All Our Times Have Come

In the last two reviews of David Gordon Green’s Halloween trilogy, I’ve addressed how they resemble the game “plan” of the Disney Star Wars sequel trilogy (insofar as you’d believe either trilogy had actual plans). So I guess I may as well open this review with how Halloween Ends mirrors the coffin nail to StarWars-as-cinematic-event The Rise of Skywalker: they are both grand “Final Statements on Everything and Anything” in their respective brands by way of introducing an entirely new conflict ad hoc and divorced from their preceding installments.* I know there’s also a desire of the internet to label Halloween Ends as the Last Jedi of Halloween and I guess that fits insofar as Ends takes some real swings.

Those swings also allow this movie to briefly and all too promisingly map unto the sudden shift in story focus that the third Halloween movie, Season of the Witch, performed. This is apparent by the time the opening credits occur, stylized in bold italicized blue type that would have to be an homage to Halloween III and not Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Before those credits though, we’re at a pretty great start with an opening sequence that I’d argue is the single best stretch of Green’s entire trilogy. One year later from the events of Halloween ’18 and Halloween Kills, we are introduced to a fresh-faced 21-year-old named Corey Cunningham (Rohan Campbell) who agrees to babysit neighborhood kid Jeremy (Jaxon Goldenberg). For the little amount of time we spend, we can see that Corey is a little bit extra sensitive to taunts and scares while Jeremy is kind of a little shit that enjoys bullying the hell out of a fella almost twice his age. That’s not going to land well for either of them: as Jeremy gets to the end of his hazing by locking Corey in a dark room, Corey busts open the door either without knowing or caring that Jeremy was on the other side and that door ends up knocking Jeremy over the extravagantly high stairwell of his house and splattering his skull just as his parents came back from their Halloween party.

After the credits, we leap forward an extra year and Halloween Ends plays its hand: David Gordon Green, trilogy co-writer Danny McBride, and this year’s other co-writer models Chris Bernier and Paul Brad Logan have made the protagonist of the film not Michael Myers (James Jude Courtney; this time Nick Castle doesn’t have a single frame under the mask, but he has a tacky out-of-costume cameo) as that big dude appears to have disappeared since Halloween Kills. Nor is it now-orphaned nurse Allyson Nelson (Andi Matichak) after being flagged as the next generation of final girl for the last two entries or the series regular that is her grandmother Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, who I’m willing to bet fucking money will eventually come back to the Halloween franchise), the latter of whom has now moved out of her isolated burnt-down shack outside of the town into Haddonfield proper despite the fact that for some reason she’s become a pariah over “causing” the events of 2018. Did not one person get informed that Michael’s attacks were manufactured by a Dr. Loomis knock-off? Even the Deputy (Will Patton) who was nearly murdered by said doctor? And more particularly where do we get the connective tissue for Laurie’s characterization from “40 years spent in a survivalist trap alienating her whole family” to “2 years since a much larger massacre and one dead daughter and son-in-law later now happily living in the same town where the murderer is still at large and almost everyone hates her”. Ostensibly the 2-years-later conceit would like to paper over these gaps in Laurie and Allyson acting significantly different than the previous entries but that doesn’t stick at all. It’s a massive fucking backwards leap that suggests Green and McBride figured way too late what they wanted Strode to ride through.

Ah well, that rant was interrupting what I was addressing: neither Michael, Laurie, or Allyson are the main character of Halloween Ends. It’s Corey, who has also received a major pariah status that is obviously more warranted but still a little cruel for a timid young man who did not intend to hurt anyone. Still it appears Corey is so very vulnerable that a bunch of high school marching band members could push him off a bridge and get away with it. One of the few helping hands Corey receives is from a concerned Laurie, who is even more concerned for her granddaughter’s libido and ships him with Allyson in a way that hits off without any credibility. This appears to be the worst time for Corey to enter the Strodes’ lives though as he has by chance found the missing Michael deep in a sewer tunnel and upon physical contact has… apparently caught an infectious enjoyment for murder? The weird editing seizure that occurs once Michael grabs his throat and locks eyes with Corey deliberately suggests some supernatural spirit of the knife now transferred on the outcast kid.

By the last two nights of October, Corey begins donning a cool scarecrow mask (though he is interested in Michael’s good ol’ white Billy Shatner mask) and makes his way to vengefully dispatching anyone who troubles him or Allyson (best kill is easily one involving a turntable and a tongue). That it’s connected to snapped tension within the character makes clear the movie would like to use “alienated malcontent lets his toxic masculinity bubble into reactive violence” compound the trilogy-long concerns with “TRAUMA” in a manner disconnected from the reality of living with trauma or familiar with any form of toxic masculinity outside of the movies. Corey’s story is basically just Joker beat-for-beat except the cinematography is less interesting to look at and the performances are across-the-board worse, where Campbell as central performance feels like an impression of the Tom Holland Spider-Man finally getting that symbiote assholery. He’s definitely a lot more committed and interesting to watch than any other entity in the film, including and especially Curtis, but that feels just as default of the film forcing him to be the only dynamic character (outside of the 180 Laurie makes from Corey’s new best friend to suddenly hating him without any knowledge of his killings) rather than the merits of his otherwise gee whiz screen presence. Plus the invocation of Michael as a vessel for contagious murderousness deeply undercuts Corey’s transformation into slasher villain as something coming from a lifetime of external abuse.

