Sight & Sound 2022

(NOTE: if you live in Chicago, it might be fun to know that the Gene Siskel Film Center already happened to have scheduled screenings of four entries in the Critic’s list INCLUDING the number one Jeanne Dielman.

Parasite – Monday 5 December
Stalker – Friday 23 December
In the Mood for Love – Saturday 24 December
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles – Tuesday 27 December)

So it’s been a day since the BFI’s movie magazine Sight & Sound published the eighth edition of their list of the Greatest Films of All Time. For those who may not know, every ten years since 1952, the magazine had been reaching out to an extensive amount of professionals in the film industry – critics, programmers, curators, and directors (the last set of whom have their own list released with it) – and pooling their ballot of ten best films into a definitive consensus.

We just received our 2022 iteration, with the top ten spots taken up by the below ten films:

  1. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975, Chantal Akerman)
  2. Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock)
  3. Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)
  4. Tokyo Story (1953, Ozu Yasujiro)
  5. In the Mood for Love (2000, Wong Kar-wai)
  6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)
  7. Beau Travail (1999, Claire Denis)
  8. Mulholland Dr. (2001, David Lynch)
  9. Man with a Movie Camera (1929, Dziga Vertov)
  10. Singin’ in the Rain (1952, Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen)

And do I have thoughts? I certainly do. Personally I haven’t yet determined if they’re a net positive or negative, maybe I can hash that out through this sprawling rant.

I’ll start with the positive first: that top ten is pretty damn unimpeachable. All ten in fact are jostling for spots on the upcoming edition of my top 100 favorite movies list (Spoiler Alert: I’m hoping to finish that up by New Year’s). Including and especially Jeanne Dielman. Such a radical choice for number one, dethroning Vertigo only one decade after THAT film took Citizen Kane‘s long-reigning top spot.

Jeanne Dielman‘s entrance, let alone its top spot, seems to be indicative of a major shake-up to the list that cannot be understated: there’s more films by women. 11 films by 9 different filmmakers out of 100 movies is not a major amount, but the last edition had only two in a set of 93 (Jeanne Dielman and Beau Travail) and now it’s representing over 10% in the 2022 list. Plus, of the 10 I’ve seen (Wanda is the single blind-spot I have on the whole list), they’re all quite marvelous and among the movies I’d use to introduce someone to the art. Plus some choices are delightfully idiosyncratic: I know we all love Agnès Varda now (later than we should have) but I’d never expected The Gleaners and I to be her second best according to consensus. And Daughters of the Dust shoots me over the fucking moon as a movie. Neither Gleaners or Daughters are better than Portrait, but surprisingly Portrait is one of the items I’m most muted in my enthusiasm for and I guess I may as well address the reasoning as one of the negatives.

4 films out of 100 should be insubstantial, one would think, but there’s just something that does not sit right with me on movies younger than 10 years being considered one of the best movies of all time. My admittedly arbitrary attitude is that any serious consideration should stand a test of time to qualify “all time”, but I’m also a bit thrown by the blatant populism of the selections. Two of those movies from the 2010s – Moonlight and Parasite – are Best Picture Oscar winners, Get Out is another Oscar winner that broke multiple box office records, and all three with Portrait of a Lady on Fire are pretty big time internet favorites.

I’ll confess: part of my stance is a projection of my own insecurities regarding blurred lines between impossible objectivity and inevitable subjectivity. I’m never even close to 100% certain that movies from the 1920s or 1940s are the Best of All Time. But I’m a little more confident in the context of everything I’ve watched and the sort of legacy they’ve left behind that lead to my exposure with them than by the great movies of the 2010s, which at least share the excellent high of loving and enjoying movies like Portrait or Parasite (both being among my Top 100 of the 2010s, mind you) but neither yet having the length of time to really feel like they left a transformative quake. 3 years – 2 of which had the movie landscape completely transformed so that we’ve had a significant depletion of movie releases – feels like some voters saw they had free spaces and just scanned their favorite movies of the last ten years.

That said, I don’t think recency bias is a new thing to Sight & Sound, I just think the degree is more severe in 2022 than it’s ever been. People have already been pointing out on twitter that the first edition of this list in 1952 had a four year old Bicycle Thieves as its choice for Best Movie Ever, but there’s a newfound expansion of film history and film accessibility in 2022 than we had with feature films not even being 50 years old in 1952 and I think that summons us as film lovers to try to engage with that vast wealth. And sure recency bias was still going on as the list entered the 21st Century with Pulp Fiction, All About My Mother, and Yi Yi. All three are great movies but did 2002 was too soon and I now welcome all three with open arms (congrats to Yi Yi for sticking around, it’s the best of those three).

I also don’t think recency bias is something unique to movies from the 2010s. Consider that we recently lost Varda and Akerman – though Varda I think it’s safe to say had received a growing lens on her since the 2017 Oscar nomination for Faces Places – and they each receive two very deserving films apiece. In turn, it’s tempting to attribute that same postmortem respect to the whopping 4 that Godard has on here now if not for the fact his death occurred shortly after voting ended so I don’t know, something’s in the water with that one. And I’d be shocked if Věra Chytilová’s death was all that registered as being something recent, though it was only 8 years ago. Anyway, I’m not complaining for this: four great filmmakers got their masterpieces pushed in.

