Raw (2017)

RawSometimes the trailer for a film is so compelling and intriguing that you instantly know it’s a film you absolutely must see. For me, Raw was such a film and the dark, unusual, and clearly well-shot movie that was promised was one that I couldn’t wait to watch. Of course, a great trailer followed by months of waiting can certainly raise expectations for the film itself so the question is, did Raw live up to the hype and deliver on the high promise of the exquisitely made trailer? Well, lets discuss.

The story follows Justine (Garance Marillier), a young woman from a strict vegetarian family, who is going off to the veterinary school that her rebellious sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf ) already attends. After being forced into eating meat in an initiation ritual, Justine soon begins to have an insatiable craving for flesh that she struggles to control. That’s about all I want to reveal about the story because, truly one of the best things about it, is the shocking twists and unpredictable plot.

What’s instantly apparent when watching this film is just how incredibly well made it is. The cast, primarily consisting of young adult actors, is absolutely flawless and their strong, realistic performances are a huge part of what makes it successful. The lion’s share of the credit, however, belongs to writer/director Julia Ducournau, who’s brilliant script and assured direction, are responsible for creating a film that is visually stunning and thoroughly compelling.

It’s utterly amazing that this is Ducournau’s debut feature because, the way she skillfully balances the elements of a coming-of-age drama that’s infused with horror, is nothing short of masterful. The story is not only very different from what I assumed it would be going in, but also remained unpredictable throughout and was certainly a far cry from what Hollywood would have done with the material. The twists in the story make for some surprisingly shocking moments and the subtext about discovering one’s sexuality (and the horrors that go with it) is expertly infused into the story.

The fact that Ducournau relied on real animals and practical effects over CGI adds to the overall realism and, while this is not an extremely bloody film overall, the gore effects that are present are pulled off perfectly. All in all, this is a film that actually does live up to the promise of it’s trailer and, although it’s not exactly a horror film, it’s a horrific and beautiful journey that is very much worth taking.

4-5-stars-red

Kudzu Zombies (2017)

KudzuNo matter the size of your film’s budget there are always challenges to face. Big studio pictures have nearly unlimited resources but the filmmakers must contend with meddling producers dumbing down their vision until it’s palatable to a wide enough audience. Conversely, indie filmmakers have the freedom to explore innovative ideas regardless of their marketability but face the challenge of attaining the resources to properly execute their vision. Despite this disparity, both indie and Hollywood films are fighting for the exact same prize, the limited time and attention of a finite number of viewers.

Considering the fact that there is no shortage of entertainment to spend our free time indulging in, why would anyone choose to watch films with inexperienced actors and homemade special effects over slick, high budget entertainment? Well, the reason you chose to overlook the rougher, DIY aspects of indie films is because they are the ones that push the creative boundaries and try daring new things that the high-budget films don’t have the balls to attempt. However, when an indie film simply tries to replicate the same generic experience of a Hollywood film, but with a fraction of the budget, you are left with a product that is truly the worst of both worlds. So, is Kudzu Zombie up to the immense challenge of not only overcoming its very modest budget but also being an innovative entry in Horror’s most over-saturated sub-genre? Well, let’s discuss.

The film tells the story of Lonnie (Timothy Haug) a crop duster who tries out an experimental new chemical at the behest of a pair of corporate scientists and, since this is a zombie film, you all know exactly how well that works out. Once the outbreak is in full swing most of the action takes place at the town’s music festival as Lonnie, his friends and the remaining uninfected must battle the hordes of the undead. There isn’t really much more to the plot than that, and that in and of itself is Kudzu’s biggest failing.

Now, let me be perfectly clear about this, if you are going to attempt to tread down one of the genre’s most well-worn paths, you absolutely must bring a serious amount of innovation to the table. Unfortunately, this film seems content with rehashing the same basic “group survival” plot we’ve seen countless times before and doesn’t even attempt to break new ground. It pays lip service to the invasive plant species the film is named after, but instead of using it as a launching point for a creative and original storyline, it is simply an arbitrary catalyst that results in a very by-the-numbers outbreak.

