AMAD-Horror Edition: Trick ‘r Treat

4 Oct

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Oct 4th,2009–

cinemagrade b+I’d say that it has felt like I’ve been waiting for Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat for years, but that wouldn’t exactly be accurate. It hasn’t just felt like years, it has been. Dougherty made the film in 2006 and was grooming it for a 2007 fall release when WB pushed it back to the spring, then to the fall, and then just kept pushing. Now, in a move so belated that the film has built a cult following among festival goers, Trick is finally getting released, just in time for the season where it best belongs. Thankfully, it turns out that the movie was worth the wait.

Trick ‘r Treat reminds me of all the reasons I enjoy Halloween in the first place. As a child the holiday appealed to me not because of some obsession with the occult–a reason many use for bypassing it altogether–but because it was a blending of those two mystifying aspects of childhood; community and imagination. On October 31st, it was the one time of the year where visiting every neighbor you had, regardless of how far away or reclusive they might be, was not only acceptable but encouraged. For one night, the world expanded a bit and you were talking to near-‘strangers’ and walking into yards you were usually forbidden to go. And then, on-top of all that, you could imagine yourself as something else; more than mere dressing up, you got to ‘be’ someone else for a few hours.

My family didn’t ‘celebrate’ Halloween beyond the consumer ritual of trick-or-treating and carving pumpkins, but the mythological and folkloric roots were still fascinating to a kid who loved storytelling and fantasy. This film understands that juvenile viewpoint of the holiday, and it creates a world where Halloween does house monsters and small communities draw together in merry-making to drive away dark shadows lurking just over their shoulder.

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Dougherty’s film is an anthology of horror vignettes that interconnects several characters and non-linear storylines taking place over the course of one Halloween night. And unlike Carpenter’s own 79 thriller that used the holiday as little more than a backdrop, Trick actually places the traditions and mythology of the night in the foreground. This is a movie that is about Halloween–the customs, the superstitions, and that child-like wonder that comes with the territory of dressing up and walking through a night-shrouded neighborhood that might hold beasties hiding in the bushes. It is not, however, a children’s film.

There is a fearsome dark-side to this Treat and instead of focusing on whimsical anecdotes or magical-realism like Ray Bradbury’s classic The Halloween Tree, Dougherty opts for a Creepshow vibe that includes gruesome death, horrifying creatures, and an undercurrent of the sensual. Trick ‘r Treat is a straight-forward entertainment, staying true to the elements of its central holiday and never overdosing on darkness. It’s witty, disarming, reasonably spooky and occasionally scary.

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The structure of the film is surprisingly fluid and unlike the 80’s horror collections, Trick r’ Treat folds all of its multiple narratives into an overarching vision. It opens with a married couple arguing over their different views of the holiday–the wife isn’t a fan while the husband has an almost goofy affection for it–and this sequence serves as the wrap-around story.

There are four new plot threads that branch out from there; a high-school principal who loves Halloween must decide between spending time with his son or honoring the ‘traditions’ that his father taught him;  a group of young women don costumes and going looking for parties, boys and possibly something more while goading their youngest member to experience her ‘first time’; youngsters bring along an autistic girl on a night-time trip to the scene of a long-ago school bus accident; and an old man who detests trick-or-treating must face a small and lethal invader who is now inside his house.

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Dougherty employs a magnificent visual style that threads all of the tales into one atmospheric and thematic whole. I’ve never seen a Halloween-centered film that got this much right in its look. There aren’t just pumpkins, scarecrows and costumed gangs, but all of the supernatural symbology that echoes the medieval heritage of the event. Vampires, werewolves,  ghosts and goblins are lurking in the tightly packed corners of each exquisite frame.

The color palette is gorgeous, capturing a smoky autumn night that you can almost feel in your bones. Hordes of leering jack-o-lanterns illuminate the front yard of a spooky gothic house, costumed children stand at the bottom of a deep ravine and stare into the heavy-hanging fog, and a small creature disguised as a child scampers through the cluttered recesses of an old miser’s home. These images feel classic the moment we see them. A flashback that recounts the bus accident is the only scene that takes place during the day and it is unsettling in what it shows us in the brightly lit fall sun. Later a cavorting band of teens around a campfire reveal a surprising and thrilling twist. Trick ‘r Treat doesn’t just use the imagery it breathes a new and exciting life into it.

