[19 October 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
What has Halloween become? For the longest time, this celebration of all things horrific and supernatural seemed the least likely candidate for outright gross commercialization. Oh sure, there have always been the cheap dime store costumes, the mega-caloric piles of candy, and the various hokey harvest festivities. But when thinking back on the holiday some 30 years ago, no one could have imagined theme parks retrofitted with all manner of macabre frights, channels devoted exclusively to terror, and a unreal cultural commitment to making the most out of a former pagan celebration. It’s as if the constant bombardment of violence and shocking imagery has desensitized us to the true nature of the fright festivities. Add in the ever present sugar rush, and Halloween has become a shaky shadow of its former self.
That’s why the new film entitled Trick ‘r Treat is such a welcome addition to the post-modern meditation on the genre. An anthology at its core, but more a triumphant return to old school shivers, this unique narrative experience will instantly remind the viewer of cold Fall nights, years ago, when 31 October was a date to be reckoned with. A quasi-classic, this exceptional look at what Halloween really means is the byproduct of writer/director Michael Dougherty’s desire to craft, what he lovingly refers to, as tales of “mayhem, mystery, and mischief. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this love letter to ghosts, ghouls, and goblins is how accomplished it is. With only a few scripts under his belt (he co-wrote X2 and Superman Returns), Dougherty turns out to be as visually compelling as Tim Burton, or even Terry Gilliam.
The main narrative thread finds a round headed entity named Sam roaming the streets of a small town in Ohio. Warren Valley takes this last day in October very seriously, holding a massive block party and various other festivities. As the ethereal entity wanders the area, watching over the celebrants, we meet a school principal who moonlights as a serial killer. A group of young people visit the site of a horrific local legend, and learn not to mess with the dead. An attractive girl and her friends infiltrate the town, looking to find ‘dates’ for a sinister celebration in the woods, and an old codger, clearly upset over what Halloween means, discovers that Sam can be a very persistent treat or treater - deadly, even. Wrapped within the piles of fallen leaves, hand carved jack-o-lanterns, and unwitting wee ones are nods to previous omnibus films like Creepshow and Dead of Night and sources as varied as fairy tales and ‘80s monster movies.
Almost too clever for its own good, Trick ‘r Treat is a really good film. In fact, it’s so unusual in its practical F/X approach and retro direct to video charms that a second viewing is definitely needed before confirming its almost masterpiece status. Dougherty delivers in ways unthinkable for today’s blatant battle between PG-13 paltriness and torture porn tendencies. With a color palate so rich it ridicules all those green-gray Saw rip-offs and a tongue and cheek shout-out to dedicated dread devotees everywhere, this is like a fright geek’s greatest hits. Instead of presenting his tales in sequential order, Dougherty makes the wise decision to scatter his story around. One moment, we are watching Anna Paquin and her sexed up gal pals cruising the Warren Valley citizenry for potential “boyfriends”, the next, Brian Cox is getting his butt kicked by a odd little guy in a burlap sack headpiece and dirty long john PJs.
The best stories here are the ones that follow the old EC Comics conceit of O Henry like horror twists. The entire tale subtitled “The Halloween School Bus Massacre Revisited” works so brilliantly, built slowly and steadily like any good ghost story should, that when it also pays off later, we love the fact that Dougherty didn’t keep things compact and concise. In fact, each story here ties in neatly with the others, working themselves into a near perfect ball of paranormal fun. We relish the reappearance of Dylan Baker’s murderous school official, even if he appears relatively doomed. We like the fact that random characters return for later looks just as the new action is starting. Dougherty wants us to pay attention, and by doing so, we are rewarded with lots of little asides to make even the most cynical scary movie buff smile in recognition.
Trick ‘r Treat also offers some compelling performances, Cox and Baker especially good as two different reasons to avoid collecting candy by yourself. The former has the more impactful story arc, a last minute revelation really amplifying his apparent problems with the holiday. Also excellent are the various underage actors who avoid the jaded gestures of contemporary youth to play their suspense and shock scenes with abject authenticity. One of the best things about this film is its wistful nostalgia for Halloween’s past, a time when kids were the center of the situation, not adults dressed up like idiots trying to relive their usually lame childhood. Such a pre-teen-ccentric pose gives Trick ‘r Treat a lot of its staying power. We easily identify with our onscreen familiars, remembering what it was like when we were lost, alone, and suspicious of everything around us.
It’s a shame than that this DVD doesn’t offer more in the way of context. There is a clever animated short introducing Sam - and that’s it. Dougherty is present to comment on said cartoon, but he really deserves more time to discuss his intentions with the film proper. And since the movie itself looks so good (while a full screen version is offered, it definitely destroys the interesting compositions here - stick with the anamorphic widescreen instead), it’s a shame to not hear how this first time feature filmmaker realized his goals. Sadly, this lack of respect is par for the course regarding this fine film (it didn’t even warrant a theatrical release).
For some, Trick ‘r Treat may be all too cute and self-referential. Dougherty has clearly made a movie for everyone who loves Halloween for what it means outside of the drunken parties and Goth gal/guy gloom merchandise. Films like this are the reason for the season however, a smart and funny experience that will hopefully be embraced by viewers wanting something other than the latest overhyped Hollywood crap. One can easily imagine a day when the cult surrounding Trick ‘r Treat pushes it into the big leagues, where it definitely deserves to be. Until then, it can be our little spook show secret - a devilish delight that definitely earns its wicked wizened wings.