Okay, so even if a zombie film isn’t willing to go to far outside of the box, it should at least deliver solid, well defined characters and brutal, realistic gore. At this the film also fails, as it portrays generic, one-dimensional characters with melodramatic, cliched subplots that will only succeed in making you hate them more. There is quite a bit of blood but not much in the way of gory practical effects and the ones that are attempted stand out as fake and poorly executed. There is, however, a whole lot of bargain-basement CGI used for everything from the blood splatter, to the explosions to the cartoonish looking fire, which all seem designed to ensure there isn’t even the faintest suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience.

To be fair, in this mess of CGI blood splatter and poorly conceived characters, there are some moments that the filmmakers do pull off effectively. The part where the fire-breathing sideshow performer uses his talents as a weapon against the zombies is well conceived. Similarly, the plane propellers chopping zombies and the RPG being fired into the town are heavily reliant on CGI but still pretty cool to watch.

Ultimately, this is a failed effort, but not because the filmmakers lacked the resources to make a zombie outbreak film, it fails because every instinct the they had was wrong. They didn’t innovate when they should, used CGI when they shouldn’t, and insisted on bad jokes and melodrama in place of realistic character development. Discerning horror fans would be far better served spending an hour and a half re-watching zombie films that actually do innovate the concept of an undead outbreak like Wyrmwood or 28 Days Later than spending their precious free time on a story that’s been done to death.

1-star-red

Night Kaleidoscope (2017)

Night KaleidoscopeSome movies are created with an emphasis of style over substance, a deliberate attempt by the filmmaker to craft a compelling and surreal world that does not adhere to a standard narrative format. Suspiria, Lost Highway and Beyond the Black Rainbow are just a few examples of when this artistic gamble really pays off and pulls viewers into a compelling, living nightmare that brings you along for the ride, even if it’s not always clear where that ride is taking you. Conversely, when not done properly a lack of narrative only succeeds in creating frustration and quickly bores the viewer with a series of meaningless images. So, where does a film with a hallucinatory, dream-like style like Night Kaleidoscope fall on the spectrum? Well, let’s discuss.

The plot (such as it is) centers around Fion (Patrick O’Brien) who uses his hereditary psychic abilities (along with the unknown mystical drug he smokes) to help solve crimes. His current case involves a vampire couple that are responsible for a series of murders in the city slums. He is soon joined by Isobel (Mariel McAllan) a mysterious young woman who seems to have a personal stake in wanting to defeat the vampire couple.

First of all, I want to acknowledge the style of this film and the fact that director Grant McPhee effectively uses a variety of techniques to create an authentically surreal, dream-like experience. Quick edits, single-color saturation scenes, deliberate out-of-focus shots and a purposely shaky handheld camera all work together to deliver a fluid sense of movement that is disorienting and nightmarish in the best possible way. The pulsating and ominous 80’s style synth score that’s underlaid throughout adds to the hallucinatory effect of the film and perfectly compliments the striking visual style.

However, one key aspect that separates this film from other surreal classics like those I previously mentioned is the fact that it doesn’t commit fully to the surreal tone it establishes. Swirling, disorienting montages are broken up by scenes with more standard structure and pacing. That’s not necessarily a bad strategy in general as you don’t want to burn out your viewer with images that risk becoming repetitive and meaningless, plus it can be a good time to communicate key plot information. But, in the case of Night Kaleidoscope, this is where it comes up short because unlike films where the whole plot is up to interpretation, this one has a pretty straightforward narrative, it’s just got some holes in it.

For instance, the fact that there is clearly meant to be a greater significance to the character of Isobel but it is never properly established in the plot. This leaves unanswered questions about her connection to the vampires that feel more like an oversight than a deliberate omission. Similarly, plot threads involving Fion’s employer who suddenly wants him off the case and his “psychic drug” supplier’s motivations are not properly fleshed out. This adds to an overall feeling of characters and plot points being introduced without the filmmakers having a clear understanding of how these elements work in the context of the story as a whole.

