Director: Michael Dougherty
Starring: Anna Paquin, Dylan Baker, Brian Cox, Leslie Bibb, Lauren Lee Smith, Rochelle Aytes, Tahmoh Penikett, Quinn Lord
Running Time: 82 min.
★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
At the risk of overstating matters, Michael Doughtery's 80's style horror anthology film Trick 'r Treat is the best Halloween-themed picture since John Carpenter's Halloween. To even call this the best horror movie of the year would be selling it short. This is one of the best movies of the year. Period. Horror or otherwise. And in resurrecting a feeling I didn't think I'd have again while watching a movie in this genre, Dougherty has done the unthinkable in making a film that could be considered a great deal more interesting and technically superior to the classics he intended to pay homage to.
A couple of years ago when I sat in a darkened theater waiting for Saw IV to begin, I saw a trailer for this movie and could tell just by those two minutes it was something very different than what we're used to. From the visuals to the story it appeared that the person who made it may have actually had a brain. "Torture porn" this was not. That brief preview stuck with me more than anything I saw in the feature presentation following it. Then two years passed. Trick 'r Treat was never released theatrically. I eventually forgot about it....though not completely. What happened during that time is something of a legend with the story being that the studio was intentionally trying to bury a movie they had no idea how to market in an era of pointless slasher remakes and sequels.
I was always secretly afraid that if a truly great work of horror were made no one would even acknowledge it because the genre has been beat up on and spit at so often by critics and moviegoers, sometimes justifiably. That fear has officially been realized as now the best horror film in years has been shuttled straight to DVD, where we can only hope it finds the audience it deserves. But regardless of its popularity, Dougherty's achievement still stands and he can now go home, look in the mirror and no longer see the man who co-wrote the messy Superman Returns, but instead the filmmaker who gave us a holiday classic that deserves be enjoyed as a annual viewing ritual for many Octobers to come.
After a prologue in which bitchy wife Emma (Leslie Bibb) finds out the hard way what happens if you blow out a jack-o'-lantern before midnight, we're presented an animated comic book- style opening title sequence introducing us to "4 Tales of Terror," all occurring in the small Midwestern town of Warren, Ohio during All Hallows Eve.
1. School principal Steven Wilkins (Dylan Baker) moonlights as a serial killer while hilariously struggling through some major parenting issues with his annoying son Billy (Connor Christopher Levins).
2. Shy, virginal "Little Red Riding Hood" Laurie (Anna Paquin) is dragged by her older sister (Lauren Lee Smith) and friends to a party where she just might get lucky.
3. Four kids return to the scene of a legendary school bus massacre that took place over thirty years ago to play a prank on their nerdy classmate.
4. The old, cranky Mr. Kreeg (Brian Cox), who wants nothing to do with Halloween, is paid a visit by an unlikely intruder.
Unlike most anthologies, the stories aren't presented one after another but are instead interwoven like Pulp Fiction, which is much more difficult to pull off and puts an added strain on the writing. Dougherty proves he's more than up to that challenge and the stories come together in surprising ways. The tie that binds them all is Sam (Quinn Lord), a bulbous-headed trick-or-treater with a burlap sack over his head who sporadically appears throughout the tales to punish those who break Halloween's sacred traditions. In appearance and presentation, the pint-sized Sam is an unforgettably iconic character on par with the Freddys and the Jasons of the horror world and every bit as fun. It's so difficult to create a villain that's instantly recognizable but what's most impressive about Sam is that he isn't given much screen time until the end, yet Dougherty makes sure his presence is seen and felt at just the right moments throughout.
From a storytelling perspective, none of the four tales are break new ground but the style and impact with which they're delivered do. If I had to pick a favorite I'd go with the school bus massacre which features witty, realistic dialogue, strong child performances (especially from Samm Todd as idiot savant Rhonda) and gives us a flashback sequence as terrifying as it is visually stunning. Thanks to cinematographer Glen MacPherson and production designer Mark Freeborn every scene is literally dripping with Halloween and autumn atmosphere.
It's of little surprise that the art director for this film (Tony Wohlgemuth) was also responsible for 2006's Black Christmas remake, which, no matter what you may think of its story, did a far better job than the original in visually capturing the yuletide spirit. He outdoes his work on that here and in a shocking development I couldn't be happier to report, we're not bombarded with the fake-looking CGI and music video slickness that's ruined so many films in this genre over the past few years. It's a welcome throwback to a time when horror filmmakers were smart enough to know that more meant less and you trust enough for the story and characters to be the main attraction. If there's one complaint it's that it only runs a very quick 82 minutes because I wanted even more.
The acting is top notch across the board with Dylan Baker the most memorable (and getting the most screen time) as Principal Wilkins. That this film is a "horror comedy" is nearly all his doing since he provides most of the dark humor. A pro at playing unassuming average joes concealing a dark secret, it's easy to believe this character was written with him in mind. Anna Paquin is sensational in her smaller role while a practically unrecognizable Brian Cox seems to be having the time of his life playing a part no one would have ever expected to see him in. These are all accomplished actors elevating already strong material, not the usual D-level talent we're accustomed to seeing in Direct to DVD labeled horror features or even the latest Saw outing. What's most interesting about the the characters are their ages, which range from pre-teens caught up in the thrill of trick-or-treating to a bitter old man who no longer wants anything to do with it. In that way the stories all capture what Halloween means to each of us at different stages and childhood memories of the holiday will likely come flooding back for many who watch this. I know they did for me.
I have a love-hate relationship with horror. When it's good, I love it. When it's bad, I hate it. That's exactly how it should be. This is an example of how great this genre can be when its firing on all cylinders. After John Carpenter wrote Halloween 2 he came up with the idea of dumping the character of Michael Myers to instead release a sequel each October focusing on an aspect of Halloween tradition with the hope that the series would become an anthology. On paper, it was a brilliant idea. Unfortunately, it resulted in the disastrous Halloween III: Season of the Witch and the whole plan was aborted. This very much feels like the realization of that vision and what would have happened if Carpenter's original idea was executed to its fullest potential. Once you set aside that film's godawful story, you could argue that it did have a profound effect on this at least in terms of set and costume design (specifically the masks). Other influences, such as Creepshow, Tales from the Crypt, Evil Dead and It's the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown are more obvious, if not directly referenced at times.
The biggest horror is really how the studio shelved a film that could have had costume clad moviegoers crowding the streets in front of their local multiplexes this Halloween. Despite what they may have thought, this was an easy sell. I love the Saw movies and look forward to them every year but wouldn't dare attempt to convince anyone that they should be classified as "horror." I always thought of them as suspense thrillers meant to disgust rather than scare. There would have been room for both since this is so wildly different in its approach and philosophy. Even worse, while this was collecting dust, Paquin's career gained enough traction that she could have easily opened this movie...and the studio still pulled it. Rumors of the film's inflated reputation while sitting on the shelf for two years should go ignored and you should instead believe the hype. That it's been doing so well on DVD should bode well for potential sequels and marks the rare arrival of a horror franchise I'd actually like to see continue. Trick 'r Treat does more than just capture the true spirit and essence of Halloween. It is Halloween.