Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.
Warning: mild spoilers for the Halloween franchise below.
Horror movie franchises aren’t necessarily known for their thoughtfulness. Films that spawn decades of sequels initially become part of the zeitgeist for a reason, no doubt, and broad trends in the genre often reflect the cultural anxieties of the moment. But by the time a film franchise hits installment five or six, there usually isn’t much left to explore, beyond new ways to kill off characters.
That’s never been truer than in the long-running Halloween franchise. John Carpenter’s stylish 1978 original was the prototypical slasher film, with Michael Myers in his signature white mask terrorizing teenagers as an unknowable, unstoppable force of nature. It featured many of the genre tropes that would become commonplace in the decade that followed: Myers targeted teenagers who were having sex or drinking while underage, activities that were off the menu for Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), the “final girl” who eventually stopped him. If slasher films are morality plays borne out of America’s latent Puritanical values, Halloween is the film that codified it all.
But in the sequels that followed, anything fresh or exciting was quickly left by the wayside in the pursuit of just knocking out new installments. And attempts to give the series a different look and feel, as Rob Zombie did with his 2007 reboot and sequel, were misguided at best. Creatively, the Halloween well ran dry long ago — which is precisely why David Gordon Green’s new entry, simply titled Halloween, is such an interesting experiment. It’s a franchise-wide retcon, a direct sequel to Carpenter’s original that eliminates all other films from the franchise continuity. That move allows Green and his co-writers, Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley, to build a film that actually has a narrative reason for existing. They don’t squander the opportunity. They use it to explore the long-lasting consequences violence and trauma have on victims, and in the process, they entirely rethink what Michael Myers stands for.
The 2018 Halloween isn’t an entirely successful film, and it won’t provide an easy template for a new generation of revitalized slasher flicks. But it does serve as a fitting coda to a story that began 40 years ago.
What’s the genre?
It’s a slasher film / meta-comedy hybrid. Halloween is rife with gore and violence, but it also has so many laughs that it starts to feel like a genre comedy at times, not unlike Green’s The Pineapple Express. The filmmakers are also acutely aware of the audience they’re playing to, and the film goes out of its way to wink and nod at the other films in the franchise. It’s often subtle and clever; at other times, it’s just distracting. This is simultaneously the funniest Halloween film that’s ever been made and one of the most disturbingly brutal, which makes for a tricky mix at times.
What’s it about?
The movie wipes away everything but Carpenter’s first film. As it opens, viewers learn that not long after the first film, Michael Myers was captured by the police and has been under psychiatric care ever since. Facing Myers scarred Laurie Strode irrevocably, and though she went on to have a daughter, Karen (Judy Greer), she has lived her life since as a self-made survivalist, preparing for the day when she might need to face Michael again.
That occasion comes when Michael escapes while being transferred to a new facility. From there, he heads straight to his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois, picking up where he left off, with murder and mayhem on a new Halloween night. Only this time, Laurie’s granddaughter Allyson may also be in danger, and Laurie has to work with Michael’s new doctor, Sartain (Haluk Bilginer) to bring Michael’s reign of terror to an end.
What’s it really about?
It’s about the long-lasting effects of violence and how trauma impacts not just its victims, but the lives of everyone close to them. Laurie went full Sarah Connor after facing Michael and spent her daughter’s entire childhood training her in weaponry and self-defense on the off chance that Michael might one day return. But the cost of that approach has been massive. She’s blown through two marriages and become estranged from Karen. Now, Laurie lives as a hermit in a house in the woods that she’s turned into a mini-fortress, equipped with a panic room and massive amounts of weaponry.
The one person who hasn’t written Laurie off is her granddaughter, but Allyson is constantly caught between Laurie and Karen, with her mother unable to forgive Laurie for essentially hijacking her childhood. Michael has been imprisoned for 40 years, but Laurie has never stopped living with him — and that’s forced everyone close to her to live with him, too. This isn’t just a passing concern in the film, either. The core idea is deeply embedded in Halloween, carrying through from the opening to the final frame. To execute the idea, the movie leaves behind many of the mysteries around Michael Myers that Carpenter established in 1978.
Michael doesn’t just focus on pot-smoking teenagers this time around; he’s an equal opportunity killer, happy to bludgeon housewives and children as well as the requisite babysitters. That turns the character from a morality boogeyman into a metaphor for the vicious, unexpected cruelty that ordinary life can bring. It makes Michael Myers as a character even more of a cipher — the character’s nickname, “The Shape,” has never seemed more appropriate — but it serves the movie thematically: the kind of random violence and loss he represents in this Halloween is something that can touch anyone at any time, just as real-world violence and tragedy knows no bounds.
Is it good?
There are many things to like in Halloween. Beginning with the opening titles — a faithful homage to the original title sequence — the filmmakers make it clear that they intend to hew closely to the aesthetics Carpenter established. From the score (Carpenter returned to write the music, alongside his son Cody and composer Daniel A. Davies) to the cinematography (director of photography Michael Simmonds shot the film in the same anamorphic aspect ratio original DP Dean Cundey used) to the ever-present use of Steadicam, the film feels tied to the original. It’s striving to be a true sequel, not only with story and characters, but in look and feel.
And while it’s necessary for the movie to bring new elements into the mix, lest it become yet another rehash, it’s the execution of those new elements that lead to some of the film’s troubles. The murders are graphic, cruel, and violent in this film, no doubt intended to underscore the random brutality Michael represents this time around. But there’s a dissonance there, given how audiences are used to taking in these movies and the character of Michael Myers.
Like many slasher franchises, the Halloween films turned into a roller coaster ride over the years, with audiences cheering the boogeyman on as he snuffed out cookie-cutter characters in film after film. Going into this movie, it’s easy to assume that’s still going to be the case — just with the added nostalgia of original movie callbacks and the presence of Jamie Lee Curtis. Instead, there’s a viciousness in Michael that’s genuinely upsetting. When he kills two journalists early in the film, for example, it’s as if every expectation that the audience has about what this movie should be gets thrown out the window. As a filmmaking tactic, it’s extremely effective, putting the audience back on their heels and announcing that this movie isn’t going to play by the safe, familiar rulebook. But that clashes with the constant tongue-in-cheek nods the movie makes to other films in the series.
It’s also out of sync with the ever-present comedy in the film, which includes some genuinely funny, laugh-out-loud moments. A young kid named Julien (Jibrail Nantambu), who one of Allyson’s friends is babysitting, steals every scene he’s in with constant one-liners. And a sequence in which Michael stalks a high school nerd (Drew Scheid) is hilarious as well as scary. But all of the film’s facets feel like they’re fighting each other rather than working together. There’s a constant tension: is this a nostalgic slasher throwback, a horror-comedy, or a mature look at trauma? The answer can change from scene to scene — sometimes from line to line — and the resulting movie feels like a mashup of several different, more focused films rather than its own fully formed idea.
This Halloween is certainly better than almost every other sequel in the franchise, though that’s no great achievement in and of itself. It ultimately feels like a decent movie that could have been a very good movie, if only Green had been able to modulate his tone more effectively.
What should it be rated?
It should be (and is) rated R. R for days. R without even a fleeting moment of consideration that it should be anything but an R. Seriously: really, really R.
How can I actually watch it?
Halloween opens in theaters on October 19th. Trick or treat.