In general, the world the film creates is certainly strange. It’s a world where there don’t appear to be any mythic creatures other than the vampire couple but their existence is instantly and unquestioningly accepted. It’s a world where psychic detectives are commissioned by mysterious clients when a murder needs to be solved and actual police never appear regardless of the amount of bodies that pile up. In most cases, people in this world also seem very complacent when faced with the threat of death from the vampires but that fact does also lead to an interesting interpretation of this film as an allegory for drug use. Although, it remains unclear if that was the filmmakers’ intention as other aspects of the plot don’t necessarily support it.

Narrative issues aside, I really can’t overstate just how accomplished this film looks visually and the fact that it was made for the astoundingly low price tag of under $5,000 makes it all the more impressive. It also shows a tremendous amount of raw talent for visual flair on the part of McPhee who is a director that one would do well to keep an eye on. In the end this makes for an experience well worth having if you can let nagging concerns about plot melt away and embrace the mesmerizing surreal imagery. Indeed, this is the kind of film that is best when consumed late at night and slightly under the influence.

3-stars-red

 

 

Flytrap (2015)

FlytrapPsychological horror is often the best route to take for micro-budget films as it places more emphasis on creating an atmosphere of dread rather than elaborate set pieces. That being said, it can still be difficult to execute properly because without the gory spectacle to entertain viewers there is a greater importance placed upon the performances and the quality of the script to keep the audience engaged. The smaller the cast and fewer the locations the more important the acting and story become. So, does Flytrap, a film with one primary location and a very small cast have what it takes to provide an hour and a half of quality entertainment? Well, let’s discuss.

The story follows James Pond (Jeremy Crutchley) an English Astronomer who drives cross-country from New York City to California to take a teaching job at UCLA. He has nearly arrived when his car breaks down in the suburbs and with no cell signal to be found he is forced to knock on the nearest door and ask to use the phone. He is graciously welcomed in by the home’s beautiful but strange occupant Mary Ann (Ina-Alice Kopp) but soon finds leaving much more difficult as he becomes ensnared in a sinister plot that could effect the human race itself.

The first thing I want to say is that I think the concept itself is solid and there’s no reason that a great film couldn’t be made using it….but this is not that film. It starts off promisingly enough with an intriguing voice-over and great cinematography but after about five minutes the dialogue begins and the film takes a hard nosedive and never stops plummeting. I’d like to believe that given a better script and direction the actors here could be capable of decent performances but the writing is just so irredeemably poor that it’s honestly hard to tell. What we are left with is awkward, stilted performances that don’t portray anything resembling authentic characters and quickly become a chore to watch.

I do want to point out that I know that the performances are supposed to be somewhat off because Mary Ann and her comrades are in fact aliens disguised as humans. However, even for that, they severely missed the mark and Crutchley’s awkward performance makes him unintentionally come off as the most alien of all. What is clearly intended to come off as charmingly befuddled comes across as cringingly awkward and socially dense. Oh, and don’t worry, the extraterrestrial revelation isn’t a twist that I spoiled, it’s something that’s clumsily introduced very early in the film when Mary Ann blurts out that they’re from….(sigh) Venus. Okay, here’s a free tip for writer/director Stephen David Brooks; if you’re going to pick a home planet for aliens don’t pick one that we already fucking know can’t support life!

However, this may have been one of the film’s many failed attempts to inject comedy into the production, an ill-conceived move that proved to be the biggest detriment to it’s success by far. The attempts at humor are relentless and fall completely flat every time making for an unbearably irritating experience. Most baffling of all is the fact that so many of the “jokes” involve references to Gilligan’s Island (!). Apparently, Brooks thinks this target audience will be primarily made up of fans of bad sitcoms from half a century ago.

