The problem is that sometimes good movies are worse than bad movies.
David Gordon Green’s Halloween is a well-made, thematically rich revisiting of the original John Carpenter film, and there’s absolutely a way I could review it while making it sound like I liked it. I admire the ruthless way Green throws out all the continuity he doesn’t like–right down to Laurie Strode being Michael Myers’s sister, one of the bits of sequel miscellany that’s actually permeated into the wider culture–and sticks to the story he wants to tell. The acting is strong. I appreciate, from a feminist point of view, the way Green not only gives us the traditional teenage Final Girl (Andi Matichak) but also her mother (Judy Greer) and grandmother (Jamie Lee Curtis); I like the toughness and jagged edges of Curtis’s Strode.
And the film does a number of thoughtful, contemporary moves. Part of it, after all, is about how we conceive and tell the stories of our lives–if you define yourself as a survivor rather than a victim, what does that mean? What are the consequences of empowerment? Who gets to understand? Halloween is full of characters seeking to make sense of Michael Myers, cinema’s most menacing blank slate: the movie is haunted by local legends, true crime podcasters, family troubles, and obsessions. Everyone conceives of Michael differently, but Green’s ultimate position seems to be that the only way to really understand him is to face off against him. No amount of research, analysis, or sympathy is going to get you close. Michael is an unstoppable force, and the only way to recognize that is to become the immovable object or else die trying. It’s a nice thumbing of the nose to versions of the story that have muddled the clarity of Carpenter’s original, and it makes it rewarding to analyze the film.
The movie’s view of the sexual landscape of 2018 is probably timely, too, if sometimes obtrusively so. In contrast to the first movie and the slasher genre in general, no one here is really getting laid. Exuberant dry-humping is agreed upon, at least, but that’s as far as we get–otherwise it’s porn, Nice Guy yearning, sleazy gaslighting, and virginity that feels less like a choice and more like a recognition of a gross, disappointing landscape. I can even get intensely, ridiculously Freudian here and note that the trap that finally closes on Michael involves an opening that gnashes closed with teeth-like spikes; the ruthless, unkind pursuer and killer of women finally contained by women themselves and suitably punished. It is, in short, a nice movie to write an essay on.
But on the other hand… this was a deeply unenjoyable film for me. I found it poorly-paced (the one thing a slasher movie surely shouldn’t be) and joyless–intellectually interested in its characters but not especially fond of them. The true crime podcast hosts exist to be loathsomely intrusive–and genuinely terrible at their jobs, referring to Michael as “it,” and curiously well-funded–and then murdered. Other patients at the hospital where Michael is initially committed exist to be mentally ill in a creepy, vaguely supernatural way. (This felt far more retrogade than I really needed in my 2018 movie.) Male characters exist to be ineffectual disappointments, which doesn’t have to be part of the film’s feminist aspirations. (Aspirations which are slightly soured by the decision to go for a laugh right at the moment when a likable young girl is slaughtered.)
Curtis is rightly the centerpiece here, but she is–perhaps intentionally–almost as much of a cipher as Michael. If only the events of the first movie happened, why, exactly, is Laurie so convinced that Michael will return for her? He’s a mass murderer she had an apparently coincidental encounter with forty years ago–I could buy her intense, survivalist paranoia as a general, if extreme, fear of the world, but it seems absurd to make it a trained reaction against Michael specifically. Instead, it winds up being meta–she knows he’ll come back for her because she was his first Final Girl.
Ultimately, that neatly encapsulates my problem with the film in general. It works on a metatextual, analytical level but not on a storytelling and characterization level. For all I admire Green’s decision to drop sequel material to go straight for what he likes about the original, he would have been better off dropping some of his love of the original, too. Halloween (2018) is full of homages and nods and some of them, frankly, just get in the way. Some are nice–Laurie’s body disappearing from the ground before Michael can look for it, in a reverse-callback–because they provide a bonus for viewers familiar with the first film while also making sense in context. Others are just clumsy, like people referring to Michael as “the Shape,” which just doesn’t work outside of extratextual knowledge in a world where everyone knows this guy’s name and that’s not even his “serial killer” nickname. And still others drag us down into senselessness. Halloween IV is a bad, bad movie, but because it’s a bad movie, it’s slightly forgivable that Michael is being transported from hospital to hospital on Halloween. Here, in the hands of a competent production team, it’s just dumb. (I’ll grant you that there is a possible in-universe explanation of this. Left vague, I still don’t like it. This is not a case where ambiguity helps anyone.)
This is, in the end, a frustrating film, one that offers neither the precision and deftness of Carpenter’s original nor some of the batshit unintentional comedy of the sequels nor the various pleasures of recent “prestige horror” pictures which have probably influenced it.