue Velvet, there’s still a similar tone; the town is more evil underneath its plastic and normal exterior than an outsider may perceive.
When it ended by telling me what is going to happen next time on Hell Town, I came to my own realization: I wanted this show to exist. I’d watch the shit out of it.
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