The Scary-Good Afterlife of "Trick 'r Treat," The Movie That Should Be Halloween's Answer to "A Christmas Story"

The Scary-Good Afterlife of "Trick 'r Treat," The Movie That Should Be Halloween's Answer to "A Christmas Story"Image via Warner Bros. Pictures

It's as reliable as coal in stockings and receiving unwanted pairs of socks from grandma—every year, from Christmas Eve through Christmas Day, the TBS network broadcasts a two-day long marathon for A Christmas Story (1983). You know the movie: All four-eyed Ralphie wants from Santa Claus is a Red Rider BB Gun, and all his curmudgeon of a father wants is for those damn Bumpus hounds to stay the hell away from his holiday turkey. Directed by the late, great, Bob Clark, A Christmas Story is a feel-good family movie that's been passed down from one generation to the next as a Christmas ritual.

With its roots in scares and, in turn, horror movies, Halloween feels like a holiday that should have its very own A Christmas Story, one film which represents everything we all love about October 31. It's certainly not John Carpenter's Halloween, since, you know, its exceptional artistic merits aside, it's the story of a homicidal maniac killing babysitters. Not exactly a film to inspire kids to go begging for candy and grown-ups to recollect their childhood memories in costumes. No, the obvious choice for Halloween's ultimate movie is one that few have seen: Trick 'r Treat, the directorial debut of screenwriter Michael Dougherty, who previously wrote X2: X-Men United (2003) and Superman Returns (2006).

Dougherty's film is many things in one: a genuinely funny horror-comedy, an ambitious anthology in the vein of Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, an unpredictable and innovative fright flick. Unfortunately, it's also one of Hollywood's countless examples of bad things happening to good movies.

Riding high on his fruitful collaborations with X2 and Superman Returns director Bryan Singer, Dougherty, a Columbus, Ohio, native, was given the opportunity to turn his four-minute short film Season's Greetings (1996) into a feature-length project in late 2006, with Singer backing him up as a producer. Dougherty, then 32, had been trying to get Trick 'r Treat made for years, but his script both confused and turned off major studio executives. A tale of vampires, zombies, and werewolves, and told in an anthology style that, in the early aughts, was considered dated and unappealing, Trick 'r Treat abandoned all that Hollywood cared about from horror at the time.

Set on Halloween night, in a familiar suburban setting, Dougherty's film follows four separate storylines, anchored by specific characters: a school principal (Dylan Baker) whose plans to carve pumpkins with his young son get interrupted by a gluttonous grade-school bully; a 22-year-old virgin named Laurie (Anna Paquin), whose more promiscuous girlfriends are throwing a costume party out in the woods; five teenage, costumed kids daring one another to prowl around the local rock quarry, where a large group of mentally challenged children all died in a school bus accident back in the 1970s; and elder blowhard Kreeg (Brian Cox), a mean-spirited man who hates Halloween even more than he loathes little kids.

Leading the audience through Trick 'r Treat is Sam, a tiny trick-or-treater wearing a burlap sack over his head and dirty old orange pajamas. Respect Halloween's traditions and Sam will leave you alone; say that you hate the holiday, though, or do something foolish like smash a pumpkin, and Sam will make you pay. He's the spirit of Halloween embodied in what Dougherty envisioned as an official mascot for Halloween. Before Trick 'r Treat's original October 2007 release date had arrived, there was tons of merchandise available in stores, including Sam action figures and a graphic novel. Dougherty and the folks at Legendary Pictures, the company that backed the film, had big hopes for Trick 'r Treat. They'd made the what they thought was the most fun-loving Halloween movie ever, and a few small screenings nationwide confirmed their accomplishment, with glowing reviews from the horror community.

But, sadly, Warner Bros. Pictures didn't share in the enthusiasm and balked, postponing the film's October 2007 release indefinitely. After sitting in WB's vaults for two years, Trick 'r Treat was eventually dumped into stores with a minimally advertised straight-to-DVD release in October 2009. Positive buzz and the film's grade-A quality notwithstanding, Dougherty's passion project seemed destined to be, at best, a minor cult favorite.

