He’s baaaack

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

As a sequel to the most iconic slasher movie of all time, the new Halloween sets itself up for failure. Forty years after silent killer Michael Myers donned a leathery white mask and hacked up a handful of teens in John Carpenter’s 1978 original, this campy follow-up acknowledges that a lot has happened since then. As one young character complains when considering the mythology early on, by today’s standards Myers’ killing spree is “not that big a deal.”

It’s hard to argue the point: Years have passed since the self-referential horror of the Scream franchise, not to mention snazzier home-invasion thrillers from You’re Next to The Babadook that took the Halloween mold to fresh heights. Carpenter’s disturbed psychopath was a gift to the genre, but it moved on long ago. Even the idea of rebooting Halloween has become a redundant conceit, across seven discardable sequels and Rob Zombie’s grim reboots. Myers has been running on empty since the Reagan years.

Faced with monstrous expectations, director David Gordon Green—who co-wrote the screenplay with Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley—doesn’t even attempt to revamp the appeal. Making his initial foray into the genre, the chameleonesque Green has made a slavish, sharply executed bit of fan service elevated by Jamie Lee Curtis’ transformation into a badass grandmother back to finish the job. Guarding three generations of women tarnished by the events of the original movie, Curtis’ Laurie Strode returns to ground this uneven tribute in purpose, with a revamped score (written by Carpenter, his son Cody, and Daniel Davies) adding an aura of authenticity to keep concerned fans at bay.

For all the hype about Myers, he remains its least compelling element. With the original, Carpenter made the chilling decision to keep the source of Myers’ insanity a secret, from the moment he hacks up his older sister as a child to the occasion of his first escape from Smith’s Grove Sanitarium as a young adult. Mute and devoid of compassion for his victims, Myers became as much an animalistic embodiment of dread as the shark in Jaws.

The script acknowledges the frustration surrounding this lack of detail in a clever opening bit, when a pair of podcasters (Jefferson Hall and Rhian Reese) visit Smith’s Grove with Myers’ original mask and attempt to coax him into talking to them. Nick Castle, who played Myers in 1978 and showed his disfigured face for a few creepy frames, remains a quiet, empty shell whose only noticeable change is an unkempt white beard. Despite their best efforts, he says nothing—and the title credit rolls. The prologue’s message is clear: The legendary embodiment of evil requires no fancy makeover or character updates to continue his terrifying reign.

Similarly, Halloween acknowledges the previous sequels did the original no favors and tosses them out with ease. In a passing reference to the Halloween II reveal that Laurie was Michael’s biological sister, one local teen says, “That’s just a bit that some people made up.”

For its first act, Halloween plays out like a literal illustration of its straightforward premise. After narrowly evading Michael’s attacks in the first movie, when he killed all of her friends, Laurie has grown up in the shadow of a trauma that has ruined every chapter of her life. Holed up in a grimy home covered in locks and loaded with guns, she braces for Myers’ return at every moment. Her grown daughter Karen (Judy Greer) copes with her mother’s paranoia as a fact of life. Karen’s daughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) splits the difference between the pair: She’s a party-loving teen just like Laurie in the original, but grew up in the shadow of her grandmother’s plight and has absorbed her fierce survivalist tactics for when the time comes.

Myers makes his latest escape off camera, in a half-baked sequence that reflects a desire to hurry up and get to the good stuff. In short order, it’s Halloween night in the fictional suburbia of Haddonfield, Illinois, and Myers roams the neighborhood stabbing various residents at random. The movie stumbles through its messy middle section, but manages to strip away the excess storytelling for a climax at the original scene of the crime, where the trio of women converges for a final showdown that delivers the goods at last.

However, the movie would be a harmless, discardable remix of standard horror notes if not for Curtis, who charges through the movie as if she never stopped running four decades back. Cinema’s inaugural Final Girl was actually saved by a man at the last second in the first Halloween, so her very existence in this movie represents a culmination of the feminist hero who never quite received her due. The final image is a powerful statement of her defiant spirit.

There’s no getting around some of the messy staging and clunky dialogue that keeps Halloween from reaching greater heights for the bulk of its running time. But Carpenter’s own Halloween was itself a bumpy ride, made on the cheap and carried along by the director’s firm grasp on his potent themes. The 2018 version is a kind of cracked-mirror variation on its precedent, caked in dust, but reflecting the same deep-seated fears. Yet in an intriguing twist, Green has revisited this familiar turf less to exhume an old nightmare than to chart a path toward waking up from it.

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