There’s also another side of recency bias in the inclusion of Daisies, Black Girl, Wanda, and Daughters of the Dust. Those almost certainly wouldn’t have happened if not for the recent restorations of the last 6 years making them much more accessible. But you won’t catch me claiming a single one of those movies are out of place on this list, despite only having seen Black Girl and Daughters of the Dust within those last 6 years. I guess largely because we know why it was so critical that the reinvigorated distribution of those films be paid attention to. That said the “recent restoration” rule isn’t infallible either. Did Touki Bouki need to find its way into the Scorsese World Cinema Project to already exist on the list by 2012? Or fellow 2012 entrant Beau Travail when it only just landed in the Criterion Collection 2 years ago? Plus, consider the films from the 2012 iteration that dropped off in this new list – conveniently reported by the below tweet – which includes The Mother and the Whore, Greed, The Color of Pomegranates, and The Magnificent Ambersons, all of whom had major restorations and re-releases through the past decade.

I’ll confess the biggest blows to me are the drops of Greed and Intolerance – not only because they’re silent movies, but because they mark a level of ambition that fits very well with the best entrants of the list. In addition, I’m a bit relieved to see Fanny and Alexander fall off as one of those “television =/= movies” prigs and shocked to see The Godfather Part II dislodged entirely from its previous dual placement with The Godfather to fall furthest from grace. And yes, I feel a special sadness for Nashville and Rio Bravo fully kicking Robert Altman and Howard Hawks off the list. Most of these movies I shall mourn quietly, so let’s turn to what we have remaining the 100 list before us.

No use beating around the bush: The 100 movies in the Critic’s List and the major shifts in both the entrants and the placements look like they are representative of the cultural atmosphere beyond movies. Or to use the term a lot of reactionary responses have had: if the ballots themselves aren’t political (which one can never determine), the full consensus feels like that on surface. So, let me begin with addressing this is not a bad thing in itself, I don’t think. A consensus like this was always representing and betraying certain things about its voters and the world they live in, especially when Sight & Sound made a point of expanding its voter base majorly from 2002 to now. A new variety of backgrounds from which people respond and put themselves into art means a final result that can resemble those perspectives in a singular way. And frankly a lot of these movies are long overdue: Do the Right Thing is the most obvious instance and that should have been showing up by 2002, though it’s clear in 2022 why it’s especially angrily relevant.

The angle of that singular presentation bugs me a bit, though. By shifting the usual center of film criticism from Europe (France particularly) to America, we’ve honestly moved even closer towards Anglo- and Euro-centric arenas for the most part. Of the increase in woman-directed films, we have one non-white women (Dash – Daughters) and the only one whose movies aren’t in either French or English is Chytilová. Of the black filmmaker-directed movies, only two are non-American (Sembene – Black Girl, Mambety – Touki Bouki). There’s stagnation in the films from Japan (only real newbies are two films by Miyazaki Hayao and both are deserving, but boy would I like more animated movies), China, and Iran. The only Indian film is the obvious one (Pather Panchali). And we are absent any Latin American films. Is this the responsibility of the more diverse entries? Fuck no, they’re still outnumbered by films by white men if we’re going to import that something HAS to be replaced by these marginal areas on the basis of representation and I don’t think I’m committing to that attitude. I just note these deficiencies as a quiet observation of what has been given priority over the list’s outcome of ostensibly broadening its range.

Back to the list’s representation of culture circa 2022 and its values: This may be a brand-new path for the Sight & Sound list, but it also felt like we were headed this way ever since Citizen Kane showed its reign was not infallible after 50 years. I can understand the abrupt feeling but while 3 years is not a long time, 10 years is. That 7-year difference is, I think, what makes this list feel at least more thoughtfully put together as social mirror than would seem on first glance.

That said, I read a take online about preferring a stodgy list as the primary canon by which new cinephiles may launch their exploration into the medium and I think I mourn that particularly. When I first caught the 2002 edition of the list around 2005, that was how I dived into my movie gateways: Intolerance, The Seventh Seal, Seven Samurai and so on codifying what I look for in cinema and why I love the films I love. Those movies aren’t deep cuts by any means: you can’t tell me with a straight face Citizen Kane or Singin’ in the Rain are underseen gems. But… in 2022, if I’m trying to use a list as a ground level for a nascent cinephile’s survey of its history and potential, it’s more likely the case that whoever is reading the list has already seen Parasite or Get Out than they have Singin’ in the Rain or Man with a Movie Camera. Y’know why Wanda is one of the few new entries that really energizes me? Because it’s the only one I haven’t seen and its placement is a challenge to me, hearkening back to that 13-year-old I was wanting to know what the hype is on this here Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. And sure, maybe some people will catch Jeanne Dielman and wonder what the fuck was the fuss, but y’know what? I think that risk and tension is a big part of actually breaking into your own viewpoint on art in general. There’s a lot on the 2002 list I found overrated upon first watch: Batteship Potemkin and Out of the Past and they actually grew on me over time. I think we need to give the space for overhype, disappointment, and reconsideration for filmgoers. It allows the film fan to be a dynamic and changing force able to hold its own against the moving image. Sadly, I think we lose that risk the closer the entries come to the present day or feel representative of movies everybody has already caught so it can reconcile that “your taste is valid”.

But we also lose that risk even more when one of the last reliable and steadfast big movie lists to maintain its core spine goes this wildly in flux. Sight & Sound’s transformation into a time capsule of the new decade’s extra-cinematic attitudes might be less annoying if the Critic’s list wasn’t mostly resembling the same takes I can catch in a scan of letterboxd or film twitter. Or maybe if there were more gaps for me personally to square a potential new “Definitive Oversight on How Movies Evolved and Developed in Form”. Maybe some can find excitement in the way that this suggests further shaking up in another ten years when some of the contemporary selections will drop (not to say they’ll age badly: All About My Mother is still a masterpiece in my eye and if Portrait waves goodbye – I fear it will, it’s the largest recipient of “Actually Not Good” twitter takes since the list dropped – it’s still easily one of the great masterpieces of the 2010s). And if the number one remains continuously changing, we should be so lucky if they maintain the five-star masterpiece track of Citizen Kane, Vertigo, and Jeanne Dielman.

