It should come as no surprise that Michael Myers goes back to Haddonfield in the new Halloween movie. When the escaped lunatic can, he always makes it home for the holiday. He’s a creature of habit, and so, too, is the apparently immortal Halloween series, which returns repeatedly—like a mindless, unstoppable force of evil—to the same place on the same night of the year to run through something close to the same plot. By now, October 31 should be a day of martial law in Haddonfield. How many horny teenagers have to die before the sleepy, fictional Midwestern town bans trick-or-treating, outlaws William Shatner masks, and puts a small army on every leaf-covered street corner?
We’re meant to look at this new Halloween and see more than just another inferior sequel. We’re meant to see the sequel, the worthy one that John Carpenter’s 1978 slasher par excellence never spawned. It has been made by a real director: David Gordon Green, the genre hopper who follows his muse wherever it takes him, from arty Southern character dramas to dopey stoner comedies. Green, who co-wrote the screenplay with goofball buddy and comedy star Danny McBride, commissioned a brand-new soundtrack from Carpenter—an implicit stamp of approval from the master himself. And Jamie Lee Curtis has returned, too, reprising the role of one-time imperiled babysitter Laurie Strode, the final girl who got away. Yet for all its promising pedigree, Green’s Halloween—the 11th installment, if you count the hick-horror remakes by Rob Zombie—is as chained to franchise formula as every pale imitation that’s come before it. This is just another inferior sequel, albeit one that cannily presents its by-the-numbers retread as affectionate homage.
Even the specific dramatic angle isn’t new, exactly. Halloween H20 went somewhere similar 20 years ago, arranging its own rematch between an aging Laurie and the masked maniac who killed her friends. Green and McBride pretend that movie, along with every other one except the first, doesn’t exist. (Yes, even the second gets blipped from the continuity, along with Laurie’s blood relation to her stalker, which one of the film’s sub-Scream class of self-aware teens confirms aloud.) Taking a page from Terminator 2, the filmmakers present Strode (Curtis, in her fifth go at the role, if you count the insult that was Resurrection) as a trauma-hardened survivalist who’s spent all 40 years since that fateful night in Haddonfield waiting for Michael’s return. The decades of extreme preparation have forced a wedge between the woman and her adult daughter, Karen (Judy Greer), who has a daughter of her own, Allyson (Andi Matichak), about the same age the eldest Strode was on the night he came home.
Of course, as the old saying goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean an emotionless killing machine in a rubber mask isn’t after you. And as fate and screenwriter contrivance would have it, the powers that be are moving Michael from one asylum to another on the anniversary of his last massacre. From here, Halloween plays the hits: a madman passing silently through crowds of costumed kids, a lawman and a psychologist running around town in not-too-hot pursuit, teenagers doing their oblivious teenage thing before The Shape brings their carefree fun to a screeching, screaming halt. We’re meant to feel yanked backwards in time, like Laurie herself, to Carpenter’s masterpiece of voyeuristic suspense. But almost every Halloween movie aims to inspire the same déjà vu. We’re watching an umpteenth cover, and like all the rest, it knows the words but not the music. Figuratively speaking, that is. The actual music is fantastic, Carpenter using new instrumentation—eerie synth, roaring guitar—to rearrange his iconic tinkle of piano into something faithful and foreign, the kind of bracing remix to which the movie itself might have aspired.
Almost certainly the most accomplished, acclaimed director to ever tackle a late entry in a long-running slasher series, Green does have some occasional fun aping Carpenter’s predatory camerawork. There’s a nifty long take that tracks Michael up to a window, loses him as he walks around the side of the house, and finds him again when he appears behind some poor, unsuspecting knife fodder inside. But the filmmaker doesn’t so much revive the values of the original—the way Carpenter carefully situated us in a mundane suburbia, meticulously building the dread before violently shattering the calm—as consistently wink at its imagery and tropes. His Halloween is closer in spirit to the fan service of Jurassic World, inspiring recognition but little new terror. The constant supply of goofball asides doesn’t help matters. Green and McBride, whose past collaborations (like Eastbound & Down) were mostly comedies, have the destructive habit of undercutting their biggest scares with jokes, deflating the tension at every turn. Their dopiest choice is a subplot involving a pair of annoying British podcasters, around to broadly satirize the ongoing true-crime craze and then get swiftly brutalized for their arrogance.
There is, admittedly, some real power to seeing Curtis back in the scream-queen role that launched her career. She gets to offer a whole new take on the character, playing the sixtysomething Laurie as unsentimental, rawhide-tough, even a little unhinged in her fanatical certainty that the nightmare she experienced a lifetime ago isn’t really over. It’s faintly affecting, this skeletal portrait of rebirth through terror, of someone so haunted by one soul-shaking trauma that she’s spent every day since transforming herself from victim to fighter. It might even have been heartbreaking if Halloween spent more than maybe a scene and a half on what Laurie’s life has become, the way Carpenter devoted the early stretch of his movie to the ordinary bric-a-brac of her teenage days. Green and McBride are more interested in setting up the rousing empowerment of their third act, when multiple generations of Strode confront the abusive evil that’s rotted the roots of their family tree.
Still, we’ve been down that darkened suburban street before, too, haven’t we? In its fated reunion, in its blurring of the lines between predator and prey, Green’s film often suggests nothing so much as a self-conscious do-over of H20, one of those generally maligned Halloween sequels that the new one wants you to disregard. That was a much more workmanlike horror movie, but also, in its own flawed way, a better one. H20 really did care about the reality of Laurie’s life (it gave her a nuanced post-divorce romance, for one) and even dared to finally send Michael somewhere other than his old stomping-and-killing grounds, briefly breaking the cycle of repetition and diminishing returns that’s plagued this undying series since the now-retconned second episode. And of course there was the refreshing heads-will-roll finality of its finale, a potently cathartic image of trauma overcome and an ideal (if sadly and quickly reversed) ending to the Laurie And Michael Show. This Halloween, for all the crowd-pleasing resonance of its climax, can’t quite resist leaving the door open a crack. Haddonfieldians, in other words, would be best off keeping theirs closed and locked.