Sunday 31 October 2021

Trick ’r Treat (2007)

Director: Michael Dougherty
Writer: Michael Dougherty
Stars: Dylan Baker, Rochelle Aytes, Anna Paquin and Brian Cox

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

And so to Halloween, the most horror holiday of the year, a horrorday if you will! I avoided Halloween partly because it’s too damn obvious a choice, but also because something on the cover of my DVD copy of Trick ’r Treat bugged me. It’s a quote from the Wizard Universe website, the forerunner of Wizard World, to state that this is “the best Halloween film of the last 30 years.” It’s obvious to everyone that they’re saying “since John Carpenter’s Halloween, which came out in 1978”, but I’d call this easily the best Halloween film, period, as it isn’t just a horror flick set on Halloween, as so many others are, it’s actually a distillation of the fundamental rules of Halloween into movie form. It didn’t get a wide release, only playing a handful of film festivals over the couple of years until it hit home video in 2009. It was critically acclaimed but there’s never any guarantee that the moviegoing public are going to see eye to eye with the critics and this has sadly remained an underground hit, although the size of the cult is thankfully growing.

It really is the epitome of the movie to throw on every year on the holiday in question. You can watch Halloween any day, but Trick ’r Treat gains magic when viewed on Halloween, late at night after the trick or treaters have gone home and you can slouch back in your comfiest chair with a beer or three. It’s an anthology film but an unusual one because, unlike most anthology films which just hurl out random, if perhaps themed, short films inside a framing story, these stories are interwoven. All four take place in roughly the same place at roughly the same time. The place is Warren Valley, OH and the time, of course, is Halloween night. There’s a fifth piece that does too, but it’s much shorter than the others and it serves as our framing story, mostly there to set us up for what’s to come. It features a couple returning home from the carnival atmosphere in town and, while Henry is a huge Halloween fan, Emma is not. As she starts taking down their Halloween decorations, she outright states, “I hate Halloween”. And that’s not good.

As we find as the entire film wraps, her doom was set when she snuffed out a Jack o’Lantern too early, but there are plenty of other people in town who aren’t living up to the spirit of Halloween, for one reason or another, and, at this point, they’ve already met an appropriate end. However, this plays out of order and so we’ll go back to find out what happened in the interwoven segments. It’s fair to say that three of them end with a reasonably hokey but gruesome twist in good old fashioned EC Comics poetic justice style, while the fourth and last is more surprising and actually explains the movie’s logic in a neat way. Put together, they send a message to acknowledge and adhere to the traditions of Halloween. Violate them and karma, in the form of the iconic trick or treat monster, Sam, will take you down. But follow them and karma, even if you deserve its visit, might leave you alone, at least for the time being. It will be back, at some point, because karma always will be, but following the rules might save you then too.

The first segment is about Steven Wilkins, who’s the local principal by day and a budding serial killer by night, but karma isn’t there for him quite yet; it’s there for Charlie, an overweight slob of a kid who has no respect whatsoever for the rules of Halloween. As we meet him, he’s getting his kicks smashing all the pumpkins he walks past on the street. Then he walks up Principal Wilkins’s path to steadfastly ignore the sign instructing him to only take one piece of candy. At this point, when Wilkins catches him in the act, plops him down on the steps and talks to him about tradition, we think he’s just doing his job as a principled principal. But, as he explains to him that he should always check his candy, we realise what else is going on. Charlie chokes to death, because the candy has been poisoned. That’s not really a spoiler, by the way, because it’s hardly the end of even this segment, which features lots more irony. I particularly liked Wilkins’s son shouting down from upstairs, “Charlie Brown sucks!” Of course, that’s not tradition.

While this first segment features plenty of setups for each of the later three, we eventually realise when we’re in the second. It’s for the trick or treating kids who we saw stop at Principal Wilkins’s house and Mrs. Henderson’s too, though they try to forget that she is both drunk and midway through a costumed orgy. Macy is the leader and her angel costume is acutely misleading. She takes the others to a quarry and tells them all a spooky fireside story about a school bus that’s been sunk beneath the waters of the lake at the foot of the quarry, a bus that still holds the bodies of the eight mentally handicapped kids whose parents paid the driver to murder them. If that wasn’t politically incorrect enough, the whole thing is a setup for Macy to scare the crap out of Rhonda, who’s clearly somewhere on the spectrum herself, perhaps a savant. There is sensitivity here and I thoroughly appreciated the diversity in play, but the real winner is karma, because Macy really shouldn’t have kicked a jack o’lantern into the lake.

We’ve seen recognisable names already, though Tahmoh Penikett and Leslie Bibb weren’t as prominent at this point as they would soon become. Dylan Baker was more notable at the time and he’s perfectly cast as Wilkins, an outwardly respectable teacher with a serious hidden darkness; there’s a fantastic shot of him thinking about slamming his knife deep into his own son’s skull rather than what they’re carving together. The third segment follows Anna Paquin, though, a bigger star again given that she won an Academy Award at eleven for her debut in The Piano; she hadn’t started True Blood at this point but had made three X-Men movies, so she was a household name far beyond mere horror pictures. Here, she’s the pouty virgin in a group of slutty college girls in town for a party at Sheep’s Meadow. She’s especially worried about her first time being special and, quite frankly, it is absolutely special, if not close to what we might expect. The twist here arrives like it’s performance art and it’s a fantastic way to connect the segments.

