Today marks the 10 year anniversary of writer/director Michael Dougherty’s cinematic celebration of Samhain, Trick ‘r Treat, but if the film was released when it was originally intended it would actually be 12 years old. That’s because after a two-year delay where it was shown at a number of festivals, the film was quietly released on DVD by Warner Home Video. Since then, the movie has achieved cult status and has become required October viewing for a number of horror fans. It’s mascot, the burlap masked Sam, has been immortalized in plastic via a number of toys, and in 2017 there was even a Trick ‘r Treat inspired “Scare Zone” at Universal Orlando’s annual Halloween Horror Nights celebration.
So, how did an anthology film, without any major A-List stars, that was delayed by two years, and then given a direct to video release go on to become so popular and successful? Part of the answer is the iconic nature of Sam. The other is the film is just so entertaining and well done! One of its best elements is its setting, the seemingly idyllic small town of Warren Valley, Ohio.
“[…] Michael Dougherty gives us a vision of what we know our hometowns to be on Halloween, what we wished they could become, and what we secretly fear they are.”
The different stories in Trick ‘r Treat didn’t have to take place in the same location. They all had connective tissue in the form of Sam who appears in each one, but making the stories interconnected and setting them in a perfectly realized town elevates the film into something truly special. Halloween in Warren Valley feels both very familiar and lavish. In the film, Michael Dougherty gives us a vision of what we know our hometowns to be on Halloween, what we wished they could become, and what we secretly fear they are.
The familiar comes in the form of the many suburban homes like the lavishly decorated house of Henry (Tahmoh Penikett) and Emma (Leslie Bibb), who, in the film’s prologue, breaks Sam‘s rule about keeping jack-o’-lantern’s lit and is fatally punished for it. We also see more decorated houses as the film sets up the story of Macy, Schrader, Sara, Chip, and Rhonda‘s encounter with the ghosts of the school bus massacre.
I wish my town had locales as amazing looking and as atmospheric as Warren Valley’s downtown Halloween parade, Rhonda‘s front lawn of carved and lit jack-‘o-lanterns, the jack-o’-lantern lit walking path on the way to the werewolves’ party at the Sheep’s Meadow, and the fog-shrouded, abandoned quarry. All of those locales are beautifully shot by cinematographer Glen MacPherson and add so much to the mood and color palette of the film.
There’s also a sense of darkness to these places. At one point, the camera takes us into a back alley during the downtown Halloween parade to witness what looks to be a tawdry liaison that quickly turns deadly. The rock quarry is the source of a number of gruesome town legends and home to some very hungry ghosts. And the path to the Sheep’s Meadow is where Anna Paquin’s Laurie turns the tables on her stalker who, in a fun twist, is later revealed to be Dylan Baker’s Principal Steven Wilkins from an earlier story.
“[…] Halloween night is a time when the dead can come back into our world and if we’re not careful they’ll drag us back with them to their shadowy nether realms.”
That dichotomy of wonder and horror in those places is the perfect metaphor for Halloween. It’s a celebration full of pageantry and fun, but it’s firmly rooted in death. There’s this idea that Halloween night is a time when the dead can come back into our world and if we’re not careful they’ll drag us back with them to their shadowy nether realms. So customs and rules have been developed to keep us alive and safe from supernatural forces like Sam and more earthly predators like Steven Wilkins.
Charlie, a pumpkin smashing and candy stealing kid, falls prey to Wilkins in a scene that perfectly captures the secret fears of a kid growing up in the suburbs. He does that by forgetting to check his candy. Growing up in the ’80s, I remember my parents’ vigilance in checking candies, and I also remember my peers swapping unfounded urban legends about stories of kids losing their tongues and lives from treats laced with razor blades and poisons. The Wilkins story also expertly and hilariously depicts another suburban fear; that your neighbor is secretly a monster.
The monster living among us is also an element in the story of Wilkins’ next door neighbor, Mr. Kreeg (Brian Cox). His story though is shrouded in another suburban myth; the creepy old hermit. Kreeg‘s home, which is the battleground between him and Sam is another fascinating location. There’s a sense of timelessness to most of Warren Valley, but just about everything in Kreeg‘s house feels old and out of date. It’s a great metaphor for his separation and alienation from the rest of the town.
Kreeg wins his battle with Sam almost by accident, and we’re given “A Christmas Carol” style scene that suggests the misanthrope has now taken Halloween into his heart. If you’ve been paying attention though you know Kreeg‘s redemption is not so easily won, and the final shot of the ghosts from the bus massacre on his doorstep is no surprise. That’s because the film had been dropping subtle hints all along that Kreeg was the man responsible for those kids’ deaths.
“[Warren Valley] takes these disparate stories and weaves them together into one tale about the dark and secret heart of small, suburban town.”
So, ultimately what elevates Trick ‘r Treat is the connective tissue of Warren Valley. It takes these disparate stories and weaves them together into one tale about the dark and secret heart of small, suburban town. You see that in one of the final shots of the film where Rhonda is wheeling her cart of jack-‘o-lanterns home, the werewolves are driving away from a successful party, and Sam is on the street observing a bickering Emma and Henry. He’s armed with the jagged lollipop that we saw him get in the Kreeg story and use to dispatch Emma in the film’s prologue. That shot turns the film into an ouroboros because the ending feeds into the beginning.
Halloween may be over, but Trick ‘r Treat is about the effect one magical (and delightfully macabre) evening can have on a small town. A lot of Christmas movies have that same formula. So, technically Trick ‘r Treat is still in season. Why not celebrate its 10th anniversary and take another walk down the wondrous and haunted streets of Warren Valley?