Still this new direction is definitely the most radical thing that Green and company have done and I might find it admirable if they believed in their convictions enough to stick by it, even if it would have ended in a terrible movie. No, they decided to suddenly course-correct at the last act to the “final showdown between Michael and Laurie” in a sequence that belongs to an entirely different film than what we just watched, one where Michael ideally had more than 5 minutes of screentime up until then. And the movie shifts the function of Michael rather than a symbol of transmissible evil to a flesh-and-blood man whose power only comes from the despair the people of Haddonfield fall to rather than his own stature, which sounds like an idea I can probably get behind as a grounded back-to-reality response towards Michael Myers as a figure, his relationship to Laurie, and the last two Halloween movies’ hysteria. But EVEN THAT ends up not being the last word on the character or franchise, as the movie slips its final beats into a ceremonious sequence treating Michael as a larger-than-life figure affecting everybody in Haddonfield to the point that they about-face after hating Laurie for battling him right back to respecting her for battling him again? Narrated mind you by dialogue we learn is being typed by a character into a memoir, a move that mirrors the final scenes of that bro-y HBO comedy Eastbound and Down that Green and McBride collaborated on before these movies. So a contradictory set of treatments towards Michael as figure within the story – most of which are slamming into each other in the last 20 minutes – just muddles what were already inarticulate themes in three movies that ineptly attempted looking into Society circa 2018-2022, a disastrous end point for that goal.

And all of that is fine enough to make this the worst Halloween movie since Resurrection and the worst David Gordon Green movie I’ve ever seen (my gaps are The Sitter and Manglehorn and while I’m sure I’ll dislike both if I ever get to them, it would be impressive if they don’t clear the low bar this movie sets). But there’s one element of Halloween Ends that really grinds my gears, more than the dragging pace of this movie’s near-two-hour runtime, more than how Green and company are so concerned with scrambling together every last faux-wisdom they can instead of constructing a singular and focused horror story, more than the movie’s inability to feel in conversation with any other movie in the franchise including the two Green and McBride previously made and thereby being a complete flop as a closing statement for a franchise and subgenre that never ever means it when they have “Final” or “Ends” in the title**. It’s the fact that despite at least feeling somewhat like the midwest atmosphere from the previous two movies is kept intact by cinematographer Michael Simmonds, this is the movie in all 13 entries that feels the least bit concerned with having any sense of Halloween autumnal atmosphere in a movie with fucking Halloween in its name. A couple of pumpkins and that’s it. Ideally the bare minimum of making a movie named after such a holiday is that it feels in spirit of that holiday, so we have the ultimate indication of missing what about a Halloween movie lives up to that name.

*I would like it to be clear on this: while I dislike them both and would prefer to never watch either again, I’d sooner put on any entry of the Star Wars sequel trilogy than any entry of Green’s Halloween trilogy.
**To their credit, producers Jason Blum, Malek Akkad, or John Carpenter are all refusing to pretend a finale is the case. And what does it say about this movie’s score by Carpenter, his son Cody, and godson Daniel Davies that I genuinely have no remark positive or negative to give on it?

Overkills

I’m a bit hesitant to claim that Halloween Kills as the direct successor to Halloween – David Gordon Green’s 2018 sequel to Halloween, John Carpenter’s 1978 horror masterpiece – is less interested in respectability than I just ended my previous rant claiming about Halloween ’18. It certainly hammers on harder with the didacticism that made the earlier movie so annoying, easily the most verbose of the original films and no closer to making a single character sound like a human being. But one thing is certainly true: Halloween Kills is also the closest any of David Gordon Green’s Halloween trilogy got to feeling like a conventional slasher. Much as I was happy to welcome the extended bloodletting – especially in the extended home video cut – I unfortunately do not think that’s a strength in the favor of what it is trying to do.

Beginning no more than 2 hours from the end of the previous entry, when Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), her daughter Karen (Judy Greer), and granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) altogether trapped Strode’s stalker-from-40-years-ago Michael Myers (James Jude Courtney, with once again a few ceremonious shots of original actor Nick Castle) in her shack and set that shit on fire with him in it. Ostensibly Laurie has spent the last 40 years completely forgetting the fire department exists as they rush right over there to do their job, only to find Michael miraculously surviving the inferno. For some strange reason said firefighters immediately wield their tools for life-saving and attack Michael one-by-one like action movie henchmen, which of course does not end in their favor and only becomes the beginning of Michael’s singular stomp deep into the town of Haddonfield once more, leaving a trail of bodies behind him. Ostensibly he hates married couples especially, given how we have 3 pairs attacked before the movie is over.

For the record, this completely stupid Michael vs. the Fire Department battle is the highest point of Halloween Kills. And if all the movie was was what I described, Michael on a bloodied track to someplace unknown to us (though foreshadowed by the movie’s opening flashback, a distant second high-point in how Michael Simmonds’ cinematography recaptures the quintessential nighttime blues of the original and has a fairly convincing piece of makeup resurrecting Donald Pleasence’s Dr. Sam Loomis albeit with significantly less convincing voice performance), I think this might salvageable as a work of trashy slasher cinema.

But it’s not. Green, trilogy co-writer Danny McBride, and their current co-perpetrator Scott Teems have about two parallel start points going on here: Laurie is of course rushed to the hospital on account of a stab wound she received in the previous film. A few scenes later, Deputy Frank Hawkins (Will Patton) is admitted, a character in the previous film who has the distinction of being maliciously attacked by someone who is NOT Michael (though the third film in this trilogy will make this less rare). In the way that the previous film was a retread of the very first Halloween picture, this shall match up by retreading Laurie’s complete lack of any action or agency in Halloween II while she espouses extended twitter threads about fear with Hawkins, as though they were on pleasant rocking chairs in a porch rather than dealing with severe abdominal stab wounds. Perhaps the best excuse for how idiotic their dialogue is for the majority of the film is how they must be on a major amount of morphine.

