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Spooking Door to Door

Trick ’r Treat (2009)

Joe Lederer/Warner Bros. Entertainment

Loyal to a genre constantly attacked for its dependency on remakes and generally uninspired fare, horror fans won’t hesitate to rally behind a good film when one is mistreated. The outcry process unfolds in three stages. The first takes places at film festivals, where too-hardcore foreign films and executive-worrying studio projects enthrall critics before beginning their flights under the commercial radar. Then, a waiting period (average duration: one year at least) leaves fans hungry and agitated, placing question marks on when they’ll see those festival darlings. The third and final stage can go two ways, either with an unceremonious dumping into a minor number of theaters or the straight-to-DVD dispatching of said films. Drivel such as “The Unborn” earn 2,000-plus-screen releases.

During the last two years, Michael Dougherty’s “Trick ’r Treat” — shelved by Warner Bros. since its postponed October 2007 release date — has emerged as the most sought-after of these films. Why Warner Bros. turned its back, though, is anybody’s guess (all logical answers are maddening). Finally available on DVD, “Trick ’r Treat” is every bit as entertaining as its most fervent supporters have declared. Mr. Dougherty’s influences — everything from “Creepshow” and EC Comics — are obvious, and how he successfully reinvents the horror anthology wheel should make Quentin Tarantino applaud. Four tales of Halloween-night bloodshed are interwoven so fluidly, it’d be understandable to anticipate Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield costumes. An out-of-whack chronology that’s initially jarring eases into coherence; it’s an ambitious storytelling device rarely tried in horror that should be celebrated, not shoveled into a DVD graveyard. No wonder the Fangoria-led circuit has been in a tizzy.

Clocking in at a brisk 82 minutes, “Trick ’r Treat” opens with a brief but satisfying prologue that would have given Charles Manson some Halloween decoration ideas, before diving right into the four vignettes. An unassuming virgin (Anna Paquin) dressed as Red Riding Hood encounters a dangerous suitor while en route to a campfire party; elsewhere in Warren Valley, Ohio, a middle school principal (Dylan Baker) carves the nastiest Jack o’ Lantern in town. Meanwhile, his next door neighbor — a mean old man (Bryan Cox) with no holiday spirit — scares off a four young trick-or-treaters, although one of them doesn’t react too kindly. The other three, rebounding from the elder’s refusal to shell out candy, ditch the door-to-door begging and test the merits of a local legend. Expecting any happy endings would be foolish.

Mr. Dougherty — the screenwriter of “X2” and “Superman Returns,” making his directorial debut here — operates with a contagious abandon. Always punctuated by dark humor, the film’s pure-horror moments — while sporadically disturbing — are kept light enough to deserve smiles; when the majority of your film’s victims are children, that’s saying something. The ability to survive a heavy-handed musical cue such as Marilyn Manson’s “Sweet Dreams” is also of note; in fact, Mr. Dougherty’s use of the shock-rocker’s Eurythmics cover is perfectly inserted into the perverse comeuppance of one evildoing character.

There’s a fourth stage to the horror critics’ cycle of anticipation: It’s one that plagues talking heads of all cinematic preferences. Stage four can be coined the hyperbole effect, and “Trick ’r Treat” has benefited greatly from its power. Mr. Dougherty’s artistic victory has been hailed as the best horror anthology of all time, amongst other quotable accolades. Anyone who’s quite fond of Jordy Verrill may disagree, at least for now. Time will tell if “Trick ’r Treat” holds up well enough to oust 1982’s “Creepshow” as the end-all/say-all horror anthology. Really, does that even matter? In a market where “Twilight” renders “Let the Right One In” commercially obsolete, a film as against-the-curve and enjoyable as “Trick ’r Treat” shouldn’t require the words “best” or “greatest” on its DVD cover for recognition’s sake. “Must” and “see” are more like it.

If you're the type to relish in a DVD’s special features, opt for the “Trick ’r Treat” Blu-ray; the regular DVD format comes packaged with an animated short, “Season’s Greetings,” and nothing else. The Blu-ray, though, includes additional scenes, a special-effects featurette and a featurette on various Halloween legends.


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