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'Halloween' Traffics Equally in Dread and Danny McBride Humor, With Mixed Results

By Kristy Puchko | Film | October 19, 2018 |

By Kristy Puchko | Film | October 19, 2018 |


Michael Myers is back (again) with Halloween, a new sequel that humbly asks you to disregard Halloweens 1 through H20 and join them for a fraught and surprisingly funny continuation of the story of slasher-survivor Laurie Strode. Jamie Lee Curtis (once more) reprises the role that launched her career. Carpenter gives his blessing as executive producer. And bringing some fresh blood and modern sensibilities to this franchise that had fallen fallow are indie director David Gordon Green (Prince Avalanche, All The Real Girls), horror mogul Jason Blum (Get Out, Paranormal Activity, The Purge), and oddball comedian Danny McBride. Because 2018 is gonna do its Madlib thing, gang.

Set 40 years after the 1978 John Carpenter classic, this Halloween finds Laurie a “twice-divorced basketcase,” who is estranged from her daughter (Judy Greer) and locked away in a fortress-like wood cabin, with intimidating gates, many bolts on its doors, a secret panic room, and a well-stocked gun cabinet. As the anniversary for the Babysitter Murders approach, a pair of provocateur podcasters invade her privacy to ask about her “bogeyman.” Laurie has little patience for their poetry about the night that ruined her life. But before they came knocking on her door, they spoke to Michael. They showed him his mask. They started a chain of events they never understood, because seeking the logic behind true evil is futile. Which might be Halloween’s most harrowing lesson.

Naturally, Michael once more escapes the asylum and returns to Haddonfield to invade homes, slay teens, and generally cause carnage. You can feel Green and McBride in pithy scenes where characters banter about nothing in particular, urging laughs and empathy, then dread from the audience. As a couple of cops talk about Banh Mi sandwiches or a babysitter playfully teases her toe-nail clipping kiddo, you like these people. You maybe want to see a movie where these odd-couple cops can solve a daffy crime, or where Vicky (standout Virginia Gardner) can go on her Adventures In Babysitting, accompanied by her sweet stoner boyfriend and spirited, cursing charge Julian (Jibrail Nantambu). But you know what you’re in for. And while many of the kills occur off-camera, Green’s lens captures the horror they leave behind. Dark pools of blood. Jaws snapped free and twisted. Corpses pinned to walls by an indifferent butcher knife.

The body count is high. The gore is ghoulish. The horror is grim, spiked with sparks of McBride’s daffy but crude humor. But at its core, this is the story of Laurie Strode, who survived but struggled in trauma for decades. Her daughter resents her. Her granddaughter begs her to let her hurt and rage go. Yet Laurie can’t help but quiver with terror, carry a gun for a sense of safety, and rail endlessly about the malevolent man who turned her into his plaything.

Frankly, I hated this. It made me deeply uncomfortable. As I sat there watching Curtis turn in a riveting and stomach-churning performance as a woman deep in trauma and terror, I realized I didn’t want this grounded tale of human terror. Sure, Michael still has inexplicable strength, a preternatural ability to track his prey, and an inhuman invulnerability. But Laurie is very human. She is not the idealized superwoman or fearless avenging Final Girl I anticipated, who’d make a meal out of her attacker with relish. She’s terrified. Because she has something to lose. Not just her own life, but also those of her daughter and granddaughter.

So, no. I didn’t like Halloween. But I recognize part of that is it rejected my expectations. It made me uncomfortable. But it meant to. And I admire that. Likewise, I admire that Green and McBride (and co-writer Jeff Fradley, whose work I’m not familiar with) took a risk with this property by blending horror, grounded in realistic trauma with crackling humor. I appreciate how they wove in callbacks to the first film, which will delight fans, and how they carved out a new path forward should this franchise choose to continue. But my discomfort and thwarted expectations aside, I don’t think all these risks work.

For one, the tone is all over the place. One scene is flat-out comedy, the next straight-faced horror. I could never really settle into the experience, as Halloween changed gears without warning. Beyond that, character threads that are given heavy attention in the first half are cut short or completely forgotten in the second. More than a couple of viewers walked out wondering what became of a seemingly major character. And the setup of a pair of pretentious true crime podcasters investigating what really happened that first Halloween is a fascinating concept, but the film doesn’t ultimately do anything satisfying with it.

Still, there were some great sequences. The babysitter sequence was stellar, full of verve and humor, and smoothly turning to the terror. A sequence involving a horny nice guy is sickly satisfying. Plus, Curtis and her onscreen granddaughter Andi Matichak make for mesmerizing scream queens. So even after a night of pondering, I’m still conflicted about Halloween.

I can’t relate to the early buzz that proclaimed this some new landmark in horror. Yeah, it’s probably the second-best of the franchise. But that’s not a very high bar to clear in most cases. You’ll want to know if you should see it. If it’s worth your time and the ticket price? And if you love horror movies, Jamie Lee Curtis, or the original Halloween, then yeah, probably. It’s thoughtful, surprising, and decently scary. It traffics equally in dread and McBride humor. It’s odd and ambitious and maybe takes on too much, because it doesn’t always work. But I admire its big swing of that damned knife.

Halloween made its US Premiere At Fantastic Fest. It opens October 19.