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Halloween (2018)

DIRECTOR: David Gordon Green

CAST: Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, Will Patton, Haluk Bilginer, Jefferson Hall, Rhian Rees

REVIEW:

As thoroughly played-out and past its expiration date as the long-running Halloween franchise might have seemed, the simply-titled Halloween has righted the ship and delivered at least the second best, if not strongest installment the series has ever produced, and the first to truly feel like a worthy direct sequel to the original film.  In truth, while the original 1978 film is held up as a horror classic, I’ve never had an exalted opinion of it; John Carpenter’s direction shows a skillful understanding of building suspense, but it’s hindered by various dated elements, including a low acting level.  Of the sequels, only 1981’s Halloween 2 and 1998’s Halloween H2O had their moments, with the rest descending into the bottom of the barrel until the indestructible Michael Myers became a parody of himself.  Director David Gordon Green, with Carpenter returning to co-compose the score (which liberally sprinkles in his iconic original theme) with his son Cody Carpenter and series newcomer Daniel Davies and serving in an advisory capacity to the production, has taken Halloween back to the basics, hearkening back to and emulating the original and going so far as to disregard every other film in the franchise and serve as a direct sequel to the original and the original alone (also allowing it to avoid the various eye-rolly explanations of how Myers survived his various demises through the sequels).  Taken as a one-two punch, the two Halloweens bring the Laurie Strode vs. Michael Myers battle full circle in satisfying, even climactically rousing fashion, and if this series can finally be left well enough alone (an unlikely prospect), this serves as a solid note to go out on.

Halloween 2018 blithely disregards the existence of any Halloween movie except the 1978 original (Halloween H2O previously did something similar, rejecting every movie except the first two, but it’s now out the window as well).  Controversially, this also includes throwing away the idea of Laurie and Michael being sister-and-brother (contrary to some faulty memories, this was nowhere to be found in the original film, and was only decided in sequels).  In this timeline, Michael Myers (James Jude Courtney) was apprehended shortly after the climax of the original film and has been institutionalized ever since.  Meanwhile, his surviving victim Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) has led a troubled life plagued with PTSD that has left her twice-divorced and estranged from her daughter Karen (Judy Greer).  Karen thinks Laurie—who drinks too much and lives in an isolated, fortified house that sports floodlights, booby traps, a panic room, and an arsenal of firearms—is nuts, and keeps her at arm’s length, feelings shared by her husband Ray (Toby Huss).  The only one who is halfway sympathetic toward Laurie is her teenage granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak), but Karen does her best to keep them apart.  But when Michael escapes while being transferred to another asylum, three generations of Strode women will be forced to stand together and face the living nightmare.

