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Halloween (2018): Coming Home Forty Years Later

Written by James C. Taylor.

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Coming Home Forty Years Later

On October 31st 1978, Michael Myers, having escaped the sanitarium in which he had been held after butchering his sister at the age of six, returns to his hometown of Haddonfield. The adult Michael’s killing spree, as depicted in Halloween (1978), stalls as he becomes fixated on the resilient Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). The Night He Came Home (as per the film’s tagline) ends in Michael’s defeat. Halloween (2018) picks up forty years later. Michael (James Jude Courtney and Nick Castle, credited as ‘The Shape’) has been incarcerated over this period while Laurie has herself in many ways been imprisoned by her trauma. She is physically detached from the world, rarely leaving her house-turned-survival-fortress, and is estranged from her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak). When Michael breaks out and immediately hones in on Haddonfield, Laurie is pulled back into the hunt she’s spent the last four decades anticipating.

While forty years have seemingly made no impact on Michael’s determination, Halloween’s (2018) successes are rooted in how it blends resurrection with revision. The film ostensibly endeavors to recapture the style and sensibility of John Carpenter’s 1978 low-budget masterpiece. Seven previous sequels’ narratives are erased from continuity and Rob Zombie’s reboot dismissed. Yet these previous installments are by no means ignored. Instead 2018’s Halloween sifts through four decades of accumulated tropes and ideas, selecting which to retain and which to dispel. The first half of the film can feel unassured, sometimes jarring in attempts to fuse a sparse style approximating its 1978 forebearer with a somewhat more modernised Haddonfield. However, as the action progresses the more disruptive modern elements are discarded or better incorporated, and director David Gordon Green demonstrates a flair for crafting effective set-pieces that don’t just simulate John Carpenter’s from the original. The presentation of Michael recognizes the cipher-like qualities that make him so terrifying as momentum builds toward a gripping and immensely satisfying third act. Of the two returning central characters, Laurie is the one who is developed, her forty years of torment and preparation given great weight by Curtis. Ultimately, in reviving the archetypal slasher film’s killer and heroine four decades on from their first showdown, Halloween displays an uncanny awareness of which of this franchise’s tropes should be resurrected - and which can benefit from some sharpening.

Franchising Halloween

In this article I will explore how Halloween (2018) positions itself within both the Halloween franchise and contemporary horror cinema, expanding on some of the ideas outlined in my review. The success of franchise sequels typically depends on how they negotiate recycling and reconfiguring a winning formula. The extent of the reconfiguration can vary from amplification and increasing self-awareness (e.g. the growing body counts and self-parody in A Nightmare on Elm Street’s [1984] sequels), to the subversion or displacement of formula (e.g. transposing Friday the 13th’s Jason Voorhees to space for Jason X [2001]).

The Halloween franchise alternates between departure and return. Halloween II (1981) amped up the gore and body count, seemingly influenced by Friday the 13th and other contemporaries, before the gloriously bonkers Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) dispenses with Michael Myers entirely to tell an unrelated story in another subgenre. Its underwhelming box office prompted the first ‘resurrection’, Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988) which reverted to the sparse slasher formula. Subsequently, each time the Halloween formula becomes contorted it is stripped back again, the franchise effectively composed of a series of mini-cycles. Michael got hopelessly entangled with druid cults and psychic bonds in Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989) and Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995). Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (1998) culled this silliness and brought back Curtis for a more character-driven showdown. While H20 dips a toe in the postmodern self-reflexivity that characterised the era’s horror, as spearheaded by Scream (1997), Halloween: Resurrection (2002) dives right in, staging a live-streamed internet reality show in the house where Michael grew up. Seeing Michael become a reality star clearly left Rob Zombie desperate to reset the clock completely in his reboot and its sequel (2007 and 2009 respectively), which includes a protracted exploration of Michael’s childhood. This narrative refocusing is complemented by a stylistic shift, Zombie constructing an aesthetic of nastiness and brutality to rival the extremities of contemporaneous “torture porn” horror. The latest installment instigates another return, this time to the 1978 narrative and stylistic blueprint. Yet accompanying this are efforts, sometimes overt but often subtly interwoven into the action, at negotiating the forty-year span that separates Halloween (1978) and Halloween (2018). This negotiation takes into account both horror genre trends and broader cultural shifts that have occurred over that time.

Recent Trends in Terror

Certain new characters in Halloween (2018) embody recent developments in horror. The treatment of these characters expresses views about the corresponding trends. We enter the story via Dana (Rhian Rees) and Aaron (Jefferson Hall), “investigative journalists” seeking to shed new light on Michael’s killings for a podcast, an obvious nod to the recent prominence of true crime efforts such as Serial (2014- ). This new mode of probing criminal minds is linked to the cinematic trend of psychologising serial killers - as evident in franchise reboots/prequels such as Zombie’s Halloween films, Friday the 13th (2009) and Leatherface (2017) - through psychiatrist Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer). Unlike Michael’s previous psychiatrist Dr. Loomis (played by Donald Pleasence in five Halloween films, up until his death in 1995), Sartain does not simply want to contain Michael but obsesses over understanding him. Echoing Zombie’s Halloween II (2009), in which Michael and Laurie have overlapping visions of their family that suggest a shared subconscious, both the podcasters and Sartain propose psychological links between Michael and Laurie.

Dana and Aaron are early victims of Michael, while Sartain’s theories are shown to be products of a deranged mind when he attempts to become his object of study, by first killing another character then donning Michael’s mask. Michael proceeds to dispatch Sartain, reclaiming his mask and mystique. In setting up these alternative narrative trajectories and then terminating them, a clear statement is made in opposition to these trends. The film is reinstating Michael, the archetypal slasher, as a quasi-supernatural force, a terror that cannot be rationalized. His characterization lies not in his psychology, but in the way that he moves through space with ghoulish grace; his fixation on targets; his taste for the macabre; and his occasional transcendence of laws of physics and biology.

