Color, 1988, 87 mins. 51 secs.
Directed by Jag Mundhra
Starring Hy Pyke, Gregory Scott Cummins, Katina Garner, Carla Baron, Jeff Brown, Michael Potts, Larry Coven
Massacre Video (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
It's a holiday slasher! An occult shocker! A T&A-filled family melodrama! Yes, you get all of these things and much more in Hack-o-Lantern, a lovably bizarre story of a devil-worshiping sect in the American heartland and the perplexing, bloody havoc it wreaks on one family over the years. A longtime collector's item and baffling obscurity on VHS for decades, it's finally been given the deluxe treatment so even more unsuspecting viewers can join its well-deserved cult following.
While out in a neighboring field on the afternoon of Halloween, little Tommy runs into his creepy black sheep grandfather (Pyke), who hands him a pumpkin and a sinister occult amulet. Tommy's mom (Roller Blade's Garner) is outraged and smashes the pumpkin, cutting Tommy's finger in the process. "I like the taste of blood!" Tommy explains, which doesn't go over well. An excursion to find grandpa in a nearby barn leads to the discovery of some hooded satanists under his control, a group to which Tommy is destined to be initiated ("He belongs to something greater than you cover ever imagine!"). A little bloodshed and a decade or so later, Tommy (Cummins) has grown up to be grandpa's second in satanic command and developed really, really terrible taste in clothes. As another Halloween approaches, it's time for Tommy to prove himself to his creator, with his grandfather (who has a very creepy, rapey relationship with his daughter) determined to turn his grandson (or maybe son... ew) into the next cult leader.
Ordered to remain "pure" until the big event, Tommy decides to vent his pent-up energy by dressing up like Rambo and exercising in front of a Dead End Drive-In and Season of the Witch posters or slipping on his Walkman and fantasizing himself as a guitarist in the heavy metal band DC Lacroix for a jaw-dropping music video called "The Devil's Son" complete with fog and lightning, which instantly puts this in the same horror/hair metal category as Trick or Treat and Rock 'n' Roll Nightmare. Tommy's little brother, Roger (Brown), works in the sheriff's office and doesn't seem too thrilled when Tommy shows off his basement closet filled with devil worshiping paraphernalia ("Now I know why Mom's so worried about you spending time with Grandpa!"). Then there's Vera (Baron), the young sis of the family, who's so focused on her new unfaithful boyfriend Brian (Coven) that she doesn't seem to notice her grandpa keeps making passes at her. Soon a killer in a devil mask wielding a variety of sharp gardening implements is picking off people connected to the family, threatening to turn this into the bloodiest Halloween night in the town's history.
If that all sounds like a fairly straightforward slasher film, well, bear in mind that this also throws in loads of T&A, outrageously huge hair, women getting pentagrams branded on their butts, a sex scene on an open grave, a rockabilly full frontal burlesque and stand-up comedy Halloween party, and a dueling devil finale complete with two wildly illogical twist endings. In short, it's tons of fun. Late director Jag Mundhra made this as part of his crazed streak of '80s and '90s American productions, just after the VHS slasher staple Open House and followed by The Jigsaw Murders, Night Eyes, and Last Call. The end result has that off-kilter feeling you sometimes get when foreign directors try to capture Midwestern Americana, and it's never quite clear whether the film is supposed to be satirical with everyone blithely underplaying or ignoring the redneck, incest-loving grandfather's blatant Luciferian activities right in front of them. Whatever the original intention was, the final product is wildly entertaining and one of the nuttier holiday viewing choices you can make when it's pumpkin time.
Also released as Halloween Night, The Damning, and Death Mask in some of its video incarnations (many of them unauthorized), Hack-o-Lantern comes to Blu-ray and DVD from Massacre Video with a 2017 dual-format edition that thankfully renders those ridiculously expensive original VHS copies obsolete. The new 2K transfer from the original camera negative looks far better than it ever has before, with no attempts made to pretty it up when things get grainy in the darker scenes. Detail is radically improved and colors are extremely vivid and impressive; in short, anyone who suffered through the videotape edition will be stunned by how good it looks here. Note that this is still a pretty cheap-looking film, and the sometimes plentiful grain doesn't always adapt nicely to frame grabs, as you'll see in a handful of examples here, but it's pretty natural in motion. Audio options include a 2.0 Dolby Digital remastered mix (mainly the music getting some channel separation), the original mono mix in 2.0 Dolby Digital, and an isolated music track. It's worth noting that this film has a less than professional sound mix at times, including a couple of ADR-recorded lines that can't come close to being in sync or, at the 40m17s mark, one line that seems to be gone entirely. Optional English subtitles are also included and have a few eccentricities, such as spelling one major character's name as "Rodger" and a certain famous member of British royalty as "Princess Die." Also included is a new audio commentary with producer Raj Mehrotra and moderator Joe Rubin (with another unnamed moderator pitching in a few times). Definitely not a horror movie fan, Mehrotra chats quite a bit about the director (who wasn't familiar with Halloween and needed writer Carla Robinson to fill him in), the satanic panic going on when this was shot in 1986, the casting of porn star Jeanna Fine in one of the most revealing roles, the multiple title changes (Hack-o-Lantern was the original one, contrary to some reports), and the havoc VHS played with some of the more visually lush moments. The track peters out and goes mostly quiet for the last seven minutes or so (with a few other lengthy dead silent gaps in between), but otherwise it's a good glimpse into the making of an indie film during the golden slasher era.
On the video extras side, "The Power Is in the Blood" (11m24s) features Cummings and Garner in separate interviews about how no one get paid for the shoot mostly in SImi Valley (Cummings just wanted material for a demo reel), the issues of working with a director who couldn't speak English very well, and various dark occurrences on the set that had Cummings believing that Pyke (who also pops up briefly in Blade Runner) might have been a real-life satanist! Even more colorful is a vintage 28m27s public access TV appearance with Mundhra, Garner, and Marya Gant, featuring the most overblown Valentine's Day decorations you've ever seen. Garner's carrying around a sliding trombone, too, and Mundhra shares a story about how he broke a leg and wound up in a wheelchair for much of the shoot. Clips from this film, Star Slammer, Night Eyes, and The Jigsaw Murders (which theyrefer to simply as Jigsaw) pop up as well, and be warned that there are some massive spoilers in here so be sure to watch the main feature first. If you want to have a fun drinking game, try doing a shot every time something bangs loudly against the microphones; you'll be calling an ambulance by the 15-minute mark. You've never seen anything like it, and be sure to note, "Props & Candies provided by K-Mart in Sunland." If that weren't enough, you also get a wild 4m50s gallery of production photos (yes, with plenty of DC Lacroix shots) and bonus trailers for Nurse Jill, Fantom Killer, Black Past, and Ostermontag. The release comes in a few different iterations including a "Power of the Blood Bundle Pack," a limited slipsleeve Blu-ray, or a limited VHS.
Reviewed on June 17, 2017.