Set sometime in the ‘70s or ‘80s – going by the landline phones for calling in exposition, CRT TVs broadcasting Vincent Price in The Bat and non-digital cinema projection of Bela Lugosi in The Phantom Creeps – this also seeks to evoke vintage shockers by casting P.J. Soles (whose credit on Halloween is homages by, among other things, the font of a caption) and Tony Todd in bit parts and conjuring up some of that small town carny air seen in Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse while offering a plot that’s pretty much a riff on Pumpkinhead. It might be a distinctly modern touch that pretty much all the characters are assholes who deserve to die, or it might just be that writer-director Josh Hasty – who shot the making of documentary for Rob Zombie’s 31 – hasn’t thought through the way horror movies work.
Halloween is coming round again in a small Ohio town where a carnival has unaccountably set up for the holiday season, and local asshole Mike Bramford (Jimothy Beckholt) rallies his hangers-on – Steve (Cy Creamer) and Bobby (Caleb Thomas) – for his personal holiday ritual of cruelly harassing the local eccentric weirdo Jacob Atkins (Nate Chaney). Carol (Madison Russ), Steve’s girlfriend, criticises the endeavour but is ignored, and wannabe cool character Gus (Sky Elobar, of The Greasy Strangler) offers to drive the bullies out to their annual hazing – which goes awry when Jacob, who has scored a job at the carnival, fights back and Mike kicks him to death. Carol goes to the Sheriff (Courtney Gains), though she presumably knows that he’s the prime culprit’s Dad, and he mildly investigates, interviewing dwarf voodoo clown Dr Death (Pancho Moler) and taking the carny at his word when he says that Jacob is okay. In fact, he’s been brought back from the dead by a magic fright mask and starts killing off his tormentors in order of evil – with some modest spine-ripping and tongue-tearing effects.
Beckholt gives the most committed (if unsubtle) performance as the small town alpha dog who might just be hung up on bullying an outcast he keeps calling ‘faggot’ because he’s deeply closeted – the only emotion he displays is being actually upset when one of his gang is killed (and it’s not the one you’d expect him to crush on). Okay, so it’s a tiny bit of depth – and hardly progressive. Otherwise, no one talks about Mike the way they ought to – Carol whines about her boyfriend being more interested in going along on the hazing than in her, but doesn’t even threaten to break up with him if he keeps hanging out with a murderer … and the Sheriff, played by Gains as a decent man, never asks what mistakes he has made that have led to his son turning out to be the town total bastard. Similarly, Jacob barely registers before he’s killed (the extent of his weirdness is cycling shoeless) – and late, Ed Gein-type revelations about him blur the issues. Moler – who was in 31 – hints at a backstory, but that never gets explored and his fellow carnies – including a one-eyed Todd – just sit around and carp about that voodoo vengeance spree is going too far. Again, there’s just a hint of a bit more to Dr Death (aka Lester), who seems to be just waiting for some schlubs to wrong freak-kind to give him an excuse to make a monster.
The performance levels are up and down, with Elobar playing whiny-broad, Gains going for earnest warmth (he makes a thing of not carrying a gun but changes his mind without a significant scene to show it) and everyone else trudging in a way that isn’t a million miles from many midlist 80s movies. It has a few well-staged sequences, but its story beats are so well-worn that it’s hard to get worked up about – and there’s also the matter of scenes that somehow ought to be there (introductions for characters, plot connections, more business with the weird carnival, even an explanation of why candy corn is such a big deal in the story) but aren’t even as the film pads its running time with pointless stuff like a needless scene of a cop dropping a flare or kids trick or treating even though the cops have decreed a curfew in the light of three or four murders so far.