A superb little cast really brings the picture home in terms of its dark comedy. Having a playful and smirking exterior works in the film’s favor and makes it more buoyant and ultimately more fun than if it were a somber scare picture. Dylan Baker (Spiderman 2-3) is a hoot as the potentially insane principal who has some weird ideas regarding customs and he adds an edgy silliness to the opening story. Ann Paquin is the virginal beauty who dons the Little Red Riding Hood outfit and wanders off from her friends while a would-be vampire is stalking through town. Paquin is lovely and vulnerable, and though her story is slight she isn’t just window dressing–when the very effective twist is delivered, her performance drives it home with perfect poetic justice.

The actors who portray the children in the third story behave like real kids and Sam Todd as Rhonda doesn’t overdo her idiot savant mannerisms. If anything, she really brings out the girl’s personality in a way that endears her to the audience in a small space of time. Finally, and by far the best performer in the cast, Brian Cox plays the irascible and curmudgeonly Mr. Kreeg who dislikes these proceeding so much he sends his dog out after would-be trick-or-treaters who come to his door. When a little monster worthy of the gremlins or that Zuni doll in Trilogy of Terror comes calling on Kreeg, Cox steals the show as he battles the diminutive menace.

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As a compelling dramatic tableaux, Trick ‘r Treat is relatively thin. It might feel like the Traffic of horror films with its mini-narratives revolving around a common theme, but in reality it’s just a more sophisticated version of EC comics like Tales from the Crypt or Eerie! This is actually a good thing and I enjoyed the way in which it becomes a tasty sampler of Halloween motifs. The stories themselves are not very complex, and a few stop just as they get started, but all of them hit their mark, characterizing a different aspect of the genre.

I personally enjoyed the story featuring the children and the mysterious bus accident the best; it has the most effective imagery and delivers some shivery chills with the setting. Paquin’s story is completely filler but it draws to a close with a delightfully imaginative ending that redeems the whole thing. Finally, Cox’s rumble with the little monster is a satisfying closure and the one that is most reminiscent of the 80s’ pictures that Trick emulates. The pumpkin-headed munchkin–Cox’s nemesis–appears in each of the stories, operating as the evening’s sinister connective tissue.

If there is any complaint I can level against Trick ‘r Treat, it is that it occasionally lingers on excessive gore or includes a few out-of-place sexually suggestive scenes that feel at odds with the tone of the pic. None of it is as gratuitous or explicit as what appears in most R-rated pictures, but it’s also unnecessary. Dougherty has assembled and delivered a clever and endearing movie that could become its own Halloween tradition for some families who dig horror films–he doesn’t need to add the ‘hook’ for typical genre audiences. That aside, this Trick is definitely a treat–one that will be most sweet during this particular season but, like that errant bag of unopened candy corn you discover in March, it can be enjoyed at any time of the year.

Trick ‘r Treat releases on DVD and Bluray on October 6th, 2009.

Oct 4th–AMAD: Eyes Without a Face

Oct 5th–AMAD: Sauna

Oct 6th– AMAD: Night of the Demon

Oct 7th–AMAD: Kaidan

Oct 8th- AMAD: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark 

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4 Responses to “AMAD-Horror Edition: Trick ‘r Treat”

  1. hagiblog October 5, 2009 at 10:19 am #

    It’s not a bad flick but I think it got hyped too much before I saw it. It’s a great addition to the season though and I’ll probably be watching it every year from now on.

  2. Xiphos October 5, 2009 at 12:41 pm #

    Here is another movie I’ve never heard of but look forward to seeing. Another nice review Jonah.

  3. The Great Fatsby October 30, 2009 at 8:07 pm #

    Just finished this near-masterpiece. It tickled me fancy.

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  1. AMAD-Horror Edition: Trick 'r Treat « Cinematropolis | My Article - February 13, 2010

    […] the original:  AMAD-Horror Edition: Trick 'r Treat « Cinematropolis Posted in Automotive « Neuro x Yako – Happy October! ThinkGeek :: Design geeky […]

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