The Night He Came Stumbling Home: A Review of Halloween (2018)

A film forty years in the making, Halloween unfortunately fails to make much of an impact.

Director David Gordon Green’s direct sequel to John Carpenter’s seminal slasher flick from autumn 1978 proves as dull and drab-looking as “Grandmother” Laurie Strode’s hair. The film lacks both overarching vision and particularly striking visuals (arguably, the most memorable image is an incongruous one: that giant, defiantly-unsoothing red-and-white grid painted at Smith’s Grove). It lacks characters interesting enough to fear for–or even to root for their victimization by Michael Myers. Perhaps most glaringly, it lacks the presence of Donald Pleasance’s Dr. Loomis, replaced here by the loony, underdeveloped and unconvincing Dr. Sartain.

There are a few aspects of the film that I did appreciate. The callbacks to the original Halloween are cleverly done, and never employed in a heavy-handed manner. Terrific choreography is on display as Michael death waltzes in and out of a block of Haddonfield homes while trick-or-treaters traipse obliviously though the streets. The bits of comedy are also top-notch: Jibrail Nantambu nearly steals the whole movie in his brief appearances as Julian, a wisecracking child being babysat by Vicky, a friend of Laurie’s granddaughter Allyson.

Green’s film seems determined to overplay one major note: after living through the night of the Babysitter Murders, Jamie Lee Curtis’s final girl has transformed into a Michael-obsessed survivalist. While such a character arc is understandable, it’s also derivative: as moviegoers, we’ve seen all this before (cf. Linda Hamilton’s turn as doomsday-prepper Sarah Connor in Terminator 2). Furthermore, the extended timeline–the idea that this has been going on for forty years–skewed me towards disbelief. Such prolonged state of paranoid hyper-preparation probably would have resulted in fatal hypertension long ago. A one-woman militia movement, Laurie boasts an impressive arsenal of guns, but the elaborate booby-traps she has built into home border on the ridiculous. Her final solution for the invading Michael was maddeningly illogical (let’s just Laurie will be moving in with her daughter come tomorrow).

I found this film vastly inferior to Rob Zombie’s 2007 edition of Halloween. The shock rocker brought a stylistic flair, a certain brashness to the proceedings. By focusing on Michael’s childhood for the first third of the movie, he also endeavored to create some insight into the character. Robbed here of that backstory, as well as any sort of unfinished-family-business motivation, Michael reduces to a homicidal blank–the embodiment not of pure evil, but rather mundane mindless violence. The film does attempt to recapture the hulking rage of Zombie’s Michael, but again the timing seems off: such untiring ferocity in a now-sixtysomething psychopath strains belief (unless Sartain smuggled some HGH into the asylum, Michael at this point should be startling to shrivel up like a jack-o’-lantern in November). How ironic, then, that an ultimate lack of fight causes the most disappointment: Michael’s literally static ending is completely unsatisfying.

To no surprise, the film does leave open the possibility of another October follow-up. Such prospective sequel is not one I will be looking forward to, whether next year or decades hence.


The Shapes of Wrath: Michael Myers’s Nine Most Frightening Movie Moments

The High Holiday’s knife-wielding icon will be slashing his way across the big screen once again on Friday, October 19th. This will mark Michael Myers’s tenth appearance in the Halloween film series (every installment except Halloween III: Season of the Witch). To celebrate his murderous return, I have put together a list–presented here in reverse chronological order–of my choices for Michael’s most frightening moment in each of the preceding nine films:


9. Halloween II (2009)

“Trick or Tree.” The embodiment of hulking brutality, Michael has never been more savage in his attacks on the hapless populace of Haddonfield than in Rob Zombie’s sequel to his own series reboot. But for all his raging rampage, Michael arguably is at his most frightful in one of his stealthier moments: the scene where he materializes seemingly out of nowhere, stepping out from behind a shadowed tree to surprise and strangle the policeman posted in front of the Brackett home. Unnerving in and of itself, the kill is also chilling because it forebodes that the sun is about to go down for good on Annie.


8. Halloween (2007)

“Ahead of His Time.” Young Michael’s first-time donning of his mask gets the nod here. The sight of this creepy, oversized head perched on a child’s clown-costumed body is strangely disorienting, making the subsequent slashing of sister Judith that much more unsettling. This giant, adult mask might be mismatched here, but Michael is destined to grow into it and make it a perfect fit.


