Second Breakfast Octoberween: “Halloween 2018” and the continually dismal state of slasher movies

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Slasher movies have been around for a while, depending on how you want to define the term. From a certain point of view, they were making slashers in the ‘20s. Film scholars traditionally point to the simultaneous releases of Psycho and Peeping Tom as getting the ball rolling, and then in the following decade grungy blood-and-guts extravaganzas The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes descended upon an unsuspecting populace. Then, in 1978, one movie came out that united all the various thematic and cinematic elements that would come to define slashers: Halloween. Things have gone downhill since then.

Since it was both very cheap to make and wildly successful at the box office, Halloween spawned not only several sequels, but also countless copycat killers. The horror of the following decade was almost completely dominated by masked murderers, and maybe here and there one can find exceptions to this rule, but I’m going to posit that they all missed the point of Halloween and what made it great in the first place. More is not always better, and yet each sequel and illegitimate spawn dialed up the gruesome violence, the body counts, and the cheap jump-scares. None captured the essence of Halloween. There’s a reason why it’s considered the best slasher movie. It’s because it’s the only good one.

Well, last year, a movie came out that shook its woeful head in the face of the disastrous sequels and declared once and for all that it would close the book on Halloween by giving it the followup it always deserved.

It was cleverly and originally named Halloween.

Halloween-Shot-17

Universal Studios Oh great. Look who’s back.

Michael Myers was institutionalized as a kid after killing his older sister seemingly without reason. Upon his escape, he killed a hapless mechanic off screen. Then, on Halloween night in 1978, this man in a jumpsuit and a bad William Shatner mask took to the streets and started slaughtering horny teenagers indiscriminately. His body count by the end of the night (not including that mechanic): 3. Yep, the original Halloween runs a tight 91 minutes and generates a total body count of five and it is terrifying.

John Carpenter never wanted to make a sequel, but the film performed so well at the box office, the studio chiefs muscled him into it. Halloween 2 sees Myers kill even more people with even less menace. By the end of the initial run of the series–prior to any reboots–Myers kills about 80 people in various ways, but then rapper-turned-actor Busta Rhymes defeats him with Kung-Fu in 2002. End of franchise, I kid you not.

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Universal Studios “Trick-or-treat, motherf*cker!”

In Rob Zombie’s hands, he kills another 36 people in the reboot and its sequel in the mid-to-late 2000s.

When the news came that he’d be back in yet another reboot in 2018, I rolled my terrible eyes and went on with my life. My interest was ever so slightly piqued upon the announcement of Jamie Lee Curtis’ return to the franchise and the fact that John Carpenter would be stepping back in as a producer–although notably not as a writer or director.

Halloween (2018) is a direct sequel to Halloween (1978), retconning Halloween 2 (1981) and its successors, and completely ignoring Halloween (2007) and Halloween 2 (2009). Are you with me so far?

Set 40 years after the events of Halloween ‘78, this sequel sees Michael Myers break out of his asylum to hunt down Laurie Strode (Curtis) once again. It’s meant to be a kind of tie-the-bow wrap job to the whole saga.

So, naturally, before he finally gets around to Strode, he kills a lot of people. He kills 16 people, to be exact. All totaled, across all of his films, this addition would make him the second most prolific serial killer of all time, wracking up more than twice John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy combined. Roughly four times Gacy’s confirmed murders. That’s ever so slightly troubling.

Film Title: Halloween

Universal Studios Smile, bud! You’re breaking records.

But, as we said, this iteration of Michael Myers only killed five people prior to Halloween, in the events of Halloween, unrelated to the other Halloween.

So, then, what’s wrong with Halloween? The 2018 version. 16 is high, but, frankly, not unreasonable for the genre. Seven of those people are never named in the film or in its credits. Why does that matter? It means our beloved soulless psychopath is once again killing for the sake of killing, that his victims are un-targeted, that their lives don’t mean anything to him, but in such a way that, as viewers, we have to wonder why they’ve been included. Why should we care? So many of these murders are arbitrarily dropped in apropos of nothing, seemingly as set decoration or just to pad out the run-time a bit. That’s not a good reason to murder someone.

In the opening half hour of the new Halloween, the writers pretty much just spend the entire time setting the scene and reminding you what happened in Halloween ‘78. I certainly don’t mind a horror movie that takes its time to establish the scene. The original does that extremely well. One of the things several characters stress multiple times in this introductory half hour is how forty years ago Michael Myers killed FIVE people and that is a huge deal. That’s a lot of murders. Well, after about half an hour Myers, unsurprisingly, escapes from custody. Within ten minutes of doing that he has killed SIX people. Well, that didn’t take long.

The problem I have with Michael Myers’ latest killing spree is how it follows the trends of the sequels it disavows, while completely going against what made the original so darn effective and scary. More to the point in this newest installment, the executions of the murders are particularly troubling and reek of Friday the 13th sequels (e.g. utter trash, especially when compared to the dizzying highs the slasher genre enjoyed in the original Halloween).

Jamie

Universal Studios I’m with Jamie Lee on this one.

Myers’ seventh kill makes an obvious reference to the original. He walks into a house, kills a woman who’s in the process of making a sandwich, and steals her kitchen knife. In the original, early on Halloween night, we come upon a woman who’s making a sandwich. Myers walks in and, when the woman is not looking, he takes her kitchen knife and leaves. It’s a deeply unnerving moment, especially once the woman realizes that her knife is missing. You can see the shivers run down her spine. No violence needed. What this moment shows us is the possibility of violence, the hint of threat, but she doesn’t die. In the new one, we forgo that well-constructed moment of tension-building in favor of some blunt violence. Then he leaves that house and slaughters another random woman we’ve never seen before. It’s an empty moment of shock violence with plenty of blood.