And the other plot thread, which will eventually intersect with Michael’s in a way that Laurie’s never does*: apparently every Halloween, the fellow survivors of the 1978 massacre get together to drink and commemorate. Those individuals are of course Nurse Marion Chambers (returning actor Nancy Stephens in another retconning appearance after being killed in H20), Laurie’s babysitting wards Lindsey Wallace (returning actor Kyle Richards who now is better known as a reality tv star!) and Tommy Doyle (Anthony Michael Hall, replacing Paul Rudd who decided if he was gonna embarrass himself with a legacy sequel, it’d be a Ghostbusters movie!), and Lonnie Elam (Robert Longstreet) who is literally retconned into this movie to have encountered Michael back in ’78. And I guess it sort of makes sense that these particular characters would want to comfort each other once a year, but this apparently also happens to be a point of notoriety in the entire town which… ok, I guess town gossip is believable enough. But then once it’s heard at the bar they’re lounging in that Michael is back in town and hacking and slashing, it seems the ENTIRE TOWN was so involved in this minor massacre that they form a mob hunting down the first unfamiliar face they catch, a frightened escapee (Ross Bacon) from the same bus crash that freed Michael.

So now in addition to being a terrible delivery system for observations on trauma, Green and company are making their movie a terrible delivery system for observations on mob mentality (and given the obvious “immediate relevance” that having . And against the odds of a franchise that has reasonably been trying to balance the sensational basis of slasher storytelling with at least some reasonably dimensionality in its characters including this movie’s direct predecessor, Halloween Kills meets an all-time low with the counterproductive ways it delivers shallow assertions regarding psychological harm through lip service on one hand and then Green as director genuinely embodies this subgenre’s active indulgence for that violence without the slightest bit of shame. Probably the most painful shot it gives itself in the foot is how one of the goriest and detailed deaths in a movie with a lot more average blood than the body count Kills claims is in fact a tragic suicide late in the film, but this also wouldn’t be as huge an embarrassment if there was the slightest bit of profundity to Kills‘ desire to be “A Very Special Episode of Halloween” instead of just letting its characters ramble and spin wheels any time they are not being fatally interrupted by the big dude in the mask. The closest it gets is a 10-second throwaway set of cuts to a mother screaming as she recognizes her son through a morgue window during one of the film’s most high adrenaline sequences, her voice drowned out by the pummeling score of John Carpenter, Cody Carpenter, and Dan Davies (a score which is a better overall composition than Halloween ’18 but honestly gets that way by abandoning any real recognizability as a Halloween score).

The mean-spirited nihilism that would be a better fit for a less-ashamed version of a slasher film wins out this movie’s soul, particularly in the final moments of the film where its fan service plays in a way so clumsily dark that I highly doubt it’s intentional. Because this is not a movie that wants that nihilism to feel as lurid and amoral as it truly is in its nonsensical writing, its hideous cinematography (aye, it looks good in the flashback sequences like I said but the present-day material is all smeary in its color and untethered in its lighting), or in its maddening lack of understanding how people react to such traumatizing events. Which is why such a saving grace for this movie as slasher cinema could be if Green somehow had a moment of clarity during post-production and just decided to surgically remove all the movie’s sobriety and streamline the narrative strictly to the hunt for Michael Myers, this might actually be a more watchable piece of entertainment. One that could accommodate the heavy amount of brutality that it eagerly portrays, enough that puts this pretty close to the largest body count in the entire franchise if not at number one.

But no, instead not only was Green proud enough to drop this second part of the world’s most ill-advised attempt to make a therapy version of a notoriously violent and reductive horror franchise (as dictated by a drunk bro you walked into at a party you’re trying to leave rather than a qualified person who understands such pain), he probably realized at the end of the job “well fuck, this movie really was just a bunch of running around to nowhere” and doubled down on the worst elements of Kills to make sure this trilogy ended truly on a useless, contradictory, and flat note…

*Insofar as we remain with my Star Wars sequel trilogy mapping: Halloween Kills aligns with The Last Jedi, as an area where the major players deliberately refuse to interact with each other and both movies are a lot of wheel-spinning to remain basically in the same spot at the beginning as in the end. And they also both resemble the second entry in their predecessor trilogies).

A Take Re-Shaped

Honestly, when I first started this series of reviews for the Halloween franchise, it hadn’t crossed my mind to provide a second post for the 2018 sequel by that same name*. While my opinion on it has severely depreciated in the time since I saw it on its first release and gave it a reservedly positive write-up, I couldn’t imagine there was much I could add to it: it seems like the stuff has stayed the same, I just look at it differently now. But rewatching it in sequence with the rest of the franchise has solidified precisely how low I found myself responding to the film. Especially in the wake of grappling with my attitude on Rob Zombie’s films and in the newfound context of writer/director David Gordon Green and co-writer Danny McBride’s much much worse sequels to this entry, I became interested in grappling with what Halloween ’18 represents as Halloween entry, legacy sequel, and horror cinema of the 2010s.

It’s no secret by this point that the core subject of Green’s entire trilogy is TRAUMA in big capital letters and it feels like this movie postures itself as a definitive approach to what after-effects come when facing Michael Myers (publicized hardcore as the triumphant return of original actor Nick Castle to the role except he only shot one single scene in the role, the grand majority of Michael’s screentime is performed by James Jude Courtney). Yet we’ve had four different entries in the franchise that pretty sincerely approach that weighty subject and – I’ve been biting my tongue hardcore on this for each entry but I must now let it out – all three of those movies do it much more credibly than Halloween ’18: the greyed misery and snapping lines of Rob Zombie’s Halloween II, the generational aspect of Halloween 4, the labor in running away with Halloween H20, and even the nightmares and inaction of Halloween 5, the latter of which is easily a worst movie than 2/3 of Green’s entries (admittedly Halloween 5 accomplishes this solely on the back of Danielle Harris’ performance).