7. Halloween: Resurrection (2002)

“No More Laurie.” The acting of Jamie Lee Curtis (“I’ll see you in hell!”) is at its worst, as is the plot logic (the idea that Laurie would have the time or the means to set up a booby-trap for Michael on the rooftop of a psychiatric facility is ridiculous). But there’s no denying the shock value when a backstabbing Michael finally succeeds–after a quarter century and four previous cinematic attempts–in getting the best of his sibling nemesis. If Halloween‘s original final girl can meet her demise in this film’s opening, then all bets are off.


6. Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (1998)

“Dumbwaiter Outsmarting.” From our first glimpse of it in the campus mess hall kitchen, we all know that the dumbwaiter will come into later play, but nevertheless it is put to unsuspected use. For one thing, Michael never comes jump-scaring out of it (although one of his victims, Charlie, is discovered stuffed inside by the boy’s horrified girlfriend Sarah). When Sarah attempts to escape Michael by ascending in the mechanized contraption, Michael saws through the trailing rope but does not simply bring Sarah crashing back down. Instead he catches her as she is about to exit on the next floor; she does not suffer some graphic decapitation, but only has her leg injured by the plummeting dumbwaiter. From here, Michael climbs leisurely upstairs, and when he proceeds to press his boot down on the neck of the bleeding/pleading girl and hack away with his blade, we see just how methodical and merciless he can be.


5. Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995)

“Fear Window.” Admittedly, there’s not a helluva lot to choose from in this wretched entry (which makes a mishmash of the Michael Myers mythos). So I’ll go with the scene when heroine Kara Strode is on the phone with Beth and watches (through telephoto lens, in an upstairs bedroom directly across the street) Michael sneak up on the unsuspecting teen and deliver his sharp brand of post-coital punishment. To make matters even more terrifying, when Kara pans down, she sees her young son Danny crossing the street and heading straight towards the kill zone.


4. Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989)

“Out of the Closet.” As if it wasn’t painfully obvious already, Michael reveals his orientation as a violence-minded voyeur in this early scene. A police sweep of Rachel’s house has deemed it empty, but Michael is in fact hiding in the closet. We first see (via an effective I-camera shot) Michael’s hand reaching out from behind Rachel’s wardrobe; the scene then cuts to an interior view of Michael as he watches the naked, vulnerable, and oblivious Rachel throw a sweater over her head. The emphasis here is on simmering suspense, but Michael’s eventual exodus from his hiding spot makes for a nice pairing with his closet break-in scene in the original Halloween.


3. Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)

“Michael-plicity.” Characters Sam Loomis and Jamie Lloyd have been experiencing respective visions of Michael throughout, but here in this scene they both (along with Rachel and Sheriff Meeker) see not one, not two, but three different Michaels surround a squad car. Their collective reaction to the trio suggests that this is no mere hallucination. The would-be slashers are soon revealed as costumed imposters (punk teens playing a Halloween prank), but for a brief moment it seems as if the franchise has taken a bizarro turn.


2. Halloween II (1981)

“Hallway Stalking.” Thinness of plot is made up for by unity of setting in this hospital-focused follow-up to the John Carpenter classic. Michael cuts down almost the entire staff of Haddonfield Memorial, but his scalpel-stabbing of nurse Jill constitutes the most frightening kill of all. Jill calls out to a wounded, drugged Laurie stumbling down the hallway, who turns back only to watch Michael step out behind Jill and impale her. Jill is no wicked fornicator (unlike her nurse counterpart Karen, who sneaks off while on duty for a tryst in a hydrotherapy tub) doomed by the conservative sexual politics of the slasher film, and so her murder proves especially disturbing. Jill’s death sentence is poignantly punctuated when her shoes slip off her feet and clatter to the floor as she is held aloft by Michael.


1. Halloween (1978)

“Exercise in Terror.” The extended climax (Michael’s pursuit of Laurie) is a textbook frightfest, but its signature moment occurs when the Shape gets back in shape via a single sit-up. Like Count Orlock emerging from his coffin in Nosferatu, the presumed-dead Michael rises up stiffly into sitting position. The maneuver brings dramatic irony to its height, as Laurie is completely unaware of Michael’s resurrection behind her. Also, for the first time, the audience must wonder if Michael is no run-of- the-mill serial killer but somehow supernaturally enhanced. Even before Laurie famously inquires at film’s end, the question crosses the viewer’s mind: is this the Boogeyman?