As they're wont to do, however, horror fans wouldn't let Trick 'r Treat fade into obscurity. Every October since its 2009 home video release, the film has gained new fans through word-of-mouth chatter and specialty screenings. Depending on who you ask, Trick 'r Treat is one of the new millennium's top horror movies, and it's certainly an all-time best anthology film—and horror pundits haven't stopped spreading the word. Tonight, at Los Angeles' famed Egyptian Theatre, Dougherty, Legendary Pictures, and the good folks at Facebook will screen Trick 'r Treat and follow it up with a Q&A (with Dougherty and actors Dylan Baker and Brian Cox), all of which will be live-streamed on the film's official Facebook page. And who knows, maybe screenings of this kind will become a yearly October 31 tradition, the same way A Christmas Story continues to entertain its ever-growing fan-base every December 24.

Those execs who dissed Trick 'r Treat, meanwhile, are hopefully eating tainted crow. Much to his credit, Dougherty has been proven as ahead of his time, now that the film's least attractive aspects are now horror's most bankable concepts: vampires (Twilight, True Blood), zombies (The Walking Dead), werewolves (Twilight), and anthologies (indie darlings like V/H/S and The ABCs of Death). But does he feel vindicated? Big fans of Trick 'r Treat, Complex recently caught up with Dougherty for a candid discussion about just that, as well as the film's bizarre yet gratifying second life and why it's the quintessential Halloween movie.

Is it surreal to get interview requests for Trick 'r Treat four years after it was limited to a straight-to-DVD release?
It's weird, because it was always kind of the intent, or at least the hope, that this is what the movie would become. It's exceeded my expectations, though. I have to say, I think the fact that it didn't take the traditional distribution route of 2,000-screen wide release followed by the DVD, the fact that we took this unconventional route, made it work. First, it became forbidden fruit. You had a movie studio telling people, "OK, this movie you've seen pictures from and a trailer for, your'e not going to see it."

And, of course, horror fans, being awesome, don't like that. They don't like being told no. They actively started to seek it out, which is why we had these underground screenings. And then, when the DVD hit, it started to spread outward, beyond just the horror and genre fans, into the mainstream. It's kind of backwards. I love that.

Trick 'r Treat is an interesting case, though, because of its cast. Usually, the little horror movies that accumulate fans and a cult status over time are smaller ones with relative no-name actors, but your movie stars Anna Paquin, Dylan Baker, and Brian Cox, and was backed by Warner Bros. Pictures.
Yeah, it's weird. It's that perfect balance between a studio film, where, yeah, we had good resources. We had a $12 million budget, and we had a good cast. But it also has a sort of independent horror film spirit, in that it's a weird, unconventional movie. When I did it, no one was going near the horror-comedy genre, and definitely no one was going near the horror anthology. So it's this weird, rare bird, and I think that's what has helped us stand out from the pack.

It's tough, because studios, for the most part, aim directly at middle, mainstream America, and are borderline formulaic. When something comes along that thumbs its nose at all those things, it's not that they hate it—they just don't know what to do with it. The marketing people have a machine that's set up to market certain kinds of movies. At the time, Warner Bros. was good at marketing Harry Potter, Batman, and the big-budget tentpole movies. Quirky, offbeat horror-comedies, not so much. It was too much of a struggle for them to understand what to do with it. I knew what to do with it, but I don't run a studio.

But all that said, people always ask, "Are you angry?" Or, "Are you bitter about it?" Earlier, when I was going through it, sure. But now, no. I'm able to look at the big picture and realize that, despite getting handicapped, it all worked in our favor, and I wouldn't change a thing. If I had to do it all over again, as painful as it was, I would do it the exact same way.

