Halloween is “The Dark Knight” of Slasher Movies (Spoiler Review)

The new “Halloween” by Writer/Director David Gordon Green and writers Danny McBride and Jeff Fradly is a solid horror/slasher movie in its own right, as a sequel to the original “Halloween” by John Carpenter and Debra Hill, and just as a film, period.

I suspect, given the box office returns pouring in, this film will be judged successful from both a financial and critical perspective. I predict it will, like “The Dark Knight” before it, serve as an example of “[insert genre here] done seriously.” In this case, the filmmakers took the horror slasher genre seriously and elevated the material.

The story is simple:
40 years ago in Haddonfield, IL, Michael Myers killed Laurie Strode’s friends on Halloween and tried to kill her, too. He was shot, captured, and has been institutionalized since then. Laurie suffers from PTSD and generally has not fared well since her ordeal. She is estranged from her daughter and granddaughter and lives an isolated life on a well-protected, well-armed compound in the middle of the woods. Meanwhile, a documentary film crew, akin to “Making a Murderer,” is in town investigating Michael Myers’ crimes for the 40th anniversary. Michael is set to be transferred to another mental facility on October 30th (because, of course!) and it doesn’t go well. He escapes and returns to Haddonfield leaving a trail of bodies in his wake, setting up a confrontation with Laurie who’s been preparing for this day all along.

It’s hard to review a movie, which is technically the 11th in the franchise, on its own merits, but the filmmakers have made it easier both plot-wise and how well it’s executed. And, as a fan of horror and of the “Halloween” franchise (generally), it’s important to consider the movie as part of the series, too. I’ll tackle both.

For simplicity sake, I’ll call the new film “Halloween 2018.” Right at the start, “Halloween 2018” makes the wise decision to establish its own unsettling tone that never seeks to mimic or recapture the original’s spare, desolate mood. And yet, the film clearly reveres the original 1978 film through a number of overt visual and situational nods as well as more subtle elements.

It also moves at a good pace, deftly mixing plot and character development with mood, scares, and action. Given how divisive Rob Zombie’s remake and subsequent sequel are, these filmmakers negotiated a delicate balance between old and new, pandering and nostalgia to deliver an experience that honors the original film and the franchise as a whole while, surprisingly, exploring new territory and mining new takes on material from well-worn ground.

“Halloween 2018” is so strong it could stand on its own without a viewing of the original movie (although I wouldn’t recommend it because I’m a completionist). In fact, think of how many horror movies open with the central conceit that “long ago some terrible event happened” or “a psycho killer attacked years ago and hasn’t been seen since.” The new film sets up that premise well and tells you everything you need to know without hitting the you over the head. You would miss some thematic and visual references to the original and the other sequels (which this film ignores plot-wise), but you would enjoy the movie anyway.

Jamie Lee Curtis performs some of her best acting ever in this film. Laurie Strode is a profoundly sad, broken woman. Based on interviews and marketing, I was expecting an obnoxious female-empowerment character who kicks ass and makes wise ass remarks while dancing circles around the dangerous psycho-killer. I was pleasantly surprised to find Laurie barely hanging on, minimally existing day to day unable to escape her past terror, living in fear of the killer who resides in an institution not so far away.

There’s a particularly powerful scene where Laurie waits outside the sanitarium while Michael Myers is transferred out in a bus and she sees him for the first time in 40 years. She sits in her car, a revolver clutched in her hand, choking down vodka and she’s terrified even just to see him from 100 yards away protected by guards and fences. She screams in sadness and fear and impotent desperation. Written out, it sounds melodramatic, but it’s a testament to the writing, direction and Curtis’s acting that it’s so effecting.

This is what sets “Halloween 2018” apart and why I consider it “The Dark Knight” of slasher movies. The writing and directing efficiently explore the reality of circumstances horror movies have been showing us for… well, about 40 years. “Halloween 1978” is the father of the modern horror/slasher film. Its effects are profound. Laurie isn’t a badass. She seems like a woman who can barely get out of bed in the morning. It’s easy to understand why. Of course, Laurie has chosen to cripple herself by the memory of her attack, but on the other hand no one else seems to believe her when she tells them what Michael Myers is. She’s very much the archetype “Dr. Loomis” of this film — the one person who knows, without a doubt, that Michael Myers is pure evil, but to whom no one will listen until it’s too late. It must be exhausting.

Unlike “The Dark Knight,” however, which is a bit too self-serious and self-important at times, “Halloween 2018” is still a fun movie that treats the underlying material with respect. Jamie Lee Curtis and Judy Greer carry most of the “heavy” material while the rest of the cast imbue life into the decently well rounded characters around them. Andi Matichak, who plays Laurie’s granddaughter, and Greer’s daughter, Allyson, gets the short end of the stick in my approximation. She’s positioned sort of as a Laurie simulacrum from the original “Halloween,” but she’s doesn’t have the presence that Jamie Lee Curtis did. And, in fairness, she has to share the screen with many more characters than Curtis did in the original.

