Halloween (2018) is a well crafted film that manifests the professional filmmaking acumen we would expect from a major Hollywood production. Especially when the film focuses on the survivalist life Laurie Strode carved out for herself since her first encounter with The Shape, and the familial dysfunction that resulted, the dialogue and the visual storytelling are adept and, at times, even compelling. We believe that Laurie is trapped inside her fears. We care that her granddaughter tries to maintain a normal relationship with her. The theme of women’s empowerment that becomes more central in the third act therefore has greater resonance than it would have had if this family backstory had not been pursued as well as it was. The film works then when focusing on Laurie Strode overcoming her own lifelong demon and, ultimately, turning the story’s predator into prey.
The problem with Halloween is everything else. As a horror, Halloween disappoints. Much has been written already about the lack of “atmosphere” and “building dread,” especially in comparison to the first two films. For the most part, those insights are true. Michael Myers kills, often much more viciously than in the first film, and since the film abandons Halloween II (meaning no sibling rivalry and no Samhain curse) he kills without any motive other than the fact that he is “pure evil.” Nevertheless, in order to keep the story pace moving (perhaps in acknowledgment of the relatively limited attention span of younger audiences today) the film does not take the time to show Michael stalking his victims. He does not slowly creep out from the shadows. He just steps into the frame with his weapon of choice in hand and dispatches his next victim. In that respect, he is more like Jason Voorhees, and thus I was not all that surpised when I heard some people in the theater audience tonight chanting the “ki ki ki ma ma ma” mantra from the old Friday the 13th movies. Michael is an incredible force who can smash a human head with one stomp of his boot heel, as Jason could knock off a human head with one punch, but like his counterpart in the later Friday the 13th movies he is proportionately less scary as he is more violent.
Graphic violence, like the infamous “jump scares” we see all too often in horror films nowadays (especially in the Blumhouse variety), actually releases tension in favor of the cheap thrill. Part of the genius of the original Halloween is that there is almost no blood in the film. Moreover, in that first film, most of the murders are obscured by darkness (the boyfriend stabbed to the wall) or haziness (Annie’s death inside the parked car seen through a fogged up windshield), which invites us to extend our own imaginations to the scenes. Also, the murders in that first film always happen in one continual shot. There are no fast cuts which allow us to see the murder happen from multiple angles. The result is that we witness the murders as if frozen in one spot not too far from the action. The fact that we see multiple angles of the murders in Halloween (2018) makes those murders “more cinematic” and, therefore, “less visceral.” We see the violence, but with all that sophisticated editing we are always reminded that this is a movie.
Detractors have commented that there is too much comedy. If we see Halloween (2018) as more of an action than a horror film, then the comedy is appropriate. It is all too apparent that the filmmakers are trying to appeal to the post-Scream, meta sensibilities of younger audiences; and perhaps they are correct in acknowledging that audiences today would much rather be entertained than frightened. I prefer the dark menace and the slower, creepier pace of older horror films (Black Christmas, 1974; The Shining, 1980). I think that may have to do with the fact that as a man in my mid-forties I grew up before the Internet and social media. I read books (the old fashioned kind that are bound in leather and collect dust) and learned to appreciate the slow and steady build to the heart thumping climax. Today’s instant gratification culture does not seem to have the patience for that, and I think that that is reflected in how films now are edited. That is also reflected in the preference of the sudden thrill or the cheap laugh over the “slow build.” Would Kubrick have been able to distribute The Shining in today’s marketplace? For that matter, would Carpenter have been able to find a mass audience for the original Halloween in our times? Or would those classic horror films, if released today, have been relegated to the niche community of horror enthusiasts? I suspect the latter.
I have a few more quibbles with the film. Apart from Jamie Lee Curtis, who really captures the unsettling brew of weakness and strength in Laurie Strode, the acting is mediocre, though that is to be expected with a mainstream horror or action film. There is virtually no character development for the victims, apart from the father, so we really do not care when they are dispatched. There is subtle foreshadowing of the plot twist with the doctor in the third act, especially in what the doctor says to the podcast interviewers before the opening credits. Nevertheless, the plot twist is too extreme and, as such, works against that suspension of disbelief needed for a film like this. I did like the ending, though. Fire is a classic symbol of purification, and for Laurie in the end burning away the psychological entanglements of the past is frankly more important than making sure The Shape is dead. Ultimately, this is Laurie’s story, so the redemptive value of the film is in Laurie freeing herself and her loved ones from that protective prison in which she has been hiding for the past forty years.