“An’ little Orphant Annie says when the blaze is blue,
An’ the lamp-wick sputters, an’ the wind goes woo-oo!
An’ you hear the crickets quit, an’ the moon is gray,
An’ the lightnin’-bugs in dew is all squenched away,–
You better mind yer parents, an’ yer teachers fond an’ dear,
An’ churish them ‘at loves you, an’ dry the orphant’s tear,
An’ he’p the pore an’ needy ones ‘at clusters all about,
Er the Gobble-uns’ll git you
“Little Orphant Annie” James Whitcomb Riley*
When it comes to Halloween, ambiance is absolutely everything. It’s the crackle of dying leaves as you walk outside through the night air that has a bite of crispness to it. It’s the monster masks and shrouded figures of all shapes and sizes, and that tangible creep of something you may not know yet….but it may want to know you. It’s that blend of otherworldly beauty, sinister purpose, and heavy shadows that makes Halloween one of the greatest holidays bar none. What other day can give you mystery, magic, plastic bats, skull candy, and pumpkins galore?
Halloween has often been the gooey, crunchy center within the sweetly bitter chocolate shell of horror. Everything from old radio shows like Lights Out and Inner Sanctum Mystery to the near endless titles of dark literature and cinema can help stoke the fires of your own personal Hallows Eve atmosphere. Genre anthology films can be a fantastic way to set the mood, including titles like Tales of Terror (1962), The Vault of Horror (1974), Creepshow (1982) and Tales of Halloween (2015). Now, if you love anthology films that blend in some vintage Halloween aesthetics (think Dennison’s Bogie Books from the early 1900’s) with modern day horror that ranges from some all-too-human monsters to creatures who are more supernatural, then you will you more than likely glory in Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat (2007.)
Anthologies are a horror staple, both for cinema and especially literature, but they can be really dicey when it comes to wholesale quality. Even some of the better ones still have the Whitman Sampler effect. Some of the candies are primo but then you bite into that one…..that one, whose mystery goo is rich with sugar and bitter disappointment. In short, most anthologies are highly prone to being a bit uneven, which is why when you find one that is near seamless, with every block on the quilt equal in terms of color, craft, and skill, it’s a special thing. Luckily, that is the true blue case with Trick ‘r Treat.
The film is comprised of five singular stories, with segments often intertwining with each other. Lead characters that are featured in one story can often be seen in the background during another and vice versa. This is less wink wink and more of a slice of life when you live in small town Anywhere, America. The characters we see unfolded throughout include a married couple that playfully debate on whether or not to take down their decorations after the trick or treaters have long gone, a high school principal with a deep respect for tradition combo’ed with some extremely non-traditional parenting, a young woman being pushed into coming of age by her older sister and her friends, a ragtag group of pranking children who take it a bit too far, a masked, fanged killer on the loose, and in the middle of it all, a mysterious little child named Sam who is dressed in orange and sporting a jack-o-lantern style cloth doll type mask.
While we are treated to a buffet of horror chestnuts such as revenants, lycanthropy, old-fashioned murder, and even a vampiric-styled killer (though not an actual vampire, which would have been quite groovy…you can have anything, but you can’t have everything), the real fetid horror heart at hand here is nestled in secrets. Small communities have always been terrifying to me, especially when compared to their larger and more layered big city siblings. In an urban environment, you tend to mentally prepare yourself to be more on the lookout and guarded. Small town America is still considered by many to be like safe-as-milk Mayberry, where everybody knows everybody. (Like that is ever a good thing.) However, still waters can run extremely deep and the familiar faces will mask dark enigmas. The stories of Trick ‘r Treat possess this narrative chiaroscuro so sweetly, with every frame revealing something that may not be expected but yet ties into everything else so well.
Trick ‘r Treat also features a great cast with character-actor-uber-extraordinaire, Dylan Baker being the king standout as Principal Steven Wilkins. This is a character that is prominent enough to appear in two of the main segments and one of the smaller ones because when you have a guy like Dylan Baker on deck, you know which side of the bread your butter is on. Baker’s resume includes some great turns in, well, everything he has graced, but some notable turns include Todd Solondz’s Happiness (1998) and the horror-comedy, Fido (2006). His Principal Wilkins is one part white-collared-shirt square with a black sense of humor and inclinations that are one-part eros and all-parts terrifying. You can’t take your eyes off the man and because of that, the strongest scenes in the film are any and all featuring Wilkins. Baker here is the ultimate fabulous creep who makes you want to know more and more about him, even if it makes you uneasy.
Anna Paquin is really good as Laurie, pulling off a mix of self-conscious late bloomer and burgeoning assertive woman. When she gets teased and lovingly pressured by her older sister, Danielle (Lauren Lee Smith), you sympathize with her while still wondering what in the blazes exactly is going on here. (Which is, of course, par for the course for good horror.) The legendary Brian Cox rounds out the main cast, playing Mr. Kreeg, a cranky old man whose heart seems to be fueled by tar, liquor, decades of soul damage, and a disdain for the most sacred of all holidays that involve celebrating the dead and carving up magnificent produce. Cox is an acting titan and is typically solid-as-hell here, though, given the talent of the man, it would be nice to see Kreeg fleshed out a little more as a character. He is given the least to do when compared to Paquin and Baker. This is the original Hannibal Lecter we’re talking about, here. (Go ahead and take a quick break to light a candle on your Manhunter shrine. I know I will!)
All of the younger cast members are equally good. No super strong standouts but all of whom are tight in their requisite roles. However, the absolute real star of Trick ‘r Treat is the visual combination of cinematography and set design. This is a gorgeous film that has lots of obvious Hallows Eve love flowing throughout. Pumpkins and jack-o-lanterns are copiously and thoughtfully placed everywhere, while almost all of the town denizens are dressed in a wild assortment of costumes. I can’t imagine a real-life small town in America being so massively committed to such celebrations, though if it exists, I need to know its location ASAP. No namby-pamby “Harvest” or “Fall” functions here. This is Halloween, motherfuckers, and we are here to get our spook ON! This is the message and it is glorious. Plus, side note, calling something a “Harvest celebration” sounds way more littered with potential human sacrifice than the word “Halloween.”
Cinematographer Glen MacPherson, set designer Rose Marie McSherry, and art directors Fabian Jonathan and Tony Wohlgemuth, have a lot to be proud of here. It is their hard work coupled with director/writer Michael Dougherty’s vision that has made Trick ‘r Treat one of the strongest and most heart-felt valentines to not only Halloween but to the horror genre as a whole. It’s not a cup of weak-tea with the same old boring muted colors, predictable jump-edits, and wanking with the hand you sat on until it went numb predictable ooky-spooky pap. It’s fresh, fun, and one of the best modern-day films to throw on while you’re carving your own pumpkin and plotting on how you’re going to better up your eerie costume game this year. When you clean up and get ready to place your newly lit pumpkin outside, listen for any leaves rustling as the sky has grown more and more dim. But don’t go investigate it, because you never know what you may find.
*“Little Orphant Annie.” Poets.org, 27 July 2015,