It’s also impressive how the writers mined additional mythology out of the first movie that was never really addressed again in the original sequels. This takes shape in another way this movie surprised me: the story revolving around Michael Myers’ new doctor, Dr. Sartain. The character barely appeared in marketing materials for the movie and I had figured he would simply be a cameo character who hardly appears. In fact, Sartain may be the architect of Michael’s escape and, unlike Laurie and the late Dr. Loomis, doesn’t seem to understand what Myers really is. In “Halloween 1978,” Dr. Loomis talks about how Michael Myers just sat in a room, borderline catatonic, for 15 years. Loomis indicates that he knew Myers was waiting for something, but he didn’t know what. He just knew it wouldn’t be good. He references a secret trigger that would reactivate Michael. In that movie, it was just great, hammy dialogue for Loomis to build Michael’s mythology, but in “Halloween 2018” they return to this concept.

Dr. Sartain, who claims to be one of Dr. Loomis’s students (and clearly not one who listened to the good doctor), is obsessed with unlocking the secret of Michael Myers’s mind. He wants Myers to speak and he wants to know what the “secret, silent” trigger is. This doesn’t become clear until the middle of the movie when Sartain embeds himself in the hunt for Michael and declares he must be apprehended unharmed. Then, more obviously, when he takes dramatic action to protect Michael. I was gratified that this plot hadn’t been spoiled by all of the marketing and trailers. It’s nice to be surprised.

The final act of the movie is basically pure suspense as Michael Myers descends upon Laurie’s house where she and her family are holed up. Again, I was glad to see that as Laurie confronted Michael, for as prepared she thought she was, she was over-matched. Laurie’s battles with Michael are quick and brutal and she hangs on by her fingernails to keep from being carved up.

The end of the movie and Michael’s defeat are interesting. Things are left ambiguous, which surprised me. I was satisfied by the ending, just surprised. I wonder if the third act re-shoots we heard about changed the ending from something more final to this version with a more open-ended conclusion? That’s what Blu-Ray special features are for, I guess.

As a movie, in of itself, “Halloween 2018” is solid. It elevates the material without being too melodramatic or heavy and clearly respects the source and its sequels. And that’s really where my only complaints comes into play, in disregarding the sequels, a casting choice, and undermining the power of the original film’s ending.

Given how much the marketing and the movie play up the Michael vs. Laurie angle, I don’t quite understand why they needed to jettison the “Laurie is Michael’s sister” angle. In an interview, writer Danny McBride argued they couldn’t have done the wonderfully dark sequence where Michael works his ways through random kills up the street if Laurie was Michael’s target. Throughout the series, Michael’s killing wasn’t always in direct pursuit of his family. He’s killed indiscriminately before. It’s a flimsy excuse. BUT it’s a bold choice I can appreciate and since the movie is executed so well, I’m not as bothered by this as some might be.

Next, let me first say: I like Judy Greer. She’s a great actress who is in everything now. And, in fact, she does a great job as Laurie’s daughter, Karen. However, for as much fan service as the movie has, I’m disappointed they didn’t cast Danielle Harris, who played Laurie’s original, orphaned daughter in Halloween 4 and 5, in the role. Given the bold change to the mythology, it would have been a welcome fan nod and “mother/daughter reunion” we never got to see in theaters. Harris has also been a stalwart supporter of the Halloween fandom since she was unceremoniously dumped in Halloween 6. Yes, I know she appeared in Rob Zombie’s abominations, but that doesn’t make up for it. It might be a petty gripe, but Harris is a fantastic actress and she deserved to be considered for the role.

Finally, the one “unforgivable” complaint I have is undoing the ending of “Halloween 1978” off-screen. The ending of the original movie is so creepy and powerful–Dr. Loomis shoots Michael six times and he plummets off the second floor balcony of the house. But when Loomis looks, Michael is gone. Donald Pleasance’s expectant reaction drives home the point that evil cannot be killed and Michael has disappeared into night. “Halloween 2018” doesn’t really detail how Michael was apprehended after that. But it’s revealed that Will Patton’s Officer Hawkins character stopped Dr. Loomis from finishing Michael off. It robs the original ending of its power and its unnecessary. If anything, it would have been even scarier to open this movie with Michael having never been caught–he just disappeared after being shot 40 years ago and reappears. Most of of the movie’s plot could have been the same and it would have justified Laurie’s paranoia and the interest of documentatary crew even more. I’m not downplaying 4 murders, but without the sequels, Michael’s attack doesn’t rate highly against even real life killers. But if he had disappeared without a trace after his killings, after being shot, that would be legendary.

All of those complaints out of the way, I overwhelmingly liked the movie. I can’t wait to see it again. I’d probably rate it behind Halloween 4, but ahead of the original Halloween 2, in terms of my favorite sequels in the franchise. It was a simple, effecting, solid story that made Michael Myers scary and treated the subject matter with respect.

Things I liked:
– The score! John Carpenter brought the film to life with reimaginings of his iconic themes along with some new elements
– Jamie Lee Curtis’s unhinged, broken performance (a less hammy Loomis from part 5)
– Will Patton makes everything better
– James Jude Courtney plays Michael Myers/The Shape pretty damn well — he’s got “the walk” down and his movements are lethal (Nick Castle’s oft-referenced return as The Shape is little more than a glorified cameo reflected in a mirror)
– The mask is as close to perfect as it could have been
– Silver Shamrock masks!
– Julian (the smartassed kid being babysat)

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