‘Halloween’ Review

David Gordon Green’s newest entry in the Halloween saga is the best case you can hope for in a sequel to a story that really doesn’t need a sequel. It’s got some scares, it’s well made, and there’s a deeper message somewhere in the film’s inner mechanisms, it’s just not all mined to its full potential. And maybe it couldn’t be – how do you follow up a film that is literally perfect and had an all-time classic ending? Regardless, Green gives the film his all, and while I’m not convinced it’s anything you need to rush to see, there’s a lot to like in a film that doesn’t want to be your typical trashy slasher.

It’s been forty years since the psychopathic Michael Myers (Nick Castle and James Jude Courtney) escaped from Smith’s Grove Sanitarium, murdered three babysitters, and attempted to kill Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). During that time, Strode has become unhinged, battling depression and paranoia. Her trauma has ruined her relationship with daughter Karen (Judy Greer), who was taken away by CPS due to Laurie’s survivalist tendencies, and severely strained her relationship with granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak). Now it is Halloween once again, and Michael escapes the sanitarium once again, ready to return to Haddonfield to finish what he’s started. When he arrives, he discovers a series of unsuspecting parents, a group of unruly teens, and a Laurie Strode who has dreamed of nothing but vengeance for four decades.

The new Halloween is a strange, somewhat flawed product. It’s not that it’s unenjoyable – it’s just that the film feels like three disjointed parts that are wildly uneven in execution. The first act is a weird podcast rehash, the second a traditional Halloween slash-em-up, and the third is a Straw Dogs send-up. While the second and third acts have a lot of talent and suspense, the first act is a real struggle to get through. I think a lot of that is because, while intriguing, the podcast angle never comes together. It feels like a shoddy nod to the already-insignificant Halloween: Resurrection, and it exists solely to lay heaps of unnecessary exposition upon the audience. It also doesn’t help that the two podcasters, played by Rhian Rees and Jefferson Hall, simply aren’t likable. They’re just douchey, terrible journalists who exist solely to put the plot in motion. And the podcasters aren’t the only characters with major issues: few, if any, of the teenage characters feel like realistic, relatable teenagers. In fact, the majority of them are kind of terrible. Now, that isn’t a surprising detail when it comes to slasher films; however, Halloween isn’t your typical slasher film. What made the original so brilliant was the fact the teens were all fun, funny, and flawed human beings – in short, they were relatable. Here, outside of Allyson and her best friend Vicky (Virginia Gardner), all of these teens are obnoxious and unfunny. They spend all their time harassing people, going to unrealistically over-the-top high school dances playing knockoffs of Icona Pop’s “I Love It,” and just generally begging Michael Myers to come put them out of their misery (and ours, for that matter). And sure, some of these characters are supposed to be unfathomably irritating, like Oscar (Drew Scheid), a spot-on Hello M’Lady, but even then it’s not enough to justify why so many of these characters just straight-up suck. In fact, the unlikability of these characters may, in fact, speak to the biggest flaw in the movie: without characters to relate to and feel for, it is impossible to become invested. From the boring opening to the beginning of the third act, we find ourselves wondering, “Why do we care? These people clearly aren’t real – who cares if they live or die?” And once you remove the general conceit of this type of film, the stakes are gone, and you’re left with nothing but emptiness. Meanwhile, the plotlines we do have to care about, while mostly interesting, are often left unresolved, like the fate of one character set up to be a main character early on before being completely abandoned halfway through the film, or head-scratchingly awful, like a twist that comes in the beginning of the third act that is so wrong-headed I started to become angry. And honestly, the violence this film demonstrates is an incredibly large misstep. The original Halloween prided itself on bloodless kills and suspense-ridden scares, and while some of that is there (see below), Gordon Green chooses to go full throttle on the gore in a way that is nauseating and irritating as opposed to frightening. Sure, some of it works – a sequence involving a human jack-o-lantern is a terrifying image that fits the themes of the film well. However, I refuse to believe that a close-up of an exploding head, the gruesome aftermath of a knife through the eye, and more, all portrayed through a lazily mixed sound design, were in any way necessary. While I wouldn’t call any of these complaints a dealbreaker, together they do stand out as inherent issues with the film’s enjoyability.

