October 09, 2013

TRICK 'R TREAT Is An Overlooked Halloween Gem

"We started these traditions to protect ourselves."
I honestly don't remember exactly how or when I first became aware of Trick 'R Treat.  I recall seeing trailers for it in 2009 and I remember some film bloggers really championing the movie after seeing it at some festivals and lamenting the fact that it wasn't getting a proper release.  I knew it was the feature directing debut of Michael Dougherty, the man who co-wrote Bryan Singer's Superman Returns.  (At the time I would have defended that film, but that was mostly just because I wanted to see more Superman movies.)  I remember that Dylan Baker was in it because I love me some Dylan Baker.  And I remember Sam, the film's iconic poster boy with his smiling burlap face and his lethal lollipop.  But that's about it.  I don't personally know anyone else who's seen or even really heard of the indie horror anthology about one violent Halloween night in a small Ohio town.  But for some reason it's always been there in the back of my mind as something I should really get around to seeing.  When I started compiling my list of Halloween movies for October, Trick 'R Treat was right at the top.

For a movie that's only 82 minutes long, there is a LOT going on here, with four different storylines all playing out simultaneously and weaving in and out of each other in both obvious and subtle ways.  But more than anything else, that's what made me kind of fall in love with the thing.  (Also, I truly appreciated the short running time as the Red Sox playoff game ran long and pushed the start of my viewing back to about 10:30 PM.)  With so many independent moving pieces, a movie can often struggle to find its feet, to settle on a consistent tone from segment to segment.  The key here is in the opening credit sequence, which not only gives us a quick glimpse at each of the major characters, but instantly establishes the heightened reality of the film as that of a horror anthology comic book, telling a series of dark tales about a collection of twisted characters who all happen to inhabit the same world.  In fact, it's hard to think of another film that feels so distinctly like a living comic book; you can practically see the panels in your head and the final shot of every story, a surprising twist each time, feels tailor-made to be one of those arresting, full page final images.

The cast consists mostly of unknowns, but that actually works in the film's favor, letting you get caught up more in the stories than in the familiar faces.  But aside from one thread about some kids who go to visit the site of a legendary bus crash, (in retrospect, probably the weakest of the four plots, although Rhonda The Retard is fabulous) each story does contain at least one name actor.  Dylan Baker is beyond great as the school principal with a secret penchant for violence and Anna Paquin is fun as a virginal coed on the prowl for a guy to bring to a party in the woods.  This story actually drags a bit, but there are a few fakeouts that lead to a final payoff is so utterly weird and fun I defy you not to smile.  And last but the opposite of least, (last but most?) we get the one and only Brian Cox as a cranky old man who suffers the consequences of not getting into the Halloween spirit.  This is where we discover the film's secret weapon: Sam.

Named for Samhain, the ancient Celtic holiday which predates the modern Halloween, Sam is a small figure in a burlap hood with button eyes and a stitched on smile.  He appears sporadically throughout the film, silently observing the townsfolk while blending in with the other trick or treaters.  So much of what works about Sam is his apparent innocence.  His body language suggests that of a small child and his unchanging facial expression, with his oversized head cocked ever so slightly to the side, is inherently unsettling.  He's not physically imposing, he's not constantly armed with some terrifying weapon and he doesn't act overtly creepy all the time.  BUT THAT'S WHAT MAKES HIM SO DAMN CREEPY.  And unlike most horror villains, Sam does not kill indiscriminately.  He's basically the spirit of Halloween, so he'll only come after you if you disrespect the sacred traditions.  You don't put out a jack-o-lantern?  He'll carpet bomb your yard with them.  Ignore trick-or-treaters?  He'll make you regret it.  And when that burlap hood comes off?  Simply perfect.

It's a shame that writer/director Michael Dougherty seems to have dropped off the map following Trick 'R Treat, because I would love to see what else he can do.  I'm honestly a little baffled that a) the film never got a serious theatrical release and b) that nobody saw the movie and tried to sign Dougherty to another project.  It was originally a Warner Bros release, but they abruptly pulled it from the schedule at the last minute and then sat on the movie for two years before quietly dumping it directly to DVD.  There must have been some awfully sour grapes over the poor performance of Superman Returns, because those actions certainly aren't based on the quality of the film itself.  This is everything you want from a Halloween movie: dark, twisted, funny, violent, bizarre and above all, entertaining.  On top of all that you've got Sam, an inventive and original signature character that leaves you absolutely begging for more.

Trick 'R Treat is now unquestionably a part of my Halloween rotation, something I'll watch each and every October for the foreseeable future.  If you're looking for something fun to watch with friends to get into the spirit of the season, do yourself a favor and check this one out.  You definitely won't regret it.

Title: Trick 'R Treat
Director: Michael Dougherty
Starring: Dylan Baker, Anna Paquin, Brian Cox, Tahmoh Penikett, Leslie Bibb, Brett Kelly, Quinn Lord, Samm Todd
Year Of Release: 2009
Viewing Method: Netflix DVD

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