Jack-O (1995) Review by RevTerry

I fucking hate gourds and their brother the squash (if there is a fucking difference--I'm not an expert on the Cucurbitaceae family). You don't have to eat every fleshy plant just because it has vitamin C in it. That shit is gross. No hate if that's your thing. A lot of people swear by the disgusting ground-fruit, so it might be me. I find the taste is a complex mixture of earthy and bitter, with notes of packing soil. And the strange stringy ass texture doesn't help at all. It’s not all bad though, I guess... This doesn't make me want to eat it, but sometimes when it's cooked just right, it looks like the Graboid guts from Tremors (1990), and that's cool. Oh, and pumpkins are alright in my book because they are a special case. I certainly don't like the taste of pumpkin--it's just as bad as the rest of the squash/gourd family (if not worse for the whole pumpkin-spice factor that gets forced down your throat), but I'm always happy when they start showing up around town. At some point, in Samhain's transformation into the modern Halloween, people stopped carving faces into turnips and shit and settled on the pumpkin, presumably for its optimal carving husk (and because they are more fun to stab). The fruit itself is not particularly thrilling, but I have come to recognize it as the normal person's signal for “it's time to get spooky”. Some of us never really leave the Halloween spirit behind when October ends each year (watching horror movies year round on the regular, just being a creep daily etc…). But when those organic, lumpy basketballs finally return to Walmart, it means that, for a little while at least, the rest of America is about to get a little creep-tastic as well. The pumpkins mark that occasion. I also get a kick out of carving one up into a scary face or some shit. Not usually a tradition kind of guy, I still find it hard not to love playing with knives and making a mess (as long as I don't have to taste any of the offensive orange flesh). Even better is seeing what other people manage to stab out of their own pumpkins. I love checking out the neighborhood and inspecting what those on the block have hacked on to their own fleshy canvas. You don't even have to be a great artist to make something Halloween appropriate. Just as long as it's spooky, which is key. I'm not down with the pop culture, comedic or cute pumpkins. It has to be a scary face or just do the triangle eye classic. Keep it appropriate for fuck's sake-- for the kids. It's Halloween. You have to at least try and elicit a few scares--like the movie Jack-O (1995).
The film opens with a man and boy as they sit on logs in front of a campfire. Abruptly, the adult (Bernie Fidello  in a weasley voice fit only for a creepy bus driver or something) starts into the story of a vengeful spirit known as Jack-O, as the boy, Sean (Ryan Latshaw), listens on like an unmanned muppet. Apparently, the incident, which involved a wizard and an ancestor of the duo (played by Ryan Latshaw as well), invoked an unkillable monster with a seasonally appropriate giant, glowing pumpkin for a head. The creature, forged from the wizard’s hatred with a bone to pick, runs around killing those with the last name Kelly and anyone else that gets in its way. As the father barks this at Sean, a mysterious woman watches from the woods but does not rouse the attention of the two. Instead, the movie cuts to the boy waking up in his bed in fright, as if both the campout and the father's tale had been a dream. He jumps from his bed and runs to the window where he peers out into the backyard. Its extra spooky out there, so he jumps back in bed and (his best creepy kid voice) whispers “the pumpkin man” straight into the camera. The credits play over stock footage of lightning, and afterward, we see Sean and two other children on the way to school. The neighborhood decorations bring the kids to a very natural sounding discussion about “Jack the pumpkin man”. One of the kids is very hostile about the whole thing, and after verbally and almost physically assaulting the other two for not being Jack-O believers, he decides to throw rocks at some lady for being a witch. Luckily he isn't a very good shot, and his first handful lands embarrassingly short. When he goes for another try, Sean, sick of his bullshit at this point, tells him to cut it out. Unsurprisingly, the kid with issues and a handful of rocks doesn't take criticism well, so he knocks Sean down for the ol’ movie-kids-fight ground and pound. Before any real damage is done, the would-be stoning victim (Catherine Walsh, who unbeknownst to Sean had been lurking in the woods during his quasi-father-son camping trip, that may or may not have been a dream) runs over to break up the beating. After scolding Sean's ex-homie, the stranger, who introduces herself as Vivian Machen, accompanies him home for whatever reason. After a short walk, she meets his father (Gary Doles ). Vivian explains Sean's honorable tussle and insists on helping his father decorate for Halloween.  She hangs out for bit, mostly long enough to also tell a version of the Jack-O VS the Kellys legend, adding an emphasis on the Kellys’ role and the possibility that the pumpkin-headed demon was still out there doing his thing. It's about this time that Sean really starts tripping balls, having visions of creepy mood lighting, fog, and of Jack-O himself. In these strange waking nightmares, he is visited by a babbling man in a hood and the bloodied ghost of Jack-O’s victims. Having had three people recite the legend to him recently, and being a pretty reasonable pre-teen, Sean tries to shake off the hallucinations as his imagination. Sure enough, as Halloween draws closer, the bodies start piling up around town, and Sean's visions start to seem more tangible. It becomes apparent that the Jack-O is more than just a legend and might be out for Sean and his entire family.  Decapitations and low-rent slasher style babysitter shenanigans follow, as the living embodiment of an after-Halloween sale at Walmart stalks the fictional town of Oakmoor Crossing.
