Review Date: November 6, 2009
Released by: Warner Brothers
Release date: 10/6/2009
Region A, HDTV
Codec: VC1, 1080p
Widescreen 2.40:1 | 16x9: Yes
Halloween. Just mention the day and watch a horror fans eyes light up and see his or her mouth curl into a smile. Whether it’s fond memories of trick or treating in days past or anticipation of getting together with friends to watch some classic favorites there’s no denying that Halloween stirs the blood of just about ever hardcore horror fan. Strangely enough, for a day synonymous with all things horrific, there are precious few horror films that really capitalize on the trappings of the holiday. There’s John Carpenter’s eponymous classic but that’s pretty much just a slasher film arbitrarily set on Halloween. There’s Charles Martin Smith’s 1986 Trick or Treat
but again any connection to the holiday is spurious. Halloween III: Season of the Witch
gives it a good try and manages to capture the flavor of the darkest night of the year despite its California setting. However, much of the (muddled) story is set indoors in a rather spare laboratory. When trying to think of truly Halloween themed horror films, it’s hard not to come up snake eyes. Michael Dougherty hopes to change all that with the aptly titled Trick ‘r Treat
. Is his horror anthology film a pillowcase brimming with theatre sized chocolate bars, or is it a bag full of toothbrushes and apples? Let’s knock on the door and see what we get.
Trick ‘r Treat
is an anthology of five short tales of horror all revolving around the traditions of Halloween, or their lack of observance. First we have Emma (Leslie Bibb
), a Halloween humbug that’s about to learn the hard way about the costly penalty for ignoring the traditions of Halloween. Next is the story of school principal, Mr. Wilkins (Dylan Baker
), who has some interesting extracurricular activities concerning late night gardening in his backyard. Now if only his neighbor Mr. Kreeg (Brian Cox
) didn’t keep interrupting him…Speaking of Mr. Kreeg, well, he is harboring a dark secret from his past. On Halloween night that secret is ready to come back and haunt him. Literally. Then there’s the tale of poor Laurie (Anna Paquin
) who can’t seem to find a date much to the derision of her sister (Lauren Lee Smith) and her friends (Moneca Delain
and Rochelle Aytes
). Searching for Mr. Right takes her into the heart of danger, but who or what is the danger? Finally there’s the tale of Rhonda (Samm Todd
), the school misfit who is about to learn firsthand a lesson in poetic justice. Presiding over all these tales is Sam (Quinn Lord
), the diminutive spirit of Halloween and enforcer of its rules and traditions.
There’s a lot to admire about Trick ‘r Treat
but ultimately the film never came together the way I’d hoped it would. It wasn’t bad by any means, just flawed and ultimately unsatisfying. Trick ‘r Treat
is a victim of its own ambitions. The film tries to balance too many tones before it’s even established one overriding tone. The opening shots strike a surprisingly canny balance between the creepy and whimsical but then spoil it by adding seamier elements. I’m not opposed to a little T & A when warranted (and even when not), but the porn clip in the opening sequence really seems to run against the grain of the tone that’s being established.
Trick ‘r Treat
was conceived as and intended to be a theatrical film and as such it boasts a more impressive cast than you’d expect from a direct to video feature. They do their best with fairly thin material, but I can’t help but wish their roles were a bit meatier. Brian Cox probably has the biggest and best role and like the consummate actor his jumps into it whole-heartedly. Most of the stories left me wanting more.
The stories really could have used some fleshing out. The reason the EC comics Trick ‘r Treat
is paying homage to work is that we’re always clear on the motives of the good and bad characters. They’re painted in strokes of black and white with little ambiguity. In Trick ‘r Treat
the stories are more concerned with getting to the punch, so much so that often times I was not sure why characters were doing what they were doing. Take the story of Rhonda for instance. In the story the town kids play a cruel prank on her. All fine and well, but why are they so intent on terrifying her, especially when one of them (Scrader, played by Jean-Luc Bilodeau
) seems to have a bit of a crush on her? The leader of the group of pranksters, Macy (Britt McKillip
), really seems to have it out for Rhonda. Why? It’s little details like that that would have really sold the story.
The film’s biggest liability, and it’s a near crippling one, is the structure of the story. Michael Dougherty employs, somewhat arbitrarily, a non-linear story structure. The four tales contained in Trick ‘r Treat
are interwoven and told in rough reverse chronological order. I’m not sure why this decision was made considering that, according to Dougherty himself, the film was conceived with a traditional story structure in mind. It shows, almost from minute one, that the film has been rejiggered and shoehorned into a structure it wasn’t intended to have. The stories are essentially old Halloween standbys; the nice neighbor who is up to some nastiness in his backyard, the virginal girl who seems to be walking into danger or is perhaps inviting it, the neighborhood bullies who get their comeuppance and the reclusive old man harboring a dark secret. These are not stories that would feel out of place in an EC comic book and anyone well versed in the genre will have heard them, or variations of them, a thousand times before. That’s really neither here nor there; I agree with Roger Ebert’s assertion that it’s not what a film’s about, but how it chooses to be about it. Execution elevates subject matter; a familiar story well told is always better than an original story that’s muddled in the telling. It’s a lot like a joke: in the right circumstances an old joke can bring the house down… as long as you don’t botch the punch line. What Dougherty does here is botch the punch line of each and every joke he tells. The first three stories are all three-beat stories: set up, execution, twist. If presented in that order, they would work. What we get, however, is twist, set up, set up, execution, set up…until the whole thing starts to collapse in on itself. It’s not hard to follow the stories but Dougherty either doesn’t trust his audience or doesn’t trust himself and his storytelling abilities. He adds “Earlier…” and “Later…” comic panels to clarify the time frame as if the intrusion of characters from other stories weren’t clues enough to the chronology. Moreover, it seems that the comic book framing device established in the beginning was added to facilitate the use of these panels and to literalize the EC homage. Again, this shows a lack of faith in the audience. I would be insulted if I weren’t so disappointed.
