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[This story contains spoilers for Halloween]
It’s hard to pin down David Gordon Green as a filmmaker, which is both one of his greatest strength and a possible weakness. You don’t know exactly what you’ll get with one of his films. Early in his career, Green seemed like the heir apparent to Terrence Malick with his elegiac depictions of the modern American South in George Washington and All the Real Girls. But a few years later, it seemed like he was transitioning to being part of the Judd Apatow group of comedy filmmakers, having helmed Pineapple Express, Your Highness, and The Sitter. Though he’s collaborating on his latest film with longtime friend and funnyman Danny McBride, the final product is decidedly different from the rest of his filmography: it’s the new Halloween.
Neither McBride, best known for his work as the loud and aggressive Kenny Powers on HBO’s ribald, funny, and spiky comedy Eastbound and Down (where Green served as one of its directors), nor Green have made horror films in the past. (The experience of watching a movie like Your Highness was terrifying, but not on purpose.) It’s to their credit that there are very, very few scenes in Halloween (2018) that have the hallmark of goofy comedy; it’s even more to their credit that those scenes rarely feel distracting. The setup of the new Halloween is simple enough, deliberately ignoring the rest of the extended franchise: four decades after a particularly harrowing Halloween night in Haddonfield, Illinois, deranged serial killer Michael Myers breaks out of prison to terrorize the Midwestern town again, where he’ll face off with a much older and battle-scarred Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis).
In truth, there’s only one moment in the entirety of the new Halloween that feels tonally different from the rest of the intense and suspenseful affair. It’s when two cops, stationed outside of Laurie’s fortress-like house in the woods, are killing time waiting for their sheriff (Will Patton) to arrive with Laurie’s granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak). While they’re waiting, one of the cops tries to explain the concept of the Vietnamese food banh mi to his partner, teasing him for his childish eating habits. It’s only about a two-minute scene, and while it’s cheerfully off-kilter and funny, it could have been entirely cut out without changing the impact of what happens to the cops. (What happens to them involves Michael Myers and sharp implements. You can probably figure out the rest.) Though there are other funny moments in the new Halloween, they inform and broaden the characters in ways that manage to feel natural, not just like an unnecessary tangent.
To wit: as in the original Halloween, one of the young women victimized by Michael Myers is a babysitter whose young charge is watching a 50s-era genre movie on TV late at night. In the first Halloween, young Tommy Doyle doesn’t really talk back to the teenaged Laurie Strode. In this one, the young woman, Vicky (Virginia Gardner), has some fun byplay with Julian (Jibrail Nantambu), the kid she’s babysitting once he reveals that he understands the code she uses with her boyfriend for smoking pot. “I’ll tell my mom what you’re doing,” he says, to which she immediately says “Do you want me to tell her about your browser history?” The humor here-— and as in shows like Eastbound and Down, the jokes are punctuated with a fair amount of profanity — is more modern, but manages to make Vicky and Julian feel like people, not just blood-soaked props. When Vicky dies — Allyson, her friend, is this film’s version of the Final Girl — it has more of an impact because she’s more than just a pretty face.
Perhaps what’s most surprising is how well Green is able to both capture the terror inherent in the masked Michael Myers attacking people at random, as well as the normalcy displayed by teenagers before they become victims for a slaughter. In the original Halloween, director and co-writer John Carpenter spent as much time building suspense as he did just depicting teenagers talking to each other and hanging out. Green does a fine job of building tension, and is aided by an excellent and deeply complex lead performance from Curtis. But the scenes where Allyson, Vicky, and their friends talk to each other stand out because it’s not just dialogue meant to fill gaps between murder sequences. If anything, because Green, McBride and their co-writer Jeff Fradley give their teenage characters more dimension, their deaths hit even harder. The standout is when one of Allyson’s male friends first tries and fails to put the moves on her after a Halloween dance, after which he’s stalked by Michael Myers in a backyard with motion-sensor lighting. It’s easily the creepiest moment in the film.
The new Halloween has to balance telling a new story and serving the old story successfully. With people behind the camera who are so unknown for their work in horror, it might’ve been easy to expect that this film would be a misfire. (The way the film handles its stand-in for Donald Pleasence’s Dr. Sam Loomis is its one genuine misstep.) But it’s a pleasant surprise watching this Halloween. Green and McBride don’t have a lot of experience making horror films, but Halloween suggests that they’re not just students of the genre, but they know how to make a successfully disturbing film themselves.
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