John Carpenter’s Halloween is the perfect slasher film. It’s defined by a terrific, terrible purity that no-one’s really come close to matching. There are countless horror flicks where randy teenagers are stalked by an implacable, masked murderer, but few that even come close to matching the impact of the original Halloween. That’s especially evidenced by the films that followed, a decades-long franchise of sequels, reboots and remakes that – despite some bright spots here and there – fall far short of the first film.
David Gordon Green’s Halloween is certainly the best Halloween film since Carpenter’s original. That’s admittedly faint praise; while I have a soft spot for much of the Halloween franchise (particularly the expressionistic clumsiness of the first sequel), with the arguable exception of Rob Zombie’s remake, it’s hard to defend them as great films. Green’s take – co-written with Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley – makes the clever choice to ignore every film in the franchise except the original, casually retconning the sibling link between Michael Myers and Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and the overcooked cult backstory from the execrable Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers.
But the smartest decision behind Halloween 2018 is to treat it as a tribute rather than trying to equal Carpenter’s superlative work. The challenge of following up the original is that its purity – specifically, the chilling purity of ‘the Shape’ aka Michael Myers – resists extrapolation. Michael Myers is at once an incarnation of pure evil and an idiosyncratic human man. The justification for his murders is hard to truly understand – he seems to fixate on his eventually victims after running into them on the streets of Haddonfield – but more mysterious is his playfulness: the way he stalks his prey with barely an attempt to conceal himself, or the elaborate way in which he lays out their bodies for Laurie to find. Most sequels need to explain, but Michael Myers resists easy explanation. That creates a problem for filmmakers; surely another film of him blankly murdering teenagers will only be compared unfavourably to Carpenter’s creation.
Green, McBride and Fradley overcome this in two ways. The first is to, as in H20, use a grown-up Laurie as the primary protagonist – allowing her development as a character to anchor the plot. Here she’s rendered as a paranoiac survivalist, hiding in the woods with a cache of guns and a booby-trapped house. I’ve seen some critics praise this as a nuanced depiction of the aftereffects of trauma; I’m not so convinced. She’s just Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2, and the franchise has already explored trauma in Halloween 4 and Zombie’s Halloween 2. Regardless, by framing Laurie as a legitimate challenger to Michael’s preternatural strength and resilience, it allows the film to operate as a showdown between equals rather than simply following a blank-faced killer shadowing defenceless teenagers (though there is plenty of that, too).
This means that, perhaps inevitably, this Halloween was never going to be as scary as its 1978 predecessor. Structured as a slow progression towards said showdown, it often repurposes the original film’s grammar to position Laurie in the same way the Shape was framed – in some cases, literally recreating sequences shot for shot with Laurie in Michael’s place. On the other hand, one of the film’s more impressive scenes is an tracking shot of our antagonist stalking through houses to murder their inhabitants (with the victims a clever reference to the first Halloween 2) – effective, but seeing Michael go about his work makes him less mysterious, less scary. That’s fine! All of these scenes are catnip for Halloween fans – it earned plenty of cheers and claps from the audience I saw it with – while allowing Green to carve out a (slightly) different territory to Carpenter.
Not all of Halloween works; this is certainly not a perfect film. Laurie’s granddaughter, Allyson (newcomer Andi Matichak), provides a connection between Laurie’s story and the inevitable string of murdered teens, but feels somewhat superlative to the overall plot. Most egregiously, there’s an extended Halloween dance scene that seems to only exist to get Allyson’s smartphone out of commission. The comic relief is hit and miss, and a late twist – while effectively skewering the sequels’ attempts to ‘understand’ Michael Myers – doesn’t quite hit as hard as it should. The narrative elegance of the original film is sorely missed.
None of this detracts from the fact that Green’s Halloween is a truly fitting tribute to one of our greatest horror films. It’s made with obvious love and respect for both Carpenter’s film and – perhaps surprisingly – the sequels that follows, even as it culls them from its continuity. It’s also, frankly, a whole lot of fun: a reminder that slasher films are best seen with a packed audience. As much as I’ve been enjoying the haunted house horror renaissance lately, I can’t help but hope this inspires a reinvigoration of the slasher genre, much as the original did four decades ago.