Released: 6 October 2009
Director: Michael Dougherty
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Budget: $12 million
Stars: Anna Paquin, Dylan Baker, Brian Cox, Samm Todd, Britt McKillip, and Quinn Lord
It’s Halloween night in Warren Valley, Ohio and all sorts of ghouls and demons have come out to join the residents for their fun and games; a high school principal moonlights as a vicious serial killer, a cruel prank awakens the restless souls of a bus crash, a young virgin finds her search for that special someone taking a gruesome turn, and a mischievous little demon terrorises an irritable old man to teach him the true meaning of Halloween.
Trick ‘r Treat began life in 1996 when Michael Dougherty created an animated short, Season’s Greetings, that featured burlap-sack-wearing Sam being stalked on Halloween night. A self-confessed Halloween fanatic, the idea stayed with Dougherty and was expanded into a horror anthology that he aimed to be both timeless and rewarding to viewers who paid attention to the little details in the film. Having previously written big-budget superhero films, Dougherty relished the opportunity to craft a more down-to-earth story and interact with horror fans at conventions and screenings since they were always so passionate to see new, interesting horror productions. Trick ‘r Treat was screened at a number of horror film festivals before being released on home media without a widespread cinematic release; nonetheless, the film received largely positive reviews and became an instant cult classic, though a sequel has languished in Development Hell regardless.
Like the other films I’ve been reviewing on the road to Halloween, Trick ’r Treat is an anthology film; while it differs from the others by having all of its different narrative threads intertwine and overlap, I’ll still be talking about each story individually before moving on to the overall film, which again means that my review is structured a little differently from my usual ones.
The film uses its opening sequence to establish both the setting for the film and how important the age-old traditions of Halloween are to Trick ‘r Treat’s narrative; it’s a cold, dark Halloween night in Warren Valley but, while the kids might be enjoying dressing up and going door to door for sweets and chocolate, Emma (Leslie Bibb) is less than thrilled at being dragged out into the night by her husband, Henry (Tahmoh Penikett). While Henry enjoys the fun and traditions of season, Emma finds it aggravating and frustrating; although Henry cautions her that it’s bad luck to blow out the jack-o’-lantern before midnight, she dismisses such superstitions, puts out the flame, and begins tearing down the decorations in their yard, unaware that she’s being watched by an unseen figure who brutally attacks her beneath a sheet and leaves her mutilated corpse out on display.
The story then segues to earlier in the night, when the town was alive with Halloween cheer and celebrations; the only thing Charlie (Brett Kelly) is interested in, however, is smashing his neighbour’s pumpkins and stealing sweets from the porch of local high school principal Steven Wilkins (Baker). Though he chastises Charlie for ruining his health with chocolate, Wilkins confides in the boy that he used to be the same way before his father taught him that Halloween was about showing respect for the dead since it’s the one night of the year that they’re allowed to come back to the world of the living. He’s dismayed that Halloween’s traditions, once put into place to protect the living, are lost on today’s world, though he proves that he still holds them true to heart as he poisoned his sweets to teach kids to “check their candy” to avoid being “tricked”. This causes Charlie to vomit up black bile but Wilkins’ attempt to bury him in his back garden are continually interrupted by his amusingly obnoxious son, Billy (Connor Levins), and his cantankerous neighbour, Mr. Kreeg (Cox). Annoyed by his son’s constantly whining, Wilkins appears to be on the verge of stabbing Billy to death with a knife and adding to his body count but story ends with the twist that he and Billy are in on it together and preparing to carve Charlie’s severed head like a jack-o’-lantern.
