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Non-Review Review: Halloween (2018)

The Halloween franchise remains a strange beast, for a number of reasons.

Most notably, it is one of the relatively rare horror movie franchises that has actively and repeatedly refused the siren call of over-complication and entanglement. Michael Myers is an iconic horror character, on par with other seventies and eighties ghouls like the creature from Predator, the monster from Alien, Jason Voorhees from the Friday the 13th Franchise and even Freddie Krueger from A Nightmare on Elm Street. However, as the mythology of those characters has spiralled and intertwined, Michael Myers remains a very simple, straightforward concept.

The Shape of things to come.

The horror reboot is a fixture of the modern pop cultural landscape, and Michael Myers went through his own version of that. There’s an argument to be made that Myers came out much better than many of his contemporaries with Rob Zombie’s Halloween. However, even before that, the Halloween franchise seemed to emphasise its essential blankness. Halloween III did not feature Myers at all, which seems crazy in hindsight. Halloween: H20 effectively rewrote the franchise’s history so that only Halloween and Halloween II actually happened.

Of course, there were films in the series that indulged in all the standard horror movie tropes, which tried to develop and cultivate a mythology around the iconic masked killer. This is most obvious in the iterations of the franchise without Jamie Lee Curtis, particularly in the sixth film Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers. However, it is telling that these sorts of complications and elaborations have frequently been brushed aside as detritus, understood in hindsight to diminish the power of the character and the franchise.

Facing up to him.

The latest iteration of Halloween understands that this inherent blankness, this resistance against the pull of over-complication or over-mythologisation, is the key to the franchise’s success. Like H20, Halloween is what might be termed a “deboot” in modern parlance, a direct reversal of an earlier change in direction. Indeed, it’s notable for the thoroughness of the debooting. In its opening five minutes, Halloween wipes away not only the Rob Zombie reboot, but also the earlier H20 deboot, and everything in the past forty years.

In the teaser, the audience is bluntly informed by a British true crime journalist that Michael Myers “for the past forty years, by all accounts, has not said a word.” That statement is more than just an important bit of continuity wrangling. It is an important statement of purpose for Halloween‘s understanding of its own franchise and its central character. Halloween very pointedly updates its storytelling mechanics and framework to reflect the forty years since the original film, but it also understands that part of the appeal of Michael Myers has always been his blankness.

Homecoming.

Blankness is very much a feature of Michael Myers. The character was famously credited as “the shape” on the original Halloween films, long before his name went up in marquee lights. At one point in Halloween, Laurie even explicitly identifies him as such, describing something that she thought she saw. Even when Laurie doesn’t refer to Michael Myers as “the shape”, she is more likely to refer to him as “the Boogeyman”, as if to emphasise the catch-all nature of the monstrosity that he represents.

However, this is not a new approach. It was baked into the character from the outset. Michael Myers’ iconic visage isn’t particularly distinctive or memorable like the scars on Freddie Kruger or the hockey mask on Jason Voorhees. Michael Myers wears a generic white mask – famously a William Shatner mask that was spraypainted white. Michael Myers just wears another face over his own, one that is painted entirely white so that even its original identity is obscured. Michael Myers’ blankness is a huge part of who he is.

Parting short.

Indeed, director David Gordon Green makes a point to emphasise this. It spoils little to reveal that Green adheres to the franchise’s long-standing refusal to show the face of Michael Myers, preferring to treat the killer as a faceless monster. At the same time, what Green does show is interesting of itself. Shots positioned behind the head of Michael Myers, or out of focus in the distance, or intense close-up over is shoulder all suggest that Myers is a fairly bland and generic individual. There are no graphic scars. No tattoos. No long hair. Nothing remarkable.

In what the audience sees of Michael Myers, there are hints of a neatly-trimmed beard or maybe just a little stubble. There is tightly cropped hair that has thinned slightly in age. There is something very pointedly ordinary in these small glimpses of Michael Myers, contrasting with the hulking monster featured in Rob Zombie’s earlier Myers-focused reboot. It seems like Myers himself has approached middle age as most men do.

Breaking on to the scene.

Green’s camera also understands that the blankness of Myers is very much the point. Evoking the work of John Carpenter, Green often positions violence and horror in the background of a shot or just off the edge of the frame. A recurring visual motif of the film has the camera move its focus from Michael Myers to the implement of his carnage. The camera closes on Myers’ hand as he picks up a hammer, or as he upgrades that hammer for a kitchen knife. The implication is clear. Just as those objects are tools for Myers, Myers is himself a vehicle for something more primal.

Halloween understands the power of Michael Myers, and so has the character defined largely by his silence. The character never talks or expresses himself. The character never seems to luxuriate in his violence. There’s a matter-of-factness to his rampage in Halloween. The character is not a lumbering moron, but he is also not a particularly methodical tactician. “He has to to keep moving,” offers the movie’s psychiatrist character in what amounts to his keenest insight in Myers. “He has to keep killing.” Myers is a shark. A blank homicidal shark.

Face to face.

This dovetails nicely into perhaps the most interesting aspect of how Halloween approaches the character Myers. As much as Myers is a blank slate, he becomes a creature onto which others project themselves, and through which others seem expressing and meaning. The opening section of Halloween follows a pair of true-crime podcasters in a delightfully ironic set-up; two journalists working in a medium through which Myers could never express himself. They show up and they demand answers from him.

“Say something!” characters repeatedly demand of Myers over the course of the film. Notably, these are typically male characters holding a deep and abiding fascination for Myers. One creepy analyst awkward reflects that society tends to focus of the effect of horrific violence upon the victim, but he inquires, “But what about the victimiser?” Much has been written about the gender dynamics of slasher movies, from the emphasis on penetration with a knife to the idea of repressed sexuality and the imposition of conservative sexual mores.

