Dec 13, 2021


[Warning: Major spoilers follow for No Time To Die.]

What began in 2006 with Casino Royale ends with this year’s No Time To Die, which sees Daniel Craig’s fifth and final outing as James Bond, world-traveling, martini-shaking international superspy. Though his films deviated in terms of quality from one entry to the next like those of previous Bond actors, Craig proved to be among the most popular Bonds of the character’s cinematic history—if not the most popular. (Some folks will never surrender their love for Sir Sean Connery.) I’ll freely admit, except for random dalliances here and there, I’m not a student of James Bond. I barely engaged with the series prior to Pierce Brosnan’s first appearance in 1995’s Goldeneye; I’ve seen just a few Brosnans, not a single Connery, and I’ve only got one Roger Moore under my belt. (That sound you just heard is an entire Internet’s worth of Bond fans slapping their foreheads in disgust.) In this review for James Bond: Part 25, I mention this for a reason: though numerous sacred franchises and IPs from my adolescence were reborn during my young adulthood in the early 2000s, for once, I was the target for the new millennium’s rebooted James Bond series—I was fresh blood, an untapped viewer to hook and reel in for the multiple movies typically dictated by any new Bond actor’s contract. The strength of Martin Campbell’s exciting direction with Casino Royale, the fierce but suave portrayal of Bond by Craig, and the sincerer and less cheeky tone of this new era was an ideal way to introduce me to the concept (and Eva Green’s presence sure didn’t hurt); with just one movie, all my preconceived notions accumulated by years of parodies, rip-offs, and pop culture references had been blasted away. This was a Bond I could finally get behind, and for fifteen years, I did.

Starting with Casino Royale, the series followed an up-and-down trajectory in quality. Though 2008’s Quantum Of Solace didn’t plumb the same kind of lows as Brosnan’s worst entries, it was still a step down when compared to the series’ heart-defibrillating predecessor. Then came 2012’s Skyfall, directed by celebrated filmmaker Sam Mendes (1917), clearly Craig’s second-most beloved entry, followed by another step down with 2015’s Spectre, which pulled a very rare series hat trick in having Mendes immediately return as director, and whose Christoph Waltz was dogged by so many questions and speculation that he was playing the iconic Ernst Blofeld, which the actor denied at each turn, that once the movie was released and he was revealed as such, all the impact of the revelation had been sucked out of the room. (Waltz returns briefly in No Time To Die, his Blofeld channeling Hannibal Lecter behind glass prison walls just like Skyfall’s Javier Bardem before him.) In my estimation, Craig never made a straight-up bad Bond film, though it was easy to be disappointed by some of his entries because of how well made and exciting his best ones were, and how “event” the series is in general; with this prestige came unreasonable expectations, as audiences no longer expected “okay” entries—they wanted to be blown away each time, and that rarely happens with a long-running series, even one with the luxury of reinventing itself each time a new actor steps into the superspy’s tuxedo. Because of this trajectory, and for many other reasons—Craig’s vocal refusal to play the character again after Spectre (he very dryly conjured threats of suicide as an alternative), the public exit by original director Danny Boyle (28 Days Later), the hiring of True Detective’s Cary Fukunaga as his replacement, the high-pressure responsibility of being the final Craig Bond film, and its twenty-three-month delay caused by the ongoing pandemic—all eyes were on 2019’s 2020’s 2021’s No Time To Die.

Unlike the more segmented, one-off adventures of Bond arcs in the past, all of Craig’s entries had fed into each other in some manner, so to fully appreciate one or two of them required seeing all of them. No Time To Die not only solidifies that pattern but its entire dramatic swing depends on it. Its opening present-day moments won’t mean a thing if you haven’t previously witnessed the burgeoning romance between Bond and Vesper Lynd (Green) and its subsequent, er…dissolution in Casino Royale—an experience that permanently altered Bond across the entire series to follow, turning him from a romantic to a cynical, distrustful womanizer for which the character is known. Initially, Spectre was designed to be the capper for Craig’s arc, retroactively establishing all the previous films’ villains as operating at the behest of the shadowy criminal enterprise after which the film takes its name while also allowing Bond to retire at the conclusion of the film. With Spectre no longer Craig’s final outing, and in order to justify a reason to bring him back to the role, the stakes had to be raised, and an even bigger threat was necessitated to complement Craig’s for-realsies-this-time swan song. No Time To Die ably accomplishes this feat; however, instead of relying on yet another shadowy criminal enterprise, the villainous threat comes in the form of one extremely damaged individual with an alarmingly prescient virological axe to grind by the name of Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek)—and villains don’t get any bigger than Lucifer. It’s said that the enemy of your enemy is your friend, but when your enemy is the enemy of everyone, there’s no shaky alliance to be found and it’s every man for himself.

No Time To Die begins with the retirement Bond had finally achieved, which sees him traversing the world alongside Spectre’s Madeleine (Léa Seydoux), but a suspicious attack branded by Spectre sees the end of the couple’s harmony and Bond unofficially unretires to chase down who could ever be so rude as to ruin the kind of picturesque and exotic life that only exists in Hollywood fiction. His unretirement allows him to reconvene with his former support team of M (Ralph Fiennes), Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), the delightful Q (Ben Whishaw, voice of the eponymous bear in the charming-as-hell Paddington series), Tanner (Rory Kinnear), Bond’s replacement and new 007 Nomi (Lashana Lynch), and CIA operative Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright). With the team back together—well, sort of; he starts off working for the Americans before switching back to his home team—Bond trounces across the world in pursuit of his ultimate nemesis.

Despite Craig’s very understandable misgivings with returning to the series after Spectre (the actor broke at least one bone on every production), No Time To Die gives him the most to do yet, emotionally, as the character. We see Bond both retired and active; we see him content and happy before we see him crumbling and hardened; we see him going rogue and also finding a family; and finally, we see him at his most peaceful as the sky around him fills with an army’s arsenal. Perhaps it’s Craig’s natural improvement as an actor, his increasing ease at playing the character, or the harmony in knowing he’ll soon be free of the series that’s ravaged his body and dumped on him an enormous amount of public and industry pressure—whatever the reasons, he’s never been better to watch as James Bond, which is a nice way to say farewell.

Director Fukunaga stages a boatload of exciting action sequences, especially the film’s opening post-attack car chase, but also including the much-ballyhooed sequence in Cuba, which not only allows for the appearance of the incomprehensibly gorgeous Ana de Armas as greenhorn agent Paloma, but all of which falls back on the sillier, tongue-in-cheek humor that the Bond series had exercised throughout its run before the Craig era eagerly left it behind. Though the sudden tonal shift comes off as a jarring and alarming portent of things potentially to come, it’s made clear soon after that this was Fukunaga’s minor deviation—his chance to craft a sequence more in line with the quirkier Bond adventures—before righting the ship for the remainder of the running time…except for the occasional corny zinger.

Though I opened this review with a major spoiler warning, it bears repeating: if you know nothing about No Time To Die’s finale but intend on seeing it, this will be your final opportunity to throw your phone out the nearest window.

Leading up to the production of Spectre, Craig had one caveat: it would be his final go-round as the character, and Bond would retire from the agency at its conclusion. In spite of that, longtime producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson wooed him back with a lot of sweet talk and a lot more money, only this time Craig made damn sure he could never return to the series. Yes, for the first time ever, the generally immortal James Bond dies at the end of his mission, not just sacrificing himself for the sake of his family, in perhaps the most thematically appropriate moment of his series’ arc, but acknowledging to audiences across the world that playing Bond has been an honor, a blast, and that he is well and truly done—and the very explicit, on-the-nose depiction of his demise is one no human being could ever come back from. It never seemed likely that a James Bond film might actually cause me to spill tears, but seeing Bond’s status change to “offline” on a background computer screen in the film’s final moments came at me like a speeding Aston Martin.

