Panic Fest 2019 | Jan 25 - 31 2019 | KCMO

‘Halloween’ Tries to Emulate the Original, But Does it Succeed?

Halloween
Blumhouse / Miramax / Universal Pictures

There have been sequels and reboots of the classic horror film, Halloween (1978), before now; however, I don’t remember as much hype, hope and expectation for any of them as there is for the latest, Halloween (2018).  Why is that?

It would be natural to think it’s because Jamie Lee Curtis returns as Laurie Strode, the final girl from the original, but she’s been in several of the sequels, most notably, perhaps, in Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (1998).  So maybe it’s because of the non-horror talent behind the scenes: director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) who co-wrote the film with the normally hilarious Danny McBride and his Vice Principals collaborator, Jeff Fridley; or, the production company with the golden touch, Blumhouse.

These explanations cause more trepidation for me than confidence.  More likely, it’s because this Halloween has the participation and seal of approval from the man who started it all, John Carpenter.

At the forefront of the hype, hope and expectation is an explanation from the creatives about why they wanted to make a new Halloween.  Close behind, and related, is discussion about what they tried to accomplish by doing so.  To be honest, I’ve dodged as much of the publicity machine as I could, other than reading some interviews at the time the project was first announced.  I’m selfish, I guess.  I don’t really care what they tried to accomplish; I care about what they actually accomplished… for me, a lifetime fan of the original Halloween, a movie I call not only my favorite horror movie, but my favorite movie… period.

I repeatedly saw the original Halloween during its initial run when I was in high school in Enid, Oklahoma.  It ran on one screen of the historic Chief Theater.  For multiple reasons, it made a lasting impression on me.  Perhaps it was the point in my life where everything was new and exciting; in only a few months, I would be going away to college.  Perhaps it was because I took someone different with me each time I saw it.  I remember raving about it and enjoying the reactions as each one was scared out of their wits.

I have honestly never been more scared watching a movie.  The enduring quality of it for me is that it holds up so well.  I never fail to watch it from the edge of my seat, even though I know exactly what is going to happen.  Examining it in a less emotional manner, I acknowledge what an expertly crafted film it is and understand what Carpenter did to achieve the result.  It is so simple, yet so crudely elegant.  For me, it’s a technical masterpiece and a timeless story.

Even with the avoidance of hype about the new movie, it still somehow manages to seep into my bones. I’ve alternated between the thrill and excitement of having a new Halloween movie with Jamie Lee Curtis and John Carpenter, and the fear and dread that they will have squandered their opportunity. I’ve found myself repeating, “Keep your expectations low, Jeff.  That way, they’ll be exceeded.”

So, now it’s here.  I’ve seen the new Halloween.  What follows is a series of rapid fire, sometimes disjointed, feelings and impressions about my experience.  How did the movie please me, not as a critic, but as a fan… as someone for whom the original Halloween means so much.

*Warning: there are huge spoilers below!  You may wish to see the movie before proceeding.*

Halloween
Blumhouse / Miramax / Universal Pictures

I loved the opening sequence, pre-credits.  In a few brief moments, it sets the tone for the movie and reminds us of the force that is Michael Myers.  What’s interesting about it, and a great deal of the movie, is that he’s not wearing his mask.  It begs the question of whether or not the mask makes the monster.  The true crime podcaster, Aaron Korey (Jefferson Hall), trying to get an “interview” with Michael before he’s transferred to another facility, has obtained the mask, scarred from previous use and aged from sitting in an evidence box for 40 years, much like a human face might be scarred and aged.

He dangles the mask behind Michael, whose full visage we never quite see, and demands that he speak to him. Chained in one square of what looks like a giant chess board outside Smith’s Grove Sanitarium, Michael remains motionless, the tension building as other patients grow restless.  It’s the cinematic equivalent to an orgasm, release finally coming when the orange Halloween logo appears, accompanied by Carpenter’s familiar theme.

Halloween
Blumhouse / Miramax / Universal Pictures

Had the movie ended there, I would have been happy.  I exaggerate, but I mean, had that tone been extended for the entire movie, I would have been happy.  I’d say it’s maintained 80% of the time. One of my disappointments in the story is not what we see, but what we don’t see.  For example, for a possibly supernatural creature that doesn’t seem to die, how was he eventually captured?  Since this is a direct sequel to the original Halloween, you’ll recall that it ended with Michael falling over a railing to the ground below, lying on the ground, and then disappearing the next time Laurie looked down.

