Review: Halloween (2018)

Film Title: HalloweenFar be it from me to dictate the direction of writer-director David Gordon Green’s artistic career, but if you had told me circa 2000 that the hot young thing in the American independent scene, brandishing an aesthetic equal parts Malickian-impressionism and Cassavetean-pragmatism, would, in less than two decades, be shepherding forth a 21st century model of the series that spawned the slasher sub-genre…well, I would have asked who David Gordon Green was. I would also have been 8, so I might not have been the ideal audience for any of David Gordon Green’s films, except maybe Pineapple Express (which itself capably mobilized Green’s leisurely, slow-drip, transcendental filmmaking sensibilities toward a very different kind of transcendental human experience). 

In the last decade, however, determining whether Green has taken his projects out of a desire to test himself, out of a genuinely idiosyncratic directorial sense, or simply because he had too much pineapple express, has become something of a cinephile ritual every time he releases a new film. Recently, in 2017’s Stronger, he settled into a more conventional version of the low-and-slow dramas which birthed his career and, in 2015’s Our Brand is Crisis, attempted an uneasy, intermittent triangulation of those earlier films with the strange, side-trip pot comedies he so famously stumbled into at the end of his first decade as a filmmaker. Those two recent films are perhaps Green’s safest films yet: far from the sublime, scrappy elegance of his early ‘00s films but certainly hemmed in from the truly despicable lows of, say, 2011’s awful Your Highness. One might have assumed Green had settled into sturdy, indifferent middle-age, cinema as his day-job, not his life-calling.

But an update of the grandparent of slasher cinema? In theory, the slantwise decision makes sense, if you squint just right. Green’s distinctly sluggish style, evocatively stitching spaces together and defining characters by the milieu of the environment rather than the conventional dramatic alternative where environment and characters are linearly built to coincide with narrative, rhymes with John Carpenter’s own brutally stripped, wretched vision of a mid-western autumn beleaguered by the devil itself. Just as Green applied his uniquely plaintive style to the slow-boiled ease of stoner comedy with Pineapple Express, why couldn’t he adapt it just as easily to the demonic inactivity, the violent stasis and frigid terror, of a John Carpenter film?

And he does, as far as Green lets it. To start the train in this new Halloween’s ostensible favor, Green’s vision certainly isn’t hack-work. This is obviously a passion project, of a kind, although I’ll be the first to admit that Green’s personal touches as a director are vastly compelling than the screenplay he has co-authored with long-time pal Danny McBride, filled with touches which register as mostly ill-conceived attempts to self-complicate material that, frankly, can’t handle the added weight. In other words, this new Halloween clearly is a vision, with all the attendant thematic over-determination and concave ideas that signify “depth” in conventional cinematic language. This new film nominally gives us a lot more proverbial fat to chew on than Carpenter’s original, and seldom to its benefit.

What this means is that Halloween 2018 could as easily just be Halloween 3000. David Gordon Green, Danny McBride, and Jeff Fradley load the film up, mostly to its detriment, with questions aplenty, including a commentary on the dangers of modern technologically-aided fan culture in podcasters Aaron (Jefferson Hall) and Dana (Rhian Rees) which is forgotten about immediately when it reveals itself as a plot-device and stops being useful. When the latter two figures pique the interest of Michael Myers (a returning Nick Castle, and the much younger James Jude Courtney when more activity is required) by returning his mask to him and reminding him of his murder-spree 40 years ago in Haddonfield Illinois, Myers naturally escapes and returns to finish the job he originally set out to do: to murder Laurie Strode (a returning Jamie Lee Curtis).

Potentially simple and elegant, but not in this screenplay’s hands. With a much-inflated body-count, it can’t just be Strode. And this new Halloween is loaded to the gills with other potential victims – some of whom, admittedly, offer Green practical cart-blanche to indulge in some unexpectedly, almost baroquely ghoulish imagery – including Strode’s daughter Karen (Judy Greer), and Karen’s daughter Ally (Andi Matichak). Both of whom have an essentially estranged relationship with the elder Strode, who, as the only survivor of the original Haddonfield Massacre, has been deeply traumatized by the event, transformed from a human being into a neoliberal feminist’s wet dream, an emotionally catatonic but ultra-skilled self-starter who seems, quite unfortunately, to literalize and legitimize right wing dreams of personal competence and self-insured security. Which is to say, at times, the film is more interested in legitimizing her abilities rather than considering her interior state.

