Why Trick 'r Treat Deserves Cult Status

Sub-Cult is Nathan Rabin’s ongoing exploration of movies that have quietly attracted devoted followings and are on the verge of becoming full-on cult sensations.

by | October 27, 2015 | Comments


Even the worst theatrically released movie has countless advantages over the best direct-to-video fodder. As movies like Mac & Me, The Oogieloves In The Big Balloon Adventure, and Movie 43 attest, scoring a theatrical release is no guarantee of baseline competence, let alone quality. But unlike direct-to-video movies, theatrically released movies do not need to contend with a knee-jerk public suspicion that something must have gone awry with them, artistically or otherwise, to warrant being dumped ignominiously onto home video. Theatrically released movies also may not be critiqued kindly, but they are generally reviewed (even the ones written and directed by either Tyler Perry or the toxic team of Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg), and there are plenty of publications and websites dedicated to covering every film that opens in theaters. This makes them part of an ongoing cultural conversation, even if that dialogue takes the form of, “How did that get made?” or, “Jesus, people will see anything these days, won’t they?”

Direct-to-video movies are generally seen as failures because, in a very concrete way, they have failed. They failed to occupy the cultural space every theatrical release is afforded, no matter how dire. They failed to be talked about by moviegoers afterwards, to be advertised on posters and billboards and promoted via talk show appearances and junkets and television interviews,  and to be debated by critics, both at the time of their release and at the end of the year, when all-important (to the ink-stained wretches assembling them, at least) lists of the best films are compiled and awards are given.


“Dylan Baker excels at embodying and dramatizing the white-bread evil of banality.”

In that respect, the well-loved horror anthology Trick ‘r Treat, which was completed in 2007 but only released in 2009, is the little direct-to-DVD movie that could. It sports a lush, autumnal gothic beauty and a slickness befitting a project that reunited a number of people involved in the X-Men franchise, most notably writer-director Michael Dougherty (who co-wrote X-Men 2, the best of the bunch before Days Of Future Past), producer Bryan Singer, and cast members Brian Cox and Anna Paquin. And after inexplicably being dumped onto home video, Trick ‘r Treat went on to do all sorts of things a direct-to-video movie isn’t supposed to do. It inspired merchandise in the form of multiple figurines based on its primary pint-sized ghoul, a creepy little menace in a burlap sack named Sam. It spawned a coffee table book, a graphic novel adaptation, and a one-off comic book entitled Trick R Treat: Days Of The Dead. It even produced a tardy sequel in the form of Trick ‘r Treat 2, which is reportedly in development, and will follow Dougherty’s similarly holiday themed horror romp Krampus to the big screen. Not bad for a movie that sat on a shelf for two years before being spat out onto the home video market.

In Trick ‘r Treat, first time director Dougherty takes great delight in upending expectations and sadistically toying with horror movie conventions. In the film’s morbid world, the adults who are called upon to protect, care for, and teach students aren’t just negligible in their duties; they are downright evil, and the kids they abuse and torment have a way of repaying their cruelty and abuse tenfold.

This is particularly true of Steven Wilkins (Dylan Baker), a small town principal who punishes a chubby trick-or-treater (Bad Santas butterball Brett Kelly) for taking more candy than is his share by feeding him a cyanide-laced treat that causes him to vomit blood before dying. Morbid physical comedy ensues as the harried murderer tries to dispose of the tubby little corpse while still fulfilling his Halloween duties.

As in Happiness, Baker excels at embodying and dramatizing the white-bread evil of banality. He’s a bloodthirsty sadist with the bland demeanor of a bank middle manager, and though he ends this segment with the film’s idea of a family activity — Wilkins and his adoring son carving the head of the chubby little dead boy as if it were a Jack-O-Lantern — the film has further punishment in store for him.

The violation of childhood innocence in the next story is even more gothic and severe. In it, a trick-or-treater tells the macabre tale of a group of mentally challenged children three decades earlier whose parents, exhausted by the demands of caring for their special needs progeny, embark on a gruesome and inexcusable collaboration: they pay a school bus driver to chain their costumed children to their seats while he drives the bus into a rock quarry, plunging his passengers to their watery deaths. This is, of course, not the last we see or hear of these unfortunate souls.


“In Trick ‘r Treat, female sexuality is a voracious, malevolent force, but it’s also a righteous one.”

What gives the segment its power and resonance is the idea of parents so overwhelmed and defeated by the extraordinary challenges of raising difficult children that they embrace the unthinkable crime of murder as their last, best, and only option. The image of helpless children, their identities and personalities obscured by the ghoulish Halloween costumes they’re wearing, shackled to the vehicle of their imminent deaths, is haunting in more than one sense, and the most poignant manifestation of the unconscionable evil adults visit upon children in Trick ‘r Treat, oblivious to the karmic blowback their actions will engender. They should know better, after all, as they are not just in a horror movie, but in a horror movie with a decidedly moralistic bent, where the evil are tormented and even minor misdeeds (such as unconsciously violating the rules of Halloween) lead to death sentences carried out by pint-sized vigilantes.

