Saturday, October 31, 2015

Halloween Review: Trick 'R Treat

Well, I couldn't very well allow Halloween to go by without a review. In building up to this I had to ask whether I wanted to treat this like a Wednesday review, or one of my more standard, analytical reviews. On the one hand, this is a film I've seen many times, and know intimately. On the other hand, it's also a film most of my readership is likely to be familiar with. To the outside world Trick 'R Treat is a cult film, but to horror fans it's the holy grail of 21st-century horror.

I came down more on the side of the Wednesday review, mainly for practical reasons. There are so many characters, and so many plot threads in this film, that I hate the thought of trying to deal with them all, especially for a rare movie where I can sincerely find nothing to criticize. I don't claim the movie to be without fault, simply that it's so strongly to my taste that I'm not the person to find those faults. That said, to set a precedent for distinguishing Halloween reviews from Wednesday reviews, I've chosen to also discuss the history of the film.

In any discussion of this film I think it's important to acknowledge the uphill battle it had to notability. It had the bad luck of being completed during the Saw era of horror, when Jigsaw's draw at the Box Office was so powerful that other horror movies were being moved to August to avoid competing, and put on DVD in October. Obviously, for a film set at Halloween, this strategy would make no sense, so the film's release was delayed for two years, and it was eventually dumped on DVD by executives who likely expected to never hear from it again.

Despite such a low profile release, this film has become a hit through grassroots support, and word-of-mouth. This is a movie that has been on DVD shelves every Halloween ever since. This is a film that has mushroomed from an obscure cult phenomenon, to virtually inescapable on any horror fan community on the internet, especially in October. Sam has become an icon.

I think lightning struck with this movie because so many factors came together perfectly, walking so many tightropes. It isn't a remake, but yet it remains timeless without direct references to the year. It doesn't pull punches, but it also doesn't include unnecessary gore or torture porn. It embraces comedy, but without disrespecting or undermining the horror.

The thing that sets this movie apart from most horror anthologies is that the stories all take place on a single Halloween night, in a single town. The stories are presented anachronistically, and often cross-over. They're also all united by the character of Sam, a mysterious trick-or-treater with a burlap sack over his head, implied to be the guardian of Halloween customs, punishing those who disrespect the spirits, or fail to show hospitality.

The film is usually said to have four stories, but I'd likely place the number at six. The four count excludes two short scenes that I count as independent stories. One is the opening sequence, in which a woman is punished for disrespecting the holiday. The second is a short scene involving a “vampire” attacking a woman at a Halloween parade. The vampire eventually shows up in one of the main stories, while tying into another, but his initial attack doesn't really relate to either story, and could stand independently of them.

Of the four main stories, each seems intended to show a moral about the nature of the holiday. All horror is fundamentally about sin and punishment. Either punishment comes to the sinful, or punishment comes to the innocent. In this film, the punishment always inevitably comes to the sinful. Whether their sins are fully deserving of the punishments they receive varies from story to story, and can even come down to audience interpretation. The real horror, however, is simply that there are no innocent characters. Everyone has been cruel, and everyone will face their punishment.

“The Principal” overtly states the traditional Halloween rule of “always check your candy,” while arguably also being about greed. In “The School Bus Massacre Revisited” a group of bullies meet their fates when they fail to accept someone different from them. In “Surprise Party” we learn that stranger-danger isn't just for kids. Finally, in “Meet Sam” an old man learns the importance of generosity...then gets a reminder of School Bus Massacre lesson. All of these stories feel somewhat like a modern mythology, designed to instill morality in the people.

The film also stands out because of it's aesthetics. We live in a day when many horror films shy away from bright colors, while Trick 'R Treat makes heavy use of the reds and oranges of fall. The soundtrack is effective as well, perfectly evoking excited yet nervous feelings of Halloween. The movie makes no apologies, it's about Halloween.

For some time now this has been my favorite movie. Sam is an icon, the stories are both scary and hilarious, and the writing and directing are both excellent. In the off chance anyone hasn't seen it, watch it. If you have watched it, go watch it again.

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