If there is a genre in which anthology films are more popular than they are in horror, I know not what it is. V/H/S, The ABCs of Death and their sequels are just some of the examples we’ve seen over the past couple years alone. And in the month of horror, they present a new angle for Cult vs. Mainstream: Multiple rounds of short film vs. short film.

But while horror anthologies sound like the type of movie cult followings were made for, and Trick ‘r Treat is an impressive film that’s already rising through the ranks as a popular cult classic, standing in its way is a movie with one of the most unsettling classic TV shows of all time to draw from. Twilight Zone: The Movie drew inspiration from three classic episodes of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, and while segments of it were called disappointing or uneven, it spared no expense in talent. The movie brought four acclaimed directors, a handful of big name actors, and several returning stars of the original show, and though it wasn’t the blockbuster they were hoping for, it was far and away a mainstream success. Let the battle of thrills and chills begin.

Round 1: Time Out (Twilight Zone: The Movie) vs. The Principal (Trick ‘r Treat)

Time Out: Impossible not to address, this short (the only one not based on an episode of the show) is remembered more for the tragic deaths on set of its star, Vic Morrow and two child actors during an attempt to shoot an alternate ending, when a helicopter spun out of control and crashed into them. Right or wrong, this already makes me wish I could show more respect to the project they were working to complete at the time, but my actual feelings on it are mixed.

Bill Connor (Morrow), is a Korean War veteran and a bigot, furious at a potential promotion being given to his Jewish co-worker instead of him. After flaring up in a bar despite his friends’ attempts to keep him calm and going on a racist tirade that turns several heads, he stumbles outside and finds himself in the middle of occupied France. Despite the fact that his appearance hasn’t changed from our point of view, everyone he meets sees a Jewish man, including the Nazis. This scenario is then repeated with a mob of Ku Klux Klansmen and in a jungle during the Vietnam War.

The opening in the bar toes the line in becoming too obvious, sometimes making Connor sound deliberately self-defeating. (“So what if he’s been there longer than me?” he says of the man who won the promotion he wanted.)  And his predicament makes what’s happening a little too clear, including the fact that there’s not going to be much more to it, making it feel gimmicky. None of it really swings for deeper truths, content to return the favor to its antihero protagonist. Morrow hits every note as a vengeful bigot in a bar and a bewildered but resilient man fleeing for his life, and as a morality piece, the simple and undeniable statement that you would change your tune if it had been you does pack a direct sort of power. But as a story, it’s still just okay.

 

The Principal: The less disjointed Trick ‘R Treat begins with the story of a punk named Charlie in a shirt that says “This IS my costume” smashing jack-o-lanterns and stealing extra candy, until he’s caught by his principal, who offers him more candy, claiming he was just the same at his age. He sits with him and tells him how his dad set him straight, making sure he knew that Halloween was about the spirits of the dead paying them a visit and that all the traditions we know and love were started to protect us. He then mentions the rule he likes to remind kids about as Charlie begins vomiting blood and chocolate: Always check your candy.

The rest of the short takes us through a half-hour of Halloween in the life of this mad principal, burying children’s bodies in the backyard in between preparing for a date and carving jack-o-lanterns with his son. It’s both entertaining and morbid, and it sets the stage for what’s to come very well, building from the introductory segment featuring a brutal but obscured murder. It also ends with a sick and delightful little twist that gets the blood flowing.

 

Winner: The Principal. It’s short and simple, but it, erm, executes what it offers us very well and gets the show moving with style. You could do worse for setting the stage than Time Out, which makes the necessary statement that no punches will be pulled where they’re needed, but it stumbles with that ominous Twilight Zone sense of the unknown and the undefined, leaving us hoping for better things to come.

 

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Round 2: Kick the Can (Twilight Zone) vs. Surprise Party (Trick ‘r Treat)

Kick the Can: The segment by the one and only Steven Spielberg, this one reinvents the classic Twilight Zone episode of the same name in which the residents of a retirement home discover the secret of the fountain of youth: Youth is a result of the games, the enthusiasm, and the general belief in magic that children take part in, not the other way around.

