Sunday, October 11, 2009

DVD Review: "Trick 'R Treat"

What kind of trick was Warner Brothers playing on audiences by hiding such a fun film for so long?

I had first heard about Michael Dougherty's horror anthology "Trick 'R Treat" when I saw the trailer for it attached to the DVD of "300." It looked like a sure fire hit--a creepy, funny/scary collection of scary stories centered around the traditions of Halloween. Dougherty had a nice track record with Warner Brothers--he was the screenwriter of "X2" and "Superman Returns"--and it looked like he had crafted an atmospheric and fun little horror flick. I quickly noted that I wanted to see it when it hit theaters that next Halloween.

Except it was never released. For two years, Warner Brothers kept it hidden away and the only noise I heard about it was when a screening would be covered by Aint-It-Cool-News. It didn't make enough noise to get a release and yet it would always pop up as a topic of discussion at Comic Con or throughout the geek sites, with Warner Brothers promising we would see it "soon."

Unfortunately, "soon" meant 2009 instead of 2007. And instead of a big screen roll out just in time for Halloween, it was dumped with little fan fare to DVD.

The move baffles me. "Trick 'R Treat" is not a great movie, mind you, but it is vastly more entertaining than most of what passes for horror out there. A clever mix of horror and humor, it's an atmospheric and fun homage to everything we love about Halloween.

Four stories interweave throughout the movie, all taking place on Halloween night in a small town in Ohio. There's the school principal (Dylan Baker) hiding his identity as a serial killer, a young woman (Anna Paquin) worried about finding the right boy for her "first time," a group of kids conspiring to play a mean prank on a local girl and a mean old man (Brian Cox) who is tormented by a demonic Trick-or-Treater. Each of these stories twists and turns out of each other and each has a little twist, ever ghoulishly funny or horrifying and each is centered around various traditions--don't go off alone, don't blow out the lights in jack-o-lanterns, don't go to strangers' houses. And if ever a movie prompted kids to check their candy, it would be this.

I find myself baffled that the perennial Halloween movie lately is the latest arrival in the bleak and sadistic "Saw" franchise. For me, the great thing about Halloween was the over-the-top mixture of funny and scary. People dress up as demons, vampires, monsters and werewolves and we spend a good chunk of the month of October going to elaborate haunted houses jumping out of our skin and letting people try to scare us; the fun is the extravagant nature, when the macabre and grotesque can get us laughing at how easily we're scared. "Saw" is too realistic, too hopeless and too dark to capture the fun of Halloween; the type of scared we want on that holiday is a fun house scare that makes us jump, makes us a bit sick but ultimately makes us laugh at how easily we get scared.

Dougherty gets that and utilizes Halloween tropes effectively to re-create the atmosphere of that night--the jack-o-lanterns, parades of bizarre creatures going down the street, the sing-song refrain of "trick-or-treat, smell my feet, give me something good to eat." He also knows that we want our scares to be big and larger-than-life...the supernatural has to be darker than we could imagine so that we can laugh at the preposterousness of it all. And he makes sure that when each story takes its dark and devilish turns, there's always a wicked smile at the back of it. Baker's story, particular, has a morbidly funny little twist and the film's final scene includes a creepy/funny little call back.

The cinematography here is beautiful...the dark, rich colors, the use of jack-o-lanterns in the dark night. One particular sequence is wonderfully creepy, as the pumpkins in the fog are extinguished to hint of an oncoming menace. The film draws its inspirations from horror comics and anthologies like "Creepshow," and each shot could easily be a panel of a richly-drawn graphic novel.

The stories are fun in and of themselves; Baker's, as I've said, is the strongest, with its mix of humor and horror. Paquin's tale meanders for a bit before revealing its little twist and Cox's is a bit too standard for my taste. The story of the prank, with its flashback to a bizarre urban legend and its wonderful use of atmosphere, is also effective and best captures the mixture of childlike imagination and terror that makes Halloween so fun.

And if I had a complaint, it would be that I wish Dougherty had toned down the film's gore and adult sequences and made this a film that all ages...including kids...could enjoy. Halloween is, at its core, a child's holiday and there aren't enough scary movies out for children. If this was released 20 years ago I know that I would be trying to find a copy to watch with my friends.

It's a shame that WB sat on this for so long and I hope it finds its audience on DVD. I'd love to see this be a film watched every Halloween and I would even love to see a follow up, a string of new anthologies every few Halloweens as a way to mark the holiday.

That would be quite a treat.

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.