Canadian filmmaker Bruce McDonald is known for his willingness and ability to nimbly switch between genres and styles, gamely tackling everything from psychological thrillers like “Pontypool” to musical comedies like his fabled “Hard Core Logo” (championed by a young Quentin Tarantino), and directing a whole host of Canadian television in between (including, of course, “Degrassi: The Next Generation“). With the Halloween-set “Hellions,” the journeyman director makes a bid for iconic horror and comes up short. What aspires to be a reproductive horror classic along the lines “Rosemary’s Baby” ends up feeling like an overlong, slightly bloodier episode of “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” or maybe “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” goes to hell.
“Hellions” begins like any other spooky horror movie: an attractive young girl named Dora (Chloe Rose) canoodles with her slightly-wrong-side-of-the-tracks boyfriend Jace (Luke Bilyk). She’s skipping class to hang out with him, and as they converse underneath a tree, the camera is sure to drink in the fact that they’re surrounded by an endless field of pumpkins. Seriously: pumpkins for days. Dora makes some halfhearted excuse to go to the “clinic” and dashes away. It’s there that she discovers that she is actually four weeks pregnant, even though she claims that would be impossible. Since she’s only 17, the kindly doctor (Rossif Sutherland) will have to inform her mother. Racked with guilt and indecision, she goes home to wait for her boyfriend to pick her up so they can go to a Halloween party together.
That’s when the “scary” stuff starts to happen. While her mother (who is also quite young and seemingly had Dora under similar circumstances) and Dora’s younger brother are off trick-or-treating, the teenager is left alone to wait for Jace to pick her up. While there, she answers the door to find a child in a disturbing sackcloth costume that owes a stylistic debt not only to the Scarecrow in Christopher Nolan‘s Batman movies, but more acutely to the Sam character from Michael Dougherty‘s wonderful, under-seen gem, “Trick ‘r Treat,” another dangerous and mischievous Halloween figure. At first the visits are fairly banal, but then they start increasing in intensity. Finally, Dora comes to the door to find the sackcloth boy joined by several other figures… with her boyfriend’s head inside their Halloween bag.
From there, Dora is unrelentingly terrorized for the rest of the movie. More figures (some dressed as raggedy mice or lions) show up, Dora’s pregnancy starts to accelerate unexpectedly, and the entire house is cast in an unearthly glow. It seems that these figures only come out on Halloween and are intent on participating in a blood ritual that will free the young girl of her child (and probably her life). They are, for some reason, stopped by salt, and make screechy pig noises when provoked. Robert Patrick, who most will remember as the unstoppable robot masquerading as a cop in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” turns up as a law enforcer, but his role is relatively minor and sadly full of narrative-clogging exposition. It’s all kind of a bummer.
The fear and anxieties related to motherhood, childbirth, and children themselves is ripe thematic ground to build a horror movie on (countless films have already done it), and making the protagonist so young and confused is a terrific addition. But McDonald and screenwriter Pascal Trottier don’t do anything interesting with the concept. Even though she skips class to hang out with her boyfriend, she seems like a kid with a good head on her shoulders (this is all inferred, since the character development is barely present), and you wonder what her actual feelings about the pregnancy are. So many horror films feature young female protagonists who merely scream and run (including this one) that it would have been exhilarating to see a horror film where this character has agency and a dilemma all her own, and bargains with the supernatural entity to get what she wants.
And the movie would have probably been more thrilling, too, if it were staged better. At one point a kind of otherworldly fog rolls in, which gives McDonald an excuse to drape the entire movie in a rosy lavender filter. This decision was clearly made to mask the shapeless digital photography and the fact that the entire movie was obviously filmed during the daytime even though it’s set on Halloween night. McDonald is going for some earnest autumnal atmosphere, but everything feels cheap and kitschy. By the time Dora is running through a pumpkin patch and the pumpkins are digitally exploding, it’s gone beyond any kind of even bargain basement-level enjoyment. Fellow Sundance horror film “It Follows” is even more on-the-nose with its central metaphor (instead of teen pregnancy, it’s STDs), but is infinitely more enjoyable because it’s able to create and sustain a palpable atmosphere of lurking dread. “Hellions” is simply unconvincing, full of rubbery effects, and murky mythology.
Rose, for her part, tries to make the material resonate, but the script doesn’t give her enough to do. She keeps her virginal white angel costume on for the entire movie (symbolism!) and puts up a good fight, but she is so thinly characterized that it’s hard to root for her to survive. She’s just a girl who maybe made a bad decision and is being punished for it, over and over and over again, giving the movie a queasy, potentially unintended pro-life message. If you even think about having an abortion, the movie seems to suggest, then tiny goblin children will come to rip it out of your womb. Giving the movie any kind of political agenda, though, might be too kind, especially when it veers into cornball, “Scooby Doo“-type material. Completely forgettable, “Hellions” is far less cool, smart, and scary than it thinks it is. [D]