“Trick 'r Treat” is a film that plenty of horror fans have heard about, but which (at the time of writing) relatively few have actually seen. The film has been complete for a couple of years now, and been rapturously received at a number of festival screenings. And yet despite the stupendously positive word-of-mouth and buzz surrounding the film, Warner Bros have opted to sit on the film before finally deciding to slip it straight to home video formats in October 2009. When you consider some of the utter crap that gets released in cinemas, the fact that a well-handled, fresh original genre piece with recognisable stars struggles to get shown is both baffling and more than a little depressing. Having said all that, there's something else to say about “Trick 'r Treat” - despite what you may have heard, it's actually not the second coming, and the chances are it's not the greatest horror film you're going to see this year. Although it could well make the shortlist.
Perhaps part of the reason why Warners have been so reticent about releasing “Trick 'r Treat” is the fact that it is a compendium film – something which has not been done for a while, and which traditionally doesn't do very well at the box office. It is, however, not constructed like a typical compendium horror film relying on a wraparound story or narrator to link otherwise unrelated tales. Instead, the film all takes place in one town on Halloween night, and intercuts the stories of a disparate group of characters – the effect being rather like a horror version of “Pulp Fiction” or “Short Cuts”. And like “Pulp Fiction”, if you break everything right down there's nothing earth-shatteringly original about any of the individual stories, but they're mixed together with enough wit and spin to feel wonderfully fresh and inventive.
So what of those stories? Well, trying not to spoil too much, there's Dylan Baker in a tale revolving around nasty things in trick or treat candy, Anna Paquin as Red Riding Hood trying to find a date for a Halloween party, a group of 'Goonies'-esque kids playing practical jokes around the legend of a school bus crash, and Brian Cox being menaced by a strange pumpkin-headed childlike figure. Whilst these individual stories intersect at various points as their participants' paths cross, probably the thing that unites them most is that in the greatest tradition of 'The Twilight Zone', EC comics and the likes, they're all constructed around surprise last minute twist-arounds. And this is potentially one of the weaknesses of the film. Having seen it only once it's difficult to say, but once you know where all the stories are ultimately headed the film will play slightly differently, and I'm not sure it will be quite as effective. But even on first viewing once you've figured out how the stories are structured, it's hard not to spend most of your time trying to second-guess where they're going to end up. Which is all part of the fun I suppose, but then when I'm trying to guess the plot I'm not engaging with the characters, and at times the is-it-a-trick-or-is-it-real games start to edge towards the tiresome.
Now that does sound like I'm rearing up for a negative review, but really I'm just explaining why for me it's not quite a 5-skull one. So whilst I'm at it, I'll get this one off my chest - “Trick 'r Treat” may be many things, but one thing it's not is particularly scary. It's all a bit restrained, and stops short of going for full-on palm-sweating terror - I kept hoping it would cut loose and up the fear factor just a notch. But like a warm candy, this is one treat that is happy to not get too nasty but aims instead for spooky fun and creepy atmosphere. The result is a film which is much warmer and funnier than the greatest film ever to be set on Halloween, and one which would play comfortably to younger teens.
Really helping the film is a find Elfman-esque score by Douglas Pipes, and the beautiful cinematography by Glen MacPherson which is key in creating that fog and jack-o-lantern atmosphere that is possibly the films strongest feature. Mention must also go to the Production Design and Art Direction team of Mark S Freeborn and Tony Wohlgemuth who add considerable depth and detail to the frame that cries out for repeated viewing to take it all in. And then there's the already iconic pumpkin-headed character of Sam, a brilliant piece of design work that feels like a screen character we've known for years.
Bizarrely, I've now gone a long way into this review without mentioning the writer-director of “Trick 'r Treat”, Michael Dougherty. Well, let me redress that balance now, and point out that his scriptwork here is much closer in quality to his work on “X-Men 2” than it is to his previous horror credit of “Urban Legends Bloody Mary”. Indeed, “X2” is a important film in the development of “Trick 'r Treat”, as evidenced by the presence of Bryan Singer as producer and X-stars Paquin and Cox in the cast list. Having only previously directed the animated “Season's Greetings” (a film which first introduced the character of Sam), Dougherty makes a highly confident and assured feature debut here. The mix of horror, atmosphere and comedy is deftly handled – this is a difficult tone to properly pull off, but Dougherty nails it throughout. Indeed, there's enough well-thought out compositions and well-timed jumps and atmosphere to suggest that this is the work of an experienced director rather than a debutant. It's such a promising work that I really hope the film does well enough to allow him the opportunity to make more films.
After the film finished, I found myself wishing horrorview still had the old 3 and a half skull ratings as that felt like the perfect rating for the film. However, the more I've thought about the film since I watched it, the more I've liked it, and now I'm very happy to give it a solid 4 skulls. There's so much to like and enjoy here – I particularly enjoyed the climax of the Anna Paquin story (though that may be because I have something of a crush on her), the performances throughout are pitch-perfect, and perhaps best of all – it's not a sequel or a remake. The fact that this Halloween people are going to be watching “Saw 6” on the big screen and being denied the chance to see this fresh gem at the cinema is, to finish off where I came in, quite baffling and says a depressing amount about the state of the industry and horror's position in it in 2009. It's madness I tells ya', pure madness.