Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, Will Patton, Virginia Gardner
Director: David Gordon Green
Writers: Jeff Fradley, Danny McBride, David Gordon Green
It’s been forty years since John Carpenter’s classic horror first took to the big screen and kickstarted the trend of teenage slashers that would lead to such fearful hits as Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Since then the gory Hallow’s Eve saga has gone through so many sequels, spin-offs and reboots of such inconsistent quality that the continuity has long since lost all meaning and coherence. Thus Fradley, McBride and Green have gone the Jurassic World route by wiping the whole slate clean. Halloween is a direct sequel to Halloween (they probably could have gone with a slightly different title if only for the sake of practicality) and it picks up forty years after the events of the first film having retconned just about everything that happens in the successive titles. Michael Myers (James Jude Courtney) has been incarcerated in a mental institution ever since his killing spree in Haddonfield and Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) has been preparing herself for the day that they’ll cross paths once again. As the 40th anniversary of that dreaded day approaches, Michael escapes his captivity and creeps his way to that same town to repeat the bloody cycle all over again.
One of the great debates surrounding the original Halloween film is the nature of Michael’s character; is he really this superhuman, innately evil bogeyman or is there a human being with thoughts and feelings somewhere deep inside? Is he nothing more than a bloodthirsty monster beyond any reason, conscience or understanding as Dr. Loomis said, or is there something beneath it all driving his compulsion to kill? Fans have tried to get to the heart of Michael’s humanity by searching for some kind of motivation behind his actions or some kind of link between him and the one character to survive his murderous rampage, Laurie Strode. The sequels shed some light on this with the reveal that Laurie is actually Michael’s younger sister and that she had been his target the whole time, a twist that Rob Zombie would then incorporate into his remake where he sought to provide the viewer with greater insight into who Michael was before he donned the William Shatner mask. However not only does this new film completely erase the continuity of the franchise, it even directly addresses this specific point and dismisses it on the outset. These incarnations of Michael and Laurie are not in any way blood relations, yet many of the characters are nonetheless determined to believe that there is an intrinsic bond between them.
Many of the reviews that I’ve read of this new film have billed it as essentially a revenge movie. Michael Myers has escaped once again! He’s going after Laurie to finish what he started! Except this time she’s waiting for him! That is how the movie was advertised and it’s certainly what I expected to see going in, but I’m not sure that’s the movie that Green and co. actually made. What I found most interesting about this film’s portrayal of Michael is how little bearing Laurie seems to have on his actions. When he and Laurie do inevitably face off at the end, it isn’t because he has sought her out but because factors beyond either of their control deliberately conspired to bring them together. Yet that doesn’t mean his actions are indiscriminate either. In the movie that first introduced us to Michael, there was a clear method behind his movements; he stalked his prey, which were specifically young women around the same age as the sister he brutally murdered in his very first scene, before moving in for the kill. When he returns to the town where it all began on that very same day, 31 October, the first place he visits is that same sister’s grave where a couple of the characters whom we’ve already met by this point have the misfortune of being when he catches sight of them. Afterwards he returns to his old pattern of hunting and murdering teenagers. There’s an enigma here but no plot twist to explain it all; it’s up to the viewer to find the answer for themselves.
From Laurie’s perspective there is no doubt in her mind that Michael is out for her and her loved ones. She already escaped him once and in the forty years since then she has been preparing for his return. “He’s waited for me” she says, “and I’ve waited for him”. This is personal for her, and what makes it all the more interesting for me is that she believes it’s personal for him as well in a way that it may not necessarily be. It’s strange but it might actually be more comforting for Laurie to believe that Michael has always had it out specifically for her than to consider that the bogeyman who killed her friends, traumatised her, and ruined her life did so for no other reason than because she was somebody of the wrong age and gender in the wrong place at the wrong time. One of the great tragedies of life is to believe that you are special only to find out that you’re not and Laurie has already had a profoundly tragic life. She now lives as a recluse deep in the woods, twice divorced and estranged from her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak), all because her PTSD has compelled her to devote her whole life, and that of her child, towards making preparations and honing the skills needed so that when Michael does return, he won’t find the same defenceless young girl waiting for him. “If the way I raised your mother means that she hates me but she’s prepared for the horrors of the world” she tells Allyson, “I can live with that”.
As far as the horror itself goes, Halloween takes most of its cues from its 1978 namesake. What made Carpenter’s original outing so effective was its simplicity; it’s long, drawn-out takes, its sparing use of sound and its ability to evoke brutal images without graphically depicting them (at least not as gratuitously as you might remember). Green takes a similar less-is-more approach and the result is quite good, even if he does tend to draw on moments from the first film a little too often. The problem there is that, while it makes perfectly logical sense to find inspiration in the techniques and imagery that made Halloween as successful as it was, those same methods and images have been so widely imitated in so many other films in the decades since that the 2018 Halloween too often feels like just another slasher film. The tension is there and Green shows enough restraint that his echoing of the preceding title never goes overboard, but he’s nonetheless still walking in the looming shadow cast by one of great, iconic titles in American horror cinema.
The moment when the film truly comes into its own is the third act where Laurie and Michael have their showdown. Laurie has gone through a totally remarkable transformation between the two films akin to Sarah Connor and Curtis nails it like the pro that she is. On its release it was noted by many that Halloween marks the largest opening for a film with a female lead above 55 years old and it is a strong and compelling one at that. Laurie is so much more than a tough heroine who shows up to kick arse and takes names; she is a fully formed character who after four decades is still trying to reckon with her trauma. When she comes face to face with Michael once again it isn’t some epic duel between old adversaries, it’s a fundamentally damaged person being confronted by the terrors of her past in the form of a ghost. By scrapping the familial bond between them, Laurie’s motivation becomes all the simpler and harsher as Michael’s becomes more inscrutable and tormenting. The most inspired images in this film are those where Laurie and Michael are framed as mirror images to one another and those were the moments that gave me the most unsettling chills.
I guess I didn’t find Halloween to be a particularly scary film, but I also think that dismissing it on that basis is kind of missing the point. I’ve never found the John Carpenter film to be especially scary either, in large part because I wasn’t even born until well over a decade after it was made, but that doesn’t stop me from appreciating the masterful way in which it crafts so much tension from such a simple concept in such an economical way. The new Halloween doesn’t get under my skin or shock me to my core the way that my favourite horror films tend to do, but I was still engrossed from beginning to end. Green proves himself to be a worthy disciple of Carpenter as he adeptly manages to construct that same eerie, uncanny air of disquieting suburban atmosphere (with a little bit of help from Carpenter’s signature score with that jarringly monotonous melody) to startling effect. It also understands that the ambiguous humanity of Michael Myers is a crucial part of what makes him scary; the more unknowable he is, the more we come to dread his deathly presence as the characters are faced with a force as intangible and pitiless as the Black Plague.