‘Halloween Kills’ Review: Like Mike

Some ways into Halloween Kills, a guy named Big John (Scott MacArthur) tries to scare some ornery trick-or-treaters. He and his partner (Michael MacDonald), who is also named “John” but naturally goes by “Little John” to avoid any confusion, live in a Haddonfield, Illinois house with a notably infamous history as the former residence of masked serial killer Michael Myers. Turning to the kids, Big John helpfully explains Michael’s origin, the dark deed he carried out near the very spot where they’re all standing: “He stabbed his sister in the tits!”

The Johns go about their night doing comedic bits and being generally eccentric in their celebration of the spookiest time of the year, until they realize the back door is open. Brandishing tiny, useless knives, they go upstairs to investigate creaking noises, still calling each other by their pet names as they clear the rooms (“bathroom’s clear, Big John”) until they are eventually and inevitably murdered by Michael himself, that tit-stabber of local legend who has become quite the renaissance man in the decades since his formative works. He squeezes out one John’s eyeballs and then slices up the remaining John once he finds the body.

This, somehow, is the more respectful and reverent take on the Halloween franchise, the decades-later declaration to do things right by taking only John Carpenter’s 1978 original as canon. Carpenter has co-signed, even contributing to the score, and so has Jamie Lee Curtis, whose traumatized prepper take on Laurie Strode spends much of the film hospitalized. Laurie’s estranged daughter, Karen (Judy Greer), is by her side most of the time, while granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) is out for vengeance, still sore about Michael’s murder of her father (Toby Huss) and how it has forever robbed her of such touching interactions as that time Dad complained, “Oh no, I got peanut butter on my penis.” She’s not the only one out for blood, either — many townsfolk have been stirred into a frenzied mob at the behest of Tommy Doyle (Anthony Michael Hall), who was Laurie’s baby-sittee during the 1978 slayings and is now all grown-up with something to prove. Sequels are about escalation, so now everyone gets to have the trauma arc.

Halloween Kills

Evil Dies Tonight

For a project that was meant to obliterate the less-than-classic sequels from the timeline (again), retcon architects David Gordon Green (director, co-writer) and Danny McBride (co-writer) spend a curious amount of time relitigating some of their plot points. Laurie’s hospitalization recalls both of the movies that are called Halloween II, and Halloween 4 features a similar plot point about the townsfolk grabbing their pitchforks. Doyle’s presence harkens to the straw-grasping sixth film Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, where he’s one of the main characters and played by an unfortunate young Paul Rudd. Even the much-publicized exploration of Trauma in Green’s Halloween 2K18 is the lynchpin of 1998’s Halloween H20: 20 Years Later and Rob Zombie’s Halloween II 2K9.

But if these are all hardly original ideas, they at least beat rerunning the same skeleton of a slasher plot. Where Green’s Halloween 2K18 is a scattershot film that feels like it’s been conceived backwards from its climax, Halloween Kills is a handily superior burst of chaos that nonetheless exhibits a similar sloppiness, particularly in its thudding gestures toward modern politics. The townsfolk form an obvious analog for a MAGA mob, rallying around a witless figurehead in Tommy while parroting the slogan “Evil dies tonight.”

In one particularly excruciating plot point, the Haddonfielders mistake a cartoonishly meek asylum escapee for Michael and drive him to suicide, as he flees by diving out a hospital window and splitting his head open on the pavement below. Initially, to Tommy, maybe it’s fake news; maybe this guy was Michael Myers, as no one knows for sure what he looks like without the mask. Other bouts of incompetence pile up, as guns are misfired and people get caught in car doors. No one is cut out for this, and that’s the point; only Laurie was prepared, and it came at the steep cost of any healthy relationships or anything resembling a “normal” life in favor of fortifying her paranoid compound in the wilderness. And even then, burning the place down failed to take Michael with it.

Halloween Kills

Shallow Hal(lloween)

For as much as Halloween Kills tries to set up a conflict that’s bracingly messy and complicated, the result is mostly confused and sometimes outright incoherent. The film is loaded with clumsy thematic statements like how Michael is “the anger that divides us” even though everyone seems to be pretty much in agreement about killing this guy who is less of a guy and, per the credits and Carpenter’s original script, more of a Shape. A kind of nihilistic chaos is supposed to have formed in Michael’s wake, where not only have the people failed but, as Judy Greer’s character proclaims into the camera, so have the systems. In the Age of COVID and the vestiges of the Trump administration, this is perhaps an easier pill to swallow in a mainstream film than it has ever been, but those broader concerns about how maybe people are the real Michaels clash with an antagonist who is meant to be a straightforward personification of evil.