Anyway, I ask to be permitted my sense of discomposure by this new reality and the lack of real import the list is going to have as a recommendable start point if there’s no real stability to it from here. I’m sure I’ll learn to live with it by the time another ten years passes.

Most important of all: At least there’s now 8 more silent movies, which is a miraculous growth since 2002 had only 1 and 2012 had only 3. If I had my way, it’d be at least 75 silent movies and I guess we can give a couple to them talkies.

Anyway, that’s a lot of talk just for the Critic’s list. But what of the Director’s Consensus List, top ten listed below…

(Note there are ties between 4 and 5, between 6 and 7, and between 9 10 and 11)

  1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)
  2. Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)
  3. The Godfather (1972, Francis Ford Coppola)
  4. Tokyo Story (1953, Ozu Yasujiro) TIED WITH
  5. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975, Chantal Akerman)
  6. Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock) TIED WITH
  7. 8 1/2 (1963, Federico Fellini)
  8. Mirror (1974, Andrei Tarkovsky)
  9. Persona (1966, Ingmar Bergman) TIED WITH
  10. In the Mood for Love (2000, Wong Kar-wai) ALSO TIED WITH
  11. Close-Up (1990, Abbas Kiarostami)

Honestly, the top ten is on-par with the Critics’ Ten in unimpeachability. Personally I prefer Jeanne Dielman to 2001, but it makes sense why director’s would favor the magnificent craft of 2001 compared to the exercise in watching that Jeanne Dielman represents. I bet I just doomed myself to forever be a guy who talks about movies instead of making movies with that claim, fuck!

But maybe not as this is yet another instance where I find myself more aligned with the directors’ entries and absences than the the critics’ version. More Iranian films (including Taste of Cherry), more Tarkovsky, Lucrecia Martel’s La Ciénaga rolling up, Don’t Look Now, A Woman Under the Influence, Jaws (and ain’t it something that the Critic’s list disrespects Spielberg so close to his birthday?). Even the only two movies that are from the last ten years to switch over are the two that I’d without a doubt call capital-G Great: Parasite and Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Heck, the only true objection outside of that and Michael Haneke’s existence (though there could be worse choices for him than Caché) is Fanny and Alexander being there since it’s television but it’s still a masterpiece so boo me. It doesn’t lose the same sense the Critic’s list has on being a representative of The World as Seen in 2022, but I think it approaches it at least closer from being Western-centric and with more movies I’d both be giving five star ratings to and feel like deep cuts. And yes, I accept that such a sentiment – like every letter of this post – says more about me than it does about the list. Plus it has one additional gap for me outside of Wanda, Ken Loach’s Kes.

Finally, since I’m likely to never be invited to submit a ballot on this thing, I guess I may as well have some fun by submitting what my pick for the ballot would be, not necessarily meeting “Best” or “Favorite”, just the ten I’m feeling at the time. Not even sure I bothered thinking up an order besides number one.

  1. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, Carl Theodor Dreyer)
  2. Battleship Potemkin (1925, Sergei Eisenstein)
  3. I Am Cuba (1964, Mikhail Kalatozov)
  4. Man with a Movie Camera (1929, Dziga Vertov)
  5. L’Avventura (1960, Michelangelo Antonioni)
  6. Psycho (1960, Alfred Hitchcock)
  7. Breathless (1960, Jean-Luc Godard)
  8. Nostalghia (1983, Andrei Tarkovsky)
  9. The Wizard of Speed and Time (1979, Mike Jittlov)
  10. Tale of Tales (1979, Yuri Norstein)

Yes, I’m aware that only three movies on my list are silent films. I’m a quitter.

I Am At Your Service

Continuing my little mini-movement of my writing from the confines of a facebook group to this here blog, this one being a little more relevant given the recent death of the filmmaker. I’ll probably want more to say since I certainly don’t feel I exhausted what is one of the most radical movies experiences I think happened in my lifetime, but for now this will suffice.

We got “ok boomer” and we got “Old Man Yells at Clouds” and we got several more memes to indicate the unveiling of a new generational divide and the deep truth that old people are fucking bitches sometimes. It seems like a natural response towards changes to dig your feet into principles or behavior you’ve embedded into yourself regardless of how it conflicts with the shift of time. Young people are champions at this stubbornness but old people have it down pat.

One such bitch that we happened to give a camera to is Jean-Luc Godard and while that bitch-ass bitch attitude of his is released in ways that are often unproductive, toxic, and hurtful, there are times where it’s turned to the cinematic artform itself and the wrestle that ensues ends with the medium turned on its head in the most exciting way. This was present in his canonised peak of the late 1950s into the later 1960s and I think this is even more present in his current time. If the late cinema of Godard’s contemporary Agnès Varda was her using cinema to reconcile her age with a medium that allows her to exercise a young soul, Godard is barely trying to reconcile his age with a medium that stayed fresh and dynamic without him. And in my opinion, it has led to some exciting and introspective attempts to construct a personal language out of the new tools available to him.

Enter 3D, the hottest fucking toy that the past decade has re-introduced in manner more vital than the previous 3D boom of the mid-1950s. And it’s only one of a few things Godard and his new regular cinematographer Fabrice Aragno decides he wants to figure the fuck out of in this new age of filmmaking he’s living in, although it’s not the only thing since he’d already messed with prosumer cameras in Film Socialisme and surround sound with Notre Musique. And so with all that sort of curmudgeonly attitude about both cinema as an experience and as an art, he goes ahead and starts demolishing it and dissecting it on-screen.

