Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Trick 'r Treat (USA, 2009)

Trick 'r Treat is one of those films that make you think that studio bosses must have their heads buried so deep in their asses that they really can no longer tell the difference between shit and Shinola, maybe because their sense of smell is probably as addled as their brains from all the coke. How the hell can a flick as enjoyable and fun as this little mother sit two years on the shelf and then end up a direct-to-DVD release in 2009, but a turkey like The Invasion (2007 / trailer) gets national release?
Oh, I understand: what the world really needs is yet another tepid and uninspired (and big budget) rehash of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 / trailer) with big name stars instead of a low budget, enjoyably funny and fun and horrific anthology film with familiar faces. We need corn sugar, not cane sugar. Cheez Whiz not Cambozola. Imitation syrup, not maple syrup. Cloned meat, not free-range Angus. Bud instead of Pilsner Urquel. Well, folks, just remember: you are what you eat...
But to quote Roger Egert, I digress. Let's get back to the movie at hand, the feature-length directorial debut of Michael Dougherty, who also wrote the film's nifty and nicely entangled little script. Nice job, dude! You don't just get an A+, but as of now I have personally forgotten that you helped script both Urban Legends: Bloody Mary (2005 / trailer) and Superman Returns (2005 / trailer). (Couldn't help but notice that you use the same opening trick in UL:BM as T'rT, but since it's still fun and actually works better in T'rT, no points are subtracted.)
The roots of Trick 'r Treat, however, are actually older than either of the above two mentioned scriptwriting credits. The script to T'rT was Michael Dougherty's spec script, which is an original script written simply to convince the powers-that-be that the given writer is indeed capable of writing. To what extent the film script was inspired by his early Halloween-themed Season's Greetings short film (embedded at the bottom of this articles) is open to conjecture,* but what is definite is that Sam (Quinn Lord of The Hole [2009 / trailer]), the supernatural, homicidal trick-or-treater in dirty orange pajamas and a burlap sack over his head who wanders through all stories and plays a significant part in both the opening sequence and the last episode, makes his debut in the short. (The short, in fact, clarifies exactly what is in the dirty bag he is dragging along the street in one of the early shots of the movie.)
As mentioned in the first paragraph, Trick 'r Treat is a horror anthology film, a genre that goes way back to the silents, starting with the forgotten German silent anthology Eerie Tales / Unheimliche Geschichten (trailer) by the forgotten director Richard Oswald in 1919. (Unheimliche Geschichten came out two years before the lost 1921 US non-horror silent Bits of Life, which is commonly – and incorrectly – acknowledged as the first anthology film.** Ironically enough, aside from being denied its proper credit as the first anthology film, Unheimliche Geschichten is also usually ignored as the first horror anthology as well, usually in favor of the German expressionist silent Waxworks / Das Wachsfigurenkabinett [first 10 minutes], which came five years later in 1924.)
Unlike most anthology films, which tend to have a framework situation that leads to the narration/presentation of a variety of non-related story, in Trick 'r Treat the four tales as well as the framework situation are all interconnected: presented individually as closed episodes, they nonetheless all happen on the same Halloween night in the same fictional town of Warren Valley, Ohio, and characters of the individual tales often make fleeting appearances within one of the other narratives as paths cross ever so coincidently (sort of like a Robert Altman ensemble film).
In this sense, Trick 'r Treat owes almost as much to the traditional anthology film as it does to Pulp Fiction (1994 / trailer), with which Dougherty's film also shares a narrative structure that jumps back and forth and across time. The opening segment, for example, actually occurs after every other episode of the film, and is seen to start in the concluding minutes of the film. Also like Pulp Fiction, Trick 'r Treat integrates many creative concepts of its genre and takes many unexpected turns to create a truly satisfying filmic experience that masterfully combines both black humor and true horror. Furthermore, Dougherty has a creative eye and offers a wide array of effective visual and directorial flourishes that greatly enhance the cinematic experience, and he seems to have a way with actors because they all deliver fine performances. He truly hits a bull's eye in every way with Trick 'r Treat.
In truth, if every one of the annual Halloween celebrations of Warren Valley have as big of a body count as the one presented in Trick 'r Treat, it seems almost odd that the town hasn't canceled the event; in the night of the film, the death count is already nine excluding the large but indeterminate number who die as werewolf fodder. Following a short intro in which Emma (Leslie Bibb of Midnight Meat Train [2008 / trailer]) pays dearly for breaking tradition, in The Principal we meet a homicidal principal (Dylan Baker of Happiness [1998 / trailer] and Fido [2006 / trailer]) who runs into problems when disposing of some bodies. Next, in The School Bus Massacre Revisited, a prank of four kids on a fifth goes horribly wrong when a school bus full of pissed-off mentally handicapped kids returns from the dead. Then, in Surprise Party, the "virginal" Laurie (Anna Paquin of (Darkness 2002 / trailer]), dressed as Little Red Riding Hood, is attacked by a killer on her way to a nearby party – but things take a surprising turn when she decides that it's time to lose her virginity. Finally, the narrative moves back in time to events occurring concurrently to The Principal, and we see what happens when Kreeg (Brian Cox of X2 [2003 / trailer], The Ring [2002 / trailer] and Manhunter [1986 / trailer]), the principal's crabby Halloween-hating neighbor Meet[s] Sam. The film ends with a short scene leading up to the opening sequence as well as Kreeg getting another unexpected visit which serves to tie together all narrative strands of the movie...
Trick 'r Treat is a great film that deserved more respect than a simple straight-to-DVD release. Well made, funny and scary, it is a film that not only deserves but also lives up to all the positive word of mouth it has been given since it hit the store shelves. It could easily become as much of a Halloween viewing tradition as, dunno It's a Wonderful Life (1946 / trailer) is a Christmas one. Be the first one on your block to start it.

*Trick 'r Treat was originally likewise entitled Season Greetings, but the title got dumped because it sounded too much like a Christmas film. Trick 'r Treat was finally decided upon, but the spelling was alliterated because Trick or Treat was already taken by a mildly diverting horror film from 1986 (trailer).

**In theory, it would seem to me that one could argue that D. W. Griffith's 1916 masterpiece Intolerance (full silent film) is truly the first non-horror anthology film, an argument undermined only by the fact that the four stories are intercut and run concurrently instead of being presented one after the other.

Animated Season's Greetings from the director – the first film appearance of the character Sam and the inspiration for the feature film itself.

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