Though this has naturally proved controversial among cinephiles, I found it to be a brave and an especially emotional move on behalf of the series’ keepers—and besides, No Time To Die was always going to be Craig’s final appearance in the series, regardless of how his character concluded. When he took over the series in 2006 (and please, genuinely, tell me if I’m wrong), it was never in my mind that the James Bond seen in Casino Royale was meant to be the same iteration of the character last seen in 2002’s Die Another Day, only this time wearing a suspiciously different face. Casino Royale, in my eyes, was always meant to be a brand-new beginning for the character, the Batman Begins of the Bond series, in spite of Judi Dench’s presence, who’d appeared as M in all of Brosnan’s entries. As such, if Casino Royale was a new beginning, then No Time To Die is allowed to be a non-controversial ending. We live in a new age for decades-spanning franchises where it’s no longer expected that every new entry has to be a continuous story. Earlier I remarked that No Time To Die was James Bond: Part 25, but that’s not accurate; instead, it’s Daniel Craig’s James Bond: Part 5, and once a new actor inevitably steps into the role, the dial will reset, his name will be James Bond, and perhaps a new support staff will surround him; we may very well see a new M or Q and everything will be brand new once again. (Personally, I’d love to see the new arc go back in time and take place across the 1960s—it’d be an easy way to transition to a new Bond actor and allow the dust to settle before the series re-finds the present day.) Only time will tell what the future holds—and like this newest entry, its moniker, and in spite of the death of James Bond, this series will never die.

James Bond will return.

Nov 22, 2021


Warning: Spoilers for the Candyman series.

The idea of going back to the Candyman franchise thirty years after the original terrified the previous generation seemed a little unwise and fairly arrogant—for all kinds of reasons. Where to start? Though it’s generally (and unfairly) lumped in with other slasher sagas, the Candyman series only made it to three entries, very much on the low end when compared to its double-digit-reaching colleagues. Indeed, the series has been extinct for over twenty years, thanks to 1995’s underwhelming Farewell to the Flesh and 1999’s atrocious direct-to-video Day of the Dead. On top of that, the irreplaceable Tony Todd had obviously aged out of the title role, and there was really no one left standing at the end of that brilliant original movie to continue the story (…or was there?). Probably the most important question: could a modern filmmaker working on behalf of a major studio have the same uncanny ability for unnerving audiences like writer/director Bernard Rose had back in the dark ages of 1992? Could anything baring the Candyman name in this day and age really be as terrifying?

For once, though the trailers gave away a lot, they didn’t give away everything, and what was assumed to be a straight-up reboot of the series’ overall concept was actually a sequel in very sly sheep’s clothing, allowing for the return of characters (and actors) not seen since Candyman ‘92. Much like 2018’s Halloween, this belated Candyman follow-up has ditched its association with every sequel outside of the original, only keeping the real name of Candyman intact as Daniel Robitaille, as established in Farewell to the Flesh. It’s also very much a loyal sequel, calling back to the original as much as possible while still digging deeper into the concept of Candyman as a character, as a legend, as a concept, and as something much more—“the whole damn hive” as the movie explains.

Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, the upcoming The Matrix Resurrections) is an artist in a rut, living with his art promoter girlfriend Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris, the fucking hysterical They Came Together) in a swanky Chicago apartment that, once upon a time, had been part of the Cabrini-Green housing projects where large portions of the original film took place. After hearing the legend of Helen Lyle, Virginia Madsen’s character from Candyman ‘92, whose life story has been rewritten to make her a Candyman-like villain as opposed to the hero, Anthony begins to research the mythos by heading to where it all went down: what remains of the Cabrini-Green projects. He soon meets William (Colman Domingo, Selma), manager of a local laundromat, who tells him of his own murderous run-in with Candyman as a child…only it’s not the Candyman audiences already know (Todd), but an altogether different hook-handed weirdo in a flowing jacket named Sherman Fields (Michael Hargrove), a well-meaning but slow-witted local killed by police after having been falsely accused of injuring children with razor-blade candy. Following his killing, Sherman returns as the eponymous mirror man, killing those who call him by his new name, which directly results in the death of William’s sister. Now infected with Sherman’s image, and, naturally, after repeating the name “Candyman” five times into the nearest mirror, Anthony begins to suffer hallucinations of a bloodied and mutilated Sherman Fields appearing in every mirror reflection, all while a nasty bee sting seems to be transforming his body into a hideous husk. Meanwhile, his previously dismissed art gallery exhibits inspired by Candyman begin to gain traction…in conjunction with the deaths of those with immediate ties to Anthony’s work as an artist. Soon, as word of Candyman’s terror begins to spread, so does that of the means to summon him: by looking into the nearest mirror and saying his name.

It’s often said for belated sequels like this that prior knowledge of previous movies isn’t necessary to enjoy any updated take (especially those belated sequels that drop all numerals and subtitles and reuse the original moniker, a trend I really wish would go out of style), but when it comes to Candyman ‘21, written/produced by Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us) and directed by Nia DaCosta, I could not disagree more. Sure, if you’ve never seen the original film, you could still find things to enjoy and grasp the overall concept while also getting a nice dose of the creeps, but by default it would prove to be an almost hollow experience—especially with its ending. Candyman ’21 isn’t just an homage or a universe side adventure—it depends on the original film to flesh out its story in the very same way it depends on it for its entire existence. If Candyman ’21 were a haunted house, Candyman ’92 would be its ghost. The original film’s events, ideas, and characters permeate the events in this new take, which finds dozens of loving ways to loop itself in with its predecessor, falling back on even its most background details (like the razor-blade candy, which remained unexplained in the original and remains unexplained here). Relievedly, there are no radical reinventions of the concept—at least, none that don’t expand on ideas already well established. Even the musical score by Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe presents in the same spirit as Philip Glass’s score for the original, crafting a very experimental and non-traditional soundtrack, along with lifting its most recognizable theme and reinventing it as a pensive and melancholy melody on electric organ. Candyman ’21 isn’t out to exploit its namesake while pushing aside everything that made it so wonderful; if there’s any one modern sequel that proves its love for its source material, it’s this one.

Candyman ’92 laid the groundwork for who Candyman is, and most importantly, why he persists. As intimated, Candyman is a walking embodiment of his own legend and of the fear he causes in those who believe in him. As the legend of Candyman grows, so does his presence in the world, and as his presence grows more well known, the legends about him grow further, and on and on, an endless loop of a mythical being’s willed existence. Though the main thrust of events is centralized to Cabrini-Green in Chicago, it’s suggested his legend is known everywhere, including the middle-of-nowhere suburbs, the setting that provides the film’s opening kill. When Helen Lyle saves Baby Anthony, previously kidnapped by Candyman to serve as a sacrifice that would make both Candyman and Helen immortal in story and together forever, those Cabrini-Green residents who bore witness to the act credit her with having killed the boogeyman who has long haunted their lives. Over time, however, as evidenced during Candyman 21’s opening modern-day moments, it would seem that Helen Lyle has inherited the Candyman mythos. We, the audience, know the truth, but for those characters in the room hearing the story for the first time, that version of the myth becomes their truth. That’s how urban legends spread, growing more and more powerful with every new person who tells them. To destroy the Candyman, one must destroy the belief in him, but following this logic, that also allows the Candyman legend to change at will, so long as enough people disseminate all the different variations of the story. “The hive,” as it’s called, is the accumulation of black lives lost to hate in the decades since the lynching of Daniel Robitaille; though the identities and details change, with certain people being haunted by their version of their Candyman, all of those variations are ultimately absorbed back into, for lack of a better word, the myth of the OG Candyman (Tony Todd, who returns for just one brief moment). He is the dumping ground for the world’s racial hate—a sort of anti-Batman on whom Cabrini-Green needs to hang its history of pain. This concept of “the hive” is the backbone of Candyman ’21 and is a major feat pulled off by the filmmakers with great success. It not only remains faithful to all the rules established by its predecessor, it greatly expands the mythos and brilliantly allows Todd to reprise the role in just a single appearance, limited to a single line, while reestablishing his Candyman as the Candyman. It doesn’t matter that he’s not the main Candyman glimpsed throughout the movie; ultimately, it’s still the story of the Candyman who started it all.

