Continuing one of the strangest careers ever to start in the art house, George Washington director David Gordon Green gets to live a fanboy's dream with Halloween, clearing the franchise of decades of crud and starting over with a sequel that pretends no movies ever happened after John Carpenter's geek-beloved, genre-launching original. (Why isn't it Halloween 2, then? Who knows.) The kind of gig hitherto reserved for J.J. Abrams and few others, it's one Green fairly leaps into, delivering both fan service and honest-to-god moviemaking of the sort rarely seen in horror spinoffs. Carpenter should be pleased, and so should genre buffs — for once, this is a pic their less-geeky girl/boyfriends should enjoy.
In this alternate timeline, the serial killer Michael Myers has been locked up since the events of the first film, known now as the Babysitter Murders. He hasn't said a word. Not to old Dr. Loomis, the psychiatrist from the first film, and not to his protege Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), who continued to study — some would say obsess over — the killer's psyche after Loomis' death. We meet Sartain as he is escorting two journalists who hope to wring a Serial-style podcast out of Myers' case: He walks them out to where Myers is chained in a concrete, chessboard-patterned recreational area. In an arrestingly graphic composition, Myers stands facing away from them, and one pulls his old, scarred mask out of a bag. Every psychopath in the yard goes wild, animated by whatever evil courses invisibly from mask to man and back. But Myers does nothing.
Back in Haddonfield, Illinois, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, who made her film debut in Carpenter's Halloween) is not what most people would call a survivor. Survivalist is more like it: Psychologically scarred by her battle with Myers, she has a big collection of guns, lives in a shuttered house with security gates and floodlights and thinks of little but the day Michael Myers escapes and comes after her. She might be looking forward to it.
Strode ran off two husbands, and was so insistent on battle-training her one daughter that the authorities declared her an unfit mother. Now Karen Strode (Judy Greer) is a normal adult, with a husband (Toby Huss, as charming as he was in Halt and Catch Fire) and a daughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak). They'd never guess, but the three generations of women are going to add up to one hell of a scream queen.
There's more scene-setting than in the usual thriller, with the script fleshing out both this family dynamic and introducing Allyson's circle of high-school friends. These kids would resemble the usual group of slasher-pic victims-to-be, if not for the fact that they're actually likeable. Not only are we not eager for them to die, in some cases it's going to make us sad when it happens.
On Oct. 30, 2018, Myers is due to be transported from Sartain's institution to another prison. Which of course means we'll soon see a prison bus wrecked in a ditch and a killer on the loose. But the film (written by Green, Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley) handles this differently from the usual inmate-escape sequence, keeping much of the action offscreen and, once we do see a murder, making it one we didn't want. For the next several scenes, Green teases us with the iconic character, placing him in the background or on the edge of the frame even when he's doing something we should see. It's Oct. 31 — exactly 40 years after the Babysitter Murders — before the movie gets him in its sights, and even then, Green lets him do the actual killing largely offscreen. We see him in pursuit, we see the grisly scenes he leaves behind, but we don't see in-the-moment gore until the moment we're not expecting it.
Green has a good bit of fun with inside jokes and boundary-pushing kills (should we be laughing while that character we like is begging for her life?), and offers more than a couple of gleaming kitchen knives, before he starts pushing the action away from Haddonfield's civilians and toward the woman who's been planning for it. Allyson is still at a Halloween dance when a local sheriff realizes there really is a killer on the loose and starts helping Laurie round up her family. (That would be Will Patton's Officer Hawkins, whose name may be a kind of circular nod to Stranger Things, acknowledging the fictional town that helped rekindle viewers' love of '70s/'80s sci-fi/horror fare.)
The pic has a good shock or two up its sleeve before getting to Laurie's armored, booby-trapped home, and once it's there, it surprises us again. For all her planning, Laurie's lair isn't the crowd-pleasing steel trap we thought it would be. In protecting her family and hunting Myers, her tactics leave something to be desired; hidden passageways aren't as hard to find as they should be; Chekhov's rules of drama don't apply to the conspicuous crossbow we see in her arsenal.
Maybe there was something to all that philosophizing Sartain did about hunter and prey needing each other; maybe, subconsciously, Laurie doesn't want to vanquish the creature of "pure evil" who stole her youth. Or maybe she does, and will. Given the way sequels, reboots and "retconning" works these days, the question may never finally be answered. But this Halloween ends in a blaze of glory.
Production companies: Trancas International Films, Blumhouse Productions, Miramax
Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, Will Patton, Virginia Gardner, Nick Castle
Director: David Gordon Green
Screenwriters: Jeff Fradley, Danny McBride, David Gordon Green
Producers: Malek Akkad, Jason Blum, Bill Block
Executive producers: John Carpenter, Jamie Lee Curtis, Danny McBride, David Gordon Green, Ryan Freimann
Director of photography: Michael Simmonds
Production designer: Richard A. Wright
Costume designer: Emily Gunshor
Editor: Tim Alverson
Composers: John Carpenter, Cody Carpenter, Daniel Davies
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Midnight Madness)
Rated R, 105 minutes