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Trick 'r Treat

A column article, Shot For Shot by: Charles Webb , Matthew Fantaci
Trick 'r Treat
Writer and Director: Michael Dougherty
Starring: Dylan Baker, Anna Paquin, Brian Cox, Tahmoh Penikett

Rating:

Matt: In celebration of today, we've decided to have a go at another horror film, Trick 'r Treat. Similar to Creepshow (which Charles and I reviewed here), Trick 'r Treat is a horror anthology consisting of 5 short stories, each happening in the same small town on the same Halloween night.

"What does Trick 'r Treat," you may ask, "have to do with comics?"

Wellll. Maybe that's part of the problem, or at least the tip of the iceberg in the problems department. Though the beginning and ending titles both feature comic book covers and panels depicting scenes from the movie, there really is no connection to comics. This makes me wonder, "What's the point of the comics in the first place?"

Charles: Oh, boy. Talking about the movie beforehand, Matt and I came to the conclusion that we both got something different out of Trick 'r Treat. While I agree that its attempts to evoke that Creepshow feel with the blending of comic and screen elements, I still think it was a fun and effective little horror movie.

The use of a jumbled chronology, some gory practical effects, and some well-placed dark humor all make this movie a good addition to your Halloween party this year.

Matt: Yeah, I think this might be one of those flicks that you and I agree to disagree on.

I do agree that the director, Michael Dougherty, is technically gifted. He knows how to build tension through his sequences, and really, you can't ask too much more than that from a director of a horror movie. The faults of the movie lie in his writing.

The use of the jumbled chronology, which I felt was a decade too late and added nothing to the movie, is a prime example. There isn't any real payoff to the time switches, just winking nods that the stories are overlapping. Which isn't all that much of a surprise to the audience since we see from the beginning that they all take place in the same small town.

Instead of telling the tales individually, like King in Creepshow, Dougherty gives us the different stories concurrently (which added to the confusion of the jumps in time for me). This serves not only to entangle the individual stories, but begs the bigger question "why is everyone in this town totally insane?" My hometown seems pretty lame in comparison to the shenanigans that the residents of this sleepy little hamlet get up to. Not that I want my neighbor to start killing kids, mind you.

Most importantly, there wasn't one character that I had strong emotions about, either negatively or positively. Which meant there was no one I wanted to be saved and –even more telling - no one I wanted to meet a gruesome end.

Charles: Really? Not even Brian "shenanigans" Cox? I will agree that the characterization is thin here with the exception of Cox as a cantankerous old man with a 3-foot-tall problem, and Dylan Baker giving an energetic performance in his misfire of a segment. But at the same time, the nastiness of the movie offsets the need for depth.

Let me see if I can make sense of what I just said there: the tension-building aspects work so well because Dougherty establishes early on that his cast can bite it at any time (even little kids). Call it disposability or whatever but for lack of a better word it was very efficient – and it needed to be given that the movie clocks in at a brisk 82 minutes – but that efficiency works.

The cast is an interesting mix of genre vets and kids led by the aforementioned Cox (Manhunter,Rushmore, X2), Baker (Happiness, Spider-man 1-3, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles), and Academy Award winner Anna Paquin. None of the characters played by these actors is particularly quotable but they are fun within the context of the film.

Dougherty is a credited writer on several comic-based films including X2, Superman Returns, and according to the IMDB, he's attached to an upcoming adaptation of Josh Howard's Dead @17. He arguably has the comic movie chops to pull this off and attempts to make nods to the form with a couple of captions interspersed throughout the film and the "it's a twist" gag from the horror comics of yesteryear.

Was there any segment or element that worked for you?

Matt: I have to admit, the "school bus massacre" segment was well done. This is the one tale where the comeuppance at the end fits the crime. And thankfully, the lines of good and bad aren't so clearly drawn. It's a nasty little ditty about a dark town secret that comes back to haunt the local teenagers. We're given just enough time with the characters to actually develop an attachment to them (or in one case, a dislike of them). It's a formula we've seen plenty times over, but it works.

