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TRICK ‘R TREAT – Douglas Pipes

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

It’s taken almost two years for Michael Dougherty’s horror film Trick ‘r Treat to see the light of day. Originally filmed in 2007 and intended to be released in October of that year, the film was pulled from the release schedules after the executives at Warner Brothers got cold feet about some of the film’s more graphically violent content, some of which involved children. As a result, the film sat in ‘distribution hell’ for almost two years, unable to find a way onto screens: it played at the 2008 Screamfest Horror Film Festival in Los Angeles, and has had a few scattered showings at other festivals here and there in the meantime, but never made it to multiplex screens, despite the film garnering glowing reviews from all who saw it. It will be released straight-to-DVD in October 2009, just in time for Halloween.

The film is an anthology of five interrelated Halloween-themed short stories that purport to show what happens to people who disobey the “rules” of Halloween – wear a costume, hand out treats, never blow out a jack-o-lantern, and always check your candy. The film, which stars Brian Cox, Anna Paquin, Dylan Baker and Leslie Bibb, is presided over by the malevolent figure of Sam, a mysterious pint-sized trick-or-treater with burlap sack over his head, who acts as the ever-present ‘spirit’ of Halloween, and whose omnipresent figure adorns the film’s publicity material. For the score, writer-director Mike Dougherty – who worked on the screenplays for X-Men 2 and Superman Returns – turned to relative newcomer Douglas Pipes, who responded to the film by writing one of the best scores of the year.

Prior to Trick ‘r Treat, Pipes’ only other mainstream film score was for the 2006 animated comedy-horror Monster House; he was scheduled to score City of Ember for director Gil Kenan in 2008, but saw his score replaced with one by Andrew Lockington just weeks before the film opened. As a result, Trick ‘r Treat is only the second major score of the young composer’s career – but already he’s making a reputation for himself as one of the most exciting new American film music voices in several years. In the CD liner notes, director Dougherty compares Pipes’ score to the “haunting yet beautiful themes from The Omen, Poltergeist and Suspiria” with “memorable themes, coherent melodies, and a bold style”. He’s not far wrong.

Written for an 85-piece orchestra and children’s choir, Pipes’ score is a huge, gothic celebration of the season: nostalgically spooky, occasionally scary, but with its tongue planted firmly in its cheek. The score is built around a simple motif for Sam himself, which Pipes based on the familiar mocking children’s rhyme ‘trick or treat, smell my feet, give me something good to eat’. It works in much the same way as Carol Ann’s theme from Poltergeist, or even his own babyish theme from Monster House, beginning as a child’s playground song, but eventually becoming something much more grand and sinister.

You first hear Sam’s theme 51 seconds into the “Main Titles”, played on high flutes behind the harrumphing orchestra, and it hovers around the periphery of the score thereafter, alluding to Sam’s mischievous, malevolent, constant presence. You hear it hesitantly on the piano at the beginning of “It’s Halloween, Not Hanukkah”, on sickly sweet strings and accompanied by a choir in “The Halloween Schoolbus Massacre”, on a toy piano accompanied by ghostly voices in “The Elevator/Laurie On the Prowl”, and in several other places besides, continually insinuating that Sam is never far away.

The theme reaches its zenith in the 12-minute tour-de-force “Pumpkin Shooter/Meet Sam”, where Pipes lets loose with every instrumental force at his disposal. The misleadingly gentle performances of the Sam’s theme on a celeste during the first few minutes of the cue are given a twisted, eerie slant through the simultaneous use of pizzicato string effects and low, mewling brasses. Later, the gargantuan performances of the theme in the cue’s second half are astonishing, and finally allow the viewer (and listener) to realize – to their horror – that there is much more to Sam than simply an impish sprite with a bag over his head holding a half-eaten pumpkin lollipop. Towards the end of the cue Pipes works the children’s choir back into the mix; here, as in all good horror scores, the effect is not one of innocence, but is chilling and unnerving. In Trick ‘r Treat, the kids are out to get you.

Thankfully’ Trick ‘r Treat does not simply rest its laurels on a single theme; Pipes has much more in store for the listener than that, fleshing out his thematic content with a series of orchestral ideas that are quite superb. The “Main Title” begins awash in Herrmannesque screeching strings, rampaging orchestral rhythms and cooing children’s voices, setting the scene for the score to come. The string writing is generally quite sprightly and spiky, reminiscent of perhaps Thomas Newman or Danny Elfman, and succeeds in combining a sense of playfulness with a more ominous undertone. Cues such as “Charlie Bites It” and the extended “Father and Son” oscillate between harmless mischief and genuine terror, with the latter containing some impressionistic sequences for hooting bassoons, treacherous-sounding tremolo cellos, rasping trombones and rattling metallic percussion that are very impressive.

