Saturday, October 27, 2018

Season of the bitch


HALLOWEEN

Another worthy entry in what's still the best slasher show, even if Halloween '18 bites off so much more than it can chew.

2018
Directed by David Gordon Green
Written by Danny McBride, Jeff Fradley, and David Gordon Green
With Jamie Lee Curtis (Laurie Strode), Andi Matichak (Allyson Nelson), Judy Greer (Karen Nelson nee Strode), and James Jude Courtney and Nick Castle (Michael Myers)

Spoiler alert: moderate


Hypothetically, if I were to say that it was better than John Carpenter's Halloween, that doesn't mean too much coming from me, because I've always been much more interested in the Halloweens that arrived in response to the streamlined, "Pure Evil punishes the sluts" elementalism of Halloween itself.  That is, the elaborations upon JC's initial inspiration, starting with Halloween II's almost-perfect extension of Halloween's plot and aesthetic into a gore-soaked surrealist nightmare.  Or take Rob Zombie's 2007 Halloween remake, dedicated to out-grindhousing the grindhouses that Carpenter dominated throughout 1978.  Or Halloween III: Season of the Witch, the Halloween that said Michael Myers isn't even real, so enjoy this goofy apocalypse instead.  Or, hell, maybe even Halloween H20, the first time this franchise grappled in a real way with its legacy, not to mention the first time it decided that only some of the movies in its legacy were worth grappling with.  (But, nah.  Probably not Halloween H20.)

Either way, it does bring us to Halloween 2018 (or, as I would like to call it, because it deserves it, H40), that is, the second time the franchise has grappled with its legacy, and, of course, the second time (not even counting the remakes) that it's wiped out a slew of continuity to do so, and this time for significantly less self-evident reasons.  I assume that's why the plain, unadorned title really gets under my skin: for not only is it the third film in the franchise to call itself Halloween, therefore confusing the shit out of the issue, and not only does it arrogate to itself the importance of the first film; it also erases Halloween II—not just erases it, but overwrites it, becoming its own preferred version of it—despite every Goddamn thing in the movie making much more sense if it were a sequel to Halloween II rather than a four-decades-on sequel to Halloween.  And if that seems parochial because Halloween II is my favorite, so be it, but bear in mind that punching the universe in this fashion means that director and co-writer David Gordon Green, alongside fellow writers Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley, apparently missed the meta-est reference joke of all, because it was hiding in plain sight right at the top of the first page of their sometimes-wearyingly reference-jokey script: a Halloween III that did have Michael Myers.  Now some would say that would've been worth waiting 40 years for.

But, dude, as far as continuity issues go, I read superhero comics; so this isn't even, like, hard.  So let's deal with the actual Halloween sequel that was made—which, yes, is probably a more likeable movie than Halloween, as so many of them are.

And it really is basically Halloween H20, just without Halloween II to inform it and adding another twenty years to the gap.  (Oddly, there's a case to be made that Halloween '18 is just as much an adaptation of Halloween 5's poster tagline, which wasn't actually reflected in Halloween  5's story: "Michael lives... AND THIS TIME THEY'RE READY!")  Anyway, as you might recall, on the night before Halloween 1978, the murderous Michael Myers escaped from a mental institution, and bore down hard upon his hometown of Haddonfield, IL, going on a killing spree that left five dead, mostly by kitchen knife.  The one who got away was Laurie Strode, who never forgot that night, and has spent her entire life preparing for the possibility—the inevitability—that Michael Myers would return for her.  Except, that is, for the parts where she was married (twice) and bore a daughter, Karen, who grew up resentful of her mother's paranoia, and, not long after breaking free of Laurie's overbearing momomania, bore a daughter of her own, Allyson, herself now the age Laurie was back in 1978.  Though living so close that you could, if you wanted, run through the woods from Karen and Allyson's neighborhood to the survivalist bunker Laurie's built on the outskirts of town, Karen has practically cut all ties with her mother; it's only thanks to Allyson's desire to have Laurie in her life that they even see her at all.

But, of course, the whole family's bound to get a lot closer soon enough, with a surprising (almost galling) magnanimity on Laurie's behalf—I don't know how she managed not to gloat right in their stupid, complacent faces that she knew they were living inside a slasher movie all along, ha ha—when Michael Myers, at long last, once again escapes the asylum they threw him in, and comes back to finish the job he started so many years ago.