We don’t need to know what happened next; that’s a great detail to be left to our imaginations.  However, we also don’t see something major that happens within this movie itself.  How does the bus transporting Michael and company to the new facility end up crashed beside the road?  We eventually get a brief verbal recounting, but that would have been an exciting and terrifying scene to witness for ourselves.

What it gives us instead is a wonderful nod to the original.  In a scene similar to the patients wandering around the dark parking lot in Halloween (1978) when Michael escapes, we watch a scene in which the patients wander around a dark road in Halloween (2018).  It occurs perhaps a third into the 106-minute running time, which is much further along than I would have expected.  (By the way, the movie doesn’t seem to run long, but I am somehow left with the impression that it was too long.  18 minutes longer than the original, it feels just the tiniest bit padded.)

This is only one of many wonderful nods to the original and I don’t suppose it’s surprising that this is one of the elements that gave me the most pleasure from watching it.  It’s clear that there’s a respect and love for the original.  From laundry drying outside (does anyone still do that?) to a victim hung on the wall with a single knife, there are more Easter eggs than there are on the country club lawn on a sunny spring Sunday morning.

The reason the action doesn’t start until so late is that time is spent establishing the characters and the situation.  Laurie Strode has spent the last 40 years preparing to face Michael Myers once again, should that day come.  She’s the horror movie version of a survivalist that’s built a fortress out of her home from raw materials of obsession and paranoia.  She’s been married and divorced twice, raised a daughter, Karen (Judy Greer), who resents her childhood of safety exercises and shooting practice, and has a granddaughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak), that Karen shields from Laurie’s particular brand of crazy.

The circumstances are logical to me, based on the events Laurie endured on Halloween night in 1978.  When this dysfunctional family unit is threatened by Michael Myers in 2018, there’s an emotional stake for us, as well as for them.  The circumstances also allow for a number of satisfying payoffs as each woman faces her demons and becomes a changed person between the beginning of the story and the end.

I have a problem with a big part of this scenario, though.  40 years, singular purpose, repeated training and preparation, and yet… Laurie doesn’t end up being as “kick-ass” as I would have expected.  She’s certainly no Sigourney Weaver. Even allowing herself to fall for the oldest trick in the book: hands that break through the window to grab her head.  It’s perhaps good that she’s vulnerable, but then she’s also oddly indestructible.  When the hands that grab her repeatedly bang her head against the door (an action that kills others in the movie, by the way), she escapes without even a bruise.

Showing a chink in her armor makes Laurie more believable; however, it denies us of the true, pure joy of seeing her tear Michael Myers limb from limb.  In this sense, Halloween is ultimately anti-climactic.  Even his presumed death at the end is due to a passive trap Laurie sets for him rather than allowing her (and us) the catharsis of releasing pent up rage.  Curtis’s character is ambiguous.  Is she more angry or frightened, more cautious or deliberate?

Halloween
Blumhouse / Miramax / Universal Pictures

This problem pales in comparison to the problem I have with a specific plot point earlier in the movie.  We’re introduced at the very beginning to a character whom Laurie later asks, “Are you the new Loomis?”  Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer) does indeed fill the Donald Pleasance role.  However, instead of outwardly ranting and raving about the danger Michael Myers poses, he’s inwardly plotting and pushing the limits of what Michael Myers endures.  He wants to first know, then experience, what Michael knows and experiences.

The (I’ll say it) ridiculous plot point comes when Sartain actually dons the mask and kills for himself, becoming a maniac all his own.  Is this development supposed to be a surprise or a twist?  First of all, I simply don’t like the idea.  Second, I’m not given a chance to like it because it’s a short-lived development, not even fully realized before he gets what’s coming to him.  Why include it at all?  It’s nothing but a red herring and not even constructed to be the least bit effective.

I understand the need for a Loomis-like character; however, I think the same vacuum could have been filled by Laurie.  It would have to be done right, or it would be too heavy handed.  She’s part-way there, though.  She’s become the person spouting mumbo-jumbo about the Boogeyman.  But, she doesn’t go far enough with it.  Besides a couple early mentions or two about a supernatural force, this Halloween ignores practically anything otherworldly about Michael Myers.