There are several striking moments of vicious dissonance, notably the explosion of sound towards the end of “It’s Halloween, Not Hanukkah”, the strident action sequence at the end of “The Halloween Schoolbus Massacre”, and the thunderous, unstoppable “Halloween Prank”. Some of the brass writing in these cues writing is quite extraordinary, leaping up and down scales with rapid fluidity, and presenting enormous chords of great power. Once or twice he also introduces an electric guitar into the sound palette, growling ominously under the orchestra to great effect.

There are synths in the score too, although they are used sparingly, and only to add a new, distinct color to a particular scene. They give the aforementioned “Halloween Prank” cue an unearthly, oppressive atmosphere, and when they combine with bone-chilling ‘breathing’ effects and a ‘devil’s fiddle’-style solo violin in the colossal “Not a Trick/Red and Black”, the end result is quite terrifying. The way Pipes uses his orchestra is at times quite excellent; he clearly has a lot of fun simply being expressive, using the orchestra to its fullest potential, bringing in each section in turn to ensure that the score’s sound palette is rich and varied. The percussive woodwind writing in “Meet Rhonda” is obviously reminiscent of Alexandre Desplat, while the cello writing occasionally reminds me of the rich horror sound of Wojciech Kilar. Both of these comparisons are intended to be compliments.

Counterbalancing these moments of vivid horror are several instances of lyrical beauty which, while still retaining a sense of darkness, still leave a positive impression. The bittersweet piano melody that bookends “The Halloween Schoolbus Massacre”, and which at one point segues into a luscious, brooding string elegy for velvety cellos, is gorgeous. This rich, Gothic romance style is repeated during “Laurie’s First Time”, with the piano adding a level of dust-shrouded elegance and faded, shadowy glory. The conclusive “The Neighborhood” presents a romanticized look at Halloween in America: in Dougherty’s mind, it is a place of bite-sized candy bars, smashed jack-o-lanterns and streets full of dead leaves. With Pipes providing the musical accompaniment, and with Sam lurking around every corner, this most American and wholesome of holidays can quickly become a nightmare before you know it.

2009 really has been the year of the horror score. What with this, Chris Young’s Drag Me to Hell, and Debbie Wiseman’s Lesbian Vampire Killers, it seems that some horror filmmakers have finally come to the conclusion that bigger is better, and that where horror films are concerned, music of power and grandeur can make all the difference. It’s also, hopefully, going to make Douglas Pipes’ stock rise higher and higher in Hollywood. With this score, and with Monster House before it, he is proving to be one of the most exciting American composers to emerge in years, with the orchestral knowledge and the theme-writing prowess to compete with the best. Despite the delay, Trick ‘r Treat was definitely worth the wait – it’s another contender for 2009’s score of the year honors.

Rating: ****½

Buy the Trick ‘r Treat soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Titles (2:21)
  • Meet Charlie (:46)
  • It’s Halloween, Not Hanukkah (3:13)
  • Charlie Bites It (1:42)
  • Father and Son (6:18)
  • Meet Rhonda (1:34)
  • To The Quarry (1:42)
  • The Halloween Schoolbus Massacre (4:56)
  • The Elevator/Laurie On the Prowl (2:03)
  • Halloween Prank (4:25)
  • Not a Trick/Red and Black (3:52)
  • Laurie’s First Time (2:49)
  • Old Mr. Kreeg (1:53)
  • Pumpkin Shooter/Meet Sam (12:04)
  • The Bus Driver (:40)
  • The Neighborhood (1:51)
  • Trick ‘r Treat (:31)
  • End Credits (6:41)

Running Time: 59 minutes 18 seconds

La-La Land Records LLLCD-1103 (2009)

Music composed by Douglas Pipes. Conducted by Bruce Babcock. Orchestrations by Jon Kull, Bruce Babcock and Jim Honeyman. Recorded and mixed by Brad Haehnel. Edited by Oliver Hug. Album produced by Douglas Pipes, M.V. Gerhard and Matt Verboys.

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