I’ll confess. I have a real mushy soft spot for Heavy Metal music. Back in the ‘80s, in my teen years, my buddy Nick and I would crank the latest from Kiss, Scorpions, Judas Priest, Cinderella, etc. And there’s something specifically about Metal tailored to teenagers – that heightened sense of drama we feel at that age, the hormonal urges, and the need to push back against ‘society’. (Right – but please give us our allowances to consume products, okay?)
But Metal also equated with power, which was aligned with evil, and before long, many parents came up with the notion that Metal was Satan’s music. (Is the PMRC still a thing? Brr.) Well, marketing is marketing, and few Metal bands fought the label (hell, some even embraced it). So it seemed the timing was right for that satanic safe haven, the Horror Film, to meet up with the music of the murderous and profane, Heavy Metal. And thus was born Trick or Treat (1986), a fun time capsule of a very specific period in pop culture.
Released a week before Halloween, Trick opened in fifth place at the box office, and sputtered to a final tally under $ 7 million. Critics were more forgiving, and it even garnered some mildly positive reviews for the performances and the music. Of course, this is one of those mysteries for the Movie Gods – why would a movie about a hugely popular sub genre of music belly flop harder than Ozzy jumping off the high board?
Before we delve into that, let’s scream a little ditty. Eddie (Marc Price – ‘Skippy’ from Family Ties) is an introverted metal head whose idol is Sammi Curr (Tony Fields – A Chorus Line), a typically coiffed, eyeliner laden rocker of the time, fighting on behalf of the outsiders, man. (The difference between ‘60s hippies CSN and Heavy Metal? Amplification and makeup.) Eddie is constantly picked on at school, his long hair and studded jean jacket seen as an affront to the preppie populace who rule the halls. He and his only friend Roger (Glen Morgan – yes, the same one who wrote several X-Files episodes and handled a couple Final Destinations) cling to each other with their love of hard music and a desire to survive high school. Of course Sammi is of no use for our story alive, so he’s dispatched in a hotel fire. Before long, Eddie receives a copy of Sammi’s final, unreleased album from local DJ Nuke, played by Gene Simmons with his usual dose of condescending smarm. Eddie takes the record home and finds subliminal messages in the music when he plays it backwards.
As Eddie digs deeper into the music, Sammi’s powers grow and he ends up helping Eddie extract revenge against his tormentors. Naturally, Sammi takes things too far (Metal is extreme, dude) and Eddie must try to shut down satanic Sammi before he kills everyone at the school’s Halloween bash. Will he stop him in time, or will Sammi be fully reborn so he can cash in on a lucrative reunion tour?
From ’83 to roughly ’88, Heavy Metal was incredibly popular with the mainstream public; artists such as the above mentioned (and many others) selling millions of albums apiece, and filling up stadiums worldwide. It was already on the wane when Nirvana popped up in ’91 and kicked Rock in the balls, forever leaving the high bouffants and lipstick lovers in the rearview mirror. Looking back, there was innocence and sense of pageantry (and sadly, a fair amount of misogyny) to this particular era of music; it was fun rebellion and no one got hurt.
And this is why Trick or Treat failed at the box office – it played it too safe. We were already in on the joke with the music as teenagers, but horror doesn’t wash with timidity – otherwise we may as well be watching an ABC Afterschool Special. We were expecting the Devil himself, or at least a formidable minion. Instead, Charles Martin Smith (American Graffiti) in his directorial debut gives the viewer a Heavy Metal Horror heavy on the music and light as dry ice with the horror. Sammi finds a way to travel through anything electrical (interesting concept…) and zaps to a crisp anyone who stands in his way. Clearly hoping to build a Freddy type franchise, the filmmakers forgot that a large part of the appeal of those films is the visceral, effects heavy moments. Just showing an electrical charge coursing through someone’s body is a bit of a letdown.
But once the viewer comes to peace with this realization, what’s left will fire your flashpots. Especially the first hour or so; Smith is keen to flesh out the characters in the screenplay written by Michael S. Murphey, Joel Soisson, and Rhet Topham (with an unaccredited assist by Glen Morgan and James Wong). And so we have a lot of great moments between Eddie, Roger, our love interest Leslie (Lisa Orgolini – Born to Ride), and school bully Tim (Doug Savant – Teen Wolf) before Sammi goes on his shocking school rampage. Fields has fun playing Curr, clearly not taking the role of a dancing rocker too seriously. Everyone here delivers, and a huge credit goes to the writers for actually giving the cast something to do other than spout familiar horror tropes (those are mostly saved for the final act). Let’s just say that the film plays much better when you aren’t focused on what is missing, but rather what it includes, spotlighting a great sympathetic turn by Price as the put upon Eddie. With his halting, amped up delivery and darting eyes, he was the ‘80s equivalent of Jesse Eisenberg, a smart outsider looking in.
The music is pro forma Blues based Metal by Fastway, a fairly well known entity at the time led by Fast Eddie Clarke, former guitarist for Motorhead. It thumps, wails and bellows, and reminds the viewer that this music is to be felt, not just listened to. An apt choice as the tunes come across as slightly sinister, in good stead with the overall feel of the film.
‘Slightly Sinister’ would actually have been a more accurate title for Trick or Treat. Just like the head bangin’ music of its time, the film is content to entertain through sheer personality and an eagerness to please. And with strong performances and good humor, it has some killer solos too. So get out your can of Aqua-Net, throw on your acid washed jeans and your tasseled jacket, and watch Trick or Treat. If you can’t do it for the horror, at least do it for the rock and roll.
Trick or Treat is currently unavailable on DVD in North America. Much like Sammi Curr, it is left floating in the Metal Ether.
This article is part of our Class of 1986 special features celebrating a wide range of genre films released thirty years ago. In case you missed them, we have links to our other Class of 1986 pieces, and to read more exclusive interviews and articles about flicks from ’86, click on the DEADLY Magazine cover image below:Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: NIGHT WARNING (1982)