This could be because the movie ignores all the plot developments of the sequels.  Even so, the original Halloween leaves you believing Michael Myers is something beyond human.  How else can he rise again and again after so many attempts to kill him.  The new Halloween seems to make a conscious effort to downplay that; its focus is more on the human aspect.  (I love when a character writes off the original massacre in terms of everything else happening in the world today.  Someone killing a few people with a knife 40 years ago is small potatoes.)

Halloween
Blumhouse / Miramax / Universal Pictures

Here’s a subject about which I haven’t yet determined how I feel: the gore.  There’s no doubt that Halloween (2018) is bloodier than Halloween (1978).  However, it’s almost entirely in the aftermath of Michael’s attacks.  We see the neck of a victim horrendously distended.  We see the body of a victim impaled on a gate. Yet we don’t see the acts that caused the results.  In its way this honors one of the enduring qualities of the original: what’s left to the imagination is much scarier than what’s seen.

It also allows for changing audience tastes. Giving them what they are used to seeing.  Part of me feels this was a concession by the creative team, though.  Either it’s not as bold a decision to show the gore or it’s more difficult to make a movie that truly scares without it.  The one blatant scene of violence is when Michael stomps on someone’s head.  It almost feels out of place. I don’t remember any stomping in the original.

Returning to things I like about Halloween, it does a good job of avoiding the trap of most modern horror movies: jump scares.  I’ll be darned, but a good building of suspense and tension can be effective without providing a false reward!  Think of the original… the terror came from the trip, not the destination.  For example, the scene where Laurie hides in the closet while Michael lurks on the other side of the door, eventually thrusting his knife-holding arm into her space.  To this day, I can’t sit still during the scene.

I experience fear like never before, not from a fleeting “boo,” but from the constant threat that seems to stretch forever… what’s going to happen?  Is he going to kill her?  Is she going to escape?  Even Michael slowly sitting up when we think he’s dead isn’t a jump scare; it’s a kind of slow burn version of one that initiates the terror rather than provides a release.  Two scenes in the new movie try to emulate the closet scene.  Even if they’re not quite equal, they at least try and don’t rely on the cheap way out.

(By the way, I have nothing against a properly-used jump scare and I don’t mean to suggest that no modern horror movies generate suspense without them.  It might be more meaningful to say that most modern Hollywood movies rely too heavily upon them; for example, The First Purge and The Nun.  Independent features do a better job of minimizing jump scares to focus on other methods of scaring audiences; for example, A Quiet Place and Hereditary.)

Finally, returning to things I don’t like about the new Halloween, this is a more widespread issue with the overall spirit of the film.  I get no sense from it of the suburban nightmare that was presented in 1978… the neighborhoods with leaves falling and the close-knit sense of the environment.  Carpenter gave us an excellent sense of community, how it fit together, and what a threat Michael Myers presented to it.

Halloween
Universal Pictures

In 2018, it’s a sprawling community.  Even when the authorities pinpoint Michael’s location, they’re out driving in nondescript locations, hunting for him, instead of putting feet on the ground and insinuating themselves into situations to stop him.  We feel distant and removed, watching instead of participating.  It’s like there are two different Haddonfields in the two movies.  (An interesting approach would have been to point that out, to demonstrate how much things have changed in 40 years.)

These opinions indicate that Halloween may be something of a mixed bag for some viewers. And yet I don’t know that it truly is.  For me, sure, but for the average moviegoer… I don’t know.  It will be a crowd-pleaser. Most people won’t draw the same comparisons that fans, such as myself, may.  If you remove the aspect of how the two movies work together (the “legacy” of it all, if you will), the questions to ask are, “Does it entertain?” and, “Does it satisfy.” Personally? I say, “Yes” and, “Yes.”

Is it better than most modern Hollywood horror movies?  Enthusiastically, “Yes.”  The definitive answer for me, though, lies in the question, “Do I want to see it again?”  That’s a more difficult and weighty “yes.”  I don’t believe it’ll stand up to multiple viewings like the original does, but it’s a perfectly fine bookend for the franchise.  Speaking of the franchise, while I’m eager to hear what other people think about Halloween, I don’t want to hear, “Well, it’s better than any of the others.”  That goes without saying.  There’s more at work here than merely the obvious.

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