Movie Review: The Curious Cast of the Three Halloweens
Written by Sam Stashower.
So, anyone remember Shaft? Yeah, there was another one of those earlier this year. You’d be forgiven for not remembering. By all accounts, it wasn’t very good. It seemed to just kind of come and go without much fuss. The one point of note was how interesting it was that there were three movies in this series that shared the same name; the original, the 2000 sequel, and the latest one.
This is rare, but not unheard of. Just last year, horror fans saw the release of Halloween (commonly referred to as Halloween 2018 or Halloween H40), the latest installment in one of the most long-running, iconic horror franchises. Forty years previously, director John Carpenter introduced us to Michael Myers, arguably the greatest masked killer the silver screen has ever laid eyes on.
In the pantheon of capital G Great Horror Movies, the original 1978 Halloween is way up there. Usually invoked in the same breath as The Exorcist or The Omen when it comes to horror films of that era that hold up perfectly. Halloween is often cited as the pinnacle of the Slasher genre; in part because, by today’s standards, it bears almost no resemblance to what we typically think of as “slasher” movies.
A large part of ‘78 Halloween’s timeless quality is the pure craftsmanship on display. This is a taut movie, swiftly moving from one sequence to the next with a swift professionalism familiar to fans of Carpenter. That’s not to say this film is at all rushed. Far from it. Some of the most memorable aspects of the film involve the silence that hangs over the town of Haddonfield as sundown approaches. You wouldn’t think the simple shot of a car with two teens driving away could be so ominous. This is a deeply suspenseful movie, but the film is careful about keeping the tension sustained long enough to be unbearable, but not too long so that you become bored.
And that’s important because there’s not much to distract us from the film’s atmosphere. There’s not a whole lot of actual plot Halloween. We begin with a prologue this is shot in an unsettling POV long-take. An unknown assailant kill his sister with a kitchen knife, only to be revealed as…an ordinary looking little boy! (He is so grounded)
We cut to the night before Halloween 15 years later, where the now-adult Michael Myers manages to escape the sanitarium he’s been held all this time. His psychiatrist, Dr. Sam Loomis is steadfastly convinced that he’s on his way back to his hometown, intent on finishing the job he started all those years ago; namely, kill as many people as possible.
Dr. Loomis is an iconic horror character, largely due to the extraordinary work of Donald Pleasence in the role (you may also recognize him as Blofeld from You Only Live Twice). It’s Loomis who gets all the meaty dialogue. Soon after rendezvousing with the local sheriff, he delivers this little monologue:
“I watched him for fifteen years, sitting in a room, staring at a wall; not seeing the wall, looking past the wall; looking at this night, inhumanly patient, waiting for some secret, silent alarm to trigger him off. Death has come to your little town, Sheriff.” -Dr. Sam Loomis played by Donald Pleasence in Halloween (1978)
That’s pretty great, but it has nothing on this one:
“I met him, 15 years ago; I was told there was nothing left; no reason, no conscience, no understanding in even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, of good or evil, right or wrong. I met this… six-year-old child with this blank, pale, emotionless face, and… the blackest eyes – the Devil’s eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up, because I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply…evil.” -Dr. Sam Loomis played by Donald Pleasence in Halloween (1978)
And there you have it. That’s all the plot you need, really. Crucially, Loomis delivers this speech in advance of the carnage that Meyers perpetuates. Not that we see all that much, to be fair. The final body count of the film is five, with one of those actually occurring off-screen (the poor mechanic that Michael kills to steal his clothes). And it’s not like the deaths are gory or anything. They’re mostly shot in shadows, or through a window, or slightly out-of-frame. For all the talk of “pure evil”, Michael Myers kills like a normal man.
But not according to Loomis. “He’s not a man,” he frequently insists, and for all intents and purposes the movie agrees with him. After the pre-credits kill, it’s well over an hour before Myers murders another person on-screen. Further, it actually takes a good long while until we get to see Michael Myers.
For about half the film’s running time, Carpenter ingeniously keeps “the Boogeyman” in the periphery of the frame, shooting him as a tiny, slightly out-of-focus dot on the horizon. This gives off the impression that he’s a hunter marking its prey. The one time we get close – the one-take where he abruptly shows up at the school, his head is cut off by the frame.
