A bloodier, cheekier version of those omnibus shockers that once were stock in trade for Britain’s Amicus Prods., “Trick ‘r Treat” appears to be the work of die-hard fans who studied ’70s pics like “Tales From the Crypt” and “The Vault of Horror” with the same enthusiasm with which film-school academics deconstruct “Citizen Kane.” Warners bypassed theatrical release to go the straight-to-vid route, perhaps fearing critical reaction to, among other things, an episode in which the slaying of a tubby youngster is played for laughs. Still, this slick and twisted effort should enjoy lengthy shelf life as a Halloween perennial.
The first feature directed by scripter Michael Dougherty (“Superman Returns”), “Trick ‘r Treat” neatly apportions scary and campy elements while cleverly interlacing four storylines on Halloween night in an Ohio hamlet. The tales of terror involve a high school principal (Dylan Baker) who moonlights as a season-themed serial killer; a nasty practical joke played on a mentally challenged girl (Samm Todd) with a flair for jack-o’-lanterns; a virginal Red Riding Hood (Anna Paquin) who has nothing whatsoever to fear from big bad wolves; and a cranky old eccentric (Brian Cox) who’s brutally tricked when he fails to give out treats.
Cox gets the most screen time and uses it to great advantage as his increasingly frantic character reacts to a murderous sprite in a burlap-sack mask and a dismembered hand that won’t stay still. (His profane response to the latter triggers the pic’s biggest laugh.)
On the other hand, Baker’s borderline-comical portrayal of a homicidal maniac who specializes in young victims may be too much for some viewers — especially those who remember the actor’s seriously unsettling performance as a pedophile in Todd Solondz’s “Happiness.”
Paquin and promising newcomer Todd are effective in tricky roles. More than that cannot be said, however, without ruining the treat of two surprise twists.
It’s only fitting that, since the ’70s pics that inspired him were themselves inspired by ’50s EC Comics, Dougherty uses comicbook graphics for intros and transitions. Wisely, however, he doesn’t overplay the gimmick.
Tech values are fine.