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[This story contains spoilers for Halloween]
There’s no mincing words in the new Halloween when it comes to the franchise in which the film exists. Early on, one character asks the granddaughter of Laurie Strode if it’s true that Laurie and the famed serial killer Michael Myers were sister and brother; the granddaughter replies with a disdainful “No,” clarifying that it’s just “a silly rumor” people made up as they built up the legend of Michael Myers as much as the man and his murders ever could. That surprise was built into the 1981 sequel Halloween II, one of the many films in the series that is roundly (and smartly) ignored in this latest revival, which carves out a new space to occupy and flourish.
For the purposes of this new film, directed and co-written by David Gordon Green, with John Carpenter on board as executive producer, all that matters is the first Halloween. The new film is a direct sequel to the 1978 classic; in that film, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, of course) was an innocent teenager whose babysitting job on Halloween turned into a fight for survival against an implacable, hard-to-kill murderer who was hell-bent on making her evening a nightmare. In this slow-burn follow-up, Laurie has spent 40 years suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder while concurrently planning her revenge against the infamous monster. When Michael Myers is set to be transferred to a maximum-security facility on — of course — Halloween, he manages to escape and head back to Haddonfield, Illinois to wreak more bloody carnage and face off with his surviving victim.
The hallmarks of the first Halloween are very much on display in the new one, from the obvious to the more esoteric and fan-service-y. Of course, Carpenter’s chilling theme makes its return (the iconic director co-composed the score), and there are a number of long takes meant to evince the sense of an off-screen perpetrator watching and stalking its prey. Some of the references and in-jokes are direct reversals or deliberate echoes of what happened in the first film. As in the 1978 film, one of the young women (Virginia Gardner) who becomes targeted by Michael is babysitting a young charge who watches an old-school genre film on TV before the horror hits home. And the fiery climax features a face-off between Laurie and Michael that switches their roles from the final moments of the first film: Laurie, this time, is the one stalking Michael, and she’s the one who seems to vanish before his eyes after being tossed out the second floor of a house.
Some of these callbacks are perhaps a bit more satisfying than others; most of the references in the finale work less because they feel fully earned by Green and his co-writers Danny McBride (yes, Kenny Powers) and Jeff Fradley, and more because they feel like a fine payoff for Curtis, the original Final Girl. Unsurprisingly, Jamie Lee Curtis’ presence in the new Halloween is a large part of why the film works. Curtis has always exuded a sense of fierce intelligence throughout her career, and it’s used to the advantage of expanding on the characterization of Laurie Strode. Part of Laurie’s 40-year transformation has been into a survivalist in the woods, replete with an underground safe room, a cadre of weapons and a makeshift firing range for target practice. The grit and fanatical determination and protectiveness that Laurie displays has alienated her from her adult daughter (Judy Greer), but it makes perfect sense for her as a character and enables Curtis to embody the complexity of being the grown-up Final Girl.
One of the few major ways in which the new Halloween steps wrong is in its version of the avuncular doctor character. Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) has since passed away; in his place is Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer). At first, Dr. Sartain seems to embody a slightly nicer version of the Dr. Loomis we met in the original: he clearly understands how terrifying Michael can be and the damage he’s wrought over time, but seems less bloodthirsty regarding whether or not Michael should be condemned to death versus being studied for medical and psychological purposes. But in the third act, it’s revealed that Dr. Sartain really just wants to keep Michael alive so that he can better understand what it’s like to kill. This desire is so extreme that Dr. Sartain almost gleefully kills a local cop (Will Patton) simply to make sure Michael can have a vicious reunion with Laurie Strode. Considering how minimally important Dr. Sartain is relative to the rest of the story, the twist is largely nonsensical in a film that otherwise keeps its feet planted on the ground.
The four-decade Halloween franchise has had plenty of ups and downs; reviving Michael Myers once again and bringing Laurie Strode back could have been a veritable minefield in the wrong hands. But this new film treats its characters more seriously than might have been expected. There is — much more so than the relatively bloodless original — plenty of death and gore here, and at least one violent sequence involving an outdoor motion-sensor lighting system that is truly unnerving. But while some of Halloween feels like a deliberate attempt to one-up the original, it’s largely respectful of the classic. Its treatment of Laurie Strode, coupled with Curtis’ intense performance, makes this new Halloween an intelligent conclusion to an iconic horror film, instead of a lazy cash grab.
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