Monday, February 10, 2020

“It Ain’t Halloween If You Can’t Scare a Few Kids Once in a While” - Jack-O (1995) - Film #172

Let’s turn to one of the finest of the many classic films set on Halloween. I am speaking, of course, about 1995’s Jack-O, a demonic revenge tale which features literally seconds of footage of the great John Carradine and Cameron Mitchell.

Reviewer nixshows writes, “ It's straight up bottom-of-the-barrel Z-grade. The acting is the worst ever on film.” Reviewer RikFlash writes, “ This movie is just plane lame...this is straight garbage.” And the esteemed reviewer metalrage666 writes, “ The whole movie is contrived, I've seen better and more believable effects in movies made in the 50's, the dialogue seems forced and the acting is non- existent.”

Read on for a more realistic assessment of Steve Latshaw’s Jack-O...

The film begins in the forest at night, as a man helps his son, Sean, carve a jack-o-lantern in front of a campfire. (Sean is played by Ryan Latshaw, son of the director, Steve Latshaw.) The man recites the traditional poem: “Mr. Jack will break your back, cut of your head with a whack, whack, whack.” He follows this verse with another poem: “The Pumpkin Man will steal your soul, snap it up and swallow it whole. Then just as quick, before you die, the Pumpkin Man will steal your eyes.”

A woman approaches the campfire and stands silently, watching.

The man begins to tell a story about a wizard who lived in town and was hung for murder, but not before invoking a monster named Jack-O, Mr. Jack, and/or the Pumpkin Man.

The filmmakers flash back to unspecified antiquity, where another boy named Sean runs home from his farm work to say goodbye to his father, Arthur, who is preparing to confront the hanged wizard, who apparently has returned from the dead. Arthur keeps a framed photo of John Carradine in a nice (though perhaps modern) suit—Mr. Carradine plays the evil wizard, and Arthur keeps his photo around to be reminded of his enemy.

Arthur picks up a giant cross and walks away.

The film cuts back to the present day, as Sean awakens in his bedroom at night. Lightning flashes outside his bedroom window. He peers through the blinds and sees something moving. “Pumpkin Man,” he says. Then he sits up in bed casually, perhaps an indication that he dreamed of the Pumpkin Man.

The next day, Sean walks home from school with his friends Robbie and Sarah. Not only does Robbie mention the Pumpkin Man, but he also believes there is a witch in town—a woman whose car drives up as they are speaking. The “witch,” Vivian, breaks up a fight between Robbie and Sean, then walks him home.

Interestingly, Sean and his family appear to be obsessed with Halloween, setting up a haunted house called “The Haunted Garage” in their own house.

As Vivian speaks with Sean’s mother and father, Sean has a vision of John Carradine sitting in a forest. In his vision, Sean runs away, only to discover he is in the past, where the story of Arthur continues. Sean sees two ghosts as well as the demonic Jack-O, who frighteningly has a plastic pumpkin for a head.

Sean wakes up in his house. His mother hugs him awkwardly and appears concerned about him, though her facial expression throughout the film appears to be one of stark terror.

At night, three slack-jawed young hoodlums drive to the edge of the forest. They climb out of their pickup truck to look for an abandoned cemetery in the woods, though they never give any justification for this activity. Eventually, they find the graves of the Kelly family (who all died in 1915), where they sit and drink beer.

Back at Sean’s house, he and his father watch TV horror host Dr. Cadaver, played by the great Cameron Mitchell, though they turn off the TV right after the intro so they can check on the haunted house they are setting up in the garage, the admission fee to which will be donated to the local homeless shelter. The filmmakers also include a series of shots to explain the complicated situation for tomorrow, Halloween night: Sean will need a babysitter while his parents run the haunted house in the garage, and the regular sitter Carolyn (played by Linnea Quigley, taking care of her obligatory shower scene near the beginning of the film) will have to be replaced at some point by her less responsible sister Julie because Carolyn must attend a party.

Eventually, the hoodlums at the graveyard discover a scythe and remove a cross that has been planted in the ground. One or both of these actions appears to cause trouble, as lightning starts flashing and Sean has another dream, this one about Mr. Jack attacking his ancestor, Arthur Kelly, and the evil old wizard (played by a hooded John Carradine in closeup and a hooded someone else in long shots) sitting in a robe and sentencing Sean’s parents to death.

Also, Mr. Jack rises out of the ground.

After Mr. Jack kills the hoodlums, Sean wakes up. At the same time, Vivian walks through the forest and finds the hoodlums’ bodies.

The next day, Ms. Quigley arrives to begin babysitting Sean at the same time as her sister Julie arrives to also babysit Sean. Ms. Quigley tells Sean’s father, “You’re like a little boy about all this scary stuff.”

He replies, “I guess it keeps me young.”

She replies flirtatiously (and, needless to say, creepily), “I like little boys.”

To further complicate matters, Vivian arrives at Sean’s house, where she shows him a book with John Carradine’s photo. She tells Sean the wizard’s name, and later explains more of the film’s backstory: “Walter Machen was accused of sorcery. He was linked to the disappearance of many innocent townsfolk. Eighty-one years ago this night, Arthur and Daniel Kelly led the mob that lynched Walter Machen.”

“That’s terrible,” says Sean’s father.

“Before the rope bit into his neck, Walter vowed revenge. He said the streets of Oakmoor Crossing would run red with the blood of the Kelly clan, or anyone connected with them, within one year’s time. According to legend, his prophecy almost came true. Halloween night, 1915: Something came out of the ground and took Machen’s bloody revenge.”

