For a holiday dedicated to ghosts, ghouls and goblins, surprisingly few horror films take place during Halloween. Perhaps John Carpenter got it so right back in '78 that few filmmakers even dare to contemplate using the 31st October as a backdrop to their gory shenanigans. Carpenter's Halloween proved to be utterly iconic, creating both a villain and a structure that would give birth to far too many imitators. The movie became synonymous with the holiday - not least because they share the same name - and it's a tribute to Carpenter's skill that many still take time out from the pumpkins and candy to sit and watch Halloween every year on this night. It's almost a little ritual - something that makes Halloween complete. You'd have to have balls like pumpkins to even contemplate competing with that.
Step forwards Michael Dougherty. Now, I can't confirm this 100%, but I'm pretty sure that he's got a couple of the largest and most intricately carved Jack O' Lanterns you could ever imagine lurking beneath his trousers. In making the move from being a hugely successful scriptwriter (X2, Superman Returns) to director, he's explicitly linked his debut feature to the festival of Halloween and, as a result, is indirectly pitting himself against one of the best-loved horror films ever made. How can anyone hope to usurp Carpenter's classic in our blood-soaked hearts and minds? Two words: Fun and Passion.
You see, Dougherty never attempts to size up toe-to-toe to Michael Myers. Whereas Carpenter's version of Halloween was all about quiet moments of slowly building atmosphere and isolated terror, Dougherty's Trick R Treaters revel in the loud parties and brightly lit Jack O' Lanterns. In fact, this is the major problem that the movie may face - Audience expectations. This isn't a mean-spirited stalk and slash movie where blood washes the streets clean of kids dressed as ghosts. Trick R Treat is a much safer and, dare I say it, more family oriented movie. And that's no bad thing.
Dougherty is clever enough to understand that the modern festival of Halloween is primarily an event for parents and kids to have a fun evening full of soft scares and to indulge in playing the bad guys for a night. It's all about the dressing up, the bobbing for apples, the bags full of candy and late night ghost stories and urban legends ripped from the pages of old EC Horror Comics. And it's from these creepy tales of neighborhood serial killers and ghostly school kids that the movie takes its inspiration.
Trick R Treat brings four separate, but linked, tales of terror to your door before chopping them to pieces and rearranging the resulting carnage into a quite impressive chimera before your very eyes. Although it's been described as an anthology movie, structurally this has more in common with Short Cuts or Pulp Fiction than anything by Amicus. Events glimpsed in the background of one tale later become pivotal moments in another as characters in a small US town celebrate a night of monsters and witches. Unlike traditional anthology films there's not a linking story as such. The stories here are joined more by a single character - Sam, a trick or treater wearing a sackcloth pumpkin mask with button eyes, who eventually becomes central to the final section and was featured in Dougherty's animated short Season's Greetings.
Sam's character design is superb, looking like a demented Sackboy from the PS3 game Little Big Planet. It's no surprise to learn that you can already buy collectable figures of him, despite the movie not yet hitting the shelves. In fact, the visual design of the entire film is gorgeous; Jack O' Lanterns give a warm glow to the twilight, mist eerily seeps across the bottom of a quarry and there are just enough shadows for the beasties to hide in. This is a remarkably assured piece of visual direction for a debut movie, and Dougherty's background as both artist and screenwriter are clearly on display here. The script is nuanced and witty, undercutting some highly atmospheric and tense scenes with effective humour that never feels out of place. Also handled superbly are the film's subtle references to the Pagan festivals Halloween grew out of. Never feeling preachy or heavy handed, the movie constructs a series of trick or treat rules, essential to surviving the night and not annoying any ancient spirits. Once you've seen the punishments for disobeying them, you'll never be tempted to mistreat a pumpkin again.
I'm not sure if you can tell, but I really loved this film. The moment it finished I couldn't wait until the DVD came out so I could see it again. I'm also aware that I'm yet another voice in a huge list of reviewers praising this movie to the heavens. And it does concern me that all this adulation could raise your expectations so high that you'll be disappointed when you finally see the movie. So I will state it clearly - Trick R Treat is not the second coming of Horror. It is not a groundbreaking work of such originality that it will give birth to a new genre. It is not perfect in every way, and the after all the good stuff that had gone before the ending was a slight let down. However, it is an enormous amount of fun. It's made with love by a very talented group of people, and this shows. This is a full on homage to the sort of movies and comics that rarely get made these days. It's imaginative, clever and just frightening enough.
This movie has the potential to become a much loved Halloween classic, watched every year when the nights grow dark and the leaves fall from the trees. And unlike so many horror favourites, it's one that you can watch with some of the little terrors that may inhabit your lair. Cleverly, the director keeps careful reigns on his monsters, never letting them get too scary or gruesome. That's not to say the movie is tame. There's some pretty icky stuff here and a fairly sexy werewolf transformation sequence that might be a bit too much for younger kids, but for a family with older children this would be an ideal late night treat on the 31st.
Trick R Treat does something almost no other horror movie does. It celebrates. It takes all the joy, exuberance and sheer childish delight of Halloween and compacts it into a tight 80 minutes. Dougherty's love and enthusiasm for the holiday shines through in every scene, and it's almost impossible not to be swept up by his passion. Not that you'd want to avoid it, as this is a superbly entertaining film.
Watching Trick R Treat is like your first taste of Space Dust candy. That slim little packet may not look like much, but once you've experienced the fizzing explosions hidden within you'll be telling everyone to get some. It's like going through your Halloween candy and discovering a real gold coin hidden among the chocolate money. An unexpected delight.
Review by Paul Bird
|Released by Warner Home Video|
|Region 2 PAL|