Often, it's unclear what's a trick and what's a treat.
When Warner Bros. and Legendary backlisted the Bryan Singer produced, Michael Dougherty helmed antho spookshow film Trick 'r Treat in 2007, the filmmakers must have felt like they were on the business end of one hell of a trick. Not only did the film languish on festival circuit for two years, but planned comic tie-ins were put on hold. Synergy fail.
Though, in retrospect, it may have been the best thing that could have happened to the movie.
With supply restricted, demand grew. Unintentionally, the film added another nostalgic feather to its war bonnet of nostalgic tropes: It became a cult film you actually had to seek out in order to see. Furthermore, it became a genre rally point; its creation of of a rapid critical consensus that the film was a love letter to the genre quickly lead to the widespread perception that the film's backlisting was another us-versus-them sign that the suits just "didn't get horror."
All of this somewhat obscured that fact that Trick 'r Treat is really a middling film. But it is mediocre in an odd way: TrT is an odd experiment in testing whether a film's saving graces will allow the viewer the forgive its weakest bits. Or do the highs and lows cancel each other out, leaving you with a fairly unimpressive flatline?
Depending on how you count, TrT intertwines four to six slender plots into a single movie that clocks in at about 70 minutes. Comic book "animated" segments and the occasional narration boxes serve to orient the view and connect the film to is genre ancestors. (In a happy accident, the film's delay squelched the planned media blitz that was to accompany the flick, so the other obvious function of these segments - to make a little extra cash by pushing the comic tie-in - barely registers on the viewer.)
The script cleverly manipulates the film's timeline to prevent the feeling that we're just watching a handful of cobbled together plots, but ultimately the antho format is the film's greatest limitation. The focus on short narrative segments keeps things pleasingly taut, but also prevents the film from doing anything other than becoming an efficient plot engine. And, to that end, most of the plot's are fairly mundane: two of the main plots are victim reversal stories and one is an extended fight sequence. Only the first extended story line, a nicely Coen Brotherish darkly sly take on the efforts of a suburban serial killer to dispose of a body contains a richer emotional plate, genuine laughs, and some real suspense. Though even that story line suffers greatly from the narrative demands of the anthology format. In a Hitchcock movie or a Coen Brother's film, that scene would have been a real nerve rattling set piece. But without the time to develop the characters or the plot, the scene feels devoid of consequence. It never really matters to the viewer what happens.
The acting suffers the same fate. TrT contains one fine performance (Dylan Baker), one fair one (Brian Cox), one unfortunate one (Anna "Oscared Too Soon" Paquin), and a slew of passable ones. But all of them, even the best, feel vaguely phoned in. The puzzle piece script gives them little to do but hit their marks and say their lines. Occasionally their sole function is to walk through a scene and remind us of how cleverly the film is put together. Ironically, this might have actually been better if the performances were uniformly crappy. In a lesser film, this self-conscious plotting would be a welcome distraction. Here, however, it feels invasive and overtly contrived.
This isn't to say that film is a disaster. The production values are slick and the film's visual inspirations extend to include sources such as Diane Arbus. For the thinness of the plot, the film is never dull. Easily accessible pleasures are found in abundance. Still, the overall result reminds one of a dog on leash: whenever the film threatens to stray or get into something interesting, there's a quick tug and the film is yanked back to a more familiar, regular direction.