Not since “Trick ‘R Treat”, which is nearly 10 years old as of this writing, has a horror anthology film about the most spooky of holidays come into the public eye, so it is understandable the amount of hype this movie received. The film, a compilation of 10 grim tales set in one unlucky town on Halloween night, promises to deliver thrills, chills and even some nervous laughs right from the beginning. The opening credits are beautifully done, setting the tone with their cartoonish pop ups and continuous feed of compelling story titles and enticing directorial nods. The film then opens formally with Adrienne Barbeau’s wonderfully creepy voice over the radio, an excellent nod to “The Fog” for those of us who appreciate the classics. But with all the industry buzz, all the spooky credits, even Miss Barbeau’s sultry vocals, does “Tales of Halloween” come through on it’s promise of ‘Tricks, Treats and Terror’? Well, boys and ghouls, let’s turn down the lights, grab a glass of of warm cider and some candy corn and see how we fare at the end of the night.
“Tales of Halloween” is a series of ten loosely related stories woven into a single runtime. Each story is written and directed by a different person, which makes judging the movie as a whole a bit difficult. The key to that sentence is the combination of “written and directed”. This is not a hack job project where they bought a bunch of scripts and had a bunch of folks go to town on them; each story is fully owned and authored by the director. That much is easy to see as you watch the film. The directing style always fits the story, for better or worse. And, just to be clear, there are plenty of examples of both. While it would be overkill to separately discuss each story, I will try to touch on them all here and then cite examples to compose an overall critique.
The movie opens with its strongest tale, ‘Sweet Tooth’. It is a classic Halloween tale at its best: a caution to children not to eat too much candy. It embraces every modern and commercial aspect of the holiday, but also keeps its horror edge sharp. This is the kind of story of murder and monsters that your parents heard about Halloween growing up, not something you ever worried about. Which is exactly what we need more of these days. The second story, ‘The Night Billy Raised Hell’, sticks with that classic Halloween vibe and adds in pranks gone wrong and devilish revenge to the mix. Barry Bostwick playing the grumpy old neighbor is just icing on the cake for me here. Darren Bousman does a spectacular job here creating a visual treat for us through lots of goofy camera play and quick action. It all made sense for me when I realized he was the guy responsible for the surprisingly fun “Repo! The Genetic Opera” and “The Devil’s Carnival”. The last of the classic Halloween stories is ‘Grim Grinning Ghost’, a ghost story about a girl driving home alone on All Hallow’s Eve. This one is tense and spooky, and really the only true ‘scary’ movie of the bunch.
Beyond those first three more traditional tales, there is a set of solid horror stories that deserve some recognition. The best of the bunch is “The Ransom of Rusty Rex”. It is well filmed, well acted, and the story has a delightfully twisted ending. I couldn’t help feeling throughout that I had heard the story before, but even now I still can’t place where it would have come from. Horror fans will appreciate the cameo at the end. Next on the list is “Friday the 31st”, which is just kooky and odd enough to be really enjoyable when you get to it. The timing of this one was is what seals it as a good addition to the film; had it been the first or last story, you would have a much lower impression of the film as a whole. It combines deformed murderers, possession, aliens and claymation all in about eight minutes of screen time. “This Means War”, not to be confused with the rom-com feature from a few years back, is another fun short that steps away from the flow of the rest of the film. It is a story of old school versus new school (well, something like new school), and kind of a way-too-metaphoric essay on the state of Halloween today. I’m not really sure what the writer was really going for, but if it was an “at face value” show of Halloween decorations and mayhem, I’ll take it. Rounding out the better set is “Bad Seed”, the final story of the anthology. While it is not the strongest, it is another story that benefits from its placement. The main characters are police officers, and the story almost serves to close out or put a wrapper around some of the other bits. The dialogue and action dances on the cheesy side, which again is perfectly okay in a movie like this. The story deals with a murderous jack-o-lantern and the officers trying to stop it. It had a serious “Halloween 3” vibe by the end, and all cheesiness withholding was pretty fun.
The last three are really not much to write home about. “Trick” tries to flip the Halloween child killer theme on its head, but doesn’t allow enough character build up to make the surprise finale much of a surprise. The gore factor was certainly there, but I’d prefer a more complete story in my Halloween anthology. “The Weak and the Wicked”, again, suffers from a lack of character development. I really enjoyed the bad-ass chick, but other than that everything about the plot seemed rushed. It also really missed the mark when it came to creature effects, I hate to say it. Finally we come to “Ding Dong”. With a little polish, this story of a childless young couple on Halloween could have been good, but I think the writer, Lucky McKee, just didn’t have enough time to develop the story he wanted. There is also the issue here of what is real and what is metaphor. I don’t think enough clues were given either direction for the audience to make an educated conclusion as to whether the dream-like sequences with the witch are supposed to be interpreted as reality or not. Lucky McKee, mind you, was the only name on the director list I actually recognized before watching the movie, so I expected more.
One of the biggest shortcomings of this film was its inevitable comparison (by general theme and structure as well as by critics) to “Trick ‘R Treat”. The two really are in a different ballpark. It’s like when people say the Alabama football team could beat the Jacksonville Jaguars. Sure, it’s fun to talk about, but in no way do they actually match up. The same goes here. “Trick ‘R Treat” has the cast and production value of an honest studio movie. “Tales of Halloween” just doesn’t. It’s not Busch League, but when you throw together a collection of ten unrelated shorts and try to stand up to a cohesive, multi-story movie that intertwines itself and has a singular style, you will fall short. “Tales of Halloween” is certainly not a bad movie, and as described above it is quite fun and shines at times, but is not the kind of movie that is going to find itself ingrained in the fabric of the holiday for years to come. I would love it if AMC or SciFi picked up the concept and did one of these every year, but that is more of the feel this movie has.
So, we’ve come to the end. The cider is gone, the bag of candy corn is empty and our belly’s are starting to feel the effects of consuming all those Halloween treats. Are we mad about it? No. Was it a good Halloween night? Definitely. Did we want more? Well, that’s the part that’s hard to say. Halloween only comes once a year, and a true blue Halloween movie comes less often than that. So while it may not be perfect, I’ll still tip my hat to a good effort and a fun time. I’ll definitely try something new next year, but this year certainly was good in its own way.