The best way to tell a scary yarn is to approach it like one does a raunchy joke: focus on the build-up, tease the audience with sickening possibilities, and end on a reveal both shocking and titillating in its implications. At least that’s the idea behind Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat, a unique anthology evoking all the charm and exuberance of old-school horror with a contemporary self-awareness that suggests there’s more to the film’s chills and thrills than meets the eye.
Trick ‘r Treat combines four largely independent tales, each centered on a specific Halloween tradition. Featuring the sort of morbid reversals you’d find in an EC comic book, every story takes place on the same night in a small suburban neighbourhood. As bit players from one segment become key characters in the next, the narrative shifts back and forth between threads, inviting us to focus on the creepiness of the moment rather than the construct as a whole.
With a conclusion straight out of Creepshow (1982), the most twisted subplot stars Dylan Baker as a disgruntled high school principal trying to dispose of a corpse while his obnoxious eight-year-old (Connor Christopher Levins) pesters him about carving a pumpkin. Both utterly tasteless and darkly funny, the piece gets most of its mileage from shock value, but little violence actually makes it onscreen. It’s all implied with sound effects and a few choice splatter shots.
Dougherty uses a similar tact in the slow-burn chapter about jack-o’-lanterns, which tells of five teens visiting the site of a ghastly town legend. Among them is the mildly autistic Rhonda, played by Samm Todd as an awkward but confident girl, thus eliminating any chance of the newcomer winning an Academy Award for yet another offensive Rain Man impression. I also liked Britt McKillip as the snotty leader of the group. These measured performances by genuine adolescents bring much needed weight and nuance to an otherwise predictable payoff.
Equally easy to foretell is the plot thread dealing with costumes, in which a virgin dressed as Little Red Riding Hood (Anna Paquin) meets a gruesome killer after her promiscuous sister (Lauren Lee Smith) pressures her into finding a “tasty morsel”. The premise unfolds exactly as any viewer paying attention to the themes would expect, offering little of interest besides an amusing link to previous segments and lots of eye candy for all the boys and lesbians. This is by far the least compelling storyline.
The highlight of the film is its final act, which focuses on the titular trick-or-treating ritual, as a crotchety hermit (Brian Cox) gets a visit from what can best be described as the spirit of Halloween (Quinn Lord). It’s essentially a one-man show, and Cox is more than up to the task, balancing comedy and terror with his usual precision. Admittedly, long-time horror fans will, once again, have figured out a number of beats in advance, but the resulting anticipation only adds to the suspense, and the ending is perfectly timed.
Though I only described four stories, it should be noted I originally counted over half a dozen. That’s because a number of seemingly independent segments dovetail into the larger threads. The merger isn’t always without cost, such as when the movie negates an early vampire sequence in favour of a more humorous plot connection, but the experience as a whole remains largely intact. As I mentioned before, Trick ‘r Treat is all about the moment, the initial thrill.
Sure, I could complain about the clunky special effects or the superfluous title cards indicating time leaps that should be obvious to anyone old enough to read (or watch the film). However, I miss having a side of fun with my ghouls and gore. At some point in the mid nineties, they stopped making cynicism-free scary movies. For the longest time, I thought that I’d simply grown up, that nostalgia had somehow twisted my expectations for the horror genre, but Trick ‘r Treat proved me wrong. I suspect that was the intent.