Also returning is Anne-Marie McCoy (a quietly devastating Vanessa Williams), not seen in this series since the closing moments of Candyman ’92 in which she peers down into the open grave of Helen Lyle, the savior of her son. Her one scene offers affirmation to the audience that the histories of the McCoy family and that of the Candyman are intertwined and sadly inescapable; though Anthony begins to suspect his place in Candyman lore, it’s not until the confrontation with his mother that we know it’s all true—in that moment, Anthony believes, thus giving the Candyman legend power, and thus setting into motion his own transformation. Seeing Williams return to the role not only cements this “twist” in the story and brings with it a series history that works in tandem with Candyman’s own, but also provides a nice little shot of romanticism, as we horror fans love nothing more than seeing iconic faces return to our beloved franchises. (Also, that woman does not age.)

Candyman’s biggest detriment is its incapability of executing any sequences of real fear—at least the kind of fear with the same staying power of its predecessor…though perhaps that’s unfair. Candyman ‘92 remains one of the scariest mainstream horror films of all time; its very first frame establishes a sense of dread and ominousness that continues until its very last. (The bathroom murder sequence involving a young child is still a top-ten “that fucked me up” moment of my entire horror-watching life.) That’s not to say Candyman ’21 doesn’t contain its own collection of eerie images because it certainly does, and “new” Candyman Michael Hargrove unnerves the viewer with nothing more than a smile, but it never reaches those “dangerous” scary heights that give you pause to continue watching any further.

By its very design, Candyman ’21 has an awful lot of balls in the air, and for the most part it keeps them all moving fluidly without causing a catastrophe, though threatening to overcomplicate matters is an underexplored subplot in which Brianna deals with a past trauma involving the suicide of her father, who was also an artist. Though likely existing to draw parallels to Anthony’s worsening mental state, there’s also a sly inference that Brianna’s father was a version of her own personal Candyman, in the sense that she’s also being haunted by someone with a tragic end whose image she can’t seem to escape. Candyman ’21 seems to even be implying that every person has his or her own unshakeable ghost—not walking visages of those gunned down unduly in the streets or lynched by angry white mobs, but more along the lines of the abstract concepts a ghost can represent: guilt, sadness, regret, or the sense of something left unfinished.

Predictably, some critics and audience members have dismissed this new take as being the “woke” version of Candyman, stopping at the surface level of seeing a black man dealing with black issues caused by the fallout of racial injustices and dismissing it unseen, but there’s not a single idea present here that hadn’t already been established by its predecessor: first, there’s gentrification—Helen Lyle reveals that her swanky apartment building was originally built as a housing project before some modifications transformed the units into upscale condos in an effort to keep the rest of the housing projects contained to the other side of the highway; and then there’s black tragedy at the hands of an angry and racist white mob—literally how the Candyman legend was born: his having fallen in love with a white woman and getting her pregnant; and of course there’s a racist police system—more than once, stories are told about how black residents of the Cabrini-Green housing projects would call 911 to report someone coming through the walls to kill them, but that no one would come help because of how “scared” they were to come into the ghetto—and it’s not until Helen is attacked in the projects while pursuing her research that the cops finally act. Racial indifference, economic disparity—they are old themes made new again. It’s ironic that William tells Anthony the legend of original Candyman Daniel Robitaille, a renowned artist hired by wealthy families to paint their portraits, and says, “You know how it goes: they love what we make, but not us.” He could’ve been talking about the very movie he was in, almost anticipating close-minded audiences to dismiss a movie with the full right to discuss genuine societal issues—something the horror genre has only been doing for the last hundred years—as “woke,” a term I’ve come to despise. What bullshit.

On the lighter side, Candyman is filled with all kinds of fun Easter eggs—homages to Clive Barker, whose short story, “The Forbidden,” originated the Candyman character, are peppered throughout, along with an unexpected but sweet homage, via Brianna’s surname, to genre legend Veronica Cartwright (Alien, Invasion of the Body Snatchers), who appeared in Farewell to the Flesh as Candyman’s great-granddaughter. (There’s also a pretty lame nod to Jurassic Park.) I won’t point them all out, as spotting them is part of the fun, but with Peele’s influence, they are plentiful, reminding the audience that, yes, this movie is to be taken seriously, but that it’s also okay to have a little fun with it.   

To loop back around on the Halloween comparison, my hope is that Peele et al. leave this newly resurrected franchise alone, as further exploration of this newborn concept may very well result in a bed-shit a la Halloween Kills. Like Halloween ’18, Candyman ’21 works better as a one-off companion to its lineage and doesn’t need any additional follow-ups to further explore its themes. Maybe I’m just resorting back to my home-base cynicism, since I didn’t have any faith that I would enjoy this new Candyman as much as I did, but it seems doubtful the same kind of risks can be taken in a sequel to further explore Candyman as a phenomenon without it buckling under the weight of its own ambition. After all, Candyman ’21 is the fourth time Candyman’s name has been called. Call him a fifth time and things could get painful.

Nov 9, 2021


Spoiler: This review does not serve any purpose.

Nicolas Cage has made the most interesting movies of his career over the last ten years. I didn’t say good, mind you, although there have been quite a few of those—I said interesting. Even his failures, like 2018’s low-rated Between Worlds, a metaphysical erotic thriller that breaks the fourth wall and recognizes Cage’s character as actually being Nicolas Cage during a sex scene, is far more interesting than the last highest-rated Hollywood Marvel tentpole you saw. Despite his reputation as being a quirky, rubber-stamping performer saying yes to every offer that comes his way, well…broken clocks and all that: saying yes to a lot can yield occasionally awesome results, and it’s given us horror fans a handful of terrific titles during this period. Though it’s impossible to keep up with Cage’s movies at this point, I feel confident in saying it’s been a while since I’ve seen a particular movie where he slept walk through his role. Cage is always trying, and always giving it his all; he’s quite possibly one of the bravest actors from the old guard still taking chances with wild abandon, unafraid to ascend to the most manic heights if it serves the movie. (See the binge-drinking, underwear-clad bathroom freak-out scene from 2018’s incredible Mandy.) This was something I always knew, but of which I was reminded following an impromptu double-feature of two Cage flicks brand new to video: the understated, beautifully made Pig, in which he offers a tragic, brokenhearted performance as a man seeking the last remaining thing on this planet he loves, and Prisoners of the Ghostland, in which he plays a criminal forced to go looking for something he couldn’t care less about, screaming his face off and gnashing his teeth and contending with roving desert threats the whole time—ghostly or otherwise. His range across those two random examples was remarkable, the first bringing tears and the second bringing wide-eyed astonishment. Very few actors can do this, and Cage is one of them, though his genuine talent is often forgotten thanks to his internet folk hero status as a meme, those “crazy reel” YouTube compilations, and his doppelganger in that old-timey 1800s photos that suggests he is, in fact, a vampire. (Insert scene from 1988’s Vampire’s Kiss which sees Cage running down the street screaming, “I’M A VAMPIRE, I’M A VAMPIRE!”)

Cage himself has described Prisoners of the Ghostland as “the wildest movie [he’s] ever made,” a quote wisely utilized in the film’s marketing, as anyone considering watching a movie with a concept as wild as this one would likely be enticed by his presence alone, so once you see that quote, well, holy shit—strap in. Such a proclamation is a very ballsy boast, as by now I’m sure your own choices for Cage’s craziest are playing in your brain like a powerpoint presentation. Could Prisoners of the Ghostland out-crazy the Hellraiser-meets-Death Wish vigilante horror-thriller Mandy, or the stone-faced supernatural comedy/horror hybrid Willy’s Wonderland, or Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, which has a scene where Cage’s bad cop sees the breakdancing figure of a thug his goons just killed and says, “Shoot him again—his soul is still dancing,” before breaking out in wild, unhinged laughter? Directed by Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono (Cold Fish, Suicide Club), Prisoners of the Ghostland is a mish-mash of genres; not content to borrow influence just from Yojimbo or just from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, it’s instead both—a collision of Japanese samurai warriors and the lone American western about a gunman looking for redemption, creating a nonsensical world of imagery that feels more like a boardwalk sideshow where tourists stop to put on garish costumes and take novelty photos with their families. Cage, of course, is the film’s man with no name—a leather-clad cowboy known only as Hero, or sometimes Nobody, yanked out of jail following a botched bank robbery in a sandy nowhere called Samurai Town and forced into a rescue/retrieval mission across the desert at the behest of the villainous Governor (Bill Moseley). Yes, it’s a direct riff on Escape from New York, or, technically, Escape from LA, but also contains elements of Dances with Wolves, Mad Max, Book of Eli, and the spaghetti western of your choice. Yet, in the face of these largely American and Japanese inspirations, something about Prisoners of the Ghostland feels strangely Australian; though that might be explained away by the Mad Max influence, it almost seems to be echoing the work of cult directors Brian Trenchard-Smith (Dead End Drive-In, The Man from Hong Kong) and Russell Mulcahy (Razorback), leaning on crazy color schemes, an unrelenting quirkiness, and a driving identity only Australian cult cinema is capable of. While I can’t say Prisoners of the Ghostland’s puréed influences all get along, I can say that it’s enchanting, allowing moments of genuine artistry, and, of course, moments of obligatory Cage freak-out scenes. (Cage’s Hero bellows “TESTICLE!” at one point with so much operatic gusto that I swear to Bale’s Batman you can see his tonsils.)  

