J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Hell Town: Soap and Gore

Kids grow up fast in Old Town Hell Town. They have to, given the psycho slasher stalking the halls of their high school. It seems to be working, since they all look way too old to be teens. Presumably, that is all part of the joke in Steve Balderson & Elizabeth Spear’s Hell Town (trailer here), presented Elvira-style by Debbie Rochon, which releases today on VOD.

According to Rochon’s vampy intro, we are about to see the only three surviving episodes of the notorious television show, Hell Town. Think of it as Halloween’s Michael Myers comes to Peyton Place. Butch Manley has just returned home from a stretch in Juvy to find his catatonic mother on death’s door, so from a census-taking perspective, it is essentially a wash.

His wannabe debutante sister Chanel bitterly resents all the adulation heaped on her wealthy rival, Trish Gamble, whose virginity their dumb jock brother Blaze is scheduled to take (for the second time) at the upcoming prom. Their other dumb jock brother Jesse is busy pretending he isn’t gay, especially when Trish’s out-of-the-closet younger brother Bobby is around. He doesn’t really mind Trish’s diva behavior, but Laura Gable, the attention-starved middle sister with daddy issues is a different story. She is the Darren Stephens of Hell Town, played by BeckiJo Neill in the first episode (supposedly S2 E7) and by Jennifer Grace in the subsequent two. Confused? Probably not sufficiently so.

Reportedly inspired by the big Moldovan gun-down episode of Dynasty, Hell Town has an amusing premise, but Balderson, Spear, and their co-screenwriters never take it beyond the level of blood-splattered farce. It has the ring and vibe of a tragically polite John Waters movie. Frankly, the stakes have risen drastically for horror comedy in the wake of legitimately funny and macabre genre productions like The Final Girls, They’re Watching, Ava’s Possessions, Witching & Bitching, You’re Killing Me, and to a lesser extent, The Girl in the Photographs, all of which are much funnier and most are considerably scarier.

Still, you cannot fault Balderson for not getting his at-bats in. Hell Town is one of four films he has in varying states of release over a three or four-week period in late August and early September, including the AXS original film, Elvis Lives. In some ways, H-Town has the feel of a stage farce (albeit one with gallons of stage blood), employing many of his regular repertory players, such as burlesque dancer Pleasant Gehman as Mother Manly and her nurse. Maybe that comfort level is a drawback in this case. On a basic level, Balderson & Spear do what they need to do to satisfy undemanding fans of gore and broad comedy, but that is as far as it goes. Mildly diverting but not nearly as clever as it should have been, Hell Town releases today (8/23) on VOD.

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