Halloween: 40 years on

Days on from David Gordon Green’s long-awaited sequel to Carpenter’s 1978 classic, I’m still very conflicted about Halloween. On the one hand, it switches so erratically between adrenal murder sequences, waggish teen comedy and psychological fluff, that it’s virtually impossible for the film to build a sense of tension, which leaves it disappointingly lacking in comparison to Carpenter’s effortlessly chilling original.

And yet, on the other, it is fascinating. When returning to a series so irrevocably keyed into its era as Halloween, there needs to be some acknowledgement as to how society has changed, and how fear manifests within our present day. Through a slew of fun references to the 1978 original (and a fair few winks at the discounted sequels), Halloween doesn’t only address our increased desensitisation to the serial killer trope indispensable to the slasher flick, but offers a pressing account of inherited trauma; a theme that – fronted by an impassioned Jamie Lee Curtis – ends up being the most remarkable element of Green’s updated slasher.

Erasing the ten sequels between itself and Carpenter’s 1978, Halloween returns to a seemingly smoothed-over Haddonfield, forty years after the notorious teenage murders conducted by masked boogeyman, Michael Myers. On the eve of Halloween, true-crime reporters Aaron (Jefferson Hall) and Dana (Rhian Rees) are investigating the Haddonfield murders, and visit Smith’s Grove mental institution where Michael is currently waiting to be transferred to a max-security facility on Halloween night. The less said about that idea the better, I think.

Meanwhile, a 57 year old Laurie Strode (reprised by a wonderfully driven Jamie Lee-Curtis) is incapable of moving past the events she experienced in 1978, and spends her time loading rifles, stocking provisions and furnishing an underground bunker in preparation for Michael’s return. Her PTSD has also bred a troubled relationship with daughter, Karen (Judy Greer), who – after an aggressive military upbringing thanks to her mother’s desperation to protect her – now wants little to do with her.

Between them is Karen’s own daughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak), who – as the most removed from the dark fear plaguing her mother and grandmother – is intrigued by her grandmother’s apparent inability to let Michael go. Incidentally, Matichak quickly arises as 2018’s Jamie Lee-Curtis; she’s witty, academic, and less-than-impressed by her two best friends’ proclivity for smoking weed and sucking face. Such behaviour inevitably nudges her closer to following the same, closet-leading footsteps set by her grandmother after a freak accident leads Michael to escape transportation, and embark on a relentless murder rampage to find Strode and finish what he started.

In Green’s film, we witness forty years of grief transposed onto three generations, and it comes very close to providing the base for the deconstruction of the slasher movie itself. With the self-reflexive bent on its steady way to exhaustion, however, Green thinks better of it; instead, using the cross-generational experience these women share to explore how trauma can so often bridge the gap between wildly different generations.

Though best friend Miles remarks early on that ‘serial killers aren’t scary anymore’, and babysitter Vicky is content enough in her own security to joke about getting murdered in the hallway, their inevitable deaths by the pervasive Michael Myers is met with nothing other than empathy by their elders. In a time of increasing division (political, generational, take your pick), it’s heartening to see a society that really listens to itself.

Had it been more coherently conceived, Halloween would’ve held every chance of appearing as symptomatic of its era as Carpenter’s original. Instead, so much is placed upon disentangling the turbulent Strodes that the film finds itself continually working out what to do with itself when the three aren’t around. What is ultimately decided is an array of psychological theorising, goofball comedy and deliciously gory murder sequences, all of which provide a neat update to the terror of Carpenter’s original for a modern audience largely desensitised to one-by-one killings.

I think the minor backlash that the film has received about these updates somewhat misses the mark. The problem isn’t the goofy comedy (is there such a thing as a po-faced slasher?), nor the abundance of gore. It’s that events seem so distinct from one another that it’s tough for Halloween to sustain a sense of unease (something Carpenter demonstrated in spades), which leaves its perilous moments surprisingly numb of terror.

It’s actually sweeter than it is scary (which wouldn’t be a criticism in any other genre), with the crucial showdown between the pervasive Michael and Curtis’ fully locked-and-loaded Strode serving to provide the seminal protagonist with the crucial means to own her trauma, destroy her tormentor, and (most pertinently) put years of assumed victimhood, finally, to rest.

So, Halloween, a film that still has me confused as to how a film can be so admirably sincere in its arguments, yet so lifeless as a modern slasher. Perhaps it’s down to pacing, or the steady decline of the slasher over the years, but however far it succeeds in providing one of the most tasteful reflections of present day anxiety this year, the central issue is that – depressingly – Michael Myers simply ain’t that scary anymore.

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September 2021
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