‘Hack-O-Lantern’ (1988): Small-town satanic panic in the South on Halloween

And you thought your family had problems.

By Jason Hink

We’ve been lazy here at Movies and Drinks—LAZY, I tell ya. We show up late, we leave early, and we write reviews when we feel like it. Our work ethic is suspect and we lack integrity. So, in September we decided we were going to prove everyone wrong…we were going to prove that we do occasionally put in work at this website (when we haven’t had too much to drink, of course)…and with that goal in mind, we’ve posted a new review here each and every day throughout the month of October.

So, it’s been a successful month. And that brings us to today—the final day of October, which just happens to be Halloween. So what better way to go back to our lazy posting schedule than with a review of the low-budget, direct-to-video trash rental-shelf filler, 1988’s Hack-O-Lantern?

I should have kept drinking.

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Directed by India-born Jag Mundhra and starring Hy Pyke (creepy!), Gregory Scott Cummins (psycho!), Katina Garner (decent performance), Carla Baron (who goes by Carla B. now, apparently), Jeff Brown (so earnest), and scene-stealing adult film star Jeanna Fine (credited more familiarly, I’m sure, as Angel Rush), Hack-O-Lantern (aka Halloween Night) is one of those films that you recognize the cover art after glossing over all those cool VHS boxes in the video store all those years ago—those films where the art was much better than the movies themselves, and it didn’t matter one damn bit to us on a lonely, bored, internetless Friday night. But today, I still can’t stop pinching myself at how many of these obscure memories are being brought back to life for those of us who remember them in high-quality, HD presentations—this time by boutique distributor Massacre Video, which recently released Hack-O-Lantern on Blu-ray with a new 2K restoration from the film’s original camera negative, along with a bevy of extras.

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Yes, kids. Things are getting weird up in this town.
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This is who you find in a small, Southern town in the late 80s.

It’s the small-town, rural South, 1960s. It’s Halloween, and little Tommy’s paid a visit by his weirdo, creepy grandfather (Hy Pyke), whose pickup is full of ripe pumpkins he plans to deliver to folks throughout the town. But when he visits his grandson, he gives Tommy an occult amulet. When Tommy’s mother, Amanda (Katina Garner), finds out, she’s not a happy camper (she smashes Tommy’s pumpkin, injuring his finger in the process). When little Tommy’s father finds out what’s going on, he confronts his father-in-law, [Spoilers] which leads to his gruesome death, leaving Amanda to raise her three children alone, forever living under the shadow of her father, who we learn is part of a shadowy cult complete with candle-lit cult meetings in dusty barns with hooded cult members sacrificing animals, branding its members, and murdering humans when necessary.

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Hy Pyke as the creepy grandpa & leader of the satanic cult.
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These guys do their best work in barns. (Be careful with those candles!)

Fast-forward to current day, 1988. Adult Tommy (Gregory Scott Cummins) is now a wide-eyed, heavy-metal loving wannabe rock star (we know this because there’s an interlude showing Tommy dreaming of rock stardom, complete with a late-80s, MTV-style performance video to prove it). He still sports the amulet his grandfather gave him as a child, and now grandpa thinks it’s time to initiate Tommy into the club—to make him a full-fledged satanist. Gross dialogue alluding to incest between grandpa and Amanda, Tommy’s mother, leads to grandpa hoping his grandson (or is it his son? Ewww) can take over one day as the cult’s new leader.

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Tommy (Gregory Scott Cummins) dreams of rock stardom, & his dreams are full blown performance videos.
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This is one hell of a Halloween party.

Seemingly out of nowhere, we learn that Tommy isn’t an only child, and his little brother, Roger (Jeff Brown), is a deputy with the local sheriff’s office. Roger isn’t too fond of older brother Tommy’s fascination with devil worship and the satanic collectibles littering Tommy’s dark, basement bedroom where he lives under his mother’s house…but Roger has other things to worry about—the annual town Halloween party is nearing, and the sheriff has tasked him with working the party to make sure nothing gets out of hand.

