“My, What Big Eyes”
Krampus director Michael Dougherty’s first feature, Trick ‘r Treat (2007) is another wonderful holiday film gone amuck, this time concerning Halloween. Both films have similar plots: in Krampus, young Max summons a demonic beast because he has lost his belief in Santa Claus. In Trick ‘r Treat, the demonic beast is the boy, Sam, a speechless lad who wears a burlap sack over his head while carrying a bag for the collection of candy. Yet Sam either punishes, or holds court while others punish, those who declare their disdain for Halloween.
Trick ‘r Treat begins with a framing story, about Emma (Leslie Bibb) and her husband, Henry (Tahmoh Penikett) returning from a parade on Halloween night. She wants to blow out the candles in their jack-o’-lantern, but her husband insists that this is against tradition, that it should be allowed to burn itself out. Emma refuses to listen and snuffs out the flame. Then, she turns practical, asking her husband to help her clean up the front yard, which is strewn with holiday decorations. He refuses, instead demanding that they go inside to watch porn and then have sex. She tells him to get started alone, while she cleans up. He does so. When Emma is alone in the front yard, Sam kills her. Her husband discovers her body only after waking up much later, having fallen asleep waiting for Emma to come to bed.
This opening sequence engages in a number of intertextual ruses. We assume from slasher film tradition that the sexually aggressive one, the husband, is going to die. At one point, the camera adopts a mobile position from the point-of-view of Sam, the killer, quoting the famous opening sequence of Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978) in which a young boy, Michael Myers kills his sister in her bedroom for having had sex with an uncaring boy. However, in Trick ‘r Treat Sam strikes instead at Emma, for reasons which have nothing to do with sexuality. He kills her because she is the one who does not respect holiday traditions.
It is not to a film but a short story that Trick ‘r Treat turns for its central story of four girls who don sexy Halloween costume versions of famous fairy tale characters: Cinderella, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood. While the other girls announce themselves as sexually experienced, Laurie (Anna Paquin) seems the personification of Carol Clover’s “final girl,” a virginal hero who survives because of her purity. Trick ‘r Treat engineers a twist inspired by “The Company of Wolves,” British author Angela Carter’s revisionist fairy tale version of “Little Red Riding Hood.”
From her collection, The Bloody Chamber (1979), the feminist short story moves beyond the traditional tale, usually an allegory for young women’s passive initiation into the aggressive world of male sexuality. Conversely, in “The Company of Wolves,” the pubescent girl strips naked in front of the “dashing huntsman,” who has just dispatched the wolf. In a delightful parody of the wolf’s predatory sexuality, the “call and response” of body part and function is turned from violence to tenderness: “What big arms you have. All the better to hug you with.” She attacks the huntsman with seduction. The story ends on Christmas Day—what Carter describes as “the werewolves’ birthday”—with Little Red Riding Hood reposing in granny’s bed, “between the paws of the tender wolf.”
Dougherty repositions this fairy tale revisionism within the language of horror movies, particularly the 1984 film adaptation, The Company of Wolves, directed by Neil Jordan from a script he wrote with Carter. Wearing the Little Red Riding Hood costume, Laurie walks through the forest reluctantly on her way to a party her friends are throwing in a nearby glade. She is accosted by a man in a black suit whom we’ve seen committing violence throughout the film. He springs upon her: “My what big eyes you have.” A cut to the other girls at the party keeps us from immediately learning what has happened during the attack. Suddenly, a red caped figure falls out of a tree. We assume that the predator has killed Laurie. However, the victim turns out to be this masked assailant, now revealed to be Steven (Dylan Baker), the psychotic school principal we’ve earlier in the film seen poisoning a child for stealing Halloween candy.
The girls remove Steven’s fake vampire teeth, merely a part of his costume. Laurie drinks a beer, and straddles Steven. As she begins assaulting him, she whispers, “It’s my first time, so bear with me.” What we took to be Laurie’s virginity up until now turns out to be a description of her inexperience in killing. To the tune of the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams,” the girls dance and begin disrobing. However, they don’t stop at their clothes, continuing by stripping off their human skin to reveal themselves as hairy werewolves. As Laurie moves in for the kill, she parrots Steven’s earlier act of predation: “My what big eyes you have,” beginning to gnaw on his neck. Sam sits on a nearby log watching the proceedings passively.
Sam’s passive role here is surprising. In the three-minute short film from which Trick ‘r Treat is up-converted, “Season’s Greetings” (1996), an animated version of Sam is lured into a dark alley by a tall adult. When Sam raises his sack asking for a candy treat, Dougherty only animates their shadows on the alley wall, on which it appears the man begins brutally beating Sam to death. However, against expectations, Sam emerges out of the alley struggling to drag his now full candy sack, stuffed with the man’s dead body. Sam has once again punished those who have replaced the simple kindnesses of Halloween, the exchange of candy, with predation and deviance. In Trick ‘r Treat, Sam both directly punishes holiday wrongdoers, but also watches the sexually-active werewolves, who themselves punish Steven with good reason: not only is he a rapist, he also serial murders a young child every year to carve into a jack-o’lantern. In the film’s creepiest moment, Steven’s son demands while looking at the boy’s severed head that his father help him carve the eyes.
Whether taking direct action or just watching passively, Sam is the film’s motor. Is his murderous defense of holiday traditions merely childish? For Dougherty, something else seems to be at stake. He treats both Krampus and Sam as sympathetic children, justifiably angry at adults who so easily discard their family rituals. For all their revisionism, both Dougherty and Carter revel in these traditions. Carter describes what will come next for the post-coital Little Red Riding Hood: “She will lay his fearful head on her lap and she will pick out the lice from his pelt and perhaps she will put the lice into her mouth and eat them, as he will bid her, as she would do in a savage marriage ceremony.”
By positioning Sam’s multiple murderous defenses of Halloween around the film’s centerpiece, a feminist werewolf story straight from Angela Carter, Dougherty links his horror film revisionism to both radical gender politics and ritual traditionalism. The horror in his films is produced by a majority of the adult characters tearing apart the ritualistic social fabric that is meant to bind us. Are the children to blame for their childish response to this abrogation of adult duties? Dougherty’s films equivocate against such a snap judgment.
Even before entry into the world of adults—unlike either Carter’s or Dougherty’s Little Red Riding Hood, both Max and Sam are pre-pubescent—the behavior of adults seeks to poison a world redeemed by ritual. By taking a murderous position, the worst punishment for these seemingly petty crimes, Sam merely parrots the Manichean terms of our current society. Our politics—gender and otherwise—are driven by dangerous extremes, not sensible compromise. Dougherty warns us to be careful what we sow when we behave as such adults, for we may reap more than we’ve bargained for.