Trick ‘r Treat

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009 Horrorthon Posts / Horrorthon Reviews

(2008) ***

When in Rome…

This isn’t really my cup of tea, but it definitely delivers the goods, and I have to give the movie full credit for achieving exactly what it sets out to do, and then some. I had a great time, and I admire the intentions and the technique, but I can’t take it all that seriously (nor are we really meant to).

Trick ‘r Treat employs the old-fashioned “Tales From the Crypt” anthology template—simplified horror anecdotes, structured like jokes with nasty punchlines—fused with a post-Tarantino multithreaded story structure. The result is like Creepshow (1982) pureed in a blender, with better actors and better effects. Bits and pieces (sometimes literally) of each story appear in the others, magnifying the shock effects while amping up the suspense.

The stories themselves are reasonably heavy-duty fare—i.e. conceptually full-fledged horror material—but the movie maintains a cumulative light-hearted tone that upholds the excellent E.C. Comics tradition that Rod Serling and others have been re-working for decades, and the darker story elements are gift-wrapped with enough wit and speed that they don’t weigh down the proceedings. This hybrid presentational style, in which genuine shocks are interspersed with wonderfully dry witicisms and fake-outs, is Trick ‘r Treat‘s real achievement, and credit is due to writer/director Michael Doherty (Bryan Singer’s writer on X2 and Superman Returns) (ugh) for keeping the action moving and the scares coming, and, most important, maintaining the proper screwball tone, in which campfire-story adrenaline rushes, jolts of real fear and hysterical laughter are blended like a fine cocktail.

The great thing is, Halloween itself is a nutty holiday anyway, with innocent children indulging in the macabre (although real Halloween festivities are considerably less ritualized and superstitious that what’s shown here). Trick ‘r Treat understands that we want to be scared, but we also want to be safe; to laugh off the fear—and that the implicit contradiction can get us into trouble psychologically even if there is no real danger. (This movie’s fantasy version of Halloween night, in which death really is around every corner, emphasizes this basic human schizophrenia wonderfully.) I’m sure I’ve seen dozens of movies in which a genuinely grisly threat is misunderstood to be part of a Halloween celebration, and dozens more in which the Halloween trappings provide scary atmosphere for a genuine horror story, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie run through so many dizzying variations on these ideas, so adroitly and effectively. Again, the tone is the key: during the most suspenseful sequences, the awareness that the movie has playful intentions—is trying to mess with you—amplifies the fear wonderfully. (I had particular trouble sitting through the business with the kids exploring the quarry floor where the mythical school bus was lost; the scenario would be frightening in any movie, but in this one, where you have no idea what’s coming, it was nearly unbearable.)

A-list Hollywood character actors like Anna Paquin, Brian Cox and Dylan Baker bring their charisma and skills to bear, here, but don’t give Trick ‘r Treat the kind of gravitas they’re known for. Which is fine, because Trick ‘r Treat doesn’t need gravitas (and, as I wrote up top, this isn’t my cup of tea, and that’s probably why; I’m addicted to gravitas). The baroque, comic-book craziness—the certainty that anything can happen, and probably will—is the secret to this movie’s success. Legitimately scary as hell, without the calories.