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The Thundering Banality of Halloween (2018)

halloween poster

In a recent interview with Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo, Jamie Lee Curtis revealed that the 2018 remake/reboot/sequel/reanimated corpse of Halloween (2018) underwent re-writes before making it to the screen. Most significantly, the opening of the film changed from a scene of Laurie Strode’s granddaughter jogging through Haddonfield to one focused on two MacGuffins-as-podcasters working on a true crime series about the crimes of Michael Myers. This is important because it illustrates that the new Halloween isn’t a first draft, which is itself important because the new Halloween as-it-exists feels like a first draft.

The problem with Halloween is that there isn’t one problem, there are many. Fortunately, they all lead back to creative decisions made by writer/director David Gordon Green and his writing partners Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley. I write that because it would be unfair to criticize the actors or any of the other people involved in bringing Haddonfield back to theaters. They all handle their responsibilities and roles to varying degrees of success. The film looks good, the effects are great, and the score by John Carpenter, his son Cody, and Daniel Davies is an upgrade over any sequel excluding Halloween III: Season of the Witch. Unfortunately, that means the best thing I can say about Halloween 2018 is that it’s a very workman-like film. Everyone feels like they’re going through the motions, and with few exceptions (Jamie Lee Curtis), nothing is exceptional.

H40 begins with two podcasters trying to uncover the truth about Michael Myers. Dispensing with 40 years of wonky history, they reveal that Michael, in fact, only killed three people the night he came home in 1978 (the motorist he killed early in the original film was never connected to the other murders, apparently). Their goal is to cut through the mythology to understand what motivated the man. Naturally, this never happens as we know Michael *is* a mythological creature, stalking young men and women in the Labyrinth of Haddonfield every seven or so years, but they make an earnest effort to exploit the few remaining survivors of the Haddonfield Massacre for their story. Enter Laurie Strode.

What distinguishes the Laurie of this film from previous incarnations is that she is not a victim, she’s a survivor. Halloween 2018 makes a clear distinction between the two. In this timeline, Michael escaped at the end of the original Halloween (1978) but was eventually arrested and imprisoned in a high-security mental health facility, and Laurie went on with her life even though she had no way of identifying or coping with the trauma she experienced. In the late seventies and early eighties we were only just beginning to understand the residual effects of psychological trauma — the American Psychiatric Association first acknowledged the existence of PTSD in 1952, but only began treating it seriously in 1980 — so there were likely few options for someone dealing with the kind of problems Laurie would have been suffering through. Bits of dialogue and other visual cues indicate her life has been one of fear and paranoia. As we get to know her, we learn she coped by self-medicating with alcohol, and she became domineering and overly-protective to the extent that she’s now a gun-nut and doomsday prepper. This has affected the lives of those around her, most prominently her daughter (Judy Greer) and granddaughter (Andi Matichak) — the former harbors contempt for her mother for ruining her childhood, while the latter believes Laurie deserves a second chance and would like to establish a stronger relationship with her grandmother.

If it sounds like I’m glossing over large chunks of the plot in this description, I can assure you that’s not the case because anything that happens that doesn’t directly relate to Laurie, her daughter, Karen, or her granddaughter, Allyson, is superfluous. Characters come and go with little care for individual story arcs, subplots mysteriously disappear like the many side characters, and anyone not in that immediate circle exists solely as splatter-fodder. Halloween’s primary interest is the generational effects of psychological trauma, and, in this case, on these three women. Reviews have rightly branded this Halloween a response to the #MeToo movement, and while this film does have something to say about some of the issues central to that cause, its message is supremely dumb and regressive.

