A new wave of extreme horror anthologies where more filmmakers contribute his or her own short-form yarn has made a welcome recovery in recent years. In the tradition of 2007’s Trick ‘r Treat, a consistently fun and crisply atmospheric holiday staple that probably had Warner Bros. kicking itself for not giving a theatrical release, Tales of Halloween is yet another horror anthology not merely set on All Hallows’ Eve but very much reveling in the iconography of October 31st. Eleven directors—all under a collective moniker, The October Society—helm ten stand-alone stories in one 90-minute package, so there is diversity but enough of a cohesive vision. Furthermore, it is thankfully more tonally at one with that aforementioned genre treat, as well as its obvious influence of 1982’s EC Comics incarnate Creepshow, than the extremely hit-or-miss duo of 2013’s The ABCs of Death and 2014’s ABCs of Death 2. By now, it goes without saying that, with an omnibus structure from a smorgasbord of artistic voices, some stories will be stronger than others. Tales of Halloween rolls the same way, as some tales are more Halloweeny than other ones, but there is always a sense of macabre fun and danger to put genre buffs in the mood for the season of the witch.
Opening with a main title sequence, rendered in disappointingly shoddy animation, that credits the filmmakers beforehand, the film tries weaving in an omnipresent narrator with Adrienne Barbeau essentially reprising her role as breathy radio disc jockey Stevie Wayne in John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980). Launching this compendium of ghoulish stories is “Sweet Tooth,” in which an urban legend comes to grisly life when a babysitter and her boyfriend end up eating all of her charge’s candy. Writer-director-editor Dave Parker (The Hills Run Red) spins a humdinger of a story-within-a-story, perfect for around the campfire, and it sets the tone for the entire film with a devilishly wicked cautionary tale that should put the kiddies on a candy strike. Next up is director Darren Lynn Bousman’s (he of three of the Saw sequels) “The Night Billy Raised Hell,” in which a neighborhood recluse (Barry Boswick), the devil himself, spreads plenty of mischief and uses innocent trick-or-treater Billy (Marcus Eckert) to do the evil deeds. This one is subjectively familiar of 2004 feature Satan’s Little Helper, but Barry Boswick’s full-tilt-boogie turn is darkly amusing, and Bousman caps it all off with a mean resolution.
The third segment, “Trick,” follows two couples at home who are terrorized and dispatched by a group of malevolent trick-or-treaters. Directed by Adam Gierasch (2010’s Night of the Demons remake), it is well-shot, suspenseful, and features one cleverly sick little twist that changes perspective. As for director Paul Solet’s (Grace, Dark Summer) contribution, “The Weak and the Wicked” stands out from the rest for being a strange revenge-fueled western between a trio of murderous hoodrats (Grace Phipps, Noah Segan, Booboo Stewart) and a wannabe vigilante (Keir Gilchrist) in a Viking costume. Given the title, it’s also the weakest. “Grim Grinning Ghost,” written and directed by Axelle Carolyn (who spearheaded the whole project), is a great rebound from there. After leaving a Halloween party hosted by her mother (Lynn Shaye), a young woman (Alex Essoe) experiences car trouble and then suspects her walk back home comes with being stalked by a ghostly woman. Ominous and tense, this particular tale is the creepiest of the bunch and ends with a perfectly timed jolt. Director Lucky McKee’s (May, The Woman) “Ding Dong” makes a creepy allusion to “Hansel and Gretel” as a woman (Pollyanna McIntosh) grieves over the loss of her child every Halloween, so much that her emasculated husband (Marc Senter) can’t handle it when she turns into an actual witch. McIntosh gives an inspiredly nutso performance, enhanced by some seriously freaky effects.
Directors John Skipp and Andrew Kasch’s (Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy) “This Means War” starts with silent-film promise, as a Halloween traditionalist (Dana Gould) finds a new rival when a goth metalhead (James Duval) moves in next door and ups the ante with front-yard decorations. Their war escalates with good use of Modest Mussorgky’s operatic “Night on Bald Mountain,” but it can only end badly, and predictably so. Director Mike Mendez’s (Big Ass Spider!) amusing “Friday the 31st” begins with a young woman dressed as Dorothy Gale running from a masked killer and stumbling upon his lair, but then a UFO hovering above turns the whole scenario on its head. If The Evil Dead met Friday the 13th, this would be the bonkers, overtly comedic result. “The Ransom of Rusty Rex,” directed by Ryan Schifrin (Abominable), has two kidnappers (Sam Witwer, Jose Pablo Cantillo) getting more than they bargained for when they kidnap a wealthy man’s child (the late Ben Woolf from TV’s American Horror Story) who turns out to be a little impish. This one is a change of pace, broader in tone but still nasty enough to fit well into the proceedings. Finally, director Neil Marshall’s (The Descent) “Bad Seed” finds a police detective (Kristina Klebe) who pursues a pumpkin’s killing spree that leads her to uncover a conspiracy, à la Halloween III: Season of the Witch. The set-up is hokey fun and the effects are pretty seamless, but it leaves one wanting more.
Without going out of its way to intersect each story—Adrienne Barbeau’s narration as the local radio DJ is a constant and it seems every character likes watching b&w horror classics, like Night of the Living Dead—the only thing standing in the way of Tales of Halloween becoming a definitive Halloween perennial is a really strong set of closers, which become more silly than scary. None of the weaker ones are bad per se, but as one gets to the ninth and tenth stories, the hopes that the filmmakers would aim more for terror and actual scares are dashed. Otherwise, most of the stories are aesthetically picturesque and the whole kit and caboodle has enough replay value for slumber parties. As a bonus to the fun, plenty of horror icons, including Lin Shaye, Barbara Crampton, and directors John Landis, Joe Dante, Stuart Gordon, Mick Garris and Adam Green, make cameos. In a perfect world, the sum of its parts would have added up to a more satisfying whole, but if anything, Tales of Halloween should continue a tradition of Halloween-themed buffets to follow.
Tales of Halloween is now in select theaters and available on VOD/iTunes.