Tricked From Theaters.
Written and directed by Michael Dougherty and produced by Bryan Singer (the team behind “X-Men 2”, “Superman Returns”), 2007’s low-budget horror anthology “Trick ‘r Treat” took time to find an audience; several years after plans for its theatrical release were unceremoniously scrapped in 2007. A hit at film festivals, the movie would eventually get a DVD/Blu-Ray release in 2009 from Warner Bros that felt more like an act of charity. Despite the studio’s lack of faith, “Trick ‘r Treat” is a genuine delight—a return to form for anthology horror, a subgenre once made popular with the British Amicus films (“House That Dripped Blood,” “Tales From the Crypt”), and later with Spike Lee’s street-smart updating, “Tales From the Hood” (1995).
As a longtime devotee of all-things Halloween, I’m ashamed to say that I only discovered “Trick ‘r Treat” in 2010 or so, after buying the DVD for $5 during a sale. On first viewing, I was impressed by the unfiltered love for Halloween that seemed to permeate every frame. Filmed in Canada-for-Ohio, and shot with a pleasing, warm/cool color palette (a possible nod to the work of “Halloween” cinematographer Dean Cundey), the movie’s five main stories are efficiently (and effectively) told within a brisk running time.
For this review, I wanted to give the movie an approximation of the wide theatrical release it never got (but richly deserved), so I darkened my home office, and pulled out my 7 ft/2 meter collapsible screen and HD digital projector, in order to approximate the cinematic experience as much as possible. It worked.
I could almost taste the tooth-chipping candy offered by the movie’s diminutive mascot, “Sam” (aka Samhain, the ancient Celtic name of “Halloween”)…
“Trick ‘r Treat” (2007)
Unlike other horror anthology films, which tell unrelated tales within a single framing story, the five stories of “Trick ‘r Treat” are elegantly interwoven (a la 1994’s “Pulp Fiction”), with a group of interacting characters on the same Halloween night, in the same fictional town of Warren Valley, Ohio. Warren Valley takes its Halloweening very seriously, with a huge downtown celebration, as well as an ancient, diminutive visitor named “Sam” (Quinn Lord), who ensures all Halloween rituals are devoutly followed…
The first story involves young suburbanite couple, Emma (Leslie Bibb) and Henry (Tahmoh Penikett), who are tiredly coming home after a Halloween party. Emma is dressed as a boxy robot from a 1940s sci-fi serial, while Henry is dressed in the less-cumbersome costume of the spacefaring hero. Leslie is in a foul mood, as she loathes Halloween. She demands that Henry take down the sheet-ghost scarecrows right now, but he hems and haws—this prompts Emma to dismantle the elaborate Halloween setup herself. A distracted Henry is also feeling a bit amorous, and a reluctantly obliging Emma tells him to “put on the tape” to get warmed up, and she’ll meet him in the bedroom. As she angrily pulls the ghosts apart, she is stalked by a mysterious visitor. Meanwhile, Henry has dozed off in front of the bedroom TV, and awakens to realize that Emma never joined him. Going outside, he sees the Halloween displays still standing, as well. Nervously, he notices Emma’s hand dangling from under one of the ghost sheets. Yanking it off, he sees Emma’s bloodied corpse with a large round sucker jammed in her mouth. Henry’s screaming segues into comic book-paneled credits, clearly inspired by EC Comics horror—which also inspired 1982’s “Creepshow.”
Note: Both Leslie Bibb and Tahmoh Penikett are veterans of sci-fi. Leslie Bibb played the reporter who confronts (and beds) Tony Stark in 2008’s “Iron Man.” Tahmoh Penikett played Carl “Helo” Agathon in writer/producer Ron Moore’s brilliant reimagining of “Battlestar Galactica” (2003-2009).
From that story, we cut to earlier in the evening, when a busy Halloween shop is selling last minute costumes and seasonal wares to eager customers. We see three young sorority sisters, Danielle (Lauren lee Smith), Janet (Monica Delain) and Maria (Rochelle Aytes), who are stuffing their toned bodies into sexy Disney princess outfits in the shop’s changing booths, where they’re being unwittingly spied upon by a curious little boy (Quinn Lord), who’s getting an early lesson in female anatomy. The girls’ bashful fourth sister, Laurie (Anna Paquin), is embarrassed by her more modest Little Red Riding Hood costume, which makes her feel like she’s five years old…
Note: The peeping little boy is played by 7 year-old Quinn Lord, who also plays the movie’s diminutive, mischievous little mascot, “Sam,” short for “Samhain” (pronounced “Sah-win”), the original Celtic name for the 3,000 year old holiday that was eventually rebranded (consecrated) by the Catholic Church into “All Hallow’s Eve,” aka modern Halloween.
