Saturday, November 10, 2018

Review: Halloween (2018)

The latest Halloween movie, directed by David Gordon Green, is technically a sequel to John Carpenter's slasher masterpiece Halloween (1978). The new film ignores and supersedes all other Halloween franchise films from Halloween II (1981) onward, wisely erasing the first sequel's backstory that there is a blood relation between Myers and his target / nemesis Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). This shift restores the original film's notion that Michael Myers is an impersonal killing machine, not a slighted brother looking for psychological vengeance. This is a good change that, along with its evocative visuals and (mostly) tight storytelling, makes this new quasi-"requel" a worthy successor to Carpenter's influential, entertaining horror classic.

Halloween (2018) looks higher-budget than Carpenter's film, with more sets and settings and more nuanced lighting and set design. Yet on the whole, it is aesthetically of a piece with the spare 1978 original. The camerawork, all superb, seems like it almost could have been shot by Carpenter, especially if he had a budget like this one. Produced by Universal Studios and Blumhouse, this new iteration is a slick, precise, exciting, terrifying slasher movie that works on its own terms while providing a satisfying "bookend" to the narrative of Laurie Strode and Michael Myers. As the Red Letter Media guys say about nine and a half minutes into their video review, "we didn't even need this movie, but we have it, and it's pretty good, and now we need to be done. It's nice closure."

I agree with most of what the Red Letter Media reviewers say about the new Halloween, i.e.:
  • Michael Myers (here played by James Jude Courtney and Nick Castle) is scary.
  • The movie doesn't "do anything too stupid" (as Mike suggests here).  
  • As usual, Halloween co-producer Blumhouse, the company also responsible for recent horror hits Get Out (2017), Split (2017), and the Paranormal Activity franchise (2009-present), "knows what they're doing."
"Hi, my name is Jason Blum. If you're a horror fan, just give me all your money now."


The best thing about Green's Halloween is how it makes Michael a genuinely menacing, evil, frightening presence. He is genuinely scary every minute he is on screen, and his first significant attack, in which he brutally kills two true-crime podcasters in a gas station washroom, is one of the finest murder scenes I've seen in a horror movie in a long time. On this basis alone, I really enjoyed this movie a lot and feel more in harmony with Jay's enthusiasm for Green's Halloween than with Mike's more reserved response to it.

I like the film's sporadic comedy moments, especially those provided by young Julian (Jibrail Nantambu). Despite liking most of Julian's bits, Red Letter Media Mike claims that in general the film's humor "weirdens the tone" and breaks the mood of horror and fear the movie otherwise maintains so well. I don't fully agree, though I concede that the offbeat "bahn mi" dialogue between the two oddball cops late in the film is not as effective as would have been some serious talk about what's going on in Haddonfield, which surely the two cops, soon to die, know of via their police radio. Mike's dialogue idea (which he discusses starting here) would definitely work better there.

Mike and Jay also correctly assert that the twist that brings Michael within spitting distance of Laurie's fortified home feels contrived and clunky -- it sure is a lucky break for Laurie that Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer) is a psychopath! However, despite its clunkiness, that twist moment works for me, or at least it did upon my first viewing. I like the idea of a "mad doctor" in this movie, since Loomis was always kind of an obsessed loose screw in the original anyway.

Yet I wanted to see Laurie take an even more active role in tracking Michael down and luring him to her isolated compound. That would be more compelling and thematically on-point than watching her driving around somewhat aimlessly in certain parts of Halloween's back half.

Haluk Bilginer as Dr. Sartain, the late Dr. Loomis' protege, Michael's new keeper, and the character whose story arc provides Halloween's major plot twist. 

That said, in addition to its depiction of Michael, Halloween's other greatest achievement is to give Laurie Strode an appropriate revisit and sendoff after 30 years' (ret-conned) hiatus. Though the previews for Halloween make Laurie look like a Sarah Connor-in-T2, gun-toting badass, the film's portrayal of her is more complex and rewarding than that. She is, in fact, frightened and traumatized to the point of being more or less totally unhinged. As Red Letter Media's Mike says, the scene where Laurie shows up at a celebratory dinner for her granddaughter and breaks down crying is basically the best (non-murder) scene in the whole film. And Laurie's hunting of Michael through her own house in the film's climax is a terrifying nail-biter that tops Michael's washroom double murder scene for intensity.

Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode.

I assume that anyone who likes well-made slasher movies and/or Carpenter's original will enjoy this sequel. It will never be 1978 again, so don't expect quite the same low-budget scrappiness in this version. But slick though it may be, this sequel has it where it counts: it is an exciting, scary, tightly paced horror movie with a top-notch soundtrack, newly composed by none other than John Carpenter (with collaborators Cody Carpenter and Daniel A. Davies).

In short, Halloween (2018) is a must-see for slasher horror fans.

Leatherface's Easter Egg Alert: Keep your eyes open in Halloween for at least two distinct homages to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). The first one involves Laurie's granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) only. The second involves all three generations of Strode women and happens right at the very end of the film.

Bonus Afterthought: The release of this latest "requel" in the Halloween franchise has kicked up some internet talk about Rob Zombie's generally maligned duo of Halloween films released in 2007 and 2009. Despite being a Rob Zombie film fan, I am no great defender of Halloween (2007), Zombie's Zombie-ified reboot of the 1978 original. The first portion of the film, about Michael Myers' white-trash upbringing, is interesting and well crafted but unnecessary, whereas the back half is simply a hasty, uninteresting rehash of Carpenter.

Yet as Richard Newby argues, "as a film lacking the beautiful simplicity of Carpenter's, Halloween '07 made a case for itself as an inelegant, raw and dirty psycho-fantasy drawn out of the idea that, as the Zombie-utilized Nazareth song goes, 'love hurts.'" Indeed so -- the Michael-Laurie family connection established by Halloween II (1981) and rejected by Green's reboot is front and center in Zombie's take. And Zombie builds upon and improves his focus on this theme in his criminally underrated 2009 sequel. As Newby contends:
It's in Zombie's Halloween II that the director is at his most interesting and assured as a filmmaker. Michael Myers takes a back seat to Laurie Strode and the trauma she's endured. [Scout] Taylor-Compton's girl-next-door vibe from the first film is stripped away and replaced with something damaged and genuinely human in its fragility. It's a performance, one of the best and most surprising to come out of horror in that decade, that rejects former notions of the final girl and her invulnerability.
Not only does Zombie's depiction of Laurie gain tragedy and resonance in his second Halloween outing, the film also renders Michael (Tyler Mane) as more of an animalistic wild man. The iconic Myers spends good chunks of the film trudging through the countryside, killing people, and seeing visions of his dead mother. It is weird, hallucinatory, and melodramatic, like Zombie's other hillbilly horror masterpiece, The Devil's Rejects (2005), and it works.

Indeed, Newby concludes that "Halloween II '09 is one of the most original films to come out of the slasher movie subgenre, and [it] ended on a note far more interesting than any of the sequels that had come before it." Agreed -- I would rank Zombie's Halloween II as the third-best Halloween franchise film overall, behind Carpenter's original and Green's.

To again quote Newby: "While so many horror remakes in the 21st century feel like a shadow of the original, Zombie managed to create two films that feel fully formed, even if audiences disagree over whether they enjoy the shape they took."

Friday, November 2, 2018

Review: The Haunting of Hill House (2018)

I watched the new Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House and despite admiring many of the visuals and respecting what the show's creators are trying to do, I have come away feeling underwhelmed. I basically had to force myself to watch the last three episodes because I felt done with the whole thing by the time I finished episode seven (of ten).

