Michael Dougherty’s TRICK ‘R TREAT is more than simply a great horror movie (though that alone should have been enough to save it from having been shelved by Warner Brothers for 2 years). Beyond its well-crafted story, inspired performances and cleverly-executed direction, the film is also a loving tribute to both Halloween and a staple of horror cinema throughout the 20th century: the anthology film.
Though other genres have tackled the anthology to varying degrees of success, the anthology format has long been perfectly suited for horror. At the dawn of the previous century, there was the celebrated Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol. Parisian audiences taking in an unpleasant night at the theater would experience five or six short and brutally horrific plays per show, and success kept the blood flowing for 65 years. It made sense, then, that the emerging art form of cinema would take some cues from the Grand Guignol. The first anthology horror film popped up in 1919 with Germany’s UNCANNY STORIES, and filmmakers returned to the well again and again, resulting in classics like 1924’s WAXWORKS and 1945’s DEAD OF NIGHT.
It was during the 1960s and ‘70s that the genre really took off, however, thanks to the efforts of Great Britain’s Amicus Productions. Their series of anthology horror pictures began with DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1964) and continued through to THE MONSTER CLUB (1980). Frequently directed by British horror veterans Freddie Francis and Roy Ward Baker, and often written by American horror legend Robert Bloch, the movies were extremely successful on both sides of the pond and rivaled the popularity of Amicus’ chief competitor, Hammer Films (it helped that many of Hammer’s stars—including Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee—were featured in many of the films).
The emergence of the slasher genre as horror’s chief moneymaker shuffled the by-now quaint anthology film to the backburner in the 1980s. Few major studios took the risk on helming them, and as a result, those that emerged were often cash-strapped and threadbare productions with few real “stars” to pull in crowds. Sure, there were exceptions, such as the George Romero / Stephen King collaboration CREEPSHOW (1982) and Stephen King’s CAT’S EYE (1985), but by and large the anthology films that have emerged since the genre’s heyday have been either conceived or promoted as throwbacks rather than as part of a viable tradition.
And while you could say that TRICK ‘R TREAT does just that—present itself as a tribute—it also pushes forward by taking storytelling risks that are rare in the anthology genre itself. Rather than just presenting a handful of stories connected by a framing device (which is typically how these films are structured), Dougherty threads all of the stories together over the course of a single Halloween night. Characters cross paths continually and their stories intersect, while each story reveals details about events that have transpired elsewhere by presenting different perspectives.
The stories themselves are short and simple. A serial killing principal (Dylan Baker) just can’t get rid of a body. Pranks centering around a decades-old massacre turn on the pranksters. A party in the woods turns bloody. A curmudgeonly, Halloween-hating old man (Brian Cox) gets his comeuppance from Sam, the living embodiment of the spirit of Halloween. (Sam appears in each segment.) But it’s how the stories are fleshed out, and how they interact with each other, that takes the film to another level. It’s like the horror film equivalent of Robert Altman’s SHORT CUTS or Quentin Tarantino’s PULP FICTION. Just a hell of a lot more fun.
Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com