The four sisters pay for and wear their costumes out of the shop, as an amative Danielle makes a date with a shy, elf-costumed clerk, telling him to meet her “in the woods” after he gets off work. As the fetching sorority sisters sashay onto the seasonally-adorned downtown sidewalk, they discuss their plans for 22-year old Laurie to lose her virginity that night, by any means necessary…
Note: “X-Men” writer Michael Dougherty and producer Bryan Singer handpicked a couple of familiar faces from their X-Men movie franchise, including Oscar-winner Anna Paquin, who played “Rogue,” and Brian Cox, who played “Stryker” in the X-Men movies. Cox plays the villainous “Mr. Kreeg” in this film. Anna Paquin won an Oscar at age 11 for her role as a mute young version of Holly Hunter’s character in “The Piano” (1993).
On a residential sidewalk, pudgy middle-schooler Charlie (Brett Kelly) is causing mindless mayhem, knocking over a row of jack o’ lanterns, carefully perched along front yard retaining walls. Charlie is about to steal an entire bowl of Halloween candy when he’s stopped by the appearance of his stern principal, Steven Wilkins (Dylan Baker), who’s sitting nearby. Wilkins commands the weak-willed boy to sit with him to discuss his attitude problem. Suspiciously, Wilkins lets the boy eat all the candy he wants, as he carves his own jack o’ lantern. The ill-tempered, bespectacled Wilkins then launches into a bitter, middle-aged rant about being a single widower parent, to Charlie’s utter indifference—until the boy realizes his principal has poisoned him. Poor Charlie soon becomes a human firehose of chocolate vomit, before falling unconscious into the evil man’s lap. Methodically, Wilkins drags the dying boy into a freshly dug grave in his backyard, which already has another victim from earlier in the evening…
Note: Dylan Baker (“Thirteen Days”) gives a thoroughly creepy performance as serial-killing principal Steven Wilkins, who comes across as a nasty mix between a 1950s sitcom dad combined with a gone-to-seed version of Michael Keaton.
Trying to keep quiet, Wilkins catches the unwitting attention of his own young son, Billy (Connor Christopher Levins), who’s eager to carve a jack o’ lantern. The bloodied serial killer then attracts the attention of Spite, a dog belonging to his grumpy retiree neighbor, Mr. Kreeg (Brian Cox)–neither of whom shows any great concern for Wilkins’ suspicious activities, as he tosses a severed finger to the dog as distraction. Wilkins covers by telling Kreeg he’s fixing a septic tank. This is excuse enough for the nasty old man, who shouts “screw you!” in response to Wilkins’ nervous Halloween well wishes. In a horrific twist, we then see Wilkins returning indoors to his son, as they prepare to carve Charlie’s freshly-severed head. We realize that young Billy is an apprentice serial killer, following in daddy’s footsteps. Wilkins then puts his son to bed, as he prepares for a date downtown…
Note: I knew something was wrong with Billy, after he tells his dad that he doesn’t want to watch Charlie Brown, because Charlie Brown “is an a$$hole.” “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” was a staple of my Halloween experience growing up, and only a soulless serial-killer wouldn’t love it.
The movie then follows a group of Charlie’s classmates, who’ve just finished trick or treating at Wilkins’ door. On a scavenger hunt for jack o’ lanterns, handsome boy Schrader (Jean-Luc Bilodeau), caped cohort Sara (Isabelle Deluce) and pudgy pirate Chip (Alberto Ghisi) are led by alpha ‘angel’ Macy (Britt McKillip). Macy has a specific goal in mind for their quest. They stop by the home of an autistic classmate Rhonda (Samm Todd), who’s dressed as a classic Halloween witch. Rhonda’s porch is filled with jack o’ lanterns, and it’s clear that she is well-versed in the history and traditions of Samhain. Innocent Rhonda is also charmed by Schrader, who shows her attention and basic kindness, much to the ire of Macy. Macy, a classic ‘mean girl’ struggling to assert her dominance over the group, leads them to a dark, abandoned, fog-shrouded quarry pit in the middle of town… a pit that holds a tragic secret at its watery bottom.
Note: The quarry locale offers nice production value for this modestly-budgeted movie, with thick fog hiding unwanted elements of the location as well as providing effective atmosphere for this story. The cool blue, moon-lit cinematography also brings to mind those Halloween treks off the housing tracts that my fellow trick or treaters would sometimes take when I was a kid.
At the quarry, Rhonda then regales the group with a story of the ‘Halloween Day Massacre’; a local urban legend of a callous school bus driver who was secretly paid off by a wicked group of local parents to drive their special needs children off a cliff into a quarry pit. The plan was for the bus to be driven to the edge of the quarry, where the driver would stop to give the restrained, costumed kids candy as a distraction, right before he nudges their bus into the pit. As the driver stops to hand out the candy, a panicked young student rushes to the driver’s seat, where he accidentally drives the bus over the precipice. The other kids are still chained to their seats, as the bus careens off the cliff into a stagnant pool of water below.
