The latest entry in the Halloween series was probably always a fool’s errand, yet its myriad failures are still shocking given the talent involved. After all, steering the ship is David Gordon Green as director and co-writer, and the film marks the return of original Halloween creator and director John Carpenter to the series—and in more than a paycheck-cashing supervisory role (he composed the score with his son, Cody Carpenter, and guitarist Daniel A. Davies). Among the producers is Jason Blum of Blumhouse, currently the go-to mini-studio for horror movies made on low budgets with blockbuster returns. And then there’s Jamie Lee Curtis, returning to her star-making role of Laurie Strode, the resourceful all-American suburbanite who survived knife-wielding masked psycho Michael Myers’s rampage 40 years earlier.
Curtis has been here before, with the risible Halloween II, a same-night continuation of the first Halloween that reveals—in a soap-operatic twist—that Laurie is Michael’s long-lost sister, and with Halloween: H2O, which picked up Laurie’s story 20 years after the original. But Green and co-writers Jeff Fradley and Danny McBride give all the narrative deadweight the heave-ho, ignoring those two films as well as every other Halloween sequel. In this alternate timeline, only the 1978 original is canon. That’s not an inadvisable approach, though what they come up with is a wearisome hodgepodge that consistently undercuts deficiently executed terror with tons of ill-fitting humor.
Laurie herself has basically become Grandma Ripley, a gun-toting survivalist so scarred by her encounter with Myers, and convinced of a rematch, that she’s built a secluded gated compound with surveillance cameras, motion sensors, a hidden room, and lots of booby traps. Because of her antisocial obsessiveness, she’s become estranged from her adult daughter, Karen (Judy Greer), though she maintains some contact with the family through her granddaughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak), who’s a bit more sympathetic toward, if still perplexed by, the whole situation. As Allyson’s friend, Dave (Miles Robbins), notes, a crazy man killing a handful of people with a knife in 1978 seems pretty small potatoes in comparison to the world’s current horrors.
Yet that’s the power of the original Halloween. It doesn’t matter that the body count is low. Michael Myers’s upending of the seemingly tranquil community of Haddonfield, Illinois speaks to much larger existential concerns. As the Ahab-esque Dr. Loomis says in the first film, “Death has come to your little town.” Michael forsakes his humanity as a boy by killing his sister, Judith. As a result, he becomes a ruthless spectre, hence his end-credits designation in the original film as “The Shape.” Evil has no concrete form, Carpenter seems to be saying. It moves, it mutates, and it can vanish as quickly as it descends.
Green, McBride, and Fradley’s biggest mistake is to remove that sickening sense of the ephemeral from Michael. Though he’s no longer Laurie’s brother, the pair are still joined at hip and heart. The killer’s not-very-stable caretaker, Doctor Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), suggests that both prey and patient are mutually, neurotically needy. Because he failed to kill her in 1978, the ever-silent, heavy-breathing Michael has become murderously obsessed with his target. (Michael is played mostly by James Jude Courtney, though Nick Castle, who played the part in the original Halloween, appears briefly in the role when he and Laurie first cross paths.) Laurie, meanwhile, is consumed with the full-bore eradication of her adversary, to a sanity-altering degree. At certain points, Green puts her in poses similar to Michael in the first film (standing eerily sentinel outside her granddaughter’s school, for one), thus emphasizing the likelihood that our heroine isn’t so staunchly rational as she thinks. Sadly, once Michael makes his Halloween-night escape during a transfer gone wrong, it becomes dishearteningly clear that Laurie is no longer up against an amorphous myth, but a shallowly motivated man.
For all of the film’s attempts to get back to the sinisterly sidling Michael of the first Halloween, his stealth movements no longer terrify because his fixations are less unthinkingly instinctual, more compulsively mortal. It doesn’t help that Green has no evident flair for horror. You can see that he and DP Michael Simmonds have thought through certain of the sequences conceptually. Michael’s initial killing spree unfolds in an apparent single shot that moves between the sidewalk and two houses. There’s also an inspired bit of business with a motion-sensor light, and a very clever reveal, already spoiled in the film’s trailer, of Michael hiding in a bedroom closet. But these scenes never rise above the notional stage. You can sense Green is trying too hard, attempting to placate many masters (Carpenter, the producers, the fanbase—take your pick) instead of striking out fiercely on his own.
What does feel closer to Green’s heart is the unrefined and, in this case, unbefitting comedy that seeps into the proceedings. For one, two snooty British journalists (Jackson Hall and Rhian Rees) attempt to do a podcast on the Myers case, if only so the film can half-assedly satirize Serial. Which means that all the pre-release chatter about Green and his collaborators treating the terror with utmost earnestness proves to be a sham. There’s barely a single scare that isn’t undermined by some forced bit of funniness, be it the precocious kid (Jibrail Nantambu) who cracks wise while Michael is knifing a babysitter, all the bantering cops who might as well have “Comic Relief/Dead Meat” tattooed on their foreheads, or a strange and off-putting prelude to the killer’s escape in which a macho hunter (Brien Gregorie) argues with his dance-obsessed young son (Vince Mattis). The only truly effective fright occurs at a high school dance, as a DJ’s sick beat drop takes the place of one of Carpenter’s patented jump-in-your-seat synth stingers.
There’s an intriguing larger theme that the filmmakers are trying to mine about terror and tragedy being passed down a family tree. The events of this Halloween are meant to bring Laurie, Karen, and Allyson together in such a way that they become the ultimate “final girl,” three generations of women banding together to vanquish the ultimate aggressive male. But Curtis, Greer, and Matichak never build anything approaching a believable genetic chemistry. They each seem to be starring in their own movie: Curtis in some infernal redneck homage to James Cameron’s Aliens, Greer in a screwball farce about the mother she just can’t stand, and Matichak in a rote high school comedy that just happens to have a killer on the loose. So the motif, like the film itself, comes off as pandering rather than provocative.