Oct 20, 2021

HALLOWEEN KILLS (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—leaving Halloween Kills feeling 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 to explore the concept of trauma as established during its predecessor, mainly in how the 40-years-later version of Laurie Strode was depicted and how her Halloween-night experiences battling The Shape has affected three generations of a family, this time the series is expanding its scope beyond just the Strode family and exploring how other citizens of Haddonfield are still emotionally reeling from the night he came home. Yes, Halloween Kills is still about trauma...but it's also about 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 the third act of 1931’s Frankenstein playing out in feature film form (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's 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 some of 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, as if Halloween Kills were actually 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's 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.

Halloween Kills is desperate to do so many things that it collapses under its own heavy load, in the process bungling pretty much everything it tries. It wants to be “about” something but executes that aboutness with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. It wants to resurrect Haddonfield’s history by returning familiar faces, but then doesn’t do anything to treat them with the kind of reverence they still hold forty+ years later...which is the reason they're back in the first place. 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. (I'm really puzzled why so many critics and audiences are acting like this is huge, even accusing it of ruining The Shape's mystique, because this is something we've known since the original.) 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. (At what point did a headshot officially become The Shape's silver bullet? Because I'm pretty sure he took a slug to the face in Halloween '18 and the man's still in the union.) 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. Somehow, Halloween Kills feels like it’s trying to do way too much while also not doing much at all. 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, it seems as if he’s not so much channeling Carpenter as he did in 2018, despite recreating a few shots, and more like 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 Wright 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, I would’ve preferred to keep this new version of Loomis in a blurry background, similar to how Michael’s maskless face had been left 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.

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 a terrific and exciting sequence 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 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.

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