Written and directed by Michael Dougherty. Produced by Bryan Singer. Music by Douglas Pipes. Photographed by Glen MacPherson. Edited by Robert Ivison. Production designed by Mark Freeborn. Starring Dylan Baker, Rochelle Aytes, Quinn Lord, Lauren Lee Smith, Monica Delain, Tahmoh Penikett, Brett Kelly, Britt McKillip, Isabelle Deluce, Jean-Luc Bilodeau, Alberto Ghisi, Samm Todd, Anna Paquin, Brian Cox, Leslie Bibb.
Trick ‘r Treat is, in no particular order: a horror movie, an anthology, a celebration of style and the work of a first time feature director. Any one of those things would not necessarily make a good movie…in fact, they frequently don’t. When those forces are drawn together, you’d think the chances of quality would be very slim indeed. But Trick ‘r Treat is that rare delight, a stylish horror anthology from a first-timer that brims with inventiveness, wit, imagination, and wicked fun.
The movie features four leapfrogging stories, all occurring in the same general area on one particular Halloween night. We meet a couple (Leslie Bibb, Temoh Penikett) who have differing views on how seriously one should take Halloween traditions. A few party girls (Lauren Lee Smith, Rochelle Aytes, Monica Delain) put pressure on the youngest member of their group (Anna Paquin) to lose her innocence. We meet a school principal (Dylan Baker) who treats kids a little differently on Halloween night. Five preteens (Britt McKillip, Jean Luc Bilodeau, Isabelle Deluce, Alberto Ghisi, Samm Todd) explore the bottom of a supposedly, tragically haunted rock quarry. And a hateful old man (Brian Cox) gets a visit from a vengeful spirit with an agenda. A common thread runs through these stories: a little trick-or-treater named Sam, who watches all and records, we think, much.
So far, so typical. Trick ‘r Treat distinguishes itself in two arenas: first, the stories are really very well-told: well acted, well-written and well-directed, with gorgeously dark photography and clever twists that I will not reveal. Secondly, the film is told in non-linear fashion, Pulp Fiction-style, but which is impressive when you realize that (a) the movie has a reason for doing this and (b) the film intercuts between stories that are not concurrent, leaving us adrift in alternate timelines. Yet we’re never too far away from orienting ourselves; each story starts at a town Halloween festival, and each time we reset to follow a new character, we see the alternate ones in the background, branching off in their own directions.
But all of that style wouldn’t be worth much without a tiny bit of substance, and in Trick ‘r Treat, I think there is some. Without venturing too far into spoilers, I will say that I think we can make much of the opening scene that involves the couple bickering about Halloween traditions. There are things you do on Halloween and things that you do not, and it’s important to respect the rules. There are those who suffer in these stories, as there must be, and it’s important to realize that this is framed not as victimization, but as justice. The entire movie feels like a perverse spin on one of those old specials dedicated to specific holidays, where the season is vindicated, and transgressors against the spirit are punished. The film has a code it’s characters live or die by, and while it may not be moral, it is consistent.
The film benefits from a marvelous cast of character actors. Baker, as the school principal, is an actor who can communicate much awful intent from a wan smile, and he embraces the opportunity to sidle into black comedy as his story progresses. It’s a pleasure to see Cox in a plum role, too. Here is an actor who can play subtle and can also be deliciously over the top, and he knows this material requires the latter approach. Even the smaller parts are not played by small actors: we could imagine the gaggle of teen girls or the little kids to be populated by a rogue bad actor, but guess what? They’re all pretty good.
Also pretty good: the screenplay. It’s clever. Not so much for the twists, which are fine, but for the way these are fully-formed stories even without the twists. There’s no cheapness here, and the film gets a lot of mileage out of making the characters feel like recognizable humans, even when…well, see for yourself. The Paquin material is perhaps the film’s juiciest, as it ties directly into the horrors of teen sexuality, never more so than when her character is stalked by a masked assailant, who doesn’t realize that while she is unworldly in some areas, she is much wiser in others. The climax here is a celebration of glorious camp excess, but also unnerving. It’s not much of a shock to see Paquin in this sensational material, nor was but it probably was when the film was made before it sat on the shelf for two years.
And why was that? The film was the feature directorial debut of Michael Dougherty, a screenwriter (X2, Superman Returns) who was given control of Trick ‘r Treat as a little thank you from director Bryan Singer (who produced). Sadly, Singer’s star fell in between production and distribution, and so anything with his name on it was sidelined. Trick ‘r Treat was pushed back from its October 2007 release, fell into limbo, and finally was squeaked out onto DVD by Warner Brothers in 2009. So is the politics of Hollywood. That’s a shame, because many a studio has released much worse horror movies than this one.
I want to be clear here: Trick ‘r Treat has no great purpose other than to entertain and frighten. But that is enough, and it’s especially enough when it’s done as well as it is here. In a lot of ways, Trick ‘r Treat is like a piece of Halloween candy: tasty, rich and shiny, and while it may not amount to very much, it sure fits into a bag of goodies nicely.