Horror and surrealism are a natural cinematic marriage. The easiest way to get an audience to accept the unworldly and bizarre elements horror films rely upon is to couch them in atmosphere where reality as the audience knows it is falling apart. This is the approach that noted indie director Bruce McDonald has taken with his latest film, Hellions. This offbeat effort suggests an earnest indie drama about a teenage girl that gets taken over by the sturm and drang of a particularly surreal horror story. The results are often compelling but they ultimately push the surrealistic style so far that it overwhelms the narrative substance.
The heroine in Hellions is Dora (Chloe Rose), a likeable if typically surly teen whose world is rocked when her doctor (Rossif Sutherland) tells her that she is pregnant. She is grappling with how to handle this unwanted surprise as Halloween night approaches – and she suddenly finds herself trapped in her home by mischievous, masked children who have more on their mind than just Halloween pranks. In short order, she is fending off attacks from the titular devils as her pregnancy begins to rebel against her body. As things get more unhinged, help arrives in the form of local cop Corman (Robert Patrick) but her situation – and reality itself – might already be too far gone.
Hellions does a good job establishing its heroine and her predicament. However, Pascal Trottier’s script never quite nails its blend of drama, horror and surrealism. The child monsters seem to be a manifestation of Dora’s fear of her pregnancy forcing her to grow up too fast but the script never works out the connection, playing the killer kids as typical movie monsters and getting lost in too many “is this real or a nightmare?” turnabouts. It’s also a little too self-conscious about being a horror story: before the plot’s real horrors kick in, Trottier and McDonald throw in a couple of unnecessary cheap scares that make it seem the heroine is losing her grip too early.
McDonald directs the film in an adventurous way, reveling in the surreal setpieces and the opportunity to turn the film’s familiar rural setting into a nightmare wasteland via some unusual pink/purple color timing. However, once he gets past the first act, the horror theatrics override the characterizations completely: for example, Patrick seems game for both the horror and surrealism beats but is never given much to do beyond fulfill the script’s funhouse twists. The surrealism starts to spiral out of control near the end: a scene where Dora runs through a field of exploding pumpkins might have you questioning whether or not the moment is supposed to be funny.
In short, Hellions is an experiment in surreal horror that doesn’t fully work. The best nightmares have their own internal logic and that logic is too hard to parse in this film.
Blu-Ray Notes: Scream Factory just released this title on blu-ray as part of its partnership with IFC Midnight. The transfer does well with the film’s artsy color scheme and dimly-lit interiors and the 5.1 lossless mix makes the most of the film’s creepy, rock-tinged score. The one extra is a trailer.