Monday, February 15, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Trick 'r' Treat (2008)

America has always been a melting pot. Our population includes many nationalities, not to mention a host of diverse belief systems.

...Even werewolves...?

In some weird but extremely substantive way, that unique concept helps form the psychic and visual gestalt of Michael Dougherty's impressive Trick 'r' Treat (2008), a Halloween-themed horror movie (which means that I'm either eight months early or four months late with this particular post...).

Trick 'r' Treat is set on a modern Halloween night in the small, affluent town of Warren Valley in Ohio. This is an unusual burg that appears to live and die by the old-fashioned rules of "trick or treating;" as though everyone who settled in this community boasts both a belief and working knowledge of that pagan holiday.

In short order, for instance, we are informed that "there are rules" to be obeyed on this night. And also that this particular holiday is about "respecting the dead" because the dead "roam free...and pay us a visit." The movie also informs us that the rituals of Halloween actually pre-date Christianity, the predominant religion in our country. (In other words, don't believe it when grand-standers say we were founded as a Christian nation. The Founders were deists. Or lycanthropes. I forget...)

The upshot of all this: the "faithful" human citizens of Warren Valley should know (at least for the most part...) not to snuff out jack-o-lanterns till Halloween night is over. And they should keep a stash of candy at the ready to offer the visiting dead since this is the one night of the year when "the barrier between the living and the dead is the thinnest."

So if the Dutch colonized upper New York State, then perhaps Halloween-worshipping pagans settled Warren Valley (named after Famous Monsters of Filmland's James Warren?) Accordingly, the dead, the undead, the ghoulish and the monstrous sojourn to this town during this "magical night" to partake of the local celebration...and worship. These creatures are the deities -- the Gods using us for their sport -- in this unique slice of America.

And it is America and Americana we see on display here in Warren Valley, have no doubt. The entrancing, beautifully-filmed Trick 'r' Treat is shot to purposefully resemble the idealistic, sentimentalized work of painter Norman Rockwell (1894-1978). According to scholar Scott Eyman, Rockwell "concentrated on evergreen moments that transcend historical periods and changing times — homecomings, dinners, ritual greetings and leave-takings, communal optimism and support. There is joy and there is sadness, but there is never grief."

That description fits to a tee, the visualization of picturesque, lovely Warren Valley in Trick 'r' Treat. It's a world of white picket fences, arts-and-craft bungalows, classic automobiles, town parades, families in (ghoulish) celebration and so on. And yet -- cannily -- the movie balances the Rockwell-esque surface values of religious Warren Valley with the brutal, violent, cruel Underneath of those who actually populate it. One possible way to interpret this duality is as an indictment of religion in general; the belief that below the comforting platitudes and "traditional values" of American religion lurks dysfunction, pain, brutality, exploitation and greed.

Again and again, Trick 'r' Treat asks the viewer to contemplate both the surface and underneath qualities of a character, location or thing. On the surface, Laurie (Anna Paquin) is an innocent, virginal girl; underneath she is a prowling werewolf. On the surface, Steven (Dylan Baker) is the respectable principal of the local high school; underneath he is a serial killer and child murderer. On the surface, Mr. Kreeg (Brian Cox) lives in a beautiful, well-kept house on a nice street, but inside the house, the decor is as chaotic as his disturbed mental state: ruined and in tatters.

On and on it goes: a monster called Sam is mistaken for a child because of his diminutive size...but he is a virtually immortal creature; a little girl named Macy houses the soul not of an innocent child, but a brutal tormentor. Even a story about costumed, mentally-retarded children riding a bus to school on Halloween turns into an indictment of merciless adults. This movie doles out trick after trick in defining the dual nature of residents and monsters in Warren Valley.

The point here, I suppose, is that Warren Valley represents the United States in microcosm. Our culture in America (and especially our religious culture) wears a "mask" that hides its true nature. Under the cloak of propriety, decency and spirituality, there is also poverty, judgment, hypocrisy, theft, abuse, and more. The only notable difference is that in the (fictional) Warren Valley of Trick 'r' Treat, the Gods of the believers descend (or ascend...) to Earth and brutally punish the wicked. Accordingly, many of the human characters in the film are vicious, murdering, lying bastards...and the Gods of Halloween punish them for their trespasses. It's the old EC Comics formula of "cosmic scales of justice righted," writ large, but played as modern social commentary thanks to the ubiquitous presence of the Rockwell-ian surfaces.

Although the comic-book opening credits of Trick 'r' Treat connect us to the familiar format of the horror anthology, like Creepshow (1981) or Tales from the Crypt (1972), Dougherty's 2008 film has even been structured as a melting pot of sorts. All the stories are blended together, and the overall chronology of the night is shuffled. In other words, the stories are not separated by discreet beginnings or endings, but sort of roll seamlessly into each other, going backwards and forwards in time, in order to forge this sense of contemporaneous happenings...the rituals and rites of Halloween happening simultaneously across this small town where the holiday is of such importance.

For me, the story that worked best in Trick 'r' Treat involves Cox, his dog Spite, and their nocturnal visitor, Sam, a truly creepy (yet oddly child-like...) creature bent on getting either a trick (meaning death) or treat. This story is particularly scary and surprising, whereas some of the earlier material, especially Dylan Baker's tale, are effective but not overtly terrifying. Baker's vignette, however, features one of the best on-screen vomiting moments since Stand by Me (1986) or at least Team America: World Police (2004).

Trick 'r' Treat is mesmerizing. Doughtery has directed a beautifully-designed and exquisitely executed film. It is also breathtaking in its epic sense of human cruelty, brutality and ugliness. Even when dealing with children. But that's likely the point. This highly-religious community, Warren Valley, isn't prepared to be judged by the draconian edicts of its own stated belief system.

And that's a statement that also goes for a lot of real people dwelling in more mainstream faiths than Halloween worship. People don't always practice what they preach. In Warren Valley, that's a mortal sin.

3 comments:

  1. I love this film and it deserves to become an annual staple on Halloween. It does the rare thing of being intelligently written, thought out and still scary and gory. It has all the major food groups for a horror film. I also enjoyed how all of the various storylines and characters were intertwined, not in a cutesy, "look how clever I am" way but one that made sense within the context of the film.

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  2. I very much enjoyed this as well JD. It had gotten a lot of positive press in the horror community so I was a bit concerned about it being over-hyped (Paranormal Activity). But in the end even though I didn't love the whole, I loved enough parts to love the movie. The only part the didn't work for me is the werewolf story, and more specifically the end of it. SPOILERS!!!

    I didn't mind the twist of it being her. That was great. But, once that was revealed, the camera should have pulled back, you hear a howl and some screams...onto the next story. Instead they go into this lengthy transformation sequence with Marilyn Manson playing and naked bloody women, it didn't seem to fit into this movie I had been watching until that point. Again it wasn't enough to ruin the movie, just the part that didn't work for it.

    I think the story with the kids was the most effective for me. He nailed the mood and atmosphere of how I viewed Halloween at that age. I love local legends and their quest to find the location it happened. The prank. All of it.

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  3. I was told, incorrectly it seems, that this would be a Halloween franchise. That a new film would come out every year around that time, much like "Saw" did, and now "Paranormal Activity" does. I was looking forward to new installments, but it appears that was not the case.

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