|28. The Masque of the Red Death (1964)|
Nothing screams 80’s horror quite like a slasher film. I’ve covered a few slasher this October already, but none of them are quite like Hack-o-Lantern. To begin, a young boy named Tommy witnesses his father’s murder on Halloween night after he discovers his stepfather leading a satanic cult. Years later, Tommy has grown into a young man and his grandfather (affectionately and solely referred to as “Grandpa”) has taken a special interest in him, much to his mother’s dismay. As the small town prepares for its annual Halloween bash, bodies begin to pile up, and Grandpa’s cult is gathering once more to worship Satan.
Merely describing this film’s plot on a surface level does not convey its strengths, however. As is, it sounds like a somewhat hokey affair with a welcome seasonal streak. Proper 80’s cheese. Hack-o-Lantern is no ordinary block of cheese though. Through a combination of bad direction, repetitive dialogue, and perfect casting, this movie emerges as one of the premier “so-bad-it’s-good” horror movies of the 1980’s. Of the film’s many memorable aspects, none stand above Hy Pyke’s performance as Grandpa. Pyke briefly appeared in Blade Runner (1982) as Taffey Lewis, but had a larger role in the blaxploitation cult classic Dolemite (1975) as the corrupt Mayor Daley. Here, Pyke is the star of the show as a pervy grandfather who leads a Satanic cult. It’s rare for a scene to go by without Pyke flashing the sign of the horns with one or both hands. If something can be picked up with those two fingers, that’s how he picks it up. He’s committed to the bit, so much so that Hy Pyke’s co-stars began to suspect he was actually getting into Satanic practices. Wonder if he ever held a legit ritual in the barn after production wrapped for the day…
Not to be overshadowed by Hy Pyke’s eccentric and creepy performance, Gregory Scott Cummins plays Tommy like a maniac. The character is supposed to be 18, but like every other teen character in the movie, the actor is over a decade older than his character. He’s written like a moody teenager though, which results in some unintentional hilarity. However, it’s Tommy’s introductory scene that sets the bar for the film’s acting. After exchanging the sign of the horns with Hy Pyke, Tommy dramatically turns towards the camera and slowly removes his sunglasses. The music crescendos. In that moment when he’s staring directly into the camera, you will have an epiphany. This is peak cinema, the triumph of man’s artistic endeavors.
Other characters can’t hope to compete with the brilliance of Tommy and Grandpa, but occasionally they have their moments. Tommy’s brother Roger (Jeff Brown) is a real model police officer, nearly blowing away some trick-or-treaters in a graveyard before having sex with his new girlfriend Beth (Patricia Christie) while on duty. And when I say new, I mean they met on Halloween morning. That new. He quickly becomes all Beth talks about in every one of her scenes. Vera (Carla B.) doesn’t seem to mind though, nor does she mind Beth intruding on her naked in the bath and scaring her with a spider. That’s what girls do, I guess, I don’t know. The only thing bringing this party down is the sentient wet blanket named Amanda (Katina Garner). She’s always there to remind Vera, Roger, and Tommy the importance of family and staying together. And if she isn’t there to say it, then she’ll stare disapprovingly from afar.
Now onto the slashing in this film. While there is indeed slashing, it’s perpetually second on the film’s agenda. Who needs hacking of lanterns when we have an out-of-nowhere music video with Tommy horribly miming guitar chords and a six-armed demon woman shooting lasers from her eyes? The movie takes these detours into bizarre and random territory with increasing frequency as it goes on. Interspersed are a few kills, which to the film’s credit, are bloody and better executed than just about anything else. However, if all you’re looking for is a high body count, this film doesn’t have it. Instead, you can watch a snake dancer perform her routine in front of a bunch of extras who were clearly unprepared for how close this woman would get. One guy legit takes a full step backwards when the snake’s head gets too close for comfort. Most convincing performance in the entire movie by far.
It’s difficult to call Hack-o-Lantern a truly good movie, but it’s not without merit either. The aforementioned slashing is decent, but the production design from Thomas Atcheson is a colorful and seasonal backdrop for all the plot’s Satanic goings-on. There are pumpkins and tacky Halloween decorations galore. The little plastic skeleton Hy Pyke gives boy Tommy at the beginning actually looks identical to a skeleton decoration I had as a kid. I’d hang it on my door every October, and I think I still have it somewhere. I don’t believe either of my grandpas were leaders of Satanic cults though, so that’s where the parallels end, fortunately. Anyway, these details in the production design are part of what I love about the season. It’s tacky, but in a good way. Stephen Ashley Blake does a fine job photographing the film. There are some great shots, and the Halloween party is lit in that colorful way so many 80’s films seemed to be. Complimenting the visuals is a synth-driven score by Gregory T. Haggard. The organ tones and melodramatic cues wouldn’t work in a lot of other films, but it fits Hack-o-Lantern’s off-kilter seasonal vibe perfectly.
Hack-o-Lantern is often overlooked in the conversation about best-worst movies, and unjustly so in this reviewer’s humble opinion. When it comes to Halloween-themed horror, this movie is among the elite bad films, but it’s not all-bad either. Put more simply, it’s bad in the right places. Over-the-top performances and random but brief cutaways that go nowhere in particular combined with competent cinematography, slashing, and a spooky organ-heavy score make for a real holiday treat best watched with a group of friends.