When you call a Michael Myers movie “Halloween” — same as John Carpenter’s 1978 original that launched a franchise of nine mostly forgettable B-movies — then you better do something to surprise your audience. So, for this installment of a 40-year-old horror classic, Little Rock-born director David Gordon Green zagged by making a film that sits firmly in the horror genre while also finding real pathos and laughs and a kickass score. Why, it almost feels like someone set out to make a real movie here.
Yes, you’ll see people get croaked in some pretty ghastly ways (knife to the back, door to the face, scalpel to the throat, boot to the head) but what lingers more than the obligatory violence are the actual characters. Green co-wrote the script with Jeff Fradley and Danny McBride; between them they’ve managed to turn what could have been another rote slasher about a mute boogeyman into a funnier, weirder, more memorable work. There’s a boy who’d rather be in dance class than going hunting. A babysitter who’s watching a kid who just about steals the movie talking about weed. A couple of cops who discuss the finer points of Vietnamese sandwiches. Gender-fluid teens who have progressive conversations about consent. Come for the Michael Myers, stay for the likeable people he murders.
Strategically it was a fine choice to ignore every movie but the first (again, a movie that shares the same name) because it frees Green to tell, in effect, a really simple story. We begin with Myers still in an asylum, where he hasn’t spoken for 40 years. A couple of British-accented podcast producers (Rhian Rees and Jefferson Hall) wangle a tour of the facility with Myers’ longtime doctor (a crazy-haired Haluk Bilginer). Even as they try to goad Myers with his old mask (that iconic William Shatner costume) it’s bupkis — the serial killer never even looks. So they try instead to coax a new story out of Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, back in her original role). She has withdrawn to a house in the woods she’s outfitted as a full-blown prepper, complete with floodlights, closed-circuit cameras, a target range, a basement full of guns and canned foods, and a bunch of nifty trapdoor-y security measures. She’s been expecting a Michael Myers attack since, oh, let’s ballpark it at 1978.
Laurie’s grown daughter, Karen (Judy Greer, who also played Karens in “Jurassic World” and “The Key Man”), disapproves of her mother’s survivalist bent, having grown up having to practice rifle training in case Myers ever got out of the asylum. And neither of them has just a fantastic relationship with Laurie’s teenaged daughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak), who’s just getting ready to do some normal cool small-town stuff on a normal cool small-town Halloween until … well, see, there’s an accident on a prison bus as they’re transferring Myers to a different hospital and, uh, Michael Myers is once again loose, reunited with his old mask, and skulking around town on the one night of the year when no one really looks twice at a hulking dude in dark coveralls and a rubber mask. So he gets to run wild, one loping step at a time, and Laurie’s left telling everyone she told ya so.
Myers was never the freakiest of monster-movie villains: Silent, robotic, emotionless, he works quickly and seems to barely notice when he finishes. Most of the scares here are simply variations on the thought, what if you ran into Michael Myers in a (fill in the blank), and the answer is, he’d win. But Green does offer some flourishes to keep this lummox lively, like a four-minute single-take shot of Myers quietly killing in a neighborhood while trick-or-treaters flutter around, mirroring a similar shot in Carpenter’s original. You’re also treated to Carpenter updating his old piano-and-synth score (which he apparently turned around in just three days when he was trying to get the first “Halloween” sold) into a fuller, creepier vision.
More enjoyable, actually, is the movie’s serious treatment of the generational effects of trauma, and the simple moments of full characters leading real lives. The name “Halloween” was dragged into irrelevance with a winding series of disposable sequels, but this feels like a return to due respect for a piece of American lore. ‘Cause if you can’t even be assured of a decent time at the movies when you want to see small-towners get ambushed by a maniac with a butcher knife, then what can you really trust anymore?