Regardless, his presence is clearly felt, even before a single drop of blood is spilled by his knife. The legendary film critic Pauline Kael (the one who called Dirty Harry “fascist”) had this to say upon Halloween’s initial release:
“The film is largely just a matter of the camera tracking subjectively from the mad killer’s point of view, leading you to expect something awful to happen. But the camera also tracks subjectively when he isn’t around at all; in fact, there’s so much subjective tracking you begin to think everybody in the movie has his own camera.” Obviously, she meant this as a slight against the picture, but in actuality she very neatly sums up why the movie has such an uneasy atmosphere. Of course the movie is overloaded with POV shots. He’s always watching. Michael Myers is the boogeyman, and once he’s out, no one is safe.” -Pauline Kael
So the ‘78 Halloween largely succeeded by virtue of its impeccable suspense, immaculately clean camerawork, iconic score (also provided by Carpenter), and almost tangible sense of build and sustained tension. Sounds great.
So why on earth did they hire Rob Zombie to helm the remake?
Well…honestly, it’s not a bad idea at all. For one thing, I’m of the opinion that if you’re going to remake something, then you have to do just that; REMAKE it. Don’t just rehash the same film verbatim, but with less technical skill and more loud, brain-numbing jumpscares (the Nightmare on Elm Street and Texas Chainsaw Massacre remakes were EXTREMELY guilty of this). Zombie’s shock-rocker, hyper-violent aesthetic is essentially the antithesis of Carpenter’s laid-back cool, so at the very least, we were going to get something different.
In 2007, fans of the Halloween franchise were desperately craving something different. The original Halloween had reinvented the horror genre and given rise to a number of pale knockoff imitators, the worst of which were its own sequels. The quality of these films vary, as do the extend to which they ape off of the original, but the truth is that none of the seven Halloween sequels* come at all close to recapturing the power of the original…no matter how hard they work to copy everything else.
*Note: The seven sequels does not include Halloween III: Season of the Witch, an out-of-continuity film that features none of the franchise’s characters or recurring plot threads. It’s generally accepted when talking about Halloween movies that Season of the Witch stands apart as its own thing.
I honestly believe all the Michael Myers films post-Halloween used the same script outline. They hit the beats of the original – escaped lunatic, night before Halloween, babysitters, police being useless – with none of the skill or charm. It’s kind of stunning how easily they blend together in memory. And one of them featured a Druid cult of evil! That should not have been as boring as it was.
The series eventually got so bad, a full franchise reboot was in order. Enter the guy who’d made The House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects, the latter of which is usually heralded as a modern classic. Surely with him, the series was on its way to new heights, right?
The best way to describe Rob Zombie’s Halloween films is that they’re the Ang Lee’s Hulk of slasher films. They’re so completely off-the-reservation from what you were expecting that you can’t quite ignore them, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are good. I’ll level with you right now; I have a lot of respect for Zombie as a filmmaker and an artist, but I really don’t like his movies. That’s very much down to my own personal taste. I can appreciate that on a technical level, many of them are very well directed. But his style of aggressively in-your-face nastiness and vulgarity, excessive jitter-cam, and non-stop swearing, just isn’t my thing.
To wit: there is a very good idea at the heart of this remake. Instead of following the original’s path verbatim, the 2007 Halloween remake spends a considerable amount of time with young, pre-insanity Michael Myers. Ostensibly chronicling his start of darkness and taking a close look at how this seemingly ordinary kid was turned into “pure evil.”
The problem is that Zombie, even at his best, isn’t exactly known for his psychological astuteness. Young Myers isn’t a fully formed person. He’s a little kid who swears a lot and just decides out of the blue to start killing his bullies, his abusive father, and then…babysitters, I guess. There’s not really a whole lot of rhyme or reason that can be derived from his actions. There’s no moment where you go, “Oh, so THAT’S why he turned into The Boogeyman!”
Soon after the movie begins, we learn he’s been torturing animals for a while. Okay, so, he was always going to turn evil? If so, what was the point of all this time with him as a kid? The film exists in an unfortunate halfway point between actually attempting to psychologically understand Michael Myers, and portraying him as the soulless, mindless monster from the original series. As such, it achieves neither. It’s kind of hard to buy “pure evil” as a concept if you’ve seen him mouth off to his mother.
This problem is exacerbated by the unforgivable decision to basically redo the original Halloween during the second half of the remake. After some actually interesting scenes inside the sanitarium (with Malcolm McDowell stepping into the Loomis role), once Michael escapes, the film essentially descends into a beat-for-beat remake of the ‘78 original, except with way more nudity, death, swearing and “shaky cam” filming.
This is really a poorly shot film, easily the ugliest on Zombie’s resume. Even his more divisive films at least look like proper movies; Lords of Salem in particular had a number of genuinely striking images, and Zombie’s own Halloween II has some pretty sick cinematography in places. This…doesn’t, to the point where it’s genuinely hard in places to tell what is even happening at any given time.
