It’s that time of the year again when the nights begin to draw in, the leaves fall, the barrier between the world of the living and the world of the dead is its most gossamer thin, and suddenly all the Mr Kipling cakes turn lime-green. Yes its Halloween season.
Cards on the table, I was graciously presented with the opportunity to pick from a selection of Warner Brother’s genre titles for a Halloween piece. Oh what the hell I thought, why not, but let’s try and find a title away from the usual suspects in the (rather fine) WB catalogue, something a little less well known than The Exorcist or The Shining. So my choice is Michael Dougherty’s anthology film Trick ‘r Treat (not to be confused with Trick or Treat, the crappy eighties Heavy Metal themed horror movie with Gene Simmons and Ozzy).
Set over Halloween during a huge Halloween celebration in an Ohio town that turns the ancient festival of Samhain into a raucous Spring Break with added blood, the film takes a novel approach to the horror anthology format. Rather like Robert Altman’s Short Cuts or Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, the stories are not laid end-on-end and presented with a traditional framing story. Instead Dougherty intercuts between his stories, mixing up timelines so they cross over in subtle and unexpected ways.
The Halloween theme runs through all of the film’s five main stories:
- Halloween hater Emma (Leslie Bibb) finally grows tired of her husband’s (Tahmoh Penikett) seasonal obsession and decides to take down the decorations early.
- The school principle (Dylan Baker) does not take kindly to a boy’s smashing of Jack-o’-lanterns.
- Four children decide to play a cruel trick on another by taking her out to a quarry said to have been the site of a terrible Halloween tragedy.
- A group of out-of-town College girls decide to paint the town red. Virginal 22 year old Laurie (Anna Paquin), in a Red Riding Hood costume, separates from the group to find a date for a party catches the attention of a sinister stalker.
- Mr. Kreeg (Brian Cox) – an irascible old coot who lives alone with his dog – does his best to scare away trick or treaters, but finds his home invaded by a malevolent intruder.
Taken individually the five main storylines are rather slight, but by interweaving them Dougherty cleverly creates an added level of meaning, and ensures that the film maintains an even pace rather than the juddering stop/start created by the traditional anthology structure. Eagle eyed viewers will have fun looking for details from other stories in the background, and certain tales reward repeat viewings (especially Paquin’s superficially reactionary damsel-in-distress storyline), and of course all come with a twist. While there isn’t a framing device as such, a mysterious child in a sackcloth mask wanders through film. This character, Sam, is a rough thread stitching them together.
Dougherty’s ingenious film is not without some flaws; The writer director was known for having penned the screenplays for X-Men 2 and Superman Returns (and Bryan Singer receives a producer credit) but this was his first feature and while it is handsomely shot it lacks a little punch in the more action orientated scenes, perhaps a sign of inexperience. Most annoyingly one major set-piece is scored by Marilyn Manson’s cover of Sweet Dreams, easily the most overused song in horror movies for going on twenty years now. Granted, because of post production hassles Trick ‘r Treat sat on the shelf for two years following its first 2007 screening at Harry Knowles’ annual Butt-Numb-A-Thon festival-slash-birthday party in Austin Texas. But the song was just as infuriatingly ubiquitous then.
These minor irritations are easily forgiven when a film offers as this much mean spirited fun. Trick ‘r Treat doesn’t hide its influences; Dougherty clearly loves the richly coloured American horror films of the eighties. The way he uses Sam as a connecting character before giving him a major part in the final story (which plays out almost compete rather than being intercut) is kind of an inversion of the function of the cat in 1985 anthology Cat’s Eye. The comic book panel’s of the opening credits evoke another Stephen King based Anthology, Creepshow, and Trick ‘r Treat has a similar EC Comics style approach to dishing out ghastly punishments for moral infractions. The film it owes the greatest debt to is Halloween III: Season of the Witch. Both films making the commercialisation of a pagan festival a central theme, and both gleefully place a variety of annoying children in peril.
Trick ‘r Treat is not exactly an obscure film in horror circles having generated a good amount of buzz on the festival circuit. However tied so specifically to Halloween and preceding the current wave of anthology films it was perhaps seen as a little too risky for a theatrical release at a time when the Saw franchise was still pulling in punters (because there is only room for one Halloween horror release in any given year apparently). If you haven’t caught it before it is exactly the kind of fun horror film that is perfect for Halloween party viewing.
Trick ‘r Treat is available on DVD in the UK, and streaming from Amazon, Blinkbox and Playstation.