Halloween isn’t exactly a taboo or transgressive part of American culture – especially in today’s climate of political correctness and heightened parental supervision, which has sanded off some of the holiday’s more dangerous edges and ushered forth a safer, softer version of “spooky.”
But, step back and really consider the customs of this particular celebration, and the outright weirdness of it all really begins to reveal itself. Think about it: on one specific night each year, it’s perfectly normal for masked strangers to walk onto your property, demand an offering of goods, and issue a thinly veiled threat of mischief and/or mayhem if you don’t comply. Pretty bizarre, isn’t it?
“Wants to be both a slasher flick and a home-invasion thriller…”
Of course, that kind of thinking discounts the fact that there’s a real innocence and sweetness to Halloween, as well – anyone who’s so buttoned-up that they can’t happily share some inexpensive candy with the neighborhood kids or good-naturedly gush over a homemade Wonder Woman or Buzz Lightyear costume is probably no fun the other 364 days of the year, either. But still, this hasn’t stopped lots of horror filmmakers from using Halloween tradition as a springboard for all manner of terror and carnage, much of which specifically revolves around the practice of trick-or-treating. In a wildly influential movie that is, right down to its title, the definitive cinematic treatment of the Halloween holiday, John Carpenter posed the question best: on a night when superstition tells us that evil and death are as close to this world as they can possibly get, can you really trust your fellow human beings (especially when they’re, say, hidden behind a dead-eyed William Shatner mask)?
Writer/director Brian Coyne’s Bad Apples is the latest film to exploit this idea, and while, quality-wise, it’s not in the same ballpark as Carpenter’s classic, it proves that the premise – much like Michael Myers himself – will never stay dead for long.
The film’s titular “bad apples” are tween-age twin girls (Alycia Lourim and Heather Vaughn) who share both an inseparable sisterly bond and a giddy appetite for murder. Born under horrific circumstances on Halloween night years before, the twins – disguised in creepy doll-face masks a la The Strangers – decide to take their bloody revenge on a picturesque suburban neighborhood on All Hallow’s Eve, eventually bringing their reign of terror to the home of a young married couple (Brea Grant and Graham Skipper) who moved in just the day before.
That’s the movie in a nutshell, a serviceable if unoriginal setup for what could be a tense, unsettling little Halloween-themed bloodbath. The issues, however, mostly lie in the execution. It’s definitely not a problem that Bad Apples wants to be both a slasher flick and a home-invasion thriller – those two flavors of horror go together like the proverbial peanut butter and chocolate – but tonal confusion and some clunkily choreographed suspense sequences hold it back from being fully satisfying in either of those areas.
“Could be a tense, unsettling little Halloween-themed bloodbath…”
To Coyne’s credit, the chosen aesthetic certainly works in Bad Apples‘ favor. Shot in flat, gritty tones reminiscent of 70s drive-in exploitation movies or the subsequent decade’s shot-on-VHS slashers, it nicely hearkens back to an era of horror before the prevalence of PG-13 ratings and computer-generated bloodshed (the gore effects on display look entirely practical, and decent, at that). Grant makes for an appealing and sympathetic lead, generating some real audience concern especially in the scenes that find her character trapped in the house being menaced by the murderous duo. The twins speak only in maniacal titters and high-pitched “trick or treats” – any villain-monologuing about their backstory is thankfully avoided – and it’s their relative silence that makes them so frightening.
Well, that and, of course, those masks, which are damn creepy.
Where Bad Apples falters most obviously, though, is in its curious refusal to commit to a tone. At times, the film hints at a more gonzo, over-the-top approach that potentially could have worked in its favor; the opening sequence is Troma-level tasteless, and a kill scene involving cats is amusing if patently ridiculous. Elsewhere, though, there are feints in the direction of a more serious, hard-hitting form of horror – something in the vein of Last House on the Left or the aforementioned Strangers, which didn’t couch their grim nihilism in silliness the way that Bad Apples at times awkwardly does. A dramatic reveal late in the game might have had some emotional weight in a film that didn’t spend so much time setting up goofy supporting characters like a busybody neighbor (Diane Goldner) and a fundamentalist high school principal (Richard Riehle), but here it seems to come from an entirely different movie and, frankly, doesn’t work at all.
“Bad Apples might at least make you think twice about who you’re handing over that fun-size Snickers bar to next year…”
There’s a similarly muddled feeling to Bad Apples‘ direction. The stalk-and-slash stuff occasionally works well, but juxtaposed with some unintentionally slapstick-y staging – a moment in which characters are incapacitated by a shower curtain is downright cartoonish, for example – the tension is too often deflated just when it should be really escalating. The film does have a few good scares, but they’re never allowed to build toward anything truly gripping.
It’s a shame that that’s the case, because it’s horror films like this one, based on relatable, down-to-earth fears, that can really get under a person’s skin when they’re done right. Seriously, who hasn’t been at least somewhat freaked out when someone who’s clearly a little too old for trick-or-treating shows up on the doorstep a bit too long after all the familiar kiddies have filled their candy bags for the night? If nothing else, Bad Apples might at least make you think twice about who you’re handing over that fun-size Snickers bar to next year.
Bad Apples (2018) Written and directed by Brian Coyne. Starring Brea Grant, Graham Skipper, Alycia Lourim, Richard Riehle, Diane Goldner, and Miles Dougal.
2 stars out of 5