The film begins in familiar enough horror territory, with a late-teens protagonist, Dora (Chloe Rose), canoodling with her boyfriend as they plan that night’s Halloween festivities. Following the unexpected results of a routine doctor’s appointment, however, the heroine’s evening begins to unravel in surreal fashion, pushing the film away from a standard Halloween narrative; the titular hellions might be expected, but the bizarre new reality they usher in is not.
With overtones of The Wizard of Oz, including a particularly disconcerting hurricane heralding a lurid new colour scheme, McDonald whisks away any objective sense of reality until neither Dora nor the viewer can differentiate between actuality, waking nightmare and hallucination. It’s a frightening evocation of Halloween, that truly liminal time of year when the barriers between living and dead; human and supernatural, become permeable.
In shedding realism, McDonald uses various experimental techniques, including rapid-fire sequences of still images; superimposition so that Dora appears multiplied as her sanity disintegrates; and that uncanny blood rose palette, a result of shooting in infrared. These abstract passages are interspersed with more traditional jump-scares, which though initially effective lose their potency with repetition.
In a September 8 interview with Dread Central, McDonald underlined the Wizard of Oz connection by referring to Dora’s tormentors, the hellions, as a perverse version of Dorothy’s Scarecrow, Lion and Tin Man. The hellions’ childlike appearance, however, makes them more reminiscent of various characters in Michael Dougherty’s horror anthology Trick ‘r Treat – particularly that film’s emblematic central figure, Sam. While Hellions‘ concerns are ultimately very different from those of Trick ‘r Treat, the distinct resemblance of its supernatural characters to those in such a masterful Halloween film is distracting.
On the other hand, if you can look past the Trick ‘r Treat resemblance, the hellions’ childlike aspect might be seen as Dora’s fear of her newly revealed pregnancy made manifest: the terror of being consumed by a small intruder voracious for your blood. It’s tempting to try to weave together some sort of cohesive narrative explanation from enticing symbolic fragments like this, but of course coherence isn’t at all the point in this film that so effectively rips away any absolute sense of reality.
And yet, the ending seeks to reassert a form of reality (perhaps a nod to Dorothy’s awakening from Oz) which fails to cast any light on what’s happened before and so seems a little pointless. Unlike the ambiguity at play in, say, Mulholland Drive (2001) or Berberian Sound Studio (2012), the uncertainty in Hellions feels unfinished, dissatisfying.
McDonald’s willingness to embrace experimentalism and to push beyond the boundaries of certainty makes for a singular, transportive experience, but as with many a dream upon waking, its internal logic remains elusive.