Halloween ’18’s suggestion (Jeff Fradley making a third co-writer in this entry alongside Green and McBride) as a potential aftermath of Michael is to revisit once more Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis’ own triumphant return for the second time) and suggest that she has spent all 40 years after surviving the flash of Michael’s blade by developing into a survivalist, obsessed that Michael will eventually be coming back to finish her. Not necessarily implausible on its own merits and honestly could have made for a fun little face-to-face showdown, the latter being one of the things that made this a much anticipated movie back in 2018 for me. But the wrinkle in that is that Laurie somehow has a family here: daughter Karen (the ever ill-used Judy Greer), son-in-law Ray (Toby Huss), and grand-daughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) are all exhausted at the high tension the grand matriach projects onto them. And that means I have to picture this version of Laurie – heavily Sarah Connor’d up to entrapping herself in her own woodland shack with all kinds of gates and flood lights and firearms and apparently not a single thought to actually leave Haddonfield if she’s that paranoid – to have at one point been relaxed enough to have and raise a child. And with all due respect to Curtis’ performance which is perfectly fine in a vaccuum of psychological character work (nothing on the level of H20‘s best stuff but I should probably stop comparing this to better Halloween movies), but she’s so dedicated to sharpening the edges of Laurie’s personality that I absolutely cannot see that happening. Anyway, as fate would have it (lest we get no movie), Michael would find himself loose of his post-1978 captivity to walk right up into Haddonfield and find himself a-killin’ again, after a brief detour to murder that most agreeable of murder target: podcasters (because they had his iconic white mask in their possession). And all three Strode women find themselves needing to stick together to survive what grandma Laurie had been waiting for her whole life.

Credit where credit’s due: I do think Green and McBride are genuinely inspired fans of this franchise in full. They certainly work hard to maintain the mystique of Michael’s encounter with Laurie, such as in the decision to have this movie retcon all previous entries out of canon including the reveal of Michael and Laurie’s sibling-hood. No sirree, Michael has no tie or interest in Laurie as far as Halloween ’18 is concerned, especially when a certain twist pops up 2/3 into the movie stressing the randomness of Michael’s path towards the Strode shack. That twist does lead to some of the worst material of this movie as it trips up Laurie’s arc and the relevant actor transforms into a comic book supervillain at that point. Still the way that twist resembles a Loomis development in Halloween 6 is one of many ways Green and McBride happily tip their hat to those that came before throughout: we get explicit quotes or callbacks to virtually every entry before the movie is over in amiable good fun.

Green also brings in a lot of the stuff that made him once the most exciting American filmmaker of the 21st Century: his casual ability to capture small-town atmosphere was what telegraphed him as a phenomenal fit on paper for the central Illinois-set story of Halloween and he has pockets of that showing up here and there, like the non-actor bit roles (most notable still being Jibrail Nantambu and his ad-libbed dialogue with Virginia Gardner’s babysitter character Vicky, by far the most interesting pair of characters with too short screentime) and the wistful and chilly exteriors cinematographer Michael Simmonds captures for prime autumnal vibes (the interiors – especially the overlit nighttime ones of the climactic fight – leave a bit to be desired, though). And Simmonds’ visuals even has a proper platform to marry itself to the horror elements in an extended long-take setpiece where Michael weaves in and out of households killing women from the distant view of the camera, either in dark hallways or porch windows.

There’s further the satisfaction of some exceptional gore effects – the grand guignol level image of a character whose lower jaw is pierced by the point of an iron gate, leaving his body hanging there; a skull that is crushed like a watermelon under Michael’s boot; a corpse holding the decapitated head of another victim and having a flashlight alight into the open throat so it looks like a grotesque jack o lantern – and the score by a returning John Carpenter, this time in tow with son Cody and godson Daniel Davies. Maybe the sole arena where I’ve grown more fond: I found the music unremarkable in 2018 except for the shiny new cue playing when “The Shape Hunts Allyson” as the track’s title aptly describes (and it’s a cue that is started by one of those incredible gore images) but now it feels like a proper return to the minimalism of the original masterpiece (referring to both the 1978 film and score). The toys are a bit nicer which means less character in the music, but it’s comfortable enough for me.

Still those are small comforts in a movie whose watchable visual polish makes it overall extremely boring and over-familiar, feeling not much else than pro forma semi-indie cinema. I’ll cop to what I’m about to say not necessarily being the fault of Green and company, even executive producer Jason Blum who is known to have his pulse on exactly what’s in vogue in contemporary horror cinema, since I presume this wasn’t apparent at the time of development but… there is no shortage of horror movies about trauma. It’s been a thing for a while now, arguably fired on by The Babadook‘s legacy as ground zero for what type of varnished prestigious and theme-heavy genre picture would be labeled “elevated horror”** but The Babadook is way too great to blame it for that shit. In any case, Halloween ’18 does feel like the sort of movie that would resemble a parody of elevated horror if it wasn’t so po-faced: didactic in its overt discussions on what’s going on with the Strodes without giving any distinct language to the characters besides the writers dividing a single lecture on different people in the room (and still this movie is a little more tolerable on this front than both of its sequels), eager to showcase aesthetic technique without a real profound application of that technique for underpinning the story, even more eager to discuss Serious Universal Matters and cash in on the gravitas of those topics without bothering to really support that with a solid plot progression. And cosmos help me when Halloween movies threaten to turn me into a person who complains about plot, but this is literally just duck-taped together for motivation on virtually anything that happens around the only character who has the excuse of no motivation: Michael.