As a horror fan, this month's lack of new horror movies opening in theaters is disheartening, to say the least. So it doesn't come as a surprise that a major studio would have a film like Trick 'r Treat and not take advantage of its perfect Halloween peg. In your experience, have you noticed that studio executives don't care about releasing horror in October?
It's sad, right? You'd think that the studios would be all over releasing horror movies in October, but what do we get this year in October? We get a Carrie remake, and that's it. It's shocking that, out of all the studios, not one person said, "Let's put a horror movie out in October." Usually the Paranormal Activity guys are all over that stuff.

Horror is a very under-appreciated genre in the industry, even though it's the genre that keeps the industry going in the hard times, and that's been proven over and over again, going all the way back to the Universal Monsters. We wouldn't have New Line Cinema if it wasn't for Freddy Krueger—that is the house that Freddy built, period. But despite all that, there aren't a lot of execs who are fans of the genre. When they're tasked with making, distributing, or marketing one, they don't know what to do, and kind of look down on it in a way. That's stupid and tragic because some of the best films in cinema history are horror films, like Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, or The Omen. It's very possible to not just make horror films to make money but make horror films that are loved and cherished long in the congressional archives. For whatever reason, though, they still have a tough time getting respect within the establishment.

Trick 'r Treat was originally supposed to open in theaters in October 2007. What prevented that from happening?
I never really got a straight answer. There was a lot of conjecture and hand-wringing. One of the things I heard was, "The studio's uncomfortable with the amount of kids dying in this film." It's weird, on one hand I was told it wasn't scary or disturbing enough, but then I was told that it's too disturbing because I'm killing kids. But then they ended up releasing some Ben Stiller movie or Ben Affleck movie, which I don't think anyone remembers at this point. It was just a weird time.

Halloween must have been huge for you as a kid.
It really was. As a kid, Halloween made life more magical, more than Christmas. With Christmas, you have this overarching threat of, "You better be good or else Santa's not going to give you anything." Even as a kid, it's like, what's with the fucking bargaining? You felt like you were being manipulated by Christmas. Which makes Christmas darker than Halloween in a way. It has the imagery and reputation of being about lightness and good and all that shit, but, no, we're actually trying to control your behavior by dangling the promise of gifts, but only if you're good—and, oh, by the way, this thing up in the North Pole is watching your 24/7. Whereas Halloween was like, fuck that, go dress up as a monster and come back home with a bag of candy at the end of the night. There were no rules.

Also, Halloween is better than Christmas because it's all about self-expression. Everyone gets to dress up as a character. Even if they go to the store and buy one of those crappy pre-packaged costumes, they're still making a choice to dress up like an idiot, cut loose, and become something that they're not but is also indicative of their deeper personality. There's something so amazing in that. It's about purity, fun, and creativity.

The original short, Season's Greetings, was made while you were in college, right? 
Yeah, when I was at NYU, so Sam was actually born in New York. [Laughs.] It was my senior thesis film. I was enrolled in the film program there but I specialized in animation. I come from an animation and illustration background. It was all hand-drawn, old-school animation. I did it over the course of seven months. Even that little short had its own little mini cult following. Most student films, you show them to your parents, or you show them at the school's film festival and that's it, but that film kept going from one film festival to another and another.

I fell in love with the character. I wanted to create a mascot for Halloween, because we don't have one. Halloween has a lot of imagery, with witches, bats, vampires, Frankenstein, and what-not, but there isn't the one. Whereas Christmas has Santa Claus, Easter has the Easter Bunny, St. Patrick's Day has the leprechaun, and Valentine's Day has the cherub. Halloween has a menagerie of creatures but I felt like the holiday needed and deserved its own mascot. I didn't count Michael Myers, and I love John Carpenter's Halloween, but Michael Myers is still a psychopath. To me, a true mascot for Halloween, his origins should be more mysterious, more fantastical and mythological, so I came up with Sam. My rationale was, if there is some sort of deity that embodied Halloween, he would be more like a child and disguise himself to look like a kid and walk around the streets amongst the other little kids innocently. He shouldn't be some sort of giant, 7-foot-tall demon with wings, whips, and chains, like he just stepped out of a GWAR concert. That would've been overkill to me.