Sartain’s and the podcasters’ hypotheses are shown, however, to hold some truth. A relation between Michael and Laurie is expressed both narratively and symbolically. For example, when Allyson is fleeing through the woods surrounding her grandmother’s house, the disfigured mannequins she encounters in Laurie’s shooting range create a nightmare garden that Michael himself could have cultivated. Yet it is vital to consider the nature of this relationship. At their worst, previous Halloween sequels become about Michael. Halloween II (1981) reveals Michael to be Laurie’s brother, an amendment that primarily functions to give the killer a twisted rationale for hunting Laurie, and spends so much time following Michael while Laurie is incapacitated that he effectively becomes the main character. Some later instalments exhibit similar tendencies, and even weave a mythology of hokey druid lore around Michael. Green’s film alters the dynamic by reverting Michael to cipher, erasing the familial connection, and presenting the relationship between Michael and Laurie not as one of interconnection, but rather exploring the effect he had on her. The focus is on the trauma Laurie has endured, how she found the strength to deal with it and the ways in which it affected her relations with her actual family. The house of horrors that Laurie has built and largely confined herself to is not the result of her channelling Michael, but rather her efforts to ensure she is emotionally and physically ready for his (inevitable) return.

Revisiting the Final Girl

While seemingly rejecting, if to some extent absorbing, certain recent horror trends, Green’s Halloween operates in the framework of the current nostalgia wave in popular culture. Reconstructing the 1978 film’s sensibility is complemented by the characters inhabiting a temporally unstable 2018. For instance, eliminating the podcasters symbolically dispels modern technology, a statement reiterated when Allyson’s smartphone is thrown in custard and rendered unusable. Much other recent horror and science fiction has been harking back to a similar era, an analogue 1980s. An often-expressed and very valid concern with nostalgia is that trying to recapture a previous time engenders sociopolitical regression. Despite the current push for diverse representation in film and television, popular eighties nostalgia vehicles like Super 8 (2011), Stranger Things (2016- ) and It (2017) place at their center the kind of figures who dominated eighties popular culture: heterosexual white males. This observation, however, does not take into account that in each of these examples the forms of masculinity on offer do not simply reflect, but to varying extents revise, those in eighties texts. The slasher film, due to the central role of female characters, offers great scope for revision.

Slasher films have an odd dynamic in regard to the representation of women. One the one hand they revel in the butchery of women (especially sexually promiscuous ones) and fetishize the female body (in Scream, horror-geek Randy identifies the “obligatory tit shot” as a slasher trope). In tension with this, as Carol J. Clover influentially outlines in Men, Women, and Chain Saws, slashers feature women as central characters, the ‘final girl’ being the protagonist who survives to the third act and eventually overcomes her typically male stalker. Male audiences identify with the final girl as subject, and are compelled to feel discomfort when adopting the predatory male gaze offered in shots from the killer’s point of view.

The latest Halloween works through these contradictions. Tellingly, the only nudity shown is in footage replayed from the opening of the 1978 Halloween, as we see Michael’s topless sister Judith from his perspective. Situating this mode of representation in the past, Green’s film develops a story of three generations of Strode women facing a male aggressor. Unlike in previous franchise installments, no men offer any significant aid. All too often in Halloween films, after Laurie or another final girl suffers through the ordeal and gets the better of Michael, male characters deliver the (inevitably short-lived) killing blow. Loomis often fulfils this role, bungling around Haddonfield and managing to join the chase, revolver in hand, at the closing moments of the climactic confrontation. In the new film the reveal of Loomis’ replacement Sartain as yet another threat, in addition to dismissing the psychologising turn, relegates this potential figure of male heroism to the past.

Elsewhere, the new Halloween’s female teenagers are not the embodiments of male sexual fantasy that often provide fodder for cinema’s masked killers. At their worst, teenage girls in slasher films’ sole defining attribute is a desire to have sex with men. Once this is accomplished, they are ripe to be punished. Green’s film takes much more care over characters who genre convention dictates will become statistics in the body count. Allyson’s best friend Vicky (Virginia Gardner) is exemplary. Vicky radiates affability and wit as she engages in banter with the child she’s babysitting, Julian (Jibrail Nantambu). She tucks him into bed before inviting her boyfriend in, and subsequently prioritises concern for Julian over snuggling. Whereas many of Vicky’s genre counterparts are so grating that audiences are secretly hoping for a swift demise, I was really rooting for Vicky when she gets set in Michael’s sights. Of course, having likable characters in horror is not revolutionary. Halloween’s (2018) production company Blumhouse have excelled at this in recent years in films ranging from the Insidious franchise (2010, 2013, 2015 and 2018) to Get Out (2017). In Halloween, this attention to characterisation complements the other strategies of female representation to enact a narratively-interwoven form of revision that covers both final girls and early victims.

Coming Home Again and Again

Michael Myers seems destined for continual resurrection. For me, and as supported by Halloween’s (2018) record-breaking box office, the more successful resurrections revert the boogeyman to his most primal form. Furthermore, they understand that the survival of the franchise is not predicated on Michael alone. Curtis’ commanding presence, and Laurie’s blend of resilience and vulnerability, are potent factors. While Michael resists change, Laurie’s development and advancing treatments of female characters are forces for rejuvenating the franchise. Over that last forty years the Halloween films have adapted with the changing tides of horror, either leading the pack or riding the waves. Time will tell if 2018’s instalment will instigate a trend for nostalgic revision in slasher franchises.

This Alternate Take was published on October 31, 2018.

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