Trick ‘r Treat

He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good … You probably recognize those words from the beloved children’s song about Santa Clause. You’ve probably sung it, laughing and giggling at a joyful time of year. You have to admit, though, those words are pretty creepy. An old man with supernatural powers watching children sleep?

Every Christmas, we can expect admonitions to respect “traditions,” even if we steer clear of the religious side of the holiday. You have to have a tree and give gifts, like it or not. Why? Because it’s Christmas, that’s why. The same is true of other holidays. On July 4th and Memorial Day, for example, we are expected to demonstrate respect for our national traditions.

I loved Halloween as a child because there were no burdensome traditions. Be whoever you want. Roam the neighborhood at will. As long as you didn’t eat candy without a wrapper, you were free to run amok. Maybe it was your friend from YMCA soccer walking next to you under that costume … or maybe it wasn’t a costume at all. You could have whatever adventure your imagination could write, and no one threatened you with coal.

Until October of 2008, when Legendary Pictures released Trick ‘r Treat. Trick ‘r Treat is set in Warren Valley, Ohio, during the city-wide Halloween festival. The school principal, Steven Wilkinson (Dylan Baker), sits beside a student on his front steps, ominously stabbing and slicing a pumpkin. “My dad taught me a lot about the traditions of Halloween,” he says. “Traditions that were put in place to protect us. Tonight is about respecting the traditions, not breaking them.”

Oh, great.

The first scene in the movie involves a woman who blows out her jack-o-lantern prematurely and is then murdered by “Sam,” a child-sized creature hidden in a burlap costume. Trick ‘r Treat seems to be a horrific version of A Christmas Carol, with Sam acting as the Three Spirits, enforcing Halloween traditions. Later in the movie, he gives similar bloody treatment to a crotchety old man (Brian Cox) who refuses to give out treats. I have to admit, I would not want to be on Sam’s “naughty list.”

The rest of the movie is a patchwork of short stories, overlapping and intersecting. The stories are done fairly well, though there’s nothing original aside from Sam. If you’ve ever sat around a campfire with friends, you’ve heard the staple elements of all of them:

  • A psychopath kills neighborhood children and turns their heads into

    Anna Paquin as horror movie character #VIR017. By touching this movie, she has absorbed its uncanny campiness.


  • A group of friends pulls a scary prank on an unpopular girl, and it backfires horrifically.
  • A girl, begging for help, is murdered in front of party-goers who think it’s an act.

This is a good movie to watch at a party, or with a bunch of friends, to make fun of. It isn’t remotely scary, unless you’re the type who worries about being eviscerated with a lollipop. (Yes, you read that right.) On the other hand, the scenery is really cool, and the writing and acting are good enough to hold your attention. It’s fun to try to predict where the stories will interact. For example, early in the movie, one character looks at his neighbor’s house and sees his neighbor at the window, shouting “help me! Help me!” He waves him off and goes back to the story he is in. Later, the movie backs up and we see the story inside the neighbor’s house and learn what he was so afraid of.

But what is with Sam? Do we really need one more omnipresent holiday symbol secretly watching and passing judgment on us? Especially considering that, while Santa tends to be portrayed as merciful and just, Sam seems rather capricious. Do we really need a morality play about the power of mutilated pumpkins to ward off evil?

As the festivities wind down, the last few minutes of Trick ‘r Treat tie a lot together, and we realize most of what we saw happened on the same street. I would hate to be the coroner for Warren Valley. The authorities will be picking up the pieces for days. What’s more, the funeral homes and grief counselors will be booked solid til Christmas. Then Jacob Marley can start terrorizing us.

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The Wolfman

“She exerts enormous power, doesn’t she, Lawrence?” Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins) gazes into a telescope at “That orb’d maiden with white fire laden, whom mortals call the moon.” At his side is his estranged son (Benicio del Toro). Lawrence, of course, has no idea just how strong a pull the moon will soon have over him.

