No Sleep October: Trick ‘r Treat

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.

The Exorcist: Believer

With his Halloween trilogy now completed, director David Gordon Green now turns his attention to reviving another franchise that began in the 1970s with a smash horror hit. The Exorcist: Believer is the sixth installment in a film series that probably didn’t need much expansion outside the original chapter but since that film made over $400 million at the box office back in 1973, we continue to pay for the sins of curious moviegoers all those years ago. Universal, whose acquisition of the Exorcist rights was reported to have a $400 million price tag, is careful to follow the legacy sequel playbook they helped establish in 2015 with Jurassic World. Give the audiences plenty of elements they remember from the first film with enough new bits to feel like they’ve experienced something original. The formula this time around feels particularly hollow.

Similar to the Iraq-set prologue in The Exorcist, The Exorcist: Believer opens in a location apart from the rest of the story with a chilling preface. Victor (Leslie Odom Jr.) and pregnant Sorenne (Tracey Graves) are honeymooning in Haiti when a giant earthquake levels their hotel. This forces Victor to choose between saving either their unborn baby or Sorenne after the latter is severely injured in the cataclysm. 13 years later, Victor is doing his best to raise daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett) by himself while making end’s meet as a photographer. After school one day, Angela and her friend Katherine (Olivia O’Neill) go out to the woods and attempt to convene with the spirit of Angela’s deceased mother. The pair is missing for three days after being found in a barn miles away from the woods with no memory of the missing time. Victor is, of course, relieved to have Angela back home but her strange behavior following the incident points to something more ungodly as opposed to just unusual.

From here, The Exorcist: Believer plays the hits it presumes the audience will want to hear. Beds are wet, bodies are levitated and the fog machines kick into high gear. Prior to this, Green at least tries to establish a worthwhile story before the movie becomes possessed by franchise necessities and studio notes. Put bluntly, Odom Jr. is insanely overqualified to play this thankless role but, ever the professional, he puts his all into it nonetheless. He and Jewett have a very believable and fun chemistry as a father and daughter brought closer together by tragic circumstances. Sadly, their connection means less as the film proceeds, since the plotline has to make more room for secondary characters played by Ann Dowd and Ellen Burstyn, the latter reprising from the 1973 original.

If The Exorcist: Believer is more discouraging than Green’s Halloween films, it’s because the filmmaker doesn’t seem to have a grasp on what makes the original film remarkable. It’s ironic because he could have made his Halloween movies simply about Michael Myers and the people he stabs but, to his credit, Green goes deeper than that with the Laurie Strode character and the trauma she’s endured. Conversely, Green ultimately demonstrates that what’s important to him about The Exorcist is preteen girls using foul language and vomiting pea soup on priests. Not only were those aspects actually transgressive at the time, when they’re simply old hat by now, but that first film is, rightly, about the priests and their faith being shaken by such evil events. Believer has a priest character, portrayed by E.J. Bonilla, who barely registers as an afterthought when all is said and done.

If Universal is dead set on having demons like Pazuzu and Lamashtu being their new spooky baddie like Michael Myers, they need to find someone who will engage with the material better for the sequels. Truth be told, Green should be past this “one for them” part of his filmography anyway at this point. He’s had an interesting career, to say the least, alternating between blisteringly affecting indies like Joe and Snow Angels to goofy stoner riffs like Pineapple Express and Your Highness before getting stuck in this franchise horror milieu. I know Blumhouse is always looking to franchise but it feels like they’d have more luck with a M3GAN series at this point. Regardless, The Exorcist: Believer is a humdrum sequel that true believers in The Exorcist will likely find to be sacrilegious.

Score – 2/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour, the concert film documenting the cultural phenomenon that is the ongoing titular concert series from pop behemoth Taylor Swift.
Premiering on Amazon Prime is The Burial, a legal drama inspired by true events starring Jamie Foxx and Tommy Lee Jones about a lawyer who helps a funeral home owner save his family business from a deceitful corporation.
Streaming on Netflix is The Conference, a horror comedy starring Katia Winter and Adam Lundgren in which a team-building conference for municipal employees turns into a nightmare when a mysterious figure begins murdering the participants.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup