When you hear David Gordon Green and Danny McBride are making a Halloween movie, you expect something a little weird. A little scruffy. Maybe something like their previous collaborations — Eastbound and Down, Vice Principals, Pineapple Express.
Instead, the new Halloween — directed by Green and written by Green, McBride, and fellow North Carolina School of the Arts grad Jeff Fradley — feels like a respectful homage, more like a Halloween movie than a Gordon Green/McBride movie. Is that what we wanted?
I hadn’t seen John Carpenter’s original Halloween until I was prepping for the 2018 version. Without the context of 1978, it can be a little hard to understand why the original is so important. It’s not the goriest, it’s not the kitschiest or the silliest, it’s not the funniest, and it doesn’t have the most kills or the most sex or the most nudity. It’s about a motive-less killer, whose face we never see, who lurks in the backgrounds of frames in shots about small-town life (set in Haddonfield, Illinois). It’s easy to get to the end and come away thinking not all that much happened.
And yet, Halloween became a smash hit and ended up basically spawning the slasher genre (all due respect to Black Christmas and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre). If anything stands out about the original in 2018, it’s nice compositions, memorable music, and a motiveless killer. It’s more creepy than scary. Most horror movies, especially contemporary ones, rely on identifying and solving the gypsy curse, or whatever. You have to figure out what the ghosts or the killers want and who they are before you can defeat them.
Michael Myers’ refusal to explain himself gives Halloween a certain power, and a timelessness (at least in that aspect). We can’t stop asking why people kill, but is the answer ever satisfying? In the original, Michael Myers makes Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) his ultimate prize, and why? Simply because he saw her standing in front of his old house one day. He wanted to kill and she was there. That’s it. Halloween taps into the fear not just of pure evil and the boogeyman, but also the fear that existence is ultimately arbitrary.
Halloween II needed a twist, which came in the form of the revelation that Laurie Strode was actually Michael Myers’ sister. That offered a short-term “wow” factor, but it undermined one of its best themes. And in this new version, it’s one of the first things that gets retconned (or re-retconned, as it were). “Weren’t they brother and sister?” one present-day Haddonfield, Illinois teenager asks another.
“Nah, that was just a rumor,” the other says.
This peanut gallery also wonders aloud whether those knife killings “would even be a big deal nowadays,” a rather obvious question in a contemporary world where schoolchildren murder each other with assault weapons every few days.
In another clever update, the sequel kicks off with two British journalists traveling to Illinois to interview Michael in the asylum where he’s been for the last 40 years for their true crime podcast. They want to know the answer to the big question: Why did Michael Myers murder those people?
They finally get their chance on the institution grounds, a big courtyard where the patients stand in red squares (don’t go inside the red!) like a checkerboard. It’s less a narrative choice than a visual one, Gordon Green understanding that cool compositions are canon. The question itself, what’s in Michael Myers’ head, turns out to be, of course, a big joke. There is no “why” here.
It’s both a critique of faux-philosophical true crime podcasts — where hosts pretend to delve into psychological underpinnings only as a way to kill time between describing gruesome kills — and it demonstrates the filmmakers’ understanding of their source material. Halloween is full of this kind of homage, the good kind, where they aren’t just name-checking people and places from the original, they’re getting at its root appeal.
Michael ends up being transferred, on Halloween night (guess how that turns out) and much of the plot concerns Laurie Strode’s high school aged granddaughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak). Allyson has been raised by Laurie’s daughter, Karen (Judy Greer), who spent her own childhood being traumatized by Laurie, who was of course traumatized in turn by Michael Myers. Laurie’s constant prepping for his return (she has an armory of guns, secret compartments in her house, the whole nine) essentially ruined Karen’s childhood, and she’s spent her whole life trying to distance herself from her crazy mom (Leaving her own daughter shamefully unprepared for Michael’s return. Dang it!)
There’s a nice comment on how PTSD echoes through the generations there, but like the original, Halloween isn’t an especially thinky movie. Much of it comes down to the climactic chase. Only now instead of just scared teens, we’ve added Laurie Strode, badass broad with a shotgun — starring Jamie Lee Curtis, looking like Bonnie Raitt dressed as Linda Hamilton from Terminator 2. It combines visual homage to the original — mannequins, a sequence on the roof! — with a kind of fan-fictiony but logical continuation of the story. At long last Laurie gets to be the big hero.
It’s all pretty solid. And yet… when you hear that David Gordon Green and Danny McBride are making a Halloween movie, you kind of expect something whacked out and inspired. Surely that was what producer Jason Blum imagined when he brought them the project. What kind of crazy take on Halloween would David Gordon Green and Danny McBride have?
Somehow I’m not sure “a solid, respectful homage to the original” was the answer he was looking for. Halloween is funnier than the original, with some sassy and enjoyable side characters, but not especially comedic. The kills are bloodier and more gruesome, but not overly gory. The only nudity comes, oddly, in flashback footage from the original. Is it not an odd choice to make an R-rated slasher movie with no nudity? A scantily clad woman running from a bloody knife on a cartoony VHS cover is most people’s enduring image of the entire genre.
Halloween is tasteful and clever and understands its source material enough to appeal to leave the superfans cheering (I should know, I sat next to one). But I couldn’t help thinking that it sells the original better than it sells itself. Which is just fine.