No one ever investigated the incident, which the town hurriedly ruled as an ‘accident.’
Note: This scene of mass pedicide is one of the most disturbing moments I’ve ever witnessed in a movie, as the notion of parents (and a bus driver) willing to murder an entire busload of innocent children is nearly too intense—even for a horror film. It helps somewhat that the children are wearing Halloween masks, so that we don’t have to see their horrified, confused faces as they’re sent plunging to their deaths. On a more practical level, it also better hides the older stunt performers who were, most likely, used for this scene instead of child actors.
Macy’s plan is for she and her friends to take eight jack o’ lanterns as offerings to the eight dead children rumored to remain at the pit. Schrader manages to get an old industrial lift to work, allowing them access to the stagnant water at the bottom of the pit, where–to their surprise–they see the upended school bus, still jutting out from the water. Macy, Sara and Schrader make their way into the fog surrounding the water, leaving Rhonda and Chip standing guard at the lift. Unable to see her classmates in the mist, Rhonda then hears screams, as she later sees what appears to be several zombies coming at her! Frightened half out of her mind, Rhonda loses her glasses, and doesn’t realize that the ‘zombies’ are only her newfound “friends” in costumes trying to terrify her. After losing consciousness, Rhonda is awakened by Schrader who, along with a complicit Chip, desperately tries to convince the terrified girl that it was only a Halloween prank.
Note: The best performance among this quintet of young actors is Samm Todd, who plays Rhonda quite naturally, without indulging in “Rain Man”-style theatrics to convey her character’s condition. Todd’s palpable fear during the prank is also heartbreakingly realistic.
Rhonda slowly recovers from her shock, as the group splinters over Macy’s bad judgment in playing the cruel prank. As the group squabbles, they hear distant moans. In moments, they realize they’re being stalked by the actual zombies of the eight murdered kids. Rhonda, standing watch at the quarry elevator, shuts the lift gate and locks it, as her former tormenters plead with her to let them in. Reaching for the lock, she instead hits the green ‘up’ button, and waves goodbye to her ‘friends’, as they’re left at the mercy of the undead children. As Rhonda exits the quarry, we see the mysterious “Sam” nearby, wearing his burlap mask, looking on approvingly…
Note: Ironic that Macy’s prank called for the group to bring jack o’lanterns as ‘offerings’ to the dead children, when she and her three cohorts later became offerings themselves. Also, the notion of leaving ‘ofrendas’ (offerings) at an altar or memorial for the dead is a custom derived from the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), on November 1st, which is often seen as a Mexican answer to Halloween, though without the ancient Celtic holiday’s spookiness.
In the nearby woods, there is a wild, booze-fueled, fire-lit party going on as the sorority sisters and other girls have lured a few lusty young men to join them. Laurie brings an older man to the event, a masked stranger who, unknown to her, has just murdered a young woman at the town’s Halloween celebration. In the woods, Laurie is then savagely bitten by her ‘date’, who is revealed to be none other than Principal Wilkins; dressed as a leather-clad vampire, complete with cowl and sharpened dentures. But Laurie’s ‘sisters’ have an even bigger surprise for Wilkins, when they reveal themselves to be werewolves; shedding their clothes—and their human skins—before devouring their dates. Laurie, the “runt of the litter,” has finally lost her ‘virginity’ by taking a human life, and embracing her lupine nature…
Note: One curious aspect of the werewolf sisterhood is that all the other girls shed their skins to reveal their hirsute selves, yet Oscar winner Anna Paquin is simply allowed to wear fangs and bright yellow contact lenses instead of undergoing the full werewolf transformation. I assume that Paquin’s face at that time (coming fresh off of the popular “X-Men” movies) carried too much marketable recognition value to obscure with heavy prosthetics.
The last story, and the longest, involves Mr. Kreeg (Brian Cox), whom we ‘met’ earlier when he yelled “screw you!” to his neighbor Wilkins. The unkempt, gray-maned retiree gets a perverse thrill by unleashing his aptly-named dog Spite (wearing a pair of fake glowing eyes) to scare off trick or treaters at his door. Collecting their dropped candy, this selfish, latter-day Halloween Scrooge enjoys boozing it up in front of his ancient, 1970s-vintage TV, while the world goes on around him. The old hermit’s solitary existence is the price he’s paid for an old crime; it’s revealed in shoebox photos (which he’s burning in his fireplace) that he was the bus driver who sent those school kids plunging to their deaths on that Halloween afternoon, decades ago. The ‘accident’ left Kreeg a bitter, mean old bastard, with just enough blood money from the families who paid him off to live out the remainder of his miserable life.
