Movie review: “Halloween Kills” (2021)

“Let him burn! Let him burn!”

Anyone using “Evil Dies Tonight” as a trigger for the Halloween Kills drinking game will either end their evening in a coma or the local morgue. This has been a public service message…

How quickly we forget the unassuming, self-contained majesty of John Carpenter’s Halloween – its brutal simplicity; its penetrating suspense; its authenticity of time, place, and, especially, tone; its utter lack of fat – even, it seems, in the ostensible act of paying it homage. Filmmakers of all skill levels, including Carpenter himself (off and on), have for decades chased the horror classic like a Holy Grail, as if its singular qualities could somehow be bottled and reproduced, let alone quantified. As tends to happen with photographic reproductions, each subsequent copy has degraded, or at least tarnished, the source material somewhat. Even the films that worked at or, on rare occasion, above the base level at which they took aim knicked a bit of luster off the centerpiece. Halloween may yet endure as a movie, but as a brand, it has demonstrable problems. The now twelve films bearing the moniker are artifacts of wildly varying quality, representing four independent timelines strewn across three distinct cinematic universes.* Every few disappointments, fans are presented anew with a movie that seems against all odds to know what it is doing, and, crucially, how to deliver the goods they have, perhaps unfairly, been conditioned to expect. The most recent of these, 2018’s infuriatingly titled Halloween – a direct sequel to the 1978 original I’ll refer to henceforth as H40 – took with utmost seriousness Michael Myers, Laurie Strode, and the legend they shared, and became such a spectacular success that the filmmakers not only eschewed its searing, clear-cut, emotionally satisfying ending to both The Shape and the series in order to tap the well (yet) again, fans also largely applauded the decision like the domestic abuse victims they/we are.

*Those, of course, would be, unofficially, the “Carpent-era”, the “Zombie-verse”, and whatever the hell Hammer Films meets Rankin/Bass adult playground “Season of the Witch” took place in. And not even necessarily for the killer masks or robot replicant minions either, but because it’s the only way I can explain the “Saturday Night Movie” television commercial that shows Myers descending the Doyle house stairs on his way, butcher knife in hand, to keep his fateful appointment with Laurie. See you at 8:00 for the broadcast TV cut of “Halloween”, nerds!

Shows what we all know. Given the series’ chequered history and erratic commitment to continuity – a dancing dulcimer dreamscape brimming with shadowy Druid cults, exploding trick or treat masks, digressive dream sequences featuring symbolic horses, and Busta Rhymes Kung Fu cameos – there’s really no reason to expect greatness from a Halloween sequel anymore. Even that particular Halloween sequel, which I still assert is #2 with a bullet overall. Halloween Kills, what we received in exchange for all that hope, is kind of a cacophonous mess, really, an almost wholly unworthy companion piece to the 2018 reboot, and, therefore, the unfortunate summary squandering of a metric ton of accrued goodwill. Chaotic yet strangely inert, only its first and final fifteen minutes are of any real consequence, suffering in the interim from the fallout of a serious creative miscalculation. Our established, ever-intrepid writer/director team of stoner comedy icon Danny McBride (Eastbound and Down) and esoteric genre-hopper David Gordon Green (All The Real Girls) seem to understand at once that, with their natural endpoint bypassed – with Laurie Strode gravely wounded but triumphant, speeding away with her daughter and granddaughter from the flaming wreckage in which she trapped her ancient nemesis with the intent of burning him alive – they have reached the limits of their one-movie story and must begin (gulp) improvising. And so before we or she can learn of Michael’s fate, we flash back to 1978 for a look at the haphazard police action that apparently subdued The Shape after Loomis shot him six times only to find his resting place in the backyard empty. It’s an extended anticlimax, oddly urgency-free and only particularly interesting in a clinical sense. It won’t be the last.

However extended our stay as true crime enthusiasts in Haddonfield, Illinois may have been so far – and haven’t these forty years passed in a flash – it can still seem as though we know very little about the cursed town, its haunted history, or its scurrying, ratlike citizenry. Halloween Kills seeks at once to remedy that deficiency and make you regret such an innocent observation in the first place. This has always been a purposely spare sort of narrative, more interested in dropping contextual names than in connecting them with faces. I mean, we’ve visited Haddonfield Memorial Hospital before, albeit the abandoned ghost ship version from since disavowed original direct sequel Halloween II. We’ve also already seen gun-toting local morons learn the limits of ad hoc vigilantism in the Curtis-free and thus double-disavowed Halloween 4. Halloween Kills does demonstrate that, no matter the HPD’s glaring insufficiencies, its local fire department is competent, heroic, and, after a fateful early house call to the Strode Compound, immediately hiring. Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode remains top billed and riveting; her seething intensity and scary focus hold the movie together even as her increasingly fatalistic character, largely sidelined in a recovery room and bellowing overheated speeches about implacable evil to any bystander within earshot, threatens to fly apart. Judy Greer returns as Laurie’s daughter, Karen, lately both a new widow and, not coincidentally, converted believer in her mother’s obsession, and provides a rounded, resonant voice of reason cutting through the surrounding wash of insanity. Because for the first time in any permutation of the series, Haddonfield’s population itself is also a featured player en masse, manifested into an easily suggestible, otherwise uninteresting vigilante mob** that, after decades of blanket “no comment” responses to reporter inquiries, has presumably had its collective fill of Michael Myers.

**Seriously, I’ve seen disgruntled Springfield town halls on “The Simpsons”, where misinformation routinely infected the capacity roomful of chanting boobs like a light speed game of Telephone, that were more reasonable, less pliable, and more realistic than this one.

