Dissecting 'Halloween' and Its Muddled Message

Halloween-Publicity Still-Michael Myers 3-H 2018
Universal Pictures
The reboot sells itself as a story of a survivor's empowerment, but is it?

[This story contains spoilers for Halloween]

The following is a spoiler-filled conversation about Halloween (2018) — writer/director David Gordon Green and co-writers Jeff Fradley and Danny McBride's new sequel to John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s 1978 horror classic of the same name — between The Hollywood Reporter contributors Simon Abrams and Steven Boone. In the new film (which ignores all the other sequels, remakes and that one film where Tom Atkins fights the Silver Shamrock), masked killer Michael Myers (James Jude Courtney and Castle) escapes an insane asylum forty years after terrorizing babysitter Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). In this time, a deeply traumatized Laurie had prepared for Michael’s arrival with a gun range, a gun-filled panic room and, uh, a thing about gun safety? Now Laurie must convince her estranged daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and wary granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matchiak) that the Boogeyman is real, and he’s coming to finish what he started. Again, there are spoilers (and some bad ideas) ahead.

Simon Abrams, Getting Lonnie’s Butt Away From There: The long, slow rollout of Halloween (2018) — one of only two sequels that series co-creator John Carpenter contributed to — has led many horror fans (including this moi) to anticipate the film's release. There have been so many festival screenings, magazine photo shoots, video and radio interviews, pop-up immersive experiences, Snapchats, etc. I didn't really want to contribute to pre-release hype, but realistically? I totally did.

That said, the wait is now finally over: by the time you read this piece, Halloween (2018) will have been out in wide release for one whole weekend. And now that I’ve seen this new and sadly underwhelming film, I’m especially grateful for the recent reviews that have been critical of its uneven split between crowd-pleasing thrills and half-baked ideas about the seductive power of victimhood and the difficulty of managing your private trauma. Halloween (2018) addresses a timely subject in a very brash, dumb way because hey, this movie’s got ideas and is a spook-a-blast carnival ride, too! There are several wild tonal shifts in this sequel which are handled so gracelessly that I tend to agree with April Wolfe when she writes that:

Men should not have solely written and directed this movie. The hubris it takes for three men to sit down and think that theyve churned out the #MeToo message we need right now is just breathtaking. John Carpenter is indeed a horror master, but the original Halloween and its heroine were so fucking memorable because Hill had a heavy hand in writing the girlsdialogue and characters, imbuing them with whip-smart but relatable personalities and autonomy, rendering the cliché nudity more forgivable. Michael Myers was the murderer, but there was no doubt it was always the girlsstory.

April's piece now seems especially prescient given what producer Jason Blum told Polygon's Matt Patches (and later apologized for) about how hard it is to find working female horror filmmakers (gimme a break).

I obviously can't speak honestly (ie: from experience) about Halloween's representation of female empowerment and trauma. I do, however, want to talk about the way that this new film feels simultaneously like a half-assed attempt at saying something Meaningful and zeitgeist-y … but also like an overly grim, cynical knife-kill movie (to use an old Mick Garris turn of phrase). Individual scenes potently speak to the filmmakers’ bigger ideas, especially the one where Allyson collapses in the middle of grammy Sarah Connor's gun range and screams at the sight of several faceless, mutilated lady mannequins. But Green and the gang's consideration of Laurie Strode — who is played with such charisma and intensity by Jamie Lee Curtis — mostly feels like a missed opportunity.

So, the question of the day is: how do you take this film seriously when it tries (and ultimately whiffs) its consideration of serious themes in a movie that, by the end, feels more concerned with giving viewers closure (yeah, you light that murderer up, ladies!) than in developing its thornier ideas (yeah, you reject the legacy of pain that you’ve inherited from your estranged grandma/daughter)?

More importantly: what manner of teenager yells after her grandma — even a black sheep grandma that she doesn't talk to very often — and repeatedly calls her "Grandmother" and not "Laurie," "grandma," "nana," "Hey, lady," or "The star of True Lies?"

Give me your prognosis, Dr. Boone, who is also the new Loomis: how do we watch a movie like the new Halloween?

Steven Boone, Can’t Kill the Boogeyman Either: We watch this thing the way I watched the 1976 King Kong: through our fingers — but in this case, not because we're scared, just mortified that such a talented collection of filmmakers and performers could be this strenuously lazy. Oh, grandmother!

Actually, the cry of "grandmother!" seems like a David Gordon Green touch of weirdness, which is just the kind of thing that propelled me into the theater, despite finding its trailers repellent. The Green Factor. Green puts in just enough of his stray, eccentric touches and lovable local color to make this film as interesting as it is utterly graceless and pandering. He has directed plenty of emotionally suspenseful scenes in his handwoven indie dramas, but overthinks and fumbles the suspense in this essayistic horror flick. In contrast to Rob Zombie's equally boorish Halloweens, Green doesn't try to explain Michael Myers to death but to use his serial killer persona, The Shape, as an effigy for The Patriarchy.

