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What is it about clowns, exactly, that seems to instill so much subliminal fear in so many people? Could it be that a whole generation of folks were spoiled by Stephen King’s classic killer-clown novel It or, perhaps, the 1990 miniseries which served up Tim Curry as the most terrifying thing in grease paint and over-sized shoes? Was this fear compounded by the Chiodo Brothers’ cult-classic Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988)? Perhaps this all leads back to mimes, which manage to seem both friendly and sinister at the same time: with their stark, white appearances and silent demeanor, there’s just something inherently…off…about the long-time street performers, poor Marcel Marceau notwithstanding.

Whatever the reason, clowns have been a reliable part of horror films (and childrens’ nightmares) for several decades now, although Curry’s Pennywise will probably always be the gold standard for these type of things. In the 20-odd years since It made a generation of kids afraid to walk too close to storm drains, there’s been more killer clown flicks than you can shake a stick at, most of them just as generic and faceless as the anonymous zombie films that used to clog video store shelves. Every once in a while, however, a film rises above the crowd and establishes itself as something ferocious, terrifying and utterly essential: Conor McMahon’s amazing Stitches (2012) blew me away earlier this year but Damien Leone’s intense, jaw-dropping All Hallows’ Eve (2013) may just have it beat, at least as far as genuine scares go. While Stitches was a pitch-black horror-comedy with a main villain who often felt like a bigtop version of Freddy Krueger, All Hallows’ Eve is a deadly serious, often hallucinatory voyage straight into the heart of darkness. Using ’80s grindhouse films as inspiration, All Hallows’ Eve is a brutal, ultra-gory bit of insanity that may just have introduced the world to its next iconic monster: Art the Clown.

Along with being a “killer clown” film, All Hallows’ Eve is also an anthology film, albeit one where all the various stories were written and directed by the same person, ala the instantly classic Trick ‘r Treat (2007). This, of course, has the effect of giving Leone’s film the kind of cohesion that’s usually missing in multi-director/writer affairs like V/H/S (2012) or The ABCs of Death (2012). By utilizing multiple cinematographers, Leone manages to give each of the segments, as well as the wraparound, distinctly different looks, a nicely realized tactic that adds immeasurable interest to the various stories. As with any anthology, however, the real proof is in the quality of the individual segments: as with everything else, All Hallows’ Eve doesn’t disappoint in the slightest.

Based around two of Leone’s early short films, All Hallows’ Eve consists of three separate stories and a traditional wraparound: in this case, the wraparound deals with a babysitter (Katie Maguire) watching over two young charges (Cole Mathewson, Sydney Freihofer) on Halloween night. The trio have just returned from a profitable night of trick or treating and the kids are eagerly divvying up their hauls when young Timmy discovers an unmarked VHS tape in his bag. Unsure of where it came from, the kids wheedle and cajole until their sitter reluctantly agrees to watch the video with them. The video, then, forms the meat of the film’s three stories: in between segments, we return to Sarah as increasingly odd things begin to happen to her in the house, leading her to the terrifying realization that what’s on the tape might be real…and that her and the kids might be the next victims?

What’s on the tape? Well, as mentioned, we get three different stories, all of which are completely batshit insane in their own fevered ways. The first segment begins with a woman meeting a mysterious, mute clown (our antihero Art (Mike Giannelli) in a deserted train station and ends with a deliriously Grand Guignol blow-out that manages to weld C.H.U.D. (1984) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968), with predictably nutso results. The second tale involves Caroline (Catherine A Callahan), whose artist husband has gone out-of-town and left her alone with his newest painting, a mysteriously covered work that gives Caroline a severe case of the heebie-jeebies. The segment takes a drastic left-turn when Caroline is besieged by some decidedly otherworldly visitors: I would never spoil the “twist” but suffice to say the middle segment, like the first one, manages to combine multiple horror subgenres into one crazy little stew and is anything but predictable. The final segment, perhaps the nastiest of the bunch, involves a woman (Marie Maser) who makes an ill-fated late-night stop at an isolated gas station. Our good buddy, Art, is there and it seems that he’s made a righteous mess out of the restroom (and the attendant): when the woman steps into the middle of what must be some little bit of Hell on earth, Art pursues her relentlessly, determined to take care of any and all witnesses to his work. Hitting the open road, the woman desperately tries to put the sinister clown as far behind her as possible. As she’ll find out, however, you can’t run from fate, no matter how hard you try.

