The Halloween franchise added yet another installment this month, scaring up a healthy $126 million at the box office. Halloween (2018) is the 11th entry in the twisted history of the money-making slasher series and is not to be confused with the previous two Halloweens including the original Halloween, to which it is a direct sort-of-kind-of sequel. The AV Club has a pretty good rundown of the franchise’s convoluted mythology, although it’s no longer 100% current because these things are being turned out faster than new iPhones. The Sparknotes version is that John Carpenter’s original 1978 Halloween was an instant classic, establishing the conventional rules of the slasher genre, creating the pop culture icon of Michael Myers and propelling Jamie Leigh Curtis to scream queen stardom.
The sequel to the original carried the story on to a fairly satisfying conclusion, which was of course deemed unacceptable by the people who owned the rights to the property, leading to a string of increasingly terrible sequels that were made for the sole purpose of milking the carcass of an iconic IP in order to wring as many dollars from its cold dead corpse as humanly possible. The franchise has been rebooted more than once, including a Rob Zombie riff on the original, which brings us up to the current and 11th film in the series, rather uncreatively and very confusingly also titled Halloween.
It picks up 40 years after Carpenter’s original, and pretends that the 9 films spanning the four decades in between never existed. Jamie Lee Curtis returns as Laurie Strode, this time battling PTSD as she has turned into a Sara Connoresque paranoid survivalist whacknut living in a cabin preparing for Michael Myers’ inevitable return. The film deals with her strained relationship with her daughter and grand-daughter, and how that dynamic plays out as Michael Myers escapes from the most incompetent mental hospital in the world to terrorize the sleepy town of Haddonfield for the umpteenth time because if there is one thing Americans never get tired of, it’s watching suburban Midwesterners being knifed to death as punishment for their apathetic middle-class existence.
Is 2018’s Halloween good? Yes, in the sense that it is a pretty competently made slasher film. There are some great tracking shots and jump-scares. There are a stable of expendable dorkuses whose sole purpose is to be killed in morbidly creative ways. The ending riffs on genre conventions, in that all the main characters do stupid things like trip on stuff and run down into a seemingly inescapable cellar, only to turn the tables on these conventions in a reasonably cathartic ending. Throughout, the film echoes just about every other film up and down the length and breadth of the franchise, both in character beats, plot points and visual references. Case in point: Laurie falls off a balcony - when Michael peers over the railing, she is gone. The film is thus basically one big homage to the franchise that birthed it, and I suspect your enjoyment of it will be shaded by whether you think that is OK or not, and where you draw the line between homage and stealing.
John Carpenter was pretty deeply involved in its making - he even scored it, which just drives home again how brilliant that deceptively simple original score was. With his involvement, it’s hard to say the film is stealing from the original, but it is so thoroughly infused with the DNA of everything that came before that it is also hard to understand how this movie is anything other than a cash-grab looking to capitalize on new generations of film-goers who have never heard of Michael Myers. I mean, it’s a well-made slasher film but what does it really offer that is new? It’s not as intelligently self-aware as Scream, and there are still enough plot holes and weird baggage so it doesn’t work as a seamless slasher flick either. Is there any point to just re-working the greatest hits from the last 40 years, while giving Laurie the opportunity to work through her past trauma? By the time the credits rolled, I wasn’t entirely sure.
After we came home from the theater, we felt compelled to watch the original Halloween, to see where this movie was coming from and whether its existence felt justified. And when compared to the brilliant, inventive, ground-breaking work of John Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween, this most recent iteration just doesn’t really hold up in my view.
So what makes the 1978 version such a classic? For one, the score. The subtitles variously describe the film’s iconic leitmotif as “unsettling piano music” and “grating piano music.” It’s disarmingly simple yet brutally effective at creeping you out. And indeed the whole film is like that. Made for peanuts, it’s not extravagant or over-the-top. It’s not even really very gory. The terror of Michael Myers is the idea that this idyllic suburban cacoon could be pierced by an unstoppable, unexplainable force of evil. That’s actually a fairly simple idea, but it terrifies us in a deep-down way because we fear what we cannot understand. Even more terrifying is that which we cannot ever hope to understand. It’s what drives morbid fascination with true crime stories, this idea that evil exists out in the world and can violently intrude on your everyday life for any reason or no reason at all. It’s why Americans, in particular, keep guns in their houses - to protect themselves from this unseen but dimly felt idea of something evil out there in the darkness.
This primal fear forms the core of Halloween, but it’s an idea that is also executed really well. That opening POV sequence of Michael walking around outside his house, peeping in on his sister before climbing the stairs and stabbing her to death for no reason at all is a classic. It’s a classic example of restrained, tense filmmaking, and it’s a style you really don’t see too much in contemporary filmmaking. Modern audiences, with their short attention spans and reptilian brains, want quick cuts, pieces of stilted imagery stitched together rapidly so that by overwhelming their senses with stimuli they can forget for awhile about how unhappy their lives are.
But filmmaking was not always prone to this rushed, hyperactive, hyper-distracted style. Directors used to take their time in creating a sense of place and space with long establishing shots, and patient tracking shots around the exteriors and interiors of houses and buildings. The Conjuring has brought that style somewhat back into vogue for horror, and you’ll notice the Conjuring films that suck - like The Nun and Annabelle - don’t take the time to establish the space of their world. Especially in horror, this is a corner that’s not worth cutting because when the characters are fleeing a demonic force of evil, it works best if the audience has a sense of just how far they need to run to get to safety. This is a simple lesson, oft-ignored by modern filmmakers, but you can see how effective it is in Halloween, as Michael Myers stalks the tiny little world of Haddonfield, Illinois, a creeping, leering presence often lurking juuuuust outside the range of vision of the camera lens.
And indeed some of the best sequences in 2018’s Halloween are long tracking shots of Michael Myers, although the purpose of the shots is less meaningful as we just track along with him as he kills random people for no reason. But, at least he looks cool doing it. And fundamentally, that is the difference between these two films, and maybe even these two eras in filmmaking separated by 40 years and a moon landing. People who watch John Carpenter’s Halloween and are used to the hyper-violent, fast-paced noise of modern filmmaking will probably find it boring. It’s too slow, there’s not enough kills, not enough gore, too much build-up, etc. And that’s really a shame, that we have lost the patience to enjoy a carefully crafted piece of film that takes its time setting up the world it is going to terrorize, and instead we would rather get straightaway into the bloodletting.
It is important to understand that all or many of those genre conventions came out of the foundations laid down here by John Carpenter. He didn’t know this film was going to spawn 10 more films (and counting) of dubious quality, or entirely new franchises that aped his ideas. He didn’t know the film was going to touch-off countless think-pieces and essays on teenage sexuality and changing social mores in late 1970s America. He was just trying to make a movie on a shoestring budget about an unstoppable force of evil wearing a mask terrorizing a suburban neighborhood on Halloween. And he did it with confident filmmaking emphasizing POV, silhouettes, heavy breathing, that takes its time establishing a sense of physical space while slowly cultivating an atmosphere dripping with an unspeakable creepiness and dread.
When you hold that standard up against 2018’s Halloween, then all of its competent mediocrity designed to faintly echo the original seems especially hollow. Like Blade Runner 2049, it has the look and the feel down pat, but when you ask what these films have to offer that is new, or fresh, or could justify their existence the answer is a dreadful silence. Other than more money, that is. And isn’t there something just a little bit horrifyingly American about that, taking an innovative idea executed brilliantly, and then exploiting it for 40 years for the sake of making money? In the end the true horror of the Halloween franchise might be that it has indeed unmasked the unstoppable evil in our world. And it is us.