Hellions, Bruce McDonald’s proper horror movie followup to 2008’s brilliant Pontypool, is a mess of horror movie DNA, a last-second Halloween costume stitched together from better, more self-assured movies that span the eras and knew how to reign in their concepts to keep things in focus. Halloween blends with Trick ‘r Treat and Rosemary’s Baby with House of the Devil in a cluttered combination of home invasion, satanic panic, body horror, and psychedelia that gives itself no time to set anything up, so when it knocks things down they land without a sound.
Halloween-themed horror movies put themselves at an immediate disadvantage when they’re announced. They carry with them the hope of becoming the new holiday classic, and, while it’s a great way to build anticipation and work with imagery that’s been ingrained in fans’ psyches since they first trick-or-treated, they raise expectations to an impossible height. To imagine what McDonald could do with the simple story of a girl alone on Halloween was more than exciting after he gave zombies a fresh anthropological twist in Pontypool alongside screenwriter Tony Burgess. He’d shown that he could draw out tension in cramped quarters, and the idea behind Hellions was just far enough removed from John Carpenter’s Halloween that it wasn’t a ripoff, even while it stuck to the archetypal story. Add McDonald’s decision to shoot in infrared for an otherworldly vibe and you had the perfect press kit for a modern classic.
Sadly, the raised bar of Halloween movie standards isn’t the only thing holding back Hellions, which would be middling even without the holiday bonafides to squander. As seen most clearly in its abbreviated running time, Hellions is a case of the parts being greater than the sum, since plenty of attention is given to the production and sound design, visual palette, and music, but nearly none to its script, acting, or much less its casting process. It’s amounts to a montage of brief, beautiful horror tableaux intercut with contrived plotting and sub-par network television-quality dialogue scenes, and further complicated by run-on fantasy sequences, to the point that it would work better as a silent picture. So here’s to hoping that the right band decides to write a feature-length instrumental album to pair with it, because it’s often striking enough to look at, just not involving enough to follow along.
Hellions follows Dora (Chloe Rose), a goth-ish teen who discovers she’s pregnant on Halloween and spends the night alone in an angel getup fending off demonic trick-or-treaters à la Trick r’ Treat‘s Sam who want the baby for whatever reason demons want a baby on Halloween. Basically Mr Kreeg’s subplot from said flick, with the requisite body horror of an unexpected pregnancy thrown in for good measure. There’s no time to warm up to anyone, however, and in some cases the casting is bizarre enough to compound the problem. Boyfriend Jace (Rossif Sutherland) has two minutes to make an impression before he’s turned into a head in a bag, Dora’s doctor looks like he woke up on a couch covered in potato chips and beer can tabs, and her mother (Rachel Wilson), despite hints that she underwent a teenage pregnancy herself, is wholly unbelievable as either an elder, parent, or even blood relative. Only Robert Patrick makes sense as a grizzled sheriff, but he’s as paper thin as the rest. Rose can’t overcome the script’s weaknesses either, and delivers a mediocre lead performance informed by nothing more than the average teen girl’s fear of getting pregnant.
There are spurts of creative inspiration everywhere you look, and that’s just the problem. It’s too much crammed into too small of a story, and nothing coalesces. Like all bad horror, it refuses to wake up from its dream sequences after having never fully established a firm reality in the first place. Certainly some of the blame is to be placed at screenwriter Pascal Trottier’s feet, but McDonald doesn’t latch on to anything worth concentrating on, so the film flits from one jump scare to the next, eventually finding its way back to its poorly conceived flash-forward opening scene without revealing anything else of much value between. It flatters many, many movies with its imitation, but don’t expect it to find any imitators of its own.