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Amanda (Katina Garner) & her cop son, Roger (Jeff Brown).
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Roger (Jeff Brown) is aghast at what he sees. Aghast, I tell ya!

In charge of setting up the Halloween party is Tommy’s and Roger’s sister, Vera (Carla Baron), and when a Halloween party is staged in a cheap, late-80s horror flick in a town filled with a satanist cult, you know you’re in for a good time. With everyone hiding behind makeup and masks at the party, it’s anyone’s guess who’s committing the killings happening throughout the night, and whose blood is real (Halloween is the perfect night to commit murders, is it not?). Throw in some ample T&A and sex scenes and you can pretty much guess how this one will turn out—if you can guess the twist at the end.

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Vera (Carla Baron) helps her friend, Beth (Patricia Christie), into her Halloween garb (don’t worry, guys; it eventually comes off).
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Vera & Beth aren’t sure about this party (and rightly so).

RELATED | More 1980s film reviews

“Satanic panic,” or “satanic ritual abuse” (according to smart people online), was a real thing in the 1980s, a time when this type of moral panic was spread throughout the country by over-religious folk scared shitless at the sight of an Iron maiden album cover in their children’s bedroom or an Ozzy Osbourne T-shirt. I distinctly remember my own brush with satanic panic around the time of this movie. It was 1987 or ’88 and I was in the fourth grade at my little rural elementary school. For decades, our school’s mascot was (gasp!) the Demons. I’m guessing that must have stirred up a witch hunt at the local school board meetings. So, after generations of singing our little school fight song and playing sports as “proud Demons,” I showed up on the morning of the first day of fifth grade to find all the Demon signage and logos had been taken down or painted over; we were now the Dolphins. Everything stayed the same—the fight song lyrics; even our sports uniforms were still black with red trim—except now we were to be “proud Dolphins.” Of course, I had no idea satanic panic was a thing, and had no idea at that age why everything was changed…but it makes sense now.

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Tommy’s girl, Nora (adult film star Jeanna Fine), is quite a party animal.
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Nora is also branded. But even cooler, she drives a Trans-Am.

Hack-O-Lantern is a VHS rental store-era cheapie produced smack-dab in the middle of these satanic-panic times (I’ll betcha many a parent wouldn’t allow their teenage kids to watch this schlock due to the satanic-cult overtones), but like anything else from that era that people got upset about (He-Man and the Masters of the Universe promotes violence? Atari 2600 Combat promotes war? Really??), it’s laughable to think back on it now (those parents would’ve absolutely died if they knew what the coming Internet age was to bring). The movie is typical of the genre and silly at the same time; you’ll laugh at the extended filler scenes (such as the aforementioned heavy metal performance) and an extended parking lot scene at the Halloween party where a comedian gives an impromptu set (it’s not very funny, but the fact that it’s in the film makes it funny). Oh, and there’s also a stripper at this little town’s community Halloween party (does your local Moose Lodge offer that?).

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Amanda ponders what to do about this yearly Halloween crisis.
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Uh oh. Something went wrong here…

As mentioned earlier, the Massacre Video Blu-ray release from 2017 includes a pumpkin bucket full of fun extras. Included is a newly recorded audio commentary with producer Raj Mehrotra; a featurette, The Power is in the Blood, featuring interviews with stars Gregory Scott Cummins and Katina Garner; a “rare public access interview” featuring Katina Garner, Marya Gant and director Jag Mundhra; behind the scenes photos; and trailers for other Massacre Video releases.

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This was one hell of a Halloween party. I want to attend one in real life.
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Then again, this Halloween party has its downside…

Director Jag Mundhra brought a spate of nutty VHS filler to living rooms back in the 80s and 90s with films like Open House (1987), The Jigsaw Murders (1989), Night Eyes (1990), and Last Call (1991). 1988’s Hack-O-Lantern fits nicely with those “classics” (hehe), and while it’s a completely silly, formulaic genre exercise, I admit that I was never bored throughout its 96 minutes, and I can’t ask for more than that for my Halloween night viewing.

Hack-O-Lantern VHS cover

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