Directed by Michael Dougherty
John Carpenter gave you a very good reason to fear Halloween night. He placed an undistinguished face on a knife-wielding stalker who prowled archetypal small town USA neighborhoods and destroyed their idyllic safety. With its pulsing score, crisp leaves-strewn streets, horror movie marathons, carved jack-o-lanterns and lingering unease, Halloween is a masterpiece of the slasher genre set against the backdrop of a spirited holiday. Consequently, Carpenter’s classic has become a permanent annual fixture on every must-see Halloween horror list. But its reigning crown is about to be revoked, or at least shared, when Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat reaches the public because it is, unequivocally, the quintessential Halloween film.
Feeding off of the same vivid color palette visited by Mario Bava, Dario Argento and Tim Burton, Trick ‘r Treat owes a tremendous debt to EC Comics’ Tales from the Crypt and the supernatural retribution readers of that popular title were fed within its pages. It’s Creepshow by way of Doug Liman’s Go – a formula that doesn’t find its footing right away, but once Trick ‘r Treat does it becomes a mischievous and immersing vessel that channels the haunted spirit of autumn. Mirthful, wicked, sometimes poignant and always sinister, Dougherty’s tale (or tales) are engaged in the traditions of Halloween and the consequences (more often than not, death) of not adhering to them. This is fertile playing grounds for Dougherty who finds ways to rope in a serial killer, a vampire, werewolves, zombies and Sam, one of the cutest, devious and most memorable horror icons to grace the genre.
Trick ‘r Treat‘s foundation is built on playing with your expectations. The narrative is a bouncy disjointed journey focusing on four parallel-running stories set in a small town on Halloween night. One tale introduces us to Dylan Baker’s irritable principal who issues candy every child should fear. True Blood‘s Anna Paquin and Lauren Lee Smith play sisters at the center of another story about four gals feeling frisky in their costumes and prowling the streets for men. Elsewhere, a group of youngsters venture out to a rock quarry to lay out pumpkins in honor of those who died in a tragic school bus accident. And Brian Cox – who reportedly wanted to fashion his look in the film after John Carpenter – caps the anthology with an almost sympathetic turn (I said almost) as Mr. Kreeg, an old man who has abandoned the Halloween holiday but is forced back into practicing its rituals.
Dougherty weaves and overlaps these stories with precision – it’s no easy task and the first fifteen minutes take some getting used to. Still, it’s easy to eventually slip into Trick ‘r Treat‘s poetic rhythm of horror and humor that work in equal parts in the film’s favor. For every elicited chuckle (a dude in a Hot Dog costume steals a shot) Dougherty counters it with something truly disturbing such as a scene in which a boy begins to vomit a bloody, chocolate-y mess or we witness three pumpkin-carrying teens disappear into a thick night fog. Yes, believe it or not, Trick ‘r Treat floats its share of genuine, classic frights analogous to the works of Val Lewton where situation, cinematography and location work as one – no part is greater than the whole. Although the film is a pumpkin of many faces, it delivers as a single uniform beast.
All the players involved also bring this living storefront Halloween display to life. Baker’s a total villainous sleaze who uses the holiday to externalize. Paquin and company lend the film its needed sex appeal which has an applause-worthy pay-off and just the presence of Cox (reuniting with Dougherty after X2: X-Men United) elevates the film to whole new level. And thankfully, he steps up to the plate and his head-to-head confrontation with Sam – a sack-headed, orange pajamas-wearing imp – wields its share of surprises until the very end.
Trick ‘r Treat is backed by beautiful art direction by Tony Wohlgemuth and photography from Glen MacPherson. The FX are also a true delight – I can’t single out any examples for fear of ruining some of the key revelations.
This is an absolute killer of a directorial debut on Dougherty’s behalf. He’s made horror fun again without completely succumbing to campy kitsch. It can be mean and scary (Amen!) yet it doesn’t embrace the doom ‘n gloom mantra sung by many genre entries today. There’s warmth to the film that you want to approach with caution (like an Amblin production of the ’80s with very sharp teeth). And that’s something I haven’t seen in a while.
Dougherty tosses in an homage or two to his personal genre favorites, but they almost seem unnecessary. We know he’s a horror fan. Trick ‘r Treat screams that fact. He has created an original all his own and it’s one of the best horror films I’ve seen in years.