It doesn’t help that everyone is very unlikable. This is also down to Zombie, who’s never had much luck with dialogue. Not to sound like a prude, but there is too much swearing in this film. I’m serious. You know when you’re in Middle School, and you finally realize that the “F” word is a thing you’re allowed to say without getting smote or whatever? So you suddenly find yourself throwing it out into every single sentence that you possibly can? That’s the script to every Rob Zombie movie. It’s just as tiring as it sounds.
So, long story short, Zombie made two Halloween flicks – both of which had mixed reactions from critics and horror fans. Thus meant it was time for that rare beast, the Un-boot. David Gordon Green’s 2018 Halloween reverts back to the original continuity, but it actually goes a step further than that by ignoring all the events of every Halloween sequel after the first one. It effectively wiped the entire slate clean.
I’ve spent too long on this without mentioning one of the core aspects of the Halloween franchise; Laurie Strode, the original “Final Girl.” Jamie Lee Curtis burst onto the scene with the original Halloween, turning Laurie Strode into an iconic Horror character (though Loomis is the real hero of the hour there). And the less said about Remake Laurie, the better; she’s every shrill, annoying, panicky horror stereotype thrown into one person. Who curses too much.
Jamie Lee Curtis is absolutely the main character in David Gordon Green’s 2018 Halloween. She’s also easily the best part of the film. Curtis’s commitment to the Halloween franchise has been admirable. This is the second anniversary film she’s come back for, the first being Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (oof, that’s a title). In both that one and this one, let it not be said that she phones in her performance. She is committed to her inaugural horror franchise and that it to be admired.
And that’s all that Laurie is in this new version; the one that got away, the one who’s been preparing for her assailant’s return for the last forty years. For anyone who’s unfamiliar with the franchise, the second film (the original second film, from back in 1981) altered the plot so as to make Laurie and Michael siblings. This is stupid, obviously, but that didn’t stop every sequel after that – and the remake films – from incorporating that development. Green also returns to what I think is the best version of Michael: he’s just some maniac who kills because he’s evil.
2018’s Halloween is a very conscious throwback. For most of the scenes, Green deliberately apes the surface-level sheen of Carpenter’s camerawork; his Halloween, like the original, is all static camera shots, slow swoops over danger, and protracted camera shots. The most successful sequence in the newest film is the one-take towards the middle, in which a newly escaped Michael goes from house to house indiscriminately killing random people. THAT scene made me believe in “pure evil” again, whereas many of the sequels fell into the trap of just having him kill all the horny teenagers; a horror trop that, thankfully, seems to finally have died. This Michael just goes after whoever’s unlucky enough to enter his field of vision.
Except he’s also invincible. And super strong. And impossibly fast. This is just confusing to me. Green’s Halloween continuously undermines its own efforts in regards to going back to basics when it comes to the series’ mythology. It can’t quite decide what version of Michael Myers wants. This is a killer who at one point is hit by a car and incapacitated for a good twenty minutes of runtime. But he’s also able to completely explode someone’s head with one stomp.
It doesn’t help that almost all the characters apart from Laurie are uniquely unlikable. We’re not quite in Rob Zombie territory here, but it’s still not great. Judy Greer plays Laurie’s daughter who never seems to fit within the world. It honestly feels like she’s playing a stock romantic comedy character who got lost and somehow found herself in a slasher by mistake. Toby Huss doesn’t do anything but talk about how he used to do drugs before he’s offed. Andi Matichak is Laurie’s granddaughter, and she’s not a bad actress – she’s got legit chemistry with Curtis – but as written, her character has nothing much to do before the climax beyond getting stood up, cheated on, then menaced by Myers.
This is all pretty bad, but that’s not what kills this movie for me. The real issue I keep coming back to here is the film’s almost crippling lack of suspense. The original Halloween started with Michael Myers killing his sister and slowly built from there, ingeniously ratcheting up the tension scene after scene. 2018’s Halloween starts with an illogical, but effective enough, sequence within the sanitorium. But, it kind of just meanders about, going off in one direction, getting lost in another, and generally failing to create any kind of sustained atmosphere as the thing goes along.
The pacing is all wrong. Scenes begin and end at the wrong place, often cutting off when things are about to get interesting. The film wildly oscillates between genuine attempts at suspense and overblown, in-your-face gore. Worst of all, there are long segments towards the middle where Laurie Strode is nowhere to be found.
It’s ironic, isn’t it? The main asset to the original 1978 Halloween – its patience and restraint – is the least influential aspect to its legacy? John Carpenter’s masterclass in suspense and subtly gave rise to one of Horror’s most famous franchises, full of movies that are neither suspenseful or subtle. The Halloween series has been going for 41 years now. Someday, maybe we’ll get a second good movie. I can dream.