I also take issue with this film in any way even associating itself with the term “horror”. This is at best a weird comedy/drama with elements of a thriller that provides absolutely no tension or dread and primarily focuses on a Stockholm Syndrome induced romance between characters you will hate. And truly, this is a real shame because all this terrible, awkward dialogue is delivered in scenes that are surprisingly well lit and competently framed. This adds to the feeling that this was an enormous missed opportunity that could have had a very different outcome if Brooks had ditched the “comedy” and workshopped the script more before shooting.

I think it’s fitting that this film is posted after Romeo’s Distress on my site because they represent opposite ends of the spectrum for how a micro-budget film can turn out. I wasn’t given information on the budget of this one but it couldn’t possibly have been lower than the $2,500 spent on Romeo and that film managed to be fascinating, engrossing and highly watchable. In other words, the complete opposite of this, which can best be described as a really shitty version of Misery…..with aliens.

half-star-red

Romeo’s Distress (2016)

romeoRomeo’s Distress is a film that isn’t easy to classify as it does not fit neatly into a single genre. It’s not horror but more of a drama that’s heavily laden with dread and intrigue but also does get into more horrifying territory as it approaches the climax. As with any micro-budget film it’s success is going to be dependent on the level of innovation and creativity it brings to the table rather than high production values. So, is this film that was made for the shockingly low price tag of approximately $2,500 and shot well outside the studio system in New York state create an experience worthy of devoting eighty minutes of your time to? Well, let’s discuss.

The story follows James, (Anthony Malchar) an eccentric young man that spends his time taking pictures in graveyards, playing his ukulele and trying to dodge ass beatings from an angry jock named Bobby (Adam Stordy). When he isn’t going to court-mandated therapy or taking care of his senile grandmother, he gratefully escapes into his idyllic dreams of Jane (Kimberely Peterson) the girl he professes to love. Is he just a nice, misunderstood outsider….or is there something more sinister going on?

That’s about as much as I want to reveal of the plot because this is truly a film that is best viewed through fresh eyes. From very early on, writer/director Jeff Frumess establishes a sense of underlying menace and the feeling that there is much more to these characters than initially meets the eye. Indeed, the real fun here comes from seeing where the story will go as more and more information about who these people really are and the true nature of their relationships is slowly revealed.

Romeo also succeeds where many indie films fail by virtue of the fact that it doesn’t feel cheap. In fact, Frumess’ clever use of camera technique and color palette show an advanced sensibility and serve the story very well. The film is primarily shot in black and white with a few choice scenes, such as the dreams, bursting into vibrant color. Using black and white is certainly an artistic gamble but in this case it pays off beautifully and the film would not have worked nearly as well without it. The same can be said about the camerawork which utilizes close-ups and occasional high-contrast lighting to effectively give the film a tone that is subtly surreal.

Despite one or two weak links in the casting, the performances are generally very solid and well beyond what can normally be expected from a film of this budget. Malchar, for one, does an excellent job embodying a character that is quirky and eccentric while simultaneously being filled with sad desperation and rage. The real standout in this film however is Jeffrey Solomon who brings tremendous gravitas to the role of Jane’s father, Dale. He subtly and effectively communicates a genuine sense of menace and repressed emotional anguish that is simply mesmerizing to watch.

Now, despite the numerous positive aspects of this film, it does also have the unfortunate distinction of being one of those movies that continues past the point where it should have simply stopped. I of course won’t spoil it for you with the details but suffice to say the ending only works to the detriment of the overall story. It’s not a deal breaker by any means, but if the film had simply faded out two minutes sooner it would have immensely strengthened the overall production. But don’t let that deter you because, if you can find it, this is a cinematic journey worth taking and an experience that is well worth your time.

3-5-stars-red

Dark Forest (2015)

dark-forest“Are you ready for this? I’ve got a concept that’s going to blow your fucking minds! A bunch of attractive college kids go camping in the woods and then….get this….are killed by a deranged murderer! What’s that? It’s been done!? Impossible! What……how many times? Too many to count!? Well…..fuck it, let’s roll anyway!”

