Forty years after John Carpenter’s iconic slasher film, Halloween returned to theaters this weekend with a vengeance. Michael Myers and Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) are back with a stripped down history (aka, no druid cults or sibling relationship since Halloween serves as a direct sequel to the 1978 original), and an updated polish thanks to director and co-writer David Gordon Green, who takes a cue from Carpenters’ work with Dean Cundey and transforms the nightmares of Halloween into a visual treat with the sharp eye of cinematographer Michael Simmonds.
So how does The Shape hold up as a villain all these years later? Pretty damn well, on most counts. Halloween sets a challenge for itself in the first act when the teens ask — what’s so scary about a guy with a knife amidst the terrors of 2018? After all, compared to mass shootings, surging fascism world wide, and all the other the horrors of the daily news, Michael Myers seems kinda quaint. He only killed five people, as one of the young characters notes, and by today’s standards of tragedy, that’s small potatoes. The film answers wisely with the reminder that all death is terrifying when its seen intimately and that all trauma leaves a lasting mark.
In Halloween’s story, the focus of that trauma is Laurie Strode and the next generations of her family; daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak), all three of whom have been scared by Michael Myers’ babysitter murders in different ways. Laurie is, of course, the most damaged by the night of killing she barely survived back in 1978. A hardened survivor with visible effects of PTSD, Laurie is an ace shot with a front door covered in padlocks and a bunker beneath her home. And that trauma spreads generationally, most evident in poor Karen, who hates Halloween so much she wears a Christmas sweater and who saw the worst of her mother’s survivalist self-preservation, to the point that Child Services removed her from Laurie’s care.
Their strained relationship is a powerful reminder that the horrors of The Shape’s killing spree last much longer and spread much further than the night itself, and Laurie’s fractured life is a reminder of what happens when we don’t listen to survivors of trauma. Halloween’s script, which Green co-wrote with Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley, incorporates beautiful, heartbreaking moments of Laurie’s suffering, the best being her intoxicated and unsteady arrival to the family dinner where you see the frailty and hurt behind the shotgun-toting exterior. Curtis is spectacular in the role, though ultimately a bit underused, and while it’s about time for a slasher resurgence, the best thing that could come out of Halloween’s success is a Jamie Lee Curtisseance.
The other half of Halloween’s script veers toward teen meta-comedy, for which your mileage may vary. The slasher genre has never really recovered from the Scream effect, which helped pave the way for some of the best genre films of the 21st century (Shaun of the Dead, The Cabin in the Woods), but also seemed to make everyone forget how to make an earnest slasher film. Half of Halloween is a serious, thoughtful portrait of trauma and survival, and one that might have been truly terrifying if it was treated as the priority all the way through. But Halloween spares a lot of time for the teen terrors — a Halloween tradition — and in the process, it loses a lot of its best tension.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some excellent sequences of tension during the meta-comedy sections. Vicky (Virginia Gardner) and Julian (Jibrail Nantambu) threaten to steal the film with their brief moments of screen time, and Michael’s brutal attack that follows is one of the best in the franchise. Likewise, Oscar’s (Drew Scheid) motion sensor chat with Michael and the excruciating fence-impalement that follows are a potent mix of buildup in tension and payoff in horror. The only downside is that the horror comedy approach to the teen scream scenes feels fundamentally at war with itself throughout the film.
Halloween asks us to accept this as a serious drama about the cost of survival in Laurie Strode’s life, while also asking us to giggle along with self-referential jokes. It asks us to accept that none of the sequels never happened, but constantly reminds us that the did with countless references. Some references are golden, particularly those when Laurie takes Michael’s place — lurking outside of Allyson’s window at school and pulling a classic Michael Myers when she falls out a window but sneaks off screen before the camera cuts back to her. That moment got the biggest eruptive cheer both times I saw it, and it’s well-earned. However, other comedic bits (most egregiously the Banh Mi conversation in the cop car, funny though it may be) feel intrusive and hobble the film’s hard-earned tension.
And then there’s the matter of Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), who’s third-act turn towards murder is sure to inspire all kinds of heated conversation among franchise fans. It’s one seriously bold turn in the script, that is perhaps one element too many in an already crowded film, but it’s definitely a surprising and effective moment of horror. Personally, I’m still working out if I like the moment or not, but I have the feeling this element might grow on me over time.
Ultimately, Halloween feels like two halves of two great slasher films that tonally don’t mesh. That’s not the worst thing. It’s half-great, all the way through. But the film never quite soars on the level you suspect it would if it had committed to a more consistent tone. While the tonal shifts may be jarring, there’s no doubt that this is a horror sequel that takes admirably big swings and commits to a bold, ambitious vision. And it’s damn satisfying to see the Strode women team up at the end, leading to Karen’s “gotcha” moment, which is an all-timer for “hell yeah” moments in modern horror. It’s a curious brew and uneasy mix of goofy dick jokes and genuinely stunning one-take kill sequences, and even with its faults, Halloween is easily still one of the best Halloween sequels, and has to go right alongside the original for the scariest use of Michael Myers.
Thanks to Nick Castle, who returned to shoot some scenes as The Shape, and stuntman James Jude Courtney, who plays Michael Myers throughout the film, the iconic slasher villain has rarely been such a menacing and imposing figure. Under Green’s sharp direction, Myers is a brutal force of nature again, unstoppable and unrelenting. Is a man with a knife still scary in a time overrun by men with guns? Maybe, maybe not. But if you put that knife in Michael Myers’ hands, the answer is unequivocally yes.