However, despite all of these critiques, it’s hard not to become invested in a film this frighteningly fun – particularly the second and third acts. One of the smartest aspects Gordon Green incorporated into this plot is the idea of Laurie Strode’s PTSD. The idea of Laurie Strode, the original Final Girl, becoming a survivalist in the aftermath of her trauma, struggling with alcoholic tendencies, with paranoia, and even becoming suicidal, is a fascinating one at its very core, and the film sets up a great angle on this sense of victimhood. Even greater, it gives victims a chance to rise up and take back their narrative, flipping the original story on its head. It is not only a cathartic choice, it is also a brilliant one – watching a haunted Curtis visually stand in for Michael in several homages to the original is a strong representation of the past haunting us through repetition and memory. One shot in particular, near the end of the film, is so brilliant I squealed with delight in the theater. The entire plotline is so great, it’s a shame it’s not explored further – it’s mostly dropped after the first act. Still, there’s a lot more to like about the film than it’s psychological underpinnings. Gordon Green and cowriter Danny McBride (yes, that Danny McBride) truly understand what makes the original film a horror classic, and I don’t mean with their homages and allusions through the old school font, the same opening credit sequence, and original actress P.J. Soles appearing as a teacher giving a lesson on Frankl’s views on fate. Gordon Green understands exactly what makes The Shape (the proper name for Michael Myers) so frightening – a cross between The Boogeyman and the innate evil of humanity. Long gone are the days when The Shape is some cursed immortal who can survive insane amounts of bullets and fire. Instead, he is exactly what creator John Carpenter always intended him to be: an ethereal being made up of the pure evil of all humanity. They even stripped Michael of the sequel’s motives of familicide – by adding the line “People just made up [that Michael was Laurie’s brother] to make themselves feel better,” it strips Michael of any semblance of logic or reasoning, making him kill indiscriminately and horrifically. The filmmakers amp up The Shape’s inescapable presence by utilizing tricks from the original, like his infamous breathing, or casually putting him into the background of shots (a long shot at a gas station is glorious to unpack). And as if all that weren’t enough, they choose to break all the well-written rules of horror films to let The Shape kill whoever he wants, whenever he wants – horned up babysitters are all well and good, but you’re really thrown for a loop when not even a ten-year-old is safe.

Meanwhile, in the sequences when The Shape does get to let loose, it is in sequences that stand among the best of the series – I particularly want to give praise to a sequence set on a bus, a sequence set inside a bedroom, and a soon-to-be legendary unbroken tracking shot of The Shape traveling from house to house murdering unsuspecting townsfolk. It’s the type of filmmaking that elevates horror from schlock into art, it’s so brilliant. Which reminds me – this is a beautifully put together film, technically speaking. Perhaps the most important component of the film is the score, which is beautifully, hauntingly, and undeniably Carpenter (he returned to do the score for the first time since the original). Carpenter knows how to layer music, and how to craft a simple, scary score that will raise the stakes, no matter what. Meanwhile, both the editing and the cinematography demonstrate a keen sense for balancing homage and innovation – while it clearly reflects the tone of the original in its long takes, quick cuts, and dark shadows, it always feels wholly new, incorporating traits from modern filmmaking techniques. And on the subject of shadows, cinematographer Michael Simmonds definitely knows how to utilize light and shadow, working both to create an atmosphere of dread in a similar way as its predecessor (although occasionally he does shoot things a bit too dark). As for the script, Green and McBride attempt to balance comedy and horror throughout, and honestly, while I appreciate the effort, it does come across as forced at least half the time. In particular, there is a scene involving two police officers guarding the Strode house that is so gratingly terrible, it almost feels like an homage to Halloween 5 – although, to be fair, the officers here are nowhere near as terrible as the officers in Halloween 5. And I’d sit through hours and hours of bad jokes if it meant a third act finale that featured a Straw Dogs-esque standoff between Jamie Lee Curtis and Michael Myers. This is a technically solid film, from beginning to end.