The result is the most physical non-action-movie experience I think I’ve ever had in a movie theater. Jean-Luc Godard’s entire career ethos seems to be making us aware of how we register movies as pieces of each other – whether putting his focus on the editing or the subject or the color or the genre elements, it’s always something he wants us to notice in a pestering way – and the movie he made with Aragno just translates that to the modern advent of film technology: how do our eyes register entirely different information, how does that now change with movement on certain degrees, does this technology really add anything to the observation of nature, what about something we shouldn’t be looking at like a hairy ass or a penis or a breast or a vagina, what about something that we absolutely are physically unable to look at like an out of focus object, can we replicate the inconsistent positioning between our eyes, and so on. And then there’s the sound mix: ok, now we are forced to look in this direction but hear something in that direction, does it amplify off-screen sound (especially VIOLENT off-screen sound), was that a fart joke? Yeah that was a fucking fart joke.

I know this sounds like homework to a degree, but it is exhilarating to me: the concept of playing into the limits of a medium and then pushing further and seeing what happens when it crashes over and over (and oh how many times it can crash). This is certainly an experiment that has been replicated (there’s no way Blake Williams’ PROTOTYPE exists without this movie and it’s a lot more pleasant, but Williams has also been making 3D shorts before this movie and this isn’t even Godard’s first tango with 3D), but the angry energy of this movie jazzes it up enough to make it all fresh and vibin’. It’s a fun and joyful movie in spite of the sort of anger that animates it somehow, but I think this is so of most Godard movies: he may not be having a good time but we are.

Let’s not kid ourselves: this is a pretentious movie from a pretentious filmmaker. But you kind of have to be pretentious to look at something and say “I am going to break that down as to render it useless”. And you can’t back out on that attitude, you gotta follow through on your arrogance if you want to succeed in creating a brand-new cinematic language out of it (something I’m never not going to be excited by and a thing that I think Godard is only met with Terrence Malick’s post-Tree of Life movies in attempting). After all, even if the plot is the last thing you should be paying attention to, the conversations and monologues had about technology’s growing place in collapsing the way people communicate together even face to face is insistent that something’s gotta give and these shining new toys demand a new vocabulary to work with them.

Which is probably why the movie in question was called Goodbye to Language.

People Like Us

For a little bit of meta-blogging, I’m phasing myself out of a facebook group I’ve been in and some of my contributions to that group involved some long-form writing that I’m a little bit proud of and would like to share outside that group’s confines. As such, below is the first of what will be several posts this month migrating my writing from there to here.

Depending on the results at the night of which I write these words (Author’s Note 1 Dec 2022: this was written the night of the 2020 Presidential Election), who knows if we’re in the mood to think about some small utopic town in Texas? But somethings just have to be grappled with for some and I’ll wrestle with your conscience while you wrestle with your partner.

Just to get full disclosure out of the way: I’m barely certain that David Byrne’s 1986 movie True Stories – the only movie that the frontman for the former band Talking Heads ever directed – is actually a good movie and don’t have any illusions of it being a great one by the metrics I go by. Byrne, co-writers Stephen Tobolowsky & Beth Henley, and editor Caroline Biggerstaff don’t seem to have spent enough time thinking about how to connect all the wonderfully fascinating ideas and concepts they have about this one isolated Americana town of Virgil, Texas. More particularly, Byrne appears to see making a feature film as no different that making a bunch of music videos and though those music videos are marvelous eye candy as shot by the great Ed Lachmann with subtly depressive tones of bright blue and pink and of course Byrne is a phenomenal songwriter (and anybody who needs to see the light on Talking Heads must run to the masterpiece Stop Making Sense immediately), it doesn’t make for feeling like we ARE watching a whole. Just pieces.

And this kind of prevents me from feeling like the creation of Virgil as a place – the very raison d’etre of True Stories – is as complete as I could be satisfied by. The knowledge that we are watching setpieces instead of living in an environment and the full lack of even atmospheric thoroughline between those setpieces.

And yet… True Stories is a movie that I am deeply in love with ever since I had first seen it 3 years ago, coincidentally a few months before I visited Dallas in flee from Hurricane Irene (and funny enough almost bought a DVD copy from the Movie Trading Company in Beltline before reminding myself a Criterion edition was being hinted at the time). Another visit to Dallas years later would see me deliberately visiting locations where I knew it to be shot.

Works about America as a concept interest me greatly (the Western lover in me insists on this) and works especially about America as a concept made by foreigners interest me most of all (such as Wim Wenders’ work or Garth Ennis’ Preacher comic series). They make me recognize that as somebody who isn’t born of this land, there is a way to examine it while feeling of a part of it in all but birthright. Calling David Byrne a foreigner is something of a stretch given that he’d moved to Baltimore by the time he was 8, but that is a couple of years older than I was when I came here and her took much longer to get his American citizenship than I did (in fact, he was still solely a Scottish citizen at the time he made this movie). More importantly, the energy and attitude of this movie looking in on the town of Virgil is explicitly that of an outsider and that’s what encourages us to have an exploratory attitude. Byrne’s music had already by this point given away his desire to dissect what is in motion about a community or a society or even just a connection between two people with a sense of distance that somehow doesn’t feel tragic (in one of the rare instances of Armond White’s mouth not spewing reactionary bullshit, he observed a yin and yang between Prince’s desire to turn the sexual into intellectual and Byrne’s desire to turn the intellectual into the sexual, which I absolutely believe songs like “Wild Life” lead into and hey look at that… there’s a Prince homage in that scene). True Stories has given him an opportunity to apply that fascination – something that almost always spilled over to interrogating modern life’s focus with consumerism and Rockwellian domestic fantasies – to a different medium and try to see what that medium allows him to do. Apparently, it allows him to turn it on its head by choosing as a subject a land ostensibly rural that also ends up indebted to a single computer company Varicorp, something I feel could be treated as more cynical than it is (though at the very least, Byrne, Lachman, and Biggerstaff treat Varicorp as a sterile environment) or to have long dolly shots through the malls that Byrne’s lyrics so previously had curious musings on.

