Written and Directed by: Gary Graver
Starring: Jacqueline Giroux, Peter Jason, and Chris Graver
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
When Halloween Night Stopped Being Fun!
While there’s a kernel of truth to it, it’s still a bit reductive to claim that the entire 80s slasher boom was guided by the desire to ruthlessly and shamelessly rip off Halloween. Sure, it started that way (just ask Sean Cunningham), but it eventually took on a life of its own beyond the shadow of the Shape. However, if you want to find one movie where this was clearly the mantra, look no further than Trick or Treats, Gary Graver’s 1982 attempt to recall John Carpenter’s immortal classic in the most inept manner possible. Even a cursory glance reveals this obvious goal, as it swipes the Halloween setting and even the basic plot involving a madman escaping an asylum to stalk a babysitter in suburbia.
Except Graver is, of course, no Carpenter, so despite the surface level rip-offs, Trick or Treats is basically the exact opposite of Halloween. Where that film is an elegant exercise in coaxing terror from a faceless, inexplicable evil, this one is a bloated, meandering effort involving a much more banal form of evil. Gone is the faceless, emotionless Michael Myers, here replaced by yuppie Malcom O’Keefe (Peter Jason), who’s been institutionalized by his wife (Carrie Snodgrass) for reasons that aren’t quite clear: while it seems like she’s doing that to remove him from the picture and inherit his money, it seems kind of obvious that he is, in fact, fucking nuts. Not only does he go completely rabid when state representatives come to haul him off, but he also seems pretty unhinged years later when he plots his escape from the mental institution.
Remember how evocative the opening sequences in Halloween are? Well, imagine that completely flipped around here: the opening scene is a lethargic bore that sees Malcolm inelegantly fighting against an attempt to be straightjacketed, with three men falling into the pool during what feels like an endless struggle. It’s a far cry from Michael Myers inexplicably butchering his sister on Halloween night. Likewise, Malcolm’s eventual escape from the asylum—which sees him strangling a nurse, assuming her identity, and cold-clocking a guard on his way out—doesn’t quite have the same spooky verve as Donald Pleasance’s ominous ravings about The Shape as he flees the scene of Smith’s Grove.
Okay, so it’s like the worst possible way to rip off Halloween, but at least it has a pretty straightforward plot, right? Surely, Malcolm will return home post-haste to exact revenge on his wife and her new husband (David Carradine, appearing for all of two minutes but receiving a top billing nonetheless). Well, no. In the first of many inept story choices, it takes Malcolm nearly the entire goddamn movie to make it back to his neighborhood, where his wife and new lover have actually fled. After appearing early on, they promptly jet the hell out of the movie, only to be heard from once later when babysitter Linda (Jaqueline Giroux) calls to check in and complain about their holy terror of a son, Christopher (Chris Graver).
See, this is actually the plot of Trick or Treats: Linda—a struggling actress who takes babysitting gigs to pay the bills—gets stuck with this little bastard, who ruthlessly pranks her for the entire night. Like, that’s pretty much the entire movie. Aside from the occasional go-nowhere asides (like Linda’s frequent phone calls to her actor boyfriend or Malcolm’s slow approach back home), the entire film is spent watching Christopher terrorize the hell out of Linda with various pranks. To be fair, it’s not the worst because he’s one devious bastard, and the Halloween atmosphere hangs nicely in the form of dime store decorations, trick-or-treaters, and cornball haunted house sounds blaring away on Christopher’s record player. If the film can be favorably compared to Halloween in any way, it’s in its treatment of the actual holiday.
In the absence of an actual plot, there are worse things to do than watch Christopher fake various injuries (and even his own death a time or two). The gags are clearly in the spirit of the holiday, even if they do eventually grow tiresome, especially since Linda just keeps falling for them in a manner that borders on absurdity. It takes about five or six pranks before she finally realizes she should warn him with the ol’ “Boy Who Cried Wolf" parable, something you’d think would foreshadow an obvious climax where Malcolm returns home, only for Christopher’s warning to fall on Linda’s deaf ears—but nope. This is one seriously inept script, one that doesn’t pay off most of its narrative threads, including Malcolm’s quest for revenge (when he arrives home, he stalks Linda because he thinks it’s his wife, presumably because she’s wearing her nightgown—again, coherence is not exactly a priority).
An already foundationally bad film thanks to a limp script, Trick or Treats is done no favors by most of the other departments: Peter Jason plays the goofiest “lunatic” imaginable (his resemblance to Meat Loaf has been noted by other reviews), and Giroux isn’t the most compelling babysitter. Christopher himself is a mischievous little shit, though I’m not so sure what it says about a movie if one of its main virtues is that it invites the audience to crave a little bastard’s horrible death. Or is this even much of a slasher? Considering it has a grand total of one stalk-and-slash scene 70 minutes into the movie, it only qualifies as one in name only, really. And if you’re not watching something like Trick or Treats for an elaborate body count, what are you even watching it for?
Apparently, Graver assumed that he could substitute random, lethargic sequences in lieu of, you know, stuff actually happening, and it results in a shaggy film that never finds much form or purpose. It’s ironic, then, that one of its (extremely random) diversions finds two of Linda’s pals holed up in a room, huddled up next to a Moviola as they cut together a horror movie right in front of a Dracula vs. Frankenstein poster. “This is where movies are really made,” one of them insists, acting as a mouthpiece for overlooked editors everywhere. Graver (who, yes, edited this film himself) would have been wise to actually heed his own script’s words since Trick or Treats is a dull, slow affair for about 87 minutes, at which point it attempts to come to life with a bonkers ending. It’s almost enough to justify sitting through the rest of it, though, let’s be real: if you’re any kind of devotee to 80s slashers, there’s probably not much I can say to dissuade you from the notion.
And that’s okay—truthfully, I can’t say it’s among the worst of this lot, mostly because its pranks are fun (apparently thanks to Orson Welles, credited here as a “magical consultant!”) and it captures the spirit of Halloween, however vaguely. It’s rough but obviously affectionate towards exploitation filmmaking, as evidenced by a weird sense of showmanship reflected in both Christopher’s pranks and the bits of the gore film we see unfold on the Moviola. No stranger to the exploitation circuit, Graver crafts a brazen bit of nonsense with Trick or Treats, a film that sees the likes of the aforementioned Carradine, Paul Bartel, and Steve Railsback drop in and out without playing much of a role in the actual plot (which can barely be said to exist anyway).
This is genre is the cinematic equivalent of trick-or-treating: for every film from this circuit that’s a treat, there are many more that are barefaced tricks, sour duds that arrive in shiny, attractive wrapping paper. This one is more of the latter, but at least you can sense it wants to have fun, even if those good intentions are not nearly infectious enough.
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