Friday, October 23, 2015

Tricks and Treats

Year: 2015
Run Time: 1 hour 32 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

I was very excited to see Tales of Halloween, a holiday anthology film that features a very unique group of indie directors and actors, many of whom I personally know. I learned a very important lesson from this screening: Don’t write reviews where your friends can read them.

Don’t get me wrong, the film isn’t awful, but the relative quality of each segment makes for some wild swings across either end of the spectrum. At the end of the day, it’s a fun flick with a real sense of community (cemented in by bucketloads of cameos and lots of crossover performers that highlight the fact that every story takes place in the same town) made for the most microscopic of budgets, so it can be forgiven  few flaws. There’s a patch in the middle that is a rough trudge to get through, but it comes out sparkly clean by the time the substantial credits roll.

What follows is a review of each individual segment in order, capped off by a ranking of the worst to the best.

Sweet Tooth

Director: Dave Parker
Cast: Daniel DiMaggio, Madison Iseman, Hunter Smit

A vengeful ghost pursues those who don't save him any Halloween candy.

Sweet Tooth is an excellent place to begin any proper Halloween anthology. It’s intrinsically focused on the childlike perception of the holiday as a night of sweet candy joy laced with spooky figures lurking in the shadows. It also introduces a compelling local legend, a boogeyman used to scare kids away from overindulging on treats. Sweet Tooth is simple, compact, and bloody, just right for a night of cinematic trick or treating.

Fun-Size Treat: One of the candies is called a Carpenter Bar, which is a sly reference to the Halloween auteur but probably doesn’t taste very good.

The Night Billy Raised Hell

Director: Darren Lynn Bousman
Cast: Barry Bostwick, Marcus Eckert, Christophe Zajac-Denek

A young kid attempts to egg an elderly neighbor's house and learns what a real Halloween prank is.

The Night Billy Raised Hell is an organic but regrettable follow-up to Sweet Tooth. It carries on that short’s sense of glib spooky fun with a stellar twist attached, but it’s over marinated in humor There are several reasonably diverting twists on Halloween pranks that escalate to absurd levels, but the short is marred by some truly unfortunate sound design. As the lead actor hams around like a Keystone stooge, wacky effects accompany his every move like he’s on one of those awful wacky radio shows. It’s an immensely frustrating, over-the-top approach to what could have been a taut, reasonably silly piece.

Fun-Size Treat: The final coda as the segment cuts to black is by far the best-timed punch line of the whole film.


Director: Adam Gierasch
Cast: John F. Beach, Tiffany Shepis, Trent Haaga

A group of drunk and stoned adults is beset by homicidal trick or treaters.

Here’s where things really start to backslide. Trick starts off strong with some deft Steadicam work and impeccable timing, but it swiftly degenerates into a nonsensical twist ending. The twist is bad enough, but it is introduced in a manner so ham-handed that it’s like an entire supermarket meat department topples over your head. This segment is the one where you really start to notice how the actors are indicating more than truly performing heir roles. This works for the basic, sketch-like nature of the film, which needs to set up each story ASAP, but makes the weaker entries even more unbearable to watch.

Fun-Size Treat: A friend of mine’s daughter is a trick or treater in this one, and she’s the most adorable punkin you’ve ever seen.

The Weak and the Wicked

Director: Paul Solet
Cast: Keir Gilchrist, Grace Phipps, Booboo Stewart

A young teen seeks revenge on the hoodlums that wreak havoc in the streets.

This teenybopper revenge tale is a right mess. I have literally zero bead on what the tone is supposed to be. The baddies are intended to be archetypes, but the flit from cliché to cliché without piecing any of it together. Are they dirt biking bullies? Anarchical hood rats? Straight-up sociopaths? Their motivations are obliterated by a startlingly weak reveal that undermines comprehension and ruins any catharsis that may have come out of the story.

Fun-Size Treat: The lead actor, Keir Gilchrist, will forever live in my heart thanks to United States of Tara.

Grim Grinning Ghost

Director: Axelle Carolyn
Cast: Alex Essoe, Lin Shaye, Barbara Crampton

A frightened woman thinks she's being stalked by a ghost who kills those who see her face.

This one’s a return to form following two incredibly weak entries. It’s not complex or particularly striking, but it’s eerie and enjoyable with some fun cameos (though I do feel that Barbara Crampton is cruelly wasted here). This segment has the strongest visual sense of the first half of the anthology, making smart use of shadow, silhouette, and encroaching fog to drive home the sense of being followed. The dialogue is a bit oversimplified (“Sh*t. Sh*t. Sh*t!”), but there’s excellent use of a song and the story clips by at a steady pace. Nothing to complain about here.

