Written and Directed by Michael Dougherty
A Warner Brothers Picture
Starring Anna Paquin (Laurie); Dylan Baker (Principal Wilkins); Samm Todd (Rhonda); Lauren Lee Smith (Danielle); Brian Cox (Mr. Kreeg); Britt McKillip (Macy); Jean-Luc Bilodeau (Schrader); Brent Kelly (Charlie); Leslie Bibb (Emma) and Quinn Lord (Sam).
All fans of horror films know that the anthology film is an important staple of the genre. Films with titles like The House That Dripped Blood (1970), Tales From The Crypt (1972) and Creepshow (1982) are regular features in every horror fan’s list of must-see movies each October 31st. In 2005, writer and director Michael Dougherty tackled his own offering with Trick ‘r Treat. Despite it sitting on the shelf for two years, Trick ‘r Treat served up several new frights with a few interesting twists to give a boost to the creaky genre that is the horror anthology film.
All anthology films need a framing device on which to hang its tales; Creepshow used a comic book while From A Whisper To A Scream (1987) gave us a town with a history of horror. Trick ‘r Treat also gives us a town, Warren Valley, Ohio, where the populace takes their Halloween activities seriously. Warren Valley is definitely the place to be on All Soul’s Night: there’s dancing in the streets, costumed partiers everywhere you look and the place is literally stuffed with jack-o’-lanterns. There’s also a few secrets bubbling under all the festivities. When one is wandering through the streets, beware of a dark figure in a cape and stay clear of that strange-looking kid with the burlap sack over his head. And please treat your jack-o’-lanterns with respect…
Trick ‘r Treat gives us several stories to sink our teeth into, but adds the extra novelty of having the characters wander through each others’ tales, giving the film a feeling of a unified whole rather than just four tales slapped together (a failing of some anthology films like Amicus’s Torture Garden (1967)). Chronologically, the film begins with its final segment, that of the Halloween-hating Emma (Leslie Bibb) who grouses to her suffering boyfriend about how much fun she didn’t have that night and how their heavily-decorated front yard looks like a slaughterhouse (dourly ignoring the fact that all the houses on their street are similarly decked out); she insists of cleaning the whole thing up immediately, in the process of which she douses a jack-o’-lantern before midnight and puts herself on the shitlist of something stalking her across the street. As seasoned viewers, we’re under no impression that Emma is ever going to join her boyfriend upstairs for sex; it’s only a question of who the killer is and when he will strike, questions that Dougherty handles with the precision of a seasoned master (That creepy guy across the street whom Emma thinks is watching her? Just a guy waiting to be picked up by his buddies. Phew, that was close. But when she turns the wrong way…). This pre-credit sequence is a fine appetizer for what is to come (as well as providing the film with its conclusion).
After a quick look at the town of Warren Valley in full swing (are there any actual towns in the U.S. that celebrates Halloween this hard and, if so, are the hotels reasonably priced?) we get another spoil-sport of the season, overweight and sullen Charlie (Brent Kelly), who steals candy and thinks nothing of smashing every jack-o’-lantern he comes across. We aren’t too sympathetic to this rotten little puke’s fate (though it is a bit shocking) when Principal Wilkins (Dylan Baker) feeds him a poisoned chocolate bar and he vomits up blood until he drops dead. I don’t know what it is about Dylan Baker’s not-to-be underestimated talents as an actor that paves the way for him to portray such effective psychopaths (those of you who have seen Happiness (1998) will understand) but here he’s at it again, playing a man who belongs nowhere except in a booby-hatch and doing it well. Particularly good are his exchanges with his annoying son Billy (when he tells the boy to go watch Charlie Brown so that he can finish burying Charlie in the backyard, the boy shouts, “Charlie Brown is an asshole!”) and his antagonism with his next door neighbor Mr. Kreeg (Brian Cox, the original Hannibal Lector before that other guy came along). And this is where the heart of the film lies, the relationships of the characters to each other as they all face their own personal Halloween horror stories: Wilkins later sees Kreeg screaming for help at his window, but he decides to ignore it (we find out later that he’s being attacked by Sam), he visited by Macy and her friends and gives them unpoisoned (as far as we know) candy, which they presumably will never eat, and once he starts wreaking havoc at the Halloween parade as a murdering vampire, he will cross paths with Laurie. Dougherty has created not just a setting where these tales can take place, but a place where one character’s actions influence the other stories.
