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How 'Trick 'r Treat' Became an Unlikely Halloween Classic

Director Michael Dougherty talks the joy of discovering a movie for the first time, the appeal of horror-comedy, and why he'd rather see fan tributes than win Oscars.

by Miles Raymer
Oct 27 2015, 7:25pm

Trick 'r Treat's villain, Sam. Image via Legendary Pictures on YouTube

Halloween's as commercialized as any holiday that's widely celebrated in America, but it's unique among them in the fact that its core mythology hasn't been drastically rewritten by ad campaigns and sentimental TV movies. Its traditions and stories are still passed from kid to kid, a game of telephone played with a mishmash of millennia-old European superstitions and modern suburban myths.

The holiday's folklore and ancient spookiness provide the foundation for the 2007 movie Trick 'r Treat, a comedy-laced horror anthology film in the EC Comics-inspired tradition of Creepshow and Tales From the Darkside, that weaves together four storylines centered around the holiday's shadowy traditions, a small town in Ohio that celebrates them with a peculiar fervor, and the gruesome penalties for failing to follow them properly.

Trick 'r Treat was basically made for the type of horror fan that will happily sit through a straight 24 hours of movies. Like comics out of old Creepy and Eerie magazines, each of the film's interconnected plots starts out seeming pretty simple on the surface—a father teaches his young son about their family's peculiar holiday traditions; a dewy young virgin contemplates "doing it" for the first time—and each inevitably ends with a plot twist dramatic enough to make O. Henry and Edgar Allen Poe seem understated by comparison. The kills come at a steady pace throughout the movie, and a respectable amount of them happen onscreen. Blood flows by the gallon. A total of 27 people end up getting killed. Given Trick 'r Treat's 82 minute runtime, that's an average of one death every three minutes.

The film's emphasis on Halloween's rites comes from a fascination with its peculiar history and unflagging creepiness that goes back to writer-director Michael Dougherty's childhood. "My birthday's a few days before the holiday," he says, "so it's always a really magical time of year for me. I've been reading about it ever since I was a little kid, and had built up a pretty deep knowledge of the holiday and its traditions and its roots going back to Europe. I was always really fascinated with the notion that here was this holiday that's really centered around kids and candy but if you peel back the layers just a little bit you find out that it goes back to a very real, ancient pagan mystical holiday. We've turned it into this very commercial, kid-friendly thing where we dress our kids up like monsters and send them out into the night to collect candy from random strangers. As a kid that's the first rule that you're taught, don't talk to strangers and don't take candy from strangers. Oh, except for this night it's safe and you're going to go out in these crappy costumes. See you in a couple hours, kid."

The film's abundant gore is admirable, but its nasty sense of humor is what really put it over the top with horror fans. His gleefully psychopathic comedic sensibility is straight out of the most outrageous horror flicks of the VHS era like Evil Dead, Sleepaway Camp, and Night of the Demons, where deliriously grisly deaths also double as punchlines. To the type of person who will laugh out loud over an especially clever way of decapitating someone, Trick 'r Treat was a breath of fresh air in a genre that had become suffocatingly grim.

Dougherty says the film's irreverent appeal is embodied in Sam, the film's mascot (named after the ancient proto-Halloween festival Samhain), who was originally conceived for an animation project when Dougherty was in school. "My hope with creating Sam was that he'd appeal to that inner child that I think we all have. He's that perfect balance of cute and creepy and scary and funny. You look at him and you can't tell if you should be running away or hugging him."

Like misremembered school bus tragedies and rumors about candy tampering, Trick 'r Treat has managed to incorporate itself into Halloween observances through word of mouth, but its followed a rocky path to get to this point. Initially backed by special-effects-legend-turned-producer Stan Winston, then genre-film powerhouse Legendary Pictures, a deal with Warner Bros. got the movie made, but also doomed it to a straight-to-DVD fate. In a horror market crowded with torture porn and remakes of Japanese horror flicks, Trick 'r Treat seemed doomed to be a square peg trying to fit in a round hole.

Warner Bros. spent a year contemplating releasing the film in theaters, but in the end, Dougherty says. "I just don't think they got the combination of horror and comedy. I remember we did a test screening and there was a marketing exec from Warner Bros., and they said, 'Well, half your audience was laughing.' And I was like, 'Yeah, that's great! It's a horror movie!' I think they got a little cold feet and buyer's remorse for various reasons. The big one being the number of kids that we kill in the film."

Image via Legendary Pictures on YouTube

Dougherty quickly adapted to the film's more limited circumstances. Legendary ran off a couple prints and he was soon accompanying them to whatever niche film festivals around the country were willing to show it, starting with Ain't It Cool News founder Harry Knowles's annual Butt-Numb-A-Thon in Austin. Dougherty remembers that he could already see the roots of a Trick 'r Treat cult at that very first screening, at the very end of a nonstop 24 hour program. "They all woke up," he says, "and really embraced the movie. I'll never forget emerging from this dark theater that I've been sitting in for 24 hours into the bright morning sunlight and just all of the sudden being introduced to its first fans. From there things started to turn. All of a sudden there were Internet reviews popping up every day."

Dougherty has some practical, business-y reasons for preferring the kind of release that Trick 'r Treat eventually got ("There are a lot of films that come out and have huge theatrical releases but they're forgotten two weeks later," he points out), but talking to him, you get the feeling he actually enjoyed joining the ranks of cult filmmakers as much as working on the big-budget superhero movies (Superman Returns, the X-Men series) that he's worked on. "That's how the original Halloween found its success! Carpenter and his producer threw a print in the back of a car and were driving it around!"

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"There's something fun about discovering a film, or a good friend of yours whose taste you trust saying, 'You really need to watch this,'" he says. "That's how I was introduced to a lot of my favorite films growing up. Some friend passing you a VHS tape. I think there's a charm to that, and an organic love that sprouts from that, and I don't think we would have had the same kind of following had we gone with a big theatrical release."

Perhaps because of this slow burn, Sam has become the movie's breakout star and the inspiration behind merchandise ranging from action figures to novelty sweaters, not to mention a bunch of tattoos. "I remember seeing a waitress at a restaurant who had a full sleeve of the movie," Dougherty says. "Her whole arm was Sam and other characters and scenery from the film. And she's not alone. I just can't think of a greater compliment than seeing somebody tattoo their body forever with your character. I'll take that over a gold statue any day." A long-rumored sequel is in the works, too, Dougherty recently confirmed—as soon as he's finished with the Christmas-horror film Krampus, starring Adam Scott. (Unlike Trick 'r Treat, Krampus will be getting a theatrical release.)

His biggest accomplishment with Sam, he says, is preparing a whole new generation for horror fandom. "I've seen videos of kids who are introduced to the character via an action figure or something," he says, "and there's sort of this very wary look on their face when they see him, and then something sparks and they instantly fall in love with him." He's also seen kids dressed up as his best-known character and says, "That makes me the happiest. I'm still waiting for the Halloween when some kid shows up at my door dressed as Sam."

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