If you’re old enough to remember taking the Pepsi Challenge, a PepsiCo marketing contest that took place at public events throughout the United States, you might remember being offered a small soda cracker between sips of cola to “cleanse your palate.” Cleansing the palate is the process of clearing your taste buds of a previous similar product in order to taste and compare a second correctly. In the grand scheme, palate cleansers have little importance, but they serve a useful purpose. If horror films can be critiqued as art, as many of we horror fans insist, then writer/director Rolfe Kanefsky’s Party Bus To Hell (2018) is the horror film equivalent of a palate cleanser. The best way to watch it is to understand that it’s probably not going to be an essential piece of art history, nor is it a ground-breaker cinematically. But it does serve one purpose: it’s a helluva good time.
The story begins with Darby (Tara Reid; American Pie, Alone in the Dark), who is attempting to escape some unseen desert danger as well as act as a warning for anyone else who happens along the path. Following the almost immediate gruesome death of Darby’s partner, the topless demise of bikini model Kimberly (Devanny Pinn; House of Manson, Casey Anthony), and the killing of the fashion photographer (J. Spencer) who was using the desert as his background to photograph Kimberly, we ultimately meet the film’s protagonist Lara (Stefani Blake). Like Darby, Lara is also running away from a monster, although her pursuer is an older lecherous man who gave her a ride into Las Vegas. After leaping from the vehicle, she locates Joan (Sadie Katz; Wrong Turn 6, My Bill Murray Experience), the driver of a Sin City Party Bus that happens to be hauling a group of young people to The Burning Man Festival.
Joan offers Lara a free ride on the bus, which Lara immediately accepts. So begins the “party” segment of the trip in which the group of twentysomethings romps in flashy (and fleshy!) lights, music, and dancing, among other things. That is until the bus suddenly breaks down in the middle of the desert, miles away from town and nowhere near Burning Man. When Joan abandons the group of partygoers, taking the bus key with her, they suddenly find themselves trapped inside the nightclub on wheels and surrounded by a Mad Max-looking cult of desert dwellers who attempt to extract them in their search for a “chosen one.”
In most ways, Party Bus To Hell is a Troma-style throwback to B horror movies you might have caught late on Cinemax in the 1980s and early 1990s. It’s a breast-baring and bloody barrage of sex, violence, and rock ‘n’ roll full of shallow and expendable characters. The film leaps from flesh scene to fight scene to gore within seconds, occasionally cutting between sex scenes and gore in symbolic parallels that would make any art filmmaker proud.
Party Bus To Hell and everyone associated with it knows exactly what this film is. The filmmakers expertly create the feeling that you’ve just sat down to libido-indulging midnight premium cable 90s weekend romp, although they do manage to acknowledge current times in a couple of scenes that were a bit problematic for me. For example, there is a “me too” reference when Kimberly and her photographer die that seems to be played for comedy. There’s also a “c-word” reference later in the film that gets another male character killed. It is difficult to tell from the scenes themselves whether the filmmakers were attempting to be supportive or critical of the current cultural climate. Either way, I can’t think that this film makes a good vehicle to address those issues.
Overall, Party Bus To Hell is what it was meant to be: a fun ride, a palate cleanser that is not to be taken seriously. The action is tight. There are no “boring” parts. The soundtrack is metal and extraordinarily powerful during the cult scenes. With one glaring exception that appears early in the film, the special effects and makeups are lovely. Yes, this movie is almost all B-grade trope, but it is trope that is used in surprising and compelling ways. I found myself wanting to stay invested in what was happening instead of just predicting what was going to happen next, as is often the case with these types of movies.
One word of warning: do not watch Party Bus To Hell if you want to remain stuck in a serious mood. If you can instead watch it with full knowledge of what this film is and what its makers intended it to be, you’ll have a much better time.