GUEST MOVIE REVIEW by Jeff C. Carter: Hack-O-Lantern

Hack-O-Lantern
Rated R, 1:27, 1998

Director: Jag Mundhra

Writers: Dave Eisenstark (story), Carla Robinson (screenplay)

Cast:
Hy Pyke – as Grandpa
Gregory Scott Cummins – as Tommy

Available on: Amazon Prime Streaming, Tubi

A town is terrorized by devil worshippers and a masked killer.


Hack-O-Lantern begins appropriately with lurid red titles floating in black space, accompanied by the creepy pulse of synth music.

Then, something unexpected happens.

The sun rises, shining gloriously upon a bucolic farm. A pleasant tune chirps as an old pickup truck putters into view with a flatbed full of pumpkins. The driver (Hy PykeDolemite, Blade Runner, Vamp) is a chipper old man in a cozy flannel shirt.

He arrives at a farm house and honks the horn to call out Tommy, his little blonde grandson. Everything is bathed in sunlight as the innocent child dashes out and leaps into his grandpa’s welcoming arms.

Everything distills into a perfect Norman Rockwell moment, until grandpa slips him a bundle with something “special.” He leaves him with a pumpkin, throws up the devil horns and then bones out in his truck.

This is not yet four minutes into the film, but we have been put on notice. This story just might give you whiplash.

Later, Tommy is carving his pumpkin and pelting his sister, Vera, with pumpkin guts. When he cuts himself, he proclaims that he likes the taste of blood and that ‘grandpa says it’s good for him.’

Their mother is distraught when she finds out that grandpa has been there, and she demands to know if the old man had given anything to her son. Tommy denies it and hides the special package.

That night, she begs her husband Bill not to confront Grandpa on this, of all nights – Halloween. Bill storms out to handle things anyway.

He arrives at Grandpa’s barn and finds him hanging out with a bunch of robed cultists. One of them smacks Bill with a hammer and together they dump his body back in his car and then set it on fire. Grandpa cackles with dark delight.

Back home in his room, Tommy takes out his special gift – a pentagram medallion.

Match cut to 13 years later: Tommy (Gregory Scott Cummins, former college sports star with roles in Buffy, Batman Returns, Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Baywatch Nights [TWICE!], and as the devil in a Snoop Dogg video!) is still swinging his medallion, but now he is all grown up. He is rocking a black sleeveless shirt that is open to the navel.

It is once again Halloween, and Grandpa has returned with another honk of the horn. This time he has a black robe for Tommy, who will undergo a ritual that night and learn his true power. Grandpa throws up the devil horns again, and now Tommy does too…and then they press their devil horns together.

Let’s pause for a moment to appreciate these actors. Gregory Scott Cummins has a prime set of ‘crazy eyes’ and does his best to mean mug every chance he gets, but he’s fighting for oxygen in every scene with Hy Pyke.

Hy Pyke is a character actor unlike any I have ever scene. He plays Grandpa like a southern fried, chain-smoking, frog-throated, slightly femme goth hillbilly. If Tim Curry had an older brother who was prone to falling down stairs, he might be a little something like Hy Pyke.

Tommy’s mother runs out and begs Grandpa to leave the family alone. Grandpa then reveals two things: first, he has been wearing one of Bill’s bones as a necklace for 13 years; second, he has been forcing her into an incestuous relationship for most of her life. If the devil horn hand kiss made you uncomfortable, you may wish to avert your eyes from the flashback in which Grandpa smothers his daughter on her wedding night. This could imply that Tommy and the others are, in fact, Grandpa’s children after all.

We are re-introduced to Vera, who is getting ready for Halloween with her friend Beth, and then to Tommy’s little brother, Roger, who is now a rookie policeman. Roger has been assigned to patrol the cemeteries after a string of grave robberies as well as chaperoning the big Halloween party in town.

Mom stands outside the door to Tommy’s basement apartment and screams at him to change his wicked ways, but he tunes her out with a Walkman and a cassette tape of rock n’ roll.

