horror

All Hail the Pumpkin King

Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat (2007) is less a movie and more being shoved into a Party City in late September. It is a haunted hayride where you’re not entirely sure all the people on the trail are actors. It is lighting a three-wick candle that has a grinning jack-o-lantern on the outside and a complex wax cocktail of cloves, apples, marshmallows, and earth on the inside, then immolating yourself with it. It is razors in the candy bar. Lots of movies are set at Halloween. Some movies are about Halloween. Trick ‘r Treat is Halloween, humming with a weird tonal balance that is at once magical and horrific, sexy and comedic, candy and corn. And at its center, it invokes a monster that is both entirely new and naturally venerable, an icon that is more folklore than folklore, the feetie pajama-clad specter of Samhain.

The premise of Trick ‘r Treat is that there are rules undergirding Halloween, and those rules must be respected, or else. The movie opens with an old-timey safety filmstrip outlining “a few guidelines all ghosts and goblins should follow. Always stay on sidewalks. Never go to a stranger’s house. And never go out alone.” But these are only a few of the rules of Halloween, as we’ll see. Others include always check your candy, and conversely, always give out candy. Never take down your decorations until November 1. Keep your jack-o-lanterns lit. And never doubt that Anna Paquin can find herself a date. These aren’t rules that have anything to do with goodness and virtue — there are plenty of horrific acts that go unpunished in this film — but survival. I love that. It gets right to grimmest Grimm of the matter, that fairytales, ghost stories, traditions we have sanitized in a world of Disney and antibiotics were drawn from our ancestors’ well of amoral pragmatism, and that these stories were weapons and armor given to children, not pablum. It is a movie-length proof of Conal Cochran’s speech from Halloween III: Season of the Witch. And that is essential to the film’s feeling of childlike innocence, undisturbed by full frontal werewolves or gleeful gore.

Not just one story, but many criss-cross in a night crackling with dead leaves and jack-o-lantern grins. There’s four primary tales, as teased in the movie’s Creepshow-inspired title sequence, but they splinter into subplots as they pass each other in the shadows of Samhain. There’s the Halloween-enthusiast and his Halloween-hating wife; an old curmudgeon uses his dog to scare kids and steal their candy when they knock on his door; a group of kids offer jack-o-lanterns to the spirits of kids murdered in a horrible local legend; a wholesome school principal is not what he seems; a vandal disrespects Halloween tradition by smashing jack-o-lanterns; a virginal girl goes out to a Halloween party with her big sister’s clique, looking for a guy for her “first time,” and finds herself being stalked by a vampiric murderer. These vignettes are like beads strung along the night of All Hallow’s Eve, although not necessarily in the right order, as the movie unfolds its stories in a recursive structure that layers in aha moments with the dread. 

Moving almost invisibly through the night, tying story to story, is the strange childlike creature called Sam, although he never speaks or is named outside the title sequence. Sam wears an old-timey, homemade-looking costume, seeming to belong to the era of the filmstrip at the beginning, but possibly even older, a burlap mask sewn with button eyes atop an orange footed onesie. For most of the film, Sam is an observer, quietly marking the resolution of a story like Rod Serling popping against the background of a Twilight Zone. Only a couple characters actually notice him when he is in this witnessing mode, most notably the Halloween obsessive Rhonda, recently traumatized in her own story, but the moment between them conveys mutual respect. Fittingly, in the first and final stories we see, which chronologically are the ultimate and penultimate stories of the night, Sam gets his footies bloody, and we even get to see what is under his cute little sack mask. Spoiler alert: it is not a child. It is, however, pretty clearly pumpkin spiced.

I wrote about Doughtery’s other seasonal monster flick, Krampus (2015) last Christmas, and in that article, I talked a bit about Trick ‘r Treat, too. Like Trick ‘r Treat, Krampus is a movie that posits traditions have ancient, arcane implications, and breaking them can unleash dire consequences. It’s an idea so nice, he used it twice, and more power to him. Black comedy and gore compete with unflappable childlike wonderment through both films. And like Krampus, Trick ‘r Treat presents us with a demonic creature whose domain is enforcing those rules the holiday grew around, but which the modern world has dared forget. 

But whereas the Krampus is borrowed from folklore, Sam is inspired by folklore. And maybe a little bit of Pumpkinhead. I don’t think it attenuates Sam’s credibility in the least that he was born in the 2000s though, and he is much like Doughtery’s Krampus in that he’s as merciless as he is amoral. But I think Sam also plucks at the same heartstrings Krampus’ hero, Max, does, when he quietly appears at the end of a line of trick-or-treaters on Principal Wilkins’ porch, the steps still slick with blood from one rule-breaker’s unlucky end, or when he unexpectedly accepts a candy bar from a badly injured old man instead of finishing him off. It’s not just that he looks like a preschooler from 1920s, endowing Halloween literally with a child’s heart like Max’s, but that Sam, silent as he is, cares. He is the protector of Halloween, just as Max, in his dysfunctional family anyway, was the protector of Christmas. In Krampus, Max’s grandmother says, “I think Santa is what you make of him,” with the implication that if your heart is soured with darkness, your Father Christmas will reflect that. Well, Michael Doughtery makes Halloween into the shape of a child, and his movie reflects that. It’s a brilliant choice that elevates the material even as it binds the macabre stories together into a single ghoulish, garish night. And it also makes for a really cool Halloween costume.

This film wears its Tales From the Crypt and Creepshow influence not on its sleeve, but big badges on its chest, shiny with gore, with shots and touches that point up Angela Carter, urban legends, Halloween III, Pumpkinhead, and preview Krampus. The stories it tells are individually satisfying and successfully surprising, subverting nearly every trope they invoke. But it’s the totality, the embodiment of Halloween, that makes this film something special and unmissable. Single-minded and silent, Sam might be a little more Jason Voorhees than Jack Skellington, but  given Jack’s wandering heart, that’s probably good news for Halloweentown. Darling little Sam, the bladed candy bar in his chubby child’s fist, is pure Halloween, and so is his movie. All hail the true Pumpkin King.

Angela rates Rhonda’s house in this movie #HalloweenGoals

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