Review: 'Halloween'

Thursday, October 18, 2018
A still from 'Halloween'.

I Am the “Who” When You Call, “Who’s There”?

2018 / USA / 106 min. / Dir. by David Gordon Green / Opens in wide release on Oct. 19, 2018

by:
Andrew Wyatt

Director John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) is not the first modern English-language slasher film: That honor goes to Bob Clark’s eerie sorority-house bloodbath Black Christmas (1974), or perhaps Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) if one is inclined to bend the definition a bit. (One probably shouldn’t, given that Hooper’s singular, radically nihilistic film leaves so many of the genre’s traditional boxes unchecked.) Although Carpenter missed the thin, leading edge of the slasher wave by a few years, he unquestionably perfected it with Halloween, cementing his historical standing as the Bram Stoker to Clark’s John Polidori. While Black Christmas is a groundbreaking film – chilling and ambitious, if a bit uneven – Carpenter’s film is a stone-cold masterpiece.

Commendably lean in the manner of many great American indies of the 1970s, Halloween is the Platonic ideal of the slasher form: impeccably executed, bracingly stylish, and brutally straightforward. It’s just as admirable for the things it lacks: no convoluted backstory, no superfluous characters, and no narrative wheel-spinning. Just an escaped criminal sociopath named Michael Myers (Nick Castle) – famously dubbed simply “The Shape” in the film’s credits – and an unsuspecting (although not helpless) teenaged babysitter named Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). Five minutes into the feature, the director has already offered up those essential talismans of the genre, spilled blood and naked breasts. Nothing about Halloween is perfunctory, however, and everything serves its raison d'être. Carpenter and co-writer/producer Debra Hill essentially fashioned every last aspect of their film – dialog, composition, cinematography, editing, and landmark electronic score – around the raw, elemental terror of a masked maniac with a knife.

Even filmgoers with an aversion to slasher flicks are likely aware that Halloween spawned a plethora of sequels and remakes, including the strange, standalone tangent Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) and a misguided but fascinatingly deranged, double-feature reimagining from director Rob Zombie (2007; 2009). To say that the 1979 original outshines these myriad cash-ins and reboots would be gross understatement. Accordingly, a horror aficionado could be forgiven for approaching a new Halloween feature with some trepidation.

The latest filmmaker to confront the unstoppable Mr. Myers is David Gordon Green, a maddeningly mercurial director whose filmography includes both an acclaimed coming-of-age indie landmark (George Washington [2000]) and a stoner comedy set in the Middle Ages (Your Highness [2011]). Although his more violent psychological dramas Undertow (2004) and Joe (2015) certainly have their grisly elements, horror is a genre that the director has not previously tackled. Green’s Halloween – which is a direct, 40-years-later sequel to Carpenter’s original, disregarding all the other films in the franchise – was co-written with his regular collaborators Jeff Fradley and Danny McBride, the latter known as the star and co-creator of the HBO comedies Eastbound & Down (2009 - 13) and Vice Principals (2016 - 17).

The indefatigable Curtis has returned once again to the role of Laurie Strode, 16 years after her previous re-return, in the inexcusable Halloween: Resurrection (2002). And Carpenter himself has composed the score for the new feature, alongside his son Cody Carpenter and Daniel A. Davies, reworking his indelible synth themes from the original film. Given this strange and seemingly ill-fitting lineup of talent, it’s hard to say what one should be expecting from this new take on Halloween, beyond the stock components of Michael Myer’s pale, shapeless mask and a hefty tally of stabbing victims. What director Green delivers is, rather surprisingly, something akin to a Halloween fan film on a Hollywood budget: a winking, reference-dense appreciation of Carpenter’s masterwork that, while capable and modestly entertaining, has little of the original’s sinewy clarity or spine-tingling power. In short, Green’s feature is The Force Awakens of Halloween films.

A slasher enthusiast can likely recount the film’s backstory from memory: In Haddonfield, Illinois, six-year-old Michael Myers stabbed his own adolescent sister to death on Halloween night in 1963, ultimately resulting in his incarceration in a mental hospital. Almost exactly 15 years later, he escaped from said institution and returned to his hometown, where he proceeded to stab, strangle, and bludgeon his way through a (surprisingly modest) gaggle of random victims, most of them high school students. His rampage was cut short by 18-year-old Laurie Strode, who outsmarted him long enough for Michael’s own psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance), to show up and put six bullets into the seemingly unstoppable killer. Whereupon Michael vanished into the night.