Though both actors have been dabbling in smaller productions that skip mainstream theatrical debuts altogether, it seems strange to see Cage sharing the screen with character actor Bill Moseley, who has been playing unseemly characters in under-the-radar horror flicks since the 1980s, perhaps most infamously known as Chop Top in Tobe Hooper’s 1986 sequel to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Otis Driftwood in Rob Zombie’s Firefly trilogy. Moseley’s career is filled with as many movies you’ve never heard of as Cage’s…but they’re a different variety of films you’ve never heard of, and likely stocked with other character actors who make most of their living traveling the country for various horror conventions. Really, the whole cast is a combination of different worlds, from the appearance of Cage’s Face/Off co-star Nick Cassavetes as Hero’s former partner in crime and current desert-dwelling ghost (he’s best known as having directed The Notebook) to Sofia Boutella, mainstream sweetheart of Hollywood fare like The Kingsman and Atomic Blonde. How all these people managed to come together and collaborate on a movie that feels like it transcends each of them as individual personalities, I’ll never know, but it only adds to Prisoners of the Ghostland’s indefinable identity.

Prisoners of the Ghostland isn’t a movie so much as it is a dare. It’s a challenge to cinemagoers everywhere, but especially a gauntlet for those like me who are tasked with writing about it. “Dare to make sense of me,” Prisoners of the Ghostland says. “Go ahead and find meaning in the madness.” It’s why this review opens with that spoiler tag: Prisoners of the Ghostland is critic-proof. I’m sure many have tried to bring forth some kind of thoughtful analysis, whereas some others simply threw in the towel and dismissed the title out of hand, tucking tail and fleeing from the carnival of lunacy—from the strange plot, the in-and-out moments of broad humor, the ambiguous sense of whether or not anyone involved in the film’s making is taking it seriously, and what it’s supposed to mean…if it’s supposed to mean anything. If there’s any one thing that Prisoners of the Ghostland isn’t, it’s subtle. Even when the flick takes a break from the fight scenes and ghastly gore, its smaller moments are still peppered with that perceptible sense of “what is this?” It’s so broadly played and relishing in its over-the-topness that it becomes one of those movies where it can either be about nothing at all, or whatever you want it to be. You could walk away claiming it’s an allegory for manifest destiny and I sure as hell wouldn’t argue with you because you’d still be closer to the true “meaning” than I’ll ever get. One thing is for sure: if you’ve ever wanted to see a flick where Nicolas Cage wears a full body leather suit covered in boobytrap explosions while screaming, “I’LL KARATE CHOP YOU!” and “HI-FUCKING YAH! HI-FUCKING YAH!,” well, I’ve got just the one…

Oct 20, 2021


It’s been a very long time since I’ve encountered a horror movie as polarizing as Halloween Kills. I'd have to go back more than a decade to, ironically, Rob Zombie’s Halloween, or the Platinum Dunes remake of Friday the 13th. Far be it from me to think I can cover anything that’s not yet been covered in reviews across the internet, from mainstream critics to genre-friendly websites to legions of social media posters. I have seen ten/tens, zero/tens, and everything in between. One commenter stated that the 1978 original and Halloween Kills are the only Halloween films they’ve ever liked, and they’d much sooner watch this newest sequel than the original. Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the spectrum, Halloween Kills has been hugely maligned for a whole host of reasons, most of them fair—depending on what “fair” means to you. Because of this disparity, reviewing Halloween Kills feels like screaming into the void alongside everyone else, like sitting in a room and arguing among friends about which local greasy spoon makes the best pizza—because everyone has an idea of what they want, and that idea can be radically different from person to person.

The problem with the Halloween series, or really any ongoing series that had a legitimately good first entry and later devolved into broadly distilled, sensationalized versions of the same concept, is that audiences become split as to what they want. The first movie creates the mold and the rules, but every sequel, by design, has to do something new, and through their very nature, they become sillier and sillier parodies of their own idea. So, who decides what a new entry in an established franchise should be like? Should every new entry try to be "good," or should it merely carry the torch and keep the franchise alive, just like all its lower-reaching sequels? The first Halloween is a critically lavished film that even Roger Ebert once referred to as a classic, so each time a sequel is made, a portion of the audience hopes to see something that lives up to that legacy—something classy with an emphasis on suspense over gore. Most of the Halloween sequels aren’t good movies, though they are fun in their own way (I'll always defend Halloween 4 as being a good one, though maybe I’m alone in that), so when you've got two halves of the audience vying for polar opposite experiences, what happens as a result? Well, those schools of thought collide in a violent crash, and because we're living in 2021 AR (After Reason), a time during which everyone is angry about everything all the time, even something as innocuous as a movie can cause blood-raging fights.

Once you see Halloween Kills—or any movie, really—you henceforth belong to “the audience.” We all become one mass, just one more community we now share, even though we’re all looking to the movie to satisfy our own personal desires with little regard to what the person in the next seat may want. Those desires can be polar opposites, but they can also, and often, be granular, as everyone has already established their own barometer for satisfaction. What’s that mean? At the end of the day, there’s only one version of a movie (well, for the most part—Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers is somewhere saying, “Hold my four different cuts”), which means it’s only going to entertain a certain fraction of the audience—especially one as bloodthirsty as Halloween fanfolks. In an effort to entertain both schools of thought, I’m approaching this too-long review in a different way. The first half will be written by someone who wanted Halloween Kills to be legitimately good in the same way as the original and the 2018 reboot. The second half will be written by the part of me that acknowledges Halloween Kills is the eleventh movie to feature Michael Myers wandering around Haddonfield and killing townspeople in all kinds of ways, and as such, didn’t expect much beyond some senseless violence and a reasonably engaging story. Depending on what you want from Halloween Kills, pick your poison and read on. (Spoilers everywhere.)

Take 1: “I Wanted A Good Movie”

Prior to its arrival in theaters to both huge box office and critical acclaim, 2018’s Halloween seemed like a real longshot. In the years preceding, Rob Zombie had killed the series dead with his experimental nonsense, and this was after 2002’s dismal Halloween: Resurrection had already killed the series along with its leading final lady. (If next year’s Halloween Ends kills off Laurie Strode, that will be the third time her character has died in this goofy series—pretty impressive.) There was understandable excitement when it was announced that John Carpenter would be serving as spiritual consiglieri to the reboot after having spent the last 35 years away from the series, as the closest he’d come in that time was quitting Halloween: H20 in the earliest days of pre-production. Then came the announcement of Jamie Lee Curtis’s return as the embattled Laurie Strode and the mood went from “oh?” to “oh!” Enthusiasm for the project was palpable. Then came the announcement that the guys who had done Your Highness, David Gordon Green and Danny McBride, would be handling the project, and the Internet had no idea what to think. I sure didn’t. These guys were going to resurrect a series that hadn’t been worth a damn since 1998? (Midnight Mass’s Mike Flanagan also pitched his own version for a reboot, most of which was repurposed for Hush, his Netflix Original home invasion flick. I'd still love to see what Flanagan's Halloween would've been like. Maybe someday...during franchise retcon # 3.)

