Pontypool, the popular indie that gained something of a cult status after it played at Toronto in 2008, is one of a rare breed of smart, interesting horror films. It wasn’t particularly scary, nor did it really intend to be, but it was sensory and it used sound and imagery within its single location to intelligently subvert horror tropes. It was also kind of weird and that was totally fine, especially in a genre that so often mistakes body count for imagination.
Hellions, the latest horror flick by Pontypool director Bruce McDonald, at first seems a little less weird. McDonald ostensibly goes back to basics with a premise that is about as generic horror as it gets. We follow the recently impregnated, angsty teenager Dora (Chloe Rose) as her home is invaded by mask-wearing murderous children on Halloween. McDonald also covers some pretty familiar thematic turf: we’re constantly reminded of the inane horrors of teen promiscuity as pregnant, paedophobic Dora is tortured by god-forsaken children.
Then suddenly, quite early on, there’s a tone shift in the film. While we’re initially led to believe that McDonald is going for the slow build, creepy home invasion angle, things turn spontaneously supernatural – bright lights peer in from the windows, clocks spin unendingly as a violent wind drives through the house, and a pink filter seizes the screen. These decisions are largely aesthetic, and the plot trudges on in quite an underwhelming fashion, but the film still quite fundamentally changes – and largely for the better.
Just how visually interesting this film is shouldn’t be understated. Bookended by terrifyingly mundane shots inside a hospital, Hellions otherwise spends its time around a suburban house which we are led to explore in depth. When things get dangerous, McDonald dips the film in a pink filter and then later a bloody red filter, making for some impressive silhouette shots. More and more of these creepy kids appear as the film goes on, and when Dora ends up outside the house in an open field covered with chanting demon-toddlers, Hellions is at its best.
But is it scary? Occasionally. Hellions largely gets by being haunting – which is like scary’s morose little brother. Unfortunately, when horror films are so reflective (is any of this even real?) and metaphoric (maybe this is what teen pregnancy is like?) the scare aspect is often sidelined, and that definitely happens a few times here, but it still has its moments. When Dora’s therapist/obstetrician comes to her rescue, for instance, your inner horror aficionado will tremble in the knowledge that it never ends well for the white knight.
Chloe Rose, who plays Dora, definitely had her work cut out for her as she’s on screen almost 100 per cent of the film and she does a good job. Her character is at her best when she’s anguished – her short-lived fight back (which involves a shotgun and some bath salt) feels corny and out of place. Nonetheless, she grounds the film, even at its most surreal. Robert Patrick also rocks up, playing a ludicrously calm Halloween-hating cop who is basically there to remind us not to take anything too seriously.1
It’s likely a lot of horror puritans will take aim at its shift to the supernatural as Hellion’s undoing. I’d argue the opposite. Sure it departs from The Strangers-esque trajectory it opens with, but the set up was a fake out; McDonald doesn’t want you to have fun, he wants you to be about as uncomfortable as Dora is and, for the most part, he succeeds.
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