It was the perfect time for a heavy metal horror film when Trick or Treat was released in October 1986. The music genre had hit its hottest point of the decade and the run of teen slasher flicks turning into franchises had become a cottage industry. Throw in a dedicated soundtrack from Fastway and it seemed to be a recipe for box-office gold.
Marking the directorial debut of longtime supporting actor Charles Martin Smith, Trick or Treat centers on high school outcast Eddie “Ragman” Weinbauer, played by Marc Price (best known for his portrayal of Irwin "Skippy" Handelman on ‘80s sitcom Family Ties), who is tortured mercilessly by bullies at school for being a heavy metal fan. His basement bedroom walls are adorned with posters of Anthrax, Mötley Crüe and Raven, but Ragman worships at the altar of Sammi Curr, a shock rocker from his own North Carolina small town.
Curr dies in a hotel fire, and a devastated Ragman looks for solace from local DJ Norman "The Nuke" Taurog (Gene Simmons doing his best Wolfman Jack imitation), who gives him the sole acetate record of his idol’s last album, Songs in the Key of Death. The Nuke has already made a tape of the recording to be played on the air at midnight on Halloween, but after another round of humiliation led by head bully Tim Hainey (a pre-Melrose Place Doug Savant), Eddie retreats to his basement sanctuary and puts the Sammi Curr LP on the turntable.
Returning as a demonic force via backmasking and pledging to avenge the treatment Eddie has been receiving, Curr eventually goes too far, culminating with the musician coming back to life at the high school Halloween dance and firing electric lightning bolts out of his guitar to dispose of multiple students. Ragman is able to stop the murder and mayhem only after he traps Curr in the back of a police car and drives it off a bridge into a river, ostensibly shorting out the rocker’s electrical powers in addition to destroying all the copies of Songs in the Key of Death.
When Trick or Treat reached theaters, heavy metal was finding more and more mainstream attention. MTV premiered the Headbangers Ball precursor Heavy Metal Mania the previous summer, the satanic panic was in full effect and the so-called “Washington wives” behind the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) had appeared at congressional hearings to lambast the lyrics and imagery in music they found objectionable and unsuitable, with the majority of the offenders coming from the hard rock and metal worlds.
The film ripped all those elements from the headlines and threw them into a cinematic blender. Archival footage during a news report of his death showed Sammi Curr doing his best imitation of Dee Snider’s infamous testimony at the PMRC congressional hearings, while Ozzy Osbourne plays a small role as the buttoned-up Reverend Aaron Gilstrom who rails against the abominations of heavy metal. “These evil people have just got to be stopped!” he exclaims in one of the more hilariously ironic portrayals on the silver screen.
“I like the fact that we’re satirizing both sides of this movie,” director Smith told Fangoria. “The heavy metal stuff is something that we’re just slightly doing a takeoff on in that Sammi is a pretty extreme character. He’s biting the head off a snake and spitting out the blood. It’s pretty gruesome, but not so different from what W.A.S.P. and these other groups are doing. We’re satirizing the censorship side of the battle more pointedly. I hope we’re making a point with this, even though it’s sort of a rock ‘n’ roll monster movie.”
Hopes were high for the movie in the horror community, as the production duo of Joel Soisson and Michael S. Murphey, who worked on 1985’s A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge, were on board as producers and writers. The pair recruited special effects wizard Kevin Yagher, who was behind Freddy Krueger’s makeup in the Elm Street sequel. Even supermarket checkout lane fright magazines were breathlessly posing the question, “Will the Demonic Sammi Curr Join the Ranks of Jason, Freddy and Leatherface?”
There have been rumors over the years that W.A.S.P. front man Blackie Lawless turned down the lead role because he didn’t want to mime the Fastway songs. Simmons supposedly demurred at the offer to play Curr, as he wasn’t a huge fan of the script. According to Murphey though, having a real-life rock ‘n’ roll front man wouldn’t have worked, resulting in former Solid Gold dancer Tony Fields assuming the part.
“If there’s Ozzy up on the screen, people will be thinking, ‘Oh, Ozzy’s having fun playing Sammi.’ And that would take a lot away from the way people would respond to the character,” he told Fangoria. “Then, we thought, what about putting these people in the movie against type? And they loved it.”
The backbone of Trick or Treat remains in many ways the soundtrack from Fastway. Between its title track as well as the gems “After Midnight” and “If You Could See,” the music adds an authenticity the scenes themselves otherwise lacked at times. Unfortunately, the band were unable to build on any momentum the film may have generated as front man Dave King departed shortly after recording was finished, leaving founding guitarist “Fast” Eddie Clarke with an uncertain future.
“Everybody was very excited about the soundtrack,” said Price. “The soundtrack really carried the movie in a lot of ways. Even though the band Fastway didn’t become huge, the music was good enough that it really held together an okay movie. I think the music was better than the movie, really.”
Due to a limited financial allowance from the studio, some really bad lip-syncing by Fields in the climactic performance as Sammi Curr, too much reliance on the publicity surrounding castings of Simmons and Osbourne in what were essentially bit parts and unsure of whether it wanted to be Porky’s redux or a genuine horror flick, Trick or Treat was a flop.
Ultimately, the film stumbled to $6.5 million-and-change at the box office against a $3.5 million budget. It ended up in fifth place the week it landed on the big screen against strong competition like Crocodile Dundee and Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money. Instead, buoyed by the burgeoning home video rental market, the movie became a cult classic and a celluloid document of an era when heavy metal was maligned by parents, preachers, jocks and preps – but still came out on top.