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A murderous principal, werewolves, a school bus massacre, a demonic pumpkin creature. In lesser hands, these elements combined might signal an overly ambitious, convoluted mess jammed into a tight 82 minutes. Luckily, Trick ’r Treat is quite the opposite: a bold anthology of Halloween tales stitched together like patchwork on a quilt, written and directed by the very capable Michael Dougherty (Krampus). In fact, Dougherty’s cleverly crafted Frankenstein-esque film should be at the top of every seasonal watch list; it’s a Halloween perennial that refuses to stay dead. Here’s why.

Originally set to hit theaters in October 2007, Warner Bros. inexplicably pulled the film from its schedule, despite a young, recognizable cast and seasonal allure. It was rumored to be bumped to the following October, but ended up settling with a straight-to-DVD release in 2009. For whatever reason, the studio’s lack of confidence and treatment of the film stunted what should have been a mainstream sleeper hit from an up-and-coming director looking to make a splash. What a mistake that was.

In the film, Dougherty paints four very different pictures all set in a single Halloween night. We witness a principal killing a student with poisoned candy and burying the body in his backyard. We watch a youthful prank gone wrong as the zombified bodies of murdered school children come back to seek revenge. We attend a terrifying surprise party in the woods where a huge twist throws the story’s true evil into question. And lastly, there’s the old neighborhood curmudgeon, more intent on scaring children and stealing their candy, who gets his comeuppance when a terrifying, semi-adorable demon in orange footie pajamas arrives to wreak havoc on the man’s night.

Each story is enthralling on its own, but the connective tissue between them is the secret sauce. While Dougherty’s movie does work as an anthology (if you want to call it that), it succeeds as a singular narrative as well. Dougherty establishes a chronology by strategically placing characters from other stories in the background, placing us in one town on one night, amplifying the action and creating a bigger picture. Weighing heavier than mere cameos, these crossovers play huge roles, serving as a wowing twist or a catalyst for a big payoff. I don’t want to spoil the magic for those who haven’t seen it by elaborating, but the way the stories meld together prove to be far more important than say, bingeing a few Tales from the Crypt episodes back to back.

Also tying the world together is that lil orange fella that lurks in every story. His name is Sam. He’s a short, Pumpkinhead-lite creature that pops up every time a Halloween tradition is broken. In addition to his rockin’ footie pajamas, Sam sports a loosely stitched burlap sack over his head with buttons for eyes. His weapon of choice: a half-eaten jack-o’-lantern lollipop that he uses to stab and slice. His movements are childlike in nature and he even likes chocolate, a true stickler for the holiday! He’s equal parts creepy and cute, the harbinger and protector of the Halloween spirit. He may look like your regular trick-or-treater, but if you dis Sam’s favorite day, you’re going to find yourself on the wrong end of his orange sucker.

Visually, the film lauds the season as loudly and proudly as the beloved Hocus Pocus. It’s well-lit, displaying a beautiful fall color scheme with splashes of orange coating almost every shot. The set design is everything you want in a Halloween film: dark, smoky, ominous, and playful… like a Simpsons Treehouse of Horror episode come to life. The costumes and props are all aces, especially Emma and Henry’s house decorations in the opening scene. The score, composed and produced by Douglas Pipes, perfectly complements the film’s visual effects, and when paired with such glee-inducing tales, Trick ’r Treat becomes the perfect horror trifecta.

Dougherty’s script exposes real monstrosity in humanity—a principal who can’t be trusted, a crooked bus driver willing to kill kids, a mysterious final girl with a secret to bare. Nothing is quite as it seems. While tropes are subverted in each story to catch us off guard, Trick ’r Treat maintains a light-hearted comic book tone, poking at viewers with a wicked smile. It retains and champions the genre, but never loses sight of the fun it’s having, and for viewers, that fun is contagious as hell.

It would’ve been thrilling to see Trick ’r Treat on the big screen and get caught up in the buzzy online anticipation that many theatrical releases experience. Despite its cult elements, I believe this one could’ve been destined for greater success had the studio not bet against originality and creativity. I’m torn between thinking the film has gotten enough of its due and also feeling that the studio played itself on this one. Regardless, Trick ’r Treat deserves the attention of any other Halloween classic in your queue. It’ll give your season some moody atmosphere and continue to deliver with every viewing.

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In case you missed it, check here to read our other special features that celebrate the Halloween season!

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