(by Dustin Putman
As exciting new filmmaker Michael Dougherty (screenwriter of 2006's "Superman Returns") told the packed audience at New York City's October 13, 2008 Two Boots Pioneer special screening of "Trick 'r Treat," he was born within days of Halloween and has been enamored with the holiday ever since. It is with this near-religious affinity for All Hallow's Eve that he has made his deliciously macabre, exquisitely festive directorial debut. A loving ode to the season of the witch, "Trick 'r Treat" meshes the tone of 1950s E.C. Comics anthologies with the criss-crossing, non-chronological storytelling of "Pulp Fiction." With inspiration coming from all directions—the animated opening credits are a direct nod to 1982's "Creepshow," while several choice elements from 1978's "Halloween" make themselves be known—the film is an orgy of ghoulish fun and menace that horror fans the world over will salivate about once Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures allow them to see it. Do these studios, who have delayed the release of this film two years in a row for no valid reason, know what kind of a goldmine they're sitting on? If "Trick 'r Treat" bypasses theaters and goes direct-to-DVD (which, at this writing, is how it appears to be shaping up), it will damn-near be a crime against both film artists and genre enthusiasts interested in actually seeing something original rather than the latest unnecessary "Saw" sequel. Article continues below
Set entirely on one particularly spooky Halloween night, the film weaves together four interconnecting stories. In the first, greedy prepubescent troublemaker Charlie (Brett Kelly) picks the wrong house to steal candy from. The owner, it turns out, is Steven (Dylan Baker), a school principal who serial kills on the side. Meanwhile, across town, twentysomethings Maria (Rochelle Aytes) and sister Laurie (Anna Paquin) head with two other sexy friends to the local parade, in hopes of bagging Laurie a date. Lurking among them is a vampiric murderer. The third tale involves a group of trick-or-treaters—Marcy (Britt McKillip), Sara (Isabelle Deluce), Schrader (Jean-Luc Bilodeau) and Chip (Alberto Ghisi)—who decide to play a nasty trick on nerdy classmate Rhonda (Samm Todd). Before the night is out, they will learn more than they bargained for about the town's infamous school bus accident urban legend. And, finally, living next door to Steven is the grumpy old Mr. Kreeg (Brian Cox), a man whose mean ways and lack of Halloween spirit come back to haunt him.
With the exception of John Carpenter's immortal classic "Halloween," "Trick 'r Treat" sets out to become the definitive Halloween movie, the kind that becomes a staple of the holiday, pulled out to watch every October. There isn't a shot to be found that isn't positively dripping with autumnal atmosphere and seasonal chestnuts. Foliage, costumes, scarecrows, jack o'lanterns, cornfields, candy—all of these things are beautifully incorporated into the proceedings and layer on an undeniable fun moodiness. In scripting the picture, Michael Dougherty took the basis of his animated short entitled "Season's Greetings" and threaded that movie's character of Sam into this one. Sam (Quinn Lord), a fresh creation who is the height of a child and wears a burlap bag over his head, is Halloween's answer to Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, standing as spectator on the outskirts of the humans' lives and bringing mirth and mayhem to one and all. As befits the holiday, Sam can be cute and mischievous, but he's also got a dark side that should not be messed with.
All four of the respective storylines—five, if you count the prologue in which nagging wife Emma (Leslie Bibb) makes the mistake of uttering aloud, "I hate Halloween"—receive roughly equal screen time and are diverse enough that they stand apart from each other, absorbing in their own way. The neighborhood boogeyman that is Steven is the epitome of all the strangers our parents used to tell us to be cautious of when we went door-to-door begging for treats. His attempts to bury his latest victim in his backyard while young son Billy (Connor Christopher Levins) bothers him from the upstairs window is a dark-humored trip. Playing the most twisted onscreen father since his unnerving 1998 role in "Happiness," Dylan Baker (2007's "Spider-Man 3") relishes being creepy and setting the viewer off-balance even as he acts the part of an upstanding citizen.
The subplot involving the kids who journey to a fog-entrenched rock quarry where a school bus carrying mentally disturbed students is said to have plummeted features some of the most visually exciting scenes. Their rural walk from their suburban homes to the desolate scene of the crime is like a live-action "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" come to life. The interactions between the kids mirrors authenticity with just a sprinkle of whimsy—newcomer Samm Todd is especially wonderful as outsider Rhonda—and the aesthetics are nothing short of eerily picturesque.
Anna Paquin (2006's "X-Men: The Last Stand") is the main attraction of the third tale. Dressed as Little Red Riding Hood, she sets out to find a nice guy (or so it seems) and instead encounters a dangerous wolf. The practical effects used in the climax of this segment are scary and refreshing, illuminating how CGI is not always the way to go when setting out to make the viewer believe what they are seeing is really happening. It's a welcome return to the days of the early-'80s, when Tom Savini- and Rick Baker-esque ingenuity reigned over the landscape. Last but not least, Brian Cox (2006's "Running with Scissors") is entertainingly spiteful as Mr. Kreeg, a Scrooge-like figure in the sunset of his life who gets paid a visit from Halloween mascot Sam. Twisted, violent, tense and blissfully maniacal, these scenes are craftily conceived and expertly pieced together.
If there were any justice in Hollywood, "Trick 'r Treat" would have come out on 2,500 screens in October 2007 (its first intended release date). Now that it is still being jerked around as of a year later, all that one can do is shake his or her head in a resigned fashion. What is the hold-up? A scary movie set on Halloween pretty much sells itself, doesn't it? That it's a great film, besides, and has received nothing but positive notices from those few who have seen it, is the real maddening part. Director Michael Dougherty's only detectable misstep is a short running time, but that is because the picture is such a joy to watch that the viewer is left wanting another half-hour (and added development) tacked onto its 87 minutes. Moreover, cinematographer Glen MacPherson (2008's "Rambo"), production designer Mark Freeborn (2008's "The X-Files: I Want to Believe"), art director Tony Wohlgemuth (2006's "Black Christmas"), costume designer Trish Keating (2007's "In the Land of Women") and score composer Douglas Pipes (2006's "Monster House") outdo themselves, joining together to present one of the most handsome, lushly detailed horror features in years. "Trick 'r Treat" is destined to put the most sour of souls in the Halloween spirit.