Jack-O (aka Jacko Lantern) was directed by Steve Latshaw and produced by Fred Olen Ray. It was the third film in three years that Latshaw directed for Olen Ray’s American Independent Productions, following Dark Universe (1993) and Biohazard: The Alien Force (1994). All three films were quickly shot in 1993 in Florida, utilizing much of the same cast and crew.  After the partnership, Latshaw continued to work in low budget cinema, predominantly as a writer providing the script for things like Megaconda (2010, directed by Fred Olen Ray’s son, Christopher Ray) and The Curse of the Komodo (2004, Jim Wynorski). Latshaw’s longtime collaborator Patrick Morgan pulls double duty on Jack-O as he did with the other two aforementioned films, being credited as both a writer and as the actor behind the titular monster mask. Moran had previously worked with Latshaw on their debut film Vampire Trailer Park in 1991, and the two would reunite behind the camera for Return of the Killer Shrews in 2012.
The film's story is pretty standard cornball stuff padded with dead ends and stock footage. Latshaw plays it seriously, almost entirely, using only a few intentionally comedic lines (that I can remember). It's almost endearing how much the film is not in on the joke. Trying it's best to establish a lore for its creature, it repeats it's “old nursery rhyme” numerous times, which only seems less authentic or spooky with each rendition. I think parts are supposed to be ripped off from Pumpkinhead (1988) and have taken its title to a literal extreme, but they come off more like the 90s gritty reboot of It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966). There is a ton going on, especially considering how much actually happens when you add it up in the end. It introduces characters seemingly by the minute sometimes, they appear, blurt out a few lines and just kind of meander off, possibly being killed, taking their plot points with them. The chunk of the film, pre pumpkin -man massacre, would feel like unrelated television episodes--if the same wooden kid didn't show up every so often to link them. There are some strange winks at the father's infidelities, shrugged off nonchalantly, with no purpose. Leana Quigley’s shower scene comes out of nowhere, intercut with unrelated subplots for ten minutes (not a complaint) before she is even introduced, and she is one of the more lasting characters. It's a fucking mess of stolen elements and fillers that have been strung together to somehow to make a warm b-movie blanket, perfect for fall. It's really the lack of tongue in cheek humor that makes it great. There is no point in charting the holes in the story of the film, and it will be more fun to experience them yourself. It's never boring, even as it struggles through long periods of broken dialog, as its beauty lies in its pure awkward, unintentional humor and straight-faced love of the holiday.