Halloween takes a bit to find a certain footing.  The pair of British podcasters (Jefferson Hall and Rhian Rees) who serve as our entry point into the story and provide some convenient exposition and backstory for series neophytes feel a bit superfluous (and are disposed of after outliving their usefulness as plot devices).  Some moments of humor are awkwardly-integrated and feel tonally disconnected (the influence of Danny McBride, who serves as co-writer with Jeff Fradley?).  Things really kick into gear once Michael gets his mask back, a moment to give fans goosebumps (Michael is unmasked for a fairly good opening chunk of the movie, though while it teases us with rear and side views and some quick glimpses, the movie avoids a direct full-on shot of Michael’s face) and proceeds to pick up where he left off forty years ago carving a path of indiscriminate carnage through the fictional Haddonfield, Illinois on Halloween night (the body count is significantly higher here than it was in 1978).  There are a couple effective jump scares, and the movie doesn’t shy away from the occasional gruesome moment (the original was virtually bloodless), although it practices some restraint and doesn’t turn into an over-the-top gorefest (at least a couple kills take place offscreen).  On several occasions, the filmmakers manage to make small characters likable before they meet their demise, a level of caring about what happens onscreen that slasher movies seldom accomplish.  Green throws in various crowd-pleasing homages to the original film, including a body pinned to a wall with a knife, a body hiding under ghostly sheets, closets with slatted doors, and a girl gazing out her classroom window and realizing she’s being watched (albeit with a twist).  There’s a flashback of the child Michael’s murder of his sister from the prologue of the 1978 film, and a Donald Pleasance soundalike provides audio recordings by the late Dr. Loomis.  Malek Akkad returns as producer, a role he has served since 1995, when he joined his father Moustapha (who passed away in 2005; this movie is dedicated to him).  Unsurprisingly with Carpenter as a co-composer, his classic score is used on several occasions, and meshes effectively with Daniel Davies’ new material.  And while Michael Myers is mostly played by James Jude Courtney, at least one scene is filled by Nick Castle, who played Myers all the way back in 1978.  A moment from the original film, flipped around with a role reversal between Michael and Laurie, may be the most obvious and crowd-pleasing shout-out, and induced applause in my theater.  Most importantly, Halloween strikes the landing.  The momentum builds to a strong third act when Laurie and Michael finally wind up under the same roof, with the climactic twenty minutes or so achieving a level of nerve-wracking tension that rivals the climax of the original Alien (for my money, this part of the movie generates more tension than anything in the original, especially the mannequin room), though it might also give some viewers fleeting reminders of the climax of The Silence of the Lambs.  As unlikely as it might have seemed after a long line of increasingly lame sequels turned him into a parody of himself, Halloween has succeeded in making Michael Myers scary again.

The conclusion, as three generations of Strode women are forced to join forces and do battle, would not have been as strong or satisfying without the movie achieving an emotional core that’s rarely found in slasher movies.  The contrast between Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie in the 1978 original and here is akin to the difference between Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor in the first and second Terminator.  Laurie is no helpless screaming victim; she’s a hardcore survivalist who packs a lot of guns and knows how to use them—along with booby traps and panic rooms—and whose obsessions have gone to the point of estranging her from her family.  There’s something satisfying and even rousing about watching Laurie finally get a cathartic confrontation with the nightmare that has tormented her for forty years, and a vein of female/victim empowerment runs through the movie.  There’s some men scattered around—Will Patton’s Sheriff Hawkins, Haluk Bilginer as Michael’s psychiatrist Dr. Sartain, Toby Huss as Karen’s husband—but ultimately it’s the three generations of Strode women who team up to do their own rescuing.  The sense of empowerment and emotional catharsis the climax provides elevates Halloween above “just” another slasher movie.  In some of the lamer installments, the characters were so paper-thin and not worth giving a damn about that it left us on some level almost rooting for Myers to do what he does best and get it over with.  That’s not the case here.  The audience is invested in rooting for Laurie’s cathartic triumph.

Jamie Lee Curtis, intentionally looking haggard and grandmotherly, throws herself with conviction into this hardened, survivalist Laurie; she’s not quite as hard-ass as Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2, but she’s a lot more in that ballpark than the hapless screaming victim she was in the original (her acting here is also leaps and bounds better than it was in 1978).  Judy Greer initially seems typecast yet again as a generic Mom, but gets a satisfactory spotlight moment in the climax that generated theater applause.  And newcomer Andi Matichak makes us care about the survival of Laurie’s granddaughter Allyson.  In fact, in some ways, Allyson is who we gravitate toward the most (Matichak’s performance is better than anyone’s in the original film, including Jamie Lee Curtis’).

Is this the last we’ll see of Michael Myers?  One is inclined to view that as an unlikely prospect, but Halloween 2018 is solid enough, and brings things to a satisfactory enough conclusion, that one wishes for it to be so.  It’s hard to imagine a continuation being as satisfying as the seeming closure we get here, and runs the risk of inferior sequels tainting what would have felt like the right place to leave off.  In any case, Halloween 2018 has managed the noteworthy feat of breathing some fresh new life into a franchise that seemed terminally played-out decades ago, serving as both a well-crafted love letter and homage to the original film, and strong enough to attract new fans in 2018.  Happy Halloween, indeed.

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