Despite everyone’s usual cynicism, Gordon Green and McBride (and poor Jeff Fradley, the film's third co-writer who is seldom mentioned), under the watchful eye of John Carpenter, managed to deliver one of the best sequels in the series, with Carpenter going on record as saying it was better than his original. With the dream team having fairly earned the accolades for their approach, there was no reason to believe Halloween Kills wouldn’t be at least comparably good, or at the very least wouldn’t squander the goodwill established by their first go-round.

The curse of the sequel strikes again.

The “good” news is Halloween Kills isn’t the worst sequel in the series, regardless of the timeline you’re sticking with—I don’t think we could ever plumb those kinds of depths ever again—but based on the pedigree involved, the poor execution of good ideas, and the good execution of a less intellectual and more visceral experience, that leaves Halloween Kills in a kind of cinematic no man’s land where it’s hard to choose one side or the other, and that’s worse. Halloween: Resurrection, for instance, is a piece of shit I’ll never watch again; though unfortunate, there’s no conflict there and I’m at peace with its place in the Halloween hierarchy. Halloween Kills has a lot to offer, and parts of it are terrific, but its best parts don’t push the narrative forward in any meaningful way, which is its biggest detriment. If your movie doesn’t have a point, then fuck—what are we doing here? Though Halloween Kills definitely tries, and it has ideas either brand new or fleshed out from previous sequels (the vigilante aspect from Halloween 4, for example), what we’re left with feels unfinished, overwrought, and aimless; really, it feels more like an extended opening act for Halloween Ends. It’s the holding pattern of horror sequels—the palate cleanser in between courses—and that sucks.

Though Halloween Kills continues exploring the concept of trauma as established during its predecessor, this time the series expands beyond Laurie Strode and her family and looks at how the other citizens of Haddonfield are still emotionally reeling from the night he came home and how that trauma manifests…which is with revenge. Right out of the gate, this newborn series seems to be transitioning from philosophical and intimate nuance to primal, in-the-streets chaos. Halloween Kills is a malfunctioning carnival ride wrenching loose from its hydraulics and shooting off a nonstop torrent of sparks in the form of very wet and crunchy violence with a plot inspired by the third act of 1931’s Frankenstein (only Michael Myers deserves it). In the conceptual sense, it doesn't stray too far from what Gordon Green et al. established in 2018, but it does choose to do something that feels quite wrong for a Curtis-having Halloween movie: completely remove her from the equation, making this latest sequel feel perfunctory and incomplete. Halloween Kills is the sixth Halloween film to feature Curtis' Laurie Strode, but the first in which she never shares a single scene with her masked nemesis. Of course, this was by design, as the filmmakers wanted this entry to be about the rest of Haddonfield ("One of their numbers was butchered and this is the wake," Loomis says in Halloween 2 while Haddonfield townspeople are vandalizing the abandoned Myers house), but also because the filmmakers would really be straining credibility in having Laurie walk away unscathed after so many encounters, especially with a gaping wound in her belly. While all of that is perfectly reasonable, at the same time, it makes the experience of Halloween Kills feel incidental—like it's not actually a Halloween sequel, but more like some random external adventure happening in a Halloween shared universe. If it’s Halloween, Laurie and Michael have to do battle—that’s, like, a rule. If you’re playing in the canon sandbox established in 1978, then you’ve broken that rule—just one among many. That’s like having James Bond call the police on the main supervillain instead of taking the guy out himself.

My biggest gripe with Halloween Kills is its poor treatment of the legacy actors and characters being glimpsed for the first time in forty-three years. Featured most prominently is Tommy Doyle, the young boy Laurie was babysitting Halloween night of 1978, this time played by Anthony Michael Hall. (Conversations were had about having Paul Rudd come back to play the part after having done so in the now de-canonized Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, and at first it was disappointing it didn’t work out, but seeing what the movie had turned Tommy into, not even my perpetual love for the Ruddster is enough to convince me he could’ve played the part as required.) Alongside Tommy are Lindsey Wallace (a surprisingly terrific Kyle Richards), Marion Chambers (Nancy Stephens), and Lonnie Elam (the wonderful Robert Longstreet of The Haunting of Hill House) while retired sheriff Leigh Brackett (Charles Cyphers) is working a security shift at Haddonfield Memorial. As a lifelong series fan, of course it was incredible to see those characters and/or actors return to the series...but also a damn shame to see how wasted most of them are. How do you have Laurie Strode and Leigh Brackett under the same hospital roof and not allow them to share a single scene together, perhaps one in which they collectively mourn over the slain Annie, her friend and his daughter? (Nancy Loomis appears in archive footage from Halloween and, oddly, Halloween 2, which technically doesn't exist in this new timeline, but which is still used in an appropriate and unobtrusive way.) Though the yearly Halloween-night binge drink was a clever way to group all those 1978 massacre survivors together, why not give them each just a single moment to come off like human beings with a shared history? Though I value their inclusion, their presence smacks of vapid “look, see?” fan service in hopes we’ll get lost in dreamy nostalgia and not notice how superficial their appearances are—not to mention that killing four out of the five characters seems a little sadistic, with three out of the four being killed in dismissive ways, as if their place in the series never meant anything. Brackett ranks a blink-and-miss-it face slash; Marion, who dies for the second time in this series, has the honor of going out looking like a fumbling idiot; and poor Lonnie doesn’t even get an on-screen death. Tommy is the only legacy character to get a ceremonial end, and even that felt wrong.

And all during this, bit players from Halloween '18 who were never even given names return in expanded roles, only so Halloween Kills can snuff out even more recognizable people, and with great violence. (I cringed at that "oops!" self-inflicted gunshot wound. Is this Halloween Kills or Abbott & Costello Meet The Shape?) While it makes sense to reuse characters you've already created instead of introducing new ones, it seems really strange that these characters, who haven't had their own face-to-face encounter with Michael Myers and who only learned about him for the first time Halloween night of 2018, would so immediately want to throw hands alongside these legacy characters who've lost loved ones, or nearly died at Myers' hands, or spent the last forty years navigating their own traumas. I'm tempted to think it's meant to be some kind of commentary on tribalism and the deadly consequences of in-the-bubble information loops, but I might be giving something called Halloween Kills too much credit.

Though Halloween Kills jumps from location to location and timeline to timeline, with something heavy going on almost all the time, it never feels like anything is happening; it’s desperate to do so many things that it eventually collapses under its own heavy load. It wants to be “about” something but executes that aboutness with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. It wants to pretend the reveal about The Shape being supernatural in nature is some kind of gigantic, world-stopping revelation...until your most basic fan remembers that Dr. Loomis shot him in the chest six times in 1978 and "he just got up and walked away," the discovery of which didn't surprise Loomis in the least. It wants to establish the origin story of Frank Hawkins (Will Patton) by trying to convince the audience that his past with The Shape is just as intertwined and significant as Laurie's own, but it simply can't stand up to the forty-year head start she has, nor with Curtis's consistent presence in the series, even if most of her sequels have been retconned out of this current continuity—along with the carelessly established motivation for Hawkins' character hinging on his forty-year regret for not shooting The Shape in the brain when he had the chance...even though it's been solidly established that probably wouldn't have killed him anyway. Even Andi Matichak’s presence as Allyson is wasted on the vigilante angle, which not only feels wrong for her character but feels more like the movie is babysitting her for the time being in lieu of offering her something more substantial to do. More than anything, and maybe years down the line he'll confirm this, Halloween Kills feels like the kind of senseless, garish sequel Carpenter would've hated, had it been attached to the franchise's first timeline that, after a while, he had nothing to do with.

Take 2: “I Wanted A Fun Movie”

Halloween Kills is a fucking blast. With a body count of fortyish people, there’s a violent and brutal death something like every three minutes. Though Gordon Green returns as director, and still channeling Carpenter by recreating a few shots from the original, this time he's embracing his inner Argento. The gallons of blood used during production must be somewhere in the thousands. Holy smokes, is this thing Italian? Between the bloodletting and the corny dialogue, it must be.

