Though I’m definitely a fan of all sorts of movies, I have mostly watched big budget affairs in theaters. So when the chance came to tackle an indie movie with a much smaller budget, I was interested to check it out. Especially since I’ve gone through something of a horror renaissance over the past decade or so, acquainting myself with such classics as the Evil Dead trilogy. And though Hell’s Half Acre is far from a terrible movie, it sadly lacks originality.
Hell’s Half Acre is about a group of aspiring camera junkies called the Urban Explorers. Surprisingly, they’re not there to hunt supernatural phenomena. No, as leader Marcus explains, they’re in it to document the history and mystery of locations. Why bother with looking for things that go bump in the night when Marcus doesn’t believe in God or the devil? Though I don’t blame actor Quinn Nehr for portraying Marcus the way he does, I can’t deny that I instantly disliked the character. He comes across as arrogant, sexist, and conceited. It’s not clear if him and Jessie James are in a relationship or not, but he definitely acts like an abusive boyfriend towards her. Not physically, mind you, but emotionally.
Despite this, Jessie is still eager to help Marcus in any way she can. Primarily it’s trying to convince him to lean into the supernatural to boost ratings and maybe bring in some money, since his mother’s house is in danger of foreclosure. He won’t hear it, though, and just wants to do things the way he wants. While I wish Jessie would stand up to Marcus, I do appreciate actress Brynn Beveridge’s portrayal of her character. She’s easily the most relatable person in the entire movie, as well as being loyal and smart. Not to mention open to the unknown, which is probably a large reason she’s one of the few survivors of Hell’s Half Acre.
Marcus and Jessie also work with Dan the tech guy and Jose Casanova. I’m not sure if that’s supposed to be his actual last name or just an affectation, but it fits. There are only a couple other women in the movie, and Jose hits on all of them other than Jessie. He’s not a bad guy, just horny and stupid. As for Dan, the best way to describe him is vanilla. He’s tall, white, and goofy. Though I did appreciate later in the movie when he says “ooo, cookies!” before grabbing one from a plate.
At first the Urban Explorers are investigating the Van Owens Funeral Home. As they wander about, we discover Jose is rightfully terrified of rats. When the group hears suspicious noises, they wander into a trap set by a rival group, who scares them all. I have to be honest, this scene really fell flat for me, especially the way the camera panned right into the faces of the bitchy girls in the other group when they’re trash talking. There are even some “jokes” here that made me cringe. Thankfully, once Hell’s Half Acre gets going, they focus more on actual scares than forced dialogue.
The curveball is when a girl named Cassie joins the group right before they head to the Rockland Heights Prison. It’s made clear that Cassie not only believes in the occult, but that she has her own agenda. It takes a long while before it’s made clear, and sadly it’s really not worth the big reveal. I expected Cassie to be the cause of the violent chaos that befalls the group, but I was wrong. I’d love to explain what exactly happens, but it’s less than clear.
Speaking of the prison, it does the heavy lifting for the movie. Not only is it the central location for all the action, but it’s just more interesting than the other sites used in the movie. Whereas most of the other locations are bland and lack details, Rockland Heights Prison (fondly known as Hell’s Half Acre) is derelict, rusty and creepy. And that’s before the Urban Explorers are being hunted by cannibal ghosts and other craziness.
Rockland Heights is essentially a character in its own right. It has a dark history that centers around two inmates: Martin “Cannibal” Clay and Eddie Richards, known as the Red Ripper. Both helped start a few massive riots that caused tons of deaths, right before they were executed. Oddly, the guards found strange pentagrams in their cells the same day. That’s honestly about as much as we get for the lore that anchors the movie. I don’t necessarily expect more, but I was hoping for some sort of logic to what happens later. It’s not even fully clear if the entities that hound the group are ghosts per se or something different. They struck me more as Deadites than something from Ghostbusters, despite one well timed Bill Murray quote. They’re visceral, bloody and violent. And worst of all, they’re very capable of inflicting harm on the living.