The sad thing is Trick ‘r Treat
had the potential to be pretty great. Whatever lapses in judgment Dougherty makes it’s clear he’s a natural born filmmaker. He has a great eye for composition, a talent for atmosphere and a refreshingly playful streak. Trick ‘r Treat
is one of those near misses that really breaks my heart to have to call on the carpet.
I may have reservations about the quality of the film itself, but I have none whatsoever about the presentation of the film. The video especially is a wonder to behold. This is a film that could have wreaked havoc and made the compressionist’s job a nightmare but in this case it looks like a lot of care and attention was put into the transfer. Nighttime blacks are rock solid. Flesh tones are spot on. Reds don’t bleed unless, of course, they’re supposed to. Small object detail is so good you can count the leaves clogging the gutters. Mist and steam never pixelate. I had a lot of nitpicks about the film itself but I really can’t find anything to complain about when it comes to the video.
The audio isn’t quite as stellar as the video but it’s still pretty damned close. The English Dolby Digital TrueHD track here is something special. The sound design was clearly meant to complement the visuals in evoking the atmosphere of Halloween, and it succeeds wonderfully. Dialogue is never unclear, even in the quieter scenes, and ambient sounds like the crunching of leaves under the feet of trick or treaters are crisp and clear. There’s not a lot of low end in the sound design, but there are some appropriately bass-y moments when it comes to “stinger” shocks. Douglas Pipes Elfman-esque score is well represented. Pay special attention to the parade scene; as the camera pans we’re enveloped in a three-dimensional sound field with character’s voices and ambient sounds clearly panning from channel to channel. Not absolutely perfect, but impressive nonetheless.
Luckily for fans of Trick ‘r Treat
Warner has bestowed this direct to video release with an extras package more befitting a high profile theatrical release.
First up we have a feature length audio commentary with director Michael Dougherty, concept artist Breehn Burns, storyboard artist Simeon Wilkins, and composer Douglas Pipes. It starts off tantalizing us by alluding to the fact that Trick ‘r Treat
was shelved for two years before being denied a theatrical release and relegated direct-to-video. Those hoping for a tell-all about the ordeal the film went through to get released will be sadly disappointed. Other than the occasional coy allusion it’s not really addressed at all. Most of the commentary strikes a good balance between nuts and bolts production tidbits and discussion the stories and the films’ development. Interestingly enough Michael Dougherty anticipates a lot of the criticisms I have of the film, although he never actually addresses them. Instead, he flippantly dismisses them out of hand.
Next up is the featurette The Lore and Legends of Halloween (27:25). Like the film itself this is only half satisfying. As the title suggests much of the documentary deals with the origins of Halloween and the traditions we associated with it today. That part was great but these clips are interspersed with the bland, canned press kit interviews that only tangentially relate to the subject matter. If they did nothing but cut out the interviews I would have liked this 100% more; you don’t need to sell me a movie I’m already watching.
Also included is a collection of Additional Scenes (16:54) with optional commentary by director Dougherty. Actually, they’re more like extended scenes and scene trims than full-on deleted scenes. There are a few good one-liners that were amusing but, even without the commentary, it’s pretty easy to see why these were trimmed.
A real treat is Michael Dougherty’s Season’s Greetings
Animated Short (3:51), the student film that was the genesis of the Sam character. Dougherty’s cheeky sense of humor is in full display here and in less than four minutes he shows wonderful command of tone and atmosphere. An optional commentary with the director is included and contains a surprising revelation about how the final frame was painted.
Lastly we have a School Bus FX Comparison (1:13). The digital effects in Trick ‘r Treat
are hardly revolutionary and this side-by-side has no context, especially for viewers not familiar with digital FX processes. A narration by one the FX artists would have really helped but at barely over a minute you can’t help but wonder why they bothered including this feature at all.
I’m not as sold on Trick ‘r Treat
as I would have liked to be, but I realize that I’m in the minority with my opinion. While I described its structure as a near fatal flaw, I must stress the “near” in that. Whatever its problems, Trick ‘r Treat
does manage to work more than it doesn’t, even if just barely. The strong cast gives it their all and is clearly having fun, and the stories are playful. The presentation here is above reproach and the extras, while not spectacular, are satisfying. You owe it to yourself to check out Trick ‘r Treat
on Blu-ray at least once. Give it a rent this holiday season.
*Because of the quality of the HD format, the clarity, resolution and color depth are inherently a major leap over DVD. Since any Blu-ray will naturally have better characteristics than DVDs, the rating is therefore only in comparison with other Blu-ray titles, rather than home video in general. So while a Blu-ray film may only get a C, it will likely be much better than a DVD with an A.
Movie - C+
Image Quality - A*
Sound - A-
Supplements - B
- Running Time - 1 hour 24 minutes
- Rated R
- 2 Discs (1 Blu-ray, 1 Digital Copy)
- Chapter Stops
- English Dolby TrueHD 7.1
- English Dolby Digital 5.1
- English subtitles
- French subtitles
- Spanish subtitles
- Commentary with Director Michael Dougherty
- Trick ‘r Treat: The Lore and Legends of Halloween featurette
- Additional Scenes
- “Season’s Greetings” short film
- School Bus FX Comparison