Trick ‘r Treat captures how Halloween is disorienting and scary for children not just because of the abundant spookery on display but also because adults — and particularly teenagers — have been given free reign to behave erratically, to drink too much, to get high, to be inappropriately and creepily sexual or violent in ways that can be alienating and disturbing to kids who expect adults to behave with a certain level of propriety.

There’s a great moment early in the film where a group of trick-or-treaters are visibly disturbed to see one of their teachers drunkenly addressing them while wearing a tragically ill-chosen “sexy cat” costume. The teacher isn’t obese or aged, just about 10 years too old and 10 pounds too heavy to be wearing a costume like that, and though the scene is pitched more for uncomfortable laughter than horror, it casually captures how Halloween can be creepy and unnerving for children for reasons that have nothing to do with serial killers or razor blades in candy bars.

Sex and violence are also inextricably intertwined in horror movies, and in the “Surprise Party” segment of the film, a group of fiendishly sexy young women are indulging in the real reason for the season: dressing provocatively and skimpily for the benefit of drooling, ogling man-children who, in keeping with our culture’s noxious double standards, are not expected to show any skin or be remotely sexy or provocative. They’re dressed as Sexy Snow White and Sexy Bo Peep (if you doubt the “Sexy _____” conceit has gone too far, bear in mind that a “Sexy Pizza Rat” now exists, and should not be worn by anyone, at any time), with the idea of revealing as much skin and cleavage as possible without crossing a blurry line into actual nudity.


“It has a bona fide horror icon in Sam, who is somehow scarier and more terrifying for being so small and seemingly unthreatening.”

The outlier of the group is a 22-year-old virgin played by Anna Paquin who doesn’t just eschew the requisite exhibitionism of her peers, she dresses as Little Red Riding Hood, that untouched icon of dewy innocence and purity. She wants her first time to be special, and her friends are concerned that by insisting that sex be special, reserved for the right one, she’s missing out on a whole world of gross, non-special sex with the wrong one, or the wrong ones.

In Trick ‘r Treat, female sexuality is a voracious, malevolent force, but it’s also a righteous one, and true to its title, “Surprise Party” ventures into unexpected territory once it becomes apparent that Paquin’s character is actually a lot more like another, scarier character in the Little Red Riding Hood saga, and I am not talking about grandma. Like Ginger Snaps and The Company Of Wolves, “Surprise Party” uses the conventions of horror films and fairy tales to comment upon our fears and desires regarding female sexual maturation and the complicated, alluring bodies and minds of desirable young women.

The stories in Trick ‘r Treat overlap, Pulp Fiction style, with characters from one segment making cameo appearances in others while the whole movie is tied together through the character of Sam, a tiny yet terrifying demonic sprite in threadbare footy pajamas and a burlap sack that vaguely resembles a pared-down Jack-O-Lantern over his head.

Sam has a small but crucial role in many of the segments, but he is front and center in “Meet Sam,” where he terrorizes a Halloween-hating old crank played by Brian Cox. Superior horror movies often rely upon an unforgettable icon of pure evil, whether it’s Michael Myers in his viscerally unnerving William Shatner mask or Freddy Krueger’s signature hat, ratty sweater and knife-glove. I suspect part of the reason Trick ‘r Treat has endured against long odds is because it has a bona fide horror icon in Sam, who, like Chucky or the Zuni fetish doll, is somehow scarier and more terrifying for being so small and seemingly unthreatening.

It’s a testament to how deeply fans of Trick ‘r Treat related to the movie that they didn’t just want to watch it or re-watch it, they wanted to own part of it symbolically in the form of a 15-inch vinyl figure of Sam, which Sideshow Collectibles released, and a 5.5-inch Sam figure that NECA put out.

I suspect that part of the film’s enduring, Shocktober-friendly appeal lies in the thrill of discovery fans experienced when they found a movie most of the world didn’t know existed. The horror movies that hit theaters tend to be a dire and derivative lot, so a superior horror film that cultists have to actively seek out has a special, furtive allure.

It’s a little bewildering that a movie as good and solid and tight as Trick ‘r Treat was doomed to a home video burial. Yet in true horror film fashion, this weird little sleeper rose from the grave, bloodied but unbowed, and went on to enjoy a shockingly robust and impressive afterlife. So many movies these days are much worse than they should be, so it is a wonderful surprise to stumble across a movie that’s far better than it has any right to be, although its ever-growing following ensures that Trick ‘r Treat’s quality won’t be too much of a surprise for much longer.

My Original Certification: Fresh
My Re-Certification: Fresh
Tomatometer: 86 percent