That’s Carpenter’s Halloween in all its dreadful elegance, and one of the immediately irksome things about Green’s new film – one of the irksome things about every post-1978 Halloween feature, really – is that it undercuts the almost folkloric tone of the original’s ambiguous conclusion. In this case, it does so by insisting that Michael was recaptured and re-institutionalized shortly after the end credits rolled. Now 60-ish but still physically imposing, Michael (James Jude Courtney) has kept up his previous silent streak by not saying a word for the past four decades of his confinement. One day, British true-crime podcasters Aaron Korey (Jefferson Hall) and Dana Haines (Rhian Rees) arrange for a visit with Haddonfield’s most notorious native son. Rather foolishly, Korey has brought along the original rubber Halloween mask Michael wore during his 1978 killings, dangling the now-ragged thing in an unsuccessful effort to elicit some sort of reaction. Astonishingly, this act of naked provocation doesn’t much distress Michael’s current psychiatrist, Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), marking the physician as a bit more sanguine than the late Dr. Loomis, who flat-out claimed his patient was Evil incarnate.

Korey and Haines have an equally disappointing encounter with Laurie Strode, now living like a paranoid doomsday prepper on the outskirts of Haddonfield, where she’s hunkered down in a house equipped with security cameras, booby traps, a basement panic room, and a stockpile of firearms. Laurie is pragmatic enough to take the $3,000 offered by the podcasters in exchange for an interview, but savvy enough to reveal virtually nothing of value before throwing them out on their ears. Of course, Korey already knows that Laurie is twice-divorced and estranged from her adult daughter Karen (Judy Greer), whose upbringing revolved around preparing to one day defend against and hopefully kill Michael Myers when – not if – he escapes and returns. Spoiler: He does. Not to question the wisdom of the Illinois Department of Corrections, but why would they arrange for the prison transfer of a notorious Halloween-night killer on a foggy October 30 evening, 40 years to the day since he last escaped and murdered several people? Why tempt fate like that?

The screenplay problems are self-evident at this point. The podcasters Korey and Dana are slick, hollow non-characters, and Korey in particular is something of an arrogant wanker, the sort of prick who is practically begging to be butchered in a 2010s horror feature. This only serves to highlight that the pair have just two purposes in the story. First, their presence allows Dr. Sartain and Laurie to spout exposition regarding everything that’s happened during the past 40 years. Secondly, the podcasters bring Michael’s iconic mask within physical proximity of Haddonfield, so that he can easily retrieve it once he escapes. It’s dreadfully results-oriented writing, and its most immediate effect is that when Korey and Haines are inevitably (and brutally) murdered, their deaths barely register as anything except obligatory tasks to which Michael must attend.

This points to what is perhaps the fundamental failing of the new Halloween: Until the admittedly nail-biting climax, it isn’t especially moody, tense, or emotionally fraught. One of the brilliant, often overlooked aspects of Carpenter’s original feature is the slow-burn way it establishes a sinister atmosphere, withholding its most shocking violence until the back half of the film. Setting aside the 1963 prelude and a motorist who is killed off-screen, Michael’s homicidal rampage doesn’t truly get going until the 45-minute mark or so. Up to that point, he’s just a lurking presence that gradually grows more menacing; the nameless Shape that Laurie glimpses across the street, behind a hedgerow, or amid the laundry hanging in the backyard, seemingly always disappearing in a swirl of dried autumn leaves.

Michael Myers has become such a familiar horror villain, it’s probably impossible to completely replicate that spooky atmosphere of encroaching, predatory Evil. However, Green and company barely even attempt to do so, structuring their story in such a way that the gore starts gushing relatively early in the film, and then continues to do so at a steady rate. The effect is to render scenes of gruesome murder plodding and dutiful rather than shocking, as if a Halloween film’s primary obligation is to gracelessly serve up as many scenes as possible of Michael bashing skulls and knifing abdomens. Admittedly, these murders are often presented with striking formal flair. For example, some of the early slayings are captured in long, eerily impassive Steadicam shots in which the camera peers through pumpkin-bedecked windows or wanders down shadowed driveways. In isolation, these scenes are unquestionably stylish and giddily enjoyable in a “He’s-right-behind-you!” funhouse way. However, they don’t add much to either the mood or the story of the surrounding feature, feeling rather like Green has created a series of abstracted Halloween-themed short films.

