When critics make use of a phrase such as “wildly uneven,” it’s movies like Halloween they’re talking about. Even judging by the standards of horror sequels 40 years removed from their original source materials, David Gordon Green’s Halloween is an intensely frustrating experience, buoyed by solid action and well-crafted scares, but simultaneously damned by an incredibly clunky script and appalling lack of focus. It’s a film with three credited screenwriters; after walking out of the theater, you’d swear the number was at least four or five.
That’s the 2018 Halloween in a nutshell: effective and nostalgically satisfying in brief bursts, but badly hamstrung by everything going on when its attention wanders, which unfortunately happens constantly. If only it focused more intently on the most important elements at the heart of the narrative, it could have been great.
First, our background: 40 years have passed since the events of John Carpenter’s original Halloween in 1978. Michael Myers was immediately captured following the evening depicted in that film, while Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) has borne its psychic scars for the last four decades. The most important canonical revision of this new Halloween is the erasure of the original Halloween II from 1981. Thus, the familial connection—that Laurie is Michael Myers’ lost sister—revealed in the John Carpenter-written sequel has been excised, which also serves to remove any inkling that the “Cult of Thorn” from Halloween 5 or Halloween 6 might be involved. Michael has returned here to how he was initially depicted in 1978: a mortal man who, for reasons unknown, is just possessed by pure evil.
One would undoubtedly expect those canonical trimmings to serve the purpose of simplifying matters for this Halloween. By cutting away all of the (often corny) mythology around Myers in the later Halloween sequels, Green’s film seems to promise a “back to basics” approach. In reality, it immediately throws away any kind of narrative purity it might be seeking by obsessively following rabbit holes into dead ends. Rarely has any horror sequel been so badly overstuffed.
There’s simply a staggering number of viewpoint characters in this Halloween, and far too many locations, which leads to a rushed, breakneck pace as we try to keep up with them all. It’s as if each of the three screenwriters independently created their own set of characters that the narrative should follow, which haphazardly chops the plot into three pieces, consisting of the following:
Group A: A pair of irritating, British investigative journalists who appear as if they’re going to be the primary protagonists of the film for a good 20 minutes before being written out.
Group B: Laurie Strode, a twice-divorced recluse who has spent the last 40 years obsessing over her experiences in 1978 and preparing her mind and body for an inevitable reunion with Michael Myers. Her portion of the story intersects with that of officer Frank Hawkins (Will Patton), whose intriguing backstory involving Myers gets all of one sentence of exposition.
Group C: Laurie’s daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak), along with an excessively large network of friends and acquaintances—more than enough to carry an entire film, and then some.
The result is that character development is spread paper thin over too wide a swath of people who barely have a chance to be introduced before they’re either offed or disappear. In fact, disappearing from the film is one of the most common ways that characters exit Halloween. Case in point: Allyson’s boyfriend Cameron (Dylan Arnold), a major character through the first 60 minutes, suddenly experiences an unexplained personality change, exits the movie and is never seen or mentioned again. The most entertaining character in the entire film gets the same treatment: a scene-stealing, foul-mouthed little boy (Jibrail Nantambu) babysat by one of Allyson’s minor character friends. He’s responsible for the best five-minute segment of Halloween in terms of character building, but like Cameron he vanishes afterward. The script is so overloaded that it can’t even keep track of how many bodies it’s juggling.
Compare that with the laser focus of Carpenter’s original Halloween, which for the vast majority of its runtime is confined to only two houses and a handful of characters—Laurie, her babysitter friends and the kids they’re watching. Beyond the addition of Dr. Loomis and the town sheriff, that’s practically all there is to Halloween—we barely even meet Laurie’s parents! It’s a low-budget masterpiece of simplicity.
And it’s such a shame, because Jamie Lee Curtis absolutely shines in Green’s film. Her characterization actually makes sense as an intense, vulnerable portrait of how victimization can leave deep scars, her overemphasis on preparedness (which for Laurie means an entire house filled with death traps, security systems, safe rooms and guns) slapped like a bandage on a wound that will never heal. Likewise, in the little time that she’s afforded, Judy Greer makes the audience sympathize with her own personal hell of growing up as Laurie Strode’s daughter, being told every day from infancy that the Boogeyman would someday be coming back to finish the job. Her bitterness toward Laurie feels entirely earned, as does the natural curiosity and empathy that Allyson feels toward her grandmother. After all, Allyson didn’t have to be raised by her.
In fact, this triune relationship between Laurie, Karen and Allyson is all that was truly needed to make a modern Halloween movie, and if the script had just hewed closer to the already present complexities of this dynamic, it would make the ending payoff far more satisfying. That isn’t even to say that the eventual sight of three generations of Strode women vs. Michael Myers isn’t fun, because it truly is. But it could have been so much more. Especially when the alternative is “preposterous third-act twists from minor characters” that are so absurdly random I can scarcely believe they passed any kind of studio review.
That’s the thing about this Halloween: It seems to want to do everything at once, but it doesn’t have time to see any of its ideas through to the end. It wants to provide some kind of satire of the #MeToo generation and male entitlement, as exemplified by a “nice guy” male character who makes a pass at Allyson, but the thought passes as quickly as it’s conceived. Everything is rushed, from the psycho-babbling replacement Dr. Loomis (Haluk Bilginer) running through about a dozen whiteboard theories on the nature of evil, to the motivations of Officer Hawkins, to the early focus on the British journalists, to the role of Haddonfield’s Sheriff (Omar Dorsey), whose response to a psychotic killer stalking the streets is “What are we going to do, cancel Halloween?” All of these things are at various times given precedence over the story of Laurie Strode or her granddaughter—and why didn’t the filmmakers think either Jamie Lee Curtis or Andi Matichak could carry this movie? Neither (especially Matichak, who has little to do through long stretches of screen time) is truly given the chance.
With so many problems in terms of plot and character, it might be all the more shocking to learn that the action and “horror” sequences of Halloween are actually quite effective, for the most part. Gentle fan service is provided in ways that are smile-inducing, often through the recreation of specific shots from the Carpenter original, both overt and subtle. The violence and gore are certainly visceral and brutal enough to appease any horror geek in the audience, going beyond even the stuff depicted in Rob Zombie’s remakes. And in general, the film looks great, whether it’s evoking the crisp air of a Midwestern Halloween night as Michael stalks through crowds of trick ‘r treating children, or as Laurie creeps through her death maze of a home in pursuit of The Shape. There’s genuine tension in many of these sequences, only amplified by the redone, but still iconic Carpenter score. Reduce it to its bare bones, and a lot of Halloween works.
In the end, there are a few specific moments in Halloween that will likely draw applause and joy from audiences, in the same manner as several similar moments in the final act of Get Out. That’s a testament not only to how much audiences have missed a character like Laurie Strode (and by extension, Jamie Lee Curtis), but also to how willing we are to be entertained. Is your only expectation from a Halloween film that Michael Myers exist in it and kill a bunch of people? Then you can consider David Gordon Green’s Halloween a resounding success.
If, however, you were hoping for Halloween to take full advantage of Curtis and bring its story to a satisfying close, 40 years after John Carpenter pioneered the slasher genre in the U.S., then I’ve got some bad news for you.
David Gordon Green
Writers: Jeff Fradley, Danny McBride, David Gordon Green
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, Will Patton, Virginia Gardner, Nick Castle
Release Date: October 19, 2018
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.