What IS probably the fault of Green and Blum is how the movie really sets itself up for taking a leaf out of one of the 21st centuries’ landmark trilogies and probably the quintessential of legacy sequels: the Disney Star Wars trilogy. Halloween ’18 is The Force Awakens undeniably: by the time Michael escapes, this movie is running through the same beats as the 1978 original Halloween mostly with Allyson introduced in the same spot as Laurie being the next generation of protagonist for this franchise (her friends – Vicky among them – fitting snuggly into the roles of Laurie’s friends in 1978) and with a whole lot more clomping in its lengthened runtime than the efficiency of the 1978 film, except in the way its climax reverses the familiar imagery of the third act of the original to have Laurie and Michael swapping roles. It feels in some weird way more fidelious to the original than Zombie’s 2007 remake was, which at least shifts gears from square one. And yet this is not necessarily a bad move either in and of itself: the visual callbacks are just as much a source of satisfaction for me as the Illinois October air (as portrayed by Atlanta in January) and Carpenter’s music. But that’s kind of the issue with Halloween ’18 in a nutshell: anything that works and feels stable feels like brand management on the part of Blum, Green, and the Akkads and anything that doesn’t work feels like well-meaning fan fiction that nevertheless reminds me why I’d rather functional handymen like Carpenter be behind these sorts of movies making a rock-solid piece of thriller storytelling than Green try to fumble around with materials and fail to get them to stick together.

Certainly this movie was the monumental place where Carpenter gave his highest blessing to any entry made since he left the franchise and I’m sure he’s sincere about it. But that just feels like another step in the way that Halloween ’18 is over-interested in respectability, that interest being a central characteristic of elevated horror. And I’m of the ungenerous opinion that if you’re that desperate for respectability, you’re not likely to meet it and more likely to express a reticence about your own material itself like how Green and McBride’s sense of humor undercuts this thing. Genre cinema didn’t need to reach for respectability in 1978 and it doesn’t need it now.

*And indeed, I shall go ahead and point out how frustrating it is that now there is not only 3 movies by the single name of Halloween – the 1978 masterpiece, the 2007 remake, and the 2018 sequel – there shall now live in Motorbreath 5 reviews under that name. Not to mention that in the frustratingly long line of horror sequels/prequels that only adopt their predecessors’ titles without change – The Grudge, Candyman, The Thing, Scream – this movie has the least justification for that move.
**I know “elevated horror” is something of a bad word in contention with genre fans. For my part, I don’t like it as a qualitative term, but I do think it’s a reasonable lens in terms of what turned the wave of critical reception towards horror cinema from dismissive in the 2000s to its new invigoration in the 2010s, to the point of arthouse studios and theaters pursuing it ecstatically.

Legends of the Dark Knight

In Memoriam
1955 – 2022

I happen to have grown up exactly in the sort of generation where, if you were a Batman fan as I was and still am, your first exposure to the character was almost certainly Batman: The Animated Series – which shares with myself the distinction of having turned 30 this year – the groundbreaking animated television series that kickstarted an animated universe developed by creators Bruce Timm, Eric Radomski and Paul Dini, renewed interest in the artistic medium’s potential for mature storytelling, idiosyncratic processes, and translating comic book visuals. They lifted from art deco shapes and expressionist lines (so basically just an animated noir!), they drew backgrounds on black paper, and they provided some of the most nuanced and well-dimensioned villains in all of superhero pop culture to the point of even re-wiring the source material. It in effect amplified the way that Tim Burton’s 1989 smash-hit feature film made the character one of the most recognizable in all of pop culture.

And yet, even with all the various forms in which one has to have been exposed to Batman through television, movies, comic books, video games and such… when I think of the character, the very first image that pops into my head is the square-jawed black cowl against grey cartoon that Timm designed off of Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s original caped crusader. And the man who gave that version its voice was Kevin Conroy, who is sadly no longer with us as of this past weekend. So basically the affinity I’m voicing for Conroy’s work as the voice of my quintessential concept of Batman is shared with an entire age group of fans and likely beyond.

If I were had more time and energy than I have now, this event would likely be the springboard for a painstaking retrospective of at least the 85 episodes that make up the core of Conroy’s Batman series (if not the entire DCAU in which Conroy had portrayed Batman throughout). But unfortunately I do not: I do however have time to try for TWO separate posts. One of those will be a review of what was once my favorite superhero movie growing up, the other shall be a moment to at least recognize 10 of my favorite episodes regarding a television series that was so quintessential to my enjoyment of animation, storytelling, and art in general that even its weakest episodes have something I admire about it.

10. “Heart of Ice” (1.14 – Directed by Bruce Timm, Written by Paul Dini)

I confess, while I do appreciate how it essentially transformed Mr. Freeze into a character full of pathos (credit to Michael Ansara’s unexpectedly soulful monotone), I do feel this episode is just a tiny bit overrated. I was wondering how contrarian I could go while knowing in my heart… this was still going to make the Top Ten. Among my favorite things I’ve learned a Batman story can do is introduce cold atmosphere in visual ways (fun fact: my very first Batman comic I recall reading had in its first few panels Robin seeing his breath and the visual of that has never left my brain) and this episode’s continuous usage of blues just tapped into that pleasure in my brain, along with the hot reds and Freeze’s goggles making an excellent punctuation for the more shadowy images. And also the point of view spiral shot of his freeze gun in action is as action-packed as a single shot can be.

9. “Harley and Ivy” (1.56 – Directed by Boyd Kirkland, Written by Paul Dini)

Not nearly as gay as one would expect an episode with this premise to have – not even much subtext – and I confess to this feeling like the least exploratory visuals of the episodes directed by the late Boyd Kirkland, whom I’ve come to recognize as an unsung MVP in pushing the envelope on conventional Batman iconography. Nevertheless, it’s a breezy caper of a sort buoyed by the impressive chemistry Arleen Sorkin and Diane Pershing have as voice actors and there’s no way your fanfic would exist without this episode planting the seed.