Halloween

As mentioned, Green, McBride, and Fradley go to great lengths to establish that this Laurie Strode is a survivor. They attempt to strike a balance between portraying her as both resilient and monstrous. Her fear of Michael has kept her safe since 1978 but a paranoia towards a world that could create such a monster has also rendered her manipulative. This, on its face, is interesting. Heroines are rarely allowed to explore the full spectrum of human experience so that they might portray flawed or even terrible people (i.e. real people). This often leads to characters who are completely virtuous, as in the most basic understanding of the “final girl” archetype. This Laurie is not without fault, so she feels more fleshed out than any character in the series’ history, but Halloween 2018 refuses to address these faults beyond their most basic level. The most glaring example of this is in how Laurie interacts with the outside world. PTSD is either the setup for a joke or a superpower depending on whom she is interacting with; when in the company of her daughter and son-in-law, Laurie’s mental fitness is the punchline in increasingly mean-spirited ways, culminating in a scene where she breaks into their home and her daughter scolds her like a gun-toting child, then when she finally confronts The Shape, her years of trauma transform into a kind of armor and she becomes Paul Kersey in a slightly less violent Home Alone sequel.

Worse still, in trying to navigate the survivor/victim dichotomy, the film absolves Laurie of abusive behavior. The only thing we know about her relationship with her daughter is that it was never good. At no point in that relationship could she be seen a positive influence, which could be fine if presented within a certain context, but here, the years of training and admonishment are just lessons to be learned in preparation for doomsday. This does create tension between the two but rather than allow for this complex dynamic to inform the film in a holistic whole, Gordon and his writers shrug off years of abuse with a quick apology and her daughter, in turn, embraces those lessons to lead Michael into a trap. If there’s a message in Halloween about the generational effects of trauma, it’s that abuse is fine if, one day, a monster really does appear.

This lack of tact extends to other characters dealing with mental illness. Recently, Little White Lies published an unfortunate essay attacking the original Halloween for othering those diagnosed with mental illnesses. The author incorrectly argued that Carpenter’s film condensed the complexities of mental illness into one overarching condemnation by making Michael into a faceless, shapeless evil that we could project our insecurities onto. What the essay overlooked is the fact that at no point in that film is Michael ever addressed as having a mental illness; on the contrary, Loomis clearly states that he spent seven years trying to understand Michael before realizing he had misdiagnosed his patient. In the original Halloween, Michael is simply an unstoppable force of evil, no more human than the weapons he uses to kill people, a literal avatar for Death. While the Michael in this film is, to some extent, human (he still retains the preternatural abilities of the sequels), other characters who exist alongside Michael in the mental hospital are something less than human.

The film’s opening has the podcasters trying to provoke a response from Michael in a visually-stunning sequence in a prison yard. Michael and the other residents are forced to stand in red boxes to limit their ability to interact with each other and visitors, but Green cuts to the inmates in shots that treat them as sideshows, laughing or screaming incoherently as he ramps up the intensity. Their purpose is solely to reinforce that Michael is a force or energy of evil and corrupts the world around him. By scene’s end, one of the podcasters is screaming at Michael as his fellow inmates create a chorus line of screeching and pained howls. The scene, whether intentionally or not, reinforces old myths that connect mental illness to the supernatural, and treat the characters and their conditions like the nameless, faceless figures Little White Lies wrung its hand over.

There are things about Halloween 2018 which could have worked in a better film. Curtis’s performance is far and above the best thing here and would have benefitted from a script which developed the relationships with her daughter and granddaughter with a more thoughtful approach. And the idea of using horror to address PTSD is fascinating, but only in so far as it doesn’t use it as an excuse for bad behavior and offer “BIG FUCKING GUNS!” as the solution. Sadly, these things don’t exist in another film — they exist in this one, in this context, in these times — so any potential for it to act as a vehicle for their wider consideration is lost in the thundering banality of Green, McBride, and Fradley’s script.

About Robert Skvarla

Robert Skvarla is a freelance writer from Philadelphia. His focuses include conspiracy culture, fringe communities, and new religious movements. He has written for Atlas Obscura, Philadelphia City Paper, and Cinepunx, and served as a programmer for the Cinedelphia Film Festival.

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