Unfortunately, Spielberg’s version loses its edge by making it too easy for the residents, providing them with a spirit guide of sorts (Scatman Crothers) who essentially does it all for them. Not only was the original main character’s journey to recover his youth far more moving for how it was sometimes cast into doubt, it provided the opportunity for more thoughtful speculation. Not only that, Spielberg’s version wraps everything up a little too neatly. While the question he answers about the original ending was at least worth asking, it didn’t distill the very poignant statement made when one party ran off at the end and one party was left behind. Admittedly, the character played by Crothers is a show-stealer, and his optimistic message is infectious. But an encouraging message is all it really has to offer. The story is almost a flat line.

 

Surprise Party: I’m technically going a bit out of order here to match my least favorite segments from each movie against each other. But it’s easier to get away with that in this movie, since all the plot threads are interwoven, taking place simultaneously across one night, so all the characters are first introduced early on.

This one is something of a Little Red Riding Hood parable, focusing on a young adult named Laurie, the youngest of a group of sisters who have plans for a massive Halloween party. She is worried because together they’ve planned for this to be the night that she loses her virginity, and she still hasn’t found anyone to go to the party with. Meanwhile, a man in a carnival begins making love to his date, only to reveal a set of vampire fangs and kill her. He then sets his sights on Laurie, making her way to the party alone, naturally wearing a red cloak.

The problem with this one is that it seems self-impressed with its reveal of who is actually the wolf and who is the unsuspecting passerby. That it was supposed to be a biting reversal (no pun intended) would make it a little smug to begin with, but they spend so much time shoving it in our face, that it stops being creepy or suspenseful  and becomes… almost sadomasochistic. And in case you think that’s taking it too far on my part, let me note that it never forgets Laurie’s original goal in this story. In fact, it’s so preoccupied with casting our vampire in a new light during the big reveal, I didn’t catch that he’s actually someone we know the first time.

 

Winner: Surprise Party. Kick the Can may be better at spreading good feeling, but even if it’s too clever by half (and it’s true my disdain may partly rest on sheer personal preference), Surprise Party knew how to stage a story. It puts its pieces into play in a way that gets our attention, which it holds with skillful rising action, and if nothing else, the ending doesn’t break our interest in what’s going on – if “interest” is the right word.

Trick 'r Treat

 

Round 3: It’s a Good Life (Twilight Zone) vs. The School Bus Massacre Revisited (Trick r’ Treat)

It’s a Good Life: This one reimagines the story of Anthony Freemont, a boy with the power to make pretty much anything he wants happen. I probably shouldn’t be so blatant, but wow does the movie pick up steam from here.

In this version, Anthony does not keep his hometown under his thumb while making the rest of the world disappear. Instead, he collects people he likes, using them as family members to replace the ones he got rid of while keeping them trapped in a remote house at the end of a street. But you may remember that this was still enough for me to rank him 8th on my list of the most evil children in movie history. In this story, he meets a woman named Helen at a local diner and takes a liking to her after she stands up for him, getting her to drive him home. Understandably, it takes her some time to realize how things work at his house.

Anthony’s favorite pastime by far is watching cartoons, and his home and “relatives” seem created in a very twisted image of one. Uncorking the secret of Anthony bit by bit, it comes together to create a very ominous and suspenseful atmosphere, like a version of Wonderland in which Alice is everyone’s worst nightmare. Some of the tensest moments come from the other’s attempts to keep Anthony happy and reassured without giving away his secret. But the new angle depicting him as truly wanting to be seen as good adds some qualities that are less horrific, as well as some that are even more so. In some ways, it’s superior to the highly regarded TV counterpart, and overall, I’d have a tough time picking a winner between them. They’re both their own distinct creation. But I will say that this one is certainly the wilder ride.