8. “The Laughing Fish” (1.34 – Directed by Bruce Timm, Directed by Paul Dini)

For my money, this is the most threatening Joker (Mark Hamill’s triumph as a voice actor, possibly as an actor period) ever came as a character on the show. Largely on the nightmarish imagery of the victims of Joker’s toxin, whose eyes are wide and yellowed while their lips are violently red in a grin unlike any other iteration of his gas’ effects. There’s a late fakeout regarding Batman himself felt like a violent shake to my young self and I still don’t really find myself used to that briefly grim moment, let alone those mean looking blue-eyed sharks (even while we know better now).

7. “I Am the Night” (1.49 – Directed by Boyd Kirkland, Written by Michael Reaves)

Effectively the sequel to “Appointment in Crime Alley” (which was originally on this post before I re-edited to put this in its place, so none of y’all are crazy if you read it beforehand), this expands magnificently on the themes of what pushes Batman to embody what he is by indulging in looming iconography that plays into the fan’s familiarity with those contexts as Conroy gives one of his most engaged performances on a theoretical “what if I should stop?”. Magnificent ending sequence also.

For my money, I think trying to interact with Batman as a character through our own social issues is a fool’s game – Penguin just planted a giant bomb that will give every one feathers, just let Batman punch him – but I think this is the closest the show came to nailing the psychological and social aspects of an environment like Gotham. It’s also in turn one of the finer arenas for its It has a literal trolley problem – an excellently animated sequence – so maybe a tiny bit didactic but I think it earns its heartfelt final moments.

6. “Robin’s Reckoning” (1.32-33 – Directed by Dick Sebast, Written by Randy Rogel)

An episode that gives Loren Lester’s Robin a real chance to shine, particularly when it comes to his angriest and most vengeful moments in this two-parter, plus Thomas F. Wilson is a very well-cast voice for Zucco’s bug-eyed paranoia. Speaking of that paranoia, this feels like the closest the show came to visually resembling the sophistication of anime (the show occasionally outsourced to Japan so it’s possible this episode had exceptionally more work there): from the series-best movement lines to the big eyed expressiveness to the heavy shadows and even that Akira visual quote that’s specifically how I learned about Akira to begin with. All to make something so perfectly elegant as a delivery vehicle of Robin’s tragedy that just watching a cut rope swing into a spotlight makes one’s heart sink.

5. “Two-Face” (1.10-11 – Directed by Kevin Altieri, Written by Randy Rogel from a story by Alan Burnett)

I’ll be honest, I’m not convinced this is my favorite hour for Two-Face in and of itself compared to the more intricate crime drama of “Shadow of the Bat” (where Batgirl debuts on the series) but it’s definitely the most high impact in terms of the facial animation expressing the devastating psychological impacts of the character and our first hit of Richard Moll’s nasty snarl that he transforms out of Harvey’s earlier primness. But of course Kevin Conroy is the reason for the occasion of this list so another point of distinction: I think his delivery of the line “Harvey… no…” is the best line delivery he’s ever given on the show (only beaten by a specific line in the feature film I’ll review later this month.

4. “Almost Got ‘Im” (1.46 – Directed by Eric Radomski, Written by Paul Dini)

An amusement, but a very workable one. Extremely novel concept, a rare chance to let all of the Rogues Gallery play off of each other as vocal performances and the fluid stylizations of each villain’s tall tale allows Radomski and his animators to play around just a little with shifts in visual perspective. I do have to confess it’s regrettable this is the only episode where Adrienne Barbeau is voicing Catwoman on my list (although she does make a lower appearance as just Selina Kyle) as that entire performance throughout the series is just one of many pieces of evidence that Barbeau has one of the sexiest voices ever.

3. “The Man Who Killed Batman” (1.51 – Directed by Bruce Timm, Written by Paul Dini)

Yet another instance of Timm getting to flex his noir bonafides, but really my primary appeal of this is on the design and performance of the titular character: Sidney The Squid is probably the most cartoonish looking character ever to appear on the show, looking like he got ripped out of the newspaper funny pages instead of a Batman comic with his dot eyes, broad shape, and small stature. And that’s what to look for when trying to get immediate pathos out of a character with all of the Gotham underworld looming over him.

2. “Perchance to Dream” (1.26 – Directed by Boyd Kirkland, Written by Joe R. Lansdale from a story by Laren Bright & Michael Reaces)

Conroy’s personal favorite of the series, it’s easy to see why when it plays most deeply into the id of Bruce Wayne and Batman as characters. There’s no shortage of episodes that live within Batman’s brain, but this one feels the most… elemental of them: basically driven by what we expect of Batman’s compulsion to be Batman. And the climax on the clock tower has some of the most dynamic lighting of the series, enhancing Batman’s recognizable silhouette with every flash of the searchlight that glares at us.

  1. “Beware the Gray Ghost” (1.18 – Directed by Boyd Kirkland, Written by Garin Wolf & Tom Ruegger from a Story by Ruegger & Dennis O’Flaherty)

Even before we get to the deep pleasure of Adam West’s recognizable voice showing up to deepen this episode’s theme of one generation of heroes inspiring another, there is genuinely something radical about this episode that I don’t think it gets enough credit for: after playing into the familiar tools of old timey black-and-white serials, it smash cuts to an explosion where the sudden invocation of reds just propels us to a reality the dreamy intro was not signaling for. And for most of those present-time sequences, it adopts this monochromatic centering on brownish-red and black shadows that compliments the return to comforting black-and-white footage or flashbacks. The slipperiness of its chronological structuring – stressing the events paralleling Bruce’s childhood favorite show so that we’re in step with his logic – and the boldness of that visual strategy in the end mixes well with this episode’s sincere love for the very roots of Batman as a character and why we respond to him to make for a one-of-a-kind masterwork of television animation.

