Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
October 2018


Survivor's paranoia

On sequels, legacies, wide frames, and the many lives of Laurie Strode

Universal Pictures
Director: David Gordon Green
Screenplay: Jeff Fradley, Danny McBride and David Gordon Green, based on characters created by John Carpenter and Debra Hill
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, Will Patton, Haluk Bilginer, Toby Huss, Miles Robbins, Rhian Rees, Jefferson Hall, James Jude Courtney and Nick Castle
Rated R / 1 hour, 46 minutes / 2.39:1
October 19, 2018
(out of four)

The new Halloween sequel wants to be humored. While reintroducing us to Jamie Lee Curtis' Laurie Strode, it presumes to reject, or erase, every movie in which the character existed, aside from the 1978 original. And yet its entire interpretation of the character carries the weight of those now-discarded installments - unavoidably retains their memory and brandishes their scar tissue. This Halloween requires, and relies upon, the very history it is trying to ignore.

The film is a "direct" sequel to John Carpenter's original, meaning the franchise's canon has been rewritten yet again. Which means, for Laurie, no hospital, no faked death, no Jamie, no John, no new identity in California, no psychiatric institute, and no blood relation to Michael Myers himself. Her presence here is based entirely on her status as the franchise's original Final Girl, but it's a legacy fortified by subsequent films. There is a hyper-awareness to this incarnation of the character that transcends the way she has been written and rewritten, divorces her from the decided-upon facts of this particular sequel's official (new) timeline. She has an implicit history beyond what this movie wants to tell us that history is, and there's frankly nothing the screenplay can do to convince us otherwise. And more to the point, the movie is conscious of it, while simultaneously telling us to ignore it.

We are not watching Laurie Strode from Halloween 40 years later. We are watching a character we've seen terrorized in four separate movies across four separate decades, transported into a world in which she was only terrorized in one. In this version dreamed up by writer/director David Gordon Green and his co-writers Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley, she is a half-loony/half-badass survivalist who's been harboring 40 years' worth of revenge fantasies and has gotten herself (and her offspring) prepared accordingly. That Myers has been locked up without a peep for nearly a half-century - rather than going on killing sprees and miraculously surviving certain death every few years - is of no consequence to this Laurie Strode. For her, it's simply a matter of time before he finally tries to finish the job he started.

I'm not arguing for the sanctity of Halloweens 2 thru 8; I have no attachment to any of them. But if none of them had ever been made, and the original remained a standalone film (as this movie essentially pretends), I'd imagine a 40-years-later sequel in which its heroine had become a paranoid recluse still living in the same town would seem like a depressing direction to take the character. Certainly a bleak one. It's only with all the added baggage of her continued survival from Myers' relentless hunt that the survivalist persona makes sense. I'm not saying this dichotomy is a bug, necessarily, but the extent to which it's a feature seems only partially intentional, and only partially successful. While the new Halloween is certainly self-aware - in an early scene, a group of teenagers dismiss the specific events and revelations of previous sequels as if debunking urban legends and conspiracy theories - it's more meta than it realizes and more meta than I think it intends. Which is to say: Of course Laurie Strode is a crazy shotgun-wielding survivalist: People have been trying to kill her for 40 years! First it was Michael Myers (1978), then it was Michael Myers again (1981). Then in 1988 we were told she had died - and not long afterward, Michael Myers turned her own 10-year-old daughter into a murderer. Then ten years after that, it turned out Laurie wasn't dead after all and Michael Myers tried to kill her again. Then in 2002 Michael Myers' perseverance paid off and he finally did kill her. Then five years later Laurie's own franchise died when it was rebooted by, fittingly, a Zombie.

No wonder she has that elaborate security system and the booby traps and the personal shooting range. That mask - that shape - could come around the corner at any moment.

As much as this conception of the character tries to celebrate Laurie Strode, the not-so-hidden subtext here is that Michael Myers won. His one-day reign of terror has consumed her entire life since then. It fractured her family, ended her relationships, psychologically paralyzed her, sent her to the bottom of a bottle, made her an object of murmurs and ridicule - Haddonfield's "crazy lady" mascot. It's been a protracted, slow-moving tragedy. It's a sad fate to drop on the character; the filmmakers think it's a triumphant one. That Michael does return, after all these years, is validation of her decades of paranoid preparation. But her eccentric badassery still has almost everything to do with Laurie-Strode-as-pop-culture-icon, and almost nothing to do with the shaky internal logic of Green's new version of events.

Of course, prepping for her own personal doomsday didn't always take up all her time. She got married a couple of times, she has a daughter, Karen (Judy Greer) - with whom she's kinda-sorta estranged - and a granddaughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak) who adores her. She's had a life and a career and a family. But by now, all of that has taken a backseat to her fixation on Michael, and her increasing certainty of his return. Perhaps it's the waiting that has pushed her so close to the edge by this point in her life. That he's taken his time with what she assumes - knows - is an inevitability.

The clock is ticking from the moment a pair of true-crime researchers (Rhian Rees and Jefferson Hall) show up at Laurie's doorstep looking for an interview. She grants it - which is unusual, but then again these two did just get back from Smith's Grove Sanitarium, and got an up-close-and-personal look at The Shape himself. It's not long afterward that they get all too good a look at him. And then it's on, and Laurie can begin the process of mentally planning her I-told-you-sos.

As far as Halloween movies not directed by John Carpenter go, this one ranks pretty high, even if it's rather forgettable. Green has long wanted to tackle a horror film; years ago he was set to do the Suspiria remake (with Natalie Portman at one point attached, pre-Black Swan), a project eventually poached by Luca Guadagnino. And while his Halloween is serviceable enough, it's disappointing to see that he directs it as an appreciator of the form rather than a real practitioner. (Maybe if he gives the genre another go at some point, there will be more imagination to his filmmaking.) In particular, he and cinematographer Michael Simmonds don't seem to know quite what to do with the wide frame. Consider how much disquiet and dread Carpenter allowed to seep into his compositions in the original film; Green inexplicably uses the frame to give us a lot of graceless off-center close-ups. He takes a blandly utilitarian approach to his action - with a couple of memorable exceptions. Even as he tries to nudge the franchise closer to its aesthetic roots, the tightness of his shot choices - in relation to Carpenter's, that is - doesn't visually redefine the otherwise familiar on-screen events in any way that makes this particular rehash essential. Forget essential, it's not even interesting. He might as well have just shot it in 1.85 if this is how he was going to use - or not use - the extra space. Brand name notwithstanding, It Follows makes a hell of a lot better spiritual companion - on compositional terms alone - to Carpenter's Halloween than does Green's more official complement.

The film's most potent kinship with its franchise forebears comes from Carpenter's new score (composed along with his son Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies) - which nicely riffs on the original theme and takes it in new directions - as well as some of Green's nifty homages to various entries in the series. This Halloween does peak down the stretch, as Green - in a climax that once again takes place inside a home, as it must - devises a few lovely geographical rhymes to the 1978 film's extended finale. And yet, as nice as it is to see a living, breathing, healthy Laurie Strode again - not to mention Curtis toplining a major mainstream franchise movie - this retconned sequel is just as disposable as it would have been if no other installments had ever been made. This movie is an experiment with no taste for experimentation.

You can contact Chris at cinebellamy@gmail.com.

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