Follow the rules or die: notes on Trick 'r Treat
In the EC horror comics vein, Michael Doughtery's Trick 'r Treat chops up one Halloween evening in Sheeps Meadow, Ohio and tells four interwoven tales in a rearranged manner reminiscent of Pulp Fiction. Critics have belatedly raved about this 2007 film that Warner Brothers mysteriously never got around to releasing in theaters (it just came out on DVD). While the various stories are ingeniously arranged, and the film has the glossy slick look of a Tim Burton horror film complete with children singing in the soundtrack, I was impressed by the technique but underwhelmed by Trick 'r Treat's shock tactics and ironic reversals. Here are some notes:
1) Where's the horror in a film where just about everyone is a villain? We no sooner meet Principal Steven Wilkins than we learn that he's a serial killer with the awkward task of burying bodies in the backyard as his annoying young son yells down to him from upstairs about carving the jack-o-lantern. (Spoiler alert) Wilkins is so proficient at multipurpose Halloween naughtiness, he moonlights as a costumed seducer/killer of young women at the local parade. If the characters weren't wicked already, most of the innocent turn evil quickly, as if screenwriter Dougherty was worried we may get bored otherwise.
2) And what is the major crime here? Not following the rules of Halloween. For instance, if you blow out a jack-o-lantern before the night is over, you deserve death. If you play an evil prank on someone that causes a bump on the head, then of course you should expire. If you neglect to give trick or treaters candy, then watch out. And if you happen to bust up pumpkins on the way home, forget about it. A persnickety holiday formalism underlies much of the mayhem of the movie.
3) Anna Paquin plays a virginal Little Red Riding Hood figure named Laurie who's in search of a boyfriend. In comparison to her lewd, more aggressive friends dressed as Snow White, Cinderella, etc., Laurie just wants a date, and Paquin briefly achieves some pathos before her story ends. Since you never really get to know characters, you have to take their costumes at face value (and Dougherty likes to ironically reverse the connotations of their costumes). Thus the angel is evil, the witch is good, and so on.
4) The most satisfying scene: from Principal Wilkins' point of view, we see a man in the neighboring house screaming for help through the window just before he gets attacked. Wilkins says "Screw you," and ignores him. I did like knowing that the involuted structure of the film would reveal what happened several scenes later.
5) The most engaging story involves a bus full of criminally insane, costumed children that plunges into a rock quarry because their parents get sick of dealing with them, but the film never really culminates in a coherent sense of evil. Be it werewolves, evil child spirits, sadistic teenagers, or just plain people who hate Halloween, Trick 'r Treat has plenty of menace to go around, but much of it cancels itself out in a salad bar of horror tropes. Ironically, Trick 'r Treat succeeds most in the calm moments between each bloody narrative. A girl in a witch's costume from one story pauses to acknowledge the demon of another as they pass in the night. Donnie Darko would be proud.