With preview screenings of Michael Dougherty's directorial debut Trick R Treat gathering unanimous praise from horror fans that had attended preview screenings, SGM was keen to find out what all the fuss was about. So armed with pumpkins and candy, SGM's Paul Bird tracked him down to an swish London hotel on the eve of the films DVD release for this exclusive interview...
SGM: So what can we expect from Trick R Treat?
MD: Well, it's more of a throwback to 80's horror. It's not torture porn, a remake or an adaptation. It's honestly a trip back to the 80's in a lot of ways, in that it's an original horror anthology comedy. Well, a dark comedy.
SGM: The anthology used to be really popular - even going further back to Dead Of Night and the Amicus films. Why do you think it has fallen out of favour?
MD: I think Hollywood is run by fear, more than anything, and once one type of film starts not doing well they shy away from it. When I grew up there was a golden era of anthology films. We had a reboot of The Twilight Zone, Amazing Stories, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Tales From The Crypt, Tales From The Darkside - the list went on and on. It was a heyday and was really inspiring to see so many filmmakers playing in that arena. If you remember, Tales From The Crypt was produced by Richard Donner and Zemeckis and Joel Silver, and Spielberg had Amazing Stories, so it really was a golden era. Then it just stopped. I think there were a couple of features produced, under the Tales From The Crypt banner, that I don't think did very well, and so I think that studios just got nervous. And these films also didn't really have franchisable characters. Even on television you can't get an anthology show going because they want characters they can market, exploit and built a franchise around. That's difficult with anthologies.
SGM: It was quite brave, then, to make your debut as a director with an anthology film. Why did you do it?
MD: When I first wrote it, I was trying to craft it as an answer to the Scream knock offs. Scream came out in the mid-to-late 90's and after than we had one knock off after another. It seemed like every horror film had a cast of twenty-somethings, and the movie poster was them turned quarter to semi profile, staring at you. That's all they were - every horror film was like that, and I was getting tired of them. So I figured, well, horror films tend to go in trends. We went from Scream knock offs to Japanese horror remakes, then torture porn, and so I was hoping that horror anthologies might come back around as the next trend. I hoped that maybe I could start it, but people were still terrified of them, even when I first tried to get it set up!
SGM: How do you feel about films like Short Cuts, Magnolia or Pulp Fiction - Are they just restructured anthology films?
MD: Yeah, that's right - And I did the same with Trick R Treat. I was very inspired by Pulp Fiction and Go. Recently we had Crash, and it's funny that this format seems to be ok for these dramas, or even comedies, but horror, where it's a natural fit, people just aren't trying.
SGM: Maybe people are so used to the long narrative, with established built ups and pacing, that when you get something different - even if it goes back to the roots of horror - it's viewed as a bit experimental and people get frightened of it.
MD: Maybe. I think the horror film industry is in a very sad state right now, to be honest. The studios that make horror films are more afraid than ever to break any sort of mould, and that's why we have so many remakes. All the original horror films are having a very, very hard time getting seen by wide audiences. Grace is a film which I think deserves more attention, for example, or Let The Right One In. A fantastic film, and it played in a handful of theatres in the US. So instead of release the film widely, they talk about doing an American remake. They don't even try risking a wide release, but just assume the audience won't want to see it because it has subtitles.
SGM: Just like what happened with [Rec] to Quarantine.
MD: Exactly! But, why not try? That's the biggest disappointment right now - They don't even want to try. It's ironic that people are afraid of horror films - or certain types of horror films.
SGM: Do you think that, although there's this fear of trying something new, if you can make it appear more familiar then it could open doors?
MD: I don't know. I think it'll take one really great original to get out there and become really successful before any studios wake up and give it a shot. I think Drag Me To Hell was a fantastic film, and Sam Raimi - the guy who did the Evil Dead films, three Spiderman movies - is a bankable name. It made money in the end, but it didn't make as much as they wanted. I'd like to think that'd be a shot in the arm for original horror, but I don't know if it was or not. I thought it was amazing. I hadn't had that much fun in a theatre for years, and you have just as much fun watching the audience as you do the film. But every time you turn around, they're announcing one remake after another.
SGM: The nice thing about Drag Me To Hell was that it was such a homage to classic horror - especially Night Of The Demon.
MD: Yeah - I was surprised that nobody caught on to that. It really was. It also felt like it could be Evil Dead 4. In the end, it made money but was overlooked. I think it'll be huge on DVD.
SGM: I agree. I know people who won't go to see horror films at the cinema as they're more frightening because they're in unfamiliar environments with no control over lighting, volume and so on.
MD: I think it's also that people are just leaning towards watching movies at home. Unfortunately I think I'm turning into one of those people - It's tough to take yourself out to a theatre sometimes.
SGM: With Trick R Treat, you've gathered pretty much universal praise from advanced screenings. I've not yet heard anything bad about it!
MD: That's what worries me! I worry about people's expectations being too high. It's a very personal film for me and I'm very proud of it. I'm glad it's been received so well but I don't want people to have unrealistic expectations.