This begins a full-on music video, with Tommy fantasizing that he is the backup guitarist for a leather-clad rock band playing a song about the Devil’s son. A woman appears in a bolt of electricity. She is dressed in a skimpy outfit and draped in bones (possibly his father’s), and she shoots green lasers from her eyes that festoon the band’s drum kit with shrunken heads, freeze the band members in place, and then make them vanish one by one.

She throws Tommy to the ground and stabs his head off with a pitchfork. Tommy wakes up, disturbed (and/or aroused).

Now Roger is knocking on his door. He asks Tommy if he’s ever going to do anything worthwhile with his life. In response, Tommy shows him a closet that he has converted into a satanic altar with candles, skulls and a human fetus in a jar.

Roger just shakes his head, chagrinned and says, “No wonder mom thinks you spend too much time with Grandpa.”

The Satanic Panic of the 1980s certainly inspired this movie, but it seems that satanic ritual has been completely normalized for this family as well as the town at large.

Tommy goes to get booze with his girlfriend, whom everyone knows has a pentagram tattoo on her butt (see?). Unfortunately for them, Grandpa is there to nag Tommy into geting his rest for the big night.

Not long after, the girlfriend is surprised by a robed figure in a strange mask that is equal parts satanic and simian, like a demonic baboon. She believes the masked intruder is Tommy and she tries to flirt, only to get brutally murdered with a hooked pitchfork. For clarity, I will henceforth refer to this robed and masked figure as the ‘Staboon’.

Vera and her friends are all downtown decorating the hall for the big Halloween shindig. Naturally Grandpa stops by to leer lecherously at his granddaughter, but her boyfriend Brian chases him off.

Vera takes Brian home with her to lose her virginity, but Tommy busts in and throws him out with a warning; “Next time, you’re dead.”

Tommy goes to his room and pulls out a Staboon mask and a switchblade.

Brian takes the shortcut home through the cemetery and quickly finds himself being chased by the Staboon. He tumbles into an open grave. He begs the Staboon for a hand up, but gets his head cleft in twain with a shovel instead.

Night falls, and Roger begins his patrol of the cemetery. He has also brought Beth, so they can spend their date looking dug up graves. They find nothing but a fresh shallow grave, so they lay down and get it on, oblivious to Brian’s half buried body.

Roger then heads to the Halloween party, which features a tasteful full-nude strip tease.

The movie then grinds to a halt as an amateur comic shoehorns his tight five minute set into a random scene. This bad comedy is made even more awkward because it is performed outside on the street, instead of inside on the stage which was literally just established with the other entertainment acts like the stripper and the band. Perhaps this is meant to signal a tonal shift to comedy, which is only one of the genres that Hack-O-Lantern tries on like so many Staboon masks.

Vera and her friend Beth also take the cemetery shortcut, which apparently connects her house to the party hall. Beth shows off all the places that she had sex with her brother, but this time Brian’s body does not go unnoticed. Vera thinks it’s another classic Halloween prank and pulls on the arm, only to reveal her cleft-in-twain boyfriend. She freaks out and blames Tommy for the murder.

Vera heads straight to Grandpa’s satanic ritual barn to confront Tommy. She knows that he will be there for the big Halloween ceremony, and does not seem overly concerned by the robed cultists shuffling around the giant pentagram on the floor.

Grandpa rebukes her for intruding and orders his minions to tie her up.

He gives Tommy a goat-shaped knife, which they gamely try to hold in their hand while making devil horns with their fingers. Grandpa commands him to kill Vera, intoning, “The power is in the blood!”

Tommy raises the knife…and cuts her ropes! He sends her packing off into the night.

He turns to face his grandfather and shouts, “She’s my sister!”

Grandpa is both furious and crestfallen. He explains that in the kingdom of hell, the only family that matters are your fellow Satanists and…the master! He excommunicates Tommy from the satanic ritual barn.

I will note that it is heavily implied that the ritual that Tommy was supposed to enact that night was going to involve murder, but they didn’t seem to have any sacrificial victims handy until Vera showed up. Was this all part of Grandpa’s master plan?

Back at the freaky Halloween party, a belly dancer undulates for the revelers wearing a large snake. Vera and Beth arrive to find Roger, but the Staboon is already there.

Roger learns all about the murder and attempted sacrifice and then speeds away on his motorcycle.

