(2007), Written and directed by Michael Dougherty; Starring: Dylan Baker, Rochelle Aytes, Anna Paquin, Brian Cox; Available formats: Blu-Ray, DVD
The late great Theodore Sturgeon once remarked, “90% of everything is crap.”* In the film world, nowhere is this adage more accurate than in the horror genre, where tired storylines, grade-Z actors, and clichés abound. The past several years have not been kind to the American horror film, rife with tepid remakes of Asian horror, over-reliance on CGI-laden effects and PG-13 rated fare that catered to the widest possible audience. Recently, American horror seemed to be experiencing a rebirth of sorts at the hands of a new generation of filmmakers who cut their teeth on the excesses of 70s and 80s horror films, and were going back to the source for inspiration.
Some movies are almost instant success stories, capturing the imagination (and dollars) of filmgoers in a perfect confluence of timing, marketing and public interest. Other films fall by the wayside, and only gain a following long after the fact. Writer/director Michael Dougherty’s Trick 'r Treat belongs in this second category, as one of those “woulda, coulda, should’ve been” hits that never got a fair shake during its very limited, long-delayed theatrical release. I will not bother to go into all of the details about why this was not a commercial success. This has been covered by numerous sources, and is worth investigating, if you’re into that kind of thing. Thankfully, home video has afforded this hidden gem a second chance, giving it an opportunity to be re-discovered and rescued from the garbage bin of obscurity.
The opening title sequence is reminiscent of Creepshow, displaying a montage of animated comic book pages that introduce characters and foreshadow events that will shortly take place. Douglas Pipes’ accompanying music helps to further set the mood, bringing to mind Bernard Herrmann’s iconic Psycho score. In the hands of a less-skilled filmmaker, this could have been another schlocky horror film, relying on mediocre production values and cheap scares while stealing from superior sources. However, one does not come away from this film with the impression that Dougherty was ripping off those horror films from the past, but proudly wearing his influences on his sleeve. His efforts have resulted in something original: a loving homage to the best of the past, utilizing the familiar tropes of Halloween (witches, jack-o-lanterns, ghosts, etc…), while crafting a story that is still contemporary.
One way that Trick 'r Treat rises above the rest is typified by the solid performances by the principal actors. They are clearly having fun with their roles: Dylan Baker as the nerdy grade school principal who keeps his own traditions alive, Brian Cox as his cantankerous next-door neighbor, and a pre-True Blood/post X-Men Anna Paquin as a young innocent out on her first night of debauchery. They represent different stories, interwoven in a way that can only be described as Altmanesque, as their paths inevitably cross during one Halloween night. Another story thread involves a Halloween-night hoax gone awry, played with conviction by an ensemble of younger actors.
The central character, Sam, has no lines of his own but is the glue that binds all of the stories together, and maintains a creepy presence throughout Trick 'r Treat. Sam, whose name is derived from the ancient Gaelic holiday Samhain, represents an embodiment of the ancient traditions that have become diluted over time to form the modern concept of Halloween. He is an elemental, childlike force that’s equal parts malevolence and mischievousness. His primary purpose seems to be to uphold the honor of the original sacrosanct holiday, bridging the gap between Samhain and Halloween. With a couple of notable exceptions that bookend the other stories, Sam is less of an active participant, and more of an observer of the evening’s mayhem.
I don’t want to give anything away, but things are not always as they seem. Part of the fun is watching the plot unfold, like turning pages in a particularly sordid comic book. Dougherty keeps the pace lively from beginning to end, deftly weaving Halloween themes such as razor blades in candy and urban legends with Halloween’s ancient, darker origins. Trick 'r Treat does not go for the cheap scares. The scares are present, but they’re earned.
My only criticism is that it’s a little too brief. Clocking in at a lean 82 minutes, there really isn’t a lot of time for exposition or extraneous character development. Everything is in the service of its compact story structure. At the end, I wished there was more, but that’s okay. I’ve watched so many movies that have worn out their welcome long before the credits rolled, so leaving me wanting more is not necessarily a bad thing. Trick 'r Treat is a sleeper that rises to the challenge of being one of the definitive Halloween movies. It’s smart, fun and scary, and better than 90% of everything else that’s out there. I’m proud to add this title to my short list of films that are required Halloween viewing alongside Halloween, The Nightmare Before Christmas, It’s The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown, and to a lesser degree, Halloween III.
* For you nitpickers, Sturgeon actually stated that 90% of everything was “crud,” but I decided to go ahead with the oft-misquoted “crap,” because A), it’s my blog, and B), “crap” seems to hold more resonance with our jaded, 21st century sensibilities, don’t you think?