SGM: Maybe expectations are high because you are doing something a bit different to what we're seeing at the moment, and echoing back to the portmanteau films so many of us grew up with. It'd be nice to see something like this at the cinema again - Will we see Trick R Treat at the cinema?
MD: Well, tonight you can! I mean, this is the cinema release. We're kind of taking it from city to city to city. Honestly, I think it's been the best thing for the movie. One of the most common questions I get asked is "are you disappointed that it didn't get a wide release?" and, well, I'd be lying if I said no, but at the same time certain films will have a limited release. They'll play in New York and Los Angeles, and that's it. That's their release. This film, all in all, will have played, this year and last, in more theatres to more audience members than some films that get a traditional limited release.
SGM: Do you feel this will be more of a word of mouth hit?
MD: I hope so. It seems to be getting there. Every day I'm surprised by the enthusiasm and furore when we're showing it. I'm happy about it - there definitely seems to be a buzz going on. My parents are obsessive about sending me links about the film, and I smile every time I see another fan pop up.
SGM: Do you see it as the perfect Halloween movie?
MD: I think so. I don't know how big the holiday is here. Is it getting bigger? That's good if it is. It's a fantastic holiday and it's the one time of the year when everybody becomes a horror fan. Everyone's inner horror fan comes to the surface. I'm the guy who starts watching John Carpenter's movie on October 1st, and it pretty much plays every night, on a loop, for the month! But I think that's pretty much the only film.... Maybe Nightmare Before Christmas too. Those two movies. There aren't a lot of films which take the holiday as a theme. I definitely saw that opportunity when I first wrote Trick R Treat. There was certainly room for another film that takes place on the holiday and is about the holiday. I mean, as much as I love the film Halloween, it's not really about the holiday itself. It just happens to take place on that night. I'd love it if this became the traditional film that people pull out every October and watch.
SGM: How is the film actually about Halloween rather than just using it as a setting?
MD: Well, you'll see! But, without giving too much away, it explores the reasons we celebrate it. It looks at why we get dressed up, why we hand out candy, why do we carve Jack O Lanterns, all these traditions which we have gone about since we were kids but not really known why. It tackles the traditions, and the urban legends about the holiday, and explains to people what you're actually doing. It has roots going way back to pagan times, predating Christianity by a long time.
SGM: So it's like being on an educational ghost train?
MD: Exactly, it doesn't take itself too seriously. I miss horror films that have that approach.
SGM: Will this be out in time for Halloween this year in the UK?
MD: Yes - I believe the street date for the DVD is the 26th October. I'm told people don't do their Halloween shopping over here until the week before, but in the US people start putting up the decorations in late September! It's a much bigger holiday there.
SGM: It is getting much bigger here now, but it used to have lots of trouble. Where I live, trick or treating was banned completely - You'd get police cars going around making sure there were no kids running around in fancy dress.
MD: No way! Why?
SGM: Partly religious reasons, and partly because people were frightened of poisoned sweets, razor blades in apples, vandalism, all that sort of thing.
MD: But that's all urban legends! None of that stuff really happens. I'm glad you guys woke up! Hopefully you'll catch up with the US - It's an amazing holiday. It's the one time where you can be anything you want to be.
SGM: The dressing up really unites everyone. Kids love it, and adults do too - even if they don't want to admit it.
MD: Well, that's what happened in the US. You have generations never stopped celebrating it. It really started with baby boomers - they grew up and passed it on to their kids, and so on to my generation where you have full grown adults dressing up, having parties. I have one every year, and it's always fun to see what people create as their costumes.
SGM: There's also the fun of the ghost house that people create, or the ghost stories late at night.
MD: Yeah, Trick R Treat really taps into that. It's more of a fun house, spook house vibe. There's gore, but it's not excessive. I would argue this could be a family friendly Halloween horror film. It's exactly the sort of thing I'd have wanted to watch when I was twelve!
SGM: The nearest I got to something like that when I was young was probably Gremlins.
MD: Oh yeah! That's a huge inspiration. Joe Dante's works tend to have that mix of comedy and horror, even The Howling has some amazing tongue in cheek scenes. You look at American Werewolf In London too - There really was a golden era of horror films made with a sly grin. But for whatever reason, those don't come around too often anymore. I mean, you can watch this with younger ones. Maybe there are some parts where you have to cover their eyes, but that's also part of the fun of it. The whole "What am I missing! Let me go back and watch it!" thing. That's how I was exposed to Poltergeist as a kid.
SGM: Kids see violence in quite a different way to adults too. They don't have the same comprehension of the injuries in something like Jaws - just seeing it as being swallowed up Noah And The Whale style.
MD: That's interesting. I'd not thought of it like that before.
SGM: Looking forwards, what have you got in the pipeline?
MD: There are a few projects I can't really talk about too much because I don't want to jinx them, but there is one favourite project with all four monsters, but there just a lot bigger! But don't go by what's on IMDB! It's almost as bad as Wikipedia.
SGM: Michael Dougherty, thank you very much.
Special thanks to Michael, Warner Home Video and Diana Privitera