Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal
Though movies of any genre can potentially be considered cult films, there’s something particularly exciting about scary movies that develop an undeniable cult following. Horror fans tend to be quite effusive when rallying behind overlooked releases and in the days and weeks leading up to Halloween every year, people are always looking for spooky titles that they haven’t seen before. October is the time of year when cinephiles and non-cinephiles alike trade horror movie suggestions with one another the same way that autumnal aficionados swap spooky stories around a bonfire. Screened at a few film festivals starting in 2007 before going direct-to-DVD in 2009, the anthology film Trick ‘r Treat is one of these word-of-mouth treasures that has earned its reputation as annual traditional viewing.
Split up into four chapters with a wraparound tale that brings everything together, Trick ‘r Treat is loosely structured around a diminutive demon named Sam (Quinn Lord) who oversees Halloween celebrants in small-town Ohio. He trick-or-treats at the house of school principal Steven Wilkins (Dylan Baker), whose candy isn’t as sweet as it would seem to be on the outside. Sam sees a group of teenagers recruit outcast Rhonda (Samm Todd) to join them for a ritual at a haunted quarry where a tragedy occurred years prior. Then he sees young Laurie (Anna Paquin) trying to find a date for a Halloween bash that her sister Danielle (Lauren Lee Smith) is hosting deep in the woods. Finally, Sam pays a visit to Principal Wilkins’ crotchety neighbor Mr. Kreeg (Brian Cox) to “reignite” his Halloween spirit.
Written and directed by Michael Dougherty, who would later go on to create the similarly campy Krampus and Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Trick ‘r Treat is adapted from an animated short Dougherty crafted back in 1996 called Season’s Greetings. It’s here that the creature masquerading as a tiny trick-or-treater known as Sam made his debut, complete with orange footie pajamas and burlap sack covering his head. It’s not mentioned in the film but Sam’s name is short for Samhain, the Celtic pagan observance late into Halloween night that marks the “darker half” of the year. Naturally, it’s the perfect setting for a set of interweaving narratives where Sam seems to be watching events transpire from a distance and intervene if a Halloween tradition is being violated. Like Jason Voorhees’ machete or Freddy Krueger’s knife glove, Sam also has his signature weapon in the form of a broken (and especially sharp) jack-o-lantern-shaped lollipop.
Speaking of jack-o-lanterns, I would put the menagerie of carved pumpkins assembled for Trick ‘r Treat as one of the finest in cinematic history. The opening segment alone, which features Leslie Bibb and Tahmoh Penikett as a horny couple trying to take down decorations early, features the kind of ghosts and headstones you’d see in most front yards this time of year but also sports some particularly ornate jack-o-lanterns too. Before that, there’s a match cut from a 1950s-style instructional video about trick-or-treating that transitions into a glowing pumpkin akin to the one featured in the opening of Halloween. But the film really delivers the gourds in the final chapter, where Sam is called to teach Mr. Kreeg about the true meaning of Halloween. There’s a specific shot of a suddenly crowded porch that will give the “it’s fall, y’all” crowd the kind of giddy feeling that Christmas enthusiasts reserve for the lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree.
It’s hard to pick a favorite segment in Trick ‘r Treat but if I had to offer just one up, it’d be the “Halloween School Bus Massacre” chapter towards the film’s mid-section. It so perfectly encapsulates the tropes that we associate with campfire tales while subverting some of the traditional story beats and providing some deeply creepy images along the way. We briefly meet the teenagers in this story during the “Principal” sequence, where they say they’re collecting pumpkins for charity, but we soon learn that they’re actually using them for a seance. The interaction between the kids is authentic and Rhonda is the kind of other-side-of-the-tracks protagonist whose glasses are just bound to get smashed one way or another. There’s an extended flashback that just oozes hazy dread and, once again, the set design is stellar for the fog-enraptured quarry where the kids must travel down a creaky elevator to place the pumpkins.
In weaving between these tales, Dougherty includes comic book bubbles like “earlier”, “later”, and “meanwhile” to clue us into the movie’s chronology. The opening credits also foreshadow events in the film by way of comic-style drawings and, fittingly, Trick ‘r Treat was adapted into a graphic novel after Warner Bros released the movie to home video in 2009. For having such an unceremonious release, the film nevertheless spawned a healthy line of merchandise that still seems to sell well to this day. Anecdotally, I’ve seen more youngsters dressed up as Sam every Halloween since Trick ‘r Treat has been released and if Dougherty is able to bring a sequel into fruition, it should only further cement the movie’s position in the frightgeist.