Saturday, 30 October 2021

Mischief Night (2013)

Director: Richard Schenkman
Writer: Richard Schenkman, from a story by Jesse Baget and Eric D. Wilkinson
Stars: Noell Coet, Daniel Hugh Kelly, Charlie O’Connell, Erica Leerhsen, Stephanie Erb, Richard Riehle, Ian Bamberg, Adam C. Edwards and Ally Walker

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

There are a few movies named for and set on the surprisingly old but unofficial holiday of Mischief Night, but I had to pick this one because it’s a Richard Schenkman film, his first since one of my very favourite modern science fiction features, 2007’s The Man from Earth. Yet I watched it, wrote a bunch of notes but not a review, came back to it three years later and realised that I’d forgotten the entire thing. Finally putting virtual pen to paper on an actual review, I wonder what it really does and why. It’s obviously a holiday horror, because the entire film takes place on two different 30th Octobers, with almost all of it being the mischief of Mischief Night. These mischiefmongers do more than hurl eggs though, so it becomes a home invasion movie, one that benefits from an additional trick up its sleeve but loses out on back story and motivation. But, and here’s the kicker, none of it really matters in the way that we expect it to matter. It all matters for a completely different reason that we’ve completely forgotten about by that point in the film.

We know that this particular mischiefmaker, whoever he is (and we never get a name, background or even connection), is serious about his mischiefmaking because of the intro sequence, which amounts to a full tenth of the entire movie. It’s routine until it isn’t, with Kim enjoying a romantic bathtub rendezvous with Will while her husband is away in Tokyo. There are red petals and candles everywhere and Will is gonna rip her to shreds, in the most romantic way, of course. But what’s that? Is it a noise? The microwave is messed with and there’s no dialtone. It’s just kids, suggests Kim, messing around on Mischief Night like she used to, but I’d be far more concerned knowing that these particular kids are inside my house and they’ve found and cued up a sextape I recorded with a partner other than my spouse. Really, there are two important things happening here. One is that there are zero naughty bits on display in a movie that starts with a couple getting it on in a bathtub. The other is Will asking, “What the hell is Mischief Night?”

I first heard about it in Detroit, because of how many arson attacks happened in the eighties on what they called Devil’s Night. That prompted a response from concerned citizens called Angels’ Night, which can see up to 40,000 volunteers patrolling the streets to keep them safe from criminals. In Baltimore, it’s called Moving Night, because the traditional illegal activity there is stealing porch furniture. With the mindset that it’s OK to do something illegal on one night of the year, it’s not difficult to see where a concept like the Purge came from. When the father of our leading lady was growing up, he called it Cabbage Night, which some American states and Canadian provinces still do today, where the tradition is to throw cabbages at each other and at cars or houses. Others go with Gate Night, because of the thinking that the gates of Hell open this night before Hallowe’en. Mischief Night is the name it carries in New Jersey, New York, New Orleans and a bunch of other northern states that don’t have New in their names.

This leading lady is Emily and she’s in therapy but not for anything to do with Mischief Night. At least, not yet! She’s seventeen and her trauma goes back to when she was eight, when her mother crashed the car with her in the back seat. She was found in the snow almost frozen to death, attempting to seek help after mum died. For no apparent reason, she blames herself. “It was my fault,” she emphasises to her therapist, Dr. Pomock. However, she also claims not to remember what happened, which contradiction is surely the reason why she still has psychosomatic blindness after nine years. She can’t see at all, but there’s no medical reason for it. Once she comes to terms with what happened, says Dr. Pomock, her sight will return. And, just so you don’t forget that, I’ll point out that this movie, in a truly bizarre way, constitutes Emily coming to terms with what happened. Perhaps the message here, folks, is that a home invasion is better than therapy and it sure doesn’t take nine years to get results.

I found it easy to like Emily, as stubborn as she seems to be in her therapist’s office. In there, she looks completely normal. Outside, she wears dark sunglasses and uses a white cane that folds away neatly in sections. When she gets home, she’s almost as functional as you and I, even though she hasn’t lived in this particular house for more than a few months. And you’ll recognise the house, for it’s the same one we saw earlier, where mischevious kids presumably murdered Will and quite possibly Kim as well. I’d have liked a lot more exploration of what it means to be psychosomatically blind, especially in a new house, but Schenkman, who also wrote the script from a story by Jesse Baget and Eric D. Wilkinson, doesn’t ignore it. Clearly, Emily is mapping out the place within her mind, especially important when she’s raiding the freezer, cooking food or noting mentally where a glass bowl dropped and broke on the floor. She’s certainly a tough kid, eager to go to her boyfriend Jimmy’s family cabin so that he can teach her how to ski.

