Dir: David Gordon Green; Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Virginia Gardner, Nick Castle, Will Patton, Toby Huss. Cert 18, 105 mins
The bogeyman is back. David Gordon Green’s new addition to the Halloween “slasher” franchise, launched by John Carpenter 40 years ago, is a very creditable update of the grisly old series.
It is considerably bolstered by the presence of Jamie Lee Curtis, playing the same character, Laurie Strode, as in the original film. Laurie was a teenager then. She is a vigilante grandmother now. Deranged villain Michael Myers (named after the UK distributor who backed Carpenter’s early films) returns too – and he is just as taciturn and homicidal as the first time he appeared on screen.
Haddonfield, Illinois, hasn’t changed much in the intervening years either. Families still put out the pumpkins for Halloween and teenagers at the local high school are up to the usual romantic mischief. In fact, one of the most refreshing elements of the new film is its familiarity. Characters may now have smartphones – but these don’t prove much help when mad Michael is charging after them with the kitchen knives.
Since the great British character actor Donald Pleasence, who starred as the almost-as-crazy-as-his-patient psychiatrist Dr Loomis, is sadly long since dead, the filmmakers have found an equally eccentric replacement in EastEnders actor Haluk Bilginer. He plays Dr. Ranbir Sartain, who has been studying the imprisoned Myers (his “lifetime obsession”) for years, and reveals that Myers has been looked at by more than 50 different shrinks during his incarceration. The general conclusion of the experts is exactly what is was four decades before: that Myers is pure, unadulterated evil.
Green strikes the perfect balance between knowing, tongue-in-cheek nostalgia and untrammelled horror. The film has some very nasty moments indeed. Green takes a sadistic pleasure in showing Myers dragging his victims by their feet or impaling them as if they are trophy kills from some hunting expedition.
Halloween starts with a striking, Silence of The Lambs-style prelude in which two British journalists making a radio podcast turn up to “interview” Myers, who is being kept chained in a courtyard alongside all the other inmates. Dr Sartain warns the journalists not to get too close. They can stand on the edge of the square but must, on no account, cross the line into the madman’s personal space. Green tantalises us with only a back view of the killer. We can see that his body flexes when he realises the journalists have brought along his beloved old mask. Of course, we know that Myers will escape in time for Halloween and that he is bound to go after Laurie Strode again.
Laurie is still traumatised by the memories of the killer. She has tried to bring up her daughter, Karen (Judy Greer), to be self-reliant enough to fight back if Myers reappears (as we know he will.) Karen thinks her mother has gone crazy and is simply trying to project her own neuroses on to the rest of the family. She tries to keep Laurie away from her daughter, Karen (Andi Matichak), a rebellious teenager. Karen, though, has her own lines of communication with her grandmother.
At the same time that the killer is going back on the loose, the film is also sketching in the complications in Karen’s love life and introducing us to her best friend, Vicky (Virginia Gardner), an equally irreverent teenager with a novel approach to babysitting. Green is known for blue-collar, realist dramas like George Washington and Joe. He coaxes convincing performances from his main cast members, who never look as if they are simply there as fodder for Michael Myers.
The first half of Halloween is much stronger than the second. Early on, Gordon is concentrating on characterisation and scene setting. When the killing begins in earnest, the film becomes repetitive and sometimes overwrought. The law of diminishing returns begins to apply as Myers hides in yet more cupboards or waits in darkened shadows for some fresh victim to slash to pieces. One of his defining traits is his absolute inscrutability. The shrinks haven’t been able to work out why, as a child, he murdered his sister (a scene we watch in voyeuristic flashback). Nor do they know why he never speaks. He is evil because he is evil. There is no explanation for it, hard as Dr Sartain and others try to come up with one. This is one of the glories of Halloween and one of the enduring frustrations. Myers simply likes wearing his mask and killing people. No-one can explain why. It isn’t clear, either, why he is so hard to kill. Is he superhuman, or does he just work out a lot? He stands for evil at its most abstract.
The film delivers all the pleasures that we expect. There are lots of spine-tingling, now you see him, now you don’t moments. We don’t know if Myers is behind the door or hiding in among the many mannequins that Laurie keeps for target practice. There are also several moments, as in nightmares, when his victims seem too paralysed with fright to get away from him. They will be wearing socks which will make them slip on wooden floors or they won’t lock doors and bolt windows when they should.
It’s a mistake to expect this new version of Halloween to explain the riddle of Myers or to get under the skin of the characters so terrified by him. This is an exploitation movie, after all. Its main purpose is to startle and frighten its audience. This is a goal it achieves just as effectively as the John Carpenter original to which it pays such affectionate homage.
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