It also allows him to populate this community with quite a crew of characters, like John Goodman’s breakout performance as the gregariously yet melancholy Louis Fyne or late monologuist Spalding Gray’s chattering civil leader Earl Culver (who will apparently talk the head off of everyone but his wife, played by Annie McEnroe) or Tejano musical icon Tito Larriva’s suave psychic, not to mention a bed-resting Swoosie Kurtz or Jo Harvey Allen’s compulsive liar. I expect that most of Tobolowsky’s background as a phenomenal and deservedly beloved character actor went into creating these people, but apparently they also came from a bunch of eccentric news clippings that Byrne collected and put against a wall from his time touring with Talking Heads and his wondering about what if… these stories were all true? And even with performances that distinguish and live in these characters – Allen and John Ingle’s conspiracy theorizing preacher in “Puzzlin’ Evidence” particularly hint at the darker side of Virgil (though I honestly think the playfulness of “Puzzlin’ Evidence” as a setpiece weaken and muddle this) – that core allows the people of Virgil to feel like extensions of what Byrne is trying to put together about the town as a conduit for a community.

In any case, I find the loneliest moments of True Stories where those characters are nowhere to be seen the most compelling to me: the shots of Texan landscapes in sad blue dusk light and horizons that feel more like they’re going than coming, gas stations with no cars stationed at them, buildings with the lights out. Moments like this find ways for Lachman to play with the lines of architecture that clash Virgil’s modernization against what this land used to be, an attitude Byrne opens the film with discussing with unexpected candidness compared to Earl’s later platitude about God’s wisdom in making people who would like Virgil how it is. Virgil as it is is not what it was. But most importantly, it stresses both the isolation of Virgil as an environment and us within Virgil looking into it. It gives us the same outsider energy that Byrne has making this.

Given both Louis and the Culvers’ familiarity with Byrne’s nameless narrator, there’s not much reason to assume the Narrator’s much of a stranger to Virgil. But the way that the Narrator drives in and out and especially musing as he exits with the film behind him on how he loves forgetting the details of a place so that he can see the place “as it really is” makes it feel like he’s just passing through. Maybe he’ll always be passing through. As somebody who finds myself at my most free when I am just driving a long distance – and I mean long… cross state lines, cross country lines sometimes even – and deciding to just figure out where I landed, I like to think I’ll always have that manner of just passing through no matter how familiar I get when I go “I guess that this must be the place”.

I Am Vengeance… I Am the Night…

30 November 1955 – 10 November 2022

If you’ve been reading since the last few weeks, you already got my perfect introduction to Batman: The Animated Series in the list of my favorite episodes. Still I’ll paste it below for ease:

“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.”

As I mentioned in that same post, I unfortunately don’t have the time in my life to review every single episode of that monumental tv show in my life. I do however have time to talk about what spent most of my life as my favorite feature film involving the Dark Knight himself, a spin-off of that animated series that was originally intended for the small-scale direct-to-video release but shifted gears after the success of the show’s first season. The result was that Timm and Radomski – who were co-directing the film – had to crunch hardcore on the production the feature compared to the usual schedule theatrical animated features receive, but when you’re built off of the incredible technique and profound iconography that Batman: The Animated Series got off of, you’ll still end up a near-masterpiece at the very least.

That near-masterpiece released on Christmas Day of 1993 as Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.

As the spin-off of such smash hits and based on an inescapably popular character, the screenplay (written by Dini, Alan Burnett, Martin Pasko, and Michael Reaves) begins in media res of Batman’s career as Caped Crusader to the city of Gotham. It appears that a specific group of Gotham’s old time gangsters are being bumped off one-by-one and because the figure who is arranging these murders is a shadowy figure who fades in and out like the night, the M.O. frames Batman for these slayings. We know that’s not the case from scene one since we see Batman and this Phantom (Stacy Keach) in the same room, unlike how Batman and billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne are never in the same room*.

(Because Batman is indeed Bruce Wayne under the cowl, in case you did not know what the hell a Batman is.)

As these murders are being investigated by both Batman and the police, Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany, who would return to the DCAU voicing Lois Lane, the romantic interest of the OTHER big DC superhero, when Superman: The Animated Series premiered 3 years later) returns to the city and she happens to be an old flame of Bruce’s. In fact, the complicated past relationship between the two happened to overlap with the moment Bruce fully committed to his new identity as Batman and it’s through a series of flashbacks that we are made privy to what Andrea’s presence did to brighten Bruce’s life and why that was something unsustainable to Bruce’s mission. Basically what we associate with an origin story is instead used to deepen where the present-day investigation is going, especially rewarded by how honestly predictable the storytelling is and how swiftly it moves to our projected revelations in a runtime below 80 minutes.

Because for one thing, Mask of the Phantasm is as deep a dive into Bruce’s psyche as Batman Begins or Batman Forever. Any reasonable person would recognize the way out that love offers for them and take it with no strings attached, but Wayne’s burden is something he is unwilling to detach from and that’s what shapes the tragic character study of Batman as a figure. He doesn’t just feel responsible for carrying the pain of his parent’s death, he NEEDS to carry that pain. Conroy’s performance is intuitively aware of how to portray that byzantine self-punishment for the character throughout the movie’s runtime, whether it’s the disruption Andrea brought to his life, the aggression when his trusty valet Alfred (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) verbally observes the way the case and Andrea’s return has cut deep, or just the complete shambles he is in trying to recognize the crossroads he’s at. Is it Conroy’s best work in the 30 years he spent in the role? I’m a bit hesitant to claim that when he’s seldom failed to be at the top of his game, but I must confess: “I didn’t count on being happy” is probably the single most devastating line delivery I’ve heard out of him. It is the very soul of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm as drama and of Conroy’s Batman.

