Hack-O-Lantern (1988)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2017-11-01 03:19

Written by: Carla Robinson
Directed by: Jag Mundhra
Starring: Hy Pyke, Gregory Scott Cummins, and Katina Garner

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

"The power is in the blood..."

Thanks to the Halloween franchise and various other outbreaks of October-tinged carnage, thereís no shortage of movies that feature people being slaughtered on All Hallows Eve. Only one, however, can boast the absolute nonsense on display in Hack-O-Lantern, Jag Mundhraís bizarre offering to the overgrown pile of late-80s slasher movies. Perhaps sensing his effort would need a little something to stand out amongst a crowd of stiff, more renowned competition, Mundhra loaded this unhinged dispatch with a little bit of everything: incestual overtures, familicide, Satanic panic, all wrapped up in a cozy blanket of Midwestern Halloween Americana. How anyone could dream up such an unruly, discordant concoction is beyond me; thankfully, however, it thankfully was not beyond Mundhra, who seemingly summoned Hack-O-Lantern from some haywire netherworld where just about anything goes.

We open on an idyllic, almost Rockwellian scene: itís Halloween on a rural farm, where little Tommy (Bryson Gerard) is eager to greet his grandfather (Hy Pyke) when the old man comes rolling in with a truck full of pumpkins. Not only does Tommy have the pick of the litter, but his grandpa also gives him a bizarre gift, cryptically hinting that this amulet will be important at some point in the future. Dismayed that her son has come into contact with her estranged father, Amanda (Katina Garner) admonishes the boyódespite the fact that he just cut his hand carving a pumpkin (apparently thereís no worries since the boy gleefully declares he loves the taste of blood). After informing her husband of the old manís unwanted meddling, Amanda watches as her beloved storms off to confront grandpa, who turns out to be an actual Satanist. Even worse, his son-in-law intrudes upon a sacred ritual, a transgression that results in his swift death. What originally looked like a nostalgic, idealized holiday reverie is turned into nightmarish outburst of pentagrams and occult violence.

And thatís just the beginning! The actual story picks up years later, with Tommy (Gregory Scott Cummins) now a grown man prone to angst-ridden brooding and dreaming about becoming a rock star. He looks like bad news, which is why he makes a perfect candidate to finally join his Grandpaís coven. Sure enough, the old codger is still badgering him all these years later; whatís more this Halloween night is set to serve as his induction into the cult, complete with a wicked ceremony in an elaborately decorated barn. Other festivities are also in order around town, however, including a big Halloween party, which has captured the attention of Tommyís girlfriend, his younger siblings, and their friends. A masked slasher, too, is drawn to the festivities and begins hacking through everyoneóas if there werenít enough going on already.

Hack-O-Lantern feels like it ought to hail directly from the homespun, SOV scene that began to flourish during this era. It has that exact sort of fringe quality, primarily in the way it prizes gusto over competence: though Mundhra had already helmed a few critically acclaimed dramas in his native India, youíd never know it from the amateurish performances and slipshod ďplottingĒ on display here. For all the world, this feels like one of those backyard deals where someone conned some associates into fooling around on screen for a makeshift horror movie not unlike the ones clogging up video store shelves, only this one features a stalker wearing a dime store Halloween mask. Somehow, thatís not exactly the case, as Mundhra apparently secured a decent amount of funding and professional equipment, resulting in a film that at least looks better than it has any right to as it delivers the usual splatter movie violence between feigned attempts at telling a story.

But make no mistake: while Hack-O-Lantern might be inordinately well-dressed with evocative photography, thereís no hiding its complete lack of pretense. Mundhra and screenwriter Carla Robinson are indulging pure schlock without any kind of safety net that might curtail their stranger whims, of which there are many. In fact, the slashing here is actually quite routine: sure, the gags are gnarly, with an assortment of throat slashes and impalements providing what youíd expect from a movie bearing this title, though they hardly would have been a standout by 1988 (much less 2017). However, itís what you donít expect from Hack-O-Lantern (or, quite frankly, any movie) that keeps it afloat, a tactic most of these weird, lo-fi brain-smashers often resort to.

