We binge-watch this month's horror for you
By Richard Whittaker,
9:00AM, Sun. Feb. 7, 2016
Freddy. Jason. Dracula. The Wolfman. Icons of horror, all. But is there anything truly more terrifying than children, with their tiny hands, unfathomable motivations, and scant grasp of the morality that binds civilization together? Give them axes and a lust for teen blood, and that's pretty much the genesis of Hellions.
Normally, horrors appearing on DVD in February are of questionable value. This is the dumping ground, the interregnum between the Christmas gift money purchases and the Oscar bait getting an award season afterglow release. But this Canadian slice of morbid maternity gets two ticks in its column even before the shrink wrap is removed. First, it's escaping on the anniversary of its world premiere at Sundance 2015, and second, it's the latest from Bruce McDonald, creator of the inescapably brilliant sealed-bottle shocker Pontypool.
Rather than the world-weary broadcaster of his breakthrough success, McDonald's protagonist here is studiously diffident teen Dora (Chloe Rose, Degrassi: TNG). She's a small-town goth, a kin of sorts to Maika Monroe's Midwestern Siouxsie in The Guest. On Halloween night, she gets the worst trick of all: She's pregnant, and she has to work out how to tell her boyfriend and her mother. This quickly becomes the least of her problems, as she finds herself besieged by a horde of devilish trick-or-treaters who are after more than candy: They want her baby.
The evil little creatures are a wonder of low-budget design. Like grisly kin to Trick 'r' Treat's pumpkin-masked Sam, their design and motivation seems to owe a debt to the critically and chronically underrated The Strangers and its malevolent invaders. The question is quickly posed as to whether they are real or metaphor, as Dora's dreams meld with her impending reality and potential future as a teenage mother.
Where Hellions falls down (beyond the ill-considered attempt to portray a blood moon by parsing the latter half of the film through a pink filter) is in motivation. Pontypool was a mystery movie as much as it was a horror, with the besieged radio station crew trying to work out exactly what's happening outside of the sound booth. Hellions trades on the same mystery, but never quite comes to any conclusion. A cameo by genre hero Robert Patrick as the local sheriff adds little clarity to the matter, and after ambling through the dreamlike, hazy, and sometimes shockingly violent attacks of these potentially supernatural kids, there's a suitably ambiguous ending.
But where it works is as a bloody and unnerving reframing of Alice in Wonderland. Dora has fallen through to the ghoulish other world, and while the descent may be bottomless and sometimes ambling, it's got the same frustrating charm as last year's psycho-sexual Gordian knot, Horsehead. It's imperfect, and it's definitely no Pontypool, but it shows McDonald to be a director of continuing fascination.
Hellions is available on DVD and Blu-ray now. Also out recently:
Hangman (Alchemy) reimagines Red Dragon if Will Graham wasn't there to save you, and the Tooth Fairy caught every hideous moment of his slow-burn home invasion on hidden cameras. That's the basic narrative of the latest from British underground horror turned L.A. music director Adam Mason. A seemingly perfect couple (Jeremy Sisto of Law & Order and Six Feet Under, and Kate Ashfield of Shaun of the Dead) return from vacation to find their home has been burgled. Thinking nothing of it, they get the window fixed and the locks replaced. What the audience has seen is that this wasn't some simple robbery: Instead, a malevolent figure (Eric Michael Cole) has riddled the house with cameras and is perched in their attic, watching and waiting.
The themes (POV narrative, the sanctity of the home invaded) bear an undoubted similiarity to Creep, but whereas Mark Duplass came to the home invasion horror from the indie dramedy field, Mason cut his teeth on unnerving fodder like Pig and The Devil's Chair. The Hangman's disturbing ways of messing with the family (often in ways they will never know about, like spitting in the OJ) turn from simply unpleasant to malevolent, and it's always a question of when, not if, he will enact his deranged endgame.
Mason embraces his conceit perfectly: The family are never aware there is someone in their house, and so continue their ordinary lives, with their ordinary dramas. It's simply the presence of the Hangman, and the fact that the audience is forced to play voyeur as he plays monster under the bed, from which Mason wrings every glacial drip of terror. In that twist in the wind, Mason has re-created the most tense and sickening moments of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer – a rare and shining achievement in an oft-derided genre.
All Hallows' Eve 2 is the same again, except that the clown is a trick-or-treater with a pumpkin mask. Same MacGuffin, a VHS tape dropped on the ground outside of someone's door, and a succession of eight unrelated stories. The only problem is that, if you've been on the horror festival circuit, you've probably caught at least one of these when it was still a short. "Jack Attack" is an entertaining little gorefest of what happens when a jack o'lantern decides to get its own back, and is ghoulishly entertaining. It also has the advantage of being first on the counter. The truth is, it doesn't get much better than that, and the variable lengths, quality, and format of each short (including one in unsubtitled Spanish) never feels like a single film. "Mr. Tricker's Treat" feels like a PG take on a Toetag flick, while "Masochist" has the air of an ambitious The Devil's Carnival fan film.