Along with its intentions of being a serious horror film, it also makes some earnest attempts at being a Halloween “holiday” movie. The slice-of-life scenes really want to go for that Stephen King family retro thing (the late 80s/90s one, not the 2017 IT, Stranger Things one we have going on now, think more Silver Bullet and 1990's IT) and tries to impose a whimsical vibe despite its bloodshed. It picks up the familiar yearly horror marathon moments from Halloween (1978) as well as a few flea market versions of its characters and soundtrack. The holiday is its unifying feature and it is prominent in everything, from all the random pointless subplots to its makeshift monster's legend. The whole thing feels like a crowd-sourced list of favorite Halloween related cliches acted out in a local school play. No matter how ridiculous it is at any given moment, it stays true to the holiday spirit. Just like John Carpenter's genre-defining classic (only much less successful in this and many regards), it yearns to be the kind of flick that gets played on through the years in Halloween movie marathons. It partially succeeded in at least that one regard, as I watch it yearly myself, although it may not be for entirely intended reasons. At its best moments, it feels like an extra bloody Halloween special of a 90s family TV show (like the Friday night kind), but at the same time, behind all the stolen pieces and goofy ass moments, there is a lot of love for the only holiday worth celebrating, I can get behind that.
In the spirit of true honesty, Jack-O is damn near pure garbage. Every release I have seen has terrible sound that seems to get the loudest just as an actor’s voice breaks or gets too squealy. There's a possibility that before editing, some of the story made more sense but was chopped into a cinematic salad. More than once we see a character’s face on the screen without knowing who the character is, as if it was just a leftover snippet from a later part of the film, and it somehow slipped into the wrong pile. The film also features more than one point where a character must wake up twice inside of a nightmare. A trick that doesn't go over well when done just once on TV shows for comedic effect and is even less effective in a “serious” horror when done multiple times (for no reason). The lighting is somehow too bright and too dark at the same time, which is a neat trick. Most of the nighttime moments look like they were filmed in a dark fictional interrogation room with the spotlight haphazardly placed on some of the important action. To its credit, the color pallet was chosen well for every scene to help make it feel like the right season, and to give it a suburban fall flavor despite being filmed in February. There is a pretty high body count, with most of the victims being decapitated. Rolling heads and blood splatter are the go-to, but there is a few uniquely goofy kills, including an old lady that accidentally gets cooked into a Kmart skeleton by her pop up toaster. The music, provided by Jeffrey Walton, does it's best to follow along with the familiar elements by cribbing the soundtracks of the classics that came before it. It all comes together as the kind of entertainment that's going to lose a few types of viewer in its first few scenes but can provide yearly holiday cheer for the right crowd.
As per her usual, all-time favorite Linnea Quigley is easily the highlight of another b-movie. In this case, not only is she the most engaging of all the actors on screen, but she also provides ninety percent of the nudity and fifty percent of the film’s sparse intentional humor. Both John Carradine and Cameron Mitchell appear in the film posthumously via Fred Olen Ray's canned footage stash. Mitchell’s horror TV host filler is one of my favorite parts and helps with the whimsical mood of the film. The Carradine footage feels disconnected, but most of his later roles were phoned-in anyway, so it's not too jarring (even being filmed eight years prior). Also making the cast via cut-and-paste, Brinke Stevens is seen briefly on the Kelly family's television, running around in a black cape.  Among the cast carried over from 1994s Biohazard, Steve Latshaw brought Catherine Walsh and his son, Ryan Latshaw. Ryan who also previously had a role in Latshaw’s Dark Universe (1993), plays this film de facto lead with the grace of a sentient wounded piece of wood. It really is some terrible acting and there is a lot of him in the film. In his defense, it works with everything else the film has going on, and frankly, ninety percent of child actors suck, especially in horror films.
Jack-O is a special kind of enjoyable holiday garbage. Is it a well-made movie? No, not at all. It's very, very fucking bad in almost every respect. But it fails in such entertaining and oblivious ways, that I find myself watching it once a year, right around the time the pop-up costume stores open their doors for business. It doesn't get much more seasonal than a killer demon with a pumpkin for its head. Plus, It may not be scary, but it gives it a fucking try, and that's all I ask of anyone on Halloween. So this year, when you carve up the one exclusion I have to my almost universal hatred of squash, Remember Jack-O and resist the urge to cut yourself short by going cute, funny or meta with your pumpkin. Instead just try your damnedest to make something scary, even if you fail miserably...
| 1995
Director: Steve Latshaw

Writers: Brad Linaweaver, Patrick Moran and Fred Olen Ray

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Review by:
RevTerry


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