Friday, October 30, 2020

Peeping Tom: Trick 'r Treat (2009)

Michael Dougherty's Trick 'r Treat is a cult film that almost never was: Originally meant to be released in theaters during October 2007, the film's production company, Warner Bros, chickened out at the last minute and delayed the film until the following year...and then delayed it again until winter of 2009...and then finally dumped the film direct to DVD in October later that year, two years after its original planned release date and washed their hands of the film. However, after its actual release, the film quickly gained the attention of horror fans everywhere and, faster than usual, a cult following was born.

The question I have now is: How did this film that the studio apparently had no faith in to the point of shelving it for two years for an eventual direct to DVD release prove to be not only good, but good enough that it's got a big ol' cult following now and is a Halloween mainstay for many? The answer lies within a line of dialogue from the film itself: "Tonight is about respecting the dead." It's all about respect: The film's respect for the horror genre, its respect for its audience to live up to its title and give them both tricks and treats (hence the title), and its respect for the holiday of Halloween itself.

Academy Award Winner (TM) Anna Paquin welcomes you to this analysis

To begin with, Trick 'r Treat is literally filled to the brim with horror references, even down to the names of the characters themselves: Some of the characters featured take their names from horror iconography, such as Laurie (Laurie Strode), Billy (The killer from Black Christmas as well as Billy Loomis from Scream), "Peeping Tommy" (A side character that takes its name from the film this series of posts is named after, Peeping Tom), Janet (Janet Leigh, star of Psycho among other genre films), and arguably Steven Wilkins (Maaaybe after Stephen King, I'm gonna count since so much in this film is deliberate). Beyond names, we've got references baked into the film including the design, anthological story format and aesthetic that combines live action with comic book art being very clearly borrowing from Creepshow, which includes some art very clearly homaging the cult classic Halloween 3: Season of the Witch.

Characters of Trick 'r Treat and their namesakes

Cinematic Parallels: Trick 'r Treat & Creepshow

Trick 'r Treat taking from Halloween 3's poster

Speaking of Halloween, this movie is stuffed with references to the film franchise. Beyond Laurie and the Season of the Witch art, you have the red herring as well as the attack on Emma in the film's prologue. In addition, you have the character of Mr. Kreeg, who breathes in the same labored and deep way Michael Myers does in the first film and whose character design was apparently allegedly modeled after Halloween director John Carpenter.

Cinematic Parallels Part 2: Trick 'r Treat & Halloween

Judge for yourself: Mr. Kreeg and his visual inspiration, John Carpenter

Other horror films referenced in Trick 'r Treat include The Lost Boys with the use of the film's theme song during a scene, Psycho with the use of several shots akin to Norman's spying with the peephole in Marion's room. The Changeling's infamous red ball down the staircase scene, only with much candy replacing the famous prop. A quick nod to I Know What You Did Last Summer occurs during a transitional scene featuring the film's "vampire" attacking his first victim of the night. Trilogy of Terror and the famous "Halloween Candy" episode of Tales from the Darkside are borrowed from for Mr. Kreeg's story, as are moments from Pet Sematary and The Thing. We also get a couple of quick nods to House on Haunted Hill and the iconic Scooby Doo on Zombie Island as we see them on TV briefly.

More Cinematic Parallels: Trick 'r Treat with Psycho, I Know What You Did Last Summer & Pet Sematary respectively

In addition to having a banquet of horror references, Trick 'r Treat also displays a genuine fondness for its intended audience and a desire to give them exactly what they came for, and then some. The basic concept of the movie displays this alone: The film follows four seperate stories (five, if you include the prologue) that all take place on Halloween. The premise of multiple stories with a common element is given as a treat to the audience, but then you get the trick in the form of the added bonus that all the stories take place in the same town on the same Halloween night. Which practically begs for multiple viewings in order to piece together the exact chronology of the stories. Something that is aided by characters from the segments appearing in varying roles in multiple segments, as well as certain key scenes in certain segments being repeated or referenced again in others.

