In the 1980s, nothing was scarier to parents than Heavy Metal music. Murders, suicides, teenage pregnancies and illegal drug use were all being blamed on this new genre of music (none of those things had ever occurred before kids started listening to Heavy Metal in the 80s, apparently). Richard Ramirez, the serial killer known as The Night Stalker, claimed to have been influenced by AC/DC’s song “Night Prowler”. Two young teens blamed their suicide attempts in court on backward messages in Judas Priest’s album Stained Class; another one’s family sued Ozzy Osbourne over supposed subliminal messages contained in his song “Suicide Solution”. The Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) lobbied to have warning labels put on the covers of offensive albums. Scary Heavy Metal music was everywhere, destroying civilization as we know it. (By the way, most of those scary songs from that era now get daily play on retro-80s radio stations.)
One of the “scariest” things about Heavy Metal was the inclusion of backwards messages hidden within the songs. These messages were recorded backwards and heard in reverse by listeners; the theory at the time was that these messages would somehow be reversed mentally by listeners and cause otherwise normal people to do terrible things. While there’s no real science behind the theory, that didn’t stop bands from flocking to the studio and recording all kinds of goofy messages in reverse. Truth be told, the forward-playing lyrics were typically much more graphic.
The 1986 film Trick or Treat stars Marc Price (Skippy from Family Ties) as Eddie “Ragman” Weinbauer, a high-school reject outcast for his love of Heavy Metal music (he’s the only metal head in school, which would be pretty incredible in 1986). Eddie’s hero is Sammi Curr, a cartoony conglomeration of Alice Cooper, Nikki Sixx, and Marilyn Manson all rolled into one. Eddie is devastated when he learns Curr has died in a mysterious fire, but after talking to local radio disc jockey “Nuke” (Gene Simmons) he receives a gift the sole copy of Curr’s last album.
Curr’s album contains more than rockin’ 80s Hair Metal. When played backwards, Curr begins speaking directly to Eddie think of it as a hi-phonic Ouija board or sorts. Through generic, fortune-cookie style messages Curr begins predicting events in Eddie’s life and giving him advice. Eddie’s main desire (other than, you know, rockin’) is to get even with all the stupid high school jocks that do mean things to him like poke holes in his milk carton or attempt to drown him at an after school pool party. Eddie goes along with the plan at first, but when one of the jocks almost gets killed Eddie tries to call of Curr’s attack. Curr, deciding Eddie is a pussy, goes on with his attack.
Curr’s power comes from playing his album backwards, something you wouldn’t think would be much of a problem since (A) there’s only one copy of the album and (B) if Eddie would quit playing it backwards, Curr would go away. Unfortunately for everyone involved, this is not the case as Eddie ends up making copies of the album (recorded in reverse) which he slips to the jocks and really, what jock wouldn’t love to sit around and listen to a cassette tape of music he doesn’t like in the first place, recorded in reverse? Pretty soon you’ve got demons manifesting in cars raping girls, the shop class drill press attacking jocks, and Curr playing his own album in reverse. Eddie instructs his nerdy friend Roger to retrieve and destroy the tape. Roger manages to retrieve the tape, but instead of destroying it he takes it to the school’s Halloween dance and plays it. Just when it seems things couldn’t get any worse, DJ Nuke announces on the air that he’s going to play Sammi Curr’s unreleased album (he kept a reel-to-reel copy) in reverse at midnight on Halloween, a plan that must’ve pleased the station’s manager to no end.
All the staples of a Hollywood budget thriller are here: the acting’s not bad, the music’s terrific (if you like 80s hair metal), and the special effects are on par with the genre, the era and the budget. Eddie’s character comes off as semi-believable, partially due to his never-ending wardrobe and posters of real bands from the 80s. Rocker Sammi Curr comes off as slightly less believable no, not just because he’s a homicidal ghost, but because we really never find out the motivation behind his killing spree. I know people like to believe that Alice Cooper and Marilyn Manson are creepy people, but they’re not. Off stage, Alice Cooper is Vincent Furnier, a guy who does a lot of golfing for charity, and Marilyn Manson is Brian Warner, a somewhat normal and very intelligent guy. Ozzy Osbourne’s not the antichrist he’s a feeble old man who can’t work a television remote or fix his own meals, God love him. But Sammi Curr (and more importantly Sammi Curr’s ghost) goes from rock star to homicidal maniac in zero to sixty. At first his motivation is to help Eddie exact revenge but at the end it’s simply to kill everybody. Apparently, death sucks.
While it probably wasn’t intended to become one, Trick or Treat serves as a pretty neat time capsule to those who remember the comeuppance of Alice Cooper, KISS, Motley Crue, Twisted Sister, W.A.S.P., Judas Priest, and all the other hair metal bands of the 80s that consisted of big hair, skulls, and faux Satanic imagery. To kids it was exciting, to adults scary, and to both groups looking back, like Trick or Treat, a little silly.