Halloween is not exploited nearly enough for cinematic use, though, thanks to the huge success of 2018’s Halloween, the season has made a small comeback and will pervade theaters for at least the next two years with Halloween Kills (October 2020) and Halloween Ends (October 2021). If you want to get your Halloween fix, you’ve got to stay out of theaters and look for those smaller, quieter titles that received much less fanfare. 2015 was a prolific year for the beloved October day, seeing the release of the surprisingly good Nicolas Cage vehicle Pay the Ghost, the horror-filmmaker smörgåsbord Tales of Halloween, and Hellions, Bruce McDonald’s follow-up to his acclaimed zombie film, Pontypool.
Seventeen-year-old Dora Vogel (Chloe Rose) is having a bummer of a Halloween. Not only has her evening gone from attending a party with her boyfriend Jace (Luke Bilyk) to practicing her confession to him that she’s four weeks pregnant, but a swath of demonic trick-or-treaters have descended upon her family’s somewhat isolated rural home intent on, in some way, and for some reason, stealing her unborn baby. After being marked by one of these children with a bloody handprint on her princess costume, this leads to a primarily one-location siege with Dora fending off one attack after another from these costumed monster kids.
Based just on the synopsis, Hellions would appear to be a fun Halloween-infused action/horror hybrid doubling as an allegory. It makes great use of the October aesthetic, littering the screen with pumpkin fields, Halloween decorations, and an army of deranged trick-or-treaters, and though its very loose plot seems to be harvesting Halloween’s own history rooted in sacrifice and pagan worship. Meanwhile, Hellions also seems to be about Dora’s fears for her future – of choosing to be a mother, or not. That she finds herself battling evil children on the same day she finds out she’s pregnant is too on the nose to ignore, which is abetted by the musical score by Todor Kobakov and Ian LeFeuvre, whose main theme evocative of “Silent Night” manifests in the audience’s minds Christmas tidings, which in turn manifests images of baby Jesus. (Abort Jesus? No way! He’s Jesus!) But soon the straightforwardness of the plot begins to dissipate and slowly transforms into a Lynchian nightmare, brought to life by the story’s surreal developments and McDonald’s use of pink-tinting infrared film.
Hellions can occasionally prove a frustrating experience, as McDonald knows the genre and understands how to craft a creepy image, but can’t seem to sustain it. Every trick-or-treater’s design has the power to pulse with appropriate shiverage, and seeing them stand in crowds outside windows, in front of a flaming police cruiser, or idly on a swing set, is effortlessly eerie. Their manipulated childlike voices that whisper commands through their scarecrow burlap masks or oversized button-eyed doll faces cause the hair on the back of your neck to prick up. So why, when McDonald’s capable of concocting such eerie images, does he resort to cheap tactics like horrific dream sequences? Why does he utilize lame jump scares consisting of characters bursting around the corner, or a suddenly screaming television, or eggs smashing against a window – not once, but twice? Why is McDonald smart enough to know when to reign back in his film just as it’s getting a little too stupid (the mirror gag with Chloe is atrocious), but not smart enough to avoid the stupidity in the first place? The alternating infrared film and the disappearing/reappearing hand print on Chloe’s princess costume would seem to indicate that McDonald doesn’t quite know what he’s doing, but the strong points of Hellions, and of Pontypool in its entirety, are enough to prove he does know what he’s doing. The problem is the audience doesn’t, and if these seeming “continuity errors” are part of unlocking the mystery, they’re just not enough of a clue, and could easily be misconstrued as the uneven hand of an untested director.
The abstract script by Pascal Trottier (The Colony) isn’t necessarily at fault; it wasn’t a matter of being accidentally scarce with details. It’s evident by how McDonald shoots Hellions that the story was designed from the beginning to provide just enough details to allow the audience to follow the narrative, but not enough to know, unfortunately, the most important pieces of the puzzle. Pieces like: Who are these demonic children? Where do they come from? Why is it they want Dora’s unborn child? How does Sheriff Mike (Robert Patrick) figure into all this, being that “this has happened before”? But there’s likely only one question Hellions wants its audience to ponder: Is everything we’re seeing happening for real, or is it all just a big, nasty, Halloween-inspired nightmare? That kind of ambiguity has been permeating the horror genre for literally a hundred years and isn’t necessarily out of place within Hellions' story, but the problem is many of its events leading up to its finale were already so ambiguous that they counteract whatever revelation the filmmakers had intended. To really keep in mind Dora’s pregnancy and let it work parallel against the appearances of the demonic children, and the broken down sheriff allows what’s essentially an allegory about abortion to play out in dreamy, unnatural ways. (The whole film, itself a messed up fairy tale, pays multiple homages to The Wizard of Oz: the lead heroine’s name being Dora, two of her attackers dressed in scarecrow and “tin man” [a metal bucket head] costumes, the basket-adorning bicycle she rides through town, the tornado-like storm that occurs inside her house, etc.)
The strong lead performance by Chloe Rose (uncanny in sight and sound to a Chasing Amy-era Joey Lauren Adams) makes Dora an empathetic hero, but her ability to command the screen is disregarded too often by the audience trying to decipher all the weirdness. Unavoidably, the final destination of “did-it or didn’t-it-happen?” – regardless if that had been the intended interpretation – doesn’t matter if the audience has no clue how they got there in the first place.
Some viewers may find Hellions’ message too preachy, and that’s fine – abortion is the most hot-button topic in today’s political world – but there’s no denying that McDonald and screenwriter Pascal Trottier have concocted a clever, unique, if somewhat uneven film to find a way to talk about it without really talking about it. In a pivotal scene preserving that sense of ambiguity, Dora peers down at a newborn baby in a hospital maternity ward. Is it hers? Is it someone else’s? How much time has passed? If everything she experienced was a Halloween-inspired nightmare, why does she have those scratches all over her arms?
Hellions provides no easy answers. Sometimes audiences don’t mind that, and sometimes they really do. It’s likely that Hellions will fall into that latter camp, as its events are very dreamy, very abstract, and difficult to accurately summarize. Concocted of scenes with genuine eeriness and clever story – and who doesn’t love a good Halloween yarn? – Hellions is one of those titles that could be yearly visited come that final October week, but it’ll likely be for the Halloween ambiance it invokes, rather than its bizarre and unclear storytelling.