But the other thing about that flashback weaving of Bruce and Andrea’s romance abruptly cut by Bruce’s determination to transform into Batman is how it plays into this movie’s invoking of repetition as an anchor to how it suggests the cyclical highs and falls of Bruce and Andrea as a romantic couple. Tim Brayton at one point used a trio of shots involving a composition of Bruce or Batman facing away from the audience to a spot of parental remembrance to best demonstrate how the visuals play into repetition in a resemblance to comic book symmetry. But it’s also just one of many arenas the movie is about the past is coming back to knock the wind out of Bruce from various angles: from Andrea, to his need to consult his grief for direction, to even that long-time and almost-as-iconic nemesis The Joker (Mark Hamill in a performance that, alongside the tv show, rivals Luke Fucking Skywalker as his most iconic work) having some root in his past with an impressive sourcing of his recognizable character design in one of the flashbacks.

In fact, that strategy of compositional patterns is probably one of the few arenas where the visuals in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm comes close to the average highs of the animated series**. It’s not devoid of any impressive usage of thick shadows, deco designs, and pop iconography for hard-impact imagery – just consider the expressionist portrayal of Bruce donning the cowl for the first time and the gigantic look of horror on Alfred’s face (including a breathless utterance of “my God!” that might be Zimbalist’s best line delivery in the role) – but sadly the rushed production schedule ensured this movie would never surpass those highs. The movements particularly leave a little to be desired in their aimless waving, particularly when it comes to the action sequences (outsourced to Korean studio Dong Yang, who would afterwards be doing most of the work on the imminent second season) or floppy gesticulating of tertiary antagonist Arthur Reeves (Hart Boechner) as he uses his political influence to push a police manhunt for Batman. The closest graphic strengths it has alongside the echoing shots come to the design of its most essential background location: a futuristic World’s Fair exhibit that is monumental to Bruce and Andrea’s romantic optimism and in turn gets transformed over the time lapse into a robotic abattoir for the bitter final battle to occur. The design of the set feels not only like a worthy expansion of 1950s Metropolitan concepts but also plausibly uses the model scales so that the three-way fight gives proper homage to the work of artist Dick Sprang. It’s a literal larger-than-life treatment of the conflict at hand, both emotional and physical.

And that’s in fact the staying power of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm: it really does feel like it’s trying to amplify the bombast to the grand movements of opera, even in the areas where it had to succumb to its budget or schedule. Hell, even the music by Shirley Walker is aiming for the big theatrics with its opening gothic choirs. That’s all a good thing. The emotions are bigger, the scope of the story is bigger, the scale of the action is bigger, and the only thing that keeps it human-level is the fact that the thing at stake most is Batman’s soul, trying to fill out the space where Andrea claimed his heart. Maybe it’s a bit melodramatic for some, but I seldom want my comic book movies to be subtle when they are based in an artform that is about the fundamental effect that is a character you can recognize like the back of your hand striking poses of great pageantry. The pomp in this case is not just in those images, but in the direct and sweeping storytelling as it’s in there that Mask of the Phantasm became my favorite superhero movie when I was a child. It took my favorite superhero and made him as engaging and psychologically accessible as he’s ever been – in the comics, in the movies, on the television, whatever – and that’s probably why the hooks Conroy’s voice got into me as Batman will never ever leave my immediate conceptualization of the character.

Thank you, Kevin.

*”Perchance to Dream” and “The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne” don’t count, don’t @ me.
**I guess this is as good as any spot to note humbly that I’ve been able to see this movie on 35mm TWICE now and each time was a different aspect ratio: 1.33:1 which would be expected for a direct-to-video production to accommodate the television screen shape in the early 1990s and 1.85:1 which would of course be conventional for a modern theatrical release. I think both have their strengths and weaknesses: neither version is absent of cut off characters or cramping, but there’s less of it in the widescreen presentation. Still the full frame iteration has my heart as I feel the looming nature of Batman as a character and the centralizing of each shot’s subject gives it more accentuation and power. Plus at first I felt weird about how the full-frame sort of fades into the black paper it was animated on, but now I’ve come to dig it.

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.

The Night He Rode Home on a Dragula

The 2010s were a very fundamental time for my movie-going in a lot of ways, the most relevant to this review being that there was a handful of, shall we say, vulgar auteurists whom I had disliked in the fashion of the conventional reception that I began to re-evaluate after releases they had dropped in my early 20s that I responded hugely towards. That in turn begin my development into out-and-out apologists for them as artists by the time I turned 30. Such examples being Lana & Lilly Wachowski, Paul W.S. Anderson, Zack Snyder, and our current subject Robert Zombert Cummings who is a heavy metal musician and horror filmmaker better known by the name of Rob Zombie.

This is basically a roundabout way of acknowledging had I been writing about movies in 2007 and talked about my feelings for Zombie’s remake of Halloween that released this year, we would have probably gotten a different tone, a largely negative one. And to be real, regardless of director, the proposal of a remake in the late 2000s when remakes were fucking drowning genre fans to one of the most perfect works of horror cinema ever created is already a dubious in itself. As the follow-up to a sequel that all but threatened this franchise’s consigning to the direct-to-video purgatory of Dimension Studios’ Hellraiser and Children of the Corn editions, even less promising. And I think it’s fair to say that there are things on paper that Zombie’s screenplay basically goes firmly against the core of what made the original film such a perfect little fairy tale, but I also think it’s fundamental to understand those decisions as deliberate and the product of Rob Zombie’s Halloween trying to do an entirely different thing than John Carpenter’s.

