Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Film Appreciation - Rock's Chosen Warriors Will Rule the Apocalypse

Cody Hamman rocks out some Film Appreciation for the 1986 Halloween horror film Trick or Treat.

Eddie Weinbauer (Marc Price, best known for playing Skippy on Family Ties) is not having a good high school experience. He's an outsider, he doesn't fit in with the crowd, feeling surrounded by "air heads and brain deads". He is constantly bullied and humiliated by the popular kids, especially by a guy named Tim (Doug Savant), and the girl he likes - Leslie (Lisa Orgolini) - is in Tim's social circle. Leslie is a better, nicer person than her friends, but when she attempts to reach out and make things right with Eddie, it goes disastrously wrong.

Depressed, Eddie considers suicide. The only thing that keeps him going is the music of his idol, Sammi Curr. Curr was from the same town as Eddie, and his success gives Eddie hope that he can go on to do something with his life as well. Under the pen name Ragman, Eddie sends a steady flow of letters to his hero, letters in which he pours out his heart and soul to the only person he thinks could understand him.

Things have been a bit rough on the Curr front lately, too. The rocker had wanted to come back to his home town to play at the high school's Halloween dance, but the adults banned him from doing so because of his questionable, suggestive lyrics and disturbing on-stage antics, which has included biting into a snake, tearing it open, and bathing in its blood.

The blow of the banning is nothing compared to the devastation Eddie feels when he hears that Sammi Curr has been killed in a hotel fire. He visits local radio DJ Nuke (Gene Simmons of KISS), a guy who went to school with Curr, to talk about it, and Nuke gives him a gift: a studio demo of Curr's last-ever recording. It's something that Curr sent to Nuke with the instructions to play it at midnight on Halloween. Nuke recorded it to tape to play when the time comes, so Eddie can have the original record.


Eddie puts on that record, and Trick or Treat's horror elements truly kick in. Falling asleep listening to it, he envisions Curr performing what appears to be a Satanic ritual in a hotel room as the place burns down around him. When he wakes up, the record is skipping, and while fixing it he runs it backwards... discovering messages from Curr to him that guide him through standing up to his bullies and getting revenge on them. They're not backmasked recordings, either. They're actually Curr speaking to him from beyond.

Guided by Curr, Eddie feels empowered, but the more he plays the record, the stranger things get. Shop class equipment comes on by itself and nearly kills Tim. The stereo, playing Curr's music loud, switches itself on when Eddie's mom enters his room. When Eddie gives Tim a recording as a "peace offering", things reach a whole new level: listening to the tape on headphones, Tim's girlfriend finds herself being attacked by a hideous demon... and the headphones melt her ears.

Things have gone too far, so Eddie tries to bring it to an end. The supernatural force that Curr has become tries to retaliate by pumping a mimicry of Eddie's voice through the stereo speakers, begging his mom to come into the room while the real Eddie is trying to keep her out. When that doesn't work, Sammi Curr himself - played by Tony Fields with glam metal style and burn scars - physically appears in Eddie's room, electricity coursing over his body.

Sammi Curr is dead, but through Satanic rituals has found a way to live on in an even more powerful form. In this form, he intends to play the high school Halloween dance after all, and he has horrific things in store for anyone in attendance. And anyone who hears what's going to be playing over the radio at midnight. To save lives and stop Curr from raising hell in his home town, Eddie has to turn against his hero and stand up to him with the help of Leslie and his somewhat weaselly friend Roger (Glen Morgan).

Inspired by both the "Satanic Panic" phenomenon of the '80s and the music censorship movement of the decade, Trick or Treat is a genius horror film that may be obscure for some, but for me it's essential and part of the foundation of my horror fandom. Since it hit VHS at around the same exact time I was getting into horror, and all the local video stores had a copy (I remember its cover art looking out at me from multiple shelves), this is a movie that has been part of my horror world since the beginning. I watched Trick or Treat a lot as a child, and regular viewings have continued for nearly thirty years. When a local video store went out of business in the late '90s, I bought their rental copy, which was no stranger to my VCR. I have since upgraded to a DVD release, and do my best to make sure that friends who haven't seen the movie before get a DVD viewing of it.

It is an awesome movie, fueled by a cool '80s rock soundtrack, with the band Fastway and the distinctive voice of their lead singer Dave King providing the songs the characters credit to Sammi Curr. I love the music in here, and lines from several of those Fastway songs are permanently ingrained in my mind.

The cast of the film is great, with Price proving to be the perfect choice to play Eddie Weinbauer, just as Savant is the perfect douchebag popular kid bully. Orgolini is a likeable heroine, and Morgan makes a strong impression as Roger, his only acting credit. Morgan is best known for being a writer, working on films like The Boys Next Door and Final Destination, writing for several TV series, including 21 Jump Street, Space: Above and Beyond, The X-Files, and Millennium, and both writing and directing the remakes of Willard and Black Christmas.

When he gets his chance to perform on stage, Fields may just be lip syncing to King's vocals, but his look and performance are still unforgettable.

The tone does change once Curr physically enters the picture. Although the film is fun with a touch of humor up to that point, it's also rather intense and creepy, with some wonderful dramatic moments. With Curr, things get pretty goofy. He's able to kill anti-rock crusaders he sees on TV (one of them is Ozzy Osbourne, playing a Reverend) just by touching the screen, or by actually reaching into the screen and pulling out their burnt-out corpse. He controls electricity, and while playing guitar also blasts people with bolts of electricity fired from the end of the instrument. Near the climax, Curr is briefly put out of commission when he accidentally sticks his hand in a toilet - his electrical powers and water don't mix. Obviously director Charles Martin Smith, who was working from a screenplay by Rhet Topham, Michael S. Murphey, and Joel Soisson (with some uncredited contributions from Morgan and his writing partner, Final Destination director James Wong), had abandoned seriousness by that scene.

But even though things with Curr get a little too silly for my taste in the third act, it doesn't affect my enjoyment of the film as a whole, and the character also brings a lot of action with him, so it kind of balances out. Overall, Trick or Treat is a terrific, sadly underrated horror movie that deserves to get a lot more attention than it does. In a just world, legions of fans would be singing its praises as a Halloween season must-watch every October.

As it is, it's an under-appreciated gem that a cult following of fans do watch every Halloween season, which is still awesome and quite an accomplishment for a movie. It may be overshadowed, but like rock 'n roll, Trick or Treat will never die.

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