In 'Halloween,' Pure Evil Takes on One Tough Grandma

‘Halloween,’ starring Jamie Lee Curtis, is a precise homage to its 40-year-old prequel. Still, the violence in the new film is far more graphic – and the heroine is no longer a helpless screaming teen

Jamie Lee Curtis in a scene from "Halloween,"
Ryan Green,AP

There is no such thing as evil in the world. No enlightened, educated person will dare use the word seriously. It’s almost impossible to find academics who will invoke the word “evil” to describe even Hitler. For a rational dialogue that seeks cause and effect, a term like “absolute evil” is embarrassing. It’s not scientific, because evil has no cause and effect.

However, the more the word is excluded from the language of education and enlightenment, the more potent it becomes in myth and culture. When a Saudi journalist is murdered, we inevitably ask why and how, but in the movie theater or in front of the television we are occupied with meta-villains and true crime. This tension between truth and myth, between rationalism and irrationalism, is at the heart of the low-budget 1978 film “Halloween.” Currently in wide release is the sequel, which bears the same name and integrates well between the spirit of the original and the spirit of the present age.

Although it drew lukewarm reviews, John Carpenter’s 1978 picture became a horror classic, a pioneer of the slasher films genre, and was groundbreaking in terms of the genre’s cinematography and use of music. It also made a star of Jamie Lee Curtis, who at 19 became a legendary “scream queen,” almost rivaling Janet Leigh in Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” It’s not by chance that the picture spawned nine sequels, all of them bad or worse.

The new “Halloween” is the eleventh in the series, though its plot ignores the nine follow-ups and reboots that preceded it and offers a direct continuation of the four-decade-old original. The movie also unites Curtis, who played 17-year-old Laurie, with Nick Castle, who was the murderer Michael Myers and now shares the screen with James Jude Courtney in that role. The script is by the director, David Gordon Green, and the comedian Danny McBride – who collaborated in “Pineapple Express” (2008) – together with Jeff Fradley.

The new “Halloween” is set in the same pastoral Illinois town, again on the same ancient, scary holiday. The year is 2018, but the heroine and the villain seem to have been frozen in time. In contrast to previous sequels, the older Michael Myers has been incarcerated in an institution for the mentally ill since he was shot and captured after murdering five female babysitters 40 years earlier. Laurie, whom he’d marked as his sixth victim, continues to suffer from posttraumatic symptoms. She lives in an isolated house which she’s transformed into a fortress, surrounded by secret walls, traps and weapons. 

As she views Michael more as a force of nature than as a human being, her assumption is that a jailbreak is only a matter of time. She is worried that his obsession for her will spill over to her daughter (Judy Greer), and more particularly to her granddaughter (Andi Matichak). The latter is now a teenager and, by chance, also a babysitter. The daughter, for her part, is convinced that her mother, Laurie, needs treatment, and the granddaughter is caught between them. The fact that Laurie raised her daughter according to the parenting doctrine of Sarah Connor from “Terminator” – if you don’t know how to shoot a gun you don’t get dessert – provides the background for the tension between the three generations of women.

Then, on the fortieth anniversary of the “babysitter murders,” Michael finds his way to freedom and then to his home town. That’s the start of a new killing spree, which is rife with homages and gestures to the 1978 film and also to the sequels, by scriptwriters who have declared themselves to be the series’ greatest fans. This is a kind of cinematic version of fan fiction, tightly written and faithful to the spirit and style of the original. Sometimes too faithful, but for the most part autonomous.

With no rational explanation, the horror is the same horror, the knife is the same knife – but it’s not an imitation. In a bid to march in step with the current horror genre, which is far more brusque than it used to be, the director adopts elements that were absent from the original. Death is more common, strikes a more diverse population, and is far more graphic. Forty years ago, Michael Myers was characterized by two verbs: stalk and stab. We saw him lurking behind bushes or hiding in a closet no less than we saw him commit murder. Now he’s hurtling on an indiscriminate slay ride, disposing of women, men and children alike. His weapons, too, are not confined solely to knives. But the major difference lies in the gushing gore and the pornographic occupation with the bodies of those who are assaulted, stabbed, battered, crushed and so on.

Forty years ago, Carpenter dealt with the relations between the (male) hunter and his prey; Green, his directorial heir, has both a hunter and a huntress. Michael Myers is of course more threatening than Laurie, but her approach to him is as prey, whether he understands that or not. He pursues her in order to finish what he started in 1978, but she’s no longer the “scream queen” who runs up the stairs instead of running out the door. Her family sees her as a wacky woman who hasn’t washed her hair for much too long, but the circumstances have changed. Now it’s she who has to protect them, the neighbors and even the police. The character of the murderer, too, has been adjusted for 2018. Myers no longer hunts only young girls as punishment for sex or drugs, as the 1978 movie suggested. This time out, he slashes without discriminating on the basis of race, gender or age.

Laurie’s transformation into an independent, aggressive individual is a refreshing change, but the most effective element is her decision to return to the roots of Myers’ evil.  In fact, beginning with the second picture in the series, the filmmakers started to provide the killer with different background stories, thus giving him a motive. Evil as a myth, as a metaphysical concept, has no interest in the how and what. Debra Hill, who co-wrote the script for the 1978 “Halloween” with Carpenter, explained to the Guardian that the inspiration for the character came from an ancient Celtic festival, Samhain, still celebrated in today’s Ireland, which, with a few adjustments, was adopted by Western Christendom during the Middle Ages as All Hallows Eve, later known as Halloween. “We went back to the old idea of Samhain, that Halloween was the night when all the souls are let out to wreak havoc on the living, then came up with the story about the most evil kid who ever lived,” Hill explained in 2002.

The return to superhuman evil of the Hill-Carpenter variety is accompanied this time by jabs at the sequels, which weren’t able to resist the temptation to infuse the murderer with content. Thus, during his institutionalization he met with 50 psychiatrists who tried unsuccessfully to fathom him. Even more ludicrous are two reporters who create a podcast about true crime and are dying to obtain an interview with the murderer, who hasn’t spoken since the age of six. As journalists seeking the truth, they are looking for a rational explanation for the phenomenon. Maybe mom didn’t hug him enough? Or possibly she hugged him too much? They want answers, because knowledge is supposed to be power. But one scene showing Michael in the lavatory – which generates shudders in the good sense of the word – shows the journalists which power is superior and how evil doesn’t need a “why.”

It’s true that much of the new “Halloween” generates the feeling that the film wasn’t necessary and that we can just as well go back to the original picture. However, it picks up momentum toward the end and concludes with an independent statement in the realm of horror. Laurie is no longer the screaming teenager, the “last girl,” but a grandmother whom it’s best not to mess with. Her granddaughter is a babysitter, yes, but not a victim just waiting to be stabbed. The mythology of Michael Myers gets an update and an adjustment to the twenty-first century, but the movie succeeds in being a simple and carefully crafted homage, brimming with reverence and doing its job by making viewers jump out of their seats. But at a time when the world has changed dramatically and no longer shudders easily, horror fans who don’t feel nostalgia for the characters are liable to be disappointed by this return to the roots.