Movies I Love: Trick 'r Treat

Over the course of a decade since its limited theatrical showings and surge of popularity on home video, Trick 'r Treat has developed a reputation for being a quintessential film to watch over Halloween … or Samhain, or All Hallow's Eve; take your pick. It's tough to imagine a film capturing the many facets of the holiday's spirit quite so thoroughly, from the spooked-out observations of kids braving the dangers of the night for their candy to the adults pursuing other kinds of, uh, more mature "treats" while donning their own costumes. Closer in purpose to A Christmas Story than the likes of Halloween or Hocus Pocus, Michael Dougherty's freshman feature ties inextricably to the holiday's customs, atmosphere, urban legends and other moving parts, to such a degree that it makes it difficult to imagine watching Trick 'r Treat at other times of the year. As a mood-setter, you're not likely to find one that's more immersive and character-focused while conjuring the season's spirit; however, when looked at as a straight horror anthology outside the season, it's not exactly the most frightening of the pack.

Trick 'r Treat spins campfire tales centered on several loosely connected people throughout a small American town on Halloween, one that's decked out for the holiday season and puts on a parade-slash-party in its main downtown area. For the most part, the stories don't intersect with one another until the plot designs for them to do so, which gives the individual portions their own standalone "short story" properties. In some instances, Trick 'r Treat sticks to practical, real world horror impacted by urban legends; in others, the writing delves into the supernatural world of transforming beasts and creatures risen from the dead for the stage that it's setting. A uniting element comes in the presence of a young child wearing a burlap sack and orange jumpsuit who observes many of the activities going on throughout the evening, and it's no surprise that this kid, named "Sam", has become an iconic character among fans of the film, wielding one very dangerous sucker in his own pursuit of tricks and treats.

From tampered-with candy and the ritual of leaving lights on throughout the night to the possibility of real vampires and ghosts lurking underneath the costumes of both youngsters and adults, Trick 'r Treat clearly gets and adores the dark mixture of danger, merriment, and folklore that hallmarks Halloween. The world Michael Dougherty constructed acts like a crossroads between John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper movies: a small-town meeting place where both reality and the supernatural can coexist for an evening, which is pretty much what makes the holiday such a blast. By tilting it toward an R-rating, Dougherty can also spill a bit of blood and let the natural language of teens and young adults flow freely without catering to that broad "family-friendly" audience, arriving at that mildly macabre, vulgar point that's just taboo enough to ward of youngsters but not so gratuitous that older-leaning families can't enjoy the grossness and crassness involved. The atmosphere in Trick 'r Treat, photographed by Glen MacPherson with the orange blow of jack-o-lanterns in mind, feels the way that Halloween should.

Each of the five segments are structured like spooky stories that'd be told over a flashlight or campfire, too. Part of the enjoyment factor with Trick 'r Treat comes in seeing how the tales spring their surprises upon the audience with what true dangers lie underneath whatever story's being told, a dynamic that has both rewarding and adverse effects on the film's general pacing. The anticipation of arriving at each one's climax generates enough grin-inducing suspense to stay wrapped up in what's going on, yet Dougherty's efforts to conceal details and preserve the "scares" for the very end of the episodic tales -- especially in the segment featuring Dylan Baker as a murderous school principal and single father -- results in moody, comical, somewhat macabre leadups that are mostly devoid of genuine shocks. Dougherty has a great time with lightheartedness, double meanings and fakeouts that make this a morbidly satisfying viewing experience, and clever practical and digital effects keep Trick 'r Treat firmly locked into a horror atmosphere … but, up until the endings, they telegraph chills and gross-outs instead of genuine fright.

Does Trick 'r Treat need to be that scary, though? After all, there's strength in Dougherty's characterization of both the town and its inhabitants; living vicariously through them as they experience the eerie idiosyncrasies of the holiday transforms into its own novel experience, one propelled by the almost comic-book caliber vividness of them all. Through his connection with the filmmakers involved with the X-Men franchise, Dougherty roped in some bigger-than-expected names to embody key characters: Anna Paquin brings her familiarly reserved, yet passionate demeanor to her role as a college-aged virgin hunting for "the one" to get it out of her system; Brian Cox wheezes his way through a depressed, Jack Russell-owning drunkard who torments trick-or-treaters. Most of the child actors do a bang-up job of representing the pranksters, tagalongs, and victims of the evening, all of whom get involved in how the film lashes out, almost in karmic fashion, at those who disrespect the intentions and balance of the holiday. Their reactions to the night's surprises fill the void left by the absence of traditional scares.

While the stories may be separate from one another, the execution of the setting and the transitions between the segments result in Trick 'r Treat having the appearance of a cohesive narrative, which adds impact whenever those stories manage to bump into one another during the evening's activities. Dougherty doesn't try to shoehorn links between them all in some attempt at greater importance, leaving them as tangential connections and novelties that only serve to elevate the impact of Halloween itself, all overseen by the ominous yet nondescript Sam as an avatar and keeper, of sorts. Bits-‘n-pieces of the film could feasibly work outside the confines of the Halloween setting -- notably, the segment featuring the escapades of Anna Paquin's Red Riding Hood-dressed virgin and whom ends up pursuing her -- but so much of Trick 'r Treat relies on inextricable ties to holiday that those who aren't big fans of those specific rituals and customs might not have enough horror substance into which they can sink their teeth. Dougherty lets his ode to Halloween be itself, though, and that's why it's such a treat.

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