Wilkins was visited by a group of teenage trick-or-treaters earlier and these kids – Macy (McKillip), Sara (Isabelle Deluce), Chip (Alberto Ghisi), and Schrader (Jean-Luc Bilodeau) – become the focus of another segment of the film. After borrowing a jack-o’-lantern from the licentious Mrs. Henderson (Christine Willes), the group invite Rhonda (Todd) – a Halloween fanatic and “idiot savant” – to go with them to a flooded quarry that is the subject of an urban legend. According to Warren Valley, a school bus full of mentally challenged children was sent over the edge of the quarry, where they drowned in the water below, after the bus driver was paid off by their exhausted parents to dispose of them. While the driver survived, he disappeared and legend has it that the busload of kids still sits at the bottom of the quarry, so Macy leads the group down to the bottom in a rickety lift to light eight jack-o’-lanterns as a tribute to the lives lost. When she hears her newfound friends screaming for help, Rhonda braves the misty quarry to investigate and comes across the wreckage of the school bus before being attacked by the muddy, swamp-like, zombie school kids, but it turns out to be the kids playing a cruel prank on the impressionable, innocent girl as orchestrated by the callous and vindictive Macy. However, when Macy kicks a lit jack-o’-lantern into the water, actual zombie children crawl up and attack them; when the kids head to the lift, Rhonda has locked herself in and, despite Schrader showing kindness to her, she refuses to let the bullies in and rides it up alone, leaving them to be torn apart by the malevolent ghouls.
New in town are Laurie (Paquin), her sister Danielle (Lauren Lee Smith), and her friends Maria (Rochelle Aytes) and Janet (Moneca Delain). Compared to her brazen and promiscuous sibling and friends, Laurie is a self-conscious sceptic of their plan to dress up as slutty fairy tale characters and get laid, especially as she is the only virgin in the group. While Danielle and the others easily pick up guys to take to a secluded area, Laurie (dressed as Little Red Riding Hood) opts to stay in town, where she catches the eye of a masked serial killer dressed in a black hood. Although he attacks her on her way to the bonfire where her sister and friends are, Laurie turns the tables on the killer (revealed to be Wilkins in disguise) and leaves him a bloodied mess in the woods. When Laurie arrives at the bonfire, it’s dramatically revealed that she, her sister, and their friends are actually werewolves who have been luring prey out to the woods for a feast; rather than being nervous of her first time having sex, Laurie was anxious about her first time feeding on human flesh but she nonetheless engorges herself on Wilkins’ horrified form.
Present in some for or other throughout the film is Sam (Lord), a small boy with a burlap sack over his head who witnesses many of the events unfold throughout the movie; he takes a chocolate bar from Wilkins, shares a knowing glance with Rhonda, watches the werewolves feed on their prey, and kills Emma for disrespecting his traditions but takes centre stage for the film’s final segment. Mr. Kreeg is a grouchy and ill-tempered old man who has little time or interest in Halloween except to scare away trick-or-treaters so he can steal their sweets and chocolate. However, he finds himself tormented by Sam, who eggs his house, leaves a whole load of lit jack-o’-lantern on his front lawn, and runs around inside his house leaving bloody trick-or-treat messages on the walls. Sam then takes the direct approach and attacks Kreeg with a razor-filled chocolate bar before tearing up Kreeg’s hands with shards of glass and revealing himself to be a demonic entity (apparently Samhain, the embodiment of Halloween itself) with a gruesome pumpkin for a head! Shrugging off Kreeg’s bullets and supernaturally stitching himself back together, Sam is poised to deliver a killing blow but seems satisfied when he stabs a chocolate bar on Kreeg’s person instead. Battered, injured, and terrified, Kreeg hands out treats to the kids at his door but ends up falling victim to the zombie children from the quarry who have come to enact revenge against him since he turns out to have been the bus driver responsible for their deaths.
Of course, Trick ‘r Treat owes quite a lot to the influential Creepshow (Romero, 1982), a horror anthology laced with black humour, and the spirit of Creepshow is evoked in the comic book panels and artwork seen in the opening and closing titles of Trick ‘r Treat just as much as it is in the anthology format. Unlike Creepshow, though, and the other horror anthologies I’ve reviewed over this October, Trick ‘r Treat interweaves, intertwines, and overlaps its stories and characters and jumps between different time periods. This means that we regularly see characters from one segment in the background or interacting with others and previously deceased characters alive and well elsewhere. The film is, however, laced with some amusing black comedy; mostly physical stuff and the absurd believability of an unassuming neighbour pulling horrible pranks on kids or poisoning them and burying them in their garden.
