#1) Trick ‘R Treat (2007)
Director: Michael Dougherty
Starring: Dylan Baker, Anna Paquin
What makes a good Halloween movie? Pumpkins, ghosts, house parties, urban legends, costumes, candy, fake blood and popcorn balls are all images that come to mind when thinking about the holiday, but a horror movie doesn’t necessarily need any or all of these things to be a great Halloween flick (Friday the 13th, REC). Over the last month, I’ve made dozens of posts suggesting and reviewing pieces to be watched during this season of spook. Several of these films occur in big, creaking houses where vengeful spirits and lost souls pray upon those who enter; some of these films circle around an ensemble cast of diverse teenagers who are all being stalked by the same lurking villain; one of these films is a TV episode; a handful of these films are from Japan and South Korea; a few of these films have NC-17 levels of gore, while others have no gore at all, and almost all of these films are pieces that I consider to be pretty low in quality and not worth watching during any other time of year. In fact, one of the basic tenants of Halloween is its lack of class and quality; a great Halloween movie doesn’t need to be a “good movie” at all. With this disparity in definition and diversity of choice, the question must be asked: Is there a secret, some sort of formula or invisible connective thread running between the classics, that sets great Halloween films apart from other scary movies? If so, what is it?
Trick ‘R Treat, the 2007 horror anthology produced by Bryan Singer, appears to have figured out the answer. An 82-minute tale featuring murder, werewolves and a school bus massacre, this Legendary Pictures production may be the greatest Halloween movie of all time. Adapted from Director Michael Dougherty’s 1996 animated short film “Seasons Greetings,” the film follows the happenings of a small, suburban neighborhood in Ohio on Halloween Night. Divided into four vignettes, each story features a separate cast of characters as they battle the spooky and the supernatural, all under the distant watching of a mysterious, costumed trick-or-treater named Sam. Sam’s job is to monitor and police the living residents of his town and ensure that they aren’t violating any Halloween rituals. Enjoy posing as a vampire and attacking young women in the street? Feel like smashing a pumpkin or blowing out its votive before the night ends? Have a wild hair up your ass to summon the spirits of dead children at a rock quarry? If so, Sam has a treat (trick?) for you.
The first vignette is called “The Principal” and features Dylan Baker as Principal Wilkins, a deranged school administrator who kills children with poisoned candy, then decapitates their corpses and turns the severed heads into Jack-O-Lanters. The moment when Wilkins is sitting on his stoop lecturing the kid (who I can only recognize as the pudgy one from Bad Santa), just before the poor little dude starts projectile vomiting chocolatey blood, was when I realized that I was going to be watching a perfect movie. The weaving of dark humor and gross-out practical effects into the otherwise sinister plots of Trick ‘R Treat is flawless. Halloween is supposed to be anything but tasteful; this film embraces that notion and delivers winks, nods and ribside elbow jabs toward the best of the holiday’s legend, tradition and pop culture. The third vignette, “Surprise Party (starring Anna Paquin!),” is easily the most tongue-in-cheek sequence I’ve seen in a studio film in the last 5 years.
And then there’s Sam, the cute little burlap sack wearing night sprite who, while present in every previous sequence, isn’t featured as a real character until the film’s final vignette. Every revelation that occurs in that last battle, from why Sam’s lollipop has a bite taken out of it to the removal of his mask, is so thoughtfully and hilariously executed. When Sam is stabbed, only to reveal that his guts are made of pumpkin seeds and pulp, I damned near died laughing. Just like the holiday itself, this film’s success relies entirely on its ability to balance being festive, terrifying and hilarious at the same time. This masterpiece of holiday horror takes the things that both kids and adults love about Halloween and amplifies them to an awesomely hyperbolic level of ridiculousness. Fun, scary and a little bit tasteless, Trick ‘R Treat is the movie I plan to be watching every year at Halloween.
TL;DR: Greatest. Halloween. Movie. Ever. TRUST.
Note: This is not a re-post. The top 2 were never posted last year. Enjoy.
#2: Friday the 13th (1980)
Director: Sean S. Cunningham
Starring: Betsey Palmer, Adrienne King, Kevin Bacon
Eat an entire pumpkin pie. Buy boots for the winter. Have drunken, hard-cider sex. Read at least one Harry Potter book. Wear glittery fake eyelashes. My shortlist of must-do’s for every October is extensive and ever-developing. This is the month when, every year, I finally begin recovering from Summer and invest in self-care; following The Treat Yo’ Self School of Thought, I engage in little rituals, ranging from festive to freaky, with the simple goal of doing something that I really enjoy. One tradition that I’ve been following for over 10 years now is viewing the original Friday the 13th, a classic 95-minute romp which I consider to be the penultimate movie to watch on Halloween.
Friday the 13th is the story of Jason Vorhees, a terrifying, blade-weilding spirit seeking revenge on the young camp counselors of Camp Crystal Lake. Developed by Sean S. Cunningham (The Last House on the Left), the film was created in response to the success of Halloween. Touches of the Michael Meyers legacy, such as the first-person perspective sequences shot through the eyes of the monster, are evident throughout the film; however, the piece breaks away from the stalker/victim model of its inspiration, instead drawing from grindhouse cinema and developing the story around an ensemble cast. The result is what is widely considered to be the first true Hollywood slasher, a perfectly engineered b-movie where a horrifying, sentient and often faceless monster preys upon a group of young teenagers and slowly kills them off one by one.
To speak of the cast wouldn’t tell you much. Other than Kevin Bacon (whose archery-based exit made my list of Top 10 Best Horror Movie Kills), no one in this film had a career outside of this movie. 1950’s film star Betsy Palmer, who plays Jason Vorhees’ mother, even struggled to find work after appearing in this picture. Palmer actually developed a rather negative relationship with Friday the 13th and called it “a piece of shit” in an interview once; her distaste appears to have been revoked, though, as she has recently appeared in several documentary films about the franchise. The rest of the film’s characters (the “slutty” girl, the “slightly less slutty” girl, the virginal girl (dies first), the douchebro and the clueless nerd) are most memorable because of how they were killed, not because of anything they say or do. In fact, the most memorable character of them all is nothing more than a a coated arm holding a machete or a view from inside of a ski mask. Even though we never see his face or body in-full, Jason Vorhees is the undeniable star of Friday the 13th.
Now, of course, the best thing about all of this is that ski-masked Jason never actually appears in the first film. (For those of you who don’t already know, here’s huge spoiler alert. But really, if you’ve haven’t seen this movie, why are you here, reading this?) It turns out that, all along, this group of young, athletic teenagers has been outpaced and outwitted by the stout, squinty, 50-something Mama Vorhees. She’s angry because year in and year out, these dang ‘ol kids keep smoking the devil’s lettuce and making late-night maritals on the sacred ground where her son died. She tells us this just before Alice chops her head off and escapes via a canoe into the middle of Crystal Lake. It’s not until the next morning that we see the monster himself; as our heroine is woefully grazing her fingertips along the top of the water, she is suddenly grabbed and pulled under its surface by the deformed and rotting body of a boy who drowned 20 years ago. She never resurfaces, the water settles and the credits begin to roll over a now still and silent lake. A film that delivers bone-chilling spooks and continues to claim victims until its very last frame, Friday the 13th is a canon piece Halloween horror that any true fan should get to know verbatim.
TL;DR: If you haven’t seen this movie yet, I probably don’t want to know you.