Movie Review: Halloween
By Ben Gruchow
October 30, 2018
One of my favorite images in the original Halloween—maybe one of my favorite images in all of horror cinema, full stop—occurs right after Michael Myers dispatches one of his victims. He’s done so by pinning him to a kitchen wall with a blade, like an entomologist to a specimen, and then he steps back. We’re then given a backlit shot of both of them in near-tableaux, as the Shape simply stands there and looks at what’s been done. It’s a startlingly evocative widescreen image, made all the more startling because it occurs in a movie made with pocket change even in 1978. It also perfectly, elegantly summarizes the film’s single operating emotion: the dreamlike tension of being watched and stalked by an alien presence that can’t be quantified.
This new Halloween, titled like a remake, is in fact a direct sequel to the first Halloween. It is the beneficiary of a direct endorsement by that film’s director, John Carpenter. There is no real precedent for the type of entry into canon that it is; even the last attempt at a streamlining, 1998’s Halloween: H20, allowed for the first sequel. With this observation, it occurs to me that there are enough alternate timelines under the Halloween label to pitch the entire franchise to newcomers as a type of Choose Your Own Slasher Adventure, except that all of them end up sucking.
Halloween 2018 does not suck, exactly. Indeed, it’s about as good as a nuts-and-bolts, long-delayed sequel to Halloween 1978 could possibly be. It is well-designed, occasionally atmospheric, intermittently effective, and contains a central performance by Jamie Lee Curtis that verges on the heroic. It is also mostly flat and indifferent in its imagery, brutal and needlessly gory in its violence, and everyone not played by Jamie Lee Curtis just fumbles around the scenery, with a couple of them taking occasional halfhearted nibbles—like they really want to start chomping, but they’re afraid to out themselves as the one who signed up for trashy horror.
Because what Halloween 2K18 really, really wants to be is a straight-faced continuation. Forty years after she caught the Shape’s gaze and watched her friends get killed and herself almost so, Laurie Strode (Curtis) has gotten married twice, had a daughter and a granddaughter, become estranged from both, and situated herself in a cabin in the woods outside Haddonfield. Michael has been imprisoned since 1978, mute and unreachable even to the prison’s psychologist, Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer). As we learn in short order, Laurie’s spent the intervening time tracking Michael’s every development, and…uh, that’s it. The only other thing she’s been up to is converting her home into a fortress, with floodlights, remote-controlled doorway gates, and—well, we’ll come to that.
These early passages of Halloween II v.3, where Curtis gets to depict most of her range and probe the unscripted depths of Laurie’s trauma, show the most promise in the concept. And it’s honestly pretty impressive what she does here with the airy tendrils of characterization the screenplay provides. Especially in her first scene (also with the bloggers), she communicates a distinct lived-in restlessness that’s leagues more expressive than any line of dialogue or singular action could be. As the plot develops, though, she becomes less dimensional and more of a plot device, and the creation delivered to us so convincingly by Curtis is replaced by yet another manifestation of Clover’s Final Girl archetype (there is a superficial wrinkle to this, the type transparently designed for a, “hell yeah!” moment from the audience and little else).
Through the indirect actions of a pair of deluded video bloggers, Michael escapes prison and reclaims his mask, which clears the way for him to return to suburban Haddonfield and pick up where he left off. The mechanisms by which this pair of developments come about are…specific, and I’ll go no further, except to note that seemingly everyone in Haddonfield is hyper-aware of Halloween and the direct history involved, and it’s therefore almost incomprehensible that a prisoner transport would be scheduled for October 31st when the manifest includes the infamous murderer who committed the killings forty years ago this very night, and—
The shuffling and fluttering sound you just now heard was me taking my carefully-composed notes and casting them to the mercy of the winds. This is the problem: Halloween Mk II is consumed by twin imperatives, neither of which are compatible with each other. One imperative is to be a Serious Horror movie, not just in the mode of upping the body count or the gruesome factor of each kill, but in its desire to tell a compelling story about psychological trauma and its effect not only on the victim, but on their family members. Success here is is middling but fundamentally misguided: the sense of long-held anger and resentment and regret between all three of the Strodes—Laurie, her daughter Karen (Judy Greer), and granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak)—is felt in the background of most of the early going, but it’s just a feeling. The content amounts to a couple of declarative lines of dialogue that convey the basest forms of those emotions mentioned without invoking any of the inner conflict that comes along with them. Matichak occupies the bulk of the movie’s screentime in the final third without ever making anything more than a faint impression.
