HALLOWEEN. Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, Will Patton, Virginia Gardner, Nick Castle. Directed by David Gordon Green. 106 minutes. Rated MA15+ (Strong horror themes and violence).
It’s been 40 years since the release of John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’, the genre-moulding horror hit that pitted Jamie Lee Curtis’ hapless babysitter against Michael Myers, the murderous hulk characterised by his psychiatrists as evil incarnate. This film of the same name follows directly on from the original, ignoring the seven other sequels released since. With modern horror powerhouse Jason Blum taking on producing duties, the film makes other intriguing decisions too, foremost being the hiring of independent filmmaker and TV comedy stalwart David Gordon Green to co-write and direct. Luckily, this and the other creative choices that the movie makes pay off – ‘Halloween’ is a big-screen thrill-ride, with a satisfying story and a gritty lead performance from Curtis, a true elder stateswoman among Scream Queens.
The film plays to both fans of the 1978 original and newcomers, using a couple of investigative podcasters (my how far we’ve come in 40 years!) to smoothly conceal the exposition necessary to transmit the intertwined backstories of Myers and Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode. First talking to Myers’ current psychiatrist, Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), then approaching the man himself in the exercise yard of the asylum in which he is incarcerated, the journalists (Rhian Rees, Jefferson Hall) manage to namedrop all the need-to-know elements. Namely, how Michael Myers, after butchering his teenage sister at the ripe age of six and escaping from a sanitorium fifteen years later, stalked a young Laurie Strode on October 31st, killing her friends and trying to kill her too, before being incapacitated and imprisoned once more. Myers hasn’t spoken a word to anyone since, so the journalists try to goad a reaction from him by producing his iconic mask, which still boasts an impressively disquieting design. Thanks also to an effective sound design employing his fellow internees, who react in a cacophonic stream of cries and groans, Myers is rendered a foreboding, threatening presence.
That said, life hasn’t been smooth sailing for Laurie either. When they track her down for their podcast, she’s living out of town, her home surrounded by security cameras and complete with its own concealed panic room. She’s wracked by paranoia and survivor’s guilt – her encounter with Myers has scarred her deeply. Her relationship with her grown-up daughter Karen (Judy Greer) is in tatters, with Karen’s childhood memories of her mother overwhelmed by constant lessons in self-defence, marksmanship and other survival skills. Myers has left his own mark on Karen, who has had her mother’s neuroses imprinted on her, but she is desperate not to let Laurie have the same impact over her granddaughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak). Karen has long tried to keep Laurie and Allyson apart, but the destructive power of intergenerational trauma becomes a fascinating undercurrent throughout the film.
Green, along with his fellow writers Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley (with whom he also collaborated on the HBO comedy ‘Vice Principals”), pares the core story back to a simple, bloody showdown. While being transferred to a more secure prison, Myers escapes, taking out a few guards and a couple of concerned fellow motorists. Now in possession of a vehicle, he makes for Haddonfield, where he picks up his bloody trail where he left off. Gone are the swathe of supernatural powers attributed to Myers by a handful of sequels and gone too are any familial ties between Laurie and Myers (they were revealed to be siblings by 1981’s ‘Halloween II’). In a clever visual gag, a carved pumpkin decays in reverse behind the opening credits, the filmmakers declaring their intent to reverse the rot that has enveloped the franchise, their thesis of taking things back to basics expressed in the (pumpkin) flesh.
Allyson has a handful of friends like cute couple Vicky (Virginia Gardiner) and Dave (a charming Miles Robbins, who was also great in ‘Blockers’), and Allyson’s boyfriend Cameron (Dylan Arnold), but they’re not the focus here. Friends belonging to a lead character in a slasher film have long been established as mere victims-in-waiting, and the writers know this here. They’re savvy enough to make you enjoy their company (as brief as it might be), but they’re more focused on how their fates can both move protagonists (physically and emotionally) and establish the threat that the antagonist represents. When it comes to the latter, Myers is no slouch! His impassive bulk moves slowly and deliberately, but there’s a purposefulness to him that strikes a chilling chord. He’s almost shark-like, the perfect killing machine with zero moral aversion to the destruction he causes. Performed in tandem by James Jude Courtney and the role’s originator Nick Castle, the forty years between outing has not dimmed this Myers’ cruel form. When he sets his sights on a victim, his powerful physicality communicates an unbreakable focus, leaving the audience squirming in a sort of pleasurably grim anticipation of his intended victim’s demise.
Wearing his director’s cap, Green largely keeps thing tense and eerie, rather than terrifying. Yes, it is a bloody film, but its bloodshed is more realistic than stylised, it’s horror more in the anticipation of violence than the realisation. This helps ensure that ‘Halloween’ is a crowd-pleaser, not a procession of jump scares or bloodbaths. Carpenter’s involvement in the film as an executive producer and composer shows through here, with his score drawing repeatedly on the unnerving but also enjoyably familiar theme from his original film. There are some nice touches that reflect Green’s independent roots too, like a terribly impressive one-take shot that follows Myers through two neighbouring homes, as he kills their occupants, acquiring his signature kitchen knife in the process. Green and Co. have dampened down their humour (the film’s funniest moment arrives when two cops on watch at Laurie’s home discuss their packed lunches), but there’s still plenty of natural charm that comes through in other ways, particularly the natural familiar relationships between Karen, her husband Ray (Toby Huss), and Allyson.
Although Laurie’s estranged family is dragged along for the ride, the film’s quality ultimately rests on the central pairing, Laurie Strode and Michael Myers. Luckily for viewers, some of whom have probably been waiting decades for another great ‘Halloween’, they are more than up for the task. Jamie Lee Curtis exudes a well-pitched blend of paint and grit, pining for a different life but cheerlessly resigned to what she he’s as her life’s purpose: to ensure that Myers can’t hurt anyone else. She’s truly excellent. In the original film, Myers’ deliberate pace was pronounced, and he strode slowly and inexorable after by his prey. Perhaps then it’s fitting that it’s taken 40 years for a worthy successor to arrive. Myers may not be the fastest slasher on the block, but he always finds his target in the end.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out October 25.