Note: Brian Cox is certainly not afraid to look awful in this role; with long scraggly hair, and one eye half-burned (presumably from the bus crash), the character of Mr. Kreeg looks as if he’d smell as bad as he looks. Kreeg may be Cox’s best villain since he played Hannibal Lektor (with a “K”) in 1986’s “Manhunter.” Cox’s take on Lektor was of a cooler temperature than the more obvious villainy of Anthony Hopkins.
After scaring off the trick or treaters, strange things begin to happen at Kreeg’s house. A huge, ornate display of carved, glowing jack o’ lanterns is suddenly arranged on his porch in a matter of moments. Kreeg also begins to hear mysterious footsteps within the house. Soon, the evil old Kreeg (a card-carrying member of the NRA, as he loves to threaten) finds himself in a bizarre battle of wills against the toddler-sized, burlap-faced “Sam,” who delights in tormenting and even attacking the old man. The lights go out, and Kreeg follows the sounds of Sam’s footsteps into his bedroom. Kreeg tries phoning for help, but the phone line has been pulled (no surprise that Kreeg wouldn’t have a cellphone). In his now-darkened house, a flaring jack o’ lantern is mysteriously set aflame in the corner of his bedroom, with Halloween phrases and words scrawled in blood all over the walls, as Sam stands nearby… carefully plotting against the evil old murderer.
Note: During his various attacks on Kreeg, Sam’s size changes from small child to small man, as the stunt double is clearly taller and bigger than child actor Quinn Lord. Not exactly a nit that’ll take anyone out of the movie, even when watching it on a 7 ft. screen–just an observation.
After the tiny goblin Sam has all but destroyed his larger, older opponent, an injured Kreeg finally gets his badly bleeding hands on his loaded shotgun, and blasts Sam at point blank range. To his astonishment, Sam ‘bleeds’ pumpkin sinew and seeds, not human blood. A frustrated, desperate Kreeg finally tears at the burlap of Sam’s mask, and sees a face that resembles a living jack o’ lantern combined with a human skull. Sam then bites a hard candy sucker and jabs the sharp end into Kreeg’s abdomen. As the old man lies bleeding, Sam ominously disappears…
Note: While Kreeg’s payback for murdering a busload of children is certainly worthy of prolonged cinematic torment, the final showdown between Kreeg and Sam goes on for a bit too long, to be honest. We get it; Kreeg deserves to be punished, and impish prankster Sam revels in torment, but trimming a few minutes off this sequence wouldn’t have hurt the movie, either; and that extra running time could’ve gone back into any one of the other stories.
We hear Kreeg’s doorbell ring, and the old man answers—his head, arm, hands and abdomen wrapped in gauze. One of the trick or treaters remarks that she likes his “mummy costume.” After passing out candy, Kreeg goes back inside, only to hear the doorbell ring again. He opens it, and is then confronted by the eight zombified children he killed, all those years ago. Kreeg’s final, well-deserved comeuppance is depicted in EC Comics-style panels over the end credits.
Note: Owners of the original DVD and BluRay releases also got a bonus animated short feature called “Seasons Greetings” which saw Sam being stalked by a mysterious stranger himself. If you enjoyed “Trick ‘r Treat,” it’s certainly well worth a look.
Summing It Up.
Just as “The Godfather” allowed viewers to practically smell the garlic and spaghetti sauce of an Italian-American family in 1940s New York, “Trick ‘r Treat” allows viewers to almost taste the tooth-decaying suckers and candy corn of North American Halloween. As much as I love John Carpenter’s “Halloween” (1978), it doesn’t hold a jack o’ lantern to the Samhain-soaked atmosphere present in Michael Dougherty’s unheralded opus of All Hallow’s Eve. At a sparse running time of only 82 minutes, the movie cleverly tells its five interweaving tales without overstaying its welcome. Like any good night of Halloween mischief and revelry, it leaves us wanting more.
With a game cast of both A-listers (Brian Cox, Anna Paquin) and fresh faces, the movie has a surprising amount of creative muscle behind its $12 million budget, giving this little horror flick a bit more kick than one might expect. It’s hard to imagine exactly why the studio had so little faith in the project that they chose not to give it a theatrical release in 2007, but as I type this review, the movie is currently playing as a seasonal offering in several local theaters. “Trick ‘r Treat” is still making money on the big screen, 12 years after it was shortsightedly consigned to home video ignominy.
It’s oddly fitting that Michael Dougherty’s “Trick ‘r Treat,” much like its character of Rhonda, eventually got the last laugh on its detractors by becoming a modern Halloween classic. Somewhere out there, little “Sam” is smiling approvingly…
Where To Watch.
“Trick ‘r Treat” is available to purchase/rental streaming on iTunes, AmazonPrime, YouTube ($2.99/$12.99) and for purchase on DVD/BluRay from Warner Home Video on Amazon.com and other retailers (prices vary). Despite a decade of rumors surrounding a possible sequel, nothing firm has been hammered out as of yet.