Next to Laurie and Michael, the film is most focused on Karen’s daughter Allyson (Andi Matichak), a bright, popular high school senior who has recently become eager to reconnect with the “crazy” grandmother she’s been shielded from for most of her life. (In a work that’s otherwise such a mash note to the 1978 original, the filmmakers make the odd choice to explicitly not saddle Allyson with a babysitting gig on Halloween night.) This family drama doesn’t amount to much in practice, which is consistent with pretty much everything else plot-wise that doesn’t involve Michael stabbing people. This applies to both Allyson’s relationship angst with her asshole-in-sheep’s-clothing boyfriend Cameron (Dylan Arnold) and to the faintly antagonistic banter between the wary Officer Hawkins (Will Patton) and his glib colleague Sheriff Barker (Omar Doresey). Incidentallty, the law enforcement aspects of the screenplay are a hopeless muddle, in the fine tradition of most 1980s slashers; the film seemingly can’t decide if Hawkins is a part of the county or municipal sheriff’s department.

There’s a certain purity to how little all the character details matter in the end, since – in keeping with Carpenter’s original – Michael’s path is essentially random, and he ends up pursuing Allyson largely by happenstance, much as he did her grandmother. Indeed, there’s no explicit evidence that he’s searching for Laurie to finish her off these 40 years later, her paranoia to the contrary notwithstanding. When three generations of Strode women wind up facing down Michael at Laurie’s fortress-house in the third act, it’s mostly due to a series of arbitrary decisions and chance encounters. This echoes Michael’s pinballing trail through the 1978 film somewhat, but it also underlines how much meaningless padding there is in the new screenplay, especially compared to Carpenter’s fat-free original.

More than anything, Green’s film feels like a big, sloppy act of fan-service: It’s replete with references to the original film and the sequels, even to red-headed stepchild Halloween III. Some of these nods are little more than a line, shot, or sound cue, but they’re rarely subtle, especially for the devoted horror hound who has seen Carpenter’s film multiple times and absorbed its every detail. These sorts of jokey allusions are eye-rolling more often than they are clever, although it’s all much more good-natured and tolerable here than it was in the shamelessly “ironic” Halloween H20 (1998). At least Green, Fradley, and McBride are joyously, obsessively focused on the Halloween franchise itself, rather than taking a piss on other franchises or making clunky meta-jokes. The closest the film comes to the latter is a line that disposes of Halloween II (1981) with a swipe, dismissing the rumor that Laurie was secretly Michael Myers’ long-lost sister as pure urban legend. (One is inclined to forgive anything that un-rings that particular bell.)

Whether or not for-the-fans exercises like this new Halloween are harmless R-rated fun or cynical pandering may be a matter of the individual viewer’s visceral response to such things. On a shot-for-shot level, Green and his crew are simply too accomplished at what they do to dismiss the film as pure hackwork. It’s perhaps unfair to compare cinematographer Michael Simmonds’ efforts here with that of Dean Cundey’s evocative work on the 1978 original, given the latter man’s legendary warping of the film’s color scheme – an allegedly practical tweak meant to conceal that “autumn in Illinois” is clearly summer in California. Simmonds mostly keeps the new film within the boundaries of a conventional 21st-century horror aesthetic, but his use of obfuscating darkness is truly marvelous stuff. These are not the Expressionist-style stabbing shadows of Carpenter’s film, but something closer to a clinging, pitch-black mist that plays tricks on the eye. It provokes the viewer to constantly, anxiously search the squirming darkness for the faint ghost of Michael’s hollow-eyed mask.

Holding the whole film together – and connecting it more solidly to the 1978 feature than all of Green’s visual callbacks – is the phenomenal score. It’s not a retread, but rather an elaboration on the original film’s two or three jittery, synthesized themes, with the Carpenters and Davies using the full breadth of the present-day digital toolkit to create and rich, menacing soundscape. If Carpenter’s original score was haunting in its skin-crawling simplicity, the new compositions are more overtly hellish and terrifying. There’s a particular blast of demonic rumbling in many of the chase sequences that is somehow shrill, even though it pulsates deep beneath the familiar tinkling of the main Halloween theme. It’s a terrific contribution from Carpenter and his collaborators, easily his best work as a film composer since Prince of Darkness (1987). It’s also a welcome dose of vigorous creativity in a film that often feels like it’s coasting on fan goodwill and the superficial appeal of a well-staged cinematic murder.

Rating: C+