The location is killer, but a lackluster plot and budget limitations hamstring “Hell’s Half Acre” and keep the potential scares on lockdown.
Marcus is in trouble. His fledgling YouTube channel, Urban Explorers, isn’t paying the bills, and his house is in foreclosure. With the help of his friend Jessie and their crew, they decide to explore and film Rockland Heights, an abandoned prison that housed not one but two satanic serial killers (one of whom is a cannibal.)
Needless to say, the group encounters doors slamming by themselves, time jumps, ghosts, and the two aforementioned killers during their night exploring the prison.
One by one, the group is picked off by the murderous ghosts as the crew documents the paranormal goings-on.
We have our two main characters, Marcus and Jessie (Quinn Nehr and Brynn Beveridge), the practical joker Dan (James Matthew Fuller), the self-professed ladies’ man Jose (Omar Vega Jr), and Cassie (Amanda Buhs), the newbie to the group with a dark secret that may or may not have a connection with the prison.
Unfortunately, that is the extent of these characters’ development, and they never really become more than clichéd characters from movies we have seen before.
These kinds of token characters are really a pitfall of lower-budget genre efforts. We can forgive lackluster special effects, a hokey story, or ridiculous story development. But without any character to root for or even like, it just makes it much harder to enjoy.
The small amount of suspense and character development we were given was revealed much too early in the film.
We see Cassie, the newest group member, surrounded by a bunch of satanic books and papers. Now, we know she is already connected to the prison somehow, and we are just waiting for the rest of the characters to figure it out.
Even when it is revealed that she is one of the serial killer’s granddaughters, there is no big meaning in it, and she is dispatched anyway.
Another plot point that serves no purpose other than a deux ex machina is when the ghost of Marcus’ father reveals to him the way out of the prison. Though, aside from a line of dialogue and a framed picture of Marcus and his dad, we would never have known about him.
John Patrick Tomasek’s Hell’s Half Acre is a well-worn story that doesn’t really break any new ground in the “documentary crew in a haunted house, asylum or cemetery” subgenre, made popular in films like Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum and Hell House LLC.
Those films are stellar examples of this kind of story. But unfortunately, Hell’s Half Acre falls short.
It fails to generate suspense and fills too much of its runtime using up tired tropes, the worst of which is the tired jump scare involving a hand dropping on an unsuspecting character’s shoulder.
Budget is always a limitation of indie films, so I cannot fault Tomasek for that, and he does bring a lot of enthusiasm behind the camera.
You can tell he is a fan of the genre, and this movie would fit in perfectly with the lower-budget direct-to-video offerings of the late 80s. Unfortunately, this would be one of the more passable efforts on the video store shelf. This is one that genre fans have seen before and done more efficiently.
For an excellent location, the film does not utilize the prison to its full potential.
Too many of the shots are static, with characters walking into and out of the frame with minimal camera movement. Even something as small as that can add to a viewer’s experience and enhance the storytelling. There are small moments of inventive camera work, but too often, the film settles back into the feeling that the viewers are watching a play and not a film.
So, what does Hell’s Half Acre get right?
The biggest selling point of the movie is the location; it looks like it was filmed in a long-abandoned prison, and that goes a long way in telling the story.
It is a great and interesting setting for the film. The decrepit stone walls, peeling paint, and general creepy atmosphere make up quite a bit for what the film lacks.
The other redeeming feature is the two leads played by Quinn Nehra and Brynn Beveridge; they almost make up for the film’s lack of scares and unoriginality of the film’s plot.
It would be interesting to see what this story could have been with a more cohesive plot and a bigger budget. Sadly, Hell’s Half Acre ends up looking more like a temp reel for potential investors for a feature film than an actual end product.