Over the course of the two years that it sat on the shelf following a planned-but-aborted fall 2007 theatrical release, the Halloween-themed anthology film Trick ‘R Treat was embraced by genre fans who caught it at festivals and other special screenings starting that December. I think I can see what captured their sick little hearts — in an era when the state-of-the-art in popular horror films is split between the practiced cruelty and borderline hostility of neo-gore exercises like the Saw and Hostel franchises and the incidental soullessness of Friday the 13th and Last House on the Left remakes, this film, in its straightforward, low-concept fright-mongering, feels downright fresh. In fact, except for a couple of gratuitous tit shots, Trick ‘R Treat is earnest, uncynical, and nearly wholesome. What it’s not — and it pains me to say this — is very much good.
Writer/director Michael Dougherty has cooked up some interesting ideas, scripting a series of mildly spooky episodes that riff on scary-story traditions. But he doesn’t conjure a sufficiently threatening atmosphere, or use evocative visuals to make the tales cohere on style alone. The character design for the film’s signature monster (he’s known to fans as Sam), a sack-headed boy whose visage is briefly revealed in the final episode, is nicely unnerving in its own right, but he doesn’t get the kind of showcase that could make him the Halloween perennial his creators were clearly hoping for. (His grisly presence on the front of the Blu-ray box makes a bigger impression than his appearance on screen.)
Of the film’s myriad bit performances, only Dylan Baker’s take on a neighborhood father and school principal with a very bad attitude is particularly interesting. That story, which opens the film following an especially lame prologue, is the sickest yarn on offer here, and also the one that, with its lack of reverence for the sanctity of childhood, comes closest to being genuinely disturbing. But it’s all downhill from there, with neither the school-bus zombies, the sexy werewolves, nor ferocious Sam himself worth much more than a shrug.
The Blu-ray Disc release from Warner Home Video looks and sounds great. The included deleted scenes are basically extended versions of some of the movie’s talkier bits, so it was probably a good idea to let them go. There’s also an audio commentary (which I didn’t listen to), which is apparently exclusive to the BD release; a ho-hum before-and-after-VFX piece; a Halloween-themed behind-the-scenes documentary that tries to draw a connection between the history of the holiday and generic behind-the-scenes material; and the original animated short that introduced Sam’s character back in 1996.
As eerie anthology films go, you’re better off taking another look at George Romero’s deliberately campy Creepshow — which is not great, but gets elevated by some hilariously over-the-top performances and, perhaps especially for insect-phobic New York apartment-dwellers, one of the most repulsive scenes ever committed to film — or, better yet, the spooky British film Dead of Night, which ends where it begins and features Cavalcanti’s marvelous “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy.” (TCM is scheduled to televise it at 8 a.m. this Saturday, October 31. If you’ve not seen it, set your DVR.)