Monday, June 28, 2021

"Ever Made It on a Grave?" - Hack-O-Lantern (1988) - Film #207

We have already explored Open House (1987) and The Jigsaw Murders (1989), so it is time to immerse ourselves in another of Jag Mundhra's finest films, 1988's Hack-O-Lantern, aka Halloween Night. Full of cult rituals and slasher murders (though, surprisingly, mostly free of jack-o-lanterns), Hack-O-Lantern fits comfortably and entertainingly in the tradition of late-1980s slasher films.

Some of your universe's critics are not as positive as they are required to be. For instance, reviewer LuisitoJoaquinGonzalez writes (in a sentence I confess I fail to understand fully), "What started as an engaging synopsis ended as a nonsensical mishap and the lack of any originality or flair for the macabre defined the movie to the ever growing video graveyard." Reviewer gwnightscream describes the film as an "80's horror/slasher flick with shoddy dialogue and cheesy acting." And reviewer yourmotheratemydog715 writes, "It feels super padded, even at 90 minutes, what with random five-minute glam metal dream sequences and a head-scratching, unfunny stand-up comedy routine that grinds all the Satanic action to a halt."

Read on for the truth about Jag Mundhra's classic Hack-O-Lantern...

In an idyllic farmland setting, a pickup loaded with pumpkins pulls up to a quaint farmhouse, where a young boy named Tommy runs out to see his grandfather, the pumpkin truck driver. His grandfather says he has something for Tommy, who says, “Something for me? Because I’m special?”

The grandfather, whose demeanor is not something one would call wholesome, tells Tommy he’s very, very special, hands him something we don’t see, hands him a pumpkin, and then drives away. Tommy goes to the backyard and starts to carve the pumpkin on the porch while throwing pumpkin guts at his little sister, who is also tormented by another brother. After a moment, Tommy cuts himself with the carving knife and his mother says he needs to wash the wound. “But, Mom, I like the taste of blood,” he says. “Grandpa says it’s good for me.”

When Tommy’s mother realizes his grandfather (her father) gave him the pumpkin, she smashes it. Her husband, also angry, decides to drive to Grandpa’s house to confront him, even though it is Halloween night. At Grandpa’s barn, Tommy’s father finds a Satanic ritual taking place. Grandpa tells him, “Tommy was never yours. He belongs to something greater than you could ever imagine.” Then one of the Satanist kills Tommy’s father with a hammer and, to make matters worse, Grandpa burns the poor man’s body in his car, after saying, “Burn in hell, Bill!” (Though the fire never actually touches the car, we are meant to infer it catches fire.)

Tommy finally opens the gift Grandpa gave him, a gold necklace with a Satanic pendant. The film dissolves to a later time. The twenty-something Tommy still has the pendant and still lives in the same house. Grandpa arrives with a pickup full of pumpkins and tells grown-up Tommy, “Tonight you learn what power is. You will know your own strength.”

Tommy puts on sunglasses and giggles while Grandpa laughs his evil laugh. They also make the “devil’s horns” hand gesture, which looks quite cool and not at all ridiculous.

Grandpa drives away, but after a mile or so he sees his daughter standing in the driveway (despite the fact she was in the house not two minutes previously). “Hello, my lovely offspring,” Grandpa says lecherously.

“My children...they’re mine. They belong to me!”

Grandpa shows her a bone he wears around his neck—a bone that was her husband’s. He also flashes back to his daughter’s wedding night, when he raped her. “The force of nature conquers all,” he says.

As he drives away and a pipe organ plays somewhere, she screams, “It’s not nature! It’s death!”

A little while later, we watch Tommy’s grown-up sister Vera in the bathtub as she is scared by an obviously fake spider, which she bizarrely rubs on her body, thinking it is a sponge.

The prank is committed by Vera’s friend Beth, whose favorite night is Halloween. Meanwhile, Tommy’s mother knocks on the door to Tommy’s bedroom, which is located in the farmhouse basement. She calls, rather musically, “Tommy, can you hear me?”

“Go away, I’m busy.” Tommy, whose room is adorned with a poster of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark  and a poster for Dead End Drive-In, puts a cassette tape into his gigantic Walkman, which allows the filmmakers (perhaps referencing director Jag Mundhra’s Indian origins) to cut to a music video of a heavy metal song called “Devil’s Son” by a band called D.C. La Croix. In the music video, Tommy, as a member of the band, has his throat impaled by a trident.

Later, Tommy’s girlfriend Nora buys a box full of alcohol at the local grocery store, revealing the Satanic tattoo on her backside (of course, this looks quite cool, and not at all ridiculous).

After Tommy returns home, he is visited by his brother Roger, now a sheriff’s deputy. He shows Roger the Satanic shrine in his closet, the candles of which appear to burn perpetually.

Instead of laughing, Roger is shocked by the shrine. “No wonder Mom is so worried you’re spending time with Grandpa.”

Elsewhere, the camera ogles Nora as she swims in her pool and then takes a shower. When she sees a cloaked person in a costume outside, she assumes it is Tommy and lets him inside the house.

Instead of making love to her, the cloaked person kills Nora with a trident-like gardening implement.

In town, the “normal” members of the family, Roger and Vera, work on decorations for the town’s Halloween party while socializing with their love interests, even though Roger the policeman is on duty. This leads to a confrontation back at the family house when Tommy walks in on Vera making out with her boyfriend, who Tommy throws out of the house. Then Tommy goes to his room, throws his devil costume into a duffel bag, and ties a sweatband around his forehead (again, this looks quite cool, and not at all ridiculous).

