For all of its iconography, Halloween has always lagged behind in terms of a shared cultural mythology. Hollywood, for its part, has done little to help, using the holiday as a backdrop to sell horror films while rarely engaging with its traditions. In 2007, writer-director Michael Dougherty’s film Trick ‘r Treat attempted to do just that, only to have it premiere to rave reviews at festivals, have its theatrical release delayed, and then be released direct-to-video two years later.
Billed as an anthology, Trick ‘r Treat is built around a set of five rules for the holiday, each demonstrated in one of the film’s different intersecting stories. There to enforce them is Samhain or “Sam,” a child-sized pumpkin-headed demon named after the original pagan holiday who pops up whenever a rule is broken to dole out the punishment.
Having multiple storylines allows Dougherty to include a large portion of classic Halloween characters and tropes. This is a film that contains werewolves, a family line of serial killer, a sinister local town legend, zombies, and a demon all without breaking 90 minutes. For fans of the holiday, it touches on a bit of everything you would want from a Halloween film.
The bigger impact of these rules, though, is that represent the film’s attempt to create a larger Halloween mythos. The directives to always pass out candy, always wear a costume, never blow out a Jack-o-lantern before midnight, always respect the dead, and always check your candy are mostly things that are done already, but by listing them out and playing them as some kind of mythological necessity, it turns the rules into necessary traditions. Many horror movie fans have already started internalising them, teaching them to their children well before the age they could see this gore-y film. Give it another several years, and hopefully the release of the planned sequel, and it would not be surprising to see them slowly making their way into pop culture at large.
Even if those rules never become mainstays, the character of “Sam” is already well on his way. Stop by your local Hot Topic or Halloween store and you are sure to see statues and other merchandise of the little demon. Even without knowledge of the film itself, his design and sinister child-like appearance make him a perfect mascot for the holiday, and something you would not mind displaying as part of your decorations.
Of course, none of this mythos-building would be very effective if the film did not work. In perhaps his most impressive feat, Dougherty’s film walks the fine line of being a horror comedy without ever slipping into cheese. Part of his success comes from strong production design and score, both of which firmly establish the foggy-Halloween-night vibe. The film’s colour palette is rooted in black, red, and orange yet never feels drab. Likewise, Douglas Pipes’ score channels everything you would ever want in a Halloween soundtrack: screeching strings, creepy melodies, and eerie children’s choir.
All of this mood allows Dougherty to use macabre humour without ever losing the overall sinister atmosphere. Strong performances from Anna Paquin, Brian Cox, and Dylan Baker all play off both the fear and laughs perfectly. Their presence also lends a sort of gravitas that is unique for a horror film, especially one released straight to DVD in the late 2000’s. Given the film’s preference for mood and narrative over outright horror, their performances are a major asset.
With all of the things Trick ‘r Treat had going for it, its treatment by Warner Brothers remains a curiosity. Here you have perhaps the quintessential Halloween film, starring an Academy Award winner, getting rave reviews from horror fans, and yet the studio is unsure of how to market and release the film for over two years. In a way, their trepidation proves that the holiday was lagging behind in terms of interest, with horror films needing more than just Halloween imagery to drive sales.
Luckily, horror fans have latched on to the film and continued championing it, so much so that Dougherty intends to film a sequel after wrapping up work on Godzilla: King of the Monsters.” While seeing more adventures of everyone’s favourite pumpkin-headed demon would certainly be welcome by some, the project also begs the obvious question: why spend your time making a Halloween film when you have already made the perfect one?