Now that that’s behind us, I am a little embarrassed to find my Top Ten is almost entirely made up of season 1 episodes (even Star Trek would eke season 2 into my top ten) so before I close this out, I’ll acknowledge some of my favorite season 2 and 3 episodes:

SEASON 2 The Adventures of Batman and Robin

  • “Trial” – The best instance outside of “Almost Got ‘Im” for the Rogues Gallery to interact with one another.
  • “Baby-Doll” – A disorienting visual quoting of the noir classic The Lady from Shanghai during the climax lends itself to maybe the most tragic feeling of all the show’s antagonists. Alison LaPlaca’s delivery of the very last line burned a hole in my 2-year-old heart when I first watched it.
  • “Riddler’s Reform” – The episode of John Glover’s run as The Riddler – a run that is only surpassed by the immaculate Frank Gorshin – where he gets to deepen the harsh existential dilemmas of a guy who “wins”.

SEASON 3 The New Batman Adventures

  • “Never Fear” – Maybe the one thing season 3 (undeniably the weakest season visually and writing-wise) had above the other seasons is casting Jeffrey Combs as Scarecrow, who fit that role like a glove.
  • “Over the Edge” – The closest we got to an Elseworlds story, I feel.
  • “Old Wounds” – Outside of Robin’s Reckoning, I think Loren Lester and Kevin Conroy’s climactic argument that leads to Robin’s resignation is the sharpest that relationship got on this show.
  • “Mad Love” – Every reason why Harley Quinn is beloved lives in this episode.

Now It’s Too Late for You and Your White Horse to Come Around

Here’s something I find fascinating about horror movie fandom: Halloween II – the 2009 sequel to Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween, which is decidedly NOT a remake of the 1981 film of the same name and makes a major note out of that – has quite the contingent. I don’t know if there’s anybody who identifies exclusively as fan of the franchise that considers the movie to be the best Halloween entry since the 1978 original, but there is definitely Rob Zombie fans who consider it to be so and on top of that there are Rob Zombie fans who consider it to be the outright best of the franchise OVER the original and on top of THAT there are Rob Zombie fans who consider it to be out-and-out his masterpiece. And mind you, all of these superlatives appear to be unanimously contingent on the film’s director’s cut that released on home video.

I have another superlative to consider with regards to Halloween II without the scruples those other three bring out of me: Rob Zombie’s Halloween films are fundamentally his epic and Halloween II is as critical to that collective qualification as Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II connects with The Godfather essential to what gives that full story the operatic scope and weight. Zombie’s Halloween films each had the same budget – $15 million, which would be by a significant amount the largest budget he’d work with as of 2022 – but it feels like the remake was precisely the sort of thing he had to get out of the way in order to REALLY dig into what about this material fascinated him. Halloween ’07 was a small scale-story of Michael Myers, but Halloween II expands that canvas to a variety of approaches both familiar to Zombie (as in a roaming travelogue reflecting on America’s curdled soul a la The Devil’s Rejects, my pick for Zombie’s best film) and forward-looking (as the psychological and hallucinatory elements would foresee The Lords of Salem, my favorite Zombie film).

Before either of those things, we are however treated with a note-perfect slasher mini-movie that IS sort of a remake of Rosenthal’s 1981 follow-up as it follows Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton), the final girl to Michael’s sudden rampage in the first movie, hours after she shot Michael Myers (Tyler Mane, with flashbacks to him as a child now performed by Chase Wright Vanick as Daeg Faerch had matured two quickly in the 2 years between these movies) being admitted into Haddonfield’s local hospital in a disorienting sequence of frenzied first responders moving bodies through halls and cutting into open wounds and physical trauma with horribly microscopic shots of bloodied instruments and flesh being opened and closed all over, a clinical context of the sort of brutality slasher films traffic in. One of the ambulances is on its way to the morgue with Michael’s body bag in tow, but somehow a disastrous crash is enough to wake him from death itself walk down a foggy rural road to a destination kept ambiguous enough for the following scenes to maintain a brilliant contextualization gambit that I’ll say no more to keep it fresh for anyone who has not yet had the privilege of watching Zombie’s Halloween II yet.

When the film proper begins though, we are treated with three different plots to follow: Most critical of these is Laurie in the aftermath of that shocking event now living in the care of Sheriff Leigh Brackett (Brad Dourif) and her best friend Annie (Danielle Harris), who turned out to survive her encounter with Michael, and finding herself still psychologically scarred by the event despite her certainty that Michael is dead. Michael, in his own storyline, has become a drifter since being rejected by Laurie which we know to affect him because she is in fact his unsuspecting baby sister. But she’s about to get hit with that fact as Dr. Sam Loomis (Malcolm McDowell), a fellow survivor of that violence and Michael’s former psychiatrist in the 15 years between his first and second set of murders in Haddonfield, has published a sensationalist tell-all true crime book of the full Myers affair and is touring that novel as a publicity-seeking primadonna, a rock star approach to hiding his own pain and guilt. Needless to say, they are all connected by that favorite theme of recent horror cinema: trauma and trying to explore that Laurie (and Annie, though not as much in focus), Michael, and Loomis all came away from that awful Halloween night with deep wounds that they simply don’t know how to close. Which is something I find equal parts ambitious in its scale and generous in its sympathy.