As Vera’s boyfriend Brian walks home through an expansive cemetery, someone follows him. He trips into an open grave with bare bones lying in the dirt, whereupon he is attacked with a shovel by the cloaked and masked Satanist.

Later, Grandpa holds a ceremony in the barn in which his group inducts a new member into the coven (Grandpa pronounces the word almost like Mr. Mark Borchardt; ironically, Vera’s boyfriend is played by an actor named Larry Coven). The inductee is a young blonde woman wearing a transparent negligee. She is stripped nude, except for some long black gloves, and branded on her buttocks.

Perhaps somewhat improperly, Roger, wearing a nice blue jacket over his police uniform, takes Vera’s friend Beth to the cemetery to check out alleged goings-on. They find a group of children who, for some reason, dropped their candy among the graves. They chase the children away, then engage in witty sexually charged banter. Beth asks, “Ever made it on a grave?”

“No,” Roger replies. “I’ve never considered myself dead meat.”

“Dead or alive, they all rise to my command. I have the power.”

They drop to the dirt of a fresh grave and make out, which involves Beth holding the hand of the corpse not two inches below the dirt. She never discovers she was touching a corpse, however, and they are soon done and riding Roger’s motorcycle away from the cemetery.

Later, the Halloween party in town gets a little wild as a young woman strips naked in front of the band, though this does not cause much commotion. Somewhat oddly, the only reaction to the striptease is a man doing a supposedly impromptu standup routine on the sidewalk outside the party. His routine moves from unoriginal jokes about centerfold models to, incongruously, gags about a turkey escaping before Thanksgiving.

A little later, for no apparent reason, Beth takes Vera back to the cemetery to show Vera where Beth and Vera’s brother had sex. Vera finds the corpse of her own boyfriend under the dirt and begins to cry. “Tommy did this to you because of me,” she concludes. “I’m gonna get him if it’s the last thing I do.”

Vera storms to the barn where the Satanist continue their ceremony. Tommy takes off his devil mask and Grandpa scolds her. “You must pay the price for your sacrilege,” he tells her as the cultists grab her. Outside, Beth hears Vera scream, but she does nothing but pace back and forth near the barn.

Vera is tied to a contraption hanging from the ceiling. Grandpa gives Tommy a ceremonial knife and goads him into spilling his sister’s blood, but at the last minute Tommy slices her ropes and helps her escape. She runs outside while Tommy and everyone else stand awkwardly inside the barn until Grandpa tells Tommy he has no place here, so Tommy walks away.

Meanwhile, Vera and Beth walk casually to the party in town, discussing the film’s twist that Tommy is not actually the masked slasher. They find Roger at the party and tell him Grandpa is the killer (in a nicely cinematic pantomime scene where dialogue is not heard due to the song playing during the party). However, the killer is actually at the party, where he kills a young woman in a dressing room by tightening her corset until she passes out, then knifes her for good measure. When Vera and Beth enter the dressing room, shockingly, the killer murders Beth and Vera finds her body.

Vera runs back to the party, which is breaking up, only to be confronted by Grandpa in the devil costume—only to be defended by another person in the same devil costume. The two similarly costumed individuals enact a scene out of a swashbuckler movie, fighting up a staircase, until Grandpa falls to the floor, fatally pierced by a pitchfork.

When Roger kneels over Grandpa’s body, Grandpa grabs his face and then dies, after which Roger chases the devil-masked killer outside. Roger shoots the killer, who stumbles through the cemetery and back to the family farm, falling to the ground and pulling off the mask to reveal the killer was the Vera, Roger, and Tommy’s mother!

She finds her husband’s grave. Tommy finds her and tells her he loves her as she dies in his arms. He crosses himself in the Catholic manner.

In a shocking coda, we see another Satanic ceremony inside the barn, only now instead of Grandpa it is Roger who reveals himself to be the cult leader, taking over from his grandfather and continuing the family tradition...of evil.

One of Hack-O-Lantern's brightest innovations is the identify of the killer. The reveal at the end must have kept 1988 audiences up at night theorizing about opportunity and motivation, though it is clear now that the killer could only have been the mother because the victims were all the romantic interests of her children. The fact that she never verbalizes any reason to kill her children's romantic interests, even at the end of the film as she lies dying, is perhaps the film's greatest strength. Audiences are meant to discuss a slasher film like this, even as they gain awareness that the film's mysteries are never going to be solved.

Interestingly, another mystery raised by the film is the prominent billing of character actor Hy Pyke, who plays Grandpa in a memorably outrageous, unsubtle manner. I confess I was not familiar with the name when I watched the film, but after further research I have discovered he played the bus driver in the fascinating Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural (1973), as well as the mayor in Dolemite (1975) and roles in Spawn of the Slithis (1978) and Blade Runner (1982). Mr. Pyke is a notable presence in Hack-O-Lantern and his broad performance is one of the highlights of the film. Sadly, Mr. Pyke passed away in 2006, but his performance in this film is a good excuse to look up his other works with which I am unfortunately unfamiliar. 

This might be the final Jag Mundhra film reviewed here at Senseless Cinema; though he made many films in the United States and India after the late 1980s, their titles sound less than promising (e.g., Wild Cactus, Tropical Heat, Shades of Gray, Private Moments). If any of his later films are unheralded classics, please let me know and I will seek them out. Otherwise, I will most likely concentrate on the masterpieces of other acknowledged cinematic geniuses such as Bruno Mattei, John Hayes, Andy Milligan, etc. (i.e., the best of the best).