 

The School Bus Massacre Revisited: Here’s where Trick ‘r Treat gets into the territory of urban legends, in all their thrills, chills, and premises requiring suspension of disbelief. A group of kids, allowing a nerdier girl into their ranks, visits a lake at the bottom of a ravine, where a wrecked school bus still lays. The legend says that a group of parents, ashamed of their children with special needs, hired the bus driver to take them away and dispose of them. But upon reaching their stop, one of the kids panicked and attempted to take the bus “home,” driving it off a cliff. Only the driver survived. But are the spirits of the unloved children still around?

This segment involves the classic fake-out scare that turns out to be someone’s idea of a prank, followed by the real McCoy. It’s well-staged and pretty horrific, make no mistake, but it does lose points for its jumbled depiction of hardball between the pranksters and the victim, which ultimately makes the resolution feel forced. It probably would have been better if it hadn’t portrayed one of the pranksters as repentant and instead just let their comeuppance be a simple case of horribly just desserts.

 

Winner: It’s a Good Life. You probably saw it coming a mile away (after all, it wouldn’t be much of a match if Twilight Zone wasn’t able to get a win in by now), but it really is a well-won victory. The School Bus Massacre Revisited may be a haunting little nightmare with a distinctly Halloween feel, but it’s reliance on forced tropes can be annoying, and it gives away the movie’s hand a bit, making the endpoint it secretly wants to take all of its protagonists to seem obvious. It’s a Good Life is almost a movie’s worth by itself, with a conflict, an arc, and a resolution that are all effective and entertaining every step of the way.

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Round 4: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (Twilight Zone) vs. Sam (Trick ‘r Treat)

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet: Now here’s where George Miller, the director of the Mad Max series, steps up. This is easily the most remembered of the four segments, telling the story of a man in an airplane who’s so afraid of flying that he’s borderline-bothersome to the other passengers. Then he thinks he sees a man on the wing of the plane, realizing too late that it isn’t possible, as everyone looks to see what he’s screaming about and sees nothing. There couldn’t be a man out there, or a gremlin-like creature, when he gets a better look. It couldn’t be sitting on top of the wing’s engines, gleefully tearing them apart, knowing that it’s only been spotted by one scrutinized man who can do little to stop it. After all, if this happened to be the one time that such a paranoid delusion really was happening, that would be downright horrifying.

This one improves the tension and the atmosphere of the original by making the protagonist weaker and more unsure of himself, while matching him against a gremlin much more vicious and cunning, with every intention of seeing the plane crash. Add to that an aisle full of rowdier, less wooden passengers and the plane itself portrayed as much more vulnerable, blowing sparks from its motors into the dark and stormy night, and you’ve got a version that’s even more alive than the first. And if you’re expecting me to call it even overall out of respect, like the last segment, you’ll be disappointed. Here, the movie flat-out surpasses its source, not just appreciating what the first one captured but taking it to new heights. It might just be the best segment in this movie.

 

Sam: To close out Trick ‘r Treat, we have the payoff to the little trick-or-treater in a burlap sack mask who’s been showing up to view the horrific incidents of the night. His name is Sam, and he’s a sprite of sorts who takes it upon himself to enforce the Halloween traditions. Or maybe they’re all that keep him at bay. Either way, there are certain things he doesn’t forgive on Halloween, like the bitter, shotgun-toting neighbor of the principal in the first segment using his dog to scare away trick-or-treaters.

What results is a haunting of pain and torment that the man won’t soon forget. With sharp, intense visuals and a gradual sense of no escape that descends (but never completely envelopes) the struggle, this would have to get my vote as the best of the segments. Just when I’d decided the movie had played its hand and lost any power to surprise me, this part actually managed to throw off my expectations with a nice twist or two, and even though it’s stripping what we’ve already seen to its essence, it feels fresh. It seems the simpler segments, in which we definitely know what we want to happen, were what the movie did best.

 

Winner: Both stage the danger and the action very well, complete with pitch-perfect twists when the main characters come face to face with their demons, but in the end, it has to be Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. The scenario is just more layered, with the additional angle of confrontational characters who don’t believe the protagonist and keep making the situation more desperate. It’s another segment that’s practically a movie’s worth on its own.

