Monday, October 12, 2009

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.

6 comments:

Daniel Getahun said...

I think that terrifying final picture proves one thing: clowns are still the scariest people on earth. The other costumes look downright cuddly in comparison.

FilmDr said...

I agree, although Zombieland has already lightly made fun of that point by making Jesse Eisenberg's character more frightened of clowns than of zombies. You can't tell from the photo, but all of the demented costumed children are chained to their seats, awaiting their watery death in the rock quarry.

Hokahey said...

FilmDr. - Haven't seen this one. I'm not a big horror fan - though I've been seeing the major horror releases this year to be in the know. The image of the bus is pretty creepy, however, so I may check this out.

Just wanted to tell you that I rewrote my review of Paranormal Activity if you wish to give it another try.

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Hokahey.

I mostly saw Trick 'r Treat because a friend of mine was raving about it. It earns accolades, I think, because it combines cinematic references (especially Halloween) with cool time-bending technique and lots of sadistic manipulative murder scenes. The latter ultimately put me off.

I may go see Paranormal Activity this weekend, but there's always that much hyped film having to do with Wild Things.

Hokahey said...

Yeah,the Wild Things. Much hype, and much positive anticipation on the blogs, but I never read that book as a child and my kids were never into it. So, I just don't have the interest factor there. Definitely, I will look forward to your enumerated reactions. Also - your reactions to Paranormal if you see it. I was hoping for The Road this weekend. But if it's between The Stepfather and Law Abiding Citizen, I may well take in Wild Things to be in the know.

FilmDr said...

Yes, one of those weekends where it is hard to decide. I loved the book version of Where the Wild Things Are as a kid, and I've seen Sendak speak in Charlottesville, Va. (he's a humorously ornery fellow), so it seems like a violation of a classic to see him sell the movie in recent trailers.