Neither as determinedly bleak as the upcoming Southbound or entertainingly ghoulish as the standard-bearer of the genre, Trick 'r' Treat, All Hallows' Eve 2 relies too much on the framing mechanism to gloss over the fact that this never really feels like a single movie, and instead just a pretty fair shorts package.
Hana-Dama: The Origin (Olive Films) is the latest attempt by Hisayasu Satô (one of the four devils of the pinku eiga school of perverted erotica) to bridge the gap between exploitation and insightful horror. Mizuki (Mina Sakuragi) is the new girl in school, and so she's the one that all the mean girls single out to pick on. Her only friends are the other outsiders: timid and childish Kirie (Maika Shimamura), and friendless Shibanai (Syun Asada). For its first hour, Hana-Dama is a vicious indictment of the Japanese school system. The kids are mean, the teachers heartless, and Mizuki's parents are a walking nightmare. Her mother's sanity is failing, and her father's only way of communicating with his family is through a strings-and-cans telephone.
This segment is not an easy watch, and lacks the cold morality of the thematically akin The World of Kanako. It's a bundle of trigger warnings, made even more disturbing by the unexpected strength of Sakuragi's performance. Innocent but worldly, damaged but battle-hardened, she feels real and grounded in a movie that hints towards Satô's established surrealist senses.
It seems obvious that Mizuki will wreak her revenge on the bullies, and it's implied that there will be a supernatural element. Satô's tool is a mysterious flower that suddenly explodes from Mizuki's head, which has the power to make each of her nemeses turn into that which they accused her of being. What's unclear is whether any of this is real, or whether it's Mizuki (or maybe Kirie's) revenge dream. The heaviest evidence that there are deeper roots to the flower's power is that he's calling this The Origin, implying that he wants to build out the world more. He could even be heading into the same disturbing world building of a genre-defining horror like the exploitative but disturbing Tomie. Whether Satô's the director to pull that off is another question.
Painkillers (RLJ Entertainment) enlists in the dishonorable tradition of military squads wandering into the path of something weird. The most famous examples are the Eighties double-tap of Predator and Aliens, yet there's a whole brigade's worth of platoons against something that doesn't believe in your petty human rules of engagement. Painkillers at least subverts the genre's shoot 'em up conventions, because all the shooting went on before the action started. Marine Captain Cafferty (Tahmoh Penikett, Continuum, Battlestar Galactica) wakes up in a hospital with no memory of why he's there, or much idea of who he is. The doctors explain that he's one of the survivors of a squad sent on a mysterious extraction mission in Afghanistan: But now his memories have all been wiped, and the powers that be want to know what happened. The story flips back and forth as Cafferty and his team rebuild their memories, and find their place within terrestrial and otherworldly conspiracies. End result? A nonlinear Stargate.
In a genre that has become heavily influenced by video games, too many modern sci-fi action films want to be a first-person shooter. Painkillers feels a lot more like an old-school point-and-click adventure. It finally devolves into a lengthy run through the hospital, much like the final act of Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, but without Scott Adkin's punching skills or John Hyam's visual flair as a director. Falling between the stools of lo-fi ingenuity and mid-budget thrill ride, Painkillers is sadly a minor sedative.
The Guardian (Scream! Factory) is a reminder that the most unstoppable geniuses trip over their feet of clay. In 1989, William Friedkin was a cinematic hall-of-fame sure thing. Between canon essentials like The French Connection and The Exorcist, and stylish acts of provocation like Cruising and Sorcerer, he was the top dog. Post-To Live and Die in L.A., he was looking to return to horror, with an adaptation of Dan Greenburg's The Nanny. A sure thing turned into a baffling mishmash, a confused tale of a couple (Dwier Brown and Carey Lowell) who move to Los Angeles and hire a nanny (Jenny Seagrove), who turns out to be a shape-shifting, baby-stealing tree spirit. The lumpen end result is a film so ill-conceived that the first screening for the studio became a case study in baffled disappointment.
Maybe if it was just some mid-grade exploitation vendor behind the lens, The Guardian would be jovial trash. But with Friedkin's name attached, it's fascinating to find out exactly how badly it came off the rails. Fortunately, this release is loaded with extras and interviews, including original scripter Stephen Volk (Gothic) explaining how a horror-comedy originally written for Sam Raimi became a supernatural drama. Meanwhile, Seagrove politely blames Friedkin and the studio for retaining a druidic subplot, instead of playing it straight and beating The Hand That Rocks the Cradle to the punch. As she delicately explains, "I love Billy, he's quite mad."