Laurie is seemingly the opposite of Wilkins in every way. Played by the Academy Award-winning actress Anna Paquin, she is the shy and sweet “runt-of-the-litter” (her sister Danielle’s words), who doesn’t seem at all pleased with her sexy Little Red Riding Hood costume or the fact that she is being goaded by her sister and her friends to pick up a guy for their party (this shows what a sourpuss Emma was; rather than dress up in something pretty or sexy, Emma walked around all night dressed as a robot). Laurie is young and wants her first time to be special. Once we see that a man with vampire fangs is stalking and killing women at the parade, Laurie seemingly wanders around town with everything but the word “victim” stamped on her forehead. Her sister remains distracted at their campfire, their hand-picked escorts all lying around in states of semi-drunkenness (we think), wondering if something has happened. And something does happen: Laurie is indeed bitten by the vampire, but it isn’t long before the tables are turned. The vampire turns out to be the all-too human Wilkins and Laurie turns out to be a not-too human werewolf. This is her first time and Wilkins gets what he deserves.
The centerpiece of the film belongs to the story of Macy (Britt McKillip) and her Trick or Treating friends who gather up jack-o’-lanterns to bring to a quarry as an offering to a busload of severely retarded kids who drowned there one Halloween decades before (or so they tell their idiot savant friend Rhonda (Samm Todd)). Here, we’re treated to a creepy-as-Hell flashback to the event, featuring a bus driver who’s been paid by the parents to put their children out of their (the parents’) misery. There’s something undeniably awful about these children, chained to their seats and wearing masks, while one of them realizes what is happening and moans, “Wrong way… wrong way… wanna’ go home… wanna’ go home…” And while the story is true (something that will not be denied once we get to the end of Mr. Kreeg’s tale), Macy and her friends use it as a foundation for their plan to scare the fertilizer out of poor Rhonda. But the kids who cried wolf suddenly start screaming for real when those long-dead children climb out of the water to get them.
Trick ‘r Treat not only has an impressive body-count (with some mighty inventive ways of ending a life), but also breaks a horror-film taboo by including children on the list of victims. If we include the flashback which tells the story of the bus crash, then there are a total of thirteen victims under the age of eighteen. This may seem to be in bad taste (particularly the scene where little Billy prepares to carve up Charlie’s head as if it were a jack-o’-lantern) and may have been a contributing factor in the temporary shelving of the film, but no amount of bad taste can keep a film away from the American public if someone thinks there’s money to be made (those of you who sat through Pearl Harbor will know what I mean). Dougherty sugars the pill by having most of the victims be less-than endearing: Charlie’s unpleasantness has already been mentioned and Macy and her friends are guilty of playing a cruel prank of Rhonda that has resulted in her frightened out her mind and briefly knocked unconscious. Other not-so sympathetic victims include Emma (a Halloween Scrooge), Wilkins (a serial killer) and Mr. Kreeg (who scares kids into dropping their candy so he can eat it himself).
Kreeg’s story is, in many ways, the most horrific. An incredibly unpleasant old fart (when feeling threatened at one point, he runs outside shouting “I’ve got an NRA membership in my pocket!”), Kreeg gets his comeuppance when he’s visited by Sam, the creepy-kid who’s been hovering on the edges of the action for the entire film. Sam is the film’s one true enigma. Trick ‘r Treat shows us a town where child murderers, werewolves and the walking dead all dwell. They’re all nasty, but we’ve seen this sort of thing before. Sam defies any logic or explanation. Sam, seemingly a child in orange jammies and a burlap mask with buttons for eyes, simply goes from scene to scene, dragging his dirty pillowcase behind him. He never speaks and most of the other characters don’t even see him. He is apparently everywhere at the same time (even in Macy’s flashback, which takes place thirty years before the film’s events) and he spends his time lending atmosphere to the scenes… until he pays a visit to Mr. Kreeg. Sam’s fury is released at full force with the help of a box-cutter hidden in a candy bar. We’ve waited the entire film to see Sam unleashed, and we’re not disappointed. He can crawl on the ceiling, control his disembodied arm (when Kreeg shoots it off), and his unmasked face is one of the finest reveals in horror history. Trick ‘r Treat may be a film with some fun, but when its werewolves shred their skin or when Sam attacks, it packs a mighty punch.
Interestingly, Kreeg seems to learn his lesson and hands out candy to the kids after he manages to survive his encounter with little Sam (“Love your Mummy costume,” a little girl tells the heavily bandaged man). And the film comes full-circle: Sam, fresh from his encounter with Mr. Kreeg, spies Emma blowing out a jack-o’-lantern and trudges across the street to punish her while Kreeg gets one more visit from the kids whose school bus he drove into the quarry years before. In the end, Trick r Treat is a fun and scary thrill ride that makes us laugh with excitement at some things that should not even be smiled at, but isn’t that what Halloween tends to be about in the first place?