Written by: Steve Latshaw, Patrick Moran, and Fred Olen Ray
Directed by: Steve Latshaw
Starring: Linnea Quigley, Ryan Latshaw, and Maddisen K. Krown
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
It's harvest time.
When it comes to cinematic Halloween haunts, 1995ís Jack-O isnít just the unrefined B-side to John Carpenterís elegant opus; instead, itís more like a kooky studio jingle tuned to an entirely different key. A low-rent, gratuitous, and altogether brain-dead offering from executive producer Fred Olen Ray, it nonetheless reflects the 90s direct-to-video market quite favorably and serves as a reminder that these homespun horrors could outrun their paucity with an authentic charm. Released right at the dawn of the genreís post-modern awakening, itís refreshingly bereft of ironyóit might be a bad, dumb slasher movie, but itís an earnestly bad, dumb slasher movie.
On the eve of Halloween, young Sean Kelly (Ryan Latshaw) hears a campfire tale detailing his hometownís infamous lore: decades ago, his ancestors lynched a supposed warlock, who promptly cursed the Kelly clan for eternity. Ever since, the town of Oakmoor Crossing has been haunted by the legend of Jack-O, a demon sent to exact revenge on behalf of the warlock. This year, myth finally becomes reality after a bunch of dopey, drunk teens stumble upon and desecrate a local gravesite, thus unleashing Jack-O on the unsuspecting town on All Hallows Eve.
Jack-O doesnít have an original bone in its body, with its central concept being nothing more than an obvious Pumpkinhead riff, only its character literally features a pumpkin for a head when he doles out blood-soaked punishment. Itís a parade of familiar ideas done rather badly by most conventional measures: the acting is below sub-par almost across the board, and Latshaw (here a benefit--or victim--of nepotism) especially delivers a wholly unconvincing performance (when confronted by the scythe-wielding maniac, he protests with all the conviction of a kid whoís being forced to eat spinach). It doesnít help that the script doesnít require anyone to act like anything resembling a human being either, so the film is full of stupefying decisions and incredulous reactions. When combined with the choppy editing, it makes the proceedings supremely awkward, as dramatic moments feel more like dead air since no one seems to be receiving any discernible direction.
But, goddamnit, when has this ever mattered in a cheap splatter movie, really? While it probably depends on oneís conditioning, itís pretty easy to stomach this sort of thing when itís surrounded by a complete willingness to get the rest of the formula right, namely (and predictably) gory dispatches and gratuitous nudity. Jack-O might revolve around a demonís attempt to kill a child (it turns out that Sean must be sacrificed to satisfy the curse), but itís sort of the perfect adolescent slasher movie since it feels so harmless, even when itís flinging about severed heads and electrocuting old ladies to death. Once it gets to slashing after a slow start thatís full of bizarre dream sequences, flashbacks, and suburban drama (Seanís parents have to arrange a babysitter and settle for Linnea Quigley, thus securing an award for Best Parents Ever), Jack-O manages to be quite fun since the kills are varied and well-realized by decent effects work (save for a couple instances of primitive CGI).
Of course, it canít completely outrun that cheap vibe; however, it at least has a very specific cheap vibe. Olen Ray only serves as a producer and writer here, but his familiar brand of handcrafted filmmaking feels evident; I enjoy that itís not only cheap, but that itís cheap in a particularly 90s, off-brand sort of way. Jack-O is the generic brand of Halloween cereal that you might find alongside Count Chocula, and I actually mean that as a compliment. Without many expensive resources, director Steve Latshaw goes total dimestore with it, as everything from Seanís generic Jason mask to the lawn decorations look like they were culled from some local aisles and shoved in front of the cameras. Much of the filmís charm in this regard is reflected by the Kellyís ďhaunted garage,Ē a local attraction that relies on silly gags like cauliflower substituting as brains and a bunch of cheap props (one of them is exactly like the one we used to put on our front porch as a kid). Iím almost surprised that Jack-O himself (who actually looks pretty awesome, so itís clear where the miniscule budget went) isnít brought to life by one of those plastic pumpkins kids use for trick or treating.
Jack-O exhibits some palatable reverence for the genre, too; it might look like itís being put on by a bunch of folks that decided to essentially bring a local spook attraction to cinematic life, but they at least had the sense to fill it out with some familiar names. In keeping with the Z-movie theme, the regulars are the sort of folks that donít immediately spring to mind when discussing horror icons, such as Quigley, Cameron Mitchell (in his final role), and John Carradine. The latter two donít figure heavily into things, as the former pops up as a TV horror host for the Halloween marathon (a conceit that allows Latshaw to conjure up even more bad movies within his already bad movie), while the latter is the old warlock thanks to archive footage (Carradine actually passed away in 1988, so this is a very special appearance by the elders statesman). Jack-O also captures Halloween itself quite well, and thereís a fun diversion involving a couple of trick or treaters who dare to hit up the town curmudgeon, a local entrepreneur that accosts the duo for wanting a handout (if not for Jack-O, this guy would have surely become a card-carrying member of the Tea Party, so maybe we should rethink who the villain really is here).
The last of Steve Latshawís collaborations with Olen Ray in the 90s, Jack-O is (if nothing else) a fine example of shoestring filmmaking that stands in sharp relief to the cynical junk that hails from the dregs of direct-to-video territory. Boasting a genuine charm that canít be faked, it went on to become something of a cult favorite and even received an unexpected boost when Phil Donahue ranted against it. Iím not sure that anyone was exactly foaming at the mouth for a Deluxe 10th Anniversary Edition back in 2005, but thatís exactly what Retromedia delivered. While the disc is packed with extras that include a commentary with Latshaw and Olen Ray, a behind-the-scenes video, a trailer, and promotion for Latshawís Gator Babes, it features a substandard non-anamorphic transfer that doesnít do some of the filmís cooler visuals any favors (Iíll stop just short of praising them as ďstylized Euro-trash visualsĒ like the liner notes do, but theyíre occasionally striking all the same). Letís face it: Halloween movies are slim pickings, and Jack-O is definitely that weird house at the end of the street that hands out off-brand stuff, but sometimes thatís exactly what you're craving. Rent it!
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