It only took them 40 years to finally make a decent “Halloween” sequel.
John Carpenter’s unassuming, low-budget 1978 classic accidentally spawned a sea of knock-offs, retreads and increasingly terrible official entries in a franchise too profitable to stop even when everybody should have known better. The minimalist, relatively bloodless original picture still holds up brilliantly because it’s an exercise in pure craftsmanship and stomach-churning dread. Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey laid out the perfectly manicured lawns and leaf-strewn sidewalks of their sleepy suburb as a doom-laden grid, traversed by a madman in a featureless mask with implacable, agonizing slowness.
The first “Halloween” is the only slasher movie beloved by critics because it’s basically an art film — a groovy ‘70s abstraction predominately concerned with mood, movement and physical space. It’s not for nothing that serial killer Michael Myers is billed in the credits as “The Shape.” He’s a force of evil as blank as his mask, and the more subsequent films tried to mythologize Michael with an elaborate backstory and a supernatural bent the less frightening he became. The beauty was in the simplicity of a guy in a mask with a knife.
Director David Gordon Green’s rip-roaring, rather confusingly titled new “Halloween” understands that. It sweeps aside the seven sequels as if they never happened, picking up four decades after that fateful night in Haddonfield. Jamie Lee Curtis’ sole surviving babysitter Laurie Strode is now a twitchy, gun-toting grandma who lives in a makeshift fortress while praying every night that Michael comes back to town so she can even the score. (The clean-slate approach means that Laurie is no longer Michael’s long-lost sister, a dopey soap opera twist Carpenter admitted he came up with while drunk and bored writing “Halloween II.”)
Laurie’s PTSD has ravaged her relationship with her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) who, as a child, was taken away by the state because her mom was such a basket case. Laurie’s a bit closer with her teenage grandkid Allyson (Andi Matichak), but the whole town mostly stays away from the dotty old bird. One of Allyson’s pals points out that five people getting killed 40 years in the past hardly seems like a big deal given all that goes on in the world these days, and there’s an unexpected resonance right now to everyone in the movie telling a traumatized woman that something happened a long time ago and she should just get over it already.
Of course it goes without saying that Laurie was right all along and Michael’s coming home for Halloween this year, escaping from a mental institution with an accidental assist from two hissable British podcasters trying to turn Haddonfield’s history into their own “Serial.” It’s here that the slyly funny screenplay — penned by Green, Jeff Fradley and Danny McBride — most mercilessly mocks everybody who tries tries to somehow explain or understand Michael Myers. He’s a force of evil that cannot be comprehended, and the fools who try pay for it dearly.
Green doesn’t attempt to mimic the original’s creeping dread, instead fashioning his “Halloween” as a raucous roller-coaster ride full of bravura set-pieces and applause breaks. It’s a wild Friday night at the movies, celebrating and sending up hoary old slasher tropes with a degree of artistry seldom seen in the genre. Green has had a fascinatingly odd career — he started out making lyrical art films and segued into raunchy stoner comedies with his film school buddy McBride. (I interviewed Green once for the downbeat indie drama “Snow Angels” and we somehow spent the whole time talking about our favorite ‘80s action flicks.) He stages the scare sequences with the verve of a movie-mad kid who can’t believe he gets to play with Michael Myers and Laurie Strode. It’s infectious.
The movie does suffer from one gobsmackingly stupid plot twist involving Michael’s psychiatrist, which for a moment or two I worried was going to sink the movie, but it course-corrects so swiftly I can see that particular scene working fine as a bathroom break on repeat viewings. Carpenter came out of semi-retirement to score the film (along with his son Cody and guitarist Daniel A. Davies) giving that immortal tinkling synthesizer theme some fresh beats. Playful references to the first film abound — hey look, there’s P.J. Soles! — and in the final showdown Green inverts some of the original’s most iconic images to massively crowd-pleasing effect.
This “Halloween” is so much fun they’ll probably ruin it with a bunch of sloppy sequels.