Not to play generational hot potato in assigning blame here, but the mess of agendas and points of view this movie juggles is so 2018, not '78. Even the chintziest slasher flick knockoffs of the '80s were idiotic mostly in content but relatively clean-lined and propulsive in form.

What is so '78 is the film's concept of law enforcement. Rather than have fun imagining of how Michael Myers might evade capture in a world of surveillance, smartphones, Amber Alerts, drones and live-streaming, the filmmakers mostly just pretend that shit never happened. Running aground on that strategy, they have a character's cell phone ruined in a punch bowl. So we get such anachronistic sights as cops standing around at the scene of Michael's latest crime, pondering that he's "out there" somewhere while Laurie screams, "Do something, you impotent but oppressive Patriarchs!" (Paraphrasing.) At one point, a clip from Alex Cox's 1984 cult classic Repo Man flashes on a victim's TV screen. I wondered what Cox, who made brilliant use of anachronism and agitprop in the acid western/historical satire Walker, would have done with this Halloween’s patchwork of themes.

Abrams: Just look at the way that Laurie stumbles into a family gathering at a fancy restaurant. She grabs her son-in-law's red wine, which makes her a walking joke. But then seconds later, she sits down and sobs for no immediate reason. I can already hear the filmmakers explaining away this creative decision: That's somehow how people process trauma: one minute they're swinging and feeling fine, the next it all comes crashing down. OK, hypothetical filmmakers, but why then does it feel like Green and his co-writers changed the tone of the scene for no discernible reason? A key shift is defensible, but not when you also skip registers and just expect your audience to keep up. As it's expressed, that creative decision plays like an eccentric style choice, not a satisfactory character-driven decision.

The same is generally true of the Sarah Connor-ification of Laurie, who is now a Survivalist, I guess? Green and co. throw in some weird, weird stuff here: they make a weird point of saying that Laurie hides in her trauma because she, like Michael, can’t process her hurt any other way, and therefore kinda sorta enjoys it. At least, that’s the damning diagnosis that deranged psychologist Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer) gives them, a reading of Laurie that Allyson (and viewers) are asked to wrestle with throughout the rest of film.

But if there’s enough truth to Sartain’s words (witness: the above-mentioned gun range freakout!), why is Laurie a badass at film's end? If you're gonna suggest that victimhood can be a crutch that the traumatized sometimes detrimentally cling to — why don't you go all the damn way with that thought?? Oh, right, because it would rob viewers of pseudo-cathartic pleasures, like those stupid booby-trapped safe-house set pieces. Green directs the hell out of most of his scare scenes, but boy are they dumb, as is the notion that Michael is the Patriarchy. That's not a knock on April Wolfe's reading, but rather the filmmakers' vain attempt at rejiggering a by-now-archetypal story about victimhood and trauma into a feminist statement. Green and the bunch’s approach could have worked. It just doesn’t, not in the film we saw.

Let’s talk about how Green, as a showman, and Green, as a humanist/feminist/sensitive-type, talks about trauma: let’s talk about his new film’s violence! The brutal nature of this film’s violence could arguably be read as a reflection of the nihilistic power of an unchecked macho kind of evil. But if that’s the case, then isn’t the brutal death of that one young, unnamed boy (played by Vince Mattis) — the one who wants to dance despite his dad's attempts at butching him up with a hunting rifle — that much more ugly? Sure, Michael also kills full-grown men. But there's something slow and lingering about this kid's fate. Just like the death of that podcast lady. And the woman in the window, whose death brings to mind the one that kicks off the original Halloween II (1981). Their deaths make it seem as if their creators are more concerned with the punishment and mortification of women — and anything coded as effeminate — than they are in championing their issues.

I'm running out of space, and need to turn this thing over to you before I can smack you for dissing the Zombie Halloween remakes (I'm clutching my pearls, and I don't even own pearls!). But basically: does it feel like the violence in this film plays into rather than criticizes the macho nihilism that Michael embodies? Think of what Nick Castle told me: kids dress up and therefore idolize Michael. He's an icon and always has been treated as the star of the franchise. So the makers of the new Halloween film may make a big deal about how Laurie is now taking the series back in this new film — but isn’t this still Michael’s movie? Did you also find the progressivism of this new film well meaning, but empty? The set pieces are cool, but man, I'd rather rewatch Halloween: H20 (more on that soon).

Boone: The most exciting filmmakers — man, woman or cat — don’t see gender as a barrier to insight into human behavior. Or maybe, as Green often does, they just boldly stumble across the lines with some blind faith and a sense of promise. His movies tend to burst with people of unusually varied ages, colors and economic status, with a people-are-people sensibility that's often just barely within reach of his (white male? middle class? stoner?) grasp. That approach can be profoundly touching, even in its missteps. For example, there are a lot of sassy black folk in his movies. He particularly loves the spontaneous "music" working class black folks make when busting each other's chops, shooting the shit. He lets his actors run with it for a spell. Same goes for rednecks, bank tellers, high schoolers, pre-senile locksmiths and sheriff's deputies. It usually stays, dizzyingly, on the safe side of the line between affectionate and condescending.