Leading the parade is grown-up Tommy Doyle (Anthony Michael Hall), Laurie’s babysitting charge from 1978, whose open mic retelling of the classic “Haddonfield Bogeyman” campfire yarn plays to drunken acclaim from a peanut gallery conspicuously dotted with fellow late Seventies originals*** before a nearby Shape sighting gives him the inspiration, now properly stoked, to grab a baseball bat and organize a spontaneous hunting party. I was wary of this plot point from the moment I first heard it breathed months ago, but that proved ill preparation for the degree to which it highjacks the movie, or how hard the resulting digression is to either watch or take seriously. Tommy’s earnest, repeated calls to arms collide with masked reality like a Christmas ham does a hay baler and his neighbors quickly grow beyond his control. Shocking, I know. In the interim, the film juggles multiple conversational threads – Laurie’s evolving stir craziness, Karen’s growing desperation, various expeditions in search of Michael, and Michael’s actual path of destruction, with which they only occasionally intersect. By the time Tommy’s UN peacekeeping force descends upon/infests Haddonfield Memorial, it has grown exponentially, acquired a sinister edge, and also taken on an amorphous, pulsating character, as if the titular killer gelatin from Chuck Russell’s remake of The Blob had swallowed an arena public address system that broadcasts the chant, “evil dies tonight” thirty times per minute from now ’til next November. Their climactic reckoning – surely meant as a comment on the January 6th Capitol Riot, mob mentality in general, or both – which sees the pitchfork brigade pursue the wrong man up a hospital stairwell to tragic ends, finishes with the viewer in disbelief, though not the same sort with which they began it.

***Haddonfield is the classic Midwestern small town that nobody left after high school. Or after getting married. Or having kids. Or retirement. Good thing death is such a growth industry there. Tommy’s retinue contains grown-up/grown older versions of his counterpart “little” Lindsay Wallace (“Real Housewife” Kyle Richards, I was shocked to learn), who, you’ll remember, Annie Brackett passed off on Laurie before getting strangled on her way to a romantic rendezvous worth singing about, Smith’s Grove nurse Marion Chambers, who narrowly escaped Michael’s carjacking escapade and isn’t as lucky a passenger here, plus – inexplicably in my estimation – his grade school tormentor Lonnie Elam, who ends up being among the most sympathetic non-Strode variants (along with the charming gay couple who own the mythic Myers’ House) in the entire movie. Even grizzled former Sheriff Leigh Brackett (Charles Cyphers) works the hospital security desk, and, despite arguably inciting a full scale riot, still makes the shortlist of the most effective lawmen in the movie, if not the series. My only question: why didn’t Green and McBride do what poor Annie couldn’t and finally introduce us to Paul?

If the possibly drug-fueled experiment that was Season of the Witch demonstrated that Halloween fans wanted Michael Myers, then each subsequent movie bearing the name has reinforced that what they really kinda wanted was Laurie Strode. Laurie Strode, I’ve come to understand, is the real star of the overarching Halloween series, not Michael Myers. In a way that Nancy Thompson isn’t on Elm Street; that Tommy Jarvis isn’t at Crystal Lake; that Kirsty Cotton and Sally Hardesty (in hell and Texas, respectively) aren’t. This is an uncomfortable if not unthinkable proposition for any horror franchise the least bit interested in longevity – let alone one already carved into its Mount Rushmore – but the facts on the ground support my case. Think about it: Any film in which Laurie is involved (H00, II, H20, Resurrection, H40, Kills) tends to suffer inordinately from her absence – while the aptly named “Of Michael Myers” mini-trilogy (Return, Revenge, Curse) of course lacks by default the emotional weight she provides – so perhaps Halloween Kills, with Laurie in agitated bystander mode and its disproportionate dependence on the vigilante subplot, was doomed from the start. Sensing this, Green and his collaborators have taken great pains as part of their vision to enhance the pitiless viciousness they introduced to Michael’s character in H40. While that surely plays well to modern horror audiences and provides its quota of “uh, damn” moments, it would have been anathema to the “blank, pale, emotionless” version Dr. Loomis described in 1978. It also doesn’t mean they had to fumble the big moments so badly. Not all of them, mind you, but many.

I won’t pretend I hated everything, far from it. H00 is my favorite movie of all time, after all. Pretty clear I’m a fan of this series. I came in with high hopes but tempered expectations – because I’ve already seen the ending of the saga proper in Kills’ sober, shattering predecessor – and was crestfallen to be so consistently annoyed watching a slick muscle car like this sputter and periodically stall. There are isolated excellent moments. I loved seeing Michael rip and tear and stab prodigiously, meting out deserved comeuppance to a much larger, angrier, stupider mob than his alabaster doppelganger faced in the now non-canon Halloween 4. I was delighted as well to note Michael’s susceptibility to threats to his mask, where possession is 9/10 of the law, which lends credence to my evolving theory that he is, in fact, a moonlighting Mexican wrestler. But I digress. Neither awful on par with Curse (quadruple-disavowed) or Resurrection (disavowed, shredded, then burned to ash) nor nearly up to the standards of H00, H20, or H40 – or even its comparatively more reasonable appointed task as the spine of this new trilogy – Halloween Kills is left to invent a reason to exist as something other than just a rest stop on the road to next year’s Halloween Ends. To be fair, inroads are finally being made as the credits roll, though the question remains. After a necessary closing choice that’s plenty dramatic, yes, but also a bit too easy to misread as being super-bold: was this trip possibly worth it?

“Halloween Kills” (2021) 2 stars

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