Carpenter’s worldview tends not to leave a lot of room for ambiguity; the opposing gang members in Assault on Precinct 13 are willfully patterned after zombies more than discernible human beings, and while The Thing portrays a setting where anyone could be a monstrosity imitating human form, the monsters are just that: imitations. There is always a line between “us” and a “them” or an “it,” even when the line is tough to spot. When set against these new films’ awkward fealty to Carpenter’s work, all the hand-wringing about solving the Myers problem via mob justice comes off as farcical, a dilemma so blatantly contrived that they all end up chasing a guy who isn’t even wearing the right outfit.

If anything, Green’s movies struggle to sell any particular urgency to the return of Michael Myers. Things like the gore and the body count are expectedly amped up to compensate for how tame Michael’s initial rampage now seems by comparison, but their weight gets lost in overzealous editing that doesn’t reinforce the immediacy of the violence so much as make it hard to see, reticent to linger on its aftermath. In a thematic sense, the original Halloween was tied up in the growing number of serial killings during the era as well as white flight to the perceived safety of the suburbs. Four decades later following countless knock-offs, little of this territory is left untrodden. Halloween Kills appears almost quaint in its certainty that nothing could possibly supplant the 1978 killings, having inadvertently chipped away the mythic status of its villain by wiping out all the films that helped cement his cultural staying power.

For all the problems with Green’s prior Halloween 2K18, the individual sense of fear and anguish resonates when we see how such a horrifying encounter might shape the life of a person like Laurie Strode. In zooming out to a societal level, however, all of the big ideas in Halloween Kills collapse in a heap of weightless direction and half-sketched social commentary. When faced with updating Halloween for modern audiences, the Rob Zombie remakes opted to go even more personal, giving a face to young Michael Myers and entirely focusing the excellent sequel on the psychological toll of that violence in its immediate aftermath. Green’s Halloween films superficially opt for something similar, but they remain far behind the movies to which they are ostensibly a more respectful alternative.

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Halloween Kills

Misshapen

And there is, of course, the comedy. Green has his roots in indie films like the genuinely beautiful George Washington, but Halloween Kills makes painfully and obviously apparent that he and McBride reached prominence in that grim era of Judd Apatow comedy supremacy. Although the deaths and the resulting chaos are regarded as quite grave indeed once they occur, all the violence tends to befall various peripheral goofballs who create the impression of a film that keeps abruptly cutting to comedy sketches (that I recognized the guy who plays Little John from MadTV certainly didn’t help).

Despite how ruinous these tonal shifts can be, they don’t exactly feel accidental — in this monolithic era of superhero action-comedies, we tend to demand our genre films either cast off their trashier trappings to “elevate” themselves or demonstrate some level of winking self-awareness. We crave the ease of knowing exactly what to think about something, and we shun the risk of sincerely engaging with something perceived to be below us. For as much as Michael is constantly described in the familiar terms of a trauma monster, Green clings to the primal excitement of a slasher movie body count; the comedy is an attempt to have it both ways, to keep the lizard-brain thrills but preserve respectability by so loudly asserting self-awareness. Audiences get to retain the ironic distance necessary to ruefully snort at the onscreen proceedings if we must.

A more charitable read, perhaps, is that the film is simply over-reliant on our tendency to like the characters who make us laugh. By associating a positive emotion with someone onscreen, we form an attachment; it’s why the extra serious episode of a sitcom tends to land with more weight, leveraging so many prior scripts’ worth of investment to sell a dramatic storyline. In these new Halloween movies, then, laughing at the elderly couple with the little flying drone and the sleep apnea mask is supposed to heighten the impact of their death.

But it’s not a dramatic strategy that works on fast-forward. Green exhibits none of the texture and patience of his early work here, resulting in characters who feel more like cardboard improv objects than regular townsfolk. In their heightened artificiality, they lack the humanity of even such openly comedic constructions as the guard in H20 played by LL Cool J, whose screentime is primarily dedicated to arguing with his wife over the phone about a career writing bad erotica. His death doesn’t really land, either, but he’s got a whole interior life and a rapport with the main characters. The people in Halloween Kills are meat.

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Steven Nguyen Scaife

Steven Nguyen Scaife has written about pop culture for Slant Magazine, Polygon, Buzzfeed, Rock Paper Shotgun, and more.

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