The full moon still holds sway over the imaginations, and debatably, physiological responses, of mortals. Again and again, it draws us back to werewolf mythology. Then again, if you think werewolves are only mythology, you’re probably not one of the souls who has run into the Bray Road Beast, or one of the 102 French peasants who met their end in the jaws of the Beast of Gevaudan. The Wolfman is worth watching. I will say, it isn’t very scary. But then again, scary is hard to do.

While I wouldn’t want to tangle with a werewolf in real life, they are not among Hollywood’s scariest of monsters. Their existence is limited to two or three days a month. They have none of the intellect of Dracula, the omnipresence of Pazuzu, or the reproductive speed of Aliens. This, of course left the writers with the problem of how to build suspense and terror in between full moons and, of course, fill the movie up with enough jump-scares and bloodshed to keep a 21st century audience interested. They actually did a pretty good job. While some werewolf movies act like they have the authority to summon a full moon at their whim, The Wolfman actually allows such phenomena to happen at their natural time, bothering to fill the weeks in between with plausible plot developments.

Full moon #1: Ben Talbot, walking through Stock Scary Scene #F785, strolls alone into the woods, shouting “I know you’re out there! Show yourself!” He is then fatally mauled by the Wolfman. Never walk alone into the dark shouting “show yourself,” kids, it won’t end well.

His brother, Lawrence is summoned from London for Ben’s funeral. He returns to Talbot Hall in Blackmoore, where we meet his father, Sir John, and Ben’s fiancé, Gwen Conliff (Emily Blunt). We then get a lot of back-story about their family history and hear the locals talk of two other gruesome deaths the night of Ben’s. “Whatever did it was big, had claws, and didn’t mind a load of buckshot.”

Full moon #2: Talbot goes to a nearby Gypsy camp to inquire about a medallion he found among Ben’s belongings. A group of villagers shows up armed, suspecting the Gypsies’ performing bear caused the deaths. However, during the ensuing confrontation, a strange creature, visible only as a blur and a shadow, attacks the camp, killing Brittons and Gypsyies alike. Talbot sees the creature chasing a panicked boy, intervenes, and is, you guessed it, bitten but not killed.

As Talbot lies in bed, recovering, we get more dialogue, flashbacks, a doctor who shakes his head when Talbot is up and walking around after a week, and a visit from a rational-minded inspector (Hugo Weaving), trying to get to the bottom of the murders. By now, of course, the villagers know what’s up, and everyone is making silver bullets, though we later find out that most of them can’t hit the broad side of a barn.

Make up has come a long way since 1941.

Full moon #3, of course, is Talbot’s first transformation, after which, he is arrested, believed to be a homicidal lunatic, and suffers four weeks of, well, somewhat realistic torment at the hands of a 19th century asylum. And of course, there are more flashbacks, more hallucinations, and more back-story.

Full moon #4: We see Talbot running amok in Downtown London, which is pretty cool. Then Talbot returns to Blackmoore for Full moon #5.

The Bray Road Beast

The Wolfman is a fairly faithful adaptation of the 1941 film of the same name starring Lon Chaney, Jr. (If anybody cares.) It does, however, contain some plot enhancements worthy of modern special effects, including a great monster-vs.-monster sequence toward the end. There is also a climactic scene between Lawrence as the Wolfman and Gwen that plays out beautifully.

That said, there are also some eye-roll-worthy techniques that they use, such as cramming the movie full of dream sequences and hallucinations, mainly to give themselves enough  jump-scares and severed heads to fill up the trailer. Even without the hallucinations, this is one of the goriest movies I have ever seen. If the body count of The Wolfman doesn’t break 100, it’s got to be close, especially if you count each of the pieces most of the bodies wind up in. Think When Animals Attack on steroids. Then again, I doubt lupine predation was ever a tidy affair.

Overall, this is a highly engaging picture with an interesting story and some good action. If you’ve got a strong stomach, rent it, make some popcorn, and enjoy. Then go outside, and see if you can fight the urge to howl at the moon!