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So now we’re out of segments to compare, and the score is tied at 2 apiece. How to tip the scales? Well, there’s the fact that Trick ‘r Treat is actually the story of different events on the same Halloween night and in the same neighborhood, so its story has a sustained narrative. But the problem is, it detracted almost as much as it added, since knowing that the stories were serving the same goal and would be told in a similar style made some of them seem more predictable and obligatory. Plus, The Twilight Zone has its own loose narrative of sorts connecting the segments, just in a murkier format that feels very fitting of the original show’s claim that all its episodes took place in the titular Twilight Zone.

And don’t even ask about trying to look at them “as a whole” to see which one looks better overall. If I thought that would cast anything in a different light, I would have taken that approach in the first place. It’s true that the first half of Twilight Zone: The Movie is sometimes dismissed altogether, so some might say that Trick ‘r Treat stays on its feet from start to finish while Twilight Zone: The Movie doesn’t last the distance, but I don’t agree. Time Out may not bring out its full potential, but it still gives us a fierce little tale with a strong lead performance, and I would at least take it over Surprise Party. In fact, it could probably give Surprise Party a lesson in just desserts, turning the tide on a predator in a way that is bold, not smug. Plus, there’s something to be said for the movie that emerges with both of the two strongest segments.

 

So what could decide this… oh, of course! The intro and epilogue segments:

Twilight Zone: The Movie: Albert Brooks and Dan Akroyd, two nameless men in a car who barely know each other, are driving down a road in the middle of the night. After Brooks, the driver, attempts to add some excitement by turning off the headlights and leaving the open road a mystery, Akroyd objects, and they instead start playing TV theme song trivia. After some entertaining callbacks, the conversation drifts to old episodes of The Twilight Zone and how scary they were. Akroyd then asks if Brooks wants to see something really scary and gets excited when Brooks accepts.

“Are you ready?” He asks. “You sure?”

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…Didn’t see that coming. Yeah, that’s a good place to start the Serling-esque narration.

 

Trick ‘r Treat: A young couple is coming home on Halloween. They debate whether to extinguish the jack-o-lanterns before the night is over and then agree that they should end the night with sex (had to get that in here somehow). While the guy goes to get everything ready, the gal takes down the decorations, opting to blow out the candles after all, at which point she is attacked and killed after a prolonged but obscured struggle. We do, however, catch sight of a soon-to-be-familiar burlap sack.

 

I’m gonna have to give that one to Twilight Zone. It’s both funnier and more surprising. Trick ‘r Treat’s sets the stage pretty well in its own right, but as its own portion, it’s a bit more typical. So this is your last chance, Trick ‘r Treat, the closing segments:

Trick ‘r Treat: Our shotgun-toting neighbor, now bandaged and bruised enough to look like a mummy, has finally gotten into the spirit of things. He hands out candy to the last of the trick-or-treaters before stepping out onto his porch to witness the resolution to each of our stories, with some characters driving by in triumph, some walking in a trance-like state, some now missing companions they had before, and one familiar woman about to be paid a visit from Sam. He steps back into his house when he hears another knock at his door and – darn it! Did you really have to tack on an ending that makes his story feel like all the other ones after all? Oh well. I guess it was still pretty solid.

 

Twilight Zone: The Movie: Our unfortunate airplane passenger is being taken away in an ambulance, just glad that it’s all over. The driver, deciding there’s no rush, turns off the sirens and offers to play some music, which the grateful man accepts. The driver puts in a familiar tune.

“So you had a big scare up there, huh?” Asks the driver, Akroyd, turning to him. “Wanna see something really scary?”

 

…You know what, Trick ‘r Treat? You may be a cult classic, and an ethusiastic love letter to the season, and maybe even the best Halloween movie we’ve had in decades. But when it comes to sheer lore, even you’re out of league… in The Twilight Zone.

Winner:

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Score:

Cult: 3

Mainstream: 3

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