John Carpenter’s 1978 “Halloween” was hugely influential, the little horror movie that initiated the entire slasher genre. It was also unlike most of the dross that soon mimicked it in depending far more on suspense and suggestion than on gore—indeed, blood is conspicuous by its absence. In that respect it also differed from the spate of sequels that inevitably followed, as well as the recent remakes by Rob Zombie. It’s a classic of its kind, and like “Psycho” before it, retains the power to surprise and scare new viewers.
David Gordon Green and Danny McBride are an unlikely pair to attempt restoring the original luster to a property that has been desecrated over forty years of debasement, but their film does a pretty good job of melding respect for Carpenter’s template with the contemporary audience’s demand for more explicit violence. The new “Halloween” can’t match the punch that Carpenter’s carried four decades ago, but compared to today’s spate of gruesome horrorfests, it comes closer than most.
The script’s first tack is to cleanse the franchise of all the rubbish that’s accrued to it over the course of innumerable sequels, reboots and remakes. The premise is that none of that happened, and that this is a direct follow-up to the first movie. So murderous Michael Myers has been back in confinement in Dr. Loomis’ mental institution for forty years, though the good doctor himself is dead (we’re treated at one point to a recording of his voice—Donald Pleasence as imitated by Colin Mahan), but he’s been succeeded in his obsession with Michael by an erstwhile student of his, Dr. Ranbir Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), who seems perturbed that his longtime patient (played by the original “Shape” Nick Castle in some scenes, and by James Jude Courtney in others) is finally being transferred to another facility. Before he departs, however, Sartain introduces the perpetually mute, fearsome Myers to a couple of podcast reporters, Aaron (Jefferson Hall) and Dana (Rhian Rees), who are doing a retrospective on his crimes and even bring along his old mask in hopes of eliciting a response from him.
Meanwhile Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), Carpenter’s last girl standing, remains traumatized by the experience, having spent her life trying to protect herself and her family from the possibility of Michael’s return and pushing away her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) in the process. Karen is married to Ray (Toby Huss), a nice but ineffectual guy, and their daughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) is a high school senior who’s just become a National Merit Scholar. She’s also preparing to go to the campus Halloween bash with her boyfriend Cameron (Dylan Arnold) and his goofy best buddy Oscar (Drew Scheid). Her best friend Vicky (Virginia Gardner) is unfortunately cooped up babysitting for a smart-aleck kid named Julian (Jibrial Nantambu), though her boyfriend Dave (Miles Robbins) has promised to stop by after the kid goes to sleep.
Of course the transport bus carrying Michael has an accident and he escapes, killing a boy in the process (you can always tell that a horror movie is serious when a child becomes a victim), and after retrieving his mask in an especially nasty sequence, he returns to Haddonfield and offs a considerable number of people—the body count is far higher than last time around—though some that you might deem worthy of his blade in fact escape while others much more sympathetic don’t. By this time the police—Officer Hawkins (Will Patton) and Sheriff Baker (Omar Dorsey) are on his trail, but his real targets are Laurie, Karen, Ray and Allyson, whom he will track down to Strode’s fortified, rural house. There’s a joker in the deck in the person of Dr. Sartain, who turns out to be less like his mentor, who was all for simply killing the embodiment of “pure evil,” than the obsessive scientist in another Carpenter movie “The Thing,” who wanted the creature saved for study.
Though it shares a small-town setting with Green’s first film “George Washington,” “Halloween” couldn’t be more different from it. Although there’s a certain hallucinatory quality to each, the hazily idyllic atmosphere of the earlier film has little in common with the rather brutal look Green, production designer Richard A. Wright, cinematographer Michael Simmonds and editor Tim Alverson have contrived for this one. It fits, of course, as do the occasional shafts of humor that are inserted (no doubt contributions at least partially due to McBride).
So does the performance of Curtis, who reclaims her old title of scream queen even as Matichak challenges for it. Everybody else does their job decently enough, though Greer frankly seems a little too weak for Karen (whom, as flashbacks disclose, Laurie forced to undergo lots of training as a child). Curtis and Castle aren’t the only returnees from Carpenter’s movie: P.J. Soles turns up in a cameo as a teacher, too. And there’s another element of the 1978 “Halloween”—a very important one—that reappears here as well: Carpenter’s brilliantly simple score, embellished by Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies.
“Halloween” should please fans pretty much throughout, but they’ll be hooked at the very start, a virtual reverse of the memorable pumpkin credits sequence from the original, which figuratively clears away all the damage done to the franchise over the decades.
One question remains: what is that brief glimpse of a scene from the eighties TV series “Voyagers!” doing in one of the murder scenes? Perhaps it’s just intended as a reference to travelling back in time, which is what that show was about. If so, it’s appropriate for Green’s sequel, a surprisingly successful attempt to recapture the effect of Carpenter’s now four-decade-old classic in more modern terms.