‘Halloween Kills’ Review

Ed. Note: An earlier version of this review criticized the film for using CGI footage to recreate an actor who has since passed away. As it turns out, this was not the case – it was instead an example of expert makeup work and vocal impersonation. While this issue was not significant enough to change the film’s grade, it is important enough on a moral level that I rescind my original statement. The rest of the review runs as originally printed.

While I am not a horror fan by nature, I am, in fact, a Halloween fan. I consider John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s 1978 masterpiece to be one of the finest horror films ever crafted, a carefully crafted roller coaster of thrills and emotions that Hitchcock himself would be proud of, and which has oft been copied, but never duplicated. This sense of passion and of expertise is the reason I liked, albeit didn’t love the 2018 rendition, which saw David Gordon Green and Danny McBride sending up the iconic franchise with Carpenter’s seal of approval. So it is with great sadness that I so eagerly dismiss Halloween Kills, the newest film in the franchise – not only for its haphazard handling of themes and ideas, but because it feels, for the first time since the terrible 90s offshoots, to be a Halloween film made for non-Halloween fans, in the laziest possible way.

Hours after Michael Myers’ (Nick Castle and James Jude Courtney) 2018 rampage that left ten people dead, the Strode women, Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis), Karen (Judy Greer), and Allyson (Andy Matichak) arrive at the hospital to have their wounds treated. Little do they know that while they are recovering, Michael manages to escape the fiery tomb they trapped him in, massacres the lot of firefighters, and begins to make his way back to Haddonfield. As word begins to spread throughout the already-traumatized community, survivors of Myers’ 1978 attack – led by Laurie’s former wards Lindsey Wallace (Kyle Richards) and Tommy Doyle (Anthony Michael Hall) decide that it’s time to take a stand once and for all. And so Michael begins his trek back to his childhood home, where an army of angry suburbanites armed to the teeth await him to carry out mob justice. But the question remains: will that be enough to stop The Boogeyman?

There are a few moments within Halloween Kills that allude to a smarter, stronger film. While alluded to in Halloween II and Halloween IV: The Revenge of Michael Myers, and covered with a surprising amount of depth in Rob Zombie’s series, the one element that has never really been covered in the Halloween franchise is the effect that Michael’s rampages have on the community. And considering the small-town relationship of Haddonfield, this is a relatively surprising fact. Green, who cut his teeth on indie films that explored generational pain on small-town communities, handles these sequences relatively respectfully, albeit imperfectly. This is a film about trauma on a small town, and the wealth of emotions that go along with that – grief, fear, vengeance in particular. Halloween is, surprisingly, at its best when it is an empathetic franchise, and it is for that reason that sequences like Allyson listening to stories about her late father’s childhood work better than, well, the rest of the movie.

Something that Green and McBride also accomplish – perhaps better than they have any right to – is fleshing out Michael as a character without sacrificing his etherealness or his humanity (or lack thereof). Michael Myers has always been a complicated character – he is an embodiment of evil quite literally billed as The Shape, and yet he also is supposed to be a flesh-and-blood human, making his total lack of empathy and seeming detachment from killing so haunting. And yet Green and McBride find a strange, yet innovative middle ground, incorporating an arc that manages to humanize the man under the mask without ever losing the mystery. As we ultimately come to learn, Michael is, as summed up eloquently by one character, “A six-year-old boy with the strength of a man and the mind of an animal.”

Because the series to date has made all of these characteristics fair game, actually analyzing them opens new ground within the character, contextualizing his murders without empathizing with them, and raising questions regarding whether any part of Myers is capable of empathy. And when put into practice during a handful of scenes, including an impressive flashback to 1978, it actually takes Michael into an astonishing new direction. His sense of mystique is still there – Carpenter’s score still adds a startling amount of menace, and Michael’s sick sense of irony arises in his taste of music (a use of “Largo al Factotum” is quite humorous) – but the film avoids the risk of repeating itself through brave new worlds.

However, while the topic of the effects of trauma on a community has the makings of a solid horror film, Halloween Kills doesn’t manage to bring these ideas and themes together into a coherent structure. A major reason for that is Green and McBride’s desire to explore how this sense of trauma surrounding a major catastrophe can lead to the crumbling of society. In theory, there is a powerful story here. It’s been done before in The Twilight Zone’s “The Monsters Are Due At Maple Street,” and is seemingly timely in an era post-9/11, mid-COVID, and even in the wake of January 6th (certainly to those that stormed the Capitol, their view of society was crumbling, even if in reality it was not). And the film comes close to crafting an interesting narrative here, thanks to a tragic subplot involving an inmate who escaped alongside Michael from the mental asylum.

The problem is, the film doesn’t know how to properly dive into these subjects, and I suspect it is because of the antagonist. As much as the film wants us to deride mob violence and vigilante justice (I think, at least. The characters here all seem pretty heroic), the culprit they’re going after isn’t some complex or misguided force. They’re going after a literally ethereal, unstoppable killing machine, a being that is, at multiple times, called “the incarnate of Evil.” It undercuts any message the film might have about extrajudicial killing squads, and leaves any notion about who exactly wants this form of justice as a form of toothless satire, like an old white woman on the news declaring “This used to be a safe place!”