There are enormous objections to this already: from the basic biological facts that Karen and especially Laurie bred really young in order to fit this multigenerational story into the timeframe, which doesn't seem like it actually fits with the monstrous darkness that descended upon Laurie in the aftermath of the Babysitter Murders; to the fact that, apparently, nobody can leave Haddonfield; to the absolutely unclear nature of the abuse or neglect that dialogue asserts compelled either an ex-husband or the state itself to wrench Karen from Laurie's home, because, frankly, the little flashback we get of "Karen shooting guns in rural Illinois" can't possibly explain that, and in fact undermines what little moral ambiguity this extremely pro-Laurie script is willing to give its protagonist in the first place.  And let's not forget that I've actually smoothed out enormous stretches of plot that have almost nothing to do with the Strodes, like the podcasters who interview Michael and Laurie for a true crime show that must be scraping the bottom of that particular barrel, if they're exploring a brief spree-killing that happened forty years ago (and, remember, never had any sequels), as well as enormous stretches of plot that do have something to do with the Strodes, but only tangentially, like the on-a-dime turn of Allyson's boyfriend from face to heel, and who thus reveals himself to be nothing substantive beyond a vague stab at gender-political commentary (but mainly just a mechanism to break Allyson's cellphone).  And even all that doesn't include the stretches of plot that are just fucking stupid, like what they get up to with this film's replacement for Dr. Loomis, Dr. Sartain, who is our companion on a ride into active, offensive, genuine badness for nearly five straight awful, inexplicable minutes.

Perhaps the single key objection to Halloween '18, then, is that it sprawls wildly, in part by necessity—it's a slasher that has a real need to introduce a lot of expendable meat, and I don't begrudge it that—but it wants to do that elegantly (or "elegantly"), while still keeping to the upper limits of a slasher runtime (Zombie's much simpler Halloween is yet fourteen minutes longer!).  It simply does not have the time or the space, or (maybe) just not the will, to commit to what it really, actually wants to be, in its heart of hearts, which is a pretty dour yet timely examination of trauma, and how to use it as a source of emotional (and martial) strength.  In other words, it's the franchise coming full circle, dealing with its legacy in the broadest sense of the term—the films that so clearly inspired The Terminator, now, in turn, taking their inspiration from Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

Except.

Here's the thing.  Sarah Connor was faced with murderous robots from an apocalyptic future that, as far as she knew, was inescapable even if the Terminator was defeated.  Though her methods may have been unsound, we knew Sarah Connor was not insane.  Laurie is only not insane because the movie takes her side in everything.  And you may not quite notice she is crazy—the movie does not want you to notice—because, after all, we do at least know she's right.  Partly this is because it's simply a movie called Halloween, and that means a rampage by a tall man in a jumpsuit and a William Shatner mask (recovered by what I consider acceptable contrivance, mostly because it involves a lot of blood).  More than that, though, it's because you have already seen all those other Halloween films that no longer exist, and hence you know that Michael Myers is not a man! he's an animal! ("a shape in the night"), and vulnerable only to the most extreme possible measures (and even then only temporarily, or until the films stop being profitable).  That is to say, he's not just a psychopath with a single-digit body count under his belt, presently 61 years old.  And this is how Halloween '18 cheats like hell to get to where it wants to go: ostensibly deleting everything, but leaving Halloween II and the rest as its foundation anyway, constantly winking and whispering, "But, yeah, you do still know that Michael Myers hunts Laurie Strode, because Laurie's [even quieter now] his sister, and his white mirror; you do still know that Laurie Strode is his only true nemesis; and, above all, you do still know that Michael is the boogeyman."

And there's something to Halloween's single-minded pursuit of its message, which I agree with (indeed, as this real-life bloody weekend closes, now more than ever, Jesus fucking Christ): to steel yourself for a final confrontation with an evil that should have been wiped out long ago.  It's enough of a thing that I rather wish the movie were single-minded about it enough to actually make that the story, rather than—and this is possibly being charitable—the A-plot.  Simply getting to know these characters could have deepened this tale—of them, only Laurie comes off developed at all, and that might be because Jamie Lee Curtis comes at her defining role with a renewed passion, or it may just be because Jamie Lee Curtis has been here so long.  At the very least, they could've thrown in a scene that explains why Allyson calls Karen "mom" but Laurie "grandmother."  That seems like a dumb thing to complain about, but it is incessant and extremely obnoxious.

Well, if engaging more fully with this family's dynamic had worked, and I guess we'll never know if it would've, it may have even gone some ways to defusing the film's terrible dramatic drawback, that is, the feeling of waiting for all these other morons to catch up with Laurie.  Unfortunately, a decision was reached that nothing about Laurie's obsession, in this movie about obsession, can be presented as fully tragic—not in the minor details, and certainly not in the broad strokes.  Considering that the thing Halloween '18 looks like most of all, besides T2, is Moby-Dick (with Michael still the white whale he always was, and Laurie the new, actual Loomis who's beheld him), there is not the littlest doubt in my mind that there was a first draft of this film that didn't leave Michael's escape from a prison bus inside a plot hole that, coincidentally, happens to have Laurie sitting right on its rim in a jeep with one of her many trusty guns at her side; too much dialogue remains, of the "I spent every night praying he'd escape, so I could kill him" variety, to not wonder about the very different, less-messy tale of obsession Halloween '18 was when it was still just pieces of paper.