The results of this three-way split vary: Loomis’ material is outright godawful, maybe my least favorite thing in any of Zombie’s movies in its shrill attempts at celebrity satire and mostly responsible for why I’m not on the raves for this, but Laurie and Michael’s are easily the parts that inspired Zombie most as Michael’s functions as the surveying long walking journey I mentioned resembling The Devil’s Rejects‘ unspoken cynicism about America and both storylines find pockets in which to shovel in the most macabre autumnal imagery to dreamily project the damage in these characters onto the viewer. These images – cut with awe-struck focus by Glenn Garland and Joel Pashby while frequently featuring Sheri Moon Zombie returning as Deborah Myers – invoke wholly with the festive ghoulishness of Halloween or the ephemeral ghostly textures of black-and-white on film, particularly the case when it comes to a mental breakdown Laurie has at the trashiest Halloween barnhouse party. They also weaponize what Zombie and cinematographer Brandon Trost have put together as my single favorite depiction of Illinois in late October in this franchise and the closest I think they ever got: Michael’s journey normally takes place at night within the sad blues given visual depth by fog and field stalks that cover him through while Laurie’s daytime life ends up dressed in the miserable grays of the sky against falling arbor reds that stress how much everything is dying and how that dying infects the soul of these characters. I especially enjoy the weird rural Midwest isolation that the Brackett home has, nothing there but a house and a single leafless tree.

13 years ago when I first watched this, I would have considered the slasher genre a poor context for which to try to uniform melancholy on both killer and survivor but I guess re-visiting this and especially being exposed to the Director’s Cut have allowed me to open up what it wants to communicate: it fucking sucks being a character in a slasher movie, whether Final Girl or Slasher or in between. Your fate is set and any control you could have is lost before you realized it. It’s not necessarily as self-referential as that sounds, but what’s truly impressive is how it doesn’t approach the matter in a way that postures at having any of the answers to dealing with these issues, it merely wants to explore and empathize with the difficulty without the slightest sense of didactism or exploitation. By the time Michael reaches Haddonfield, there is no real “that’s so cool” vibe about the grindhouse aesthetic like Zombie usually transparently wears in his film projects nor is there very much blood in the movie at all outside of its opening hospital sequence. The most heartbreaking kill happens entirely off-screen and we are forced to watch more than one character in separate scenes collapse in reaction to finding the corpse (and the director’s cut takes this even further by intercutting home video footage of the actor as a child).

Anyway, I may as well dig up the lede I’ve buried: a lot of this effect that Halloween II has is so much stronger in that Director’s Cut that everyone raves about than in the Theatrical Cut, although I do very much admire both versions. The majority of the added or re-arranged material is on the Laurie storyline which fully intensifies just how devastating it is when your mind and emotions have not healed at the same rate as your body: the theatrical cut postures these events as taking place a year after Halloween ’07, but the director’s cut pushes it further back 2 years to add more frustration and particularly the extended material deepens the relationship between Laurie and Annie into a disconsolate breakdown of what we once saw as a loving friendship: Laurie is consistently antagonistic and lashing out at Annie, who is clearly tired of maternally holding her friend’s hand and appears to have an unspoken tendency to trap herself in her home added further by the extensive scarring we can see on Annie’s face lest we forget that unlike Laurie she’s the one who was stabbed and mutilated (in the meantime, Dourif’s Brackett is so on the outside of this conflict that he’s not even aware of how often he ends up mediator when he’s able to reach out to Laurie just by eating pizza weird). There’s further stretching out of Laurie’s even more angry sessions with her overtly patient therapist (the late Margot Kidder, who was herself no stranger to battling trauma and mental illness) that now mirrors Michael’s own sessions with Loomis in the first picture. Probably the most upsetting addition for me is a sequence of Laurie walking down the street, finding a petting zoo, and smiling as she meets a baby piglet that’s totally benign and ostensibly a rare moment of respite for her in this psychiatric maelstrom, but cross-cut in the director’s cut with a distressed therapy session to re-contextualize this as one of her worst triggers and destroying any sense of warmth that such an activity could associate with.

Laurie in the theatrical cut is staying above water but watching the level rise, Laurie in the director’s cut is already losing breath and watching the surface get farther and father above her and this makes all the difference when it comes to the density and thickness of Halloween II‘s moodiness, earning the hopeless manic tragedy of its climax and particularly the director’s cut ending. It also just gives deeper framing to Michael’s own resignation to his inhumane beastliness (a theatrical cut sequence where a child innocently encounters him and asks if he’s a giant a la Ghost of Frankenstein is beat at its potency by a moment where Michael encounters a roadside billboard of Loomis’ book and stares at it with the saddest eyes through his hood and decaying mask, even in spite of the scene being juxtaposed by the editing with my least favorite scene in both cuts) and Loomis’ pathetic inability to even acknowledge his injury as anything except a means to capitalize.

Halloween II IS in the end a messy imbalanced movie by any cut, but it is dealing with whole sincerity on unwieldy topics and struggling with it in a manner honest to how critical it feels about us not being properly equipped to tackle those topics: us being horror cinema, us being the United States, and us being the people who do have to live with that trauma in different sorts. And it’s by that effect a terribly heavy movie because of the sobriety of those topics, but remains wholly watchable in invoking Zombie’s characteristic style constructed from quintessential horror language in color and textures and visual subjects in the only context where he turns that on its head to suggest “what is sitting at the other side of this sort of stuff?”. In the cosmic sense, only more and more pain likely for the unlucky ones who have to live with it. But to at least contain it in some small realm similar to its predecessor, Halloween II has at its center a broken family unit: Deborah, Loomis, Michael, and Laurie all revolving around each other in a way that forebodes on a final reunion by the great equalizer.