Halloween Kills also presents Michael Myers at his most brutal, vicious, mean-spirited, and utterly unremorseful. His fire-scorched mask gives him the Jaws 2 treatment, which is appropriate because Halloween Kills has turned him into an unstoppable killer shark. (Yep, I just quoted Busta Rhymes from Halloween: Resurrection. Haw haw.) James Jude Courtney, with a little assistance from Airon Armstrong for the '78 sequence, returns for another round of Haddonfield mayhem and strikes an even more imposing figure than his last appearance. The Shape of 2018 was methodical but physically capable; here, he's embraced his full-on Kane-Hodder-as-Jason-Voorhees, dispatching his victims in ways we've yet to see in this series. Sure, he does his playful cat-and-mouse thing by hiding in dark corners and behind closet doors, but really, who gives a shit? Why bother? The Shape of Halloween Kills is going for quantity over quality. He could've knocked on the door dressed as the pizza dude or popped out of a sugar bowl to lop off someone's head and the audience would've barely reacted. And that's because, as Halloween Kills ably communicates, the death of any character we see on screen is inevitable. There's no hope for anyone—not even Stewie from Mad TV ("Look what I can do!"). And boy, the movie wastes no time in getting to those deaths: the opening massacre of the first responders to Laurie's farmhouse inferno is awe-inspiring—and the closest we've gotten to seeing The Shape kill someone with a chainsaw.

Before the first retcon in 1998 with Halloween: H20, the Halloween series had been that random horror property Jamie Lee Curtis appeared in for just a couple movies before saying farewell and moving onto bigger studio fare, in the same way lots of actors had done their one random appearance in famous slasher series: Kevin Bacon in Friday the 13th, Johnny Depp in A Nightmare on Elm Street, even Jennifer Aniston in Leprechaun. Though their involvement in said projects waver from pride to embarrassment, none of them really talk about them unless prompted, and they certainly never went back to that well for another go-round. (Sure, most of them died in their respective movies, but since when has that ever stopped Hollywood?) When Jamie Lee Curtis returned to the series for the first time in 1998, it felt like an event because it was an event, and though her presence in a Halloween film doesn’t guarantee it’s going to be good, it still feels right. And seeing her stick with this series forty years after the original movie is special. At this point, Halloween belongs to her and John Carpenter (and the every-day-missed Debra Hill), and here they are, all these years later, playing make-believe together like a bunch of kids once again—this time with filmmakers who grew up on the very movies they're now putting their own stamp on. Output aside, what a nice thing.

Speaking of, Carpenter, son Cody, and Daniel Davies return to score, offering another sinister, kick-ass musical landscape. Themes from both Halloween eras are present and accounted for, along with a whole host of new material to properly shadow this new take on Halloween lore. Their score even acknowledges the angry mob angle, for the first time ever adding a chorus of voices to the legendary Halloween theme, which plays over the opening credits that feature not just one illuminated jack-o-lantern, but a dozen—each one growing more intense with flames as they flow past. 

What does it all mean? 

Haddonfield citizens are mad as hell and they’re not gonna take it anymore.

The 1978 timeline stuff, which sees Michael's detainment by Haddonfield police, including young Frank Hawkins (Thomas Mann) and his partner, Pete McCabe (the always enjoyable Jim Cummings, actor/director of The Wolf of Snow Hollow), works damn well, and is probably the best material in the whole movie. The loyal recreation of the Myers house is terrific, as is the mask, which is the closest this series has gotten to faithfully depicting those two holy totems. Evidently some fans have been blasting the “all CGI Loomis” that was inserted into this sequence, somehow not recognizing him to be a real, living, non-CGI human being (Tom Jones Jr.). Has CGI really gotten that good? I guess I haven’t noticed. Though the actor’s appearance is uncannily spot on, and overdubbed by the previous movie’s convincing Loomis soundalike, this new version of Loomis would've been better left in a blurry background, similar to how Michael’s maskless face had been obscured throughout the first two movies of this new trilogy. Still, seeing his trench-coated form standing at the Myers house threshold as the camera cranes back across the front yard, revealing a motionless Michael flanked by police—in a shot that mimics the original's opening scene where six-year-old Michael has his clown mask ripped off by his father—well, it’s the stuff of legitimate chills, and Carpenter and co’s revisitation of the same theme used for that scene but now gussied up with disconcerting overlays is probably the movie's greatest moment. (But where are the six bullets Michael had just taken to the chest?)

The fake ending, in which the Haddonfield mob finally appears to get the best of their boogeyman with a bad-ass beatdown, only for Michael to gain the unsurprising upper hand and give them all a little what-for, is terrific, exciting, and that offers the audience some manipulative catharsis—but in a strange way, also offers the audience a little hope. “He’s turned us all into monsters,” Brackett says following the hospital mob’s near-lynching of an innocent man, which may be the moral of Halloween Kills: no matter how vicious Haddonfield’s people become—and really, they're us; we’re that mob—we can never be as evil, black, and unfeeling as The Shape. In this scary day and age, I’ll take it.

Halloween Kills chooses to end with a shocker of a moment—the death of Karen (Judy Greer), which doesn’t just play out in Judith Myers’s old bedroom in the fabulously restored Myers house, but is even executed in the same way as Judith’s death in 1963: thrashing hands, obscured points of view—no glimpses of actual violent penetration, but still uncomfortable to witness. I’m surprised they didn’t pop in the ol’ eye-hole stencil to give us a look through Michael’s mask. A move like this is pretty ballsy, and is frankly the only important thing that happens in the entire movie, because it now means Laurie Strode, technically, has failed—that the years and years she spent training her daughter to survive against the evil in the world, which did permanent damage to their relationship and shaped them both into broken people, didn’t mean a damn thing in the end. And with the recent revelation that Halloween Ends is going to be set four years after the events of Halloween '18 and Halloween Kills, that’s plenty of time for Laurie to grow even crazier. And for the series to grow crazier, too.

If I had to break down this entire manifesto into one sentence, it would be this: Halloween Kills is a good slasher movie, but a bad movie in general…and yet I still kinda liked it. In spite of its hideous dialogue ("Evil dies tonight!") and aimless plot, I've actually been thinking about it off-and-on since having watched it, which is more than I can say about some other "better" flicks I've caught recently. No matter on what side of the fence you land, you can’t deny Halloween Kills offers a new flavor to the unkillable series, made with a certain operatic and violent flamboyance that’s difficult to shake. I don’t know why, but I have this odd feeling, in years to come, it’s going to enjoy a ground-up reevaluation—either by the first-round audiences left underwhelmed during its preliminary release, or by the next generation of viewers who find it, similar to how the wonky Halloween III: Season of the Witch has been recently embraced after so many years of dismissal. Love it or hate it, Halloween Kills may very well have staying power, and I’ll be morbidly interested to see how it holds up in five, ten, or forty years from now.

Oct 18, 2021


Halloween (1978) is a classic. That statement will be true from now until the end of time. Halloween 2…not so much. Though it tries to recapture its predecessor’s magic, right down to aping Carpenter’s style and half of Halloween’s cast and crew, its sole identity is forged from the unnecessary and hammily executed twist that Laurie Strode and Michael Myers were siblings. After that seemingly definitive swan song for The Shape came Halloween 3: Season of the Witch, which blew the minds of audiences everywhere, but for all the wrong reasons. “Where is Michael Myers? Who is this Irish guy? Fucking Stonehenge?” Though this black sheep sequel has since enjoyed a long-overdue reevaluation, most audiences refused to accept its Shapeless design at the time, leaving the series as an inconsistently formed trilogy with rapidly diminishing returns.

By the time 1988 rolled around, Trancas Films/franchise godfather Moustapha Akkad (RIP) and John Carpenter/Debra Hill (RIP) had already fought in court over the Halloween rights, which the latter lost, so the rights reverted solely to Akkad, who wasted no time in moving forward on a new entry. At this point, Carpenter had peaced out of the franchise and was putting the finishing touches on the second movie of his Apocalypse Trilogy, Prince of Darkness, and Hill, who would informally remain with the franchise over the next two sequels to groom potential writers and helmers, was busy producing Adventures in Babysitting. And finally, following her consecutive appearances in The Fog, Prom Night, Terror Train, Road Games, and Halloween 2, Jamie Lee Curtis had waved bye-bye to the horror genre. By then, and as Scream will tell you, Trading Places had put her on the map and major Hollywood offers were rolling in.

