For this week’s Midnight Screenings, being that Halloween is upon us and all, here are reviews of three modern would-be Halloween films destined for years of “Midnight” Screenings all throughout the land.
Ever heard of Creepshow? Well, Trick ‘r Treat certainly has, and it wants you to know it. It’s a quintessential omnibus anthology film, but at the least, its four stories are a little more diegetically connected this time out, all taking place on the same night (naturally, October 31st). This doesn’t so much sacrifice episodism as it bends it toward the film’s own more leisurely, fluid pace, with characters cavorting about and moving between segments just like the sublime, giddy chaos of Halloween itself.
Essentially, this gives us an anthology film without quite the explicit guiding hand of a narrator or wraparound narrative to explicitly render these stories “fiction”, making this film somewhat more grounded in traditional narrative filmmaking. And if this inter-connectedness doesn’t do much, the connections at least lend a sense of mundane physicality and place to the film’s spooky Halloweenisms. They dial up the assumed realism of the world (where-as most anthology horrors would have a guiding narrative to explicitly render the segments “fiction stories”) so that the general lunatic-terror of the film’s atmosphere invading that realism is that much more loopy. It’s the kind of place that mimics reality only to reveal another layer of uncanny, unstated gruesomeness, as if Halloween night is the true identity and the face of the year around it is just for show.
But the core of the film is its short narratives, light kernels that seek less to scare than to spook and amuse, jolly grinning black-hearts that delight in sending a chill down our spines. The first story stars Dylan Baker as a rather insane school principal and Brett Kelly (the kid from Bad Santa) as a student who steals candy from him and must suffer his principalian wrath. The second involves a high-school prank gone wrong when five kids venture to a rock quarry where a bus of handicapped students died years ago. The third has Anna Paquin as a 22-year-old virgin who is stalked by what appears to be a vampire. The final segment stars Brian Cox as a cantankerous elderly man who lives alone and is assaulted by the film’s would-be mascot, I’m told named Sam, when he scares away trick-or-treaters instead of giving out candy.
The film clearly has a reverence for (obsession over) Halloween – it’s kind of the film’s “thing”. There are more jack-o-lanterns than any film this side of, well, Halloween, we have a spooky yet giddy, deliciously snarky atmosphere throughout, and the film even aspires to a few rules of Halloween that are hinted at or in some cases overtly mentioned in an admittedly lame post-Scream attempt at obvious irony. Yet the film mostly stays on the right side of not even bothering to hide its intentions, since all the fun to this cheeky, macabre campfire story session turned demented carnival is in knowing the characters’ comeuppances before-hand and waiting around to see them happen. More importantly though, the film just captures the feeling of Halloween throughout. It’s scary, but it has a playful, mischievous energy. It throws in just enough dark, even acidic humor for sauce. It’s not really a watch-at-midnight-with-the-lights-out kind of film. It’s really more of a hanging-out-with-you-friends-in-the-living-room kind of experience, and, for what it is, it’s a nice bit o’ fun. But don’t assume this is a bloodless affair – choices have consequences, and Trick ‘r Treat isn’t about to let any consequences go.
Just because it’s not all that much of a fright doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of good-old-fashioned suspense to be found in the film, primarily in the righteous revenge sequence involving children trying to scare a local outcast and discovering that Halloween is the outcasts’ day to play. Here, more than anywhere, director Michael Dougherty really dials up the shadowy blacks and intentionally cluttered, nonsensical set design. Another story involving Brian Cox, the film’s only completely unqualified success, gives us a knock-down, drag-out fight through his house with the spirit and scrappy, tactile vitality of early Sam Raimi, with a little pathos and some delicious irony thrown in for flavor. It’s a love-letter to Halloween, and Halloween has always been more about the fun of being scared than actually being scared, but that doesn’t mean a few haunts aren’t out of the question.
And the film’s darkness is all the more delicious because it carries, in true Halloween spirit, a sense of brutal justice with its murderous mayhem. The holiday spirit here isn’t wanton killing, but a sense of ruthless morality that punishes those who act immorally. We get lots of things that go bump in the night, but it’s the humans who are rendered with the widest evil grins; the supernatural figures are more like neutralizing agents, rolling in with the cold fall wind to put things back to place and dole out their own repayment for mischievousness that goes too far. We’re essentially watching those who do no good get shown up by the real masters of no-good-doing. So the film encourages a little playfulness, but too much of it and you’ll find the spirits get the last laugh. It’s a devil’s playground, and these are four of his campfire stories. It’s not nearly as giddy and delirious and challenging and inventive as it could have been, but for a modern Halloween treat, it gets the job done.