3 out of 5

Directed by: Jag Mundhra

I think if you asked me to craft a horror film that was, approximately, “80s as fuck,” it would end up looking like Hack-O-Lantern. Residual slasher influences; Satanic panic; hair metal; includes a music video; has lots of cheesecake, not-set-in-reality nudity – like, sure, my girlfriends and I love to sneak in and surprise one another during bubble baths! – and graveyard sex on a first date. Check, check, check, and check, and just in case we’re short, let’s allow someone to do a full standup routine in the middle of the movie as well.

Hack-O-Lantern hovers somewhere in that midrange of not-good / not-bad fluff horror, but it’s very entertaining, and sticks to its silly guns throughout, not balking when Satan’s son Tommy is the badass grownup, living in his mother’s basement, listening to his walkman and lifting weights, or when grandpa Satan-worshipper shows his preference for wearing his cowboy flannels underneath his cult robes. And as Brian Cronin points out in his review, Hack-O-Lantern is testament to something that was more often truer than not with this era of on-film B-flicks: there has to be some level of skill behind these things that shot-on-digital doesn’t necessarily demand, and that seems to lend itself to surprising little touches here and there that bump HOL above a cash-in baseline, like a squibwork and some stunt choreography that really wasn’t required to just film some boobs and blood.

The plot also, like, exists. It’s dumb, and not deep, but it’s there, and it worked in a guess-the-killer angle unexpectedly; I mean, you have a cult which is already clearly shown murdering people right at the start, so totally not necessary, but there ya go. That’s again where HOL’s dedication to its shtick is appreciated – the reveal may be obvious, but we stick to it anyway.

We start with mom (Katina Garner) and dad and three kids on Halloween, and the wily ol’ Grandpa (Hy Pyke) drives up and gives young Tommy a present of a pentagram, promising him big things are to come. Dad’s had enough of gramps being creepy, and so drives out to the old man’s Satan-worshipping-cult barn, and done gets himself killed. Flash forward 13 years, and Tommy (Gregory Scott Cummins) is, visually, 30 something years old (but we’ll assume he’s… 21? He’s the older brother of the three, and the girl is at least 18), and he’s now grown into the rebel rebel pose that gifted pentagram, hanging out with his girlfriend and a’drinkin’ and listening to heavy metal in his mom’s basement, with cool ass rock posters on the wall. Don’t mess with Tommy! Cummins is great at affecting a scowl, just as Pyke goes whole-horse with saying menacing things to people and throwing up devil’s horns at every opportunity. It’s now time for Tommy to take his throne as something-or-other important to Satanists, and meanwhile, brother and sister are hanging out at the yearly Halloween pageant (at which there’s a stripper, so invite the whole family) and there’s someone in a mask wandering around and stabbing people. While Tommy owns that same mask, and has his grudges against the people who are offed, the timing doesn’t match up… so who could it be? And thus our slasher / cult blend.

While watching the Hatchet movies recently, I groused on what I felt was the “improper” use of nudity in that flick. I still don’t know if I can exactly classify when it bothers me and it doesn’t, but Hack-O-Lantern’s frequent boobage doesn’t. I’m thinking it’s something related to the tone of how it’s handled. When such stuff is overly sexualized – ogling beyond a necessary point; shot from a grossly peeping or rapey perspective – it doesn’t sit well with me. HOL’s tone is very otherworldly, though; these are not real people or a real situation, and so the aforementioned scenarios – popping in on your friend’s bath; having a stripper at a community part – are “normal” in that reality, and so there’s no need to linger. We hang around just long enough to get our cheesecake and then it’s back to the movie. It feels harmless. Though there’s a deeper discussion here on the movie system that probably required such stuff to make a buck, at a shallow level, it works for me within the context of the movie.

And that’s a lot of words about Hack-O-Lantern.

Despite some of the oddities I’m describing above, it’s not necessarily strange enough to make it a must see classic, but it’s a fun horror flick that one would assume to be a knock-off of a handful of things, but ends up emerging as its own thing, maintaining enough story beats, kills, and kookiness throughout its runtime to never bore.