In Halloween, possibly as a result of working under the weight of an iconic franchise and a hitmaker horror studio, he doesn't give his central character nearly as much play space. The whole project is an awkward fit for what this guy does well, and the intentionally awkward dinner scene scrambles to do with Jamie Lee Curtis what Green did with Al Pacino's fumbling, babbling performance in the great Manglehorn: make it relate to the bumbling, yearning, self-sabotaging fool in all of us. To bring that off, the filmmaker must be fully present in the room. Halloween, whatever the actual production facts, feels directed from a tower, edited in a blind panic.

This does result in a film that professes love for Laurie Strode and frets over her PTSD, but draws the biggest emotional response from the demise of the (spoiler) peanut butter dick guy. Not that we are given much time with that character, Laurie's boyish, middle-aged son-in-law, to reach some depths beyond his tasteless jokes, but he does come across as a person we recognize from everyday life. Should he have let Jamie Lee Curtis into the writing process more? Couldn'ta hurt. Not because she's a woman, but because she has carried her character for 40 years. It brings to mind Mark Hamill being shut out of preventing The Last Jedi from being a betrayal of nearly everything rich and resonant about Luke Skywalker. Halloween feels like it is simultaneously afraid to give too much screen time to an older woman (#ageism!) or to piss off young feminists or PTSD sufferers. The cinema of apology.

The gore? It all just reads as yet more desperation to make an impact, to give us PTSD, where solid storytelling would have done just fine.

Abrams: I think our mutual friend Keith Uhlich hit the nail on the head when he, writing for Slant Magazine, wrote that "Curtis, Greer, and Matichak never build anything approaching a believable genetic chemistry" and adds that the three actresses "each seem to be starring in their own movie." I also think that Keith’s criticism can be credibly attributed to what April identifies as a lack of a strong female creative influence. Halloween co-creator Debra Hill is no longer with us and Curtis, despite her input about realistic portrayals of gun safety, doesn't seem to have had much input on how Laurie deals with her pain in the film.

That's a major point of contention because that's half the movie. Again, I can’t speak authoritatively on this subject, but I can imagine how frustrating it is to watch something as personal and unpleasant as a botched discussion of personal, private traumas. That’s one thing that April brings to the table. I think her piece is the best I've read on the film because she pulls no punches and because she, as somebody who writes for newspapers (which requires a talent for clean, direct argumentation), says what’s on her mind in a smart, direct, take-no-shit way.

For me, April’s piece is a lightning rod, a catalyst for more nuanced discussion. Its main strength doesn’t come from its diagnostic power, but rather its ability to agitate for smarter readings of the film. Lookit us, we’re no longer talking about whether or not Halloween is effectively scary, because so what if it is or if it isn’t? Props to co-stars Jamie Lee Curtis and James Jude Courtney, and director of photography Michael Simmonds, too. But beyond that: it’s so disappointing to see this new, ambitious Halloween sequel try to do so many things and effectively pull off so few. Even Halloween: H20  an earlier and more successful sequel about the trauma that Laurie has lived with decades after her first encounter with Michael — is better. And don't get me started on the director's cut of Rob Zombie's Halloween II, which is heads-and-shoulders the best Halloween sequel, mostly because Zombie presents traumatizing, brutal violence as an extension of the psychological nightmare that his Laurie (Scout Taylor-Compton) goes through after Michael attacks her.

The issues of representation that April brings up — that the film needed to not just be crafted by men —  go well beyond trends and personal stakes. Imaginative empathy is what's lacking in this new Halloween, not to mention many of our peers' reviews and general film criticism. I think we're saying many of the same things, but in different ways, and that's because arguments about diversity and representation in the media often devolve into nasty, short-sighted turf wars: if an issue doesn't directly affect me, I can't imagine it being worth considering or advocating for.

That said: I don't feel like giving brownie points to this new Halloween film for trying to pander its way into the zeitgeist. This isn’t just a question of whether a woman could have made this new movie better — it's about honestly asking why that token gesture wasn't extended, especially for a project where empathy can only believably be found in grace notes. Halloween (2018) is an event: I'm writing this on Friday afternoon, so I can only imagine how much dough this film is going to make. [Editor's note: it made a lot of dough.] I just hope that the inevitable sequel is better for Green and the bunch’s receptivity to criticism.

Boone: I think films as muddled as this Halloween are the product of criticism and token gestures, whereas the original was a primal howl. The 40 years of rich discourse it provoked were unforeseen. A lot of what passes for imaginative empathy in horror movies today has more in common with political advocacy and market research. For all their graphic triggering, the most palpable terror such films evoke is of their makers' fear of offending the wrong demographic. The leap of imaginative empathy across gender and social divides is not as great or fraught as those nominal progressives who take shelter in entrenched (but diverse!) divisions would have us believe.

Please, no more sequels. Time to put Halloween out to pasture, man. The horror holiday for these prickly, cautious times is actually on October 30: National Publicist Day.