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Halloween (2018)

A couple weeks ago, I finally filled a massive hole in my pop culture knowledge and saw Halloween (1978). Not only was I shocked at how well the film has held up, but shocked at how little has changed in the past 40 years. Same use of music stings and muted sound, same camera movements and editing tricks, same fakeouts, same tropes, same characters who keep walking around in darkness like turn on a light, for fuck’s sake!

With only one movie, John Carpenter perfected the slasher genre to such a monumental extent that nobody has topped it since. Many have tried, and a few have come close, but no horror film in the time since (with the possible and heavily debatable exception of The Blair Witch Project) has been such a heavily influential game-changer. So of course the inevitable attempts at sequels only resulted in a clusterfuck of fractured timelines without anything anywhere near as good as the original.

So here we are with yet another attempt at a sequel, another totally different timeline, and another movie that isn’t as good as the original, though it is quite good nonetheless.

Halloween (2018) opens forty years after the events of the original movie, and pretending the events of all the intervening films never happened. The 1978 Haddonfield Murders have entered into modern folklore and Michael Myers (played once again by Nick Castle and Tony Moran, with assistance from James Jude Courtney) was somehow recaptured. He’s been living in a mental asylum for thirty-odd years, and hasn’t spoken a word to anyone in all that time. Having concluded that there’s nothing more to be learned from him, the authorities have decided that Michael should be transferred to a maximum security prison, where he will eventually (hopefully) die. But of course Michael escapes mid-transit and makes his way back to Haddonfield.

This brings us to Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis returns!), who never stopped believing in the Bogeyman. In between two divorces, Laurie has been fortifying herself in a cabin in the neighboring woods. She’s been obsessively training with every kind of blade and firearm she can possibly get a hold of while tricking out her home with various booby traps and bolt holes. She was also training her daughter in the same survivalist/self-defense mindset, right up until CPS took the kid away. (More on her later.)

All of this exposition, by the way, is conveyed to us through two hopelessly naive Brits (Aaron and Dana, respectively played by Jefferson Hall and Rhian Rees) billing themselves as investigative journalists as they produce their true-crime podcast. They are an admittedly useful means of getting everyone up to speed, and they serve equally well as slasher victims when the plot no longer has a use for them. The filmmakers show just as little patience for Laurie’s son-in-law (Ray, played by Toby Huss), so relentlessly annoying that by his first line of dialogue, the vultures were already queuing up.

Elsewhere in the supporting cast, Omar Dorsey gets to have fun chewing scenery and wearing an outsized hat as the local sheriff. Likewise, Haluk Bilginer plays to the cheap seats as psychiatrist Dr. Sartain — Laurie herself practically winks to the camera when she says (I swear to you, this is a direct quotation) “You’re the new Loomis.”

(Side note: I presume that the filmmakers would have tried to get Donald Pleasance to reprise his role, if he hadn’t been dead for over 20 years. RIP.)

To be fair, not all of the supporting characters are awful. Jibrail Nantambu is easily one of the most talented child actors I’ve seen all year. Two police officers (the ones played by Chris Holloway and Roger Antonio, I’m pretty sure) get a brief but effective scene of comic relief. Will Patton is easily the standout — he plays the police officer responsible for Michael getting taken alive, rather than dead. And he’s presented here with such reverence that I could totally believe he’s been part of the franchise for 40 years. I seriously had to go back and double-check to confirm that neither the actor nor the character were in the original film.

(Side note: Speaking of which, as Halloween (1978) made Jamie Lee Curtis the patron saint of the Final Girl, it also made P.J. Soles the patron saint of gratuitous nudity in horror. While her character was of course too dead to appear in the sequel, Soles did get a notable voice-over cameo worthy of her place in the franchise history. That was a very nice touch.)

Alas, most of the supporting cast is comprised of horny, drunken, idiotic teenagers who might as well have dotted lines tattooed on their necks. Granted, the kills are nicely satisfying in their way — most slashers nowadays tend to favor more creative and elaborate kills, so Michael’s more straightforward MO is oddly refreshing. Plus, the filmmakers do not hold back on the gore, and we get some graphic mutilations. Even so, the murders feel like a distraction, as if somebody realized that this is a Halloween movie and Michael needs some delinquents to dismember.

Let’s be real: The selling point of this movie was all about Michael and Laurie finally settling their score. After 40 years in the pop culture consciousness, that’s the part of the movie we have the most emotional investment in. Of course, it certainly helps that Michael’s portrayal here is creepy as fuck, and Curtis is powering through this role like it really could be her very last.

What’s even better is that now we have Karen (Judy Greer) to act as a kind of sounding board against Laurie. Basically, imagine what John Connor might have been like if Terminator 2: Judgment Day never happened and John had lived to adulthood without ever seeing what his mom was always so freaked out about — that’s probably what Karen’s relationship with Laurie would look like.

Mother and daughter are both irreparably damaged by what happened to them as kids. The difference is that while Laurie immersed herself in her terror and refused to move on, Karen is trying to move on as quickly as she possibly can. As a direct result, Karen has — by all appearances — cultivated a happy and successful life while Laurie wore herself down with 40 years of boxing shadows. Karen wants nothing to do with her mother, and Laurie may be too far gone to make amends. And now that Michael has finally broken free as Laurie always predicted, there’s the question of whether the two can finally reconcile. Perhaps more importantly, there’s the matter of whether Karen still has what it takes to survive, or if Laurie ruined her daughter’s childhood for nothing.

