The new “Halloween,” treated as a direct sequel to John Carpenter’s note-perfect 1978 original, is built on callbacks. Any franchise that spawned that much iconic imagery, along with almost a dozen sequels and remakes, has to be. But “Halloween” rises above mere fan-service nostalgia. By rectifying the victimhood narrative that followed Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) throughout the series, the movie remixes its slasher roots to become a thrilling feminist frolic.
Returning to Haddonfield 40 years after Michael Myers stalked all those horny teenagers, director David Gordon Green’s rendition serves as something of a corrective, whether or not it was necessary. There’s a tongue-in-cheek wink to the whole thing, and the audience is in on the terrifying joke from beginning to end. All that obsessing over the boogeyman led us back to where we first started: Michael is who we’re here to see, but the story rightfully belongs to Laurie.
Saturday’s midnight premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival got off to a rowdy start, the theater fizzing with excitement. Michael Myers himself ― or, a man dressed in a Michael Myers costume, if you won’t submit to such flights of fancy ― introduced the event by traipsing onto the darkened stage, an eerie red glow projecting his shadow onto the screen behind him. The crowd went wild, and didn’t let up for the 109-minute runtime.
That’s both the best and worst way to experience a movie. The energy becomes so palpable you can hardly stop to think about what’s actually unfolding ― and yet, for an over-the-top thriller lodged in Hollywood history, there’s nothing more fun. Accordingly, this is less a proper review and more an impetuous digest, which is only fitting for a film that never needed to be made but manages to justify its existence anyway.
All of this is to say: “Halloween” is thoroughly satisfying, even in its imperfections.
Green wisely scrubbed the series’ mythology, nixing the Michael-Laurie sibling twist that “Halloween 2” introduced. “That’s just what people made up to scare people,” a teenager says on Halloween morning, strolling down an aged street near the site of 1978′s so-called babysitter murders, now the stuff of Illinois legend. Michael is set to be transported from one asylum to another, where he will live out the rest of his days as “little more than pure evil.”
But the transfer doesn’t go so well. The bus carrying the inmates crashes, letting Michael wander back toward suburbia in search of a butcher knife and the woman who evaded his kill on that infamous night of terror. Long awaiting Michael’s return, Laurie has holed herself up in a secluded bungalow with a cabinet of guns and an underground bunker. She’s felt terrorized her entire life, raising her daughter (Judy Greer) with an iron-clad paranoia that splintered their relationship ― an incisive bit of trauma psychology that renders this “Halloween” Laurie’s stage through and through. “The new Loomis,” as she calls a psychiatrist (Haluk Bilginer) obsessed with discovering what lies beneath Michael’s hollow eyes and mute sluggishness, soon learns he won’t get very far in his research.
Of course, the whole affair would be nothing if that knife didn’t get a workout. It’s in each stab that Green and his co-screenwriters, Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley, turn “Halloween” into a master class in self-aware callbacks. They’re embedded in the dialogue, the score and the aesthetics ― some humorous, some ghastly. That treatment can smother a movie that needs to function as more than a cheap commercial ploy, but because this update redrafts the overarching “Halloween” lore, it achieves a sweet spot between discovering something new and revisiting beloved familiar territory.
One allusion in particular, which I won’t spoil here, is so inspired that Saturday’s audience yelped in ecstasy, and I along with them. Other assorted callbacks are woven into the plot’s fiber: A night of trick-or-treating and babysitting unites the characters as Michael creeps his way down the Haddonfield streets, undiscerning in his victim selection. The movie’s MVP, other than Curtis and Greer, is a feisty young boy (Jibrail Nantambu) hyper-aware that he is in a horror flick. It’s there that McBride’s comedic hand looms largest; nothing in “Halloween” is as subversive as “Scream,” but that film’s influence on the genre continues to work wonders.
Green, a genre hopper who cut his teeth on quiet indies before helming “Pineapple Express” and “Stronger,” shows a deep love for Carpenter’s material, even if he doesn’t borrow the elder director’s knack for pacing. It’s the patient, menacing slow burn that makes “Halloween” a masterpiece, but Green is making a movie in 2018, when studios’ dominant filmmaking mode is rarely less than full-throttle velocity.
For Carpenter purists, that leaves something to be desired. There’s nothing as dynamic as the haunting perspective shots that first brought Michael Myers to life, but Green gives us plenty of grisly frights to cheer for in their absence. One or two might be a tad too grisly, forgetting that the things we don’t see often end up being the scariest. “Halloween” works hard to be a crowd pleaser, and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it does wind up somewhat shortchanging the tone.
But by the electrifying final half hour, little of that matters. It all builds to Laurie’s moment in the sun ― or the moon, rather. Curtis, bringing a hard-edged bitterness to the character, knows just how much resolve to give the audience. We feel a catharsis on her behalf, further emboldened by how much she embraces the project’s knowingness.
“Do as I say,” she tells her granddaughter (Andi Matichak), just as Laurie told young Tommy as he hid from the boogeyman in 1978. It’s a fitting summation of the whole affair: Do as she says, for she is the only one who knows this masked murderer’s ways, and the only one who can shepherd the ordeal to a gratifying conclusion. (This assumes there won’t be another sequel. One can never be too sure.)
When Green and the cast took the stage as the lights rose at almost 2 a.m., there wasn’t a bleary eye in the house, even for those of us who’d been shlepping in and out of movie screenings for the past 18 hours.
“Happy Halloween, motherfuckers,” Curtis cooed into a microphone. At last, Laurie Strode gets her prize.