As any fan of horror could probably guess by now, it doesn’t take long for things to go wrong once they get to the prison. Despite Jessie scouting the area for threats, they immediately get harassed by an intense security guard. Marcus talks his way past the annoyance, but Jose and Dan give her a hard time for missing something so obvious. I actually liked the prickly banter between the three, as it was much better than some of the earlier exchanges such as “damn bro” and “totally whacked”.
Dan sets up cameras all over the prison, and inexplicably checks every light in every room he enters, despite the prison having closed decades prior. There is one fun scene where he stupidly decides to sit in an electric chair. Though he doesn’t get zapped, he has a flash of someone else getting electrocuted, which is definitely a warning of things to come. Not much later, he has a live feed going, but has issues with the comms. And when his back is turned, someone or something is clearly walking around in front of the camera.
Though I didn’t much care for Marcus’ backstory, I did enjoy how his sister is watching the live feed with her friend. There are a few interludes involving them that are darkly funny, with the girls commenting on Marcus not having the budget to hire actors, but being impressed with all the creepy things that are happening on camera. My absolute favorite line is when the friend asks “did Marcus write this crap?” as the Urban Explorers are fleeing for their lives.
Even though they thought nobody else was on the premises, they find another group called the Ghost Getters. And no, I couldn’t have thought of a worse name if I tried. What’s interesting is that this group has apparently been wandering about for a few hours, yet never ran into the Urban Explorers. And once all the shit hits the fan, they still haven’t had any encounters with dangerous spirits. Even weirder, they are milling about with outdated tech and phones.
I was pleasantly surprised that the first big jump scare in Hell’s Half Acre did indeed make me jump. There are lots of spooky things that happen in Rockland Heights Prison, from doors suddenly closing themselves to sudden movements and even dead-eyed ghosts haunting the crew. But once things really start to amp up, the crazy never really stops. The serial killers that were executed come back to haunt the Urban Explorers, and they’re hungry for blood. Worse, time doesn’t seem to function properly in the prison, and daylight refuses to rear its head. One of my favorite moments is when Marcus and Jessie are trying to escape and keep running down a set of stairs and through a door, only to wind up right where they started. It was very much a throwback to the Scooby Doo cartoons of my youth.
There’s a long running trope where the Black character dies first in horror movies. But since Hell’s Half Acre doesn’t have a Black main character, it stands to reason poor Jose is the first casualty. He gets lost, finding one of the serial killer ghosts. When Jose comes to, he’s wearing a prison jumpsuit and strapped to the same electric chair Dan was screwing around with earlier. Unlike Dan, Jose gets zapped badly. And though he doesn’t die immediately, he does get snatched later by another ghost, and meets a gruesome end.
Without going into all the gory details, Dan and Cassie also meet violent ends, leaving Marcus and Jessie to escape the horror. There are some fun little moments, such as when one ghost rips the arm from his victim before chowing down on it. Or another when the group is trying to find shelter, and don’t notice something skittering up the wall behind them. There’s even a creepy moment where they’re taking shelter in the prison chapel, and suddenly Jose starts to talking to them on the comms, despite definitely being dead.
Hell’s Half Acre ends with Marcus and Jessie finding a way out with the help of Marcus’ father’s ghost. It actually took me a moment to recognize him, since we only see a photograph of the man briefly before this. While I was happy that a couple of the group survived, the movie doesn’t know when to end. There are a few minutes before credits roll. Not only does Jessie inexplicably get a special delivery of a book emblazoned with a pentagram, but Marcus gets wowed by the millions of views their antics generated, right before his phone lights up with a call from Dan…
All in all, Hell’s Half Acre wasn’t bad, but it also wasn’t anything special. It lacked any real characterization or backstory, other than Marcus’ financial woes. Ultimately it’s worth watching if you love horror, but it’s just a vehicle for cheap, bloody thrills. That said, don’t stop watching once the credits roll, since there’s one last fun scene at the very end.