The Staboon decides to knife a random lady in the women’s bathroom. Her only connection to the story was a few minutes earlier, when she was hitting on Roger. If there is a through line to any of the killings, it is that anyone who attempts to have sex with anyone in Tommy’s family dies. That may seem par for the course for a slasher flick, but this will take on added significance later.

Roger and the rest of the police find the barn, but no evidence of satanic activity. Back at the party, the Staboon strangles Beth. Vera finds both bodies and runs out, into the arms of Staboon.

She thinks that this is Tommy, but the Staboon removes its mask. It is her Grandpa, and he tells her that tonight, she belongs to Satan.

Tommy arrives wearing his own Staboon mask and wielding a pitchfork. Grandpa puts his Staboon mask back on, grabs a machete from a party goer, and the two start swashbuckling their way through the Halloween party.

Tommy quickly bests the old man and sends him careening to the ground with a pitchfork wound in his stomach.

Roger makes it back in time to unmask Grandpa. Grandpa tells Roger that, “the power is in the blood!” and then pokes him in the forehead with the devil horns, leaving behind a flicker of red light.

The other Staboon tries to flee, but Roger blasts it in the back with his pistol. The bleeding Staboon stumbles into the woods and unmasks. It is Tommy’s mother. She takes the cemetery shortcut to her husband’s grave and collapses.

Tommy finds her there and apologizes, telling her that he loves her. She dies, and the now reformed Tommy makes the sign of the cross.

It seems that all is well, or at the very least the nightmare is over.

Unfortunately, the Satanists have reconvened at their satanic ritual barn. They have a new leader now – and it is Tommy’s brother, Roger.

Hack-O-Lantern ends on that final twist, leaving us to contemplate what the hell we just watched and what was going on. I believe that Grandpa secretly fathered Tommy, Roger and Vera because he needed someone in his bloodline to carry on the power and dark work of his satanic coven. He jealously protected that bloodline, which is why anyone who attempted to sleep with or corrupt it was murdered. The theme song’s refrain, as you’ll recall, was ‘you’re the devil’s son.’

That is just one possibility, however. It doesn’t explain why Tommy had the pitchfork at the end, which was previously used to kill his girlfriend. And what was Tommy’s mother doing at the party dressed as a Staboon? Was she the swashbuckler who killed Grandpa? Or that random lady in the bathroom? Was she hoping to create a diversion to allow Tommy to escape? Was this movie set in a farm town only so its devilish characters could have easy access to pitchforks?

Indeed, this movie raises more questions than it answers. Overall, it is crazy, cheesy, creepy, gory, schmaltzy and simply fun. If you want a first time watch for your Halloween marathon, I say throw up the horns and put on Hack-O-Lantern.


Boo-graphy:
Jeff C. Carter’s stories have been featured in dozens of anthologies, translated for international markets and adapted for podcasts. His love of Halloween, adventure and science continue to inspire his horror, action and science fiction writing. He is a member of the Samhain Society and a contributor for the Creepy Kingdom network. He lives in Los Angeles with a cat, a dog, a human and a child.

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His new middle grade adventure book is called COLD SPELL: The Halloween Curse of Winterhill.

COLD SPELL The Halloween Curse of Winterhill is a spooky middle grade adventure from author Jeff C. Carter for kids and adults who love Halloween.

When a freak blizzard cancels trick-or-treating (based on a true event), a Halloween-obsessed nerd and his friends break the rules and go out, only to discover that a terrible curse has befallen their town.

COLD SPELL The Halloween Curse of Winterhill is a fun, fast-paced story of friendship and supernatural adventure that will appeal to fans of Hocus Pocus, Goosebumps, and anyone who believes there is magic just beyond the veil of red and orange woods.

This book is packed with dark whimsical illustrations by Mexican artist Mariana Garcia Pizá.

Her charming map of Summerhill shows a town on the verge of Halloween and all the places that the kids will go as they battle the Witch’s forces and attempt to break her curse.

There is a handy Spookabulary, a list of new words that every Halloween lover should know. The book also includes a Monster Manual featuring the unique creatures that serve the Witch, compatible for the D&D 5E and Tiny Dungeon RPG systems.

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