Movie Review: “Halloween” (David Gordon Green, USA 2018)

In short: It’s fun for a fan of the original film and/or franchise and generally a good film, but it’s not as focused and powerful as it could be.

Full Review

Halloween (John Carpenter, USA 1978) is a slight masterpiece. It doesn’t have the depth, complexity, or emotional power of some of the absolute greatest films ever made, but few films have ever done a better job of accomplishing what the filmmakers set out to do. It’s a tense, taught film about the evil violence that lurks inside humans. It masterfully uses composition, light, sound design, and score to create a level of tension that almost no other film in history matches.

After that film, a great many copycat “slasher” films showed up in the ensuing decades, including seven direct sequels, a remake, and a sequel to the remake. Most were mindless, painful excuses for blood splatter and torture porn.

This franchise itself lost its way quickly. It first made an excursion to exactly where its poor imitations lived in Halloween II (Rick Rosenthal, USA 1981), an angry, violent mess of a film that doesn’t seem to have any understanding of its predecessor’s success. Then, Halloween III: Season of the Witch (Tommy Lee Wallace, USA 1982) attempted a change of direction, trying to turn the series into an anthology of disconnected stories that would only be horror stories taking place on Hallowe’en. It was savaged by critics and audiences alike, somewhat unfairly, but it was again not a good film. Michael Myers returned for Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (Dwight H. Little, USA 1988), which was a mediocre film with a great ending that the series clearly didn’t know what to do with. Halloween 5 (Dominique Othenin-Girard, USA 1989) was a nominal continuation of the previous film but took the series to new levels of stupidity, with a cult controlling Michael Myers for some sort of bizarre ritualistic purposes. One more film continued that plot and frankly I had not even realized it existed–I missed Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (Joe Chappelle, USA 1995) and it sounds like everyone agrees that I’m better off for it. There was essentially a reboot of all sequels starting with Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (Steve Miner, USA 1998), bringing Laurie Strode back from her unceremonious death (mentioned inĀ Halloween 4 but occurring off-screen) in order to bring back Jamie Lee Curtis, which was something of a return to form for the series, and then the series squandered that goodwill with another bad sequel before finally appearing to die a quiet death.

Then, Rob Zombie arrived. The horror rocker-turned-movie director attempted a reboot of the series by remaking the original film as Halloween (Rob Zombie, USA 2007). It was a very risky idea that essentially tore down what had made the original film work and remade its icons in a different image. Micheal Myers had been a symbol of humans in general, played by a fairly average-sized man (Nick Castle is actually 5’11”, so he is tall.) in a faceless white mask. His evil was inborn, something dark and mysterious that is nonetheless present in everyone. Zombie instead gave us an in-depth look at a deeply abused child who grew into an enormous professional wrestler who looks as imposing as Michael’s supernatural strength always was. Myers changed from a symbol of the innate evil in humanity to a monstrous other–a creature created by dysfunctional family life mixed with incompetent and self-serving “medical treatment.” It’s a divisive film (and I don’t think it works very well) but it was successful enough that it spawned its own sequel, which I’m not sure anyone has ever actually watched.

Jamie Lee Curtis has taken much more ownership in the series since her return in H20 (Aside: Is that the dumbest title in movie history?), and she and David Gordon Green have been making the rounds discussing the newest entry in the series, which essentially works as a reboot of all of the sequels. It’s something like the sequel we should have gotten instead of Halloween II and everything that followed from it. They have openly discussed the idea of Laurie Strode as now connected to the “MeToo” Movement, which both intrigued and worried me going in. It’s good that they have a social point to make, but I worried that the film would actually read as the male fears of MeToo–like a film written by Brett Kavanaugh that re-imagines the victim of Michael’s crimes as the real monster.

My worries were unfounded. What this film has to say is that some of the more strident, “more extreme” parts of the movement are necessary to help provide other women with the necessary tools of survival.

Green and co-screenwriters Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley present the story of a final confrontation between Myers and Laurie Strode 40 years after he attacked her in Haddonfield. Michael has been a silent mental patient who is being transferred to a new facility. Laurie has become a grandmother with a survivalist obsession based on her fear of his return. She has scared away her daughter and granddaughter with her bizarre lifestyle, but she’s also ready when he escapes. What ensues is a cat-and-mouse game between the two where their roles are never clear that eventually ends with her daughter and granddaughter using the tools she has intentionally given them and Michael has unwittingly provided to end his reign of terror.

It’s not a very surprising story, but the predictability is born out of its adherence to making its point. It does have a few surprises in store, but those surprises are generally problematic thematically. For example, when Dr. Notloomis kills Hawkins, it is a shocking moment of the psychiatrist physically becoming the monster that Dr. Loomis always seemed to be in the series, but it also seems to be suggesting that therapy is a willing participant in the perpetuation of male-on-female violence, which doesn’t seem to fit with anything else that the film is saying. Those moments are rare, though, and even many of the small moments, like Allyson’s rejection of Oscar’s advance, are both logical and thematically appropriate.

The place where the film doesn’t live up to what it’s attempting is in its visuals. Green and cinematographer Michael Simmonds have some really interesting ideas, like when the lights of the car next to the bus are blinding us. Horror films normally use darkness to block our vision, so using the opposite is a great and interesting idea. However, most of the film looks like a standard-issue horror film, with lots of dark lighting and cool colors. The compositions are not nearly as consistently tense as the original film and there isn’t much else to draw attention in a good or a bad way.

The acting is consistently good. Jamie Lee Curtis gets the lion’s share of the work as Laurie Strode, and she plays all of the confused emotions of an assault victim–the anger, self-blame, sadness, confusion, and everything else. No one else gets a ton to do, so the only person who really stands out otherwise is for bad reasons: Haluk Bilginer as Dr. Sartain comes across as simply weird. The insanity that Donald Pleasance brought to the role of Dr. Loomis was intentionally over-the-top–it made the psychiatrist a borderline monster himself and often made up for the slower parts of the later entries in the series. However, Sartain just makes no sense from one scene to the next until he turns into an open accomplice to Michael’s crimes. I’m not sure whether to blame the script or Bilginer, but given the rest of the film’s writing, I’m more tempted to blame Bilginer.

The score and overall sound design deserve a note, though, as they were excellent. John Carpenter returned to compose the score along with his son Cody and Daniel A. Davies, and their score worked brilliantly. It was largely an update of the score of the original film, but it was a great update.

The film isn’t amazing–it’s not as good as the original 1978 film. However, it is a legitimately good film that makes a laudable point in quite well. Few horror films have done as good of a job in recent years, and that’s an impressive achievement. It’s also the first time we’ve seen a good film in this series in 40 years.

Notes

  • Loomis’s voice on the recordings really doesn’t sound anything like Donald Pleasance, which is too bad.
  • It was great to see that Nick Castle returned to the role of the Shape, even if it was apparently for very little of the film.
  • James Jude Courtney is much larger than Nick Castle, which is again perhaps more believable with his superhuman strength, but again takes away a bit from his everyman quality.
  • One thing I liked was how heavy and lumbering Courtney’s walk and steps were. It was a distinct difference from the gracefully-paced walk of the trained ballet dancer Nick Castle, but it was a change that really seemed to befit the much older version of Michael Myers.
  • The patients’ reaction to the mask in the courtyard is strange and frankly a scene that had no place in this film.
  • This film actually had some real similarities to Scream 4 (Wes Craven, USA 2011), which also explored the survivor’s pain and guilt following a killer’s rampage.
  • There are so many nods to the earlier film in the series that it gets a little self-indulgent. Saying that Laurie isn’t Michael’s sister was so good, though!
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