With no Laurie Strode, what’s a screenwriter to do?

Jamie Lloyd (Danielle Harris) is seven years old and Halloween is just around the corner. She wants to be happy about it like other kids her age, but that’s impossible. She’s still reeling from the car accident that claimed the life of her mother (Laurie Strode) and father (assumed to be Jimmy, the surviving paramedic from Halloween 2) and has since been adopted by the Carruthers family. But there’s even more going on that she’s not privy to: in a move wisely avoiding being derivative of Halloween 2’s third-act twist, the audience is fully aware of who Jamie Lloyd is and her blood connection to Michael Myers. Though she has inexplicable dreams about him, referring to him as “the Nightmare Man,” she’s mercifully unaware of their family ties…unlike everyone else in Haddonfield, who know of or remember the sixteen people he killed a decade ago (an inaccurately high figure used in both marketing materials and the film itself), including the kids at school who bully her relentlessly, Tommy-Doyle-style. 

Bringing all of that trauma to her performance is an uncannily good Danielle Harris, who was only nine years old at the time of filming. Even though she’d worked scantly in television before her feature debut with Halloween 4, Harris proved she had the chops to be a sympathetic and likeable lead. With an almost unreasonable amount of dramatic responsibility, Harris is tasked with carrying the conflict of the movie on her shoulders, and when she ends her first scene with hugging a shoebox containing the photos of her dead parents on the floor of her closet and sobbing from her nightmares of the boogeyman, there’s no way you don’t feel for her.

Halloween 4 also marks the return of a familiar, reassuring, and haunted face: Donald Pleasence, who dons the trench coat of Dr. Loomis for a third time, and in a way that tests the durability of the phrase “suspension of disbelief.” Despite his valiant attempt to blow up Michael and himself at the conclusion of Halloween 2, which Halloween 4’s opening exposition dump reduces to Loomis “setting him on fire,” both have survived, though badly scarred. (A proposed but unfilmed opening for Halloween 4 picked up at the end of Halloween 2, which had Loomis begging firefighters dousing the flames on Michael Myers to “let him burn”—which Halloween Kills was happy to borrow.) When word hits that the ambulance transporting Michael to Smith’s Grove Sanitarium is found crashed and overturned below a bridge with all personnel dead and Michael missing, Dr. Loomis unpacks his steel-plated pistol and heads to Haddonfield, hoping to warn everyone in time that the boogeyman has returned.

Though Loomis essentially plays the same version of the character as before, this time he’s doing so with ten more years on his face and in his voice, and with ten more years of regret in his heart. In Halloween and Halloween 2, Loomis was curt, bossy, and domineering, but always with Haddonfield’s safety at heart. That bossiness remains, but this time it comes from a place of pure desperation. Though he’s not offered any standout monologue moments like his famous “devil’s eyes” scene from the original, he’s still given plenty of opportunities to chew the scenery, either by letting loose in explosive confrontational moments with cynical characters or by ably selling some pretty heavy-handed dialogue. (No one else could have pulled off, “They survived this ordeal; they’ll survive its memory.”) Along with the original, Halloween 4 presents the most archetypal iteration of Sam Loomis—the one that strays closest to fans’ perceptions of who the character is, what he looks like, and how haunted and broken he’s become over his self-professed failures.  

There comes a time when a topic can become exhaustively over-explored, which is why I’ve spent years writing about the Halloween series without ever specifically writing about the original, and which is why I’m also having trouble adequately celebrating the talents and legacy of Donald Pleasence. There’s absolutely nothing new to be said about him. Somehow, even the word “legend” feels lacking when addressing his power as an actor, his immortal staying power as Dr. Loomis (it’s the defining role of his career, yet he wasn’t Carpenter’s first choice), and whose sad eyes and obsessive madness will be sorely missed in every Halloween sequel to come. In Halloween 4, he turns Loomis up to eleven. The guilt and determination that’s driven him thus far has metastasized into maddening fixation; he’s gone from a psychiatrist disillusioned by his failure to counsel a child to a bounty hunter on the prowl in hopes of destroying the murderous man that child has become. His transformation into Ahab is complete and only death will stop him from hunting his white whale.

In response to savvier audiences, Halloween 4 smartly tweaks the concept of the “final girl,” made iconic by Jamie Lee Curtis, in an effort to keep the formula fresh while also remaining loyal to it. The screenplay by Alan McElroy deconstructs and redistributes the “final girl” title among our two female leads, maintaining all the expected characteristics but presenting them in a different dynamic. It’s the character of Rachel (Ellie Cornell) that falls in line with the classic heroic sense of the final girl, proving herself to be Ripley-tough—and not just against The Shape, but in everyday life when fending off her aggressive boyfriend, Brady (Sasha Jenson), or marking her territory against drugstore sexpot Kelly (Kathleen Kinmont), her competition for his affections. “Wise up to what men want,” Kelly tells her, all but confirming Rachel’s virginity—again in keeping with the final girl’s characteristic purity. Like Laurie Strode, Rachel is smart, capable, and aware of what’s going on around her, even when dealing with her own teenaged angst. Little Jamie, however, because of her age and the emotional baggage she carries, takes on the umbrage of the final girl’s victimization as the killer’s ultimate target, forced to endure most of The Shape’s wrath and unending rage. In response, Rachel has to be the strong one; she becomes the Kyle Reese to Jamie’s Sarah Connor, and with her parents out of town and Haddonfield’s remaining finest chasing down drunken, friendly-firing vigilantes, she’s the only one who can save her stepsister. 

Really, all of the screenplay is well constructed, with evident thought behind every creative decision. The movie’s best scripted scene is the one shared between Loomis and the eccentric Reverend Jackson P. Sayer (adorable character actor Carmen Filpi), who is kind enough to give Loomis a ride after his explosive confrontation with The Shape leaves him stranded on the road. Once Sayer’s antiquated truck appears to materialize within a cloud of dust, as if divine intervention—as if he’s an angel putting Loomis back on the path to his fate—the two share a drink…and a conversation about the apocalypse. "It always has a face and a name," Sayer claims, and Loomis can only agree. Both men acknowledge they are seeking the same thing, but both are seeking it in different places. Had this scene been excised from the final draft or first edit, no one beyond the writer would’ve noticed, but it's small touches like this that make Halloween 4 special. The mere mention of this end-times theme elevates this entry while enhancing Carpenter’s initial concept of “evil” as a force as opposed to a philosophy, and in what form we’re all expecting it to manifest…because if we’re all looking for something different, we’re doomed to let it pass right by.

Taking over the command for Sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers in the previous films) is Ben Meeker, played exceedingly well by character actor Beau Starr (Goodfellas). His portrayal of Meeker as a no-nonsense lawman turns a potentially forgettable supporting role into strong and memorable work, and his first scene with Dr. Loomis establishes the makeup of his character. Upon Loomis entering the Haddonfield Police Department and telling them of Michael’s return, Meeker resists believing it from sheer audacity, but once Loomis convinces him, he doesn’t waste time. “What the hell can we do to prevent a repeat of ten years ago?” he growls, proving to be far more proactive and powerful than Sheriff Brackett ever was…but that’s because Brackett had been the overseer of a small, quiet, pre-tragedy town where nothing ever happened except for kids playing pranks, parking, and getting high. It’s Meeker who lords over post-tragedy Haddonfield, cursed with the knowledge that bad things can happen even in the sleepiest of towns and remaining on mental reserve just in case the Myers shit ever again hits the Haddonfield fan. Following Loomis’s revelation, he immediately scoops up The Shape’s likeliest targets and barricades them inside his fortified home outfitted with steel doors, a battery-powered CB radio, and of course, a robust arsenal. Ironically, in spite of how prepared he may have been, like his predecessor, Meeker suffers the loss of his daughter to The Shape; as has been a constant theme in the series, it would seem no amount of preparedness is enough when fate comes calling. The characters in Halloween and Halloween 2 made foolish choices and engaged in reckless behavior because they didn’t share the omniscient view of the audience and didn’t know of the danger creeping up on them in the dark. In Halloween 4, every character is given clear indication of the danger they’re in and every character makes the smartest possible decision in the moment, and yet most characters don’t survive the night. “Fate never changes,” indeed.