Fun-Size Treat: Lin Shaye!

Ding Dong

Director: Lucky McKee
Cast: Marc Senter, Pollyanna McIntosh, Lilly Von Woodenshoe

A barren woman forces her husband to act out a twisted Hansel and Gretel delusion while handing out candy.

Oh man. I almost didn’t make it through this one. The gender politics alone are execrable (a woman doesn’t have a baby, so she becomes a shrieking demonic harpy), but this entire segment is right next door to unwatchable. The wacky sound effects are back, this time accompanying an infuriatingly frequent shot of the lady adjusting her boobs before opening the door to children (why?), the scene frequently cuts to faux avant-garde shots of a four-armed demon lady (why??), and the acting brings to mind the bat guano shrieking of the John Waters-esque aunt from Sleepaway Camp. It’s a shrill, unappetizing descent into madness. Nestled within the various segments in this film, coming across Ding Dong is like the classic Charlie Brown scene: “I got a jumbo candy bar!” “I got a regular candy bar!” “I got a rock.”

Fun-Size Treat: The husband, who looks like he’s 14 years old, is too squeamish to say the word “vasectomy.” Maybe he IS 14.

This Means War

Director: John Skipp & Andrew Kasch
Cast: Dana Gould, James Duval

A polite, orderly neighbor attempts to shut down the raucous party across the street.

An overly simple story that goes absolutely nowhere, at least This Means War feels like a coherent anthology piece, albeit a slightly weak one. There’s a frankly astonishing amount of air guitar, which I’m pretty sure no human being had actually done since 1997, but other than that, this one slides in one ear and out the other.

Fun-Size Treat: The phrase “monster up” is used at though it’s slang that we’re actually supposed to know.

Friday the 31st

Director: Mike Mendez
Cast: Amanda Moyer, Jennifer Wenger, Nick Principe

A slasher villain is visited by a trick or treating alien.

If you survived the gauntlet that is the middle third of this anthology, you earned the bliss that is the next three segments. Friday the 31st is the weakest of the trifecta, but it’s a zany, gooey genre exercise with the world’s most adorable Claymation alien. The pure enthusiasm of this pieces even excuses the extremely silly Monty Python-esque effects, though I do wish that the climactic battle didn’t feel like such a turn-based, unvaried hack ‘n slash.

Fun-Size Treat: “Twick or Tweet!”

The Ransom of Rusty Rex

Director: Ryan Schifrin
Cast: Ben Woolf, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Sam Witwer

Two criminals attempt to kidnap a millionaire's son for ransom, but get more than they bargained for.

Now that’s what I’m talking about! With a classic anthology reversal setup, this segment is witty, exciting, and packed with Halloween cheer, propelled by two of the strongest performances of the entire film (American Horror Story’s Ben Woolf – may he rest in peace – and the lead kidnapper), The Ransom of Rusty Rex is quippy, over-the-top fun!

Fun-Size Treat: The millionaire is played by John Landis, director extraordinaire of An American Werewolf in London, The Blues Brothers, and Animal House.

Bad Seed

Director: Neil Marshall
Cast: Kristina Klebe, Pat Healy, Greg McLean

An evil jack-o-lantern stalks the streets, devouring those it comes across.

I suppose I intrinsically trust the director of The Descent, only one of my favorite horror flicks of all time, but I have good reason to. This segment is a great end piece to leave the film on a high note. With references to every other segment, Bad Seed simultaneously wraps everything up while telling its own outrageous story. The pumpkin monster is perfectly realized, and the gags produced from the detective’s pursuit of the monster are some of the best in the entire film. And their ending is a pitch perfect final note for both the Twilight Zone-y piece and Tales of Halloween as a whole.

Fun-Size Treat: Axelle Carolyn, Neil Marshall’s wife (and producer of Tales of Halloween/director of Grim Grinning Ghost) is shown being dragged away by cops in the police station.

Official Ranking:

#10 Ding Dong
#9 The Weak and the Wicked
#8 Trick
#7 This Means War
#6 The Night Billy Raised Hell
#5 Friday the 31st
#4 Grim Grinning Ghost
#3 Sweet Tooth
#2 Bad Seed
#1 The Ransom of Rusty Rex

Only the top six are worth watching, but that’s honestly a decent track record for this type of anthology.

TL;DR: Tales of Halloween is an uneven, but enjoyable ode to the October holiday season.
Rating: 6/10, quite literally in this case.
Word Count: 1639

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