Rifling through nostalgia.

Halloween is a very well-made slasher film in its own right, delivering a number of the requisite scares. However, it is also an implicit criticism of slasher movies. Indeed, it seems to openly mock (and implicitly worry) about the cultural fixation on the salacious crimes of fictional monsters like Michael Myers, particularly by very serious and very earnest men. It doesn’t take too much for Halloween to make an implicit connection back to the present cultural moment in a broader sense. The Miramax logo at the start feels bitingly sarcastic.

Dating back to the teaser to the original film, Myers’ violence has always been gendered. The violence in Halloween is also very pointedly gendered as well. Green makes a point to luxuriate most explicitly in the deaths of supporting male characters rather than female characters. In the original Halloween films, Myers primarily targetted women and seemed to kill men as targets of opportunity. Green retains that character trait, understanding the mechanics at play. However, the camera itself feels more comfortable depicting the deaths of male characters in greater detail.

Whether Greer or far.

And this, of course, brings Halloween to its point. Michael Myers is a blank. Laurie Strode is an actual character. Green very cleverly and very consciously stresses the inversion of that traditional dynamic, suggesting that Myers himself might be prey and that Green might be the predator. He renders this comparison explicit at the climax with a number of reversals of iconic Halloween franchise directorial choices; framing, composition, shot choices. This reversal is signified in the opening credits, which show the decay and collapse of a jackolantern in reverse.

However, it is also evident from the start, with the reveal that Laurie has spent forty years waiting for this moment. “I prayed every night that he would escape,” she admits at one point. “So that I could kill him.” She shoots at mannequins in her compound outside of town. She carries weapons. She trained her daughter to be paranoid and untrusting of the world. Laurie is a victim, one of the original and archetypal “final girls” in horror cinema. However, Halloween allows her the freedom to reinvent herself as a force vengeance against the violence that was wrought upon her.

Shaping up for one final confrontation.

It should be noted that this isn’t an especially radical or innovative approach to writing a female character in a horror movie sequel. Indeed, it could arguably be described as “the Cameron”, reflecting the development that director James Cameron gave Ellen Ripley in Aliens and Sarah Connor between Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. However, it is still rare enough to be interesting, and to feel like an organic direction for a character like Laurie Strode. Notably, this is the first horror franchise of the modern age to really lean into it.

At one point in the film, characters ruminate on their position within the third act of a horror film. “You always thought this was a cage,” Laurie tells her estranged daughter. Later on, seizing a perfect opportunity to change the balance of power within the traditional horror movie climax, her daughter clarifies, “It’s not a cage, it’s a trap.” There’s something very engaging and very compelling in that idea. Halloween isn’t necessarily radical in taking this approach to the material – Revenge set up and subverted this dynamic within a single film – but it does it very well.

The babysitter murderer.

In fact, Halloween may be the best that the franchise has looked since 1978. Halloween is visually impressive and confident, with Green demonstrating his canny ability to navigate familiar genre frameworks while still remaining a confident and stylish profession. Halloween includes a number of striking compositions, and great use of both light and colour. This is particularly true during the night-time scenes, when police strobe lights twinkle in the background of shots like red and blue starlight.

Green is not Carpenter. To be fair, very few directors can compete with Carpenter when the director is working at the top of his game. In fact, Halloween arguably suffers at points where Green wears his directorial influence most obviously on his sleeve, such as during the sequences wherein the director very artfully keeps the violence off-screen or around corners. Green repeatedly makes a point to show the graphic aftermath of such carnage, but there are moments when the staging feels a little too arch or a little too formal for the film around it. A little too familiar.

Hallo-teens.

Green arguably serves his predecessor best through the simple application of directorial craft to what would otherwise be a very straightforward horror film. Many of Michael Myers’ attacks are shot in long takes; some track the killer as he skulks through suburbia, while others remain fixed in place as he closes in on his prey. There an impressive level of craft on display in Halloween, one that elevates the film and speaks to Green’s credit.

At the same time, Halloween occasionally suffers from some significant tonal issues, especially in its first half. It is fine for Halloween to have a wry sense of humour and self-awareness. It is almost impossible for any slasher film after Scream to play the genre entirely straight. It is even appropriate for Michael Myers to have his own sick and twisted sense of humour, such as when he responds to some of those characters who demand that he speak for them in various macabre and ironic ways.

Why, I daughter.

However, Halloween runs into some tonal issues with its central characters, portraying them as self-aware within the horror genre. It isn’t just that Laurie has survived Michael Myers, it’s that she seems to understand that she is trapped within a horror movie. There are several early moments played for laughs, suggesting that the characters are in on the joke, such as a sequence in which the (understandably) agoraphobic Laurie visits a restaurant and ends up stealing a glass of wine theatrically to steady her nerves.

There are a lot of moments like this within Halloween, where characters knowingly and ironically comment up the plot mechanics necessary for a film like this to work in this day and age. In particular, characters comment upon the inherent absurdity of Michael Myers escaping again just in time for the holiday with which he is most firmly associated. There is something unnecessarily defensive about these jokes and acknowledgements – as if the film is making these jokes so that the increasingly aware audience can’t.

There are also limitations upon the horror movie that Green can make at the moment, in terms of sequel and action escalation. An early conversation between teen characters meditates upon the fact that Michael only killed five people during his original killing spree. One character suggests that is hardly notable. “I mean, by today’s standards,” he clarifies. The same character then ends the scene by blowing up a pumpkin, as if to justify the fact that Halloween has to up the stakes significantly. It spoils little to reveal that Michael kills significantly more than three people.

Still, Halloween mostly works. It feels like a worthy spiritual successor to the original, and a timely update of the slasher film genre.

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