If you’re a seasoned horror viewer who’s seen even a moderate amount of the genre in the last few years, subsequently on the potential lookout for the slightest indication of self-reflexivity and/or genre/franchise awareness, your ears may perk up a few times during the first act of Halloween, David Gordon Green and Danny McBride’s soft reboot of a beloved slasher series that, if you’ll correctly recall, was only rebooted a little over a decade ago. While their new film is awash with visual references and iconography related to John Carpenter’s original, no doubt making the experience supposedly more fun for the fans who stuck around and paid attention, most curious, though perhaps inevitable, is a briefly lasting undercurrent dedicated to the idea that many people underestimate Michael Myers, and thus the Halloween franchise, and that he’s no longer the frightening Boogeyman legend proclaims. The rest of the film operates under the assumption that such an idea needs to be torn down, all the way down to a clever opening credits reverse time elapse sequence when a decayed jack-o’-lantern regenerates for the prerequisite flickering left eye closeup.
Such a meta-narrative applied to the Halloween franchise, of all series, may seem initially odd considering Michael Myers’ standing in horror and broader popular culture as one of the most iconic villains and movie characters, in general, though it doesn’t take long to remember the original series’ increasingly convoluted spiral down the rabbit hole of dark Celtic druid mythology, or even Rob Zombie’s aesthetic insistence on shoving the worst of white trash America down our throats long before it was mainstream. And along with the creators’ frequently stated intent on bringing the franchise back to the basics, retconning almost the entire canon, every notable horror remake/reboot – particularly of Michael’s fellow “Big Four” slasher contemporaries – has, by the hopeful words of their own creators, operated under the abiding pretense of – for lack of a more palatable phrase – making these monsters great again, reclaiming their frightful honor from a collective treasure trove of sequels leaning further towards camp than anything genuinely terrifying.
Unlike Marcus Nispel and Samuel Bayer, however, Green and McBride don’t attempt to hide any lack of creativity or ulterior displeasure at the thought of directing and writing a project so utterly beneath them with faint, marginal traces of style, because there truthfully isn’t any apparent displeasure or dearth of ideas to speak of. For better and occasionally worse, this Halloween is about as back to basics as one could make a film following in the roughly identical footsteps of Carpenter’s original stylistically and in terms of atmosphere, though also ‘80s slasher sequels’ penchant for extraordinarily, laughably high body counts. From more suspenseful sequences to more explicitly violent scenes, Green ably recaptures the same sense of random, unpredictable evil penetrating pastoral middle-America sleepiness Carpenter encapsulated in 1978, returning Michael (Nick Castle) to being the chaotically instinctual curiosity and killing machine that made him best, once again embodying what it means to be ‘the Shape,’; featureless, primitive, uncaring, virtually unstoppable and tangibly fearsome.
From the way Michael is presented to the overall vibe we receive, there’s a thankfully intractable humility to Green and McBride’s approach that recognizes both the paranoid realism underscoring Carpenter’s subtly played horrors – ones which we have cathartically lapped up for the last forty years like an absurdist hero audibly laughing to cope with inevitable doom – as well as the guilt-free popcorn entertainment such an imposing figure provides for modern filmmaking capabilities and freer budget constraints, but it’s often this stern commitment to capturing both of these disparate feelings that, every now and then, displeasingly underline’s the second act’s borderline tedium and atmospheric confusion. Between a first act establishing the ambiance and new franchise mythology and a final act inevitably leading Michael to a climactic confrontation with Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode at her understandably PTSD-fueled survivalist compound, there always had to be some wiggle room reserved for Michael to hack and slash his way through unsuspecting Haddonfield suburbanites, but its arguable the film spends too much time demonstrating Michael’s psychotic proficiency with an eight-inch chef’s knife and not enough devoted to his strengths as a ‘Shape.’
Though quite a few scenes follow up – and pretty effectively, at that – on McBride and Green’s intent to focus the horror more upon suspense and dread than graphic violence, other scenes come across as an implicit recanting of such statements, and with a body count piling into the low teens primarily stacked up in this less-than-hour period, almost all of the film’s deaths, particularly those of the latter variety, follow up one after the other in relatively snappy succession, unconsciously scoffing at the idea of narrative down time in between each kill to rebuild a sense of overwhelming terror. It’s not that these sequences aren’t entertaining in their own right from another, more death-centric perspective of old school slashers due to their casual viciousness, but it often feels as though they’re infringing upon what the duo wanted to chiefly accomplish with a flavor of slasher practically no longer seen, as if they were reluctantly bending to producer and broad audience-expected formalities to maintain a semblance of sole grip on the steering wheel. You may enjoy them, but for this reason, you may also feel a little guilty enjoying them.
Though when it comes to Curtis, the definitive Scream Queen, reprising her role as Laurie Strode, the slasher genre’s definitive ‘final girl,’ there is no abashed entertainment value, particularly because we’ve never seen her, or perhaps any slasher protagonist for that matter, depicted in this manner. Needless to say, aside from her Captain Kirk-masked counterpart, Curtis is quite often the most engaging and fascinating aspect whenever she appears onscreen, imbuing this new gun-toting Grandma Strode with not only a palpable vulnerability in her naturally defensive mindset as well as perhaps an implicit, unspoken guilt toward how her handling of her great trauma has alienated herself from her family, but also a sense of innate command no doubt partially influenced by how she approached the character later on in the series in Halloween H20. It’s a character motivation balance that could hardly be justified in many other slasher survivors, partially because there simply are no other final girls with as regarded a legacy or any legacy to speak of, but also because it feels like a natural evolution from her uniquely quick-thinking portrayal in Carpenter’s film compared to protagonists from other features.
The film’s first act especially leans heavily on an intriguing psychological note to potentially influence the forthcoming proceedings and how she’ll handle re-encountering the cause of a great wound in her life, as well as the fraught nature of her interconnected relationships between her and her virtually estranged daughter, Karen (Judy Greer), and granddaughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak). Naturally, it’s more than a little disappointing, then, when the narrative renders her and these valuable undercurrents a relative afterthought in favor of more Myers mayhem, at least until the final act when the plot conveniently remembers what made this particular return to Haddonfield so enticing. Her psychological state and familial tensions are left so frustratingly underdeveloped that Green and McBride may as well have been transparent about their being window dressing for the true spectacle they so quickly cave to for fear of audience rejection, making it hard not to wonder, as writer Matt Patches has, what the film and these storylines might have looked like in a woman’s hands.
With all of this in mind, it’s impossible not to feel that this Halloween is little more than a collection of merely midway-satisfying half-measures; one that may grow on you with successive viewings, even though such visitations can never erase the feeling of relative emptiness the initial experience engendered. It’s more than just some expensive fan film given how authentic it feels and how easily slides into the franchise aesthetic, but considering the paths the sequels and Rob zombie remakes walked, that wasn’t exactly the most difficult obstacle to hurdle. This was one of those rare franchise films that had to simultaneously live up to low and dubiously high standards, and it safely falls middle of the road in attempting to maintain and revive a famed killer’s reputation. It’s simply fine for how it plays out, and yet the fact that it merely skates by on being such doesn’t feel entirely fine, though I admit my personal standards were perhaps unnecessarily higher than most. I can’t wait until they retcon their own ending for yet another go-round – a practice this franchise has felt as entitled to as anyone else is to one good scare on Halloween.