Sam just wouldn't go away. I'd do my own greeting cards every year and Sam would pop up in those. He would pop up in the margins of my scripts. Eventually I said, "It would be neat if I put him in his own feature film," so I took a stab at it. Trick 'r Treat was my first script ever.

 
Halloween was like, fuck that, go dress up as a monster and come back home with a bag of candy at the end of the night. There were no rules.
 

I made the short in 1996 and finished the first draft in 2001. I was still in animation and illustration at the time. I moved to L.A. in 2000 and spent about a year here doing animation, storyboards, and getting a feel for the city. That was the time when it was a big dot-com boom. Stan Winston, at the time, wanted to do some sort of online thing. He met with me and we hit it off really well. He was one of the people who suggested I should write a script. He said, "You know horror and you know how the genre works." I finally sat down and did it, and he was one of first people to ever read Trick 'r Treat. He optioned it for two years and kept trying to get it started.

He wanted to do it as a traditional horror anthology with four stories, each one done by a different director. He went out and solicited George Romero, Tobe Hooper, and John Carpenter, and then he would direct a segment himself. I thought, Oh my god, this is it—I'm going to have the blessing of all the horror masters, and they're going to direct my movie! And then, lo and behold, every studio passed. They all said, "This script is too old-fashioned. You have vampires and werewolves and zombies—those are so old-school. Who will want to watch that today?"

It was pretty close to the movie that exists now. We didn't have the school bus segment; that whole thing took place in a graveyard instead of a rock quarry. But everything else is pretty much the same. The studios all read it and said it's too old-fashioned. Vampires, werewolves, and zombies are too retro and nobody wants to see that stuff anymore. And look where we are now. [Laughs.] Again, to me, that underscores how little a lot of studio execs know about the genre. They don't understand that horror is cyclical. What goes around, comes around, so what's old now is hot in two years. I kept trying to say, "Yeah, everyone's making Scream knockoffs," because that was the time with movies like I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend, and the other movies with posters where pretty people stood at the three-quarter position and were all Photoshopped badly together.

That's the hard part—a trend will start and then every studio jumps on that trend, whether it's remakes, "torture porn," or found-footage. What I was trying to tell them was, vampires, werewolves, zombies, and anthologies—this is your next trend. But nobody believed me.

Considering how difficult it was to get the film off the ground with Stan Winston, I'd imagine it could have been just as, if not more, difficult to get a green-light with you as a first-time, unproven director. Did your success writing movies like X2 and Superman Returns help a great deal?
I did have the benefit of working on those big movies, where I got to be on set everyday and work with Bryan Singer. It became a really great training ground, where I was able to see how things work on set, sit in on castings, have a meeting with department heads. Those films became a really good boot camp. I was on set everyday, and I really got to know what it was like to make a movie. By the time we finished Superman Returns, Bryan Singer was the one who said, "You know, you should direct Trick 'r Treat. You're ready. You should do this." And he was right. Legendary blew the dust off the script. By fall of 2006, we were in pre-production. It was November 2006 to January 2007, for the shoot. We shot it in Vancouver.

Was your key mission with Trick 'r Treat to touch on as many of Halloween's hallmarks as possible? The film covers a lot of ground.
That was absolutely the intent. I knew that Halloween was something that everybody had some memory of, whether it's good or bad. It's like Christmas—it's something that's a part of our lives if you live in America, period. I really wanted to touch on all the things we remember, from carving pumpkins to trick-r-treating to going to costume parties.