Zombie Omissions: Thoughts on Episode 1 of Eli Roth’s History of Horror

Roll out the talking heads and the walking dead. “Zombies”–the inaugural installment of Eli Roth’s History of Horror–ironically begins in the modern moment, with “the monster of the 21st Century” (as the undead flesh-eater is dubbed here by John Landis). I have to admit, I was a bit thrown by the outset of the series. First, because the decision to proceed via theme episodes portends an abridged history, and the exclusion of various facets of horror that don’t fall within clear categories. Second, the skeptic in me found this primary focus on zombies suspiciously self-serving, considering that AMC is the network that also airs The Walking Dead (which had its season premiere just last week). I’d call last night’s episode of the documentary series a crypto-commercial for the sagging drama, except for the fact that there’s little subtlety involved: Greg Nicotero literally has a seat at the table right next to Eli Roth!

Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty to be entertained by here. The myriad of film clips are aptly chosen, and the show presents a slew of genre luminaries as commentators. A lot of the discussion likely will fail to be groundbreaking (this just in: Romero’s zombie films feature socio-political subtext) for the veteran fan. Nevertheless, intriguing points are made throughout: Edgar Wright’s account of the impact of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video on the zombie subgenre; Stephen King’s thoughts on the mob mentality on display in such films; Max Brooks’s philosophizing about what makes the slow zombie so much more frightening than its faster counterpart.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given Roth’s resumé as a horror director, the show adopts a Fangorial approach, emphasizing more recent, and more graphic, titles (films such as White Zombie, I Walked With a Zombie, and Frankenstein are treated cursorily). While I understand that only so much can be covered within 42 minutes of run time, I wish more attention had been given to films/TV shows that provide fresh perspectives on zombies and the post-apocalypse. My biggest disappointment, though, is that this History of Horror appears to posit a strictly visual, aliterate audience: zero exploration is made of the zombie in horror fiction. For the love of all that is unholy at the Micmac burial ground, couldn’t Roth have asked King about the author’s foray into zombie territory in Pet Sematary?

Watching horror is great, but sometimes (having) read is better.


With a Whimper


Having recently read/reviewed Harlan Ellison’s Blood’s a Rover and re-read (for the umpteenth time) Stephen King’s The Gunslinger, I must admit to being on a bit of a post-apocalyptic kick. So when I caught wind of the new Netflix original film How It Ends–whose trailer presented some stunning visuals, along with the always-exceptional Forest Whitaker in a starring role–I was naturally eager to check it out.

The movie centers on ex-marine Tom Sutherland (Whitaker), who is extremely disapproving of his daughter Sam’s boyfriend, attorney Will Younger. When a mysterious cataclysm strikes the West Coast of the U.S. and sends power outages and freak storms rippling across the country, Tom and Will set out from Chicago to find and rescue the incommunicado Sam in Seattle. How It Ends thus forms a variation on a road movie, tracing the evolving relationship between the unlikely pair of heroes attempting to trek cross-country. On this front, the film succeeds, thanks to the strong performances of Whitaker and Theo James as Will. But their arduous journey is ultimately too protracted: the plot bogs down with too many scenes of run-ins with Americans gone bad in the wake of national (perhaps not natural) catastrophe. Credibility is often strained along the way, such as when Tom manages to talk his way past a military roadblock merely by mentioning (and in no way verifying) that he served in the Marines.

Eventually we arrive at a blasted and ash-shrouded Seattle that makes for an absolutely haunting vista. After all that has preceded it, though, the climax feels rushed, introducing a new, under-developed, and soon-vanquished antagonist. Attempts to explain what triggered the apocalypse also prove unsatisfactory; the film has been preoccupied throughout with thrusting its characters into terrible predicaments, but appears at a loss to provide any sort of satisfying resolution. The final scene, in which a sudden, surging cloud of smoke (devoid of any real narrative logic beyond the writers’ need to generate another obstacle) chases the heroes as they speed away from the city, was groan-inducingly hokey. So while the film gets off to a promising start, the answer to How It Ends is, alas, not well.


Accredited Openings

Yesterday, Meagan Navarro posted a fun editorial over at Bloody Disgusting: “10 Horror Movie Opening Scenes So Good We Were Instantly Hooked.” Her annotated list of memorable attention-grabbers and tone-setters got me to thinking: what first scene of a horror movie left a lasting impression on me? Films like Hellraiser and It Follows quickly came to mind, but if I had to pick just one, I would go with 2007’s Trick ‘r Treat.

