Trick 'r Treat (2009)
Rated R for horror violence, some sexuality/nudity and language
Score: 5 out of 5
(Note: while this film was first screened in 2007, it was only given an official release in 2009, so I am counting it as a 2009 film.)
The notice I just gave above is an indication of the amount of trouble this film had on its long journey to release. Despite being produced by Bryan Singer, written and directed by Michael Dougherty (who wrote X2: X-Men United), and boasting a pretty big-name cast for a horror film, Warner Bros. canceled the film's planned October 2007 theatrical release for reasons unknown. Some have speculated that it was resentment towards Singer and Dougherty for the box-office disappointment of Superman Returns (which Singer directed and Dougherty co-wrote), while others have said that it was because the studio didn't understand the film and couldn't figure out how to market it, with its black comedy air, its anthology nature instead of a single storyline, and the large number of kids who get killed during its runtime. Regardless, this was a film that became a cult classic the hard way: through word of mouth built up at festival screenings in the late '00s, with just about everybody who watched it singing its praises, such that Warner Bros. finally gave it a direct-to-video release in 2009.
And with that, it promptly became the greatest direct-to-video horror film ever made, as all the people who had heard the rave reviews this got went to check it out... and believed the hype.
Count me as one of the many people who now ranks this film as the Halloween of the 21st century, an excellent film about one of the most fun and irreverent holidays of the year. (Incidentally, the two films make great companions to watch back-to-back on the day itself.) Much like Dougherty's later Krampus did with Christmas, Trick 'r Treat isn't just a horror movie set on Halloween, it's a horror movie that's fundamentally about Halloween, not just in terms of the mythology surrounding it but also with how we celebrate it today. The glue holding it together isn't the characters, but the themes. It's about creepy campfire stories about long-forgotten tragedies, about urban legends concerning razor blades and poison in the candy, about news programs doing cheesy specials about Celtic paganism, and most importantly, about having fun -- and about wrecking the shit out of the people who try to ruin that fun. And on that note, it is also a ridiculously entertaining film to actually watch, with all manner of twisted ideas and well-deployed gore shots thrown at the viewer. Trick 'r Treat is a modern classic, not just one of the greatest films about Halloween ever made, but also one of the best horror-comedies and horror films of any kind of the last ten years.
This film does not have a single, central story. Rather, it consists mostly of four 20-minute vignettes, loosely connected by the fact that they're all set in the small Middle American town of Warren Valley, Ohio on Halloween night. In the first of the bunch, we get Steven Wilkins (Dylan Baker), a school principal and serial killer who kills kids every Halloween, leaving out a bowl "unattended" and waiting for punks who try to violate the honor system it's operating under before giving them a poisoned candy bar as an "extra" reward -- all while he prepares to carve pumpkins with his son. After that, we get a group of teenagers seeking to collect eight jack-o'-lanterns in order to commemorate the "Halloween School Bus Massacre", an urban legend dating back thirty years. Next, we get a group of attractive young female friends who are trying to get Laurie (Anna Paquin), the virgin of the group, laid... or so it seems. Finally, we get Mr. Kreeg (Brian Cox), an old curmudgeon who hates Halloween and scares off trick-or-treaters from his doorstep, only to get paid a visit by Sam, a mysterious kid in a pumpkin costume (he's the little guy pictured on the poster) who punishes him for his disrespect of ancient traditions. The characters cross paths, but only rarely do they interact with one another, their stories all taking place simultaneously but separately; Sam is the only recurring character who shows up in each of their stories, a sort of "spirit of the season". It's an anthology film, like four episodes of The Twilight Zone hooked together into one movie, and while there isn't a cohesive, overarching plot holding them together, the themes they share help bind them instead. It's telling a simple story about a single Halloween in a single small town, and it knows it doesn't need to be about a great plot to sacrifice everybody to Satan or something silly like that. It's about how the spirit of the season permeates everything around them, like a way bloodier version of A Christmas Story.
And speaking of blood, each of those four stories is told remarkably well, and the manner in which they are all tied together over the course of the film not only lends it some consistency, it also reflects the broader themes that the film is trying to represent. If you want gore, the body count is sky high, especially for a film that's only eighty-two minutes long counting the credits, and the kills deliver the goods. The diversity of the scares is wide, too, with ghosts, werewolves, pumpkin monsters, and all-too-human evils living side by side, all realized with great practical special effects that feel realistically icky and disgusting. Given how short each of the shorts is Michael Dougherty is great at building suspense the old-fashioned way, while also weaving in a hilarious mean streak, one that's not afraid to laugh at the sillier elements of the holiday (sexy costumes, TV specials) or at the poor suckers who usually have it coming in the end. The cast is great; given how little screen time each of them has, they're all basically supporting characters, but their relationships and personalities felt authentic, warts and all. It's a ridiculous rollercoaster ride that's not afraid to get silly or grotesque. Watching this film is like being a gangster: it's hard to describe just how it feels, but damn it feels good.
The Bottom Line:
This is one that I now make a point of watching every year around October 31 much like Halloween, often in a double feature. It's smart, funny, gruesome, holds together far better than it should, and is just a blast to watch, a friendly reminder of just why this time of year is so much fun. Happy Halloween.