When I hear that a character or story has been spun off from a horror anthology, I love the idea! Especially since the wildly entertaining and creepy-as-fuck SIREN was extracted from the first film in the V/H/S franchise. Looking forward to more of that kind of thing, when I heard that Dread Central Presents was about to screen the movie TERRIFIER under their banner, I thought it might be best to go back and take a peek at the movie that spawned it, writer/director DAMIEN LEONE’S ALL HALLOWS’ EVE.
Now, upon its initial release (this came out in 2013), the reviews from people whose opinions I respect, were extremely mixed, to say the least. Not to mention with some pretty stiff competition out there from other like-minded anthologies, like Michael Dougherty’s acclaimed cult favorite, TRICK ‘R’ TREAT, TALES OF HALLOWEEN, SOUTHBOUND, A CHRISTMAS HORROR STORY and the aforementioned V/H/S franchise, I figured that there was no way that ALL HALLOWS’ could possibly measure up, and so I put it on the back burner for a while. Dread Central, I have to thank you for focusing my attention on it again, because it was MUCH better than I expected!
What Leone has pulled off here is the kind of bait-and-switch surprise that I love, and it’s always better than even the most well-placed jump scare. A couple of friends who started this up said that they got bored before it was halfway through, and just decided to turn it off. Sad for them, because the big payoff and all the rewards come from the final story and the wraparound tale’s jaw-dropping conclusion.
The wraparound’s set-up is a standard that’s been used and reused going as far back as John Carpenter’s seminal classic, HALLOWEEN, and probably even further. Babysitter Sarah (the likeable KATIE MAGUIRE, who reminds me of a younger Carrie Fisher) is getting her charges settled in. Timmy (COLE MATTHEWSON) and his sister, Tia (SYDNEY FREIHOFER) are going over their trick-or-treat loot, and of course watching everyone’s public domain favorite, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, when something tumbles out of Timmy’s treat bag: a VHS cassette tape. Kind of retro for someone to give, and potentially sick, since there’s no telling what the hell could be on it. Sarah immediately rules that they’re not going to watch it, but when there’s bribery afoot (the kids promise her she won’t have to carve a pumpkin if they can watch), she can’t help but take the bait, and so they pop it into the player.
It’s a pretty brilliant conceit, even if it is kind of a ‘borrow’ from V/H/S, and even a bit from Lynch’s LOST HIGHWAY: a strange tape with something mysterious on it, that people are compelled to watch. And the first story is just as standard in the horror playbook as the wraparound is: a lone young woman, waiting at a train station on Halloween night for her ride, at first is approached by a drunk couple in costume, and the woman asks her for a cigarette. It’s a nice set-up, because when the couple leaves, the next ‘person’ she sees is the most fucked-up clown this side of Pennywise, “Art The Clown” (a truly disturbing turn by MIKE GIANNELLI, made all the more so by Leone’s amazing practical makeup.)
As the lynchpin of all three stories, we soon learn that when Art shows up, you’re truly fucked. When Art’s advances towards the woman go from Halloween-creepy to terrifying, she tries to get away, but he drugs her before she can escape. When she finally wakes up, she discovers she’s been chained up with two other women, in some dark, cavernous corridor that sounds like it’s beneath the train station. That would be bad enough, but the true horror is when they discover who’s really responsible for their captivity and what they want them for. (Here’s a surprise hint: Art has very little to do with this one besides helping kidnap them.)
I could kind of see why others may have turned it off after the first story. The makeups you see in this one, all by Leone, I take it, range from pretty impressive for a low-budget, to downright cheesy on a “Party City” level. There’s even one “hero” makeup toward the end that wouldn’t have looked out of place at all on the original OUTER LIMITS series. (In fact, it may have borrowed from it more than just slightly.) Plus, the climax is more of a horrific sketch blackout than a solid, ‘WTF-did-I-just-see???’ ending.
This would not have been the time to bail, especially after Sarah overrules the kids and definitely sends them to bed, after the nastiness of Story One. There’s some business about both Timmy and Tia hearing noises in their rooms, but more on that later.
Armed with a glass of wine and curiosity about what else could be on the tape, Sarah decides to keep going after she’s sure the kids are in bed asleep. And the second tale unfolds with Caroline (CATHERINE CALLAHAN), another woman alone, this one out in her new house in the boondocks that she shares with her artist hubby. She’s telling her bestie on the phone about the raptures of “countryfied living”, but also about a very disturbing painting that her mate’s been working on – and doesn’t even remember painting! The image apparently creeps her out so much, that she’s tossed a sheet over it, and can’t even bear to be in the same room with it.
But it’s when Caroline hangs up with her friend, that the major weirdness begins. The power goes out, a bright flash nearby lights up the countryside…you know where this is going, right? I might as well say it…ALIENS. And yes, the BEM-kind, (as in “Bug-Eyed-Monster”). Again, Leone’s design is as goofy and cheap as anything you’d find in an Allied Artists or AIP movie from the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, and again, it’s completely intentional. Even as the alien attempts to drag poor Caroline off, kicking and screaming, it all seems pretty hokey….until in the struggle, she pulls the sheet off of the mysterious canvas…now where have we seen THAT face before?
So once again, “Art” has made his creepy presence known in yet another story, and once again, Sarah turns it off. When she thinks she hears the kids messing around when they’re supposed to be in bed, she goes to check on them again. She gets a red flag from Timmy, when he accuses HER of being a “helicopter babysitter”, checking up on them one too many times and making noises outside the door. Which should have been the tip-off for things to come, but nope…Sarah has now become just a bit too preoccupied with that damn mystery tape. Not so good for her…but EXCELLENT for us!
Which now leads to the final story, and this is where you get your first ‘reward’ for having stuck around through the first two. In the final “woman-alone-on-Halloween” tale, MARIE MASER plays a costume designer whose name we never learn. She’s on her way home from a movie shoot, stopping for gas. At the station, she arrives just in time to see – who else but Art The Clown? – being cussed out by the station attendant (MICHAEL CHMIEL) for doing something typically “Art-fully” nasty. When the clown finally goes full-frontal homicidal, with her as the lone witness, the chase begins.
What I love most about this episode is the use of the scratchy, old-style worn look Leone uses here through the entire segment. A lot of filmmakers slap this onto just about anything and brand it “retro”, which is always ridiculous. Grindhouse films shown at drive-ins and rundown movie palaces had a certain look and feel to them besides the grainy imperfections, and this one, from the close-ups to the washed-out look, feels like you COULD have seen this at any drive-in back in the Seventies. The cellphone used by the heroine is anachronistic in that sense, but this is still the strongest story of the three…especially the ending, which moves into extreme gore territory without missing a beat.
Which brings us to the finale. My biggest complaint about too many horror anthologies is that they always seem to have one or two really good stories, and a few mediocre ones; but then everything is thrown together with a weak wraparound story, that seems as if it were made up right there on the film set, just so the director could put a quick coda on for a lazy but speedy wrap-up.
Not here. Even if Leone has never seen WHEN A STRANGER CALLS, or wasn’t a particular fan of it, he refers back to it in a pretty devastating way that comes at you from left field. Not to mention how he leaves us with implications that Art The Clown isn’t your everyday, average psycho-in-a-Gacy-esque get up, but he might be an entity more powerful – and malicious – than any clown who has scared you before. (Sorry, Twisty and Pennywise).
In the hopes that TERRIFIER will up the ante on Art’s antics, for the great performances by both Maguire and Giannelli, and for the genuinely clever and creepy-as-hell “grace note” that Leone ends this with, ALL HALLOWS’ EVE scores a very solid three-and-a-half out of five stars.