To start with, director Michael Dougherty’s visuals are amazing, creating the ultimate All Hallow’s Eve atmosphere (watching the scene, and seeing the magnificent efforts of yard haunting on display, makes me wish that I lived in such a spirited neighborhood). The opening builds incredible suspense, and strikes a perfect balance between subtle disturbances, jump scares, and awful reveals. Mystery also arises, as the viewer isn’t sure just what has slaughtered and strung up Emma, and why. The answers aren’t provided until much later, and seemingly irrelevant elements from this initial scene take on added significance in retrospect as the film’s looping narrative structure is established. A holiday-themed anthology film, Trick ‘r Treat plays like a glorious mash-up of Halloween and Creepshow, and its skillful mixture of horror and black humor is evident before the film even gets to its (wonderfully animated) opening credits.


Inspiring Frankenstein

The story is almost as famous as the book itself: on a stormy mid-June night 202 years ago, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and Dr. John Polidori are gathered within the Villa Diodati, and decide to pass the time by engaging in a ghost story competition. This proposed writing contest, and a subsequent nightmare suffered by Mary, spark the creation of Frankenstein, the now-classic novel concerning a Promethean transgressor and a pitiable creature driven to vengeance.

Just as Frankenstein itself has grown into a pop-culture phenomenon, with countless iterations in various mediums, the novel’s origin story has inspired a host of literary and cinematic efforts. Writers such as Brian W. Aldiss (Frankenstein Unbound), Tim Powers (The Stress of Her Regard), and Chuck Palahniuk (Haunted) have hearkened back to the Villa Diodati, as have films such as The Bride of FrankensteinGothic, and Haunted Summer. The most recent entry to this list is the 2018 biopic Mary Shelley, featuring an outstanding Elle Fanning in the title role.

Mary Shelley proceeds nearly two-thirds of the way through its run time before arriving at the seminal scene, which is presented in restrained fashion (yes, there are plenty of flickering candles, and thundercracks without, and Fuseli’s The Nightmare looms over one room, but matters don’t get anywhere near as Gothic as in Ken Russell’s Gothic). This is not to say that the events at the Villa are underplayed; what the film does so well is to take the time to establish the import of everything leading up this particular scene. Not simply the product of a single rainy night, Frankenstein is shown here as developing from the author’s lifelong experiences of loss, death, and betrayal. Marked by feelings of “desperate loneliness” and abandonment (mostly stemming from her relationship with Percy Shelley), Mary clearly identifies with the creature that takes shape on the pages of her manuscript.

Overall, this is a finely realized period drama, filled with impressive performances. The film allows its feminist themes to unfold in a natural, non-preachy fashion that makes the narrative all the more moving. Wonderfully entertaining, Mary Shelley is well worth checking out, on this historic night or any other.

Sins of the Mother: A Review of Hereditary

Hereditary, the most-anticipated horror release of 2018, has enjoyed months-long (film-festival-generated) buzz, and recently debuted to widespread critical acclaim. After finally watching the movie myself, I have to add: I just don’t see what all the fuss is about.

The film centers on a nuclear family aggrieved by a secretive, eccentric (i.e. dark-arts-and-crafts-loving) grandmother who becomes an even greater burden after she’s dead and buried. A promising enough premise, but Hereditary quickly proceeds to underwhelm. For starters, the main performers prove guilty of rampant overacting. The Oscar-touted Toni Collette as mournful mom Annie Graham vacillates between shrieking hysterically and shrilly hectoring her loved ones; Alex Wolff as the increasingly-petrified stoner teen Peter demonstrates acting chops no less hammy. Meanwhile Gabriel Byrne as patriarch Steve is presented as a laid-back foil to his overwrought family, but Byrne practically sleepwalks through the role.

Hereditary also threatens to make a misnomer of run time, as the film (its first hour in particular) unfolds with torturous slowness. A major twist about two-thirds of the way in is anything but unexpected: one character couldn’t have more clearly announced herself as a Duplicitous Assister Straight Out of Rosemary’s Baby if she were wearing a sandwich board. Likewise, the occult-conspiracy climax plays out all too familiarly for genre fans.

I can appreciate that first-time director Ari Aster aims to build a lush Gothic atmosphere rather than rely on cheap jump-scares. For sure, there are some creepy and disturbing moments here (too many, though, that were spoiled by the film’s trailer), but Hereditary never really terrifies. It failed to scare me at least, mostly because I just didn’t care enough about the characters and their predicament.