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Universal Studios I don’t know who you are. I’ve definitely never seen you before this moment, and maybe it isn’t my business, but infamous serial killer Michael Myers is right behind you for some reason.

What makes the three kills so effective in the original Halloween is not really the violence, it’s the build-up and the opportunities for carnage that Myers lets go by unexploited.

The horror in the new Halloween relies almost entirely on the shock value of violence for its own sake, demanding the audience to feel unsettled at the idea that someone with a kitchen knife may, at any time and for no reason whatsoever, walk into your house and kill you. Well, boo hoo. All that taps into is the reality that we’re all going to die some day and when it happens we probably won’t see it coming and probably won’t be able to do anything to stop it. Yeah, any rational adult came to terms with that ages ago.

That treatise seems to hinge entirely on a narrow misreading of what made the original Halloween so unsettling. In this new iteration and, indeed, in all of the previous sequels, Myers’ indiscriminate style of murder implies a certain level of compulsion. The killings are so willy-nilly as to rob the killer of any semblance of volition, and in the long run, this serves to weaken him and dilute him. He appears to just kill people because the script tells him to, and that’s all there is to it.

As I said, what makes the original Halloween so darn unsettling is when he chooses not to kill. There’s an excellent moment when one of Laurie’s friends, Annie, has to go out to a creepy shed all by herself and we know Michael is nearby. He sees her, she even gets stuck at one point, but he doesn’t kill her. Not then.

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Universal Studios This simple, well-lit shot is far more unnerving than anything in the new movie.

When he does kill Annie, it’s a very unnerving, well-directed, and thoughtful moment, although very swift. Annie gets in her car to drive away somewhere; it’s not a tense moment and she doesn’t know about the killer on the loose; she’s just going about her business. She opens the car door, gets in, and just before she’s about to set off, she notices that the glass is all fogged up. That’s odd, she thinks. Why is the glass all fogged up? Because Michael’s been breathing heavily in the car. He’s in the backseat. There is a moment in the new one where Michael lets someone go, but one really feels as if this is purely because the script requires him to.

And that’s the kicker. It’s those little thoughtful details that really make Halloween great. I could say plenty about its new namesake, and indeed already have, but unfortunately I can’t say that the violence in it is particularly thoughtful. Rampant, blunt, gory, and unnecessary, yes. But thoughtful? OK. Let’s just get this one thing out of the way because it’s been bugging me so much.

The jack-’o-lantern. So, late in the movie a character discovers that another character has just been brutally murdered. Michael has decapitated him and turned his head into a jack-’o-lantern. Alright…so, when I saw this in the trailer, long before I ever got around to watching the movie, I called shenanigans. My biggest WTF criticism right of the bat was “Where did he get that candle? Had he been carrying it around? And a lighter? Did he have a little tea-light with him and set it up?” Well, I realized actually watching the movie, that he uses a flashlight instead, but that doesn’t totally clear everything up. The light is jammed up through the guy’s neck and is shining out through his mouth and empty eye sockets. Hang on, what? So, in a manner of just a few minutes since killing this guy, Michael Myers cut off his head, cut out his eyes, removed his brains, and how much of his skull, exactly? Let’s everybody take a moment and just feel the roof of you mouth with your tongue. What did you get there? If you answer was anything other than “a ton of bone and cartilage, then you should see a doctor. I know I’m nitpicking now, but how did he remove that chunk of bone without compromising the structural integrity of the entire head? How did he remove it at all? Did he just chip away at with–with what? The only weapon he had at that moment was a freakin’ scalpel.

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Universal Studios Pictured: a plausible jack-‘o-lantern.

Now, maybe that kind of over-the-top thing flies in Friday the 13th or… I dunno, Hellraiser or something. But this is supposed to be the somewhat realistic franchise.

A general lack of thought and a general overabundance of violence pervade the new Halloween, like the precursors it so desperately disavows. As I said, its version of Michael represents something with which we’re all dreadfully familiar: the grim, indifferent spectre of death. In instances like Annie’s demise from the original, that Michael takes on a form far less natural than simple death. That Michael has an uncanny method to his madness, one that seems arbitrary, but that most certainly isn’t. It implies that so much more is at more is at play here than just violence and mayhem. We can understand meaningless violence; there’s so much of it in the world. But violence that has a meaning that we’ll never get to know? That’s unnerving. That Michael, he’s not Death. He’s the Bogeyman.

I guess my rambling, convoluted point merely hearkens back to something that I once wrote about Halloween several years ago. I described it as the “disappointed father of the slasher genre”. Well. Halloween 2018 is a slasher movie pure and simple, and although it has all the pretense of paying homage to the original and canceling out the sequels in a way that says, without any doubt, “I am better than those movies,” when you boil it down, it’s really just another cheap Halloween knock-off like countless other slasher movies.

 

OK, so this is a pretty minor complaint in the grand scheme of things, but one of the plot-lines in this movie follows two investigative journalists making a podcast on the 40th anniversary of Myers’ original killing spree. What self-respecting journalist would do all of their research and recording on the day? You release it on the anniversary. Maybe even a little early so people can get all hyped up. You definitely get it done well in advance. Utter nonsense.

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