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“HELLIONS” (TIFF Film Review)

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After taking a few years off from horror following his impressive genre debut PONTYPOOL, Canadian cult filmmaker Bruce McDonald has dipped his toes back into the pool with HELLIONS. His latest effort isn’t quite as ambitious as the last one, but it is an endearingly creepy and creative little effort that showcases his technical prowess, even if the script doesn’t quite feel substantial enough for feature length treatment.

Chloe Rose stars as one of those moody teens who adults just don’t understand, man! She’s even got the dark shades of make up, a goth-ish boyfriend and hipster friendly get-up to prove it! Fortunately, it’s Halloween and she lives in a small town that eats up that holiday. So, this should at least be a bright day in her moody, little life.

Well, not so much. Things hit an early sour note when she discovers that she’s pregnant and then get even worse when she’s stuck home alone on the big night after he boyfriend doesn’t pick her up for their party. Yeesh, that’s bad times. Not horror movie bad times, but still pretty bad.

Then the genre material kicks in. Rose’s home starts getting visits from a gang of creepy little trick or treaters. They’re just silently demanding at first, then they start to taunt in their creepy little voices, and then the little buggers get violent. So, it’s a claustrophobic siege horror tale with a Halloween twist… until those little masked demons start bending reality with some supernatural shenanigans.

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McDonald plays the simple premise fairly straight during the setup, pausing only for moments of dark comedy. The gradually creepy build-up is palpable, and Rose has no problem carrying the weight of the movie on her shoulders as the only character on-screen during the initial spooky business. Sure, it’s pretty boilerplate genre stuff, but with the Halloween setting that feels entirely appropriate.

Then once the movie gets cooking, McDonald gets creative with his color filters and embraces the nightmare surrealism frequently found in European horror. The flick slips into this twisted sensibility simply, yet swiftly. Viewers are lulled in carefully, so that by the time they realize how far down the rabbit hole they’ve traveled, it’s too late. The titular terrors themselves are wonderfully designed, taking classic children’s Halloween costumes, then rotting and perverting them until they feel like monsters; the little suckers will creep right under your skin.

Unfortunately, HELLIONS isn’t a purely sensory cinematic experience and that’s where the house of cards falls apart.  At a certain point in the middle of the nightmare, Robert Patrick pops up as good ol’ Officer Exposition to over-explain everything and mysteriously vanish as quickly as he appears. The way he makes the movie’s subtext about the fear of impending parenthood text kind of spoils it’s power. Then a series of dreams within dreams and shock wake ups roll out, further diluting the movie’s charms until it gets a little irritating.

The main reason there are so many tacked on jump scares and tiresome scenes wallowing in exposition in the latter half of HELLIONS is likely because Pascal Trottier’s screenplay just wasn’t meant to be feature length. Even at a trim 82 minutes HELLIONS feels padded out. You can’t help but wish this thing had been kept to a short, perhaps even as part of a Canadian Halloween anthology picture. Still, at least 50 minutes of flick are well worth watching, striking a nice balance between gentle Halloween holiday horror and surreal psychological nightmares. Hopefully, it won’t be Bruce McDonald’s last stab at the genre, because he clearly has a knack for it. He just needs to find a sturdier foundation for his house of horrors next time.

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About the author
Phil Brown
Phil Brown is a journalist, writer, and wiseacre who rattles his keyboard from somewhere in Toronto. He writes about film and comedy for a variety of websites/publications like Fangoria (duh!), Now Magazine, The Toronto Star, Comics And Gaming Magazine, Toro, Critics Studio, and others. He’s also been known to whip up the occasional comedy sketch or short film. If you feel like being friends, go ahead and find him. He doesn’t bite (much).
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