Every age group is represented in the story. You can be a 5-year-old kid who's ready to carve a pumpkin with his dad, or you're a group of 12-year-olds heading out to trick-r-treat without your parents for the first time. You reach that age when you trick-r-treat with your friends and not your parents anymore and you kind of turn into little assholes for the night, where you get a little naughty. And then there's a segment with people who are in their 20s, where all of the sudden Halloween becomes about sex. It's not about candy, costumes, or other innocent stuff like pranks—it's, "OK, I'm going to dress up in this costume and I'm gonna get laid." And then the Brian Cox segment, the Scrooge segment, where it's the twilight years and you're just this cantankerous old man. That was done so we could touch on every aspect of the holiday, whether you loved Halloween or hated it.

We went back and forth on the structure. There were drafts of the script where it was very traditional, where the stories were completely separate. And then we had versions where they started to get more intertwined together. Even when we were green-lit and when we shot it, the script was all individual segments. The characters crossed over here and there, but they went intercut between each other. In the editing room, though, we realized that, even though the movie may only be 90 minutes long, when you're sitting there watching four stories—all of which have their own beginning, middle, and end—the movie feels too long. One starts, one ends, one starts, one ends—psychologically, that just makes you get restless.

By mixing them up, though, it creates more suspense and anticipation. You're cutting out of one story and hopping to another one, and that keeps the audience's mind more participatory and on-edge. It was hugely inspired by Pulp Fiction, Go, and even Magnolia and The Hours. It may be the only horror movie partly inspired by The Hours. [Laughs.]

Trick 'r Treat has a great balance of comedy and scares. Usually, Halloween is given a more straightforward "scary" treatment in movies, like in John Carpenter's Halloween.
Yeah, and that works for Halloween, too, because he made a 100% horror movie, and it's amazing. But I didn't want Trick 'r Treat to be that kind of movie. To me, if I was going to create a film that truly captured the essence of Halloween, then it needed to capture that balance between the scares and the laughs, the cute and the creepy. Nothing's more annoying to me than a horror film that takes itself way too seriously when it clearly shouldn't. Films like Gremlins, Poltergeist and the sort of mischievous, fun horror movies of the '80s, and even A Nightmare on Elm StreetElm Street has a really wicked sense of humor to it. Those are the ones I feel really stand the test of time because they're not completely brutal. They're not completely cynical, or dark, or out to only gross you out. There's a fun mean streak to them, and I think we need more of that.

Was it tough to accept that the film, which was supposed to get a wide theatrical release, was ultimately going straight-to-DVD, after two years' worth of fighting and buzz-building?
It was kind of rough. I kept having the promise of theatrical dangled. The whole time we were sitting on the shelf, there was a tug-of-war between Legendary and Warner Bros. about what we should do with the movie. Legendary was always pushing for a theatrical, but we could never get a straight answer from Warner Bros. Even though we had a thick binder filled with positive reviews for the film, it still fell on deaf ears. It felt like they were still bargaining, trying to get some kind of theatrical release, even if it was a 10-city release, but it just never came to pass. That was utterly heartbreaking when it happened—heartbreaking. At the same time, we still had so much positive word-of-mouth building from the screenings that I knew they couldn't keep the film down. I knew that once we hit DVD, the film would become something.

You've had trouble getting several projects off the ground since Trick 'r Treat's 2009 DVD release. Has it been easier to handle the disappointment after going through the whole Trick 'r Treat release drama?
If there's one thing I've learned over the last few years, it's that no matter who you are, getting a project off the ground is incredibly tough. Dan Harris, my writing partner from X-Men and Superman, and I actually went in and pitched The Goonies 2 to [producer Steven] Spielberg and [director] Richard Donner. This was after X-Men and before Trick 'r Treat. They both loved it. Spielberg was like, "OK, this is it—let's do it." They went into Warner Bros. but the studio was like, "Nah, we don't see Goonies as a franchise." [Laughs.]

Watching someone tell Spielberg "no" felt really bizarre. That proved to me that it doesn't matter who you are or what level you're at—if you have a project that you're passionate about, you're always going to have a tough time getting it made.

Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

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Tags: trick-r-treat, michael-dougherty, halloween, anna-paquin, horror-comedies, horror-anthologies
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