Thursday, November 3, 2016

"Trick or Treat"

Original Airdate: October 29, 1983

Directed by Bob Balaban.

Written by George A. Romero.

Starring Barnard Hughes (Gideon Hackles), Joe Ponazecki (Atticus Kimble), Knowl Johnson (Billy Kimble), Eddie Jones (Victor Muldoon), Patrick Wilcox (Timothy Muldoon), Frances Chaney (Witch), Ed French (Devil).

SYNOPSIS: Gideon Hackles is the resident miser of the farming community he lives in, holding the villagers in a steel grip of debt. As part of an annual Halloween tradition, Hackles gives the local children the opportunity to track down the bundle of IOUs he has hidden in his spookhouse-rigged estate. If any one of the children can claim the bundle, then all their families’ debts shall be relieved. But Gideon guarantees that his prop ghosts and ghouls scare the kiddies away before they can sniff it out… that is until he receives a surprise visit from a very real witch intent on meting out justice.

CRITIQUE: As far as first impressions are concerned, TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE could hardly have made a better one than this episode that premiered a few days before Halloween 1983. “Trick or Treat” is a simple campfire tale, but it is executed with such finesse and a palpable sense of fun that it’s impossible not to enjoy it.

Gideon Hackles is the archetype of the miserable old skinflint incarnate, all nastiness and spite with nary a shred of compassion or sympathy to be found in him. We are meant to despise this character; watching him laugh hysterically at terrified children certainly makes him an easy target for disdain! The part is played with a real relish by Barnard Hughes (in a far cry from his turn as the kooky but lovable grandfather from THE LOST BOYS [1987]) that allows Hackles to become the villain that we love to hate, the kind of character whose punishment acts as a cathartic release for the viewer.

In many ways “Trick or Treat” acts as a Halloween-appropriated version of A Christmas Carol. Both stories deal with a heartless man who receives a supernatural intervention in the midst of holiday festivities. The difference here is that Hackles is not only unmoved by his disturbing visitation, but the express purpose of the witch’s arrival is not to redeem Hackles, as was the mission of the three Ghosts of Christmas, but to punish him. While Scrooge’s change of ways works well in promoting the hope and love that are the emotional trademarks of the Christmas season, Hackles’ judgment represents the darker aspects of All Hallow’s Eve perfectly: damning and terrifying. It seems ironic to note as well that Scrooge, who detested Christmas with a passion, got off a hell of lot easier than Hackles, who adores the mischief-making of the Halloween season.

Though the story itself is unassuming in its emulation of the classic Comeuppance Tale, it still has small touches of artistic flair. When we first see Hackles, for instance, he is balancing his books with two bankers, a visor strapped to his head that casts an emerald shadow over his eyes. Right from the start Hackles’ obsession with money is made clear: he sees everything through a greedy, green veneer. The sight of him grinning impishly as he grasps a devilish pitchfork  almost overdoes it, but it’s too sugary-sweet to resist. Hackles may be an archetype, but he is a fully-realized archetype, with Romero providing him with some choice dialogue that complements his outward appearance and shows us the depth of his insatiable hunger. This is perhaps perfectly captured when Hackles sees a father hugging his traumatized son and, sneering, he spits “Backwards. People in this valley have it all backwards.”

Hackles not only finds compassion distasteful, but he views the families of the village as a lower breed to himself. He claims that they are slaves to their own circumstances, such as the failure of their crops during a given season, and that they create their own misfortunes. The irony here is that Hackles doesn’t realize that he himself is a slave, except in his case he harvests currency, jewelry, and property collaterals. When the witch lays siege on his house, blowing his personal treasures all about, his instinctive reaction is not to run away in terror but to pathetically clutch at his money. He doesn’t even realize that he has literally stumbled through the very gates of Hell as he madly grasps at the billowing bills.

Even after he gazes into the hissing face of the Devil himself (who, in true E. C. Comics fashion, sardonically coos “You’re getting warmer…” just as Hackles had done to the visiting children searching for their prize), Hackles crawls after the money further into the Pit. So the master of fear and intimidation now finds himself on his knees before the Lord of Fear, a towering figure that smirks at him as the old man boorishly collects his harvest. When Hackles’ riches fall into the hands of young Billy at the end of the episode, we can almost hear him voice Tiny Tim’s famous line, except given the context of this story it would probably be more to the tune of “Satan bless us, everyone!”

Hackles’ scavenger hunt resurrects the thrill of the carnival haunted house, with the poor children groping in darkness as all manner of ghouls and ghosts leap out at them from the shadows. Hackles jeers at them from his hidden alcove, cackling through an amplifier like another famous humbug, the Great Wizard of Oz.

Though these sights are meant to kindle a sense of fear, they possess a charming, nostalgic quality to them that is in fitting with Halloween. The witch emits a laugh that could give Margaret Hamilton a run for her money, and a rather silly wooing sound effect is used to accentuate her ascent on her broom. The vision of Hell is equally effective and attractive in its own way, as the whole business is accomplished with the use of a red lamp, a fog machine, and walls covered in what appears to be bubble-wrap. This particular aspect of the episode demonstrates the series’ ingenuity and shows what could be accomplished with a solid sense of know-how.

DARKSIDE's pilot is all treat and no trick, and one that fans should indulge in every All Hallow’s season.

"It's Halloween, gentleman! Halloween! Have you forgotten? My favorite season."


RATING: 4 Lizzies

COMING UP: Vic Tayback reconsiders the positives of vasectomy in “The New Man.”

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