George Wilbur provides a perfectly satisfying performance as The Shape (with some assistance from Friday the 13th series alumnus Tom Morga), which is sometimes undone by the less interesting costume catalog mask and the hilariously thick shoulder pads that make him look like he's got on a few mom sweaters beneath his jumpsuit. Thankfully, Wilbur is able to counteract much of his character’s clumsy presentation with his subtle mannerisms and rock-solid stature. His stillness aids in the film’s ostensibly purposeful choice to present The Shape as slowly reforming after his ten-year coma: his first appearance has him wrapped in mummy-like bandages and strapped, unmoving, to a hospital gurney, his flaccid hand hanging loosely at his side…but then on his feet with his hospital gown hanging off him like shedding skin…and then free of his hospital garb and inside a freshly obtained mechanic’s jumpsuit…and then, finally, within a brand-new mask. The newfound knowledge of his niece’s existence has given him “purpose” again, and that purpose shows him regenerating until he’s back to being the masked maniac that’s lived only within the nightmares of Haddonfield for the last decade.

Though his screen time is limited, even Michael Pataki (Rocky 4) as Hoffman, medical administrator at Ridgemont Federal Sanitarium, offers a new dynamic as the “other” doctor—not the one chasing down evil in the night, but the one faced with the uncomfortable logistics and potential liability of keeping a comatose and evidently indestructible murderer in his hospital. Hoffman doesn’t want Michael destroyed, vanquished, or exorcised of the “evil” inside him—he just wants him gone and out of his medical jurisdiction. “Michael Myers is now in your hands,” he says to the Smith’s Grove personnel who come to transport him away from Ridgemont—and he says it for a reason: it’s his disclaimer, his end-of-watch sign-off, his mandate that whatever happens with Michael in the future won’t fall on his head. And yet his last scene sees him watching from the shore as Dr. Loomis, undaunted, walks into a shallow creek to examine the bloodied and mangled transport ambulance that’s been driven off the road. It’s then Hoffman understands Loomis has been right all along, that realization reflecting in his sorrowful eyes. 

Director Dwight Little (of Marked for Death fame, also starring Danielle Harris) deserved a more prolific career directing features, but he eventually made the successful jump to television, having helmed episodes of The X-Files, Prison Break, and 24. Similar to Hollywood’s modern practices, an independent film called Bloodstone caught the attention of Moustapha Akkad, who offered the unknown director the gig. Little proved he was the right man to follow in Carpenter’s footsteps, insisting on rich storytelling, fleshed out characters, mood, and terror. Little knows when to dial it back and rest on suspense, and he knows when to kick things into gear and get the pulse racing. Just look to the opening credit sequence—it doesn't feature the usual single glowing jack-o-lantern hugged by blackness or a montage of newspaper clippings to get us all caught up. Instead, Little presents static, abstract shots of small-town Haddonfield—Americana, really—on the cusp of October 31st. Familiar icons like pumpkins, skeletons, and scarecrows wielding rusty hatchets are on display in midwestern farmland settings and set to ominous, non-melodic music by returning composer Alan Howarth. That opening sequence exists for no other reason than to show you that behind Haddonfield's Halloween is an underbelly of fear and blood—that for other places in the world, Halloween is just another holiday, but in this small Illinois town, it’s a reminder of wounds long scarred over yet nowhere near healed. 

Though Michael’s carnage fills the streets and quite a few bodies drop, Halloween 4 is only occasionally violent, obscuring or suggesting much of its bloodletting and mostly falling back on a restrained approach. When compared to the entries in the Friday the 13th, Phantasm, and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises released that same year, and all which perpetrated an eye-popping level of violence against their audiences, Halloween 4 was downright tame by comparison—and that’s because Little looked to Carpenter’s original for inspiration. Dark and shadows, camera tricks suggesting violence without showing it, fleeting glimpses of The Shape, an emphasis on developed and likeable characters—these are things that made the first film great, and they are also the things that make Halloween 4 more than just another sequel. But in a move echoing Halloween 2's troubled production, several days of additional shooting occurred to beef up the movie's violence in favor of audience expectations, as early cuts had been stingy with the gore. This minor meddling isn’t a detriment, however; sudden violence in a movie otherwise trying to avoid it still contains the power to shock, whether or not it runs congruently with the director’s intention.

Little isn’t content to just crib from Carpenter’s playbook, though, infusing new concepts into the series and new ways to execute them. The movie’s last act, in which some truck-driving good-ol-boys transport Rachel and Jamie out of Haddonfield, is the highlight of Halloween 4, filled with propulsive action and bonafide fear, as Michael dispatches one character after the other, tearing faces, stabbing spines, and tossing them off a speeding truck. The entire sequence is sublime, embracing one of the core philosophies of the sequel: go bigger. Like the first Halloween, the action of Halloween 4 builds and builds before “ending” inside a dark suburban home, but unlike the first film, The Shape doesn’t disappear into the night because he’s not yet done with our characters. The carnage continues, spilling out of that dark suburban home and onto its own high-peaked roof before ending up on the nearest highway out of town, not only opening up the “world” of Haddonfield but eerily reminding the audience that Michael Myers can go anywhere—that he’s not constrained by a town boundary line—that all he needs is a ride. And as for that shock ending, holy fuck. That last-act moment of Jamie holding those bloody scissors and Loomis seeing his vilest nightmare starting over from the beginning and shouting himself hoarse before beginning to sob—all playing out over the Halloween theme—has never once failed to give me chills.

Speaking of, Halloween 4 sees longtime series composer Alan Howarth going solo without Carpenter for the first time, and though he’s eager to jump right into the Halloween theme, he’s sly with his approach. While the film utilizes the infamous theme several times, it never sounds the same from one sequence to the next: when The Shape is being loaded onto the Smith’s Grove ambulance, it’s propulsive and ominous; when the convoy of beer bellies are patrolling the town with their rifles and shotguns, it’s focused and militaristic; and when The Shape is on the roof of the truck during the highway finale, the theme truly comes to life—it’s quick-paced, frantic, and relentless, matching the most action-oriented sequence seen in the series up to that point. Outside of the main theme, Howarth doesn’t rest on his laurels and barely revisits some of the previous movies’ themes, intent on injecting his own original music into the franchise. Like the very movie he’s scoring, Howarth’s music is the peak of his solo work across all the sequels.

Halloween 4: The Return Of Michael Myers was a new beginning for the re-born series, but also the beginning of the end, as the next two lackluster sequels would get mired in new directions so strange and mythology so confounding that audience interest couldn’t sustain, leading the series to be retconned twice—first by 1998’s Halloween: H20, which rendered parts 4-6 irrelevant, and again by 2018’s sequel, which rendered everything irrelevant except Carpenter’s original. Until this era of reboots and retcons, Halloween 4 had been the only worthwhile entry that preserved the core story begun in 1978 and had proven to be the last entry that focused more on thrills, suspense, and well-developed characters as opposed to one-dimensional bloodbags destined for garish and graphic kill scenes. Poor Halloween 4 had done the impossible: resurrected the boogeyman, created new characters to carry the mantle, and revived the series after Halloween 2 had concluded it and Halloween 3 had reinvented it. Time has proven the series’ intermittent fresh-start approach to be the right call each time, as they consistently returned reasonable respectability to the Halloween name, even if they left behind a wacky trajectory of three different continuities for fans to navigate. Proving that is the fresh release of the polarizing and disappointing Halloween Kills, which sees interest in the series at an all-time high while once again boasting the return of Jamie Lee Curtis in her sixth appearance as Laurie Strode, the quintessential final girl. (Her seventh and “final” go-round will be in next year’s Halloween Ends.) Though Halloween: H20 was the first sequel to reboot the Michael Myers story and resurrect its towering reputation after the dismal Halloween 6 (which had done so much damage to the series that the initial version of Halloween 7 sans Curtis was destined for a direct-to-video debut), it was also a little sad: seeing Laurie Strode battle the boogeyman once again was the stuff of fan dreams, but her return to the series had erased her daughter completely out of existence—and while Halloween: H20 was a worthy sequel, it was no Halloween 4.