Hack-O-Lantern (1988)

OCTOBER 26, 2020


I assume it was in Fangoria that I heard about Hack-O-Lantern, probably close to thirty years ago now, and it sounded... well, bad. It sounded bad. But over the years, I've developed an admiration for a particular brand of bad horror movie. I can't stomach too much of the Sharknado-y kinda of stuff, or all that faux-'70s crap that came along post-Grindhouse, but bad movies in the vein of Silent Night Deadly Night 2 or Things (or yes, Cathy's Curse, which this was actually compared to in a Red Letter Media episode) are very much appreciated in my house, and I'm happy to say that Hack-O-Lantern definitely fits within that group.

I think what separates this sort of thing from Syfy trash is, believe it or not, the fact that the former examples are shot on film, but not because it "looks better" (which is a matter of opinion). Unlike today's "You can shoot a movie on your iPhone and edit it on your laptop" thinking, if a movie is shot on film that means there has to be at least two people on the crew who really know what they're doing: someone to load film into the camera, and someone who knows how to edit on a flatbed, both of which aren't exactly things you can just guess your way through and still come out with something watchable. So even if the director is a total novice and the actors are... less than award-worthy, there will still be someone around who took the time to learn these fundamentals the right way (presumably in a film school or extensive workshop) and can guide the amateurs on the crew into getting usable footage and fashion something coherent out of it when all is said and done. Long story short, some people had to take it seriously enough to properly learn how to do it. Nowadays, that's not a guarantee, and it often shows.

Anyway, I knew this movie belonged to that "special" group almost instantly, when a kid named Tommy is playing with a pumpkin and his mother doesn't really consider "Where did the pumpkin come from?" until he accidentally cuts himself trying to carve it. THEN she realizes that the arrival of a pumpkin meant his grandfather (her father) has been over, something that is apparently forbidden, and it's not too long until we find out why the man has been ostracized - he's part of a cult! The kid's dad is murdered by one of grampa's cohorts when he goes to their "church" (a barn) to tell him off, and then we cut to 15 years later, with Tommy falling in with the cult and about to undergo his final initiation on Halloween. Naturally, the mom and his two younger siblings (one of whom is now a cop) aren't thrilled about this, and when the matriarch confronts her father about it and begs him to leave Tommy alone, we learn (icky alert!) that gramps is actually Tommy's real father, having raped his daughter on her wedding day.

(Tommy is the only one that Gramps seems interested in, so we can assume this was a one time thing and the other two kids were actually from her husband, thankfully.)

After this bombshell the movie tones down its insanity a bit, but remains as beautifully awful. As the various characters go about prepping for Halloween, a cult member in a mask starts offing people who are connected to the now grown children, and we are seemingly supposed to assume that it's Tommy carrying out some final tasks for his initiation, but then there would be no need for the mask, so you can spend 11 or 12 seconds guessing who the actual killer might be (it shouldn't surprise anyone). By tracking Tommy as well as his siblings, Vera and Roger (and their own respective love interests) we get to meet several not-great actors throughout the day, all of whom seem to be on different wavelengths from each other as they run through the hilariously awkward script. Few people act normal in this movie, highlighted by a sequence where Vera grills Roger's girlfriend about their recent hook up (because all girls want to hear about their brother's sexcapades!), prompting the girl to, I kid you not, bring her to the outdoor location where it happened so she can point it out! If I ever even imagined a scenario where my brother in law showed me the spot where he first had sex with my sister, I would likely want to die, but for these people it's an exciting adventure.

But my favorite part was a rather pointless scene where Tommy's lover goes to the store to buy beer and some other supplies. The cashier rings her up and says "That'll be 40 dollars," which already piqued my amusement because wow, what an exact amount! The girl hands over a few bills, and normally that'd be the end of it because almost literally any combination of bills you might have to equal forty dollars would be... forty dollars, right? Two twenties, four tens, whatever (if she handed her *one* bill it would be a fifty or a hundred, so change would indeed come into play, but she handed a few over). And then the lady rings it in and says "15 dollars is your change," which means the girl inexplicably handed her $55 for her $40 charge. It's a total throwaway moment, but that's the exact mix of peculiarness and incompetence that makes me love such things.

The movie also contains a full music video in which Tommy is one of the band members, who are wiped out one by one by some kind of devil woman who isn't seen anywhere else in the film. Honestly, that's all you really need to know, and since I couldn't find a proper trailer I have included it instead. This is exactly how it is presented in the film, and it is never referred to again.

Most of the actors in the film are unrecognizable and would never be seen again (though the guy playing Tommy had some bit parts in action flicks like Cliffhanger), but Gramps is played by Hy Pyke, who played the bar owner in Blade Runner and the bus driver in '70s weirdo fave Lemora. He seems to be the only one who is aware of what kind of nonsense he is in, and gives 110% manic eyeball energy to all of his scenes. It's a shame he's not onscreen more often (most of the focus is on the three siblings), but man, when he appears you know you're in for a treat. I particularly like that he seemingly drives around town with a truck bed full of pumpkins at all times, and began imagining how bummed out he must be when they're not in season.

Basically it was a perfect movie for this particular Halloween, where joy is in short supply and watching the standards (i.e. the Halloween movies) just kind of bum me out because normally I'd be seeing them at screenings with friends. Here the holiday is almost incidental to everything; the town's big party is only seen near the end and looks about as populated as the makeshift gathering at the mine's cafeteria in My Bloody Valentine, and the decor is pretty much limited to Gramps' pumpkins. There was just enough random weirdness to keep me engaged, the innocently bad acting (particularly a guy named, yes, Brian!) was sublime, and apart from the killer's identity I can honestly say I could never tell where the movie was going, right until the very end which throws in a twist that makes no sense whatsoever. Bless. If you're a Shudder subscriber, you can watch it now (or maybe you already did with Joe Bob interrupting it) and I highly recommend that you do if you're a fan of such awkward fare.

What say you?

1 comment:

  1. Saw it for the first time (The Last Drive-In), and I thought it was a hoot and a half!


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