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Serious question: Is Halloween ever actually scary? The answer: Nope, not really.
To experience fear in October, festive people drop $25 or more to walk through elaborately designed and struggling-actor-employing “haunted houses” like NYC’s Blood Manor, occasionally jump when someone wearing a ghoul mask leaps out at them from behind a corner, and try not to laugh as they catch two dudes wearing Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers costumes share a cigarette break in a side room whose door should be closed. To show their neighbors and passersby that they have personalities, homeowners decorate their properties with plastic gravestones, and store-bought ceramic witches stuffed with flashing green or orange lights. Television networks like AMC air horror movie marathons that delete all of the gory bits and truly scary moments in order to get past primetime censors.
It’s the great big myth surrounding Halloween: everything’s supposed to be spooky, yet hardly anything is legitimately frightening. The holiday’s mood is, instead, rambunctious, and playfully morbid. Grown-ups put on outlandish costumes and congregate inside bars and house parties to drink and laugh at one another’s get-ups; youngsters dress up as a means of acquiring pillowcase-filling quantities of candy and junk food. And when it comes time to binge-watch numerous horror movies after the beer’s tapped out or the candy wrappers have all been torn apart, the chosen films should mirror the preceding activities’ vibes. Scary, but not keep-a-spare-pair-of-underwear-handy terrifying; gruesome, but tolerably so, not on par with Steven Soderbergh tightening in on a close-up of a cut-open abscess’ puss leaking out on Cinemax’s The Knick. Fun-size Snickers bars and other candy bars are meant to be enjoyed, not vomited onto a friend’s Iron Man costume.
The obvious choice for Halloween night viewing is the Halloween franchise, due to its namesake time-frame and the fact that John Carpenter’s 1978 original is one of the scariest movies ever made—not to mention the fact that Halloween III: Season of the Witch is one of the oddest yet most wonderfully demented horror films of all time and even comes equipped with a Halloween-specific earworm of a jingle. But where’s the fun in watching movies titled Halloween on Halloween? Considering all of the creativity that people put into their costumes, their after-party movie selections deserve to be equally thought-out. Watching Carpenter’s Halloween on that day isn’t unlike wearing one of those generic “Male Nerd” or “Sexy Female Cop” costumes.
Unimaginatively spending Halloween with Michael Myers, Laurie Strode, and Dr. Loomis is especially anticlimactic for a very particular reason: there are two Halloween-centric horror movies available on DVD that can be described as cinematic Halloween parties, and should be treated as such. They’re both thoroughly amusing and often goosebump-inducing and have earned cult followings without fully crossing over into the mainstream’s conscience. And together, they’re a foolproof double bill: Night of the Demons (1988) and Trick ’r Treat (2007).
Night of the Demons, directed by Kevin Tenney, unadulterated ’80s craziness. Ten high school acquaintances gather on Halloween night, in costumes, inside Hull House, a one-time funeral home that once housed a necrophiliac who murdered his family before committing suicide, and, legend has it, is now a demon that won’t leave the building. The kids are all there for one thing, the same thing to which all kids in teen-driven ’80s flicks dedicate their existences: sex. The party’s host, Angela (Amelia Kinkade), is the Goth weirdo of the bunch, so, naturally, the demon chooses her to possess. One by one, Angela’s turns the horny parties into red-eyed homicidal ghouls. Tongues are bitten off, bodies are impaled, necks are snapped, and hard-ons are wasted as kids are slaughtered mid-intercourse inside an open casket. And it’s a silly, never straight-faced hoot.
The broadly written kids in Night of the Demons are little more than archetypes whose soul purpose is to eventually die—they’re what’d happen if John Hughes received a lobotomy from Dr. Satan and tried to write a Halloween movie. Judy (Cathy Podewell), the angelic “final girl,” wears a look-at-me-I’m-innocent Alice in Wonderland costume and is first heard telling her date that she’s running late because she had to help out at a homeless drive, which is lazy screenwriter code for “Yes, in case there’s any confusion, I’m this film’s good girl”; Stooge (Hal Havins), the belligerent, overweight douchebag, only opens his mouth to spew sexual innuendo, call the nearest girl a “bitch,” or tell people to “eat a bowl of fuck,” whatever the hell that means; the wiseass rebel Sal (William Gallo) looks and sounds like he fell off the Vinnie Barbarino assembly line, and calls girls “doll face.” The only unconventional character is the token black guy, Roger (Alvin Alexis), who defies the horror genre’s odds by somehow living to see the end credits.