By the time we find ourselves at Mr. Kreeg’s house, we’re connecting all over the place because we even get a replay of a scene that we saw earlier, merely from the perspective of the other participant. Kreeg is an old curmudgeon, someone who refuses to get into the spirit of the holiday at all. When trick and treaters ill advisedly knock at his door, he has his masked and caped dog Spike chase them off into the night. But something’s inside his house, something that isn’t happy about his lack of respect for the holiday. What goes down leans heavily on slasher flick logic but with a very cool new slasher, one I feel safe in spoiling because he’s on the film’s poster and has transcended the movie by finding his way into the wider realm of pop culture. When you’re the iconic hero/villain of a decade plus old horror movie and there are animatronics of you at Spirit Halloween, you know you’ve done your job right. He goes by Sam (presumably for Sam Hain, the Gaelic name for Halloween referenced in the script) and he’s a real character.

While avoiding no end of spoilers, because this movie is like a minefield of them, waiting for me trigger one, I can at least point out that this fourth segment stars another horror icon in actor Brian Cox, even if his portrayal of Mr. Kreeg is entirely unlike his most famous horror role; he originated the role of Hannibal Lecktor in Manhunter and, even though he had severely limited screen time, is still My Lecktor, far above Sir Anthony Hopkins, however great a job he did, and I still spell the character’s name like that as it’s the version that I see whenever someone speaks it out loud. All these stars do a great job here, as do the lesser known names, right down to the debuting child actors Samm Todd and Quinn Lord. Todd plays Rhonda, the savant kid in black who adores Halloween and does not deserve to be pranked by the clique du jour on her holiday, while Lord plays Sam, the iconic little guardian of the day and its rules. He’s gone on to a busy career, even though we never see his face here, just a mask under a mask.

Since moving to the States, Halloween is the holiday I’ve taken to most. Sure, I can enjoy fireworks on Independence Day and a big plate of turkey on Thanksgiving, but Halloween is much more fun than either, not least because my eldest son has built a haunt in his backyard and I get to work it every year, scaring as many kids (and, even better, parents) as I can. It also has a much better set of traditions than other quintessentially American holidays, possibly because it’s so much older, though nobody’s had a definitive answer for where it came from. Mostly that’s because it’s a hybrid of a number of other holidays. Halloween is a contraction of All Hallows’ Eve, hallows being saints, the word coming from the same root as “holy”, and it’s the beginning of the three day Christian celebration known as Allhallowtide. As of sunset, it’s also the ancient Gaelic festival of Samhain, a pagan day to mark the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.

It’s relatively commonplace for Christian festivals to be held on the same dates as earlier pagan ones, because it made it possible for early Christians to celebrate openly without falling foul of the pagan or polytheistic majority around them. It’s easy to imagine how these Christian festivals on borrowed dates often took on pagan aspects simply changed to fit new needs. Halloween, though, is the incestuous combination of both the original pagan and Christian celebrations, as they’ve each influenced the other over millennia, with further influence from other cultures that borrowed liberally too. The lineage isn’t a straight line but two lines that become a whole bunch of lines frequently moving in and out of each other. For instance, Allhallowtide might start with Halloween but it ends with All Souls’ Day, whose focus on reverence for the dead morphed into festivals like Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. Add in entirely commercial considerations like the fetish for slutty whatever costumes one night a year, and it’s all an unholy mess.

If there’s a heart to the holiday, it might be the Gaelic mindset that on Samhain, just as on Beltane half a year away, the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead were at their weakest. They left out offerings to ensure that they’d stay on the right set of the gods, they lit candles and said prayers before shifting into celebration mode with eating, drinking and playing of games. Even in Christian times, these often involved divination, whether through bobbing for apples or scrying in mirrors. People would go door to door in costume, performing for food and perhaps casting dire warnings if that food wasn’t forthcoming. As spirits were abroad, fires were lit and lanterns carried to ward them off. Combinations of these led to widespread pranks, hollowed out turnips with carved faces and trick or treating. Meanwhile, Christians went door to door as well to pray for the dead, receiving soul cakes in return, and dressed up as saints if their churches were too poor to own relics of the martyrs.

There’s so much woven into the fabric of Halloween that entire books have been written on the what, the why, then where and the when. What’s important to note from Trick ’r Treat is that this evolution isn’t over, it’s still fluid and popular culture, in the form of books and comics and, especially nowadays, movies, continues to shape it. This feature begins with a brief clip of an old newsreel, a set of warnings for “all ghosts and goblins” going out trick or treating in perhaps the fifties and, while I presume it was created for this film, it’s incredibly telling that one of the warnings is to “never go to a stranger’s house”. Nowadays, in 2020, everyone goes to every house, most of them for the one and only time a year, unless, of course, the porch light is unlit. There are certainly rules that aren’t mentioned in Trick ’r Treat, but that just leaves Dougherty with ample opportunity to make a sequel. A growing audience has been clamouring for one, an update to his Halloween ruleset, and he certainly seems willing. He just hasn’t done it yet.

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