Christmas has A Christmas Story, the Fourth of July has Jaws, and Halloween has ... what? John Carpenter's Halloween may immediately jump to mind, or you might go with the beloved and possibly soon-to-be-revived Hocus Pocus. But no, the greatest movie ever made about October 31 is Trick 'r Treat, Michael Dougherty's 2009 classic that, more than any other film, is mandatory viewing this time each year.
Mistreated by its studio by being dumped direct to DVD, the cult horror anthology is a stuffed bag of treats telling numerous stories set in the same town on Halloween night. There's a group of kids going trick-or-treating and investigating a local urban legend, a principal hiding a twisted secret, a group of girls looking to hook up, and an old anti-Halloween hermit just trying to get through the night while refusing to even hand out candy.
What makes Trick 'r Treat the holiday's essential film though is that it isn't set on Halloween simply because that's an appropriate night for a horror story. Rather, Dougherty actively dissects what Halloween means to us by way of characters who view the day and its purpose radically differently. He chooses to follow protagonists in different age groups to reflect the way we celebrate Halloween throughout our lives, from a young child carving a pumpkin with his father to an elderly man. This approach makes Trick 'r Treat feel like the holiday's definitive rendition, and a collection of all kinds of monsters turns the story into one giant Halloween costume party come to life.
The most notable of these monsters is Sam, a villain birthed by Dougherty's desire to give Halloween its own mascot like Santa Claus. Named after Samhain, the ancient Celtic festival from which Halloween draws its origins, Sam is a supernatural creature wearing orange pajamas and a sack who wanders around town connecting each story. It's eventually revealed that his purpose is to ensure that Halloween's traditions are maintained, viciously murdering those who fail to do so. This device enables Dougherty to wrap up the many disparate holiday rituals we grew up learning — from putting on costumes to lighting jack-o'-lanterns — into a cohesive mythology, and through Sam, he urges us to respect them. A character who dares blow out her jack-o'-lantern early, breaking a Halloween tradition, is killed for it, while those who offer up something good to eat, maintaining a Halloween tradition, are spared.
It's no accident that Sam is such a childlike figure, who wears footie pajamas and is played by an actual kid actor. Holiday traditions tend to be far more meaningful to us as children, when we might buy into the legends behind them and wouldn't dare neglect leaving out cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve or collecting treats on Halloween. But as we grow older and leave this mindset behind, Halloween runs the risk of becoming just another day on the calendar. That's exactly what Trick 'r Treat desperately implores us to avoid.
The film's thesis is in many ways reminiscent of the classic Christmas movies we also feel compelled to return to annually. This is especially true of a final segment taking Halloween neglect to the extreme, showing us a bitter old man in the vein of Ebenezer Scrooge in a story that Dougherty has described as a cautionary tale, depicting how pitiful our lives might become should we ignore the holiday's traditions and cast aside its innocent joy. Halloween, after all, was never just about being scared, but about suspending one's disbelief and buying into the world as the kind of extraordinary place where ghosts, goblins, and werewolves could all be real.
Of course, Halloween is the more obvious pick for the holiday's cinematic highlight. It's a masterpiece, but John Carpenter's film could easily be shifted to take place on any other night of the year with minimal changes to the script. Hocus Pocus is a festive nostalgia trip, but it still doesn't incorporate Halloween into the core of its story as thoroughly as Trick 'r Treat, nor is its bag of tricks as varied. Still others might argue for The Nightmare Before Christmas, a film with an opening that always hits the spot and offers plenty of season-appropriate eye candy, but it's just a little too Christmas-oriented to feel totally apt for Halloween night.
Instead, why not go for the film that is not only festive, but has something meaningful to say about the holiday itself? Trick 'r Treat is ultimately begging us to reject cynicism and indulge in the entire Halloween experience with relentless earnestness, especially by maintaining the traditions some might think of themselves as too old for. Should we ignore these warnings and take Halloween for granted, we'll regret it, the film suggests — not just because this will make us a target of Sam's, but because our lives will become considerably less magical. Adults can see Sam as the guardian of Halloween, but also as ourselves as kids, returning to ensure that even as we grow up, we're still keeping the flame alive and staying eternally young.