Friday, October 19, 2018

The Night They Reunited: "Halloween" a worthy, respectful love note to 1978 classic and a generational trauma drama rolled into one


Halloween (2018)
106 min., rated R.

1978’s seminal “Halloween” defined the slasher sub-genre with director John Carpenter’s less-is-more style of low-budget filmmaking, and 40 years later, it’s an exciting time to be a fan of that enduring, influential lightning-in-a-bottle. In a bold swing of the knife, 2018’s “Halloween” preserves its namesake but divorces itself from all of the sequels following the 1978 original—in this context, there was no 1981’s rock-solid “Halloween II,” and therefore, not even 1998’s slick, supremely satisfying Laurie Strode-Michael Myers reunion “Halloween H20: 20 Years Later” and definitely not 2002’s cheap, disposable “Halloween: Resurrection”—making it a direct companion piece. In keeping a franchise alive and for the chance to make Michael Myers a menacing, relentless, and frightening embodiment of pure evil again, writer-director David Gordon Green (2017’s “Stronger”) and co-writers Danny McBride (2011’s “Your Highness”) & Jeff Fradley have taken the smartest and most logical retcon approach by resetting the mythology and making one remember what made Carpenter’s “Halloween” so special to begin with. Not only that, it justifiably negates Laurie Strode's infuriating send-off in the opening of "Halloween: Resurrection," washes out the bad taste that Rob Zombie’s ugly, psychologically useless and numbingly in-your-face 2007 re-imagining left, and gives audiences the sequel they are entitled to after all these years and all the silly Cult of Thorn nonsense in between. Having Jamie Lee Curtis and composer John Carpenter (both of them executive producers) return are just the cherries on top. 

Continuing the legacy of ultimate final girl Laurie Strode and The Shape without ever feeling like a cynical studio decision or slavish mimicry purely based on nostalgia, the new “Halloween” is an event for the horror genre that stylistically blazes its own trail and yet honors the clean simplicity of its classic forefather with plenty of loving, often subtle homages. With a slate wiped clean, this film sees Michael Myers’ 1978 murders as a random act of violence by a force of nature who was born a bad seed, discarding the “Halloween II” hook that Laurie was Michael’s adopted baby sister and acknowledging that fact by savvily referencing it as a myth. The narrative opens with two British podcast journalists, Aaron (Jefferson Hall) and Dana (Rhian Rees), arriving at Smith’s Grove Sanitarium to face Michael Myers (James Jude Courtney and Nick Castle), coaxing the human monster with his mask, and re-examine his case right before he’s transferred to another facility. Meanwhile, the babysitter murders that rocked the idyllic town of Haddonfield, Illinois, 40 years ago have left survivor Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) shell-shocked and paranoid but prepared and consumed by confronting Michael again and killing him once and for all. She never left her hometown and has protected herself in a secluded fortress in the woods with a security gate, a surveillance system, and a hidden room under the floor with a cache of guns, which she has fired for practice in her backyard shooting range. Laurie’s trauma and obsession have estranged her from adult daughter Karen (Judy Greer), son-in-law Ray (Toby Huss), and teenage granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak), who live in Haddonfield. On Halloween night, Laurie’s prayers are, of course, answered: Michael Myers has escaped a bus crash and preys on the suburban neighborhood of Haddonfield. While the town’s sheriff, Officer Hawkins (Will Patton), and Michael’s doctor, Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), are in pursuit of The Shape, Laurie is ready, but she will have to keep her family safe, too.

Classy, muscular, and thrillingly creepy, “Halloween” is a much-needed 40th-anniversary gift of horror and catharsis for those who hold John Carpenter’s masterpiece dear to their heart. As the intensely mounted prologue smashes into Carpenter’s immortal score that does not lose its chill, the orange-on-black opening credits sequence with a decayed jack-o’-lantern reanimating itself is perfection, affectionately recalling the original film and representing a cinematic resurrection. Combining old and new notes of his iconic synth theme, Carpenter collaborates with son Cody Carpenter and Daniel A. Davies on a piece of music that is stupendously effective and seamlessly placed, generating reliable goosebumps every time. When Michael first emerges among trick-or-treaters in the Haddonfield suburbs, an ensuing stalk-and-slash set-piece is fluidly and efficiently carried out in a bravura almost-single tracking shot, wisely deciding when to show the violence and when to merely suggest it off-screen and glide past the aftermath. Director David Gordon Green masterminds several moments of nerve-jangling tension like this and creates some real humdingers, including a viciously brutal attack in a gas station restroom; a choice sequence involving a babysitter closing her charge’s closet door that just doesn’t want to shut; some cleverly suspenseful business with Michael and a backyard motion-censor light; and a harrowing, tensely sustained confrontation in Laurie’s compound that uses callbacks but reverses the action beats to crowd-pleasing effect. Rather than end on the question of whether or not Michael is actually dead, the film concludes with a poignant, cathartic image of hope that rings powerfully true in this day and age of strong women refusing to remain silent about their predatory victimizers, Laurie now able to take back her power after decades of suffering through her trauma and not being believed, this time with granddaughter Allyson now holding the knife. Not only does 2018’s “Halloween” play as a love note to the past and a sensationally crafted slasher film that goes for the jugular, it is a sensitively observed familial drama about PTSD and inextricable transgenerational trauma. 