Even when it’s trying to be scary, Night of the Demons can’t help but cross the line into the pleasantly ridiculous. The film’s most infamous scene is also its perverse, hands-on showstopper: seconds before gouging another character’s eyes out, possessed sexpot Suzanne (Linnea Quigley) jams a tube of lipstick into her exposed breast straight through the nipple. Michael Myers certainly can’t say he’s ever done that in a movie, and a bunch of friends convening together on Halloween definitely won’t be able to cite another film in which a woman’s areola turns into a grotesque cosmetics pouch.
Nor can those same viewers complain about familiarity in regards to Night of the Demons’ closing sequence, which is such a mean-spirited joke that it’s actually darker than everything Mr. Myers does in Halloween. Night of the Demons opens and closes with a mean old man who hates Halloween and curses off trick-r-treaters with extreme prejudice. The film ends with him eating a piece of apple pie without knowing that the apples used to make it were packed with razor blades. The elderly man’s neck rips open as he swallows, and it’s pitched as a happy ending.
Trick ’r Treat, too, has a crotchety old gent (played by Brian Cox) who also despises Halloween, bookends the film, and is seen having the worst possible October 31. In that way, it’s the spiritual cousin to Night of the Demons, even down to how both films open with animated credits sequences replete with All Hallows’ Eve imagery. But Trick ’r Treat doesn’t follow lead Night of the Demons’ lead and flirt with campiness.
Written and directed by X-Men screenwriter Michael Dougherty, it’s an unquestionably excellent piece of filmmaking. Trick ’r Treat is an anthology, but not like, say, Creepshow, where there’s a framing device and neatly separated segments—Dougherty’s film mixes intertwining stories, recurring characters, and a non-linear chronology in the vein of Pulp Fiction. Brian Cox’s old mood-killer, named Mr. Kreeg, is terrorized by Sam, a sinister tyke wearing a bag over his head and carrying a lollipop; Kreeg’s next-door neighbor is Mr. Wilkins (Dylan Baker), the local school’s principal, dishes out unusual punishment to kids who steal candy; four non-klepto youths, meanwhile, venture out to a rock quarry and recall an urban legend known as “The Halloween School Bus Massacre”; Laurie (Anna Paquin), a post-college-aged virgin, walks alone at night to her friends’ campfire party dressed as Little Red Riding Hood and encounters a Big Bad Wolf of her own.
The ways in which Dougherty connects the storylines together are unpredictable and often rooted in bloody retribution, clearly drawing inspiration from old E.C. Comics like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, in which sons-of-bitches always received their comeuppance in ghastly manners. What’s even more impressive is that Dougherty accomplishes a rarity in the horror-comedy realm: he successfully plays the horror bits straight and lets the comedy derive naturally from that, rather than overtly aiming for laughs at the expense of scares. The payoff in Paquin’s story is no-jokes-about-it bleak; the ghosts involved in the “School Bus Massacre,” seen wearing creepy-looking ’50s-era, dime-store costumes, make for some of the most nightmarish supernatural entities seen in any horror movie of 2000s.
And through it all, there’s Sam, Trick ’r Treat’s mascot who, in a more just Hollywood-influenced world, would be globally recognized as Halloween’s unofficial poster-ghoul. Dougherty’s film was initially supposed to hit theaters in 2007 but fell victim to behind-the-scenes studio politics—it didn’t see a release until October 2009 and was limited to DVD and Blu-ray, robbing one of the best Halloween movies ever of its shot at theatrical exposure. The plan on Dougherty’s end was to merchandise the hell out of Trick ’r Treat via Sam, with action figures, plush dolls, comic books, and the works. As it stands, though, Sam is a cult figure hoping to someday reach the ubiquitous cult status of The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Dr. Frank-N-Furter. In Trick ’r Treat, however, Sam is the MVP, popping up in all of the segments and ultimately going toe-to-toe against Mr. Kreeg in the film’s thrilling stalk-and-chase, gallows-humor-laden grand finale.
When Sam finally removes the bag from his head to reveal his face, it’s the most purely Halloween-minded sight imaginable, one that, without spoiling any of its gnarly specifics, scares and delights in equal measure—just like watching a demonically inhabited woman push the same crimson lip balm she’s used for her costume into one of her mammaries. In each case, you won’t know whether to chuckle or cringe, and you’ll most likely do both at the same time.
There’s a good reason for why: Night of the Demons’ Suzanne and Trick ’r Treat’s Sam are the perfect Halloween power couple.