The other imperative is to faithfully recreate not just the environment of Halloween 1978 but the sense of emotional investment and excitement. And here is where a movie that’s about as good as it could be only really serves to illustrate the impossibility of devising a sequel to something like Halloween that can hope to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with it. The original film was not built on a layered chronology of survivor guilt and trauma; it was a direct shot at creeping paranoia and the alien horror of being chased by a thing that you can’t get away from. Part of the genius of that relentless approach was that it allowed the movie to take place entirely within a shifting and moving present. It cares nothing at all for context.
Let’s say we were to have a version of Halloween 2018 that was just as simple and direct in its content, and we had a sequel that formed a symmetrical counterpart to the original in every thematic and structural way. Let’s say it was made with the same level of uncanny craftsmanship that Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey displayed in that film. The result would still pale in comparison, and the reason why is the same reason that Rick Rosenthal’s shot-for-shot recreation of the first film’s climax at the beginning of 1981’s Halloween II v.1 neuters all the effect of the sequence: Halloween is about the unknown, and the more we see of an unknown, the more familiar and the less disturbing it becomes. The boogeyman popping out of empty space once without explanation is elementally frightening; watching it happen twice is a technical exercise.
Halloween 2018 (I ran out of nicknames) cares too much about context. Michael does at least remain almost as blessedly amorphous character-wise as before; there is another tendril of an interesting conceit once he makes his initial return to Haddonfield for the first time in forty years. For a time, it looks like the movie is going to pull a fast one on us by having Michael animated by general instinct of pursuit; the Strodes will only appear to be our protagonists, and the focus will end up being pulled to a random individual. This leads to the movie’s one generally terrific sequence, as Michael makes his way through crowds of oblivious trick-or-treaters, breaking away to enter homes at random, stalking and killing the occupants without hesitation (the movie pulls an especially brutal punch at the last second, involving a crying infant in a crib, and it’s one of the very few moments where the movie tap-dances on the edge of true tension and unpredictability). But soon enough, Laurie shows up, Michael spots her, and thus begins a remarkably convoluted procession of hunt-and-kill sequences bereft of any real tension as to the outcome. By the time the final setpieces arrive, the movie has long since revealed itself to be too enamored of its heritage, and the outcome is more or less evident by the hour mark.
That said, the bottom drops out of the film in the final thirty minutes. The events that bring the disparate characters to the movie’s climactic location depend almost entirely upon contrivance, and if you can explain to me how the mechanism at the cellar entrance allows for anything other than murder-suicide without precisely the chain of unique events that transpire here, you are likely also able to devise something more functional, and are therefore more creative than the screenwriters.
As the proceedings get more and more elaborate and implausible, I started to wonder about what’s in the water in Haddonfield, which is clearly overstocked with mad geniuses. How, for example, did Michael achieve the setup with the police cruiser in the time he had? How is Laurie Strode able to outfit her home with military-grade fortifications on the income of someone who apparently never leaves her property? She’s clearly a do-it-yourselfer; no reputable contractor would undertake projects this defiant of building code. Meanwhile, I’m stymied by running ground wire to an electrical outlet, and I’m capable of taking reasonable sips from a wine glass. How did she find the time to learn how to install all of those security gates while also maintaining enough combat and firearm skills to train her daughter how to operate the kitchen-island contraption in between math and science, all while keeping up with utility bills and personal grooming? She deserves a Mother of the Year medal.
2 out of 5