Let’s address that thing straight on: Halloween ’07 looks to revisit the same kind of beats that occur in Halloween ’78 and makes its way through them all before the film is over but the rub is that the very first two beats – Michael Myers (Daeg Faerch when we first meet him) kills his sister Judith (Hanna Hall) and is institutionalized with Dr. Sam Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) examining him – is expanded to feature length for the entire first hour. Hell, Zombie starts even further back as we initially witness what sort of environment Michael grows up into a day before he decides to commit his act of violence and it’s really not surprising to see what the director of The Devil’s Rejects visualizes: a white trash realm of hostility with a venal stepfather who also meets young Michael’s knife (William Forsythe), a neglectful sister in Judith, and a caring but absent mother Deborah (Sheri Moon Zombie, as is Rob’s habit to cast his wife in his films and frankly I think they get a lot more shit for this than they deserve) who also is the subject of a lot of high school bullying for Michael as a notorious stripper.

And so the unknowable shape in the shadows of the 1978 film is made flesh and blood and recognizably human, but to my great esteem he’s still largely unknowable in spite of where we find him: for one, it’s not particularly like there was a “last straw” written for the character since the first thing we witness is the implication that he murdered his latest pet, all of whom it seems he’s tortured to death. So it ends up being an inevitability when one particular bully (Daryl Sabara, who I am forever unable to disconnect with the Spy Kids franchise in spite of Sabara’s later niche of douchebags like this, The Green Inferno, and World’s Greatest Dad) meets his unpleasant end with Michael only hours before the fateful night where he murders his sisters, her boyfriend, and his step-dad all in one go.

But for another in that unknowability, once we are thrown into the aftermath sentenced processing of Michael, he seems to have virtually no memory of his actions: he states he has no clue why he’s there, asks of his family’s well-being, and Faerch performs these sequences with a sort of blank child-based naivete that feels like an unnerving mask for young innocence in the context it’s given (introduced already early on by a casual throwaway scene of him playing with candy just before he retrieves a knife). This is not helped by Michael’s insistence on interacting with everyone from behind his makeshift paper masks like an aspiring member of Slipknot, which Deborah and Dr. Loomis indulge with unease until Michael’s growing frustration with being forced into a box for possibly the rest of his life transforms into his slow insularity from speaking to either his mom or Loomis to a vicious murder of a nurse where everything between the three central characters in this half of the picture collapses. Deborah exits the picture in heartbreaking desperation unable to cope with what her son became, Loomis deems Michael a lost cause after 15 years pass and his ward has developed into an adult (Tyler Mane) without saying a single word since his mother left the picture.

At which point Michael eventually escapes from the institute in violent fashion and leaves to Haddonfield – killing the coolest truck driver in the world played by Ken Foree* – with Loomis racing after him so that Zombie can put into play the same beats of the 1978 original for the remaining hour and such. Zombie is basically performing a structural gambit that resembles his original pitch to the Weinsteins and Malek Akkad (Moustapha’s son who took over fully after his father’s tragic death, having been involved with the franchise since Curse): he wanted an entire movie dedicated to Loomie and Deborah trying to reach Michael that ended at this precise point of his disappearance into the night and then a sequel that went through the events that befell poor Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) as Michael fixates on her one Halloween in Haddonfield.

Frankly, it’s clear which of these halves is the one that most animated Zombie as a storyteller: Michael’s backstory gave license for Zombie to invoke all his hellbilly aesthetic honed in his first two Firefly pictures (including a very indulgent soundtrack of classic rock needledrops) with Michael’s upbringing, a perhaps obnoxious but effective way to fray out the mental state of any viewer who has to spend the little time we have with Forsythe’s disgusting and antagonistic performance and the cluttered mess of dinge that the Myers house is. But even outside of that house, there’s an uncomfortably intimate cruelty to Michael’s violent acts that makes it impossible to consider this as spectacle the way most slasher movies present their murders as. For example, the bully – Michael’s very first human kill – is shot almost exclusively in close-up with his crying bloodied face intercut with serene trees against the sun. We never see a single blow outside of the one to his knee that knocks him to the floor. And once we are stuck within those uncomfortable white walls with Michael, Faerch’s sudden shift from surly focus and unhinged lashing out to playing out the high-register boyishness is precisely what we’re not prepared with: actively rejecting remorse is one thing, but not even having remorse figured as a concept in a logic we can’t compute is just a knife wedged into us to align with Moon’s exhausted desperation at losing virtually all of her family with Michael’s psychological receding.

And there’s still room for sympathy with Michael himself, especially in the director’s cut where we are frequently hit back-and-forth with black-and-white footage and tape of Loomis’ observations that treat Michael like a bug under a microscope at times, in spite of the ostensible sincerity Loomis has with Michael’s well-being. In the end, Michael is a tragic figure certainly but he still remains a complete blank to not only us but to the people who ostensibly care about him in an entirely different way that Carpenter’s original boogeyman of the shadows: Michael is a human being but he just did not keep his humanity. When that was, who knows? It’s likely something that snapped before the movie even begins. Nevertheless, it lends itself to a presentation of movie violence and its aftermath in a way that’s fully distressing and makes our investment in this murderous child who is forced upon us as protagonist to be hopeless and futile, especially in the knowledge of what’s on the other side of this material. Punctuating this is a humane bit part performed by none other than Danny Trejo and used savagely as an indication of just how impossible it is to salvage Michael’s human quality.

