Sundance Review: Hellions, a Halloween Fever Dream


Is there a tendency to dismiss contemporary horror films we would’ve loved in the 70s or 80s? As if we know better now? As if their age and the era is the only charm? I certainly hope not, but am afraid so. Bruce McDonald, veteran filmmaker and director behind one of our age’s few, truly interesting zombie films (Pontypool) has returned to the genre with Hellions, a visually stunning movie cut from the same Euro cloth as the illogical, fever dream works of Fulci and more. Its muted reception at Sundance then is both unfortunate and yet all too believable. 

Hellions is a mad Halloween movie, imbued so fully with the frightening folk spirit that McDonald and cinematographer Norayr Kasper lensed much of the film in infrared, its red/orange tint glowing beautifully off the screen. In the film, Dora (Chloe Rose) is a sweet, if rebellious teenager that calls the ‘pumpkin capital of the world’ home. Her town is an All Hallow’s habitat and McDonald and Kasper confidently shoot it wide in big, striking tableaus that only grow eerier as the film proceeds. After an autumnal hang with her boyfriend, Dora gets some shocking news: she’s pregnant. Entirely unready for this tremendous a life change, Dora reconfigures her plans for the evening, sitting at home in an angel costume and indulging in child carrying cravings.

Soon, the trick-or-treater announcing doorbells turn sinister. The film is like one of those inherently creepy images of Halloween in the 1920s come-to-life. Small, childlike forms, draped in dresses and overalls, and adorned with unsettling masks locked in benevolent expression, terrorize Dora. They whisper in her head. They want her baby. These demonic little things invade her home and force this angel out into the red night.

It’s enchanting. The look of McDonald’s film, unlike much anything else, takes the wheel from its comparatively simple setup and pushes Hellions into a dreamy ultra-style. Just as Dora is delivered the news of her pregnancy, she’s told there’s still time for options, and so the film externalizes her dilemma in bold, nightmarish form. The middle ground of Halloween, in which the living and dead and supernatural co-exist, parallels her own between adulthood and adolescence, between keeping a baby or not.

This theme is there, but Hellions is a sensory experience. The Hellions themselves are Dora’s self-doubt, vicious inner critique, and McDonald lets them do their thing, warping and upending Dora’s headspace and our own perception of dream and reality (but movies are a dream, so what does it matter). A field of pumpkins explodes; an infant mutates; bodies melt; and the Hellions overrun those still tableaus to make for devilish portraits. At one point, Robert Patrick, essaying a protective sheriff, impossibly encounters the entrance to his home in the middle of the woods. These images hang in your head, like the wicked, childish song sung by the creatures. It’s awesome.


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