How many guns do you think you'll get to use when Michael comes, Laurie?  Because it's not "more than you can carry," and it's definitely not "a dozen."

In the meantime, you may or may not enjoy the side characters marked for death (who sometimes, annoyingly, fail to die), though this is where Green and McBride and Fradley's background in comedy comes in (moreso, I'd say, than Green's background in drama), and it's not necessarily to Halloween '18's benefit, with a lot—a lot—of scenes that feel like bits, overly contrived attempts to capture the feeling of loosy-goosy bullshit that real vintage slashers swam in like fish, not even knowing it was there.  It's what our friend Brennan Klein coins "Champion Dialogue": consider, for example, the flubbed line from Halloween where it seems like one of the horny boys wants to fuck a ten year old; then compare it to "I got peanut butter on my penis!", or a withering routine between two cops about the quality and provenance of banh mi, or the short film about Allyson's friend who's babysitting the sassy black kid, that (until the end) feels more like a backdoor pilot to an early 90s sitcom.  Which one is actually weirder?  Though in terms of meta-games nothing gets my back up as much as the recourse to a flashback that uses footage from Halloween '78 to detail Judith Myers' murder at Michael's hands, an attempt at letting Halloween '18 have its cake and eat it too (and worst of all, it doesn't come close to matching the filmstock).  It's Green and his buds showily conceding that it's 2018 and, as their Halloween treats with feminist themes, it shall eschew nudity, especially murderous nudity, but it's totally okay if they just lift some directly from the first film.  Because then they didn't do it.  Well, fellas, do it, or don't, but don't do that.

These are the least good things Halloween '18 does with its dead teenager picture bona fides.  As for what else it does, though, that's usually great, and the worthiest way in which it hearkens back to all the Halloweens it implies it hates, rather than Halloween '78, is by having so very many kills, alongside so many imaginative methods of murder and (for this is a Halloween) corpse decoration—there's one moment that features a literalization of the series' visual motif of jack-o-lanterns, and it's so wonderfully, baroquely macabre I think I shit myself.  It builds, as these films do (or should) to a mighty final showdown, that takes on, I'd say, Slumber Party Massacre, one of Halloween's less-distinguished descendants but one with a damned fine ending, and adds to it the actual emotional resonance of three generations bearing down upon Pure Evil—the Fates and the Furies, the Maiden, Mother, and Crone all at once—giving Halloween '18 a mythic power that redeems so much about its flailing, rarely-successful attempts at mere family drama, right when it counts the most.  (Even if that final showdown, in truth, goes on a little long.)

That it comes within such an atmosphere of gloom alternating with intensity is a fine touch, too, and Halloween '18 often strikes hard on account of Michael Simmonds' fittingly-autumnal cinematography and Richard Wright's mostly-found production design (though an early scene with Michael in the institution is extraordinary precisely because it's such an absurd, pastel-hued throwback to a movie notion of an insane asylum).  As we move to Haddonfield, Halloween captures beautifully the night mists and the just-getting-chilly feeling of a late October night in South Carolina, where it was shot—maybe not so much Illinois, even if others disagree, but I did spend three decades in the former, and it made me homesick.  Best of all, it effectively serves as a John Carpenter album drop, and the score by him, son Cody, and Daniel Davies—like every Halloween must be, built on the back of the gorgeous nerve-wrecking tune that made JC a musical immortal—is (I'm saying it) the best that any Halloween has ever had, impressively varied despite its obligatory reliance upon the song that's been playing inside Michael Myers' (and slasher fans') heads since 1978.  (It's a better score than an album, but you can't expect everything from a septuagenarian.)  All told, Halloween 2018 is not great, but it certainly delivers pieces of greatness in fun-sized packages.  I'll take it.

Score: 7/10

5 comments:

  1. They should have just called it Halloween H40: The Retcon of Michael Myers.

    At any rate, I'm excited for Halloween H41: Halloween 11 Part 2.

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    Replies
    1. No, no. He [spoiler] totally died. For real this time. Just like in Halloween II except less on screen. Oh.

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    2. Oh, and I'm queuing up the Census Bloodbath, don't you worry, just had a very long week at work, and, as you can imagine, between overtime and the events in Pittsburgh, I was preoccupied yesterday.
      Anyway, I've already seen The Prowler, moving to the rest forthwith. Also Zombie's Halloween, but maybe not till November. -_-

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    3. I can imagine! I hope you and yours are doing alright, considering.
      Also I'll be waiting on tenterhooks for that review, given your casual admission that you liked the movie. I would have demanded a written explanation regardless ;)

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    4. Thanks, B. We're ok. I didn't know any of the victims, but that's as much because I'm a gentile who doesn't get to know his neighbors. And they were, somewhat literally, my neighbors. Tree of Life is less than a mile from where I live in Squirrel Hill.

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