One of the ways Trick ‘r Treat stands out against other horror films is its focus on Halloween; generally speaking, the appropriately-titled Halloween franchise (Various, 1978 to present) has a stranglehold on the season outside of a few low-budget and straight-to-video releases so it was very refreshing to see an original Halloween-themed horror movie that pulled from the deep lore of the macabre season. It even succeeds where many films have failed (in my experience) by putting a grisly spin on werewolves; typically, I find werewolves are much more miss than hit in films as they’re often rendered in terrible CGI, dated effects, or just look stupid and fake when onscreen. Here, seeing the girls strip off their human flesh and reveal their canine forms was very disturbing and an extremely effective way to show the creatures without them looking fake or ridiculous as is so often the case. Generally, werewolves are often male characters so it was refreshing to see a group of girls turn out to be lycanthropes in a twist on “Little Red Riding Hood” and subverting the expectations of Laurie’s “first time” was a fun inclusion that hinted at a larger society of werewolves stalking and feeding on unassuming, horny men.
Indeed, Trick ‘r Treat excels through its visuals; the whole film takes place on a dark Halloween night in a town that goes all-in with celebrating the event, meaning there’s trick-or-treaters, jack-o’-lanterns, and auburn leaves everywhere, all of which really helps to set the ominous mood of the film. The visuals also extend to more explicit horror as well; the zombie kids are a great twist on an overdone horror trope and their story is equal parts tragic and gruesome as they shamble up from the depths to get their revenge. And then there’s little Sam, an under-rated modern horror icon who has yet to be beaten into the ground through overexposure; while the pumpkin-head reveal was shocking and the effect looks great, the burlap sack look is equally as effective and I enjoyed how he would just pop in throughout the film, silently watching and observing events unfold. A scuttling, vindictive little demon, Sam attacks using sweets and chocolate stuffed with glass and razors and only targets those who disrespect or tarnish the traditions of Halloween rather than being just another mute, masked slasher.
I was a little late to the Trick ‘r Treat party; I don’t think I saw it until it had been out for some time and I haven’t really seen it that much compared to other horror films, which turns out to be a massive mistake on my part. Trick ‘r Treat is easily a fantastic Halloween tradition and a great horror anthology in its own right; I love how the stories and characters intersect and overlap with each other as it really helps to bring the town to life and show how all kinds of horrific creatures and events rise up from the darkness on Halloween night. The use of dark comedy was a great way to keep things light and fun and Dylan Baker and Brian Cox definitely seem to be having a good time in their roles; all of the performances are great, actually, especially Samm Todd (though all of the kids were really good, which is always a nice surprise to see in films). While the variety of monsters, horror, and gore on show are all suitably macabre and brutal for any horror fan, Sam is unquestionably the star of the show; lingering around town and in each segment, he makes an immediate impact in his campaign against Mr. Keech, which is the perfect balance of creepy and ludicrous. An intriguing, childlike demon, I would love to see more of Sam in some way, shape, or form as I think he has an impactful look and a lot of potential as the mischievous (but no less vindictive) embodiment of Halloween and Trick ‘r Treat did a wonderful job of presenting a fresh new take on the macabre season that didn’t involve a babysitter killer.
Are you a fan of Trick ‘r Treat? Which of the segments featured in the film was your favourite? What did you think to the presentation of the zombies and werewolves? What are your thoughts on Sam and his status as a modern horror icon? Would you like to see a sequel or an anthology series some day? What horror films have you been watching this month in preparation for Halloween? Whatever you think about Trick ‘r Treat, feel free to leave a comment by signing up or visiting my social media and check in next Monday for my Halloween review!