The Halloween franchise has mostly been regarded as the best-acted horror series of the bunch (mostly thanks to the original). While there are only a few standouts amongst this cast, they really do deserve heaps of credit. I particularly want to praise Jamie Lee Curtis, who is unbelievably good in the role that made her famous forty years ago. While Curtis’ original Laurie was mostly just an extension of her own personality, here Curtis gets to shine by adding layers to the character, effectively destroying the innocence that once was a carefree seventeen-year-old girl. Curtis relishes each and every scene, whether it’s as badass as her final confrontation with her tormentor, as funny as her bitter sarcasm in the opening scenes, or as painful to witness as her freak outs both inside a car and inside a restaurant (the image of Curtis nervously downing a glass of wine should already be iconic). It’s a terrific turn, and one that demonstrates everything that makes her a wonderful actress. Meanwhile, Judy Greer is fine in the film – she’s a little too upbeat in the beginning, and it often feels like she’s just phoning it in. However, much of this is subterfuge for the final act, where Greer finally gets a chance to unleash, and should the series produce a sequel, I hope the filmmakers are smart enough to expand her role. I will only forgive this sleight against the Almighty Greer should she get a chance to kick ass in the sequel. And the adult cast is rounded out by Haluk Bilginer as Dr. Ranbir Sartain, whom I can only refer to as a perfectly mediocre Dr. Loomis knockoff. As for the teenagers, things can mostly be split between the incredibly talented girls and the incredibly irksome boys. Almost every teen male in this movie is irritating beyond belief, and I don’t think that was intentional for most of them. Miles Robbins mostly just plays the exact same role he did in Blockers, except without the charm or likability. Dylan Arnold is such a nonentity, I almost don’t want to waste the space writing about him. And then there’s Scheid, who plays Oscar so obnoxiously, upsettingly awful, I almost wonder if it was supposed to be that intentional. He’s definitely supposed to be a douchebag, and a part of me wonders if they wanted to write one of the teens as a Young Danny McBride Type. However, while I applaud them for knowing (somewhat) how awful this character is, it doesn’t make Scheid’s performance any better, and I would have rather just cut him from the film completely. Still, at least we have the performances of Matichak and especially Gardner to marvel at. Matichak is the perfect descendant to Curtis’ Strode – she doesn’t necessarily draw your eye, but she does draw your sympathies, creating an emotionally connecting character that audiences can root for. Meanwhile, Gardner is a knockout, creating the type of funny, sweet, entertaining character that made the original film such a marvel. Her Vicky is a confident, goodhearted person that will win you over, the type who makes the hairs stand up on the back of our necks when she goes outside to check the yard. In short, she makes us root against her death, and that is an essential component to any horror movie. Plus, she has hilarious chemistry with elementary student Julian, played with comedic gusto by Jibrail Nantambu, to the point I almost wish the movie was just about the two of them.

Halloween is a respectable attempt to add a new angle on a classic story. While it inadvertently emphasizes the fact that the original film is perfection without any need for a sequel, it does its best to honor the spirit and the terror of its predecessor. David Gordon Green has crafted an entertaining little throwback, and has given Jamie Lee Curtis yet another chance to shine. I enjoyed this film; I enjoyed its filmmaking, I enjoyed its plot, and I enjoyed its attempts to scare me. And while this film effectively closes the book on the saga, I’d be willing to see the sequel the ending clearly left room for. It’s not high art, but it’s entertaining enough. And sometimes, that’s all you can ask for.

B-

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