S.1 Ep. 0: "Trick or Treat"

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2017-09-24 06:40

Written by: Franco Amurri, George A. Romero
Directed by: Bob Balaban
Starring: Barnard Hughes, I.M. Hobson, and Max Wright

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

"I've heard what you do to the children, Hackles."
"I never harmed a single hair on a single head."

During the 80s golden age of horror TV anthologies, one title was arguably the absolute king: Tales from the Darkside. The omnibus series that practically revived this trend, the George Romero-produced Darkside also perfected the format, delivering spooky campfire tales on a weekly basis for four seasons, boasting an enormity of talent every step of the way. Everything about it captures exactly the sort of demented EC Comics funhouse aesthetic I crave from the horror genre: the evocative title, the creepy theme music, the pastoral imagery during the opening credits, the eerie opening narration that insists there’s an unseen “underworld” few can see, a “dark side” lurking in the shadows. Each episode delivers bite-sized horrors of varying flavors, with most episodes being laced with that distinct sense of fun Romero refined in the Creepshow films.

Appropriately enough, pilot episode “Trick or Treat” premiered a couple of days before Halloween 1983, effectively setting the stage and tone for the rest of the series. One of the more unsung All Hallows Eve tales ever spun on-screen, the Romero-scripted debut finds greedy small town curmudgeon Gideon Hackles (Barnard Hughes) terrorizing local farmers by exploiting their various debts owed to him. One of his favorite methods comes each Halloween, when he allows the farmers’ children to visit his home and search for their parents’ IOUs. Any lucky child that can endure the horror will wipe away their family’s debt forever, though it proves to be no small task since Hackles has rigged the house full of animatronic terrors as he pushes buttons behind the scenes.

Also pushing buttons is Romero himself, who invokes everything that’s both wonderful and horrible about Halloween as a child, a time when the holiday is still simultaneously thrilling and scary. “Trick or Treat” captures that duality in the children’s excited expressions as they approach the Hackle manor, only to see it twisted into pure horror by the old man’s unhinged attraction. While Hughes’s Scrooge-like turn is appropriately broad and infectious, it’s this house that’s the true star here: tricked out with howling werewolves, ghosts, goblins, and scored by what sounds like the best Halloween spooky tape of all-time, the Hackles home is an unforgettable haunt, the stuff both dreams and nightmares are made of, depending on what age you are. As a child, you’d be absolutely terrified by it; as an adult, I you just want to get lost in it and spend hours being “frightened” by its rollicking sights and sounds, much like you (read: I) do when you venture into a Halloween store for the first time each year.

And that’s before the episode takes its obvious turn that finds the miserable old man haunted by actual spirits looking to literally drag him to hell. It’s at this point his home becomes an even more delirious collection of Halloween night tricks and treats, as Hughes’s slimy performance meets some satisfying comeuppance, thus solidifying the episode as one of the most purely entertaining works to bear Romero’s name without sacrificing his preoccupation with heady themes. In a world where the likes of Hackles continue to prey upon the working class, “Trick or Treat” is only more resounding three decades later. It’s also the perfect way to kick off October and ease into your festivities by basking in holiday’s aesthetic purest form: watching people being scared shitless by a creaky old haunted house on Halloween night.

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