The psychic trauma of impending childbirth has proven fertile territory for horror films past, from the early David Cronenberg chiller “The Brood” to the extreme French horror film “Inside,” but Bruce McDonald’s “Hellions” is an unpleasant muddle of the visceral and the abstract. Though it carries the conceptual boldness of his ingenious 2008 zombie riff, “Pontypool,” the pic has a neither-here-nor-there quality that keeps it from succeeding as a Halloween gorefest or as a feminine nightmare writ large. Premiering simultaneously in limited release and VOD on Sept. 18, shortly after its bow in the misfit Vanguard section of the Toronto Film Festival, “Hellions” may appeal to a narrow band of Canadian horror cultists, but won’t likely expand their ranks.
Before a blood moon turns the autumnal splendor of a small town to a fetal pink, “Hellions” has the eerie quality of Halloween night in an ’80s horror film, where suburban normalcy ends at dusk. Dora (Chloe Rose) wiles away the afternoon in a pumpkin patch, smoking a joint with her boyfriend (Luke Bilyk), but the day takes a dramatic turn when her doctor (Rossif Sutherland) informs her that she’s four weeks pregnant. The news of this seemingly immaculate conception shocks Dora enough to keep her inside the house while her mother (Rachel Wilson) and little brother (Peter DaCunha) go out trick-or-treating, but she doesn’t have much time to process it in peace.
In a Halloween-obsessed town where the thwap of eggs against windows and doors are as common as chirping cicadas, some holiday pranks are expected, but a series of visitations get under Dora’s skin. Little scamps dressed in macabre costumes — one resembles the Scarecrow from “Batman Begins,” another dons an upturned bucket on his head, still another is a deranged Raggedy Ann doll — keep ringing the doorbell, breathing heavily, and directing their unseen eyes toward her midsection. Finally, one of them opens up his Halloween bag, the gruesome contents of which are neither trick nor treat.
“Hellions” attempts to tap into the primal fears of a pregnant teenager: the fear of telling Mom, the fear of being labeled a slut, the fear of having this living thing growing inside. McDonald, working from a spare script by Pascal Trottier, amplifies the terror by reducing the development period from nine months to one night and turning these little monsters into eager midwives. For a time, the film effectively softens the borders between a tangible, real-world threat to Dora’s safety and a hideous, deceptive manifestation of her inner anxieties. When a cop, played by “Terminator 2” baddie Robert Patrick, finally enters the picture, there’s no telling who or what he is and whether anything happening can be trusted as “real.”
The more “Hellions” tips into the realm of waking nightmare, the more uncertain McDonald’s touch becomes. Gone is the menace of creepy kids with a mysterious agenda, replaced by a maelstrom of tacky effects, like a supernatural tornado that sweeps inside the house (one of several references to “The Wizard of Oz”) and the CGI detonation of pumpkins. The decision to bathe the action in the reddish-pink of a blood moon is smart metaphorically, but proves to be a considerable eyesore over the film’s short duration. Similarly, the repeated chants (“blood for baby”), symbols, and formations of the hellions have an unmodulated intensity that bores and exhausts when they’re meant to frighten.
Of the tech contributions, Todor Kobakov and Ian LeFeuvre’s score offers some much-needed flashes of wit, with a “Silent Night” dirge spiked by the “nah-nah-nahs” of taunting children. Sarah Millman’s costumes, too, makes a gallery of cartoon grotesques out of familiar Halloween-night standards. The promise of a more playful spirit ends with them, however.