As a sequel to the most iconic slasher movie of all time, the new “Halloween” sets itself up for failure. Forty years after silent killer Michael Myers donned a leathery white mask and hacked up a handful of teens in John Carpenter’s 1978 original, this campy follow-up acknowledges that a lot has happened since then. As one young character complains when considering the mythology early on, by today’s standards Myers’ killing spree is “not that big a deal.”
It’s hard to argue the point: Years have passed since the self-referential horror of the “Scream” franchise, not to mention snazzier home invasion thrillers from “You’re Next” to “The Babadook” that took the “Halloween” mold to fresh heights. Carpenter’s disturbed psychopath was a gift to the genre, but it moved on long ago. Even the idea of rebooting “Halloween” has become a redundant conceit, across seven discardable sequels and Rob Zombie’s grim reboots. Myers has been running on empty since the Reagan years.
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Faced with monstrous expectations, director David Gordon Green — who co-wrote the screenplay with Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley — doesn’t even attempt to revamp the appeal. Making his initial foray into the genre, the chameleonesque Green has made a slavish, sharply executed bit of fan service elevated by Jamie Lee Curtis’ transformation into a badass grandmother back to finish the job. Guarding three generations of women tarnished by the events of the original movie, Curtis’ Laurie Strode returns to ground this uneven tribute in purpose, with a revamped score (written by Carpenter, his son Cody, and Daniel Davies) adding an aura of authenticity to keep concerned fans at bay. Overloaded with callbacks, this “Halloween” is eager to please at every turn.
For all the hype about Myers, he remains its least compelling element. With the original, Carpenter made the chilling decision to keep the source of Myers’ insanity a secret, from the moment he hacks up his older sister as a child to the occasion of his first escape from Smith’s Grove Sanitarium as a young adult. Always mute (aside from the occasional Frankensteinian grunt) and devoid of compassion for his victims, Myers became as much an animalistic embodiment of dread as the shark in “Jaws.”
The script acknowledges the frustration surrounding this lack of detail in a clever opening bit, when a pair of podcasters (Jefferson Hall and Rhian Reese) visit Smith’s Grove with Myers’ original mask and attempt to coax him into talking to them. Nick Castle, who played Myers in 1978 and showed his disfigured face for a few creepy frames, remains a quiet, empty shell whose only noticeable change is an unkempt white beard. Despite their best efforts, he says nothing … and the title credit rolls. The prologue’s message is clear: The legendary embodiment of evil requires no fancy makeover or character updates to continue his terrifying reign.
Similarly, “Halloween” acknowledges that the previous sequels did the original no favors and tosses them out with ease. In a passing reference to the “Halloween II” reveal that Laurie was Michael’s biological sister, one local teen says, “That’s just a bit that some people made up.” Indeed: The “Halloween” saga never called for a sprawling expanded universe, so Green brings it back to the basics.
For its first act, “Halloween” plays out like a literal illustration of its straightforward premise. After narrowly evading Michael’s attacks in the first movie, when he killed all of her friends, Laurie has grown up in the shadow of a trauma that has ruined every chapter of her life. Twice married and struggling with alcoholism, she resembles a Western gunslinger on an empty battlefield. Holed up in a grimy home covered in locks and loaded with guns, she braces for Myers’ return at every moment. Her grown daughter Karen (Judy Greer) copes with her mother’s paranoia as a fact of life. Underutilized as usual, Greer nevertheless provides a warm antidote to Curtis’ stern resolve. Karen’s daughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) splits the difference between the pair: She’s a party-loving teen just like Laurie in the original, but grew up in the shadow of her grandmother’s plight and has absorbed her fierce survivalist tactics for when the time comes. There’s a compelling metaphor in here about the abuse suffered by one generation of women visited upon two more, though “Halloween” rarely pauses to assess it with much depth.
Myers makes his latest escape off camera, in a half-baked sequence that reflects a desire to hurry up and get to the good stuff. In short order, it’s Halloween night in the fictional suburbia of Haddonfield, Illinois, and Myers roams the neighborhood stabbing various residents at random. The ensuing plot moves forward in fits and starts, from an ill-fated prom gathering to a questionable detour involving Myers’ latest doctor (Hayuk Biliginer), who developed a bizarre obsession with Michael’s derangement. The movie stumbles through its messy middle section, but manages to strip away the excess storytelling for a climax at the original scene of the crime, where the trio of women converge for a final showdown that delivers the goods at last.
Even when it stumbles, Green takes every available opportunity to inject “Halloween” with a cinematic eye. Ever since he leapt from the expressionistic dramas of “George Washington” and “Snow Angels” to the stoner comedy “Pineapple Express,” Green has excelled at importing unexpected filmmaking tactics into unlikely places. Here, he offers an impressive lengthy tracking shot following Myers through the neighborhood, and elsewhere quotes images from the original in new contexts. On a few occasions, this tendency approaches brilliance, as when he rearranges a sequence of images from the original to suggest that Laurie replaced her stalker as the true maniac of the story. Toward that end, her showdown with Michael isn’t just a form of closure; it holds the potential for redemption. This woman has spent a lifetime warning her descendants that it’s a dangerous world out there, and faced with constant eye-rolls, she finally gets to prove the point.
The original “Halloween” is such a paragon of the slasher subgenre that people tend to forget its relative lack of blood. The new installment follows suit, with only a handful of money shots (one knife-through-the-throat image does sting) in a sea of merciful cutaways. A world away from the torture porn that the original inspired, “Halloween” is often too meek to make Myers seem all that scary. But that only matters when the movie plays it straight, and veers away from the psychological wounds he’s inflicted on the woman who has feared him for so long. Once “Halloween” returns to the original scene of the crime, it delivers the essence of its appeal in a single, focused routine — women fighting back against a faceless embodiment of toxic masculinity.
However, the movie would be a harmless, discardable remix of standard horror notes if not for Curtis, who charges through the movie as if she never stopped running four decades back. Cinema’s inaugural Final Girl was actually saved by a man at the last second in the first “Halloween,” so her very existence in this movie represents a culmination of the feminist hero who never quite received her due. The final image is a powerful statement of her defiant spirit.
There’s no getting around some of the messy staging and clunky dialogue that keeps “Halloween” from reaching greater heights for the bulk of its running time. But Carpenter’s own “Halloween” was itself a bumpy ride, made on the cheap and carried along by the director’s firm grasp on his potent themes. The new one works overtime to keep them intact, while communing with the first installment in every possible way — from that famously creepy synth score to the blocky orange credits that bookend the story. The unchanged title may suggest the markings of a remake in disguise, but it actually makes sense in context. The 2018 “Halloween” is a kind of cracked-mirror variation on its precedent, caked in dust, but reflecting the same deep-seated fears. Yet in an intriguing twist, Green has revisited this familiar turf less to exhume an old nightmare than to chart a path toward waking up from it.
“Halloween” premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. Universal Pictures releases it on October 19.