01 November 2012


At last, the Year of Blood takes us to the scariest night of the year, when witches and ghouls and ghosts and all manner of terrifying things take to ground, listening to their heavy metal music. Or, um, something. P.S. No, it's not Halloween anymore, but on Halloween itself, my internet was trying to die. We must deal with it.

Between the title and the 1986 release date, I'd be willing to bet solid money that you'd expect Trick or Treat to be a slasher movie, and on top of that, an unusually blatant Halloween rip-off to boot. At any rate, that is what I believed, and this blog is predicated on the fiction that I am infallible. But no, Trick or Treat is by no stretch of the imagination a slasher movie, and indeed you could be forgiven for the first quarter at least of the film's running time for failing to realise that it's any kind of horror film whatsoever: in fact, above and all other considerations, Trick or Treat is a gentle, friendly satire of metalhead culture as it existed in the mid-'80s, when middle-aged ladies were likelier to appear on TV attesting to how metal had turned their son into a Satanist, than curl up to watch Julianne Hough singing "Sister Christian" on DVD.

The metalhead with whom we'll chiefly be concerned is Eddie Weinbauer (Marc Price), a student at one of those pointedly anonymous suburban high schools that always show up in '80s movies about teenage outcasts, (and, for that matter, movies on the same topic from the '70s, '90s, and '00s as well; too early to guess about the '10s, but I have my fingers crossed), who starts the movie by learning the worst possible piece of news: his one true idol, rock star Sammi Curr, has died in a tragic car accident. Dismayed by the loss of the one person whose art ever gave a sense of meaning to his broken down life, and particularly such an arbitrary and random death, Eddie retrenches into an attitude more surly and antisocial than the one he'd already cultivated. But there a few glimmers of light: for one, he is able to get a copy of Curr's very last recording ever from local DJ Nuke (Gene Simmons of KISS, in the first and less memorable of the film's two celebrity rocker cameos; Ozzy Osbourne, as a morally outraged TV preacher, is the other), who received it just shortly before Curr's death, as part of a protest against the town community that refused to allow Curr to play at the high school Halloween dance, despite it being the very same high school that Curr himself attended back in the day. For two he's... actually, there's just the one thing. But it's as big a deal to Eddie as finding the Q document would be to a biblical theologian, and he plays it with rapt delight, cooing in awe over the frankly anonymous, scraping noise to emerge from his speakers. And this scraping gives him an idea: is it possible that Curr included, in his last ever recording, a backwards masked message?

More than possible: this is a horror movie, after all, and we've spent a lot of time setting up Eddie's metal fixation without anything vaguely horrifying happening, unless you count '80s hair and especially bland hair metal as horrifying. And you should, in both cases. The message Eddie uncovers turns out to be a fairly nonspecific bit of menacing language, but when he runs afoul of the two most dogged among his usual bullies, he acts on what seemed to have been advice given by the record, and manages to outsmart them, right into a fairly nasty case of detention.

This is but the first piece of evidence that Curr's backwards message isn't just meant for his fans as a body, but for Eddie specifically; moreover, the record apparently houses a consciousness that knows exactly what's happening at any moment. At first, Eddie enjoys the chance to get various forms of petty revenge on his enemies, until the voice on the record starts to suggest increasingly violent courses of action, and it becomes clear that the next step is murder - and for all his spittle-flecked promises to make them all pay!!!, Eddie is no killer. It's too late for that, though, and no sooner does he attempt to give up the record, spilling Pepsi on it and triggering a small electrical storm right in his bedroom, out of which the demonic spirit of Curr himself (Tony Fields) emerges, imbued with the ability to teleport in and out of any speaker or audio-playing medium, and shoot bolts of evil electricity to kill all those who remind him of his own torments as a nerdy high school outcast.

Trick or Treat wants so very badly to have it both ways, and to an unexpected degree, it gets to: on the one hand, it is a deeply sympathetic depiction of the sort of disaffected young man who would take refuge in the snarling, misanthropic poses offered by heavy metal, thereby putting him outside of "nice" society and further justifying his disaffection - the film certainly doesn't put its sociology so baldly, but it's clear enough what's going on in Eddie's mind - and on the other, it's a film that is, after all, about how a popular heavy metal star uses the notorious back masking trickery for exactly the purposes feared by so many conservative moral scolds: to make a deal with Satan to come back as a vengeful, scarred, electricity-shooting ghost. Metal is, here, both the things that causes all evil, and the thing that gives the protagonist strength to fight that evil. It's an awesome hedge that leaves the film defiantly free of any messy "perspective" to deal with; if there is a perspective to be spoken of, it's pretty obviously, "heavy metal is a thing we can use to sell movies", and it is not surprising to find that the movie was released by De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, the company owned by Dino De Laurentiis, a man who never met a pop culture trend he couldn't flatten out into a completely bland, non-specific cash-in. And boy, is Trick or Treat a cash in, whose litany of original songs by the band Fastway is the most absurdly vacant, commercial sort of hair metal, a genre primarily noteworthy even at its best for being vacant and commercial.

