Most people in the present have probably discovered All Hallows Eve by moving backwards from Terrifier 2, Damien Leone’s breakout blockbuster, and its predecessor, Terrifier, the first film to feature his character Art the Clown as protagonist. Released three years before Terrifier, All Hallows Eve marks the first feature-length appearance of Art the Clown, albeit not – quite – as a main character yet. For All Hallows Eve is an anthology film, revolving around a babysitter and two children who discover an unmarked video cassette in the midst of their Halloween swag. In 2013, horror cinema was fixated on the “video nasty” as the peak of an older material film culture, and the children receive a literal video nasty here. It contains three short films, each of which explores a different subgenre of horror, with Art as the common denominator. The first is cult horror, the second is alien horror, but only in the third, an exercise in splatter horror, and prosthetic gore, does Art become a fully-formed protagonist.
In other words, All Hallows’ Eve is a horror release for the late DVD store era – a time when video cassettes were still just within general living memory, but when rental outlets had largely become a repository for the most arcane, obscure and low-budget of straight-to-DVD releases. Each one of the short films here could easily be expanded into one of the many releases destined to languish on DVD rental shelves, turning the film into a transition point between VHS, DVD and the streaming era beyond. All Hallows’ Eve also plays, in retrospect, as an inception point for the distinctive styles of both Terrifier and Terrifier 2. The vividly shot framing device of the babysitter, children and suburban home could be taken straight out of the neo-80s world of Terrifier 2, while the grittier and grainier VHS footage is more aligned with the home video address of Terrifier. Notably, for a director who has become infamous for extravagant prosthetic gore, Leone relies more on classical suspense here – at least until the third story, when the facial trauma of Art the Clown’s subsequent work starts to emerge.
Just as All Hallows’ Eve anticipates the style of both Terrifier and Terrifier 2, so Leone already seems aware that he’s staking a claim for the next great horror franchise. It’s there in the very title of the film, which is another name for Halloween, but also in the television broadcast of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead that plays throughout the narrative. Leone continually cuts back to this broadcast, which also occurs in Terrifier 2, blending the diegetic world of the video with the framing device of the babysitter. Like Romero, Leone is making a bid for low-budget visionary horror, using the first Living Dead film to show that even a modest debut can evolve into an enduring franchise. Still, Art remains somewhat loosely formed during the first two parts of All Hallows’ Eve. He’s played by Mike Giannelli, who has a less angular face than David Robert Thornton, who inherits the role in the Terrifier films, while there’s a clearer distinction between his mask and face, delaying the facial obsessions of Terrifier until the third story. In effect, this version of Art the Clown is a descendant of Michael Myers, blanker and less contorted than Thornton, who claims the role as his own.
Similarly, the first two stories largely shy away from gore in favour of the grotesque surrealism and esoteric weirdness of the classical video nasty. Charting backwards, Terrifier 2 took place in a series of simulacral suburban spaces, and Terrifier unfolded in an anonymous abandoned building, so the settings of All Hallows’ Eve – at least those that occur in the video footage – are even more abstract and diffuse. Insofar as these scenes have a “location,” they conform to the blurry coordinates of nightmare spaces. In fact, the second story revolves around a painting of Art that emerges directly from a nightmare. We learn from the main character here that her husband dreamed of Art’s face, woke up, and found that he’d already painted it. The rest of the first two stories are just as oblique, full of elliptical and imagistic transitions, and stories that proceed by morbid association, rather than in any conventionally linear way.
This is one of the great achievements of All Hallows’ Eve – to capture the diffuse terror of nightmares – and it gradually coalesces around empty spaces and blank zones that resonate brilliantly against the low budget look and address of the film as a whole. Some of these occur inside the video footage, such as the “sound of nothing” that greets a new homeowner, or the darkness at the end of a tunnel where a group of women are chained up. Some of them occur in the babysitter’s house, where Leone continually hones in on the same vertical blinds, or open cupboard door. However, in both cases, these blank spaces culminate with the blackness of the television screen, and the blackness of the unlabelled VHS tape, which Leone foregrounds just before we launch into the third story, and the appearance of Art the Clown as full protagonist. Leone signals this shift by a series of match cuts between the sliver of darkness peeping through the open cupboard door and the blackness of the television screen, before cutting between the vacant screen and the other objects in the downstairs living room.
In doing so, Leone captures the ineffable sense that, by engaging with material media, we were “entering” film as a discrete physical space that was somehow even darker and more amorphous than a cinema theatre. Combined with the unimaginable depths of depravity promised by the video nasty, this suffuses All Hallows’ Eve with a tactile blackness, a sensuous inkiness, that is coterminous with the allure of material media itself. All three of the stories on the tape take place against this blackness, which also corresponds to the signature garbage bag that Art uses to carry his torture equipment wherever he goes. While Art’s bag becomes a trademark of the Terrifier films, we feel it before we see it here, through two main surrogates – bags bulging with candy, and bodies bulging with viscera. By dumping the video cassette in the candy bag, Art, and Leone, compare the inky interiority of material media to a a body full of organs – harbinger of a vivid interior topography that you feel before you see.
No surprise, then, that the first two images that really stick in All Hallows’ Eve are the opening pan across a sea of gore and the subsequent shots of the candy bag scattered across the living room table. As Art evolves, Leone will delight more and more in these queasily and viscerally cluttered mise-en-scenes, which often recall Cindy Sherman’s candy-anatomy photographs. At the other end of the film, the third story on the VHS uses this visceral darkness to foreground facial violence as Art’s main canvas in the Terrifier franchise. This narrative mimics 70s celluloid, and uses the most tactile darkness so far to silhouette heads against car windows, before moving into the first sustained violence of the film – Art chopping off a head, and holding it up, as Leone cuts to the viscera pouring from the neck. From there, the main character discovers a disfigured head in her car; is surprised in her car by Art wrapping plastic around her head from behind; is whipped just below the eye by one of Art’s chains; stabs Art in the eye in order to escape; and hitches a ride only for Art to shoot her driver in the head.
Together, these scenes cement defacefication as Art’s modus operandi, and as the driving impetus behind the Terrifier films. Yet whereas the Terrifier franchise amplifies facial violence in an effort to rupture the digital fusion of phones and face, All Hallows’ Eve is closer to material media. Facial violence here feels like a last bastion of the synergy between eye and video cassette, or DVD, tribute to a generation of physical objects whose ultimate purpose was to create ocular and facial trauma. In the end, All Hallows’ Eve is fascinated by the video nasty as the mediator between depictions and experiences of facial violence, ending with Art breaking through the television screen to cement the babysitter’s horrified facial expressions into actual facial violence, splattering viscera across the remaining candy in the process. In that moment, material media is both consummated and exhausted, paving the way for Terrifier and Terrifier 2’s attempts to reinscribe horror on a world of fully virtualised visages.