Even Pulpier Fiction: Reconsidering the Recursive Structure of Trick ‘r Treat

While being interviewed for the documentary “Trick ‘r Treat: The Lore and Legends of Halloween,” producer Bryan Singer alliteratively high-concepts Mike Dougherty’s film as “Crash meets Creepshow.” As an anthology horror film–one that employs comic-book-style opening credits–Trick ‘r Treat certainly mimics George Romero’s 1982 film (the zombie look of the kids who drowned in the Halloween School Bus Massacre in Trick ‘r Treat also recalls the vengeful revenants in the “Something to Tide You Over” segment of Creepshow). With its ensemble cast of characters whose narratives intersect in life-changing ways, Trick ‘r Treat also pairs well with Crash. Director Paul Haggis’s Academy-Award-winning picture, though, only plays minimally with chronology. The better comparison might be with a film that pushes the envelope further in terms of nonlinear (fragmented and looping) narrative structure: Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.

Tarantino and Dougherty similarly suffuse their respective films with macabre humor and lurid imagery. Both Pulp Fiction and Trick ‘r Treat are quite self-conscious in their referencing of other movies. For example, Trick ‘r Treat pays ongoing homage to Halloween, from the use of behind-the-mask subjective camera work to Brian Cox modeling the appearance of his Mr. Kreeg character on John Carpenter (Kreeg’s incredulous ejaculation [when encountering the resilient Halloween demon Sam], “You gotta be fucking kidding me” also echoes a line from another Carpenter effort, The Thing). Pulp Fiction (with its oddly philosophical and profanely witty hitmen, Jules and Vincent) and Trick ‘r Treat also compare in their featuring of anti-heroes as main characters. As a stern enforcer of the rules of Halloween, Sam can be likened to Tarantino’s gangsters punishing those who violate the code of the criminal underworld.

One of the quirks of a looping narrative structure that recurs to earlier moments in the timeline is that a character already killed off returns onscreen. Most notably, John Travolta’s Vincent Vega is gunned down in the middle of Pulp Fiction but is still up and walking around in the closing scene. Likewise, the Halloween-hater Emma is dispatched by Sam in the opening of Trick ‘r Treat yet is later seen alive once again as the film circles back to the street parade earlier that evening. Such dynamic proves thematically appropriate to Trick ‘r Treat, since Halloween is a night known for blurring the lines between the living and the dead. As school principal/chocolate-poisoner Steven Wilkins (who resembles real-life murderer Ronald “The Candy Man” Clark O’Bryan) lectures to Charlie, “This is the one night when the dead and all sorts of things roam free and pay us a visit.” For sure, supernatural figures roam free in Trick ‘r Treat, penetrating other stories and proving alpha-predators (as seen when pseudo-vampire Steven attempts to pounce on the wrong victim and suffers comeuppance at the jaws of actual werewolf Danielle).

Guising is another familiar element of the October 31st holiday, and this, too, ties in to the narrative structure of Trick ‘r Treat. Masked tricksters run rampant in the Ohio town of Warren Valley, just as the film itself playfully jumps around between stories that ultimately are shown to overlap. Seeming trick-or-treater Sam (beneath his burlap mask lies an eldritch Halloween avatar) embodies this shiftiness as he pops up throughout in observance of various scenes of mayhem, and then in the climax performs acts of grim mischief himself against the beleaguered Mr. Kreeg. Dressed as a pajamaed child, Sam might look innocent, but he’s a violent menace to anyone lacking in holiday spirit. As Brian Cox narrates in the above-mentioned documentary, “Trick ‘r Treat‘s interconnected tales remind us that on Halloween, identity is as fluid as fog, and even the gentlest soul can shapeshift into a vicious killer.”

Trick ‘r Treat‘s chronological quirks succeed in drawing viewers back into the film. Throwaway lines and minor details (e.g., eating “bad Mexican,” “Sheep’s Meadow”) assume added significance in retrospect. The film encourages repeated viewings, which create new insights. I pop in the DVD every October, but it wasn’t until my most recent viewing that I noticed the man in the hot dog costume forming one of the werewolves’ victims (presumably this is Coach Taylor, last seen humping a pig-outfitted woman at Mrs. Henderson’s party; another adult guilty of hyper-sexualzing Halloween appears to have been fatally baited by the werewolf girls in risque costume).

At a swift 82 minutes, Trick ‘r Treat has half the run time of Pulp Fiction, but proves twice as committed to recursive techniques. Dougherty’s film makes its interweaving/backtracking intentions known earlier and more often. Tarantino’s revered vehicle has garnered plenty of attention for its permutation of cinematic narrative form, but the crafty complexity of Trick ‘r Treat no doubt deserves further appreciation.


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