That’s how I like to imagine the conversation went down at Zell-Koj Studio when they decided to roll out the most well-worn concept in horror filmmaking as their debut feature. Okay, so obviously that’s not how it was but any time I hear that plot line being dusted off again it fills me with the same skepticism as when I hear someone is making another zombie film. But to be fair, there is a lot room within those basic structures to incorporate some very interesting and unique ideas. Films like Wyrmwood and You’re Next are a testament to that. So, does Dark Forest flex it’s creative muscles to bring us a fresh and interesting take on a tired subgenre or does it sink into a sea of mediocrity along with countless other forgotten slashers? Well, let’s discuss.

The story follows Emily (Laurel McArthur) who goes on a camping trip with her three friends to relax, reconnect and to temporarily escape from her abusive boyfriend Peter (Dennis Scullard). When Peter learns that she has gone away without him for an entire weekend he flies into a murderous rage and quickly heads off to the woods to exact his horrible revenge on Emily and her friends.

According to Zell-Koj Studio’s own press release, this was made as an 80’s inspired slasher but I take issue with low-budget horror films that simply try to co-opt that identity in order to justify campy acting and low production values. Even though the film employs the same plot devices that have been in use since Friday the 13th, the rap/techno soundtrack, prevalence of smartphones and a music video style bikini montage give it a distinctly modern feel. Stranger Things this is not.

For the most part though, the acting is serviceable for what it is and Scullard’s portrayal of the psychotic Peter does stand out as a highlight even though he isn’t given much to work with from a character standpoint. I am certainly willing to overlook a lot when it comes to the practical shortcomings of a micro-budget film but what is particularly aggravating in this case is that the film doesn’t even aspire to be anything more than a generic Hollywood slasher with a fraction of the budget. Nothing about the film even hints at attempting to be original and even a best case scenario version of this would have been nothing more than soulless entertainment.

Speaking of entertainment value, most of the kills are solid and appropriately bloody, even if the blood itself looks distractingly fake in some scenes. Unfortunately, they are presented without any suspense or tension as Peter seems to teleport around as required to kill off the expendable characters. Now, to it’s credit, the film is competently shot but then again so is Hollywood garbage like Transformers and Big Momma’s House. Competently shot should not be the single bar that a film aspires to clear.

My hope is that Zell-Koj will branch out into more innovative directions with future projects that at least attempt to break some kind of new ground. At a time when we have a virtually endless supply of genre films to watch, filmmakers need to bring something new to the table instead of just showing up with a pale version of something we are already tired of seeing.

1-5-stars-red

The Laughing Mask (2014)

laughing-maskLet me start by saying that The Laughing Mask is actually not a horror movie in the traditional sense, more of a dark thriller with horror elements. That being said, it is certainly an alternative, indie film that remains relatively obscure, like so many other micro-budget titles. So, the question is “Is this film a hidden gem that deserves to be uncovered or just another run-of-the-mill low budget flick drowning in a sea of it’s peers?” Well, let’s discuss.

The plot centers around the exploits of a mysterious vigilante killer known as “The Laughing Mask”. Jake Johnson (John Hardy) is a writer who’s wife was murdered and daughter abducted by said vigilante and has now written an inflammatory book on the subject in hopes of drawing him out into the open. Homicide detective Katherine O’Malley (Sheyenne Rivers) is also relentlessly pursuing the Mask in hopes of stopping his onslaught of murders as well as figuring out the deeper connection between them.

There are certainly a lot of things to like about this film. The Laughing Mask himself is an interesting character, a well-dressed psychopath with a creepy mask and a penchant for depression-era music. I also enjoyed his lair where he doled out his own brand of vigilante justice to guilty people who have skirted legal ramifications, via elaborate punishments based on their crimes. In addition, the use of creepy, old timey cartoons intercut into a few scenes actually works quite well as does the early twentieth century music that plays throughout. The film also doesn’t shy away from brutality and features numerous bloody kills.

