In the annals of the horror genre, there’s no shortage of potential options for Halloween night viewing. You’ve got horror movie marathons on most of the major cable networks, and hundreds of potential choices laid before you by nearly every streaming service. Hell, we’ve ranked the 70 best horror movies streaming on Netflix right now for this very reason, in addition to the 100 best movies on the horror-specific streaming service Shudder. Take your pick.
You might be drawn in the direction of an old classic. Bride of Frankenstein? Night of the Living Dead? Psycho? All fine options. Likewise, you might make a night of modern horror classics. The Babadook? It Follows? The Witch? Not going to go wrong with any of those, either. But none of them are the supreme “Halloween night” film.
That movie is 2007’s Trick ’r Treat.
Film geeks and horror buffs know what I’m talking about, and how it almost never happened at all. At the time of its release, Trick ’r Treat already seemed to be considered a failed project, an overly complicated horror anthology that rode the festival circuit for more than two years without ever getting a proper theatrical run. It got great reviews, but it was clearly considered too unorthodox a film for wide release, and like The Cabin in the Woods five years later, nobody knew how to market it to a mass audience. It was a victim of its own creativity.
So thank your lucky stars for True Blood. In exactly the same way that Cabin in the Woods benefitted from the fact that Chris Hemsworth became a Hollywood star after it was initially shot, Trick ’r Treat benefitted from the fact that Anna Paquin’s star was on the rise in the wake of True Blood becoming a major hit on HBO. Without that coincidence, Trick ’r Treat’s 2009 DVD release from Legendary Pictures may never have received any attention, and the greatest Halloween night movie ever conceived would have gone the way of the dodo.
This is a film that has seen its stock rise considerably in the years since that first commercial release, with a comic book adaptation and even a “scare zone” at Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights themed after Trick ’r Treat in 2017. Its director, Michael Dougherty, went from being known primarily as a screenwriter for several major films (X2: X-Men United, Superman Returns) to “that guy who directed Trick ’r Treat.” Then it was “That guy who directed Krampus.” And now it’s “That guy who’s directing Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” the sequel to 2014’s Godzilla. It’s funny that he should now inherit the Godzilla mantle, given that his career arc has sort of mirrored that of Godzilla director Gareth Edwards—they both became known as promising talents after directing a well-liked indie genre movie (Edwards did 2010’s Monsters), before being given the keys to a major franchise. If the pattern holds, Dougherty is next in line for a crack at the Star Wars universe, and honestly … that’s something I wouldn’t mind seeing.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s talk about Trick ’r Treat.
An ode to Halloween night
As a kid, Halloween was undoubtedly my favorite holiday, and at 31 years of age, absolutely nothing has changed for me. I love everything about the Halloween season. I love costumes, and jack-o-lanterns, and candy. I love the idea of trick-or-treating, the primal nostalgia and memories it conjures up of drafting elaborate neighborhood maps with my friends, determined to bring home the most impressive haul possible. As an adult, I fell hopelessly in love with the horror genre for many of the same reasons. From F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu to Andy Muschietti’s It, I am a dedicated devotee of every aspect of the season.
But none of those films has ever felt so distinctly “Halloween” to me as Trick ’r Treat does. Of all the horror films that are implicitly related to the holiday, or happen to take place on the date, none of them venerates the idea of Halloween—the nostalgic power of it—in a way that is simultaneously so effective and surprisingly sincere. The moment I watched it for the first time, I felt like I had met an old friend—one who reassured me that I wasn’t strange for loving this ghoulish holiday as much as I do. Trick ’r Treat seemed to say, “Don’t worry, I feel the same way that you do.”
Not even 1978’s Halloween can say the same. It would ostensibly be an obvious pick for Halloween night, right? It’s right there in the title. But think about the film for a moment—yes, it takes place on Halloween, but it doesn’t truly revolve around the conventions of the holiday. It’s a story about Michael Myers and Laurie Strode, and the holiday itself is almost inconsequential, in the sense that the events could take place at any time. In reality, the original title of John Carpenter’s iconic slasher screenplay was more accurately descriptive—The Babysitter Murders. It was only at the suggestion of producer Irwin Yablans that the title was changed to Halloween, hoping to take advantage of the film’s October release date. He was nothing if not shrewd.
Trick ’r Treat, on the other hand, is truly about Halloween—about its traditions, affectations and stereotypes both familiar and reimagined. It invokes traditions and superstitions that are likely familiar to any kid who grew up in suburban America in the last 40 years, while subtly threading in new customs and legends from the whole cloth—so artfully that they immediately seem just as valid and timeless. Case in point: Has it really always been considered a deadly holiday sin to blow out the candle of a jack-o-lantern? I don’t think I’d ever heard such a thing before Trick ’r Treat, but it was the sort of easily digestible urban legend that was effortlessly applicable to the holiday’s oral tradition. Basically, it fits existing Halloween folklore like a glove, right alongside that old yarn about razor blades in Halloween candy.
Trick ’r Treat is ostensibly an anthology film, but its structure isn’t so simple as an A-to-B procession of short stories loosely connected by a central theme. Rather, the tales of Trick ’r Treat happen concurrently, weaving in and out of each other over the course of a single, long night in what certainly feels quite a bit like the small Midwestern suburb of my youth. Each segment not only tells its own tale but reshapes the audience’s perception of the previous one, adding additional layers of meaning and revealing secondary consequence to events previously witnessed. Its characters all hail from different social castes and age groups: A white collar schoolworker; a group of teenage girls; a gang of elementary school kids; a bitter, Halloween-appropriate Scrooge equivalent of an old man. What they share is their experience—the fact that they’re embracing (or in the old man’s case, resenting) the traditions of Halloween. And their success or failure to do so may be all that keeps them alive.
The film is at once supernatural and practical. It presents a world with both mundane evils, such as a sadistic school principal, as well as classical movie monsters straight out of the world of Universal Horror. Rarely do such concepts tend to live side by side, which gives Trick ’r Treat an all-encompassing quality. It evokes classical horror films from the 1930s at the same time as it does the latest indie features. I have no doubt that in 30 years, Trick ’r Treat will still seem completely timeless for this reason.
It was with that thought in mind that I once again returned to Trick ’r Treat this Halloween season, just in time to discover one more thing: The long-awaited sequel finally seems to be moving forward. In a recent interview on horror director Mick Garris’ Post Mortem podcast, just after revealing that the original film was almost directed by horror legends John Carpenter, George Romero and Tobe Hooper, director Michael Dougherty suggested that Trick ’r Treat 2 is the project he’d most like to tackle once all work on Godzilla: King of the Monsters has been completed. As he said to Garris:
“My hope is that once Godzilla has been put to rest that I can dive back into it. I would love to finish writing it in postproduction and then I’d love to make it my next project. But we’ll see.”
One would hope that the slow but steady ascendance of the film’s reputation into a yearly October/Halloween staple, coupled with Dougherty’s increasingly visible status as a major Hollywood director, would help such a passion project get made. Because as the years go by, more people become aware of what some of us already know: that Trick ’r Treat is one of the most purely entertaining horror films of the 2000s, and certainly the most “Halloweeny” of the bunch. Hell, it’s playing on SyFy, the night that I’m putting the finishing touches on this essay. This is Trick ’r Treat’s moment.
Anything less than the sequel it deserves would be disrespectful to Halloween. And you know what happens to people who don’t give the most macabre of holidays its due.
Jim Vorel is a Paste Magazine staff writer and resident horror buff. You can follow him on Twitter for much more film writing.