Elsewhere, in an amusing sequence unrelated to the plot, two trick-or-treaters decide to vandalize with toilet paper the house of a conservative couple (introduced watching a comically snobby talk show host who says, “Why should I give my money to the government? They aren’t giving me any of theirs.”) who refused to give them candy. The monster Mr. Jack appears outside the couple’s house, but nothing happens.

Back at Sean’s house, everyone prepares to open the haunted house. Sean’s mother ushers kids into the haunted garage by saying, “I love children! Especially flame broiled!”

The filmmakers then cut to the conservative couple again, as they are victims of another prank by a different group of trick-or-treaters who steal a hubcap. The man investigates outside while his wife makes toast inside. Shockingly, the man is murdered by Mr. Jack’s scythe, which cuts into his stomach; the filmmakers intercut his wife using a knife to butter the toast.

Seconds later, his wife meets her own demise when she grabs the butter knife to ward off Mr. Jack, only to slip on a kitchen rug and jam the knife into the toaster, electrocuting herself.

Back at Sean’s house, Julie ditches her sister to ride on her boyfriend’s motorcycle, leaving Ms. Quigley to babysit Sean by herself. Julie and her boyfriend ride to the woods, where the boyfriend almost immediately ditches Julie, leaving her alone in the forest. In a matter of minutes, however, Julie finds him trying to scare trick-or-treaters by riding his motorcycle toward them. “It ain’t Halloween if you can’t scare a few kids once in a while,” he says profoundly.

Unfortunately for the boyfriend, he is soon scared by Mr. Jack, who beheads him with the scythe. Julie runs toward the road, where she is ostensibly rescued by an on-the-job cable repairman who is quickly dispatched by the pumpkin-headed demon.

The final act of the film occurs when Mr. Jack encounters Sean and Ms. Quigley, who are now trick-or-treating. The demon knocks Ms. Quigley to the ground while Sean runs to the conservative couple’s house, where he discovers the wife’s burnt corpse.

Back at Sean’s house, Vivian explains that her plan was to use Sean as bait to draw Mr. Jack out so she could destroy the monster. Sean, as the descendent of Arthur Kelly, is the only one who can kill the demon. (Vivian does not explain, however, why she allowed Sean to go trick-or-treating.)

In the finale, Sean runs away, followed by Mr. Jack. Vivian realizes they are going to the old Kelly farm, so like any responsible adult she nails pieces of wood together to form crosses while the demon uses his scythe to, rather inefficiently, bury Sean in a shallow grave. As a scythe blade is an impractical tool for moving large amounts of dirt, it takes a long time to put Sean in danger—long enough for Vivian and Sean’s parents to arrive at the makeshift grave.

Vivian attempts to send the demon back to Hell by showing it her necklace, a gambit that unfortunately does not work. Mr. Jack impales Vivian on his scythe and lifts her up as if she is nothing more than a vaguely human-shaped dummy.

After a flashback of questionable provenance (i.e., it is not clear who is experiencing the flashback) in which Arthur Kelly imprisons Mr. Jack in a coffin by plunging wood shaped like a cross into a hole in the coffin, Sean’s parents confront the demon.

At the last minute, Sean climbs out of the grave. “Leave my mom and dad alone!” he cries, grabbing the cross Vivian made and sticking it in the ground. “Come and get me, Pumpkin Man!”

His father tackles Mr. Jack, forcing the demon against the cross and, of course, causing Mr. Jack to explode.

The family returns home as the sun rises. We watch as Julie and Linnea Quigley, who have not been involved in the climactic act at all, emerge from their hiding places. They find Sean and his parents walking home.

Sean asks, “Do I have to go trick-or-treating next year?”

His mother replies, “Not if you don’t want to, honey.”

Thus, the film’s main character has completed his arc, from Halloween-obsessed child to Halloween-hating young adult. The only thing left is to supply a satisfying joke for the end of the film.

“Let’s go get some breakfast,” Sean’s dad says. “I’m buying.”

Ms. Quigley sets up the joke expertly: “I guess I need a sugar fix. I’d like a big slice of pie, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side.”

“What kind of pie, Carolyn?” Sean asks, a question that would perhaps be  unnecessary in real life.

Ms. Quigley hits her line out of the park: “Mmm, anything but pumpkin!”

The camera pans to a withered jack-o-lantern suspended for some reason on a stake, and we watch its eyes begin to burn red.

The End

Little can be said about Jack-O that has not already been said. I can only add that the film is a marvel of what some in your universe call “bang for your buck.” Not only does the film feature a young man threatened by supernatural forces, but there is a massive cast of characters surrounding him to provide realism. He has his father and mother at home, of course, but also Vivian, the distant relative of the evil magician who unleashed the curse of Jack-O, or Mr. Jack, or Pumpkin Man. He also has not one but two babysitters, along with the boyfriend of one of them, not to mention the occasional appearance of John Carradine and the appearance of Cameron Mitchell as the classic horror host character Dr. Cadaver in not one but two shots! The viewer is left almost breathless following this quirky collection of characters, their interactions and plot threads. Everything is brought together (except for Mr. Carradine, Mr. Mitchell, and Ms. Quigley and that other babysitter) at the end for a satisfying conclusion, all thanks to writers Patrick Moran, Fred Olen Ray, and Brad Lineweaver.