Sunday, October 21, 2018

Still More of the Night HE Came Home

The Shape in Halloween (2018)

When last I bothered with the Halloween movies*, with Halloween: Resurrection, I lamented that the folks at Dimension films had only themselves to blame for its failure. It committed two cardinal sins: first it killed off Laurie Strode in the prologue, a callous fuck you to anyone who might have become invested in her character over the years. Second: it was released in July. You DON'T release a movie with the word "Halloween" in the title in the middle of summer. You just don't. The makers of the new film, simply titled Halloween (2018, directed by David Gordon Green) don't make either mistake. They've ignored all of the continuity between John Carpenter's original film and their own, so Laurie Strode is still alive and Michael has not been burned alive or beheaded as the case may be, and their film has a late October release date (when it is on track to make a shitload of money).

This film represents the rubber match between Laurie and Michael: Laurie "won" the first match in Halloween H20 when she took off his head with an ax, Michael "won" Resurrection when he killed her at the mental hospital. The retcon here doesn't really bother me, given that the history of the franchise is littered with retcons. Dr. Loomis was killed at the end of Halloween II (as was Michael), but that didn't stop him from coming back in Halloween 4 and 5. Laurie Strode seems a different character in each of her subsequent appearances, too, all suggesting differing timeline branches from her teenage encounter with Michael. In H20, she was a college professor with Josh Hartnett as a son. In Resurrection, she was a mental patient. In the new film, she's a doomsday prepper, a la Sarah Connor, no longer possessed of a son, but of an estranged daughter and granddaughter. This is a series that doesn't give two fucks for internal continuity. And so it goes.

Note: what follows contains spoilers.

The new film opens with two podcast journalists visiting Michael in Smith Grove mental hospital. They're interested in "the real story" behind Michael's murders and they've brought Michael's mask with them in order to provoke him into talking. Michael hasn't said a word since his childhood, Michael's new doctor, Dr. Sartain, informs them. Michael doesn't oblige them. Having failed to get a rise out of Michael, they next venture to interview Laurie Strode in Haddonfield. Her house is a fortress, surrounded by barbed wire fence and steel bars across the doors. Laurie doesn't want to talk to them either, but she accepts the bribe they offer her for her story. She is exasperated by their naivete when it comes to Michael. She knows exactly what he is. They don't. Meanwhile, Laurie's granddaughter, Allyson, is receiving national honors for academics. Her mother, Karen, estranged from Laurie after being removed from her custody by the state decades ago, is deliberately blocking her daughter's attempts to invite Laurie to the event. Allyson circumvents her mother and Laurie comes anyway, much to Karen's embarrassment. It's the day before Halloween. While Laurie attempts a rapprochement with her family, Michael is being transported to a higher security facility. Inevitably, he escapes. He re-encounters the podcasters at a gas station, murders them, and retrieves his mask. He arrives in Haddonfield on Halloween night itself, just as he did forty years earlier. Laurie understandably freaks out at the news and heads to her daughter's house in company with the sheriff to gather her family and shelter in her bunker, but Allyson is at a Halloween party with her friends and cannot be reached. And then Michael starts to kill, moving inexorably toward a confrontation with Laurie...

I was with this film for a long time. I wanted it to be good, because so many of the films in this franchise are not good and I've always resented that they've traded on the first film in bad faith for so many years. The first film is a masterpiece, after all, one of the most influential of all horror movies, and yet so little of what follows really bears any touch of that brilliance. The filmmakers who have followed Carpenter may have watched Halloween, but they didn't learn anything from it. You can see the filmmakers of this film trying to figure out what made the original tick, and they even apply what they've learned in a couple of bravura sequences. The first of those sequences is the scene at the gas station, where we follow Dana and Aaron, the British podcasters, in the foreground of the frame, with Michael going about his business in the background. This sequence understands the way Michael exists in the negative space of the first film. When at last he makes himself known to Dana as she uses the toilet, the scene is unforgettably nasty. Later, director David Gordon Green and screenwriter Danny McBride expand on this technique as we watch Michael's killing spree in a series of carefully orchestrated long takes, often watching him through windows, and rarely seeing the violence he's perpetrating close up (there is one shot that is an exception to this, but the film had already announced its intention to use on-screen gore when Michael scatters a handful of teeth over the wall of Dana's toilet stall).

Rhian Rees in Halloween (2018)

Laurie's parallel story is effective, too, as she tries to find her granddaughter. During the second act, the filmmakers foreshadow the film's endgame, as it places Laurie into shots that echo shots from the original film where Michael stood before her. When Allyson is daydreaming in class, for instance, and looks out the window, there stands Laurie, just as Michael stood when Laurie was in Allyson's place. The film goes to pains to invert the roles of Laurie and Michael, where Laurie becomes the hunter and Michael the prey.