And yet, somehow, it manages to be a sort of dumbly charming, competent enough in its craftsmanship (it was the directorial debut of Charles Martin Smith, whom I am honor-bound to point out played Terry the Toad in American Graffiti, for that is the only interesting thing he ever did), and boosted by a performance by Price that is by no means good, but whose floppy-haired urgency is far more alive and sensible than most teen protagonists in most '80s horror. Not a terribly nice comparison to make, of course, but it is an '80s horror film, albeit one with a healthy dose of vaguely satiric comedy, and it is necessary to grade the things on a curve. The demonic Curr makeup designed by Kevin Yagher (of Chucky fame) is pretty damn terrific, and by the logic that no movie can be a complete waste of time if it has a good monster, Trick or Treat at least a good exercise in basic genre mechanics.

The one thing that it's not, really, is a good Halloween movie, or one that tries in the slightest to justify or even explain its title or setting. The denouement of the big Halloween dance where, naturally, Curr's tape gets played to the whole audience, thus freeing him to wreak all sorts of goofy, electric mischief (I'm sorry, but I just can't get over how ridiculous the concept of an electronic metal demon is), involves a few nifty sight gags about teens in costumes, in the aftermath of the carnage, but virtually none of the seasonal trappings you might expect - aye, and demand - of a movie titled Trick or Treat put in an appearance. It's a perfectly cute daft horror comedy trying too blatantly to court a subculture it doesn't understand, and that's all well and good; but weirdly the film might have been less of a disappointment, or at least less confounding, if it was the anodyne rip-off of Halloween that one might have expected.

Body Count: 8, and a good handful at least that are implied but not clearly depicted. The vast majority of these all come in a 75-second cluster about two-thirds in - this is by no means a body count picture.


Chris D said...

And here I thought for a minute that this was actually 2007's Trick 'r Treat, which is also a fairly charming and mostly harmless genre excercise (and an anthology movie to boot!), but much, much more laden with the trappings of its holiday.

I have to admit that I'm more attracted to this one than I probably should be, but I've never been able to pass up a de Laurentiis cash-in exercise, and this one's premise is as admirably daft as they come.

Tim said...

It is, I daresay, essential viewing for a De Laurentiis fan.

As it so happens, I was undecided between this and the other Trick 'r Treat until about a week ago; I decided to go with the '80s film now and a more contemporary film for Thanksgiving, instead of the other way 'round. And with that, I'm pretty sure I've spoiled any and all surprise as to what's coming.

Shorter said...

Next time you review a heavy metal horror flick and it stars Skippy from Family Ties in the lead role, you need to mention that. Your readers will thank you.

David Greenwood said...

"...the most absurdly vacant, commercial sort of metal, a genre primarily noteworthy even at its best for being vacant and commercial."

Tim, I've gathered that you aren't quite as much of a metal fan as myself, but please refrain from trashing my favorite genre of music quite so harshly. The vast majority of metal is defiantly uncommercial. I could make your criticism about any genre of music that I primarily know from the radio and VH1.

Don't turn into the next Roger Ebert on this one :P

Benjamin said...

Tim was talking about hair metal, though, no? Which, Motley Crue, Skid Row, pick your Poison, is blatantly commercial.

David Greenwood said...

I gathered as much, but "hair metal" should be referred to as such. Using "metal" as shorthand for Ratt and Warrant is like using Avril Lavigne to represent "punk".

Tim said...

Shorter- Holy shit, I didn't even notice that. You have my thanks for pointing it out.

The metal debate- As a fan of precision, I agree that there is a real distinction between "hair metal" and "metal" (though one the movie itself very actively fails to make), but when it came down to it, typing out "hair metal" every single time felt annoying and pedantic. Though if I ever write a review where it would have been appropriate, it was this one.

And David does have me dead to rights anyway: while I sort of enjoy hair metal in a "oh, this is non-objectionable background music that is better than something slow and acoustic" way, I do not like the heavier subgenres of metal at all.

David Greenwood said...

Tim, no worries! Thanks for the acknowledgement. I'm generally forgiving about people using "metal" to refer to whatever they think it means. Some people think all metal is Poison and G'n'R. Others think all metal is Korn, P.O.D. and Limp Bizkit. For me, it's a massive genre of music with untold varieties contained within. It's a term only slightly less loaded than "punk", so I can't get super picky about definitions.

Feel free to throw the word around. I only ask that when people trash "metal", they're particular about what they're trashing :)

Thrash Til' Death said...

What David said. Also...

"...Ozzy Osbourne, as a morally outraged TV preacher..."

WHAT THE FUCK? How have I not seen this!?

Tim said...

It is, I say with 100% certainty, the film's highlight, and sufficient reason all by itself to seek the film out.

Gavin said...

Apparently in lands far afield from Canuckia you are not required to, for hours, days yet, sit in front of movies based on Farley Mowat novels and absorb the raw, pale beauty of their forlorn cinematography and haunting message of man versus the onslaught of mankind. Or just to crib from them for long overdue book reports. If you had you would know that the best thing Charles Martin Smith ever did was run naked through a field of Caribou and urinate his way to his own predator proof enclosure in "Never Cry Wolf". If it slipped through the cracks or just slipped your memory I highly recommend checking it out. And I believe it's Disney, maybe you can include it in a new group review, "Non Animated Disney flicks" along with "Swiss Family Robinson" and the one where the stranded family and the two Japanese WWII hold overs retrofit the B52 bomber into a sailing vessel and end up getting eaten by Sharktopus. If my memory serves.

Tim said...

I sometimes have people trying to talk me into a live-action Disneython, but this is the first I've heard that a Charles Martin Smith urination picture would be waiting for me. Readers, take note: this is how you convince me to do a thing.