Unfortunately, these positive elements are overshadowed by large, fundamental problems with the film itself. The most glaring issue here is the acting. Hardy actually stands out as the only one from the principal cast able to really deliver a believable performance. Most of the other actors sound like they are doing their first ever table read of a script and their stilted performances destroy any chance for the audience to suspend disbelief. This problem is only made worse by scenes where writer/director Michael Aguiar attempts to inject humor or snappy dialogue into the script, which inevitably fall flat. I also had some big issues with the flawed ending but going into further detail would require revealing major spoilers.

There is definitely some fun to be had with this film but ultimately with pacing that drags far more than it should and a lack of realistic characters to engage with, this film falls far short of what it might have been. With some more attention given to the script, as well as the casting, a very different outcome could have been produced. As it is, I don’t see The Laughing Mask breaking out of it’s obscurity to become a cult hit any time soon.

2-stars-red

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)

rare-exportsWhen creating a Christmas-themed horror film there are certainly a lot of different approaches you can take. Perhaps the most interesting and unconventional though, is the storyline for the Finnish film Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, which goes far beyond the standard Santa-themed slasher to bring you a story that is relentlessly bizarre and incredibly engaging.

High in the Korvatunturi mountains a foreign company unearths the ancient, frozen body of the original Santa Claus. However, this creature is a far cry from the jolly, westernized version of the endlessly generous elf that we’ve all come to know. This Santa doesn’t just give presents, he also demands the blood of the children who have misbehaved and with his army of creepy elves at his command he’s sure to get it. Now, it’s up to a young boy (Onni Tommila) and a small band of reindeer hunters to try and save Christmas, and the world, from Santa Claus.

While the idea of Santa as a demonic, otherworldly creature that rewards good children and severely punishes the bad may seem strange to many American moviegoers it certainly wasn’t created in a vacuum. The film itself was actually preceded by two shorts by writer/director Jalmari Helander Rare Exports Inc. (2003) and The Official Rare Exports Inc. Safety Instructions (2005). It also draws inspiration from classic figures of European Christmas mythology such as Joulupukki and Krampus.

Right from the opening scene it’s clear that this is a well-made film. Despite the very modest budget of 1.8 million Euros it boasts gorgeous cinematography, flawless performances and high production values. As the wonderfully strange story unfolds, Helander immerses the audience in the bizarre and surreal world he has created with well-defined, unconventional characters and an unpredictable plot that will hold your attention throughout. This is a clear example of an artist-driven project that was created without the kind studio tampering so prevalent in Hollywood films, which is why this is far more entertaining than the cheap clutter that litters much of the American box offices year after year.

Now, I should mention that this is by no means a straight horror film but rather a bloody, genre-blending mix of horror, fantasy, thriller and comedy elements that make for a unique experience that is well worth the time. So, strap on your kengät and put the Reikäleipä in the oven because it’s time to indulge in some quality entertainment from the land of reindeer. A rare export indeed.

4-stars-red

Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)

silent-night-deadly-nightWhen it comes to generating controversy, you’re unlikely to see a Christmas-themed horror film that ever stirs up as much as Silent Night, Deadly Night did upon it’s 1984 release. Despite the fact that a very similar film, Christmas Evil, had come out just four years earlier with little fanfare, groups of self-imposed arbitrators of morality fought hard to get this Santa-themed slasher pulled from theaters as quickly as possible. Even though they were successful at this and the film was removed shortly after it’s release, that didn’t stop it from crushing the box office while it was there. Despite the controversy, or more likely because of it, the film saw profits that more than tripled the original budget, even outmatching the seminal slasher A Nightmare on Elm St which was released the same week. Ya know, the film where a disfigured man’s restless spirit murders teen in their sleep with his razor-fingers. Apparently that was far less shocking to some than a killer with a fake beard and a red suit.

The plot follows the sad, tragic life of Billy Chapman who is put into an orphanage after witnessing his parents’ murder on Christmas Eve by a criminal in a Santa suit when he was five. As he grows up with the memory of that horrifying event repressed deep inside him, his trauma is further exacerbated by the abuse he suffers in the orphanage at the hands of the stern Mother Superior. Although he is able to hold on to his sanity through his late teens, a series of events finally trigger his psychotic break causing him to go on a murderous rampage dressed as Saint Nick.