Characters recurring through the segments

The stories themselves have the same conceit built into them: Many story beats seem to lead up to something familiar, only to diverge from potential expectations. In Steven's story, we're shown that he's a child murderer and this, combined with the annoyance of his son, leads us to believe he's going to snap and murder the kid. Nope, instead you get the heartwarming conclusion with the father and son carving the head of Steven's latest victim Charlie. This also occurs with the kid story: Those tuning in, especially nowadays, may expect a Stranger Things-type story where Rhonda ends up becoming fire forged friends with Macy, Schrader and the other kids as they learn the urban legend revolving around the accidental deaths of disabled children is a true story. Nope, instead Rhonda leaves them all to die as she saves herself by ditching them on the elevator. The Mr. Kreeg vs. Sam story is set up in a fashion that seems like the old man is set up for a nasty death at the hands of Sam, but then it's revealed Sam just wants him to follow "the rules" of Halloween (more on those later) and Kreeg is spared. The greatest example of this, however, has to be Laurie's story, however: The film repeatedly emphasizes her "first time" and the audience is led to believe it's her finding her first lover, instead those prior mentions of werewolves gets paid off with the reveal that Laurie is part of a coven of werewolves and it's Laurie's first kill tonight.

The much welcome subversions in the segments of Trick 'r Treat

This intention of the narrative itself to treat and trick its audience, leads to the final aspect of the respect the film has: For the holiday of Halloween itself. The film lays out its "rules" of Halloween very clearly throughout. And, of course, each one gets broken by different characters throughout the film:

1.) Never Blow Out a Jack-O'-Lantern

2.) Always Check Your Candy

3.) Always Give Out Candy

4.) Always Wear a Costume

These rules set the ground for the upheld traditionalism and gratefulness Trick 'r Treat has for the holiday. So many holiday-related items are motifs throughout the film, such as the recurring presence of candy, on display with the demise of Charlie, the bus driver giving the disabled kids candy as a last act of mercy, and Mr. Kreeg's rule breaking of number three leading to the entire segment occurring. The costumes are also a major motif as almost every single character wears a costume throughout the night, with the exceptions of Charlie and Mr. Kreeg, something that probably contributes to the ultimate fates of those two. But everybody else wears a costume and, refreshingly, there's only one or two that are pop culture references. Dougherty and the crew smartly decided to make most of the costumes older references or generic things to give the film an even more timeless feel to it.

Examples of the great costumes featured in Trick 'r Treat

The color orange is also extremely persistent throughout the film, present in most scenes whether it be through decorations, costumes, flames, or candy. The highpoint of the use of the color orange comes from the flashbacks detailing the urban legend of the disabled children on the bus, with the entire sequence being told in an absolutely stunning orange-tinted sepia tone that evokes feelings of the past and of autumn and the holiday itself.

An ode to the use of orange in Trick 'r Treat

And then there's Sam: The adorable little ragamuffin that is the film's ultimate embodiment of the holiday. Sam's purpose in the story is to serve as a sort of watchdog, ensuring that all of the characters are abiding by the rules. We get glimpses of him in the first three stories as he checks to make sure the rules aren't broken, which they aren't by Steven, Rhonda and Laurie and her group. But when he confronts Kreeg, that's when we get to see Sam in action as he enforces the rules with force. His design incorporates a simple costume of orange pajamas and a burlap mask modeled after a jack-o'-lantern, concealing his true face, which is an odd combination of a skull and a jack-o'-lantern. He is the embodiment of everything the film is trying to go for in terms of its mission of respect, which is probably why he's entered horror iconography more so than anything else from the point.

Quinn Lord as Sam, the centerpiece of Trick 'r Treat

To reiterate: Despite the attempt by its production studio at burying it, Trick 'r Treat has been embraced with open arms by horror fans and gained a big cult following over the years. This is large due to, upon analysis, the spotting of the film displaying respect in three different ways: Respect for its film genre, respect for its audience to live up to its title and give them what they want and even more, and respect for the holiday of Halloween itself through its meticulous craft. All of this allowed the film to transcend direct to video schlock and become an iconic part of the Halloween holiday, and a tradition for many fans and many more to come.

Mrs. Henderson thanks you for your time with some alcohol in place of Halloween candy

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