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.
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