Even though the plot may sound a bit silly out of context, the film plays it surprisingly straight. One of the things I was most impressed with is how well it sets up and justifies events in the story. In situations where lesser movies would simply throw an event in to move the story along SNDN really goes the extra mile to make sure that actions are logically grounded and explained. For instance, the original Santa killer doesn’t just appear out of nowhere, he is established in a previous scene as are the series of events that lead to Billy’s mental snap.

The film also takes a very interesting and unusual perspective in the way it is presented, which undoubtedly added to the controversy. Rather than having the killer be the mysterious antagonist hiding in the shadows to strike at unsuspecting teens, he is front and center as the protagonist which is a perspective that makes audiences far more uncomfortable. In addition, he is also a very sympathetic victim of horrible circumstances and the scenes of his tragic childhood are truly sad and upsetting. However, rather than dwelling on long scenes of exposition SNDN provides just enough information to build the story to it’s inevitable outcome and doesn’t get bogged down in filler that slows the momentum.

The film also gives you a great sense of the characters who all feel like real, fleshed-out people rather than two-dimensional stereotypes, regardless of the size of their roles. This adds more dramatic weight to the kills when they occur and keeps the story far more interesting. Also, the kills themselves are brutal and pulled off incredibly well, especially the classic antler-impalement scene that is not only iconic, but chillingly beautiful in it’s execution.

All in all, an excellent addition to any horror fan’s Christmas list and well deserving of annual viewing to really get you in the mood for the season of mall Santas and commercial excess.

4-stars-red

Trick ‘r Treat (2007)

trick-r-treatA lot of movies take place on particular holidays but a true ‘Holiday Movie’ really steeps itself in every aspect of the day it’s representing. In general I find that Christmas movies are the best example of this as they are so often packed to the gills with festive imagery and (gag) “heartwarming” sentiment. Well, for those of you looking for a film that honors a darker holiday with the same level of detail and enthusiasm you’d be hard pressed to find one that does it better than Trick ‘r Treat.

The movie consists of four interwoven stories that all occur in the same suburban town on Halloween night: A murderous school principal (Dylan Baker) struggles to hide his victim’s body; A young woman (Anna Paquin) tries to find the perfect guy for her “first time”; A group of kids explore the site of a child massacre and a grouchy old man (Brian Cox) contends with a very unusual trick ‘r treater.

There are certainly different ways to present an anthology film but if you are going to have interconnected stories this is the way to do it. The stories flow into each other seamlessly as opposed to feeling awkwardly forced together like in some anthologies. The characters also cross over into each others’ stories in significant ways rather than just with token appearances.

This fluidity can be largely attributed to the fact that Michael Dougherty wrote and directed the entire film instead of giving each segment to a different director. While I do like the collaborative nature of anthologies made by multiple artists, it can also backfire when the styles are too at odds with each other. In this case, Dougherty’s slick, cohesive production is proof positive that he was up to handling the task solo.

But cohesion aside, without a solid story, a film has no chance of holding your interest. Luckily, Trick ‘r Treat easily delivers in that aspect as well with a storyline that is fun, engaging and surprisingly dark. The film certainly doesn’t shy away from violence or disturbing subject matter and will keep you on your toes with an unpredictable plot where no one is guaranteed to make it out alive. In addition, the film delivers on some solid moments of black comedy (especially from the principal, that wacky child murderer) that add levity without bringing you out of the world of the film.

The entire production also feels incredibly professional with solid acting across the board and a sleek, polished look. In essence, a film that has the production value of a Hollywood movie with an unconventional indie storyline, which is the combination you’re always hoping for but rarely get. When you toss in the fact that the film is packed with wall to wall Halloween imagery, you get a movie that not only properly honors the occasion but deserves to be put on the annual viewing list with other holiday classics.

4-stars-red