Being Film #2 in Hail Horror 4
Mike Dougherty gets it.
It's not that he gets Halloween (although after after watching TRICK 'R TREAT it's obvious he does), it's that he gets what it's like being a kid on Halloween, the balancing act between being cool in front of your friends and falling under the spell of the jack-o-lanterns, of ghosts and ghouls and the joy of being scared out of your wits. He gets the excuse older kids use Halloween for, where keggers in the woods and kisses in the dark invite their own pagan ritualistic comparisons. And he gets the sense of jealousy so many adults feel when they can only take part as a parent, or as a joke at the office party.
But the thing Mike Dougherty really gets, the things he innately understands, is how to make a horror film that's fun without being a comedy, how to evoke the feelings that the great, inventive horror films of the 80s gave us without resorting to hipster self-referencing that winks and tries to show you just how cool it is. TRICK 'R TREAT is that rare horror movie that's as smart as it is fun, and sincere in its love of the genre.
At its core TRICK 'R TREAT is a series of connected tales, taking place on a single night in the town of Warren Valley, OH, a small town whose denizens take the celebration of Halloween very seriously. The town comes alive with parades, parties, and the sounds of children going from house to house. Time moves back and forth between four distinct stories (including one that bookends the film), each blending into the other so that something seen on the periphery in one tale becomes prominent in another. In one, Dylan Baker plays a harried school principal, frustrated at the constant interruptions from his neighbor, his son, and a feisty dog as he goes about his night's work. What that work is, and how his story ends becomes part of another's tale: Anna Paquin as the shy little sister, going out with her friends to find a young man to spend the night partying with. The other stories, one about a group of kids using an old town ghost story to play a cruel prank on a sensitive girl, and a cranky old man's (Brian Cox) battle with a horrible little trick-or-treater and his own past are also intertwined, and it's a credit to Dougherty's sharp writing that all the twists and turns the stories take to interact with one another never feel forced or stand out as pretentious.
The lynchpin that holds everything together is Sam, a pint-sized demon in ragged clothes and a burlap sack sown into a cute jack-o-lantern face. He's the spirit of the holiday, appearing each each story, sometimes to observe, sometimes playing a more active role. He's an iconic mix of cute and eerie that embodies the fun/scary tone of the film, and Dougherty wisely doesn't go into any explanations concerning his origins or motives - it's enough that the audience connects him with all the things we think of when we picture Halloween.
The direction's equally impressive for a first-time director. Doughtery keeps everything moving at a brisk pace, showing a good eye for framing and a refusal to move the camera in ways that don't feel natural. You won't find any Sam Raimi "camera on a shopping cart" techniques here (speaking of Raimi, DRAG ME TO HELL, while being more overtly comic, is another great example of getting the tone right - maybe 2009 isn't as dismal as it seems) - the visuals are enough without drawing attention to how the camera got there.
There's a little bit of everything in TRICK 'R TREAT: ghosts, serial killers, vampires, werewolves, razor blades in candy and creepy old men, all done with an eye towards a good scare and a good laugh, with the scare coming first. It's a shame that TRICK 'R TREAT got screwed by Warner Premier's inability to see what they had in their hands: in a holiday season overrun with lackluster remakes of 70s slashers and brainless SAW sequels, TRICK 'R TREAT would have been a great theater experience. As it is I'll settle for putting every year with a loud group of friends.