Here’s a little bit of straight talk from your humble host: All Hallows’ Eve absolutely blew me away, no two ways about it. Despite what must have been an exceptionally low budget, the film is a hit in just about every aspect: stellar effects and makeup; good acting (especially from Giannelli as that terrifying clown); a fantastic electronic score that handily recalls John Carpenter’s synth work; some truly jaw-dropping gore setpieces (I absolutely cannot hammer this home enough: All Hallows’ Eve is ridiculously, explosively gory) and a truly authentic “grindhouse” look that’s one of the best-looking modern examples I’ve yet seen. Only the final, gas station segment had a look that I wasn’t particularly fond of: too blown-out and white, it’s almost as if the filmmakers tried a little too hard to approximate an old ’70s-’80s look, right down to the ubiquitous scratch marks/film flaws. Whereas the other segments look effortlessly real, the final segment looks a bit off, mostly because the aesthetic is a little too obvious.

Truth be told, I really only have one complaint about the film, a complaint that can also be leveled at a good many of the original ’80s grindhouse flicks: almost all of the violence in the film is perpetrated against woman, with the gas station attendant (Michael Chmiel) being the only male victim. This issue, of course, is absolutely nothing new as far as slasher and grindhouse films go: while movies like Friday the 13th (1980) managed to throw in plenty of male victims, they’re still distinctly ruled by the “male gaze,” particularly with regards to the depiction of female characters. While the terror in the second segment of All Hallows’ Eve is more universal, the violence in the opening and closing stories is distinctly feminine in nature, a point which definitely made me uneasy, despite how much I liked the film, overall.

This is not to say that All Hallows’ Eve is inherently misogynistic, mind you: unlike particularly egregious examples from the ’80s (see pretty much any ’80s Italian gore flick), there does not appear to be an explicitly anti-feminine agenda at play here. The most problematic moment, by far, comes with the resolution to the third story, a nasty little “twist” that comes a little out of left-field and resembles something from an August Underground production: this bit is extremely strong stuff and I could definitely see it prompting an extreme audience reaction. The underlying misogyny of the horror industry is certainly well-documented and continues to be a problem, although plenty of modern-day horror films such as The Woman (2011) and The Descent (2005) have taken steps to help correct that: my assertion here, I suppose, is that All Hallows’ Eve is no more explicitly misogynistic than any of the slasher and grindhouse films that it’s obviously seeking to emulate…the film is nothing if not an homage to a by-gone era, out-dated viewpoints included.

At the risk of continuing to ramble on endlessly, however, let me wrap this all up by stating, once more, how much I thoroughly enjoyed this film. It definitely won’t be for everyone: it’s incredibly grim and unrelenting, astoundingly violent and incredibly unpleasant at times. Looking at my other list, however (to paraphrase the late, great Mr. Ebert), I also see that the film is brilliantly made, especially for its obviously low budget, insanely energetic, genuinely scary and, above all, smart. This is a film that acknowledges tired genre tropes yet manages to inject new life into them via some truly inspired twists (the first segment, in particular, is a pretty dizzying genre mashup). It’s a film that’s actually fun to watch, even when it goes to some pretty dark places…pretty much the epitome of a good horror film, right?

There’s no shortage of invention and genuine talent on display here, whether from the folks behind or in front of the camera: Damien Leone is obviously a ridiculously talented filmmaker who, with a little luck, might develop into the next John Carpenter. All Hallows’ Eve is pretty much the perfect Halloween film, especially for folks who want something a bit darker than the usual fare. Oh, yeah…and that clown? Fucking terrifying.