Michael Dougherty's "Trick 'r Treat" is the antidote to all the horror nonsense that rains down this time of year, preying on the macabre appetites of permissive genre fans. Wicked and inventive, this anthology film is the perfect centerpiece to any Halloween celebration, supplying viewers with substantial frights, laughs, and discomfort to help encourage the spooky season. Instead of participating in the yearly nonsense of "Saw," give "Trick 'r Treat" a spin instead. It's one of the best horror films of the year and a perfect addition to the holiday.
In a small Ohio community, Halloween is a colossal event: neighborhoods are fully bejeweled with vivid decorations, the town square plays host to a raucous party, and kids everywhere enjoy the trick-or-treat tradition. The evening also brings out the evil: the local elementary school principal, Steven (Dylan Baker), goes about his suspicious deeds in the dark of night; a group of anxious kids test a local legend that tells the horrible tale of a bus driver who drove into a secluded lake with a class of mentally challenged students chained aboard; a virginal girl (Anna Paquin) heads off to the town party looking for romance while her friends work over the local boys in the woods; and Mr. Kreeg (Brian Cox), a crusty recluse, is left alone to fend off an attack by a particularly nasty costumed devil named Sam.
"Trick 'r Treat" takes its inspiration from the world of horror comics, making the picture resemble something of a terrific "Creepshow" sequel (you know, like the one we never received), though Dougherty lays off gratuitous stylistics that might snap the viewer out of the experience. The tone of the film is surprisingly liquid, moving back and forth between laughs and scares with a remarkable ease, considering this is Dougherty's first feature film. It's an evocative depiction of gruesome Halloween horrors, though it never veers into camp or repellent violence. The latter is something of a miracle considering what Principal Steven is up to on this night.
"Treat" is more of a modest battering of the senses, which is nice for a change of pace and maintains a respect for the material, best portioned out cautiously. Diverse stories of Halloween traditions and urban legends, Dougherty connects the plots ingeniously, playing with time and suspicion to routinely pull the film inside out, taking it in fresh directions. Mercifully, the cast is willing and able to embark on some sensitive genre endeavors, and I give Baker all the credit in the world for his ability to make his depraved character arc (the reason the film was shelved for two years by Warner Brothers) both horrifying and oddly genial. "Treat" heads into some dark spaces involving child endangerment, but the tone is more mischievous than nauseating due to Dougherty's commitment to the spooky ambiance of the holiday. With too many feature films consumed with punishment, it's almost quaint to watch "Treat" aim to cheerfully unsettle with a few ghost stories.
I suppose the enigmatic Sam is the unifying element of the terror tales told here. A diminutive fellow dressed up in a filthy costume, wearing a burlap sack over his bulbous head that should never be removed (trust me), Sam is a potent element of Dougherty's nightmarish imagery that pays off wonderfully. In the final sequence, the goblin creates a welcome "Evil Dead" vibe of relentless torment and lollipop-wielding threat that closes the film on a wily note of candy sack mayhem.
"Trick 'r Treat" is photographed wonderfully by Glen MacPherson, but it's also a film filled with shadows, softly lit tales of doom, and smoke. The VC-1 encoded image (2.35:1 aspect ratio) remains consistent through some extremely touchy visual elements, conveying only a hint of fatigue during the particularly hazy sequences. Halloween colors look tremendous, lending the whole presentation a crisp, formidable tone. Skintones are heightened somewhat, but work into the visual scheme. Black levels hold together, permitting excellent detail for the film's more shadowy moments of terror. Filters and saturation are communicated perfectly.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track is a welcoming mix, allowing for plenty of spooky mood to crawl around the surrounds, though most of the spitfire is left for the front. Nice LFE response for the more dangerous elements of the mix, and I never had any trouble hearing dialogue, even through acts of violence. The more ghoulish situations of monsters and madness offer fun for the listener, especially the little offerings of bone crunching and spurting blood, and perhaps the most vile vomit sound I've ever heard. It's more atmospheric than direct, but the track is rock solid.
English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles are offered.
A feature-length audio commentary with director Michael Dougherty, concept artist Breehn Burns, storyboard artist Simeon Wilkins, and composer Douglas Pipes starts off with a statement of surprise. It appears Dougherty never thought his film would be released, much less see the light of a commentary booth. Taking advantage of the situation, the gang contributes a lively and informative commentary for the oddball horror picture. Discussions of locations, actor contributions (plenty of love is reserved for Baker), and studio unease carry the conversation. The talk touches greatness with the highlighting of character cameos, often hiding in the background, adding to the community mood of the film. The commentary is wildly entertaining and jovial. It's worth a listen.
"'Trick 'r Treat:' The Lore and Legends of Halloween" (27:23) interviews cast and crew about the history of the holiday -- where it came from and how its celebration has maintained a few rituals over the years. Matters segue over to "Trick 'r Treat," where production challenges are discussed by an enthusiastic group of participants.
"Additional Scenes" (16:51) offers a slew of fatty sequences wisely cut for pace and time. Not embarrassing moments, but with content like this, the shorter and the better. They can be viewed with or without commentary from Dougherty.
"Trick 'r Treat: Season's Greetings" (3:48) is a 1996 animated short, hand-made by director Michael Dougherty in his film school youth. A simple Halloween joke featuring ghoul Sam, the short is best valued as the genesis for the feature film and as a reminder of a time before digital shortcuts took all the texture out of animation. It's a wonderful little nugget of mood. It can be viewed with or without commentary from Dougherty.
"School Bus FX Comparison" (1:44) is a brief glimpse of the film, breaking down the artificial elements for closer inspection.
With ample jack-o'-lantern visual touches, werewolves, vampires, the undead, and shocking reminders to always follow essential trick-or-treating rules, Dougherty demonstrates extraordinary enthusiasm for the rich tapestry of Halloween and all of its fiendish promises and customs. "Trick 'r Treat" is an enchanting, impish film that creates a tantalizing mood of horror, in contrast to the popular route, which is to pound banal grotesqueries in the face of the viewer. "Trick 'r Treat" is a delight, working diligently to shape something merrily twisted and ghoulish to pay glorious tribute to the weirdest of the yearly holidays.