There are nice touches on this front early on. She has her headphones on a lot, as if the absence of one sense means that she feels a need to live in another. She has them on when Jimmy climbs in through her bedroom window to surprise her, but she can tell he’s there from his smell, just like she can tell that he’s coloured his hair or her dad’s wearing his lucky shirt, just from the feel. Actress Noell Cort is nineteen believably playing seventeen and she supposedly did a lot of research into blindness before the cameras ever rolled. I’m not entirely convinced about her blindness because her head has a rigidity to it and she seems to read Braille with all ten fingers, but I’ve seen a lot worse portrayals. She endows Emily with guts too; that glass bowl was on a counter but she knocked it off while climbing up to switch off a smoke sensor, balancing almost on the edge. I’d have thought she’d have switched off the lights in her home invasion scenario a lot sooner; that’s something I’ve seen often in other thrillers with blind leading ladies.

And yes, we get a home invasion, presumably by the same dude in a yellow windbreaker who tormented Kim and Will in the intro, however many years earlier that might have been. It’s actually quite refreshing to see her just ignore him, being blind and all. He’s steadfastly clich├ęd in how he shows up in all the places and poses we expect, but where the usual victim/heroine would scream and run, Emily just goes about her business, blissfully ignorant of where he is and what he’s doing, even once she realises he’s inside the house. I liked that the majority of the film hangs on Emily’s shoulders because the other characters who flit in and out are never in it for long. Richard Riehle, in particular, is dead and gone after only a couple of lines. Even Jimmy isn’t there particularly much and he’s Emily’s boyfriend. Why not? Well, that’s a really good question, but it certainly has something to do with getting up to mischief on Mischief Night, albeit hopefully a lot less serious mischief than Yellow Windbreaker guy.

What I didn’t like, on the other hand, is quite a lot of the rest, because the home invasion in this home invasion movie is frankly the least interesting thing about it. I liked Emily a lot, so she had my sympathy throughout and I honestly wanted her to figure out why she’s psychosomatically blind. I liked her dad too, who’s not there on Mischief Night for a really good reason: Emily has talked him into going on his first date in nine years, with her former maths teacher. He’s David and he’s played by McCormick from Hardcastle & McCormick (or Ryan from Ryan’s Hope, depending on your tastes), Daniel Hugh Kelly. I liked Aunt Lauren, played by Stephanie Erb, who shows up at the house at one point. And, though to a lesser degree, I even liked Emily’s boyfriend, Jimmy, even though David is fair when he calls him an idiot. Of course, Emily is fair with her reply: “Well, duh! He’s an eighteen year old boy. They’re all idiots.” I’m really not used to people who are targetted by home invaders in movies being likeable, so that’s rather refreshing.

What isn’t refreshing here is the home invader. I’m not supposed to like home invaders in movies, but I am absolutely supposed to dislike them, to hate them, even fear them. I’m supposed to feel a strong emotional response to them and, quite frankly, ache for a swift and entertaining demise for every goddamn one of them, even if there’s some sort of traumatic event in their past to prompt a little bit of sympathy too. Here, every one of my feelings was for the family, because Yellow Windbreaker is a complete nonentity. We have less back story on who he is and why he’s doing a lot more than mischief on Mischief Night than we do on the Shape in the first Halloween movie. Literally the only back story we have is that this isn’t a new thing for him, because we saw him with Kim and Will in the intro. I’m even assuming that Yellow Windbreaker is male, because it’s fairly within the bounds of possibility that she’s female, even if I personally doubt it. The only thing I can be sure of about Yellow Windbreaker is that he, she or it is a MacGuffin.

Now, I should emphasise that it’s the home invader who’s worthless here, not necessarily the entire home invasion. There are some decent scenes to enjoy, especially the ones featuring a chainsaw on a pole, and there’s some capable misdirection that’s introduced in a subtle way so that not everyone watching will register it immediately, and that’s always fun. Of course, there’s a drinking game that seems obvious as well and that’s never a good thing. Take a shot every time someone says “Stay here!” and you’ll shift quickly from a state of dehydration to falling over drunk. So I guess it’s swings and roundabouts as far as the home invasion goes, while the abiding question is why the home invader behind it is so forgettable. No wonder this film played almost entirely fresh to me after a mere three years. In some films, like Halloween and Duel, the filmmakers wanted their “villain” to be non-human, a personification of evil itself, so back stories wouldn’t have helped and would have actively hindered. I’d love to know Schenkman’s reason.

Maybe I should have gone with a different Mischief Night, as there are quite a few, all pretty recent. The oldest that I found was from 2006, a British comedy drama about a white family and an Asian family connecting on Mischief Night, which is surprisingly British in origin and still a thing in northern England. However, it’s often held the night before Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes Night, instead of the night before Hallowe’en and its origins in the 18th century seem to surround May Day. One year after this Mischief Night, two showed up in 2014. One is a crime drama about a gang of kids, unoriginally known as the Misfits, in which their misdeeds get a bit out of control one Mischief Night. The other is a stalker horror that looks like it takes a weird turn into a Stockholm Syndrome type romance; then again, the always interesting Malcolm McDowell is in the cast. Finally, due next year, is a feature which may well be called Mischief Night now instead of Untitled Killer Clown Statue Project, which is a good change, I think. Maybe in a new edition.

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