The Strange Journey Trick 'R Treat Took To Becoming A Halloween Classic

Had all gone according to plan, Michael Dougherty's anthology horror flick, "Trick 'r Treat," would've arrived in theaters on October 5, 2007, giving it several weeks to make box-office hay during the spooky season. But with less than a month prior to its release, Warner Bros pushed the film back indefinitely for unstated reasons. Typically, when a movie gets bumped so abruptly, it's a sign of grave trouble. Whether it's testing poorly with audiences or tracking to fall far short of expectations at the box office, it's at least clear that the studio has no faith in the picture. There was speculation that the disappointment of producer Bryan Singer's "Superman Returns" a year prior might've left WB cool to the project's prospects, but no one was talking. In any event, Dougherty's film vanished from the release schedule, destined to linger in limbo for who knew how long.

15 years later, "Trick 'r Treat" has gone from cult classic to genuine Halloween classic. According to Dougherty, the film turns up every October in the top rentals column on major streamers like Amazon and Apple. The movie's central character, an adorably creepy burlap-sack-masked child named Sam, has turned into a merchandising sensation. Best of all, the movie's a rewatchable blast. At a brisk 82 minutes, Dougherty delivers non-stop laughs and scares, effortlessly capturing the thrill-ride vibe of Amblin classics like "Poltergeist" and "Gremlins."

How did a movie this delightful get so mistreated? Let's revisit its long, strange road to becoming a haunting holiday mainstay.

An Austin, Texas hail mary

In 2007, Thomas Tull's Legendary Pictures was still operating at Warner Bros, and a year removed from the box office windfall of Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight." The studio might not have known what to make of "Trick 'r Treat," but Legendary believed in it, so, to nudge their parent company in the direction of a theatrical release, they brought the movie to Harry Knowles' annual 24-hour film festival Butt-Numb-a-Thon. Held in early December, timed to coincide with the Ain't It Cool News webmaster's birthday, they knew the movie would play well with an ultra-geeky audience.

What they didn't know was that Knowles wanted the movie to close the festival. They had the goods, but could the film work its mirthfully malevolent magic on a theater packed with bleary-eyed viewers?

I went to six BNATs, and if they were properly programmed, the films flowed naturally into one another. If you needed to, you could squeeze in a nap or two between midnight and 6 AM, which left you fresh for the last two movies, which tended to be premieres. So while being the last film of a day-long movie orgy sounds like a death sentence, it could also be the perfect capper to an exhilarating run of cinema.

I was not present for the BNAT debut of "Trick 'r Treat," but I vividly recall my janky flip-phone blowing up with texts from friends who were in attendance. Dougherty's film had won the crowd and then some. People were declaring it an instant Halloween standard. The challenge before Legendary now was to build momentum off the enthusiasm of a few hundred hardcore cinephiles.

An audience hit undone by a disinterested studio

Though genre-centric festivals like Sitges and Screamfest programmed "Trick 'r Treat" later on in 2008, WB made zero effort to bolster the film's profile with its target audience. It screened to acclaim at every stop, but when another Halloween season came and went without a theatrical release, the movie's theatrical prospects seemed dim. Legendary brought the movie to the 2009 San Diego Comic Con, where, once again, people ate it up, but WB ultimately chose to release it direct to DVD and Blu-ray on October 6 of that year.

Four years later, the inevitable had come to pass: "Trick 'r Treat" found its audience, who shared it with their friends and relatives, thus transforming this inexplicably mistreated movie into the Halloween equivalent of "A Christmas Story." In October 2013, the Los Angeles-based Beyond Fest teamed with Legendary to host a sold-out screening at Hollywood's Egyptian Theatre. The event didn't need much in the way of promotion, but Dougherty made the media rounds anyway as a sort of delayed victory lap.

A gleeful, blood-soaked tradition

Writing for AICN at the time, I asked Dougherty how he felt about this turn of events, and he said he dug the "slow burn" acceptance of the movie.

"It feels more pure, because you know it's not a marketing machine that's forcing people to know about it or like it. You know that it's only happening because of word of mouth and people's true passion for it. It's people telling their friends 'Let's get together and watch this.' To me, it makes the movie cooler."

Yes, "Trick 'r Treat" should've been treated with greater care by WB, but all that truly matters is the bond that forms between a filmmaker and his audience. In 2022, you see this expressed by people wearing Sam t-shirts or, even better, wandering the streets in orange garb and a burlap sack on October 31. "Trick 'r Treat" belongs to the freaks now, and every year our accursed legion grows.

Want to join the ranks of the initiated? Hit up your local Regal Theater this October. Become one of us. Maybe one day we'll get that sequel.