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Film
by David J. Skal

The Yawning Abyss

My favorite part of David Gordon Green's newly imagined sequel to John Carpenter's seminal slasher film Halloween is the opening credit sequence, wherein an exquisitely rotten, collapsed jack-o-lantern reconstitutes itself, swelling up to spooky full tumescence with the accompaniment of the original film's famous musical theme. What more appropriate visual kick-off to a Halloween reboot could there possibly be?

Sadly, and despite an attention-getting story premise and shake-you-by-the-shoulders media blitz that included wall-to-wall, highly energized (and possibly overcaffeinated) television and radio interviews by star Jamie Lee Curtis, the picture itself soon reverts to a squashed pumpkin. Nonetheless, it will make money—a lot of it. But in all the years I've been reviewing horror movies, rarely have I been so disappointed by a film that stops delivering its surprises so early on. In its boredom-inducing singularity, this Halloween may, in fact, create a fresh new meaning for the idea of a "yawning abyss."

In its day the highest-grossing independent film of all time, John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) has gone through a multitude of metamorphoses, generating forty years of Halloween sequels and spinoffs and imitations. By the mid-1970s, the holiday had already become a dumping ground for post-Vietnam, post-Watergate fear and cynicism (interestingly enough, Richard Nixon was one of the first political Halloween masks). And if you couldn't trust the government anymore, then what about the neighbors? Never mind that the holiday has never been especially dangerous for young people, but by the time Halloween was released, urban legends about murderous lurkers with booby-trapped candy were already well-established. On a wider cultural basis, Halloween played a part in creating an America where parents don't let their children walk to school in broad daylight at any time of the year.

The 1978 version introduced Michael Myers, a six-year-old in a clown costume, who, one Halloween in Haddonfield, Illinois, for reasons never explained, kills his semi-nude teenaged sister with a butcher knife. A camera technique that would become one of Halloween's most imitated mannerisms was shooting the opening scene as a tracking shot from the slasher's point-of-view, forcing the audience into an implied complicity with a killer. Fast-forward to Haddonfield, fifteen years later, where Michael has been sequestered and catatonic since the murder. He escapes on Halloween and, wearing a crude white mask, begins stalking a chaste babysitter, Laurie Strode (Curtis), and savagely killing her sexually active friends. The violence culminates with Laurie trapped in a louvered bedroom closet, fending off the knife-wielding killer with a coat hanger. Michael is shot and apparently killed by his own psychiatrist, but his body mysteriously vanishes the minute nobody's looking.

And there you have the Halloween ur-story, one of the sturdiest story templates in cinema history, a formula that launched a whole universe of date-specific slasher films: Friday the Thirteenth, My Bloody Valentine, Silent Night, Deadly Night, and so on. To briefly recap the basic shape of the franchise that started it all, Halloween 2: The Return of Michael Myers (1981) seamlessly continued the original story with Laurie (Curtis again) being taken to Haddonfield Memorial Hospital for treatment following her siege. Michael, of course, follows, tailed by Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance, reprising his earlier role). Although the story is presumably set in the real world, this hospital is basically empty, with a mostly nonexistent staff and no patients other than Laurie (convenient for the scriptwriters, and very convenient for Michael) and the dimmest corridor lighting you've ever seen in any medical facility. Loomis introduces a vague rationale for Michael's killings: they're human sacrifices to the Celtic harvest festival of Samhain (badly mispronounced every time it's spoken; for the record, it's "SOW-in"). Loomis goes to battle with Michael, and they both seem to be incinerated when Loomis ignites canisters of operating-room ether.

The next installment of the series dropped all pretense of a connection to the established characters or narrative, Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) fully embraced the paranormal, revving up a media-fueled plot by an ultra-sinister corporation, Silver Shamrock Novelties, Inc. What follows is a rip-roaring Celtic Götterdämmerung, with slivers of rock from Stonehenge inserted in microchips to weaponize kids' Halloween masks, making their trapped heads spew rattlesnakes and scorpions. This film was the perfect opportunity to posit young Michael as one of Silver Shamrock's evil creations, but Halloween III, like a harvest cheese from some Druidic farmer in the dell, preferred to stand alone. The franchise might have moved on to other creative incarnations, but on its tenth anniversary returned with Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers (1988) instead and began thirty years of relentlessly convoluted story embellishment, including Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989), Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995), followed by Halloween H2O: 20 Years Later (1998, with Curtis returning to make her supposed farewell) and Halloween: Resurrection (2002). Rod Zombie's ambitious (though perhaps over-nuanced) remake of the original film was also called Halloween (2007), followed by its own sequel, Halloween II (2009).

