Is Trick ‘r Treat the biggest genre casualty of the noughties? Quite possibly. Written and directed by Michael Dougherty and produced by X-Men’s Bryan Singer, it was shot in 2006-7 but remained on Warner Bros’ shelves for two years before finally limping out on DVD last year without a theatrical run. Since then, the film has received almost universal praise from genre enthusiasts and some mainstream critics as well; reviewers have taken on the task of promoting this film with almost missionary zeal, trying to spread the word and find the movie an audience. I’m happy to add my name to the list; if you love classic horror, you really should give Trick ‘r Treat your time.
Trick ‘r Treat is an anthology film unashamedly in the mould of Creepshow and Tales From the Crypt, which themselves largely took their cues from the horror comics of the 50s and The Twilight Zone. It tells four separate but overlapping stories set in a small town celebrating Halloween. As with almost all anthology movies, these vary in tone and impact, but since the film a whole runs to a lean 79 minutes none are allowed to outstay their welcome. All comply to the tried and trust formula of a spooky setup followed by a gruesome twist ending. The slightest story, “The Principal”, features a brilliant turn from Dylan Baker, channeling the likes of Re-animator’s Jeffery Combs, propping up an otherwise fairly thin plot. “Surprise Party” and “The School Bus Massacre Revisited” are more substantial, the former boasting a terrifically full-on conclusion and the latter featuring some genuinely impressive atmospherics.
Like Creepshow, Trick ‘r Treat concludes with a one-hander featuring a veteran actor being tormented in his home; but instead of EG Marshall and thousands of insects, here we have Brian Cox and a pumpkin-headed demon called Sam. This segment is the undoubted highlight of the film. Sam is a brilliant creation; in a twisted take on A Christmas Carol, he pops up throughout the film as a warning to those who fail to respect the traditions of Halloween, but he reserves particular ire for Cox’s cantankerous Mr Kreeg, whom he pursues until he changes his ways. Cox gives a no-holds-barred performance, and the fight descends into some hugely enjoyable Evil Dead II-style slapstick/splatter.
As you might have guessed, Trick ‘r Treat isn’t hugely original, but Dougherty’s brilliantly witty, atmospheric direction holds everything together. In anchoring everything to a single town, he creates a real sense of location that is at once familiar but at times hauntingly alien; in “Surprise Party”, for example, the town’s festivities very quickly move from being jovial to threatening. The film is filmed with memorable and striking imagery: the aforementioned Sam, the decayed school bus half submerged in the lake, Kreeg’s front garden filled with carved pumpkins. The mood may predominantly be light-hearted, but Dougherty shows such craft it’s hard not to be dazzled.
The main point of divergence between Trick ‘r Treat and its predecessors is Dougherty’s decision (apparently taken during post-production) to cut between the stories rather than telling them in series. The downside to this is that the first 20 minutes or so are largely fairly leisurely-paced setup, to the extent that I was starting to wonder whether or not the film had been somewhat over-praised. Nevertheless, once all the stories are in motion, he delivers a genuine thrill ride that largely avoids the pacing problems that blight other anthologies.
Perhaps inevitably for a film that wears its influences so strongly on its sleeves, Trick ‘r Treat feels simultaneously very 80s and very 50s. But in an era where mainstream horror is becoming increasingly po-faced and misanthropic in its shocks, to see a modern, studio genre film that revels in a sense of well-crafted scary fun is hugely refreshing. It’s obviously a travesty that mainstream audiences were denied the opportunity to see this film on the big screen, but it points to bigger problems in Hollywood’s current handling of horror. This film easily stands alongside the likes of Creepshow and Carpenter’s Halloween as a definitive Halloween movie, one that you will want to watch – in company – every October. Yet the studios seem content to mark Halloween with the grungy nastiness of the Saw films rather than something far more inclusive, accessible and in keeping with the spirit of the season like this. (British readers who think this is overstating the case may like to reflect on just how widely Halloween is celebrated in the US). And Trick ‘r Treat impresses because despite the gore, murder and dismemberment, it retains the atmosphere of good, clean fun. So chalk this up as yet another horror blog telling you to buy this film, watch it, and tell your friends. As Sam is keen to stress, Halloween traditions must be respected…