1982’s Trick or Treats is hardly a horror movie. It’s more of a quirky concept infused with alt-pop homages and HollyVegas charm. An obvious B-grade knockoff of John Carpenter’s Halloween, but with nowhere near the concise vision, the film follows an aspiring Hollywood actress, Linda (Jackelyn Giroux), who is stuck babysitting a little Houdini-wannabe on Halloween night after his parents go out of town.
The boy’s family has some secrets, which we learn in the opening scene. Four years earlier, his mother, Joan (Carrie Snodgress), mysteriously had her husband, Malcolm (Peter Jason), admitted to the looney bin. The first five minutes of the film are spent as these two officers try and try and try to capture Malcolm and put him into a straitjacket. It’s both humorous and captivating in its anxious fluttering as director Gary Graver captures the natural melee with a quiet, unsettling mise-en-scène.
Our interest is immediately piqued as we sit there wondering if Malcolm is actually crazy or if his wife is maliciously trying to get rid of him. Unfortunately, most of the movie’s questions go unanswered by the end.
Four years have passed and Malcolm finally escapes from the mental hospital to get his vengeance on his ex-wife, now remarried to a pervy David Carradine—both of whom are in Las Vegas for the night. But for the audience, who spends 45 minutes watching Malcolm slowly make his way back home, we become sure that Linda’s biggest fear is actually already in the house. For almost the entirety of the film, the babysitter has to survive, not the “killer,” but the boy, Christopher (Chris Graver), as he relentlessly pulls pranks on her.
He pretends to chop off his head in a guillotine, cut his thumb off with a knife, drown in a swimming pool, in addition to various dollar-store tricks sprinkled in. Going on for about nearly an hour, these gags get repetitive after only two or three, quelling any potential story building or suspense in favor of monotonously over-establishing this “Boy Who Cried Wolf” concept (including 2 minutes of Linda literally telling Christopher the entire parable), which never even amounts to anything important.
With only about 3 scenes that contain anything of relevance to the overall story, the movie is filled with countless unintentional misdirects, including a pointless subplot about Linda’s boyfriend who keeps calling her and is supposed to show up at the house at some point that night (he even has the address), but literally never does. There are also some emphasized hints at some sort of tension between David Carradine’s character and Christopher early on, which curiously doesn’t get referenced ever again.
Not to mention, the villain himself is stripped of any mystique or suspense thanks to a homeward travail that’s too comical and arduous to be scary. We never sit on the edge of our seat terrified of when he’s going to show up at the house because he’s always shown elsewhere. The result is 45 minutes of stagnancy in the second act because that’s how long it takes for the villain to arrive. I should mention the kill count ends at 2—both of which take place in the final 20 minutes, one of which is—spoiler alert—the villain himself.
Graver, who also writes the script (and DPs and edits), realizes his villain isn’t scary and thus has him animalistically hunt down Linda in one of the silliest scenes in slasher history. Apparently unable to tell the difference between his wife and a woman who looks nothing like her, Malcolm chases our protagonist around the house for 10 minutes thinking it’s actually Joan. Also, he and Christopher apparently don’t recognize one another? The WTF “twist” in the final shot only spawns more questions.
By the end of the film, it would make sense to assume that there were more to the story than told on screen. Perhaps Joan had her husband admitted to the insane asylum after mysterious events happened around the house, when in reality it was her son Christopher committing the acts instead.
There is a cutaway segment about an hour into the film featuring two young women in an editing room, splicing together film for a schlocky B-grade horror (which, by the looks of it, is better executed than the framing story) as they expound upon the state of the genre while famous B-movie posters can be spotted all around them. It’s clear that this is what Trick or Treats wants to be—some sort of homage; a string of meta moments with inspired set design and a lively tone. And it gets halfway there but constantly feels like Graver is trying to contain a blob of goo in his hands. Every time he manages to hold on to a piece of it, another breaks off and slips away.
Linda’s bedroom is dressed in relics from classic Hollywood. Christopher’s is a drool-worthy sensory overload for any aspiring magician. The sets are colorful and homage-filled, inspired by not only these pop culture curios but the Halloween season itself, including the intermittent trick-or-treaters coming up to the door throughout the night—which just might be the highest count in any movie ever.
The performances are mostly poor, with the exception of Snodgress, but shockingly effective when you consider the campy nature of the film. Whether reacting to the tragedy of her night to the myriad of people calling on the phone or shrieking at Christopher and his nonsense, Giroux is somehow believable in her role, simply because her character is so implausible that she must just be a reflection of the actress’ personality itself. Linda gets way too angry about these dumb pranks, and her insane freak-outs give us some of the best moments of the entire film.
It’s only during a cameo by Paul Bartel as an alleyway drunk (in his least articulate appearance on record) that we can’t help but think this movie might have been something he would have written or directed—at least from a tonal standpoint. Better because of its hodgepodge of absurdities, Trick or Treats fluctuates between completely incompetent (e.g., the abundance of throwaway scenes and the overall neglect of the ostensible genre) and refreshingly bizarre (e.g., the deceptively artistic opening scene, the comical preponderance of incoming phone calls, and the news report at the hospital where mental patients go nuts in the background), showing the exact same amount of conviction in every case. Graver’s own personality shines through regardless of the good or the bad, like there’s some invisible thread running through all of it.
Funny, both intentionally and unintentionally, Trick or Treats is one of the most inconsistent directorial efforts I’ve ever seen, mixing legitimate humor and self-awareness with blatant neglect and laughable oversights. It remains unclear if Graver’s aim was to literally invert the plot from Carpenter’s Halloween (or Greydon Clark’s Wacko). But if it were, he does a pretty good job constructing at least the skeleton of the story. For a Halloween knock-off, the pieces are all there to make this a fun ride under different circumstances and better execution. But for genre completists, this is far from a grueling experience—even an enjoyable one if you lower your expectations. Just know that this movie’s classification in that genre is questionable.