29 October 2010

A new Halloween classic: Michael Dougherty's 'Trick 'r Treat'

The character Sam is shown in a scene from "Trick 'r Treat."
Halloween creates a natural setting for horror movies. It even gave John Carpenter's classic 1978 slasher and its many sequels and remake its title. But Michael Myers could kill teenagers on any day of the year and his story wouldn't change.

As popular as Halloween has become, there never had been a film specifically about the holiday itself until 2009, when "Trick 'r Treat," an anthology along the lines of "Creepshow" (1982), fought and scraped its way onto DVD and Blu-ray.

That realization drove writer-director Michael Dougherty, whose Oct. 28 birthday helped inspire his lifelong interest in Halloween, to make "Trick 'r Treat."

"Having grown up obsessed with the holiday, I really knew about a lot of the traditions and a lot of the back stories and origins of these traditions why we carve jack-o-lanterns and why we dress up and hand out candy," Dougherty said from Los Angeles in a phone interview.

"Because as a kid, you just think, 'OK, we wander around, we get free candy, we wear costumes.' But when you research the history of these traditions and you realize they go back thousands of years, pre-dating Christianity, and the idea that you are trying to appease the spirits of the dead by doing the things we do, it suddenly takes on a much more serious and sinister tone."

"Trick 'r Treat" consists of four stories: A father (Dylan Baker), who happens to be both the local school principal and a serial killer, and his son (Connor Christopher Levins) bond over carving a very special jack-o-lantern; a prank staged by a group of pre-teens goes horribly wrong; a young woman (Anna Paquin) on her way to a party is nervous about her "first time"; and a Halloween scrooge (Brian Cox) learns the true meaning of the holiday.

The clever construction has the stories intersecting, and the common link is the character known as Sam, a trick-or-treater who acts as a protector of the Halloween traditions and who first appeared in a hand-drawn animated short film called "Season's Greetings" that Dougherty made in 1996.

"Trick 'r Treat" was in development for several years before being shot and completed in 2007.

Unfortunately, the studio, Warner Bros., didn't know what to do next. Dougherty says the blend of horror and comedy confused the studio suits.

"Horror and comedy are such close cousins to me. They're bedfellows, really," he said. "When I watch a horror movie, I usually laugh instead of scream. That's my way of relieving tension, and I'm having a good time."

Dougherty, best known as one of the screenwriters of "X2" (2003) and "Superman Returns" (2006), described the period of limbo that followed as "agonizing."

"It was like being pregnant forever. Imagine you're pregnant and you tell your friends, 'I'm having a baby,' and you show them sonograms and everyone's waiting for it—they're like, 'When are you having it? When am I gonna get to see it?'

"The not knowing was really difficult because I felt like it was something special. I was still very, very proud of it. And yet there was a bit of resistance from the studio because they didn't know what it was."

That changed when Legendary Pictures, the co-financier of the film, began taking it to festivals. Reviews appeared online and the buzz started to grow.

A year after its release, "Trick 'r Treat" appears to be well on its way to securing its place as a Halloween classic.

"That's what it seems like it's becoming," Dougherty said. "There have been similar films like this in the past—not that I want to put myself up with them yet. But Carpenter's film had a really slow burn. It was not a huge success the first few weeks of its release. It took awhile for word of mouth to build. And 'A Christmas Story'—same thing. It was not a commercial success. It became a bigger hit on TV and home video, and it took time.

"Hollywood these days is all about opening weekend, opening weekend, opening weekend, and so they fall short of trying to create films that people actually want to watch 10, 15, 20 years from now. So I'd be honored if ‘Trick 'r Treat’ became one of those movies. And from what I can tell, I think it's heading down that path."

Though the studio hasn't called yet, Dougherty has plenty of ideas for "Trick 'r Treat" sequels. He also has a couple other film projects in development, including one he would direct with Robert Zemeckis producing.

For now, he's working on the Halloween party he's throwing tonight, a 10-year tradition (he'll be dressed as Indiana Jones), and watching with some amazement the life "Trick 'r Treat" has taken on in the past year.

"I feel like a proud parent who's finally watching this kid go out in the world and make something of himself," he said. "And that kid would be Sam."

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