Whereas the story featuring Brian Cox seems to be taken piecemeal from different well-known horror stories and never quite comes together as a whole. Strangely, the more reveals that are given, the less sense this story made. At one point the villain is switched out for a more appropriate one that actually seemed fitting… and then the story ends, leaving me to scratch my head over the rest of tale.

What was your favorite segment, Charles?

Charles: It's actually a toss-up between the School Bus Massacre and the Brian Cox segment. I like seeing evil old dudes being terrorized – sue me. As for the former, it felt like a bit from Goosebumps - but in the best possible away. "Kids in peril" always works for me especially when the story is unafraid to let the kids, you know, actually buy it every once in a while.

I will say the weakest for me was Dylan Baker's which has an interesting hook about the suburban serial killer and doesn't really do much of anything with it. It's a shame really, because Baker has wonderful dark comic timing and does suburban evil very well.

Technically, I think the movie deserves some credit. There are a lot of very well executed practical effects (the skin peeling off in the forest sequence being a standout for me) and as far as I can recall there was no obvious or intrusive CG used. Without being wall-to-wall gore the movie does dole out just the right amount of deep red violence and it's highly visceral in ways that will make you cringe occasionally in sympathy.

When most freshman horror directors use a nighttime setting they either make it pretty or make it murky. I think Dougherty acquits himself well, not overcutting the thing and avoiding the unnecessary use of a handheld camera.. It's glossy enough to feel like a finished product without any sort of stylization (for good or ill) and the onscreen action is easy to follow. I can't recall if there are any exceptional camera movements or shots but again, it gets points for being visually coherent (unlike anything in the hyperactive, jarring Saw films).

Matt: You make a good point there.

For lovers of old school horror make-up, this one's got some doozies (the skin ripping is disgustingly amazing). It's also got the know-how to use gore for a few giggles (the blood barf scene being the standout).

As I said, technically, I think Dougherty does a good job. The man knows a good slow dolly shot trumps a cut-cut-cut sequence every time. He not only builds tension through shot progression, but also uses sound editing for those moments when what we hear creates an even more vivid image in our heads than any makeup could conjure.

Strangely, this film has a troubled release history. I say strange because it's not THAT bad – most of the Halloween box office smashes are way below this standard. Sure, I can find fault with this movie, but I can do that with 90 percent of the crap that hits theaters.

Originally, Trick 'r Treat was supposed to be released for Halloween in 2007. Warner Brothers then pushed it back to Halloween 2008. Then after finally pushing it back again to early 2009, Warner Brothers decided instead to just release it straight to video earlier this month.

That's a looong journey for a film to take. What do you think, Charles? Why the setbacks and mal treatment?

Charles: I blame Saw to a certain extent. I personally hate the franchise but every Halloween season it brings in about $150 million during its theatrical run to its distributor, Lionsgate Films. I have to imagine that this movie was approved around 06 or so when Saw was only on its third sequel. Someone at Warner Brothers has to have felt like there was still room for a contender at the time. But year after year, the grimy Saw franchise has locked down the Halloween season ,with only a minor diminishment in financial returns.

Given that that the movie we're discussing today is a seasonal horror movie without brand recognition, you can either release it and hope for the best or sit on it and hope that the Lionsgate guys screw up somehow and clear the way for you. It's not like this is Rob Zombie's Halloween which can be launched in August and survive on name recognition – by virtue of being the newcomer ,the main thing this movie had going for it was that it was set during Halloween.

It felt like a weird case of defensive releasing which ultimately killed it - which is a shame, because again, I think this is a solid piece of horror holiday filmmaking murdered by indecision. Interestingly, the movie hovers at 93% on Rotten Tomatoes (out of only 15 reviews, but still) and I know when you were trying to get hold of a copy for this review it was tough to come by. So there is an audience for this movie and it looks like they'll just be discovering it on DVD.

I wouldn't be surprised if it got a second life as a franchised DTDVD series.

Matt: We'd like to close out this review with a reminder to everyone of what Halloween is really all about: sitting on your couch for hours on end and watching violent, scary movies that your mother would never approve of. Enjoy.

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