In 1978, genre maestro John Carpenter released Halloween, a bravura display of micro-budget dread that spurred an onslaught of imitators. Of course, there’s only one John Carpenter, and while most of these copycats exceeded Halloween’s body count and onscreen bloodshed, none managed to evoke the film’s signature atmosphere.
A bevy of sequels, reboots, remakes and sequels to remakes followed with very little success. Michael Myers, the franchise’s masked boogeyman, was last seen in the 2009 Rob Zombie-helmed Halloween II. That film (for which I’ll risk my credibility to call a low-key masterpiece) saw Myers as a bearded, often maskless man-child committing sickening murders at the beckoning of his mother’s ghost. Zombie had killed and twisted the series beyond recognition into a work of appalling cruelty and Lynchian beauty.
With nowhere left for the Myers saga to go, it was inevitable that a reboot would once again come to wipe the slate clean. Blumhouse, the studio currently dominating mainstream horror, chose to realign the franchise with Carpenter’s original vision, bringing back Jamie Lee Curtis as OG Final Girl Laurie Strode and ignoring virtually every other sequel. This has been done before, so more intriguing this time around was the hiring of the hyper-eclectic David Gordon Green as director and Danny freakin’ McBride (Eastbound & Down) as Gordon’s co-writer. Add Carpenter coming in with a new score and expectations are accordingly unreasonable.
This sequel, confusingly titled Halloween, is set 40 years after the first and strives for a similar narrative simplicity. Fans expecting a Great Film™ worthy of the Carpenter name will likely be disappointed, albeit not crushingly so. Green’s belated follow-up doesn’t achieve the elegant foreboding which made the original such a masterful exercise in style. Fortunately, the new Halloween is still a blast as far as major-studio slashers go. It’s a nasty, no-frills horror flick with a memorable Jamie Lee Curtis performance, some shocking kills and moments of surprising humor.
In a cold open, we meet a pair of true-crime podcasters (a la Serial) covering the 1978 Michael Myers killings. They arrive at the mental institution he’s been held at for the past 40 years, filled with (in typical horror-movie fashion) drooling and screaming inmates. Except for Myers. Anyone who’s seen these movies knows it’s a fool’s errand trying to provoke a response from that monolithic embodiment of evil. The journalists’ attempts to research him are what set the plot in motion and reunite audiences with Laurie Strode.
Curtis is without question the film’s highlight and her portrayal of Laurie here is decidedly different from previous iterations of the character. Imagine Terminator 2’s Sarah Connor but a bit more unhinged. Her fanatical quest to prepare for Myers’s return, which involves stockpiling her house with weapons and training her daughter with firearms, has left her embittered and estranged from her family. It’s a nice touch from both the screenplay and Curtis’s performance that allows her daughter (Judy Greer) to seem perfectly reasonable for rejecting her mother.
Laurie’s granddaughter and her group of friends play a significant role as a new group of teenagers to serve as kitchen-knife fodder for Myers. Their storylines would feel superfluous if it wasn’t for the natural charisma provided by the actors and McBride’s script. His fingerprints are most noticeable in these character interludes that deliver a welcome dose of humor and congeniality rarely seen in the slasher genre.
There’s really no need to delve into more setup because once Myers is turned loose, Halloween takes off. For the most part, the story takes few surprising turns. The amusement is watching Green and McBride weave an invigorating slice of slasher mayhem. Myers is back to being the well-postured boogeyman with an expressionless (and now age-weathered) mask. The body count is high and the kills range from gleeful inventiveness to startling brutality. Oftentimes, Green will choose to cut away from a death, only to show the grisly aftermath when we least expect it.
The patient direction and serene camerawork of Green’s remarkable indie work is oddly absent here, and that’s the loftiest criticism I can lob towards Halloween. It’s competently, and occasionally excellently, crafted, but the grime and menace seen in earlier films like Joe and Undertow has been replaced with a Blumhouse sheen.
Naturally, the trailers have hyped up a climactic showdown between Laurie and Myers, and it’s here where Halloween peaks. It’s the kind of visceral face-off the lukewarm Halloween H20 promised but failed to fulfill 20 years ago. Yes, Myers as an antagonist, with his unnervingly robotic movements and near-invulnerability, is as effective as ever. This time, however, the thrills come from Laurie, who has obsessed over this moment for 40 years, going into attack mode. Despite his inscrutability, it’s easy to imagine during this sequence that for once, Myers might be sweating things a little.
I predict devotees of the franchise, those who patiently waited for a proper successor to rival Carpenter’s original, might leave feeling dispirited from yet another sequel failing to transcend its genre trappings. The Halloween franchise has been a cinematic obsession of mine for over a decade (full disclosure: I’m not old), but I’ve long given up hope that any further installments will turn out to be an indelible work of art. In fact, I’m just elated to have left the theatre with a massive grin on my face. When the majority of these things are near-unwatchable, that’s about as much as one can hope for.