Much like The Witch (an infinitely superior effort), this film seems destined to create a broad divide in its audience. And much like Robert Eggers’s Puritanical chiller, Aster’s cinematic premiere will no doubt benefit from repeat viewing (not just to appreciate its more nuanced aspects, but simply to get a closer, at-home view of the small print that appears onscreen on several occasions and is a struggle to read for hardly-eagle-eyed theatergoers such as myself). My lofty expectations having been grounded, though, I can’t say that I am looking forward to a reunion with the Graham family anytime soon. More histrionic than horrific, Hereditary passes along too many negative traits.

Back to Haddonfield

It’s only early June, but Halloween is already in the air–or on the Web, at least. The trailer for Michael Myers’s next nightmarish assault debuted today, leading legions of fans to start dreaming of October. Forty years in the making, the latest installment hearkens back directly to the 1978 original, nullifying the storylines of the innumerable sequels and Rob Zombie remakes. The revision of the Myers mythology alone makes this forthcoming endeavor intriguing; the look of the film–the glimpses of holiday scenery and festivity–also creates cause for excitement.

Here in the Macabre Republic, every autumn is always eagerly anticipated, but this trailer points to one big reason why Halloween 2018 can’t come soon enough.

Mob Scene: The Night of the Hunter

The classic 1955 crime/horror film The Night of the Hunter not only evinces a German expressionist style throughout but in its climactic mob scene also evokes a German (or at least generically European) village setting from a Universal monster movie. After the widow-seducing, serial-killing con man and thief “Reverend” Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is finally arrested, Icey and Walt Spoon (a couple that previously seemed plucked from a Norman Rockwell painting) bring disorder to the court during Powell’s trial via cries of “Lynch him!” and “Bluebeard!” Looking suddenly scraggly-haired and haggish, Evelyn Varden’s Icey channels Una O’Connor as the vociferous angry-villager Minnie in the Frankenstein movies. She comes across, though, as more of a pathetic than comedic figure; Icey apparently has had a few on the rocks when she drunkenly disturbs the dinner of the “poor orphans” following the trial. The children (who’ve spent a good portion of the film being chased by Powell) are forced to flee the restaurant as a torch-, tool-, and furniture-wielding lynch mob takes to the streets.

The turn by first-time filmmaker Charles Laughton (who co-starred with Boris Karloff in Frankenstein-director James Whale’s The Old Dark House, and who was married to The Bride of Frankenstein herself, Elsa Lanchester) back to Universal horror is unsurprising here yet also curious. The iconography proves somewhat disorienting, as The Night of the Hunter‘s West Virginia locale promptly transforms into a back lot rendition of a European village. This mob scene is also disconcerting in its recasting of the film’s hitherto-wholesome supporting characters: as the Spoons stir up a bloodthirsty rabble, they are reduced to a level of dubious morality that marks them as ultimately not all that different from Mitchum’s criminal minister. With all these vigilante-justice-seekers afoot, the film’s title could easily–and troublingly–be pluralized.

In Name Only

In Cold Blood meets The Last House on the Left in American Gothic, as a pair of convicts break into a farmhouse, only to encounter a family mad for revenge. Unfortunately, such rough comparison is about the best thing that can be said for this 2017 horror film.

The acting is glaringly awful, with the film’s troupe of alleged thespians performing like community theater cast-offs. Their unconvincing dialogue is matched only by their characters’ unfathomable actions–decisions consistently serving no logic other than directorial steering of a contrived plot. The climactic twist, involving a young woman held captive in the farmhouse cellar, is both telegraphed and clumsily executed. This movie is so bad, it makes its homonymous 1987 predecessor seem like Silence of the Lambs.

The biggest problem I have, though, is with the film’s title, and the hackneyed sense of American Gothic (“crazy inhabitants of a rural Pennsylvanian farmhouse”) conveyed by the film itself. Then again, the filmmakers might deserve kudos for clever marketing: had they labeled their effort more honestly–Low-Budget Lameness Appropriating the Title of Grant Wood’s Famous Painting–I likely would have passed.

Amazon Prime members can stream American Gothic for free, but viewers are apt to regret the cost of seventy-five minutes out of their day. Be forewarned: poking one’s eyes out with a pitchfork makes for better entertainment than watching this cinematic monstrosity.