Suffice it to say, I think this first half of Zombie’s Halloween is… near-perfect. What keeps the theatrical cut version for me from being perfect is the lack of that Loomis tape material, what keeps the director’s cut version from that is a remarkably awful and brutal rape scene ostensibly used to facilitate Michael’s escape but clearly the theatrical cut was able to circumvent around. It is horrible enough to undo the good-will of the added material and make the theatrical cut my preference (though I am kind of tempted to make a fan-cut of the director’s cut replacing that sequence maybe for my own watching). In any case, there is no doubt a drop of quality to come once the movie arrives back in Haddonfield and realigns itself to Laurie as a protagonist, a speed bump I feel the movie has trouble recovering from particularly because of Taylor-Compton is never more than adequate in the role. I think she’s relatively accurate to a high school girl in 2007 with her casual vulgarisms and affable sisterhood towards her friends, especially Danielle Harris triumphantly returning to the Halloween franchise now as Annie Brackett. But there’s nothing there that stands her out as the sort of girl who would believably be willing to babysit two kids over going to Halloween parties and it feels like our alignment is merely a formality to indicate we are now back to retracing the steps of Carpenter’s film. Much of its relevance feels like that pre-existing knowledge, particularly when it comes to Laurie’s true identity as Angel Myers… the baby sister of Michael who was the only person in that home who Michael showed kindness to and spared on that horrible night.

Zombie, I have to say, spent his remake duology (as we’ll see when we get to his Halloween II) making a boon out of that relationship rather than its twist ending treatment in Carpenter’s movies fucking up the complexity of the original. It’s not NOT treated as a twist here when Annie’s father Sheriff Leigh Brackett (Brad Dourif who reliably gives a competition for best in show the way that Dourif has done his whole career) reveals he was responsible for Laurie’s re-adoption by the Strodes (played by Pat Skipper and that patron saint of movie moms, Dee Wallace, with a particular scene in the DC between Wallace and Taylor-Compton that patches over my least favorite beat in the younger actor’s performance). But it feels like the eventual point we are going to get to considering how much screentime in the early few minutes is dedicated to establishing the presence of a baby in all of this madness and her reaction to Michael’s presence, especially given the cries of that baby are the very last thing we hear before that 15-year jump.

And that’s not the only “past fuck-up” that Zombie has made into a strength: after the past two movies specifically forcing us to keep looking at Michael’s eyes behind the mask when he’s best visually portrayed with empty shadows there, now we have reason to see them: an anchor to that young boy (which is interesting in that none of his paper masks give us a window to his eyes) and a recognition of the curdled soul within this large behemoth of a man that Mane is. It brings focus to the brutal source of these events.

But that knowledge of Laurie and Michael’s relation and the journey we took with Michael watching him curl into the shadows of unknowable thoughts behind his paper masks ends up all the movie needs (even though I think it would do better to just keep Michael as the single point of view for the second half) to act as auto-critique regarding what the original film depicts in the fashion of how that most dismissed of horror movie remakes Psycho acts as auto-critique of its own act of remaking a classic. The beats are familiar indeed, even with the notable diversions (biggest of all being a layover in Michael’s wrath towards the Strode parents themselves), but the differences are THE point of the movie and being tethered to the first half means we recognize these unpleasant and ferocious actions are not in a vaccuum at all. Michael is all too real and so is the irreversible sadism he delivers, consistent from first frame to last. None of which undoes the horror we feel when met with the carnage he’s causing, which is sustained in ways that uncharacteristically refrain from focusing on the (still present) blood that is discharge with every contact he makes or even twice over using the still nighttime exterior of a home disrupted by Michael’s malignant actions. It’s just a wholly distinct tone from Carpenter’s film with the same material and in its deliberate approach, it feels essential to recognize that however one lands with the film overall at the end.

I’m not entirely decided on that, to be clear. In the 15 years since its release, I’ve truly come to admire what it does and probably because I came to be more of a Rob Zombie fan* and I think writing these 2500+ words (way more than I aimed for) have come to make me realize that enough goes right in Zombie’s Halloween to accept it as a passing film. I don’t know that I’d call it great yet: even in the understanding that this is the result of having a lot of stuff to explore and being able to recognize the rhythms in the second half I couldn’t once, it feels quite long in its 2 hours and the fact that the movie bulldozes past the ending beat of the original to several more minutes of further aimless flailing in gray dustiness until this movie finally finds an emotionally harrowing closing note. The early introduction of our recognizable Michael Myers mask as a tool for sex-play feels like an arbitrary bit of contempt for the material. And I appreciate how certain moments late in the film bring a nugget to what Zombie would explore in his sequel, a single sequence of confusion between a horrified Taylor-Compton and a soulful and exhausted Mane, but it feels like it’s in the wrong Zombie Halloween movie. Keep in mind both of those irksome elements feel tied to elements that I think are brilliant which I think embodies how this movie feels like dealing with good and bad tied together.

But I now come to feel the good outweighs the bad: Zombie may have had his public struggles with the studio to make his Halloween films his way, but I think he succeeded in making something idiosyncratic by the time his first film landed and presented a view of a quintessential horror movie killer that interacts with the audience’s knowledge of what he will become to investigate how far back can you explore him psychologically before just giving up and recognizing that’s nothing there. That’s a proposal that I think is no less scary than just the idea that there’s a mysterious shape in the shadows that might just arrive and force you to the big sleep, simply because that is what evil does and some people just are.

*Justice for Joe Grizzly, I wanna see a Joe Grizzly trucker picture, bitch.
**as filmmaker, mind you; I’ve honestly been banging Hellbilly Deluxe, La Sexorcisto, and Astro-Creep as Halloween time replays since I became a metalhead in middle school so there was never room for revisionism there.