Horror is a genre full of killers, but the real killer is familiarity. Over the past thirty years, we’ve seen Michael Myers, the terror at the center of the Halloween franchise, unsheathe his knife and kill in ten movies. Ten times he’s come back from the dead, ten times he’s killed the horniest of teenagers, and ten times he’s been defeated in a slightly more extreme way than the last…only to come back and start the cycle all over again.
But this year was different. David Gordon Green, the director of the new version, went on record saying that he was ignoring every Halloween sequel after the first one; essentially, he was making a direct sequel to the movie from thirty years ago, thus unburdening himself from the overly convoluted mythology the franchise had accumulated over the course of ten movies (two of which are technically a reboot). The star of the first one was back, as was the original director to craft a whole new score. The stars were aligned to make something great.
I should probably get into the original. Fifteen years before the film begins proper, we see an eight year old boy pick up a knife and, for no apparent reason, kill his older sister. Cut to the present day, and the boy (Michael Myers, who I should mention shares no apparent relation to the Shrek actor) manages to escape from the mental institution he’s been kept in, seemingly intent on heading back to his hometown to terrorize the residents, including teenager Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends. It’s up to Myers’ psychiatrist, Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) to stop him before he kills anyone again. Loomis had spent the past fifteen years observing Myers, and has come to the conclusion that Michael Myers is pure evil.
While watching the original again, I found myself agreeing with Loomis. Michael Myers managed to be scary in a way he never really was again, and the comparison I kept coming back to was Jaws; like the shark, Myers is barely in the movie. His first on screen kill after the opening scene isn’t until almost an hour into the movie; before that, he kills a man off-screen to steal his clothes. But he’s always there, even when he isn’t, and this is largely down to the film’s greatest asset: the cinematography. In his review of the movie for The New Yorker, film critic Pauline Kael wrote, “The film is largely just a matter of the camera tracking subjectively from the mad killer’s point of view, leading you to expect something awful to happen. But the camera also tracks subjectively when he isn’t around at all; in fact, there’s so much subjective tracking you begin to think everybody in the movie has his own camera.” She obviously meant this as a knock against the movie, but it somehow winds up being what gives the film its awesome power. By never letting up on the slow, creeping build of the camera, director John Carpenter very deliberately gives off the impression that Michael Myers could be anywhere, and strike at anytime, doing wonders for Dr. Loomis’ claim that he is “pure evil”. When he is on screen, he’s usually in the background, slightly out of focus, or in close up, with his head cut off by the frame. We don’t get a good look at him until over an hour into the thing, and by then, it’s far too late for most of our protagonists, most of whom we’ve really come to like by then.
These two things – slow-burn dread and likable characters – were the first to go by the time the sequels rolled around, followed quickly by Michael Myers’ mystique and practicality. In the first one, he stabs and strangles people, and we don’t see all that much blood. In the next several movies, he bashes heads with hammers, electrocutes bodies with Christmas lights, impaled with extreme prejudice, and, in one memorable instance, drowns/burns someone in a hydrotherapy tub. Throughout all of this, he gets killed and resurrected so much, that he essentially becomes immortal, a far cry away from the power the first film was smart enough to only suggest.
So when David Gordon Green said he was going to get back to basics, I was understandably excited. I sat down to watch it, popcorn and soda in hand…
…and thought it was okay.
It’s probably the best of the sequels, honestly. Much as I have a soft spot for Halloween II, it does jettison most of the likable characters, including Jamie Lee Curtis, who spends about 80% of the movie confined to a hospital bed, dreaming in flashbacks. The 2018 Halloween, at least, does right by her, putting her front and center again to great effect. It’s easy to say that Jamie Lee Curtis is the best thing in the movie and leave it at that, but she is really, really good. For whatever problems the movie has otherwise, you feel Laurie Strode’s pain in a way you never did before, not even in II or H20. Laurie centers the movie in her character, and gives it a weight the original didn’t have.
Which is good, because everything around Laurie is a tad lackluster. One of the key elements of the original Halloween was how direct it was, and how well the slow burn was built to a fever pitch. While there are moments of excellent suspense in the movie (I’m thinking especially of the long-take in the middle, that has Michael move from house to house, picking off random people), the overall pacing itself is way too scattershot. Scenes begin and end at the wrong place, often cutting off when things are about to get interesting. And while Laurie and her immediate family are reasonably well-defined, the rest of the characters (or, more accurately, cannon fodder) suffer from only one dimension. And where the original got away with having little brutality, the new is chock full of gore. It has one character better served than in the original, but other than that, it falls short.
BY SAM STASHOWER