Coming full circle with the role that gave her much-deserved notice as an unforgettable horror-movie heroine made up of innocence and strength, Jamie Lee Curtis is tremendous as Laurie Strode, commanding the screen and completing the character’s arc with a raw-nerve power. Anything but a passive victim, Curtis’ Laurie is a resilient, self-reliant survivor and doomsday prepper who has been ready for the return of Michael Myers, and yet she's not above being understandably fragile and wounded. Curtis is the anchor here, as much as she was as a resourceful yet vulnerable 17-year-old forty years to the day, selling every choice Laurie makes that is consistent to this tortured yet resolved shadow of her former self, a self-proclaimed "twice-divorced basket case." Making the most in every supporting role she takes, the undervalued Judy Greer is wonderfully cast as Laurie’s daughter Karen, who resents her mother for turning her into a survivalist at such a young age before social services took her away. Wearing a Christmas sweater on Halloween (a very sly character detail that says it all), Karen refuses to live in fear like her mother or believe the world to be a scary, unsafe place for her and her family. Together, Curtis and Greer economically develop a lived-in history of love and long-suffering pain that is genuinely felt in the climactic moments where they hunker down, and Greer herself gets a badass moment in luring Michael. 

Newcomer Andi Matichak makes an instant impression as Laurie’s granddaughter Allyson, who is every bit as sweet, relatable, and intelligent as her estranged grandmother was back in the day and forges a similar path, like a passing of the torch. And, it wouldn’t quite be “Halloween” without teenage babysitters being stalked by the unstoppable boogeyman: Virginia Gardner (2016’s “Goat”), likable as Allyson’s friend Vicky, gets to share a lively interplay with her smart-ass charge, Julian (Jibrail Nantambu, very funny), before and after carefully washing and drying a kitchen knife, a knowingly portentous touch leading up to her big moment. Also, Miles Robbins (2018's "Blockers") and Drew Scheid make individual marks, imbuing their respective roles with just enough personality as Vicky's pumpkin-exploding stoner boyfriend Dave and Allyson's torch-carrying friend Oscar, before Michael gets to them; that Dave has just gotten a fresh "10-31-18" tattoo, marking the last day of his life, is a tragically ironic detail.

At this point, writer-director David Gordon Green can make any kind of film, from lyrical indies to raunchy stoner comedies, and one can feel his dream come true with the care and creative energy on screen. Green and co-writers Danny McBride & Jeff Fradley have clear adoration for “Halloween,” and fellow dyed-in-the-wool fans will notice every welcome tribute to the original and reverence for a few of the now non-canon sequels, from certain narrative beats to production design and lines of dialogue, that never come across forced. Since 1978, this is the first “Halloween” with the most stunning technical credits, cinematographer Michael Simmonds (2016’s “Nerve”) executing director Green’s sharp eye for shot compositions (the chessboard-like pattern of the Smith’s Grove detention area is immediately striking) and evoking an autumnal mood. Though it seems like nitpicking, the film could have afforded additional scenes with Laurie, Karen, and Allyson for the excision of a few offbeat, Danny McBride-influenced exchanges between the cops guarding Laurie’s gated home who chat about a Banh Mi sandwich. One creative decision that doesn’t completely work, too, is the addition of “the new Loomis.” On one hand, Dr. Sartain is the inevitable progression of Donald Pleasence’s Dr. Sam Loomis, given the years of studying a remorseless killer who won’t speak a word, but the intriguing use of this character becomes more of a plot device. Still leaving one on a fully satisfied high and ready to experience multiple viewings, 2018’s “Halloween” is the worthy, respectful sequel fans finally deserve.

Grade: A - 

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