Following Allyson and her friends for the short while that the film bothers with them suggests what the film might have been if it wasn't so laden with the baggage of the franchise. Allyson is an appealing character, and her friends are affable enough even as they fall into the stereotypes that get chewed up by slasher films. Her friend, Vicky, for example, is an actual babysitter who is marked for death when she invites her boyfriend over to smoke weed. But she's not unlikable and the film doesn't judge her, per se, even though it kills her. The original Halloween had "The Babysitter Murders" as a working title, and it's fun hearing that phrase spoken aloud to describe Michael's original killing spree. Allyson and her friends also set out the history of this film's retcon, as Vicky's boyfriend asks if it's true that Michael is Laurie's brother. He's not, she says.

Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween (2018)

This is a female-identified film, too, that functions in part as a generational story of three women. The characters who actually engage in saving themselves are all women, in part because of their family history, but also because women are socialized to defend themselves against men (or not as the case may be). This film's feminism surfaces in wry ways sometimes. Certainly Karen's husband, Ray, is completely useless. Allyson's new boyfriend, Cameron, proves himself a creep, and Cameron's nerdy friend eventually moves into the void left when Allyson dumps him by painting himself as the skeevy proverbial "nice guy" pining for the hot chick who has hooked up with a dude who's unworthy of her. I hated that kid and pretty much wanted Michael to kill him, but the scene that follows, when Allyson rebuffs him and leaves him in a lawn where Michael is moving in humanizes him a bit. His death is particularly nasty.

So far, so good. And then the whole house of cards comes crashing down.

It's rare that you can watch a movie immolate itself so thoroughly with one dumb plot twist, but this film manages that trick in high style. The film has been carefully riffing on themes of how one deals with the problem of evil for its first two acts. The podcasters want to center evil in their project, Laurie and Officer Hawkins just want to kill it when they see it so it doesn't come back and haunt them, Dr. Sartain wants to study it. Dr. Sartain is "the new Loomis," Laurie says at one point, but he's not. Loomis was more of Laurie's opinion regarding Michael. Sartain is different, and this leads the film to cast him as a mad scientist, meddling in things he shouldn't. The scene that brings everything down finds Hawkins and Sartain driving up on Michael after finding Allyson. They're taking her to Laurie's compound. Hawkins runs him down and gets out of the car to make sure he's dead or incapacitated. Sartain follows him and then kills Hawkins himself. He then wears Michael's mask and looks back at Allyson, locked in the back of the cop car, exclaiming "So that's what it feels like?" and just like that, I was done with this movie. It had veered into the ridiculous, never to return. It's so pointless, too, because Sartain doesn't last more than another seven minutes because when Michael wakes up in the back of the cop car next to Allyson, he naturally escapes and turns his attention on Sartain first. He's dead before he can really assume the mantle of minor villain. But a lot of characters in this film are there only to serve the plot. The podcasters exist only as a vector for Michael to retrieve his mask, for example. When Sartain kills Hawkins, my first thought was, "Are Danny McBride and David Gordon Green Scientologists? Do they hate psychaitrists?" And that's not something I needed to be thinking as a horror movie grinds to its climax. My head never got back into the film, and the film never helped me along.

It gets worse once the action moves to Laurie's house. She's been preparing for Michael's eventual escape for forty years, the film tells us, but that doesn't explain the nature of her house. What has she done for a living? Did she inherit money, because absent that, there's no way someone who is portrayed as demonstrably dysfunctional as Laurie Strode is likely to have earned the money to create what is basically a gigantic mousetrap. This part of the film highlights one of the series more annoying ticks--dating back to the first film, as it so happens--when it calls attention to the floodlights outside Laurie's house, but then no one inside the house knows how to turn on a freaking light switch when they enter a room. Michael's ability to evade Laurie as she hunts him is contingent on dark spaces, and Laurie, who has allegedly been prepping for this night for her entire life, obliges him?

The Shape in Halloween (2018)

The whole point of retconning away all of the other films in the series is to clear the way for a proverbial "good" sequel, one that's actually worthy of the first film, and in that regard, this film is an abject failure. It's technically better than any of those films because it has better actors (helloooo Judy Greer!) and it has made an actual study of Carpenter and other suspense filmmakers. But the screenplay is a mess. It's three different films in one, films that work at cross-purposes to one another. Worse, it's barely better than any of the other Halloween sequels, and it may not be as good as H20, an admittedly low bar to clear. At least that film provides a showdown between Laurie and The Shape that I could actually believe.

*Note: I have not seen Rob Zombie's Halloween movies. I do not have an opinion on them.

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