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Sundance 2015: Hellions and Reversal Both Start Strong, So That’s Something Anyway

By  · Published on January 30th, 2015

Storyteller Pictures

Eight of Sundance 2015’s genre films found a home under the Park City at Midnight category, and they’ve been something of a mixed bag. My reviews of Cop Car and Knock Knock are here, with more on their way (although I reviewed the best of the category – It Follows – last September), but I’m pairing the two least effective together below.

Hellions is the long-awaited return to horror for director Bruce McDonald and sees him let loose a horde of pint-sized terrors on a young woman and the poor unfortunates who come by for a visit. Reversal begins with the familiar story of a woman abducted for nasty purposes but spins it when she escapes only to set off on her own quest for justice.

Both films start off strong in narrative and/or visuals, but they also both begin quite quickly to fall apart due almost completely to their scripts.

Dora (Chloe Rose) is a high school senior more focused on spending time with her boyfriend than with her school books, and the only thing on her mind this Halloween is the wild costume party she’ll be attending later. She finds something new to focus on though when she discovers she’s four weeks pregnant. Upset, confused and struggling to decide what to do and who to tell, she finds herself alone at home awaiting a ride to the party. Things take a dark turn though when a trick ‘r treater in a creepy burlap sack mask appears on her doorstep. He’s soon joined by other diminutive, costumed nightmares, all of whom seem intent on gaining access to Dora’s home and innards.

Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool remains one of the freshest zombie films of the past decade, but while he’s kept busy since its 2008 release (mostly in television) he’s avoided revisiting the horror genre to any real degree. That changes with Hellions, but it’s not quite the happy occasion Pontypool fans may have wanted.

The film starts off well with attractive photography and a lively, pouty performance from Rose, and the menace hanging in the air is kept intriguingly low-key. We meet a handful of other characters – her boyfriend, her doctor, the local sheriff (Robert Patrick) – during the setup and get a sense of Dora’s day to day life.

Once the little creeper arrives though the film makes a sharp turn into something of a dream-like landscape. Dora’s house remains, but the outside world – previously dark as it’s nighttime – lights up with an eerie, hazy glow. It’s clearly of unnatural design, but not even the sheriff questions it when he arrives later in response to Dora’s emergency call. That dreamy feel extends to the action too as both wind and gravity take brief turns away from their natural state. The otherworldly outside and the empty isolation in which the second and third acts take place make Hellions feel like the closest thing to a Phantasm movie since the last Phantasm movie. It’s possible that sounds like a positive thing to you.

The script by Pascal Trottier seems unsure what exactly it wants to say or do here – it can easily be interpreted as either pro-life or pro-choice, or can simply be viewed as a monster movie uninterested in explanation – and it falls prey to many of the cliches so familiar in horror usually related to character stupidity. Unrelated to all of that, it’s unclear why we needed to see two scenes of this one-month-pregnant girl suddenly discover a craving for honey-covered pickles.

McDonald finds beauty in some shots – the little monsters standing in silence in the yard or peering in windows, Rose in her white angel costume – but none of the antics are ever scary. To be clear, the creatures’ costumes are majorly creepy, but their behaviors are not. Their digital-sounding voices don’t help either as it distracts from the earthy feel of their visual design. We’re left with a young woman fighting off a murderous horde of child-sized ne’er-do-wells with no interest in smarts, answers or narrative. The strength of the setup and creature design make this worth a watch for genre fans, but don’t expect it to join your annual Halloween rotation.

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IFC Midnight

Eve (Tina Ivlev) awakes in a dark, metallic room chained atop on a dirty mattress, and it’s clear she’s been there for some time. A man named Phil (Richard Tyson) enters talking about the delicious food he made for her, but as he sits nearby she springs up to knock him on the head with a brick. She snags the keys to her freedom and secures him with his own manacle, but when she realizes the house is in the middle of nowhere and he has other girls in other locations she decides to take justice into her own hands to save them.

Director José Manuel Cravioto’s first English language feature, Reversal, starts with a bang and one hell of a setup. We meet Eve after her abduction and after any abuse she’s suffered, and it’s a refreshing change of pace from the dark thrillers that immerse us in the stink before kicking the action and/or suspense into gear. It’s intuitive – both from our own experience with similar films and from the dark, dungeon-like visuals Cravioto reveals on the way to Eve’s cell – so we don’t need to see the vileness of her experience to appreciate the suffering she’s endured.

This narrative choice (via Keith Kjornes’ script) allows the film to spring into action quickly, but while the direction is appreciated the result is a near disaster. At no point are we given a convincing reason as to why Eve wouldn’t simply contact the police. There is a reason – a contrived one that carries far less emotional and dramatic weight than the film believes – but it’s held until late in the film leaving far too much time for viewers to feel frustrated at her idiocy.

And there’s a lot of that idiocy to go around. The pair head into the city on their way to the first girl’s location, but things don’t quite go as planned. It’s yet another perfect opportunity to bring in the authorities, but again, nothing. The frustrations continue as they work their way down the list with Eve growing dumber by the second. Even if you’re comfortable accepting her actions, they’re not presented in much of an exciting way onscreen. The world-building leaves viewers wanting as well as the structure behind the abduction ring comes into view.

The other big annoyance here are a series of POV video interludes recorded before her abduction that show Eve out with her boyfriend Ronnie (Kristoffer Kjornes). They’re distracting and not all that well acted, and their purpose feels obvious from early on which again eats into the (intended) dramatic reveal of the film’s final act.

Ivlev is the sole bright spot outside of Reversal’s opening, and it’s not just because she looks like a dirtied-up Jennifer Lawrence. She invests the role with real energy and emotion and makes for a convincing ass-kicker when need be, but she’s let down by a character and story just not worth the effort.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.