When was the last time you saw a genuinely good Halloween movie? Hell, when was the last time a good horror movie, regardless of a Halloween theme, was released around the end of October? The first Saw movie? Honestly, the last one I can think of is The Nightmare Before Christmas. Which is why my interested in Trick R Treat was piqued early on — it seemed to have the right ingredients and some great promise for the Halloween season, and might bring the true Halloween spirit back to the multiplex.
So, of course, it went straight to DVD.
Which is a goddamn shame, because Trick R Treat, which was released this past Tuesday, is a thoroughly enjoyable flick. It plays with much of the Halloween mythos, the urban legends, the common fears, then twists them up and takes you by surprise. The film, written and directed by Michael Dougherty in his rookie effort, is a gorgeously filmed, pulp-filled ode to our darkest fears, the weird and the bizarre. It’s certainly not the scariest movie ever — there are some decent jumps and startles, but overall it wins you over with atmosphere, cinematography and sterling performances from its entertaining-as-hell cast.
The film is actually four distinct stories, craftily woven together into a smoothly flowing pastiche, wherein the characters from each story have distinct interactions with those in the other tales. It jumps back and forth in time a bit, but that technique isn’t abused — if anything, it’s to provide an added layer of misdirection to the film’s clever storytelling. The film opens with a brief, brutal tale of murder on a couple’s front lawn, and after a clever opening credit sequence utilizing comic book-style panels with brief glimpses into some of the main players, it takes off with giddy, bloody abandon.
I’m loath to give away any spoilers (and neither should you, dear commenters), for the twists really are quite ingenious. The film takes place in a small town in Ohio where Halloween is the highlight of the year, complete with street parades and parties. The plotlines follow a quintet of younger kids gathering jack-o-lanterns as they simultaneously learn the ominous story of the “school bus massacre;” the creep of a school principle (Dylan Baker) with some literal bodies in his backyard; a young woman (Anna Paquin) who is looking for the right man for her first time and traveling with her big sister (Lauren Lee Smith) and her friends who are looking for a good time; and finally, the story of Mr. Kreeg (the always-brilliant Brian Cox), the neighborhood ornery old bastard who hates Halloween and has a freakish encounter with a particularly monsterish trick-or-treater. All the while, each story is overseen by an adorably creepy character, called only “Sam” in the credits, a diminutive, silent watcher with a burlap sack for a mask and dead button eyes, who carefully observes those who break the “rules” of Halloween.
What makes Trick R Treat great is that any one of those tales would make for a fairly enticing ghost tale. It’s a genuine attempt at simple campfire horror. Trick R Treat isn’t gross or disturbing or filled with gruesome torture designed to make you want to crawl out of your skin. It’s four scary stories, told as one. There’s no rape or mutilation or uncomfortable squirming in your seats as you see things that you wish you could blink away. It’s old-fashioned horror, relying on the goddamned story to be effective, not on brutality and gore. Well, OK — there’s some gore — but it’s not overly graphic, and it’s not abused. It’s there when it’s necessary.
As I mentioned, atmosphere is one of the things that makes the movie. From the claustrophobic streets crammed with eerily dressed celebrants, to the gloomy cliffs where the bus full of children met their ill-fated demise, to the houses adorned with every imaginable variation of jack-o-lantern, Dougherty and director of photography Glen MacPherson manage to capture everything that is both wonderful and spooky and unnerving about Halloween. Laughter in the street bleeds into screams in an alleyway, staggering drunks could be wounded innocents — all of it hidden by the natural camouflage that Halloween provides. Meanwhile, an outstanding score by Douglas Pipes keeps the tension ratcheted up with a colorful cacophony of instruments. At the same time, the score can lull you into thinking you’ve found a quiet moment, only to quickly startle you out of your stupor.
The cast is uniformly very good — they all seem to understand what their roles call for. There is no in-depth character development here, no burgeoning romances or superfluous angst. Little is said about the characters’ back stories or motivations, but then, that’s hardly the point (and, in some cases, would simply provide an excess of exposition). Instead, the players each appear to have cookie-cutter characteristics, when in fact none of them are what they appear. Not to say that all the good are bad and vice versa, but that there’s enough surprise to be found beneath the scratched surfaces to keep them interesting. The cast features no real stars — after Brian Cox, Paquin is easily the most well-known (and this was filmed well before “True Blood” took your DVR’s by storm). But she, Leslie Bibb, Dylan Baker, Lauren Lee Smith (who I must say is just getting more stunning as she gets more mature. The woman who was cute in “Mutant X” is a downright knockout these days), and Brian Cox collectively give it their all, making their characters everything from sympathetic to shocking.
Trick R Treat isn’t the next great horror film. It’s not a game-changer. But it’s rich with imagination and full of an atmosphere at once vibrant and gloomy. It blends its four stories slickly and Dougherty turns each tale completely on its head, going places you wouldn’t expect and pulling off outcomes that are (mostly) surprising and satisfying. The predators are never as dangerous as they think they are, and the prey is never as vulnerable as they appear. There’s danger and darkness in unexpected places, keeping you off-balance, never making it too predictable or allowing you to feel too comfortable. Sure, you’ll guess some of the plays a couple of moves ahead, but there are a couple of genuinely shocking doozies that made my jaw drop a bit, and then made me cackle with glee.
That’s when you know you’re watching a good horror movie.
TK writes about music and movies. He enjoys playing with dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.