The most audacious thing about the latest iteration of Halloween is the wiping away of any plot residue left over from forty years' worth of sequels, sequels to sequels, and reboots.

You thought Laurie Strode died along the way? But later she was still alive? Think again. You thought Michael Myers was actually her brother? You thought wrong—or it just didn't matter what you thought. Because everything you believed you knew about the Halloween saga was just fake news. Everything after the 1978 film never happened.

Theoretically, this radical departure from established formula should have given the filmmakers a luxury of creative freedom, and for a while that seems to be the case. Curtis is the same Laurie Strode we first met in 1978, but her life hasn't gone the way any of the previous entries might have predicted. Laurie, now a grandmother, has had her life upended via an intractable case of post-traumatic stress, which has confounded all therapeutic intervention and left her a complete mess: a paranoid, isolated, gun-toting survivalist saddled with a ruined marriage, estranged family and only faith to sustain her—the fervent, unbreakable certainty that one day Michael will come back.

Now, this is truly promising material. Add to that the fact that three generations of Strode women—Laurie, her adult daughter, and younger granddaughter—are obviously being set up as a triple-threat opposing force to Michael's menace, and you have the stage set for a big cathartic blow-out of overdue female empowerment at exactly the right sociocultural moment (I assume you've been watching the news for the past two years). The intergenerational theme also reminds us that Curtis is the daughter of the original slasher scream queen, Janet Leigh of Psycho fame. The Blu-ray release of the new film includes a rather delicious but deleted parody homage to Psycho's shower scene, which ought to have been kept. (For Ryan Murphy's recent cable series Scream Queens, Curtis herself happily got out of her clothes and into a shower for a campy spoof of her family's enduring legacy of pop culture carnage.)

Alas, this Halloween never delivers what it so enticingly promises. The possibilities of creating a fresh new story out of done-to-death elements soon gives way to tropes and scenes and characters and kills that we've all seen before, and more than once. There is one stomach-churning closeup of an unfortunate character having his head stomped to pulp, but, hey, we've seen that before, too, with the graphic demise of Steven Yuen on AMC's The Walking Dead. As in all the previous installments, Michael is half bogeyman and half Terminator, and seemingly able to dematerialize and reappear just about anywhere, as if the whole of Haddonfield was undergirded with an elaborate time/space wormhole system. Since Michael can't be killed by anything, why doesn't he ever just power through the bullets and use his big knife on Laurie (or any other "last girl") the way the series insists he wants to? And if he's not bound by any discernible laws of physics, how can he even be held in jail?

Curtis does manage to turn in the best of her four incarnations of Laurie Strode, but the film never lets you forget who the star here is, with a supporting cast doing little with (intentionally?) underwritten parts. I immediately thought of Hereditary (see my last column), which bestowed meaty roles upon all its actors, resulting in a striking ensemble performance, and a very believable rendition of what it's like to deal with a parent struggling—or, rather, not struggling—with a crippling emotional issue. The only standout cast member is newcomer Jibrail Nantambu, genuinely appealing as a kid who loses his babysitter in a way I don't have to tell you. The young actor reportedly improvised much of his wiseacre dialogue on-set, more evidence of an essentially pedestrian script. Perhaps the other actors should have improvised as well.

It won't be a spoiler to report that flame (again) is the agent used to quell Michael, at least for the time being. What I won't reveal is how this final conflagration is planned and engineered, and leave it to you to ponder its plausibility, whether some especially precise precognition was required, or how much disbelief you're personally willing to pawn. Or whether you want to even accept the possibility that the new Halloween is a true final chapter. After all, in the end of the film, Michael's fate closely resembles the granddaddy of all monster-disposal sequences, namely the fiery climax of James Whale's Frankenstein, wherein the vexing problem of Boris Karloff's misbehavior was supposed to be permanently resolved. And we all know how that turned out.

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