Trick 'r Treat (2008)
When I had the good fortune of seeing Trick 'r Treat at Comic-Con International 2009, it was preceded by a short panel with the director Michael Dougherty and stars Lauren Lee Smith and Brian Cox, moderated by Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News. The one thing that you really got a sense of, from what little they did say before the film, was how much they absolutely loved working on the project and how grateful Dougherty was that the film was finally reaching a wider audience. Now, enthusiasm only goes so far in creating a quality product, but the fact that Trick 'r Treat is a labor of love shines through when you watch it. Trick 'r Treat is a film that deserves a wide theatrical release and not the direct-to-video treatment it will receive in October 2009.
Trick 'r Treat harkens back to the old anthology horror films of the eighties, like Creepshow and Twilight Zone: The Movie. The setting is a small town, a picturesque suburban village with white picket fences, rural forests just outside of town, and dark secrets lurking in the shadows. What plays out are four interwoven stories, each elegant in their simplicity. A frustrated, widowed school principal (Dylan Baker) moonlights as a serial killer. A pretty young woman (Anna Paquin in a Red Riding Hood costume) is stalked by a menacing masked man while on her quest to find that special someone for her "first time." Young troublemakers try to use a local legend to play a practical joke on their "idiot savant" classmate, with terrifying consequences. A cantankerous old hermit encounters a vicious and demonic trick-or-treater. Each story plays its part to scare and entertain us.
The major element tying these stories together is Sam, a creation of Michael Dougherty from his short film "Seasons Greetings" (the inspiration for Trick 'r Treat as a whole). He's a creepy-cute mascot for Trick 'r Treat, a child-sized demon-thing in a jolly-faced burlap mask with big button eyes. Placed throughout the film, always around to observe (or cause) the film's greatest acts of mayhem, Sam is an intriguing figure. His arsenal is deliciously thematic: a candy bar with a razor blade edge and a vicious, chewed-to-a-point lollipop. Even when his mask is removed in the final segment with Brian Cox, it's a reveal that pays off instead of disappoints. There's something iconic about Sam, the guardian demon of Halloween tradition, a cute little tyke amongst the likes of Jason, Freddy, and Leatherface.
Which brings us to the main theme of Trick 'r Treat: the sanctity of Halloween. There are four Halloween rules, it seems, that one cannot break without meeting an awful fate. One, do not blow out a Jack-O-Lantern until the night is over. Two, give out treats. Three, wears a costume. Four, always checks your candy. When people break these rules in the movie, they die. There is no basis of purity based on sex, no immunity due to virginity. Small children meet grisly ends when they don't follow the rules. It's refreshing for a horror film not to pull its punches, and do it in a way that feels fun. We live in a world where studios churn out castrated PG-13 "horror" snoozefests or brainless, charmless, barely related series of torture scenes. But Trick 'r Treat celebrates the fun of horror. It celebrates the holiday where, to paraphrase what Mr. Dougherty's said at the panel, everyone turns into a horror fan.
Luckily, the film is far more than just a simple ode to Halloween. It is a fine piece of filmmaking, as well. If you take a look at the shot composition and colors of many of the sequences, cinematographer Glen MacPherson is showing some real skill. The flashback about the local legend of the bus crash is especially well-crafted, from beginning to end. The saturated color and cheerful suburban setting creates a dissonance with the dark events happening inside the bus. It's breathtaking and heartbreaking to watch as it plays out, setting the scene for some of the best scares of the film. From seeing the kids chained into their seats, to the bus driver distributing candy as a last meal of sorts, to the moment of horror as his plan goes utterly awry, it's a brilliant sequence.
On top of the camera work, I have to point out that Douglas Pipes' score is utterly amazing. In a world inundated with horror soundtracks that are nothing but a mishmash of tones, Douglas brings us a vibrant score, with recurring themes and just a beautiful sense of life and dramatic timing. No matter the imagery, the score helps bring it all to life, and accentuates everything just perfectly.
Then there's the real meat of the film, which is two performances by two very talented actors, Dylan Baker and Brian Cox. Dylan Baker's character of the murderous school principal strikes such a wonderful tone balance. He's equal parts funny, creepy, and evil. There's such interplay, between Baker and the snot-nosed, rotund, pumpkin-smashing child, between Baker and his own son, even Baker and Brian Cox's character, Mr. Kreeg (in a sequence that we late see repeated from Kreeg's perspective). He's like a combination of Mister Rogers and Patrick Bateman. It's an utter joy to watch. Thankfully for us, Baker appears throughout, whether he's lecturing children on the true meaning of Halloween while carving a Jack-O-Lantern or attempting to stealthily bury a body in his own backyard. He's a character whose exemplary of the "twisted suburbanite," the good neighbor and school confidant that just wants to murder you stone dead.
Then comes Brian Cox's character of Mr. Kreeg, the hermit. According to Cox himself, Mr. Kreeg's look was based on that of John Carpenter, the director (though Cox joked that because he is built heavier than John Carpenter, he looks more like a scraggly Jerry Garcia). There is a lot of humor in Mr. Kreeg. He's the bitter loner, the kind that chases off trick-or-treaters from his porch with a his dog. Cox brings a lot of lovableness to this rather harsh and embittered character, giving hints of something sad and horrible that happened to this man previously (and a big secret is revealed at the film's end). He has the most traditional sequence of the film, the old man versus the monster in the creaky, darkly lit house. The facial expressions when dealing with Sam, the seemingly unstoppable demon child from hell, are priceless. The sheer exasperation, the moments of triumph, it all had the crowd of 3,000 some at Comic-Con roaring with delight. Cox turns in a great performance, and it enlivens the final act of the film.
The biggest feeling I walked away with from this unique presentation of Trick 'r Treat was disappointment. Not in the film itself, as it is unadulterated joy and deserves to be seen by horror lovers. The disappointment is that so few people will get to see this film as films are intended: in a movie theatre. A film this good did not deserve being published solely direct-to-video, like some unwanted, unmarketable film. So, if you have the fortune of hearing that Trick 'r Treat is playing at a local film festival in the coming months, I recommend you go. If not, you'll have to wait and watch the film on Halloween on your Blu-Ray or DVD, getting the best home theatre experience you can. Bring all the friends over, make some popcorn, and settle in for the new Halloween film classic. You'll love it. Just remember to always check your candy.