To be clear, Karen doesn’t nearly enough screentime in the movie, but damned if Judy Greer doesn’t make every second count. I’ve been saying it for years, and somebody finally listened: Greer is a damned fine actress who deserves way more than the thankless bit parts she keeps getting.

Then we have Allyson, Laurie’s granddaughter, played by Andi Matichak. I have mixed feelings about this character. On the one hand, she’s kind of a blank slate. I couldn’t really tell you much of anything memorable about her, and she doesn’t get a huge “hero” moment worthy of passing the torch. Additionally, Matichak herself doesn’t have a lot in the way of screen presence.

On the other hand, most of these faults can be traced back to Laurie herself. As with the original female protagonist of the franchise, the filmmakers are very clear in portraying Allyson as an ordinary teenage girl who discovers the strength to survive extraordinary circumstances. I can see the logic in demonstrating that by keeping Allyson away from Laurie through most of the movie — forced to survive on her own, without the more experienced franchise mainstays — even if it means we spend most of the film with Allyson through her boring subplots we have no other reason to care about. What’s more, while Allyson doesn’t make any huge steps in stopping Michael, there’s no denying she’s a character with agency. She comes up with plans, she takes actions in escaping and getting help, and she doesn’t let any other characters (most especially her male classmates) push her around.

(Side note: With these three generations of Strode women, we now have Michael facing off against the classic Triple Goddess of Maiden, Matron, and Crone. I doubt this was intentional, but I was tickled to notice it all the same.)

Then we have the other huge thematic angle of the movie, and the franchise as a whole: Michael Myers as the avatar of evil. Here we have someone who — by all accounts — came up in a perfectly healthy, ordinary, loving family, only to snap at the tender age of six years old and become an unstoppable beast. Michael doesn’t kill for money, and there’s no indication that he kills for enjoyment or any other reason. Michael Myers kills. Period. He keeps moving forward, he keeps killing people, and something inexplicable keeps him going at it long after anyone else would be dead.

We never learn precisely why Michael Myers does what he does or what he’s after. But the movie hints at what may be the most terrifying option of all: That there’s nothing to learn. He’s not after anything logical or even anything at all — he just kills because that’s what he does. Yes, there’s the natural impulse to learn what makes him tick, and it’s certainly possible that the study of Michael Myers could yield invaluable knowledge to the study of psychiatry, assuming that any answers are found and there are any answers to be found. Without that, all we’re left with are a bunch of scholars and journalists losing their minds as they stare into a massive void of pure demonic malice with nothing to show for it.

Some things are innately unknowable. and evil — pure, unbridled, unrelenting evil — is among them. But in a strange way, perhaps it’s our capacity for good that keeps us from truly and completely understanding such evil as Michael. On a similar note, it’s important how so many attempt to connect with Michael — speaking with him, trying to get him to talk, etc. — while Michael shows no interest in either speaking or hearing what anyone says. That shows a very clear difference in empathy.

Last but not least, aside from fleeting glimpses to show that Michael Myers is indeed an old man now, we never see his true face. Because that featureless white mask is his true face. He could be anyone under that mask, just as anyone could be the next homicidal madman.

In my estimation, all of this is easily the most interesting stuff in the movie. It’s what sets Michael apart from other slashers, and this movie apart from others in the genre. Which makes it such a damn shame to see the filmmakers push all of this to the periphery while the second act focuses on hapless teenagers lining up for the slaughter.

For the miscellaneous notes, I was deeply impressed with the visuals across the board. A great many novel approaches in lighting and camerawork are used to make the kills and scares suitably terrifying without excessive use of shadows or jump scares. We’ve even got some neat callbacks to the previous film, most especially an inspired bit of symmetry between Michael and Laurie. Then we have exec producer John Carpenter himself, who contributed to the score. He makes the iconic theme sing like nobody else could, and his use of musical stings are deliciously in keeping with the original film.

Halloween (2018) made a very smart move in wiping the slate clean, going so far as to bury some of the previous bad ideas in derogatory lampshade jokes. (Even Carpenter himself admitted that making Laurie and Michael siblings was a big mistake.) Even better, we’ve got Jamie Lee Curtis, Nick Castle, and Tony Moran coming back to reprise their iconic roles in a huge way, with Judy Greer, James Jude Courtney, Will Patton, and (to a lesser extent) Andi Matichek as capable support players. John Carpenter signed on as exec-producer and even helped to craft a new score in keeping with the original film’s distinct musical identity. Then we’ve got Danny McBride and David Gordon Green, an underrated pair of filmmaking talents with clear affection for the source material, crafting a gory and straightforward slasher worthy of the franchise name.

This is the best it’s ever been, folks. And this is the best that the franchise is ever going to get. And while it’s not enough to top the original, it’s more than enough to craft a decent sequel. I’ll be happy to recommend this movie, but I reserve the right to change my mind on that when we know more about the inevitable next film.

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