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By Jeremy Knox | October 31, 2009

Do you know the rules of trick or treat? Well, you’d better:

1. Wear a costume.
2. Hand out treats.
3. Never blow out a jack-o’-lantern.
4. Always check your candy.

If I could make one complaint about John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” it’s that it really doesn’t have a lot to do with the holiday. Yeah, I know, Michael Myers is wearing a spooky William Shatner mask and playing the meanest, nastiest trick imaginable on Jamie Lee Curtis; but apart from that it could be taking place on Arbor Day during a “Star Trek” convention for all we know.

“Trick ‘r Treat,” bum spelling aside, is about Halloween, the real Halloween. Not just candy and costumes and arson and murder, but also a time when you can literally smell the fear wafting through the air, where the dead lurk just over your shoulder, and where superstition and reality begin to blur into the same darkness.

What does a housewife who hates Halloween, a school principal who loves it, three girls out for a wild night of partying, a schoolbus crash lost in memory, and an old crank who is pestered by a demonic trickster have in common?

That’s right, you guessed it. Nothing!

We’re deep in anthology land here. Though the film seems ashamed of this and tries to hide its multiple narrative roots by making the segments non-linear and occasionally bleeding into each other. They can’t fool me, though – despite the attempted fakery, these are still five individual stories. The common thread is that all take place during a huge Halloween celebration in Ohio and feature a little boy (who may not be a little boy at all…) wearing a burlap mask.

So let’s examine our ghoulish little tales. As far as I can tell, they don’t have any specific titles, so I won’t embarrass myself by trying to name any of them. I’ll just list them by the order they appear.

First off, the first-and-last story: all good anthologies have a wraparound. It’s a segment of maybe five minutes that both begins and ends the film, acting as thematic glue holding everything else together. Think of the little kid ordering a voodoo doll out of the Creepshow comic book to torture his mean dad, or of Dan Akroyd going “Wanna see something really scary?” to Albert Brooks from “The Twilight Zone.”

Here we have a husband and wife coming back from a Halloween party. He tells her not to blow out the Jack-O-Lantern until the night is over, but she does anyway and discovers that those lanterns are lit for a reason.

“Trick ‘r Treat’s” wraparound is a fine slice of macabre pie, but it’s a bit sparse compared to the other ones I’ve mentioned. With “Creepshow” or “Zone,” you had a nasty little twist. This is more straightforward, although not one bit less ghoulish.

The second story stars Dylan Baker, playing a school principal who loves Halloween and knows all its rules by heart. So when a little kid shows up at his house breaking Jack-O-Lanterns and stealing candy, you know it won’t be pretty. Now, I’m not the type of guy who spoils movies, so I will say no more. All I will say is that this is a much ballsier story than you’d expect (especially for a mainstream-ish film) and that it sets up the mood for the rest of the film quite nicely. Baker plays the role with just the right subtle touch, never letting you know if he’s completely insane or just a really devout follower of Halloween. I think this could have been even greater, but since the payoff is right out of EC Comics, all is forgiven.

The third story starts with all the trappings of your classic movie terror yarn. Three girls are getting dressed for a night out. They wanna get guys, they wanna get drunk, they wanna get laid. They especially want their friend Laurie (Anna Paquin), who’s a virgin and dressed as little red riding hood, to lose her cherry. However, a hooded figure who might just be a real vampire may put an end to those plans.

I liked this one. It genuinely surprised and delighted me. I haven’t felt that way about most movies in awhile. Yet, at the same time, I think this is the most flawed of the five. It just doesn’t build up the tension like it should. It feels choppy and hurried.

The fourth story is the arguably the best one; or at least it’s the one that I think has the best visuals, the best scares, the best mood, and the best payoff. A bunch of kids are collecting Jack-O-Lanterns to pay their respects to the victims of a school bus massacre. One pumpkin per victim. No more, no less.

The buildup is genius. There’s a long walk through a shadowy, foggy forest that wouldn’t be out of place in one of those dark fairy tales. (Unsurprisingly, they cross paths with our little red riding hood.) As they walk, one of the kids tells the story of the massacre and it’s a doozy. A bunch of “special” boys and girls riding the short bus are murdered by the driver after their parents pay him off to get rid of them. Again, I can tell you no more. I can only say that “Tales From The Crypt” couldn’t have done it better.

The fifth story stars Brian Cox as a cranky mean old man called Kreeg who steals candy and scares away the kids who come to his door. Only he finds himself being stalked by one kid who won’t abide by his miserly ways. A kid determined to give out a few tricks if he can’t get treats. This one is out-and-out fun and the ending is pure poetic justice.

Unlike other anthologies, I can’t pick a definitive favorite here. While I’ve tossed out a few criticisms, I’m at a loss to find anything really wrong. This is almost as perfect a horror comedy as can be made. Yes, some movies are much scarier. Yes, some movies are much deeper. This isn’t what “Trick ‘r Treat” is about. It’s about having fun while being scared.

Which brings me to ask a question that’s been nagging me since the end credits: WHAT HAPPENED? Why was this shelved for two years while we get sequel after sequel for “Saw” every freakin’ Halloween? I can understand hiding away some artsy fartsy film made by some obscure filmmaker that’s bound to only make 10$ in theatres, but this is pure audience-pleasing entertainment made by some pretty big names. What the hell?

I guess it’s just one of those Hollywood mysteries, like who killed the Black Dahlia, or what really happened to Marilyn Monroe, or how come Lindsay Lohan is still considered an actress instead of a sad, sad lush.

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