Canada. Directed by Bruce McDonald, 2015. Starring Chloe Rose, Robert Patrick, Rossif Sutherland, Rachel Wilson, Luke Bilyk, Peter Da Cunha, Emir Hirad Mokhtarieh. 81 minutes.
I have been known to accuse films of having unpromising setups from time to time. But Hellions takes the biscuit, by saddling its bad-girl tough-chick heroine (name: Dora Vogel) with a strained relationship with her mother and an unwanted pregnancy on Hallowe’en, and that’s just in the first ten minutes, before getting to the bits where child-size monsters in makeshift costumes lay siege to her home. In fact, I don’t think I would even have watched it if the director hadn’t been Bruce McDonald. McDonald, lest we forget, is the talented Canadian director-for-hire (17 episodes of Degrassi: The Next Generation) who shocked the hell out of all of us by releasing Pontypool, probably the most starkly original zombie movie since the sub-genre’s early-aughts revival, in 2008. So I figured he at least deserved the benefit of the doubt.
I’ll give McDonald this: Hellions is nothing like I imagined it would be, and it’s probably nothing like you imagine it will be, either. And that’s entirely on McDonald. Pascal Trottier’s screenplay manages to avoid some of the more risible clichés implied by the subject matter (for example, Dora’s narrative journey doesn’t end up with her deciding she really wants the baby after all), but it’s still pretty standard stuff. Once the film’s over, you can look back at the plot and see how obvious it all is.
The thing is, I couldn’t really do that while I was watching the film for the same reason I couldn’t figure out how stupid High Tension was until it was actually over. Now, Hellions is a lot smarter than probably every Alexandre Aja film combined, but both movies swept me up so completely in the now that I found it hard, though not impossible, to focus on the larger picture.
McDonald does this by giving Hellions a distinct visual style; I assume that he did, somewhere along the road, have some influences here, but I can also say that I’ve never seen a film that looked quite like this. McDonald applies something of a washed-out color palette to the exterior sequences: not exactly black-and-white or sepia-toned, more…overexposed, I guess. This also produces an interesting reduction in the picture’s field depth: there are sequences where Dora looks across her street and the picture doesn’t extend as far back as it should, like McDonald shot the scene in a room made to look like a suburban street. At his best, he uses Hellion’s visuals to fuck with the viewer’s sense of what’s natural, taking something that should be familiar and reassuring and twisting it just so, making it unsettling and creepy.
Unfortunately, at its worst Hellions falls into a particularly grating form of camp, resembling a bad episode of American Horror Story. I could make a strong case that McDonald has made the showiest, most over-directed film of 2015. Considering this year has also produced Victoria and Too Late (and we haven’t even seen The Hateful Eight yet), that might be some sort of an accomplishment. Certainly, even at its most watchable, McDonald’s directorial performance overpowers anything the actual actors do. Which isn’t as damning a criticism as it may seem at first. It’s something Hellions has in common with my all-time favorite film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Nor is it to say the cast sucks: Chloe Rose is about as good a Final Girl as you can get and Robert Patrick is reliably Robert Patrick; the only weak link is Rossif Sutherland, who seems to think he’s in a mumblecore drama.
But ultimately the thing about Hellions is that, uneven though it is, it at least looks daring and bold and original, and that’s what makes many of its successful scenes work so well.