That particular decision is ethically skeptical, and, frankly, the whole narrative impetus to analyze Strode, rather than treat her as the original did – as an icon figure in a fairy tale of sorts – is emblematic of a modern cinematic impulse toward narrative and psychological complication at the expense of other forms of depth, a la the original Carpenter’s bone-chilling exploration of good and evil in a suburban battlefield so quotidian that it forms an abstract canvas for meditative consideration that trumps even allegory. In trying to stage a reconstituted echo of the original while filling-in its absences, to orient us toward a fuller portrait, the film sacrifices the demonic beauty of the original, Carpenter’s devil’s music rooted in uncoupling us from conventional markers of character psychology and narrative “depth” so we could descend into the gnarled, unshakable simplicity of a Germanic fable. Green and his crew desire to render legible and visible themes hidden in the shadows of the original – trauma, rootedness, the sins of the family – and in doing so, they render Carpenter’s film more legible at the expense of his vexing genius.

Which means this new Halloween is defined as much by its departures from the original as its ode to (regurgitation of?) Carpenter’s originary genius. It’s too-complicated, sometimes belabored narrative owes more to, say, 1988’s Halloween 4, about which this film would dare not speak, but that earlier film is generally superior at managing its equally-many characters, largely because it makes less conscious an attempt to replicate the rhythms of the original, simpler Halloween from 1978. Comparatively, this new Halloween badly mismanages the tensions between slimming down (cutting away the fat, Michael Myers-style) and bulking up. And the psychological fruit Green, McBride, and Fradley bring to bear on the material is a vastly more conventional form of depth than the truly demonic negative suspension of Carpenter’s original.

For Carpenter, the drama, and its conventional signifiers, evaporated before our eyes, rooting us instead in a veiled world of discordant uncertainties and Antononian-absences, a drama pock-marked by its own incompleteness and one which enlisted the modernist skepticism of Euro-art cinema for ice-veined, late-‘70s Americana enervated of excess. The original film’s signature moment is its ending, where Carpenter retraces the Shape’s steps and draws us back around to the unhallowed ground he’s left in his absence. Carpenter’s film wreathes itself in its own inconclusiveness, its failure to resolve. Green’s film gestures toward similar ephemerality, but the feints feel comparatively hollow in light of the dominant texture of the film as a blunt, crude instrument. In trying to be a scalpel and a bludgeon, the new Halloween is less effective at either.

John Carpenter’s earlier film draws manna from the spatially-aware, almost anti-psychological architecture of, say, Antonioni’s Blow-Up. He was as likely to still his drama with the wounded sangfroid of Robert Bresson as he was to torque it with the combustible, frictive vigor of, say, Sam Fuller or the cruel poetry of Sam Peckinpah. And while American cinema was so much about personal becoming, he was also crucially aware, quite like Robert Altman, of the structuralist ramifications of wider society on the individual conscious, how we are as much prey to the corridors of the world as we are shapers of them. Green’s film is certainly aware of these threads of Carpenter’s original, especially in its final shot, but its heroic temperature and ultimate desire to validate Strode’s weapon fetishization loses any tragic element, vindicating a vision of the world where the only difference between success and failure is the personal will to do what needs to be done. This is ethically dubious, but it’s also an aesthetic question mark, an active-minded fetish for action and reaction rather than Carpenter’s elegant stillness.

A stillness which Green is still, on balance, able to reclaim more often than not. His directorial vision lacks the original Halloween’s torpid loneliness (or the apocalyptic chill of The Thing, or the delirious entropy of In the Mouth of Madness, etc, etc), but you can still sense him exploring the ambient textures of middle America, searching not for the sublime (as his earlier Malick-inspired films did) but for its cracked-mirror image, a counter-sublime maybe. The sequence where Michael Myers is reintroduced to his mask is all brutalistic terror, and the one where he and his mask are reintroduced to Haddonfield is all lurking threat. And both are pretty amazing sequences, capturing for a few moments horror’s sense of serenity fascinatingly fractured.

But horror is best (or, at least, the best horror films tend to be best) when human fears and impulses are being confronted head-on by way of enigmatic marginalization, discovered in the viewer’s wandering mind and creeping up the back of their neck without ever fully being crystallized by the characters. Which is to say that the best horror films tend to summon anxieties which never fully materialize at the level of story, as though hearing tell of demons whose presence, though felt, cannot entirely be staged at the level of narrative or character.

Ultimately, then, what fells this particular Halloween; its busy-ness isn’t hack-work, but carefully planned to materialize what it wants, when it wants, and how it wants. And, somehow, that fact only makes it more depressing. What does it mean that the film goes all-in on the tragic post-traumatic stress disorder of Strode and her daughter in the first-half, raising a constellation of potential thematic connections (rape, xenophobic fear of foreign interlopers), only to legitimize, totally unquestioned and with a shotgun no less, every ounce of that anxiety in the back-half? I’m certainly happy for David Gordon Green to continue testing the limits of his style and exploring the further reaches, or dormant violences maybe, of his mind. But it feels somewhat disingenuous for the film to try to thematize so heavily in what amounts to an ultimately superficial vehicle, to turn physical into existential wounds (especially when so many of the physical wounds in Halloween are thrillingly gnarly).

Score: 5/10

 

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