For the past week we partnered with FEARnet to celebrate Trick 'r Treat, one of the best anthology horror films of all time. FEARnet is showing Trick 'r Treat for 24 straight hours RIGHT NOW, making it the ideal choice to keep on when you’re entertaining trick or treaters, your costume party guests or the vengeful dead. The Trick ‘r Treat 24-Hour Marathon is running at this very moment!
Here’s a pretty dirty secret about John Carpenter’s Halloween: I don’t think it’s much of a Halloween movie. Don’t get me wrong - I think it’s a masterpiece. I love the film. But every time I watch it I am acutely aware that the Halloween setting is just dressing, that it doesn’t add that much to the actual movie itself. So while Halloween is a great movie - one of the greatest horror movies ever made! - it’s not the best Halloween movie ever. That title belongs to Trick ‘r Treat.
Michael Dougherty’s sly anthology film doesn’t just revel in the holiday, it’s completely informed by it. Each of the interlocking stories - four main ones with a slight wraparound - illustrate one element of Halloween, and how presiding over it all is a spirit of the night, a character intended to be for Halloween what Santa Claus is for Christmas and the Easter Bunny is for whatever that holiday is.
It’s strange that Halloween is so amorphous; it’s a collection of regional traditions without a governing character overseeing it all. In The Nightmare Before Christmas Santa Claus is kidnapped by the residents of Halloweentown, but the filmmakers had to invent somebody to run Halloweentown because there’s no comparable figure for Halloween. And while Jack Skellington is a great character, his whole thing is that he wants to be doing Christmas because he’s so bored of Halloween. He’s not exactly the shining beacon for the spookiest night of the year.
Sam is. Dougherty’s movie understands that Halloween, while co-opted by adults (see the weird sex party in the film) is really a kid’s holiday, and so he makes his holiday mascot child-sized. Trick ‘r Treat is also interested in the ancient origins of Halloween; unlike other major holidays this one wasn’t invented by greeting card companies, and the film again and again reminds us that the traditions of the night have pagan origins going back thousands of years. Sam - short for Samhain, the original pagan name for the festival that began at sundown on October 31st and ended at dawn on November 1st - protects those traditions.
Trick ‘r Treat establishes a quartet of holiday rules, and illustrates the danger of breaking them. Always check your candy. Always wear a costume. Never blow out of a jack o’ lantern. Always give out treats. Each of the film’s interlocking, interweaving tales shows us those who break these rules, and the terrible prices they must pay. This makes Halloween more than a backdrop for the film - in many ways it’s the lead character.
Dougherty squeezes in a lot of aspects of Halloween, from the spooky and strange - kids telling stories about the spirits of the dead - to the modern and maybe annoying - slutty costumes and drunken parades - while always honoring the way that Halloween makes us feel. It’s a night where anything is possible, where our costumes don’t hide us but allow us to become more ourselves. It’s a night where excess isn’t just permitted, it’s ordained. But most of all it’s a night where we’re closest to the morbid and the weird, where the walls between our world and the next are thin and where we do a little dance with our own mortality. Yes, many costumes riff on superheroes or pop stars, but the real spirit of Halloween is skeletons and witches, werewolves and killers.
No other movie comes as close to being soaked in the spirit of Halloween as Trick ‘r Treat. The only other film I can think of is actually in the Halloween franchise, the much maligned odd-man-out movie Halloween III: Season of the Witch. That film was an attempt to turn the Halloween franchise into a series of unrelated anthology films based around the holiday, and Halloween III gets deep into the pagan aspects of Samhain, as well as addressing some of the sensationalist brouhaha that goes around every year (instead of poison candy it’s masks that kills you!). But even that underrated movie skims the surface of Halloween; Trick ‘r Treat is smack dab in the middle of it.
I’ve never watched a movie that better captures the joy of being 11 and going door to door, or the excitement of seeing your neighborhood transformed into a place haunted by creeps and ghouls. I mentioned it earlier, but it bears repeating: what makes Trick ‘r Treat the ultimate Halloween movie is the way it profoundly understands what this holiday means to kids, and the way it brings you back to that mindset, fingers dark with chocolate and mind filled with scary stories, laughing outwardly - because it’s just fun and it’s just Halloween and everybody’s only playing around - but feeling the hairs on the back of your neck standing up and knowing that tonight you’re going to sleep with the light in your closet turned brightly on.