And then there’s my biggest issue with Halloween Kills – more so than its ill-formed societal statements, and more so than its ham-fisted references: the gore. At its core, Halloween was never a series designed to rely on its goriness. It was a smart series, where our sympathies lay with the victims, and the villain’s crimes are never glorified or enjoyed. Here, Green and McBride seem to revel in the viciousness, becoming so wrapped up in the legend of Michael Myers that it almost seeks to mythologize him. Now, a little bit of gore is ok, as a means of creating menace and dramatic irony. There’s a few creepy Easter Eggs involving the Halloween III Silver Shamrock masks that I won’t spoil here. But this isn’t a matter of “the film is a little gory.” This is a nasty film. A nasty film that doesn’t gel with either the rest of the film nor the series as a whole. A nasty film in ways simply unnecessary and displeasing to the eye.

Throughout the film, we watch every manner of graphic murder, in ways that seem to take pleasure in the massacring of the innocent. Gone are the days where each set piece was a master class in horror, where Michael’s whereabouts are set up from the jump and we scream through our fingers as victims we care about slowly approaches their doom (something done so brilliantly with the death of Vicky in the previous installment). Instead, Halloween Kills and its creators mimic the lazy tropes the genre has succumbed to in recent years: lazy jump scare, brutal murder, rinse, repeat. There are only so many severed heads, broken limbs, dislocated eyes, broken necks, gruesome disemboweling, and splattered brains one can look at before it becomes desensitizing. For the longest time, I couldn’t figure out why Green and McBride took so much pleasure in the carnage.

And then my audience started cheering. It may be a little unfair to judge a film based on audience reaction, but it cannot be helped. It is evidence of the film’s fatal flaw: it is a film not made for the series’ fans who tune in for characters to care about. It is a film designed for the toxic assh*les who root for the killers and want to see innocent people slaughtered. While I don’t think Green and McBride possessed truly malicious intent – some of the murdered characters do possess a sense of tragedy when they are offed – I cannot forget the glee that resonated in that theater when Michael begins slaying.

Now, as loathsome as the writing and the characters may be, let it not be said that the actors don’t do their damndest to make this material work. I actually appreciated the actors in this film as a whole, both the returning veterans and the next generation. The core of this new series has wisely been the Strode women, and with good reason. Curtis, Greer, and Matichak all understand and convey the mental and emotional ramifications of a story like this, and therefore play each scene well. After her emotionally charged outing in the last film, Curtis gets a chance to rest this time out, but she still has a few good monologues and sequences along the way.

Meanwhile, Matichak has really grown as an actress between outings. She commands this film, and has a terrific moment early on where she shakes with anxiety whilst telling a concerned nurse, “It’s not my blood.” My only critique comes with Greer, an actress I adore. Greer has a few terrific scenes in this film that resonate on an emotional level. But after her badass about-face in the previous outing, Kills regresses on her character, once again leaving her wasted.

Amongst the rest of the cast, one actor I was surprised by was former child star Anthony Michael Hall, who takes over in the role of Tommy Doyle, the youngster Laurie babysat for back in 1978. Tommy is portrayed here through uneven characterization, as the filmmakers aren’t quite sure what they want the character to be. But that doesn’t change how utterly captivating Michael Hall is in the role (that being said, his introduction at a yearly gathering of Myers survivors who drink on Halloween to forget makes no g*ddamn sense). He is only outshone by Richards, who made her debut in Halloween, made a few Disney films as a kid, became a Real Housewife, and returned here to mop the floor with the seasoned pros. She is perfectly utilized, balancing, fear, anger, pain, trauma, and beyond. The final members of their trio, Nancy Stephens and Robert Longstreet, are both underwritten and underutilized, as is Charles Cyphers, who at least has a few great line readings as a retired sheriff whose daughter was killed by Michael forty years ago.

A note on a few other performances that stand out, for better or worse. While I liked both Will Patton and Omar Dorsey in the last outing as two police officers trying to keep the peace and stop Michael, their roles here are severely underutilized. Patton in particular is strangely undercut by flashbacks to his youthful, ill-fated encounter with Myers in 1978, when he was played by a miscast Thomas Mann (a tragedy; I love Mann as an actor). The plot not only makes no sense in the film’s greater context, its underlying themes, and apparent message seem kind of gross in the light of day. I appreciated David Lowe’s performance as escaped mental patient Lance Tovoli.

And finally, a few words on comedians Michael McDonald and Scott MacArthur’s performances as a gay couple with strange ties to the whole ordeal. Mostly meant to serve as comic relief, the two actors are surprisingly interesting in their dynamic. However, considering their entire arc is relegated to bickering, dying (not a spoiler), and repeatedly saying each other’s names – which, since they are both named “John,” means repeated utterances of “Big John” and “Little John” – the entire subplot becomes inherently grating at best, borderline offensive at worst.

Halloween Kills is a well-constructed, yet ultimately soulless movie from top to bottom. Perhaps I’m judging it too harshly. After all, there’s a lot of personal reasons I have for why I so avidly disliked it. But at the end of the day, I come down to this reasoning. A horror movie is, at its core, supposed to scare you. For the most part, it does so by instigating your inherent fear of death, and leading you to empathize with its characters and their plights. Halloween Kills did not scare me. Not once. The only thing in that theater that did scare me was the woman who loudly yelled “Get ‘em Michael!” before a particularly gruesome massacre, to the applause of the theater. That group of loathsome rubes may find enjoyment in this hateful outing. But it will fail to entertain the loyal fans of this series from the beginning, and those who appreciate a good movie.

C

Halloween Kills will release in theaters tomorrow, October 15th. It will also stream on Peacock simultaneously for significantly less than the price of a movie ticket. So…you know…if you’re gonna watch it…

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