Michael’s Game (Review: Halloween Kills)
He was close. He thought he was ready, but at the last moment, he stepped away. Wait — let me back up and I’ll explain. To set the stage, last weekend I knew my upcoming review would be Halloween Kills, the latest entry in the extremely venerable franchise. The film picks up moments after the end of the 2018 Halloween, and as I had a little free time, rewatching Halloween felt like a good move.
As my son Liam has gotten older, he’s been developing his own tastes when it comes to film. He has directors he likes* and films he’s been curious about.** The only genre he hasn’t leapt into is horror. I get that because horror movies are a risk. Will they be too scary? Will he see something taboo, something he’s really not supposed to see? Liam has expressed curiosity and wants to check some things out, but he’s still cautious. He’s not exactly jumping for the chance to watch I Saw the Devil.
Liam knew I was commandeering the TV for Halloween. “Do you want to watch it with me?” I asked. “If you like it, I’ll show you the 1978 Halloween. It’ll be like watching the Prequels, only not disappointing.” He thought about it. I added, “If it gets to be too much for you, no worries. I’ll finish it on my own. Plus, it’s a slasher movie that’s actually about something, and you have some tough-ass women fighting back against Michael Myers.”
We fired up the film, and Liam made it about 25 minutes before tapping out.*** He asked me to pause it and said, “I think I’m done. But…can we try watching it again another time?” “Whenever you’re ready, just let me know.” I like that he’s still curious, because horror doesn’t have to just be about pointless brutality. Even when it’s a bit muddled, the genre can have something relevant to say. The evidence is Halloween Kills, a smart film that occasionally gets ahead of itself a little too much.
To bring you up to speed, the events of 2018’s Halloween concerned Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and the ongoing trauma she lives with. As a high school kid, she survived an attack by enthusiastic murder hobbyist Michael Myers. Forty years passed, and despite Michael’s imprisonment, Laurie struggles. Her relationship with her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) is fraught, and the only normality she can depend on is her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak). When Michael escapes and resumes his festive holiday rampage, the Strode women team up and finally manage to trap Michael in a burning basement, ending his reign of terror once and for all.
Only…they kinda don’t. It’s not their fault that the Haddonfield Fire Department, with impressive efficiency, shows up and puts out the blaze. This also frees Michael, who proceeds to carve up the firefighters for their trouble. Speaking of efficiency, Michael quickly resumes slaughtering anyone luckless enough to get in his sights.
As it turns out, the residents of Haddonfield are getting pretty tired of this whole “being killed by a masked psychopath” thing. Tommy Doyle (Anthony Michael Hall) remembers that, forty years ago, his babysitter protected him from Michael. Now, he thinks it’s time to return the favor. That’s why he gathers together other concerned citizens and forms a…well, not a mob as such, but more of a safety committee. Despite zero training and almost zero organization, they spread throughout the town chanting, “Evil dies tonight!” They’re determined to hunt down Michael and make him pay.
That goes about as well as you would expect.
As the credits were rolling, I looked over at another viewer and said, “Did I just see a movie, with Michael Myers in it, that also made relevant and cogent points about America?” Director David Gordon Green, returning from the 2018 rebootquel, has made a slasher movie with an impressive amount of gore and an even more impressive body count. Equally as impressive is the mean streak. Every time Michael stabs, strangles, and otherwise disrespects someone, it hurts. This tone pushes Green’s film in a darker direction, making it feel a little like Rob Zombie’s hillbilly horror installments of Halloween. And yet, that nasty tone helps to make Michael a threat, a mythic nightmare that lives up to his reputation as the Boogeyman. If that’s what you’re after, cool, you’ll likely enjoy yourself. What lured me in was…well, let’s talk about a real-world occurrence first.
Located in Asheville, North Carolina, the Buncombe County School Board has seen more than its fair share of conflict with mask mandates. On August 5, a group of parents protesting the school board showed up and proceeded to “overthrow” the board and install themselves in power. They didn’t actually overthrow anything, they just made a lot of noise and ended up looking idiotic.**** If Michael Myers was going cuckoo bananapants in Asheville, those same people would probably form a mob, wave guns around, and at best accomplish nothing. At worst, they’d get themselves or others killed. Green’s film was shot in autumn of 2019, so he couldn’t have been influenced by the rampant stupidity we all experienced during the 2020 pandemic. Yet he captured the chaos and selfishness surrounding people who were dealing with a problem. Poorly.
In terms of the rest, I wish the screenplay by Green, Danny McBride, and Scott Teems was a bit…er, sharper. Their previous film focused on the trauma that Laurie carried. Here, the film widens its focus to examine the trauma a community carries. As a result, Laurie is sidelined for large chunks of the movie, and we follow various citizens of Haddonfield encountering Michael. These vignettes have strong character work, certainly more than you’d find in the average horror movie, and when Michael inevitably shows up to kill the bejeezus out of them, it hits uncomfortably hard. However, this also takes time away from the main narrative of the mob hunting Michael and Laurie’s growing realization that things are much worse than she thought. The imbalance isn’t a fatal flaw, but there were more than a few moments where I found myself thinking, “Hey, isn’t Laurie supposed to be in this movie?” Luckily, the screenplay does have a good sense of humor, which helps to reduce the often oppressive tension.
Green is an actor’s director, and just like in his comedies and arthouse dramas, he gives his performers space to create natural characters. As solid as Jamie Lee Curtis usually is, her performance doesn’t make as much of an impact, simply because she’s not in the film for long stretches. When she is there, such as a scene where Laurie and wounded cop Hawkins (Will Patton) reminisce, she commands the screen. The same goes for Andi Matichak as Allyson, who has a little time to be in shock and enraged when the film remembers that she’s in it. Judy Greer as Karen makes the biggest impact. She’s got a complete character arc, moving from a daughter looking for a normal life to a woman willing to stand up to a masked lunatic and her own hometown. Of the supporting actors, I particularly liked Scott MacArthur and Michael McDonald as Big John and Little John, the gay couple who bought the old Myers place and enjoy tormenting obnoxious teenagers with tales of the Boogeyman.
Decades of sadistic, sloppy, and just plain stupid movies have tarnished the reputation of horror. That’s the bad news. The good news is that, in both independent and studio films, there seems to be something of a renaissance in scary movies with something to say. Halloween Kills might not be as strong a film as its predecessor, yet it’s plenty solid, delivering some scary thrills and even scarier observations on human folly. Liam knows I’ll never push him to watch something he’s not ready for. I know he’s naturally curious. When he’s ready to come back to horror, it will be there. Waiting.
*Edgar Wright is his favorite, with Christopher Nolan not far behind.
**While he’s not ready for Schindler’s List, he liked Saving Private Ryan and adored Judas and the Black Messiah.
***I liked that he left seconds before Michael dispatches a pair of annoying podcasters in particularly grisly fashion.
****The fact that a bunch of people who allegedly love America would commit such an anti-democratic action because they were mildly inconvenienced…well, that’s a subject for another column.