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Imagine a world where vampires live in fear. And not of Dr. Van Helsing or Blade, but of poverty, crime and environmental destruction. Sound hard to believe? That’s the world of Daybreakers (2009), directed by the Spierig brothers.

In 2019, vampires outnumber humans more than ten to one. The vampires have become somewhat comfortable with their dominant status, and now drive expensive cars away from suburban homes to boring white collar jobs in the city. Certain noteworthy changes in culture have resulted from this. For instance, all buildings and vehicles are now equipped with lead sheets that cover the windows during daylight hours, and loudspeakers broadcast warnings when there is one hour until daybreak. Vampires in suits line up at coffee stands for coffee with a shot of blood in it.

Subway commuters. And you thought vampires were cool.

But of course, there’s a problem; one that you’ve probably already guessed. With so few humans left, vampires are in danger of starvation. Most of the humans still in existence are kept sedated, hooked up to giant machines ala The Matrix, being farmed for their blood. The government rations blood more and more strictly, with those in control keeping a little extra for themselves, naturally. An increasingly fearful – and hungry –middle class hurries past dark alleys and hides in their homes, and the lower classes, “subsiders,” deprived of blood, mutate into something out of … well, a vampire movie (below).

Amidst all this, we meet Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke), chief hematologist for a corporation that controls most of America’s remaining blood supply. With riots breaking out over the blood shortage, the company is putting increasing pressure on Ed to create some kind of “blood-substitute.” Meanwhile, Ed wrestles with his conscience over being a vampire and refuses to touch human blood, to the detriment of his health. This creates a good deal of tension between Ed and his brother, Frankie (Michael Dorman), who hunts humans for the U.S. Army.

A small number of humans are still free, hiding in rural areas. After a chance meeting with some of them, Ed receives an invitation to the countryside to learn about a cure for vampirism that they have discovered, and a chance to restore balance to the food chain.

The cast drives this one home with a number of powerhouse actors. Sam Neil, whom we seem to see about as often as a real vampire, plays Charles Bromley, the CEO of Ed’s company. One of history’s most under-rated actors, Neil blends the smooth charm of a Manhattan sophisticate with the sinister nature of a bloodsucker in a fascinating way. The inimitable Willem Dafoe also appears as the grizzled former vampire who stumbled upon the miracle cure. A collection of Aussie stars (Daybreakers was filmed in Australia) rounds out the cast nicely.

Hawke and Dafoe do not suck in "Daybreakers."

Daybreakers could justifiably be called a horror movie, but not in the way one normally thinks of horror. It does get gory – even ridiculously so – at times, but it’s not about the gore. It’s about the horrors of a society that has gotten too comfortable, and is eating itself. As corrupt potentates drink blood wine and eat blood caviar, we wonder how much longer civilization can bear the strain. The pristine homes and manicured lawns of suburbia are nothing more than petty amusements the vampires use to distract themselves from their impending doom. Near the end, we bear witness to the kind of moral travesties that desperation is often used to justify. And it’s all horribly familiar; the story of our lives, retold through the bloodshot eyes of the undead.

I wouldn’t want to put anyone off this movie, because it is one of the best I have

Neil drinks blood, but still does not suck in "Daybreakers."

seen in a long time. For all of the negativity, it actually has a pretty uplifting ending (especially for a vampire movie), despite a few painfully sad moments along the way. There are also a number of genuinely fun scenes, including a hair-raising home invasion by a bat-like subsider. Even better, this scene is followed by an unintentionally hilarious crime-investigation scene, with every law enforcement cliché from the past 60 years standing around the decapitated body of this bizare creature from hell.

I figured I could get some work done during this movie, but my papers were left forgotten on the coffee table as I was glued to the screen. Daybreakers was only the second movie done by the Spierig brothers, but it’s as gripping and thought-provoking as anything out there. If you’ve got a strong stomach, it’s a must see.

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