To its credit, Hack-O-Lantern really throws down the gauntlet in this respect, conjuring up one nonsensical aside after the other. Itís the sort of film that practically invites you to list off its various absurdities, from its impromptu stand-up comedy routine to a sequence that can best be described as a nightmare by way of a music video. Hack-O-Lantern is full of bizarre non-sequiturs that leave quite an impression: if itís not treating viewers to concert footage, itís offering up a burlesque sequence, neither of which add anything to the plot but provide plenty of character. And thatís exactly what youíre looking for when youíve descended to this nebulous slasher zone, where itís less about competence or even the carnage itself. No, whatís more important are synapse-searing asides that leave you constantly wondering just what in the hell anyone involved was thinking. Why, for instance, is there a snake-handling scene in Hack-O-Lantern? What kind of Satanic cult inducts its members by branding a pentagram tattoo on their ass? More importantly, who even wants to join such a geriatric cult lorded over by Tommyís old, perverted grandfather?

Granted, old gramps is quite indelible, thanks to both the lurid, unhinged script and Pykeís gleefully twisted turn. Affecting a Deep South drawl (in the middle of the heartland, but thatís neither here nor there), he fully embraces the grandfatherís sick, almost cartoonish depravity that has him hitting on his own daughter and granddaughter as he attempts to turn his grandson (who might also be his son?) to Satanism. Hack-O-Lantern was clearly designed to exploit this eraís Satanic panic, and this is most obvious whenever this guy is on-screen. Not only is Satan real, but heís capable of corrupting even your dear old grandpa to the point where heís throwing up the horns like itís some kind of unconscious tic. Whatís more, he also inspires bloody sacrifices in a quaint old barn, which might double as a gateway to hell itself. Before you know it, the nice kid who just wanted a pumpkin as a kid harbors dreams of becoming a shock rockeróat least when heís not fiddling around in his closet of demonic paraphernalia.

That all this nonsense butts up against vintage, quaint Halloween trimmings adds an extra screwy layer to the proceedings: you sense something almost sweet and innocent at the core here, and it resonates faintly within the decomposing shell rotting around it, sort of like a flame doing its best to give life to a sagging pumpkin thatís left out on the porch well into November. Iíd like to say Hack-O-Lantern is a reflection of a culture rotting away thanks to its heathen sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll excess, but that would require me to believe this film was guided by something resembling human intent instead of just assuming it was dictated by actual spirits.

Somehow lost amongst this nonsense is the fact that Mundhra has crafted a slasher actually masquerading as a family melodrama (or vice versa), complete with a topsy-turvy climax that reveals the identity of the psycho slaughtering everyone. Like the rest of Hack-O-Lantern, itís patently absurd, and Mundhra naturally canít resist a second twist just before the credits, one that teases a possible continuation of the nonsense on display here. Not that such wonders were ever in store, especially once Hack-O-Lantern went straight from the camera directly to VHS obscurity, where it arrived under various titles (often on dubious releases to boot). Itís since been rescued by Massacre Video, who recently delivered a killer 30th anniversary Blu-ray/DVD combo pack boasting a commentary from producer Raj Mehrotra, an 11-minute retrospective with Cummins and Garner, and a vintage public access interview with Mundhra, Garner, and Marya Gant. A photo gallery and bonus trailers for other Massacre releases fill out a release that easily stands out as the companyís best to date, if only because Hack-O-Lantern is a total blast and a far cry from their other output, which can be generously described as ďacquired tastes.Ē

Look, weíve all seen Halloween dozens of times and rightfully reserve it as the centerpiece of each October, but what Iím suggesting is that we also carve out a little place for Hack-O-Lantern, its demented, dumbass cousin from a few states over. Even when his franchise was at its wildest, Michael Myersís exploits never ascended to the lunatic plane glimpsed here. I mean, I'm pretty sure The Shape wasn't rocking a Thorn tattoo on his asscheek, you know?

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