I have not read the source novel by Shirley Jackson but have seen (and very much like) the 1963 Robert Wise film adaptation The Haunting with Julie Harris. This new version actually bears very little resemblance to Jackson's book or that 1963 film, instead grafting a family melodrama onto the basic premise of a haunted house. As Holly Green's informative article notes, the haunted house premise and a few character names is where the similarities to the source material ends:
The novel exhibits enormous restraint, serving as a metaphor for female repression while leaving much open to interpretation. There’s only one scene in the book where two characters verifiably experience the same phenomena; all other supernatural encounters are from Eleanor’s perspective and offer no definitive take on whether the incidents were real or the product of her mind. Many times, we’re led to believe that Eleanor may be having a breakdown due to her inability to function under the prospect of her own freedom, as evidenced by the book’s horrific ending.
While Green attributes the show's problems to its deviations from the novel, I think the series' flaws can be mainly attributed to one root cause: Netflix bloat. Mind you, I am extremely open to slow-paced shows and films -- hell, I am an Andrei Tarkovsky fan! However, this show suffers from being too dragged-out and slow-paced. There just isn't enough meat on its bones. I was bored during long stretches of most of the episodes. I think this show would have been much stronger if it had been condensed to six or seven episodes rather than ten.

A few of the episodes really deliver --  I would single out ep. 4 "The Twin Thing" and ep. 3 "Touch," as being particularly riveting ones. But most of the others range from "dull but with a few good bits" (ep. 5 "The Bent-Neck Lady" and ep. 6 "Two Storms") to "utterly unnecessary" (ep. 8 "Witness Marks"). So overall, despite its high production values, compelling mood, and promising premise, it is hard for me to recommend this show. I am somewhat baffled at the strength and number of positive reactions I have heard about this series from other viewers.

Victoria Pedretti as Nell in the final moments of "The Bent-Neck Lady," one of the better episodes of The Haunting of Hill House

Specifically, the high points of The Haunting of Hill House include:
  • The character of Shirley and the actress who plays her, Elizabeth Reaser. Hers is by far the best-developed character and the best performance by an actor in this series. 
  • The twins' characterization and plotline -- aside from Shirley, the twins Nell and Luke are the only two other characters I truly care about, especially in their back-to-back episodes "The Twin Thing" and "The Bent-Neck Lady."
  • The final few moments of episode 5 "The Bent-Neck Lady." This reveal is the most mind-blowing and emotionally resonant moment of the series. (Yes, the show peaks early.)  
  • "Two Storms," the much-touted "single shot" episode, which functions as an homage to Hitchcock's Rope (1948), another "single-shot" film centered upon a body in a trunk / coffin. The problem is, this episode suffers for the comparison to Hitchcock's tightly plotted thriller. Much as I appreciate the gimmick of the "single shot" and admit the creators deployed it well, especially in the "Hugh pursues Olivia" sequence and in how the cuts were incorporated to indicate time-shifts, the episode is still about ten or fifteen minutes too long. It is draggy and boring at several points, especially early in the episode, and as usual, Theodora's character and her abilities are criminally under-deployed. 

Hugh follows Olivia -- the best scene in "Two Storms."

Sadly, for me, the low points -- or really just indifferent, dull points -- overwhelm the positives here. The few really excellent performances  -- Shirley, Nell, Luke, and their mother Olivia -- are swamped by the presence of the other characters that I don't care about (the oldest brother, the father) or that I want to care about but who are under-written and under-deployed (Theo, the Dudleys). Plus the whole happy ending of the finale just feels, as much of the series' emotional moments do, over-determined, cliched, canned. It just doesn't land for me.

I love me a good, tawdry, emotionally heightened family melodrama. I love Hollywood melodramas like Stella Dallas (1937), Imitation of Life (1934 and 1959), Now, Voyager (1942), All That Heaven Allows (1955), etc., and I am a super-fan of the PBS series Poldark (2015-present) -- yet The Haunting of Hill House is too sluggishly paced and too clumsy in (not) landing its emotional beats to earn my recommendation, with the exception of that fourth episode and a couple key moments in eps five and six. 

I would instead advise people who want to see a family melodrama fused with a haunting-type story to check out The Sixth Sense (1999) or The Babadook (2014). Those seeking a flat-out great ghost story movie should try the original version of The Haunting or (even better) The Innocents (1961).