We're in an isolated farmhouse surrounded by pumpkin fields. The kitchen is a nightmare. Furniture is overturned, crockery smashed. Spilled sugar crunches underfoot. Honey and maple syrup ooze across the counters. Cereal and cookie boxes have been flung around. There's a hyperventilating teenager in angel wings (Chloe Rose, from Degrassi: The Next Generation); a cop waving a shotgun (Robert Patrick, who will be forever known as T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day); and a corpse in the corner, with a pumpkin for a head. It looks as if demon children got strung out on sugar and went on a rampage.
Which is exactly how it's supposed to look: Welcome to Day 18 of 25 on the Flamborough, Ont., set of Hellions, the new Halloween-set thriller from Canadian director Bruce McDonald. (It opens in select cities Friday.)
Hellions is The Wizard of Oz by way of Children of the Corn, with a scoop of body horror on top. Rose plays Dora, a wised-up 17-year-old who learns she's pregnant on Halloween. Soon, pint-sized creatures dressed as demented versions of the Tin Man and Scarecrow, plus other childhood icons, come knocking for her baby. ("Childhood things become weird and creepy when you're terrified because you're pregnant and have no idea what to do," McDonald says.)
Next thing you know, there's a hurricane in the kitchen and a head in a trick-or-treat bag, and though a cop (Patrick) and a doctor (Rossif Sutherland) try to help, Dora has to save herself.
"I'm attracted to stories with female protagonists," says McDonald, a charming guy in a straw cowboy hat whose list of credits includes Trigger, Pontypool, The Tracey Fragments and a raft of episodic television. "There should be more of them. Our story begins with a woman in peril, but pretty soon she's chambering a shotgun and blowing some Hellions away. Chloe told me that she feels weird today, because she's mostly following Robert around. She wants to get back to kicking ass."
Patrick, a Republican who's crossed the United States five times on his Harley Davidson, sees the film as pro-life. McDonald (and most everyone else) thinks it's pro-choice. Either way, the film plays up a woman's fears of what pregnancy might do to her body, and riffs on the idea of kids as bad seeds. In one of many tongue-in-cheek moments, Dora huddles in the basement while the Hellions carouse upstairs. "What are they doing up there?" she asks, echoing every parent when their kids run wild.
The atmosphere on set, however, could not be more chill. I've never seen a director smile as much as McDonald – there's an easy grin on his face all day, despite the fact that he's trying an experimental technique on Hellions, shooting with an infrared lens. On the pro side, it's a money-saver, because he can shoot day for night; it also could be interesting aesthetically, since the script refers to the "blood moon," and the infrared will bathe everything in an otherworldly pink glow (as well as turn green trees white, make blue skies black, and give skin texture a milky look). On the con side, it's risky, because McDonald won't know what his movie will look like until he's in postproduction.
If he's anxious, though, it never shows. Calmly, he helps Rose and Patrick block out two scenes he's just jammed into one. There's not much exposition in the film, but Patrick has to rattle off some here, while hunting Hellions, and he keeps tripping over the lines, "They've been here before. Same night. Same blood moon."
"I'm having a hard enough time trying to figure out why our characters aren't just leaving," Patrick says to Rose, and everyone laughs. With each take, however, he picks up momentum, and soon he's showing Rose the proper way to hand off a gun, and jawing about how Clint Eastwood, with whom he worked on Flags of Our Fathers and Trouble with the Curve, never raises his voice on set. "He doesn't even say, 'Action!' " Patrick says. "He just kind of goes [murmuring], 'When you're ready.' " McDonald and his crew lap it up.
A few months from this day, Hellions will play the Sundance Film Festival; several months after that, it will be at the Toronto International Film Festival. The critical reaction will be mixed, but teenagers will like it; IFC Films is giving it a limited release in the United States and it will be available on VOD.
But for today, everyone's just happy to be in Flamborough, working. The makeup artist touches up the blood on Rose's dress. The kid actors are thrilled that some might spray on them. Many in the crew have been with McDonald for 20 years. Rose has known him for nine; she used to babysit his daughter, and he'd leave out movies for her to watch.
Patrick, who seems to work non-stop, is squeezing in Hellions while shooting two TV series, From Dusk Till Dawn and Scorpion. "I love acting," he says. "There's nothing else I have to offer. You only get one life, and if you're lucky like me, and you get to do something you love, you've got to do it."
Directing a few episodes a year of the CBC series Heartland pays McDonald's bills. The rest of the time, he's trying new things. (He went from TIFF straight to Nova Scotia, where he's shooting 1970something, a road movie starring Molly Parker and Allan Hawco, set against the American Bicentennial.)
"In the Canadian movie business, there's always hatching going on," he says, grinning. "You use whatever you've got, and it's never enough. But it's fun. At least now if Jack in Heartland ever has a dream about a demonic horse, I'll know exactly how to shoot it." He guffaws.
There's never been a better time for independent filmmakers, McDonald feels, because today's digital technology allows anyone to do it: "You can shoot a film for $50,000 and win the Palme d'Or. It's a great liberation that way."
But what really jazzes him is the idea that Hellions could be a Halloween perennial ("Hellions Four: The Oval Office," he jokes. "When the President's children go trick-or-treating … "). The holiday has been his favourite since he was a kid: "My family weren't artists, so Halloween, with its production values, was my first step into the entertainment world."
Now, every Oct. 31, he and his daughter turn their Toronto home into a house of horrors. Last year, they had an Amphibian Man in a bathtub; this year promises a lot of pitch-darkness, with the occasional flash of someone running at the kids in a giant owl head. "There's nothing more fun," McDonald sums up, "than scaring the shit out of people."