Halloween Kills (2021) Halloween Kills (2021) **½

     In 2021, the film industry was still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic and all of its attendant disruptions, so it makes some sense that a movie released during that year would come to my attention via unconventional channels. Halloween Kills, David Gordon Green’s initial follow-up to the 2018 Halloween, first crossed my line of sight as a disembodied title, mentioned in passing as one of several plague-delayed projects that had started moving forward again. Now I’ve always been peculiarly sensitive to titles, regardless of medium. A really terrific one will hook me almost unaided by more substantive come-ons, leading me to do things like buying a record by a band I’ve never heard of, just because one of the songs on it is called “Emo Kids Blown to Shit.” Conversely, a bad title— or worse, a nonsensical one— raises my hackles, making an impression that other forms of marketing will have to work extra-hard to overcome. Halloween Kills might not be nonsensical, but it isn’t terribly sensical, either— a bit like the English-language titles that Toho’s overseas distribution arm used to devise for the export versions of that studio’s productions in the 1960’s. Not a good omen, so far as I was concerned A short while later, though, my circle of online movie-nerd friends started passing around a teaser cue from John and Cody Carpenter’s Halloween Kills score, a short-ish piece called “Unkillable,” arranged for synthesizer, sequencer, and electric guitar. It might have been the best three-plus minutes of music that the elder Carpenter had ever composed; at the very least, it was in the same league as his original Halloween theme from 1978, although its jagged instrumentation made it a great deal less conventionally catchy. With no trailers, posters, or other normal pre-release promotion to evaluate (I’m sure those things existed for Halloween Kills, but as a side effect of getting out to only two first-run movies that year, I never had occasion to see them), those two oblique hints at the film’s nature pulled me in starkly opposite directions. If Halloween Kills was as bad as its title, then it was going to be pretty putrid. But if it was as good as “Unkillable,” it was likely to be the best franchise entry in a decade or two (depending on whether I think Halloween H20 is a tiny bit better than Halloween II, or vice-versa— which, for the record, I still can’t decide to my satisfaction).

     Intriguingly, word of mouth once the film came out was unhelpful in exactly the same way. Critics and friends whose taste and judgment I generally trust loved it and hated it in roughly equal numbers. What’s more, they frequently cited exactly the same features to explain their contrary opinions! By that point, I’d already made the decision to put off Halloween Kills until I was ready to review the thing, but it all made me very curious what I was going to think when I finally got around to it. And now that I’ve seen Halloween Kills for myself at last, I understand completely why it was such a room-divider. This movie is great— until the time comes to end it, at which point Halloween Kills explodes in an oily, stinking fireball a scant hundred feet above the runway.

     Like both of the movies called Halloween II, Halloween Kills picks up right about where its predecessor left off. Teenaged Cameron Elam (Dylan Arnold again) already thinks he’s having a lousy night, but he doesn’t know the half of it yet. Not realizing that inexplicably resilient spree-killer Michael Myers (still James Jude Courtney, except when he’s Airon Armstrong instead) is on the loose in Haddonfield, Cameron assumes that his girlfriend, Allyson (Andi Matichak once more) isn’t picking up her phone because she’s pissed off at him for getting drunkenly handsy with another girl at the Halloween party earlier in the evening. Nor does he grasp that his best buddy, Oscar (Drew Scheid, carrying on the Halloween-sequel tradition of returning for a cameo as his character’s corpse), isn’t answering, either, because he’s hanging dead by his jawbone from the fence around the municipal cemetery. Indeed, the boy’s first inkling of how badly awry things have gone in his little town comes only when he stumbles upon the grievously wounded Deputy Hawkins (Will Patton in the present, but Thomas Mann, of Kong: Skull Island and Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, in flashbacks to 1978) lying in the middle of a road. While Cameron summons help, Hawkins thinks back, with a great many regrets, to another Halloween 40 years ago, when he led the successful effort to bring Myers in alive, instead of just blowing the killer away like his own psychiatrist, Dr. Samuel Loomis (construction coordinator Tom Jones Jr., who fortuitously bore a truly eerie resemblance to Donald Pleasence, apart from being much too tall) wanted to.

     Meanwhile, at a talent show hosted by one of Haddonfield’s more happening bar-and-grills, Tommy Doyle (Anthony Michael Hall, from Weird Science and the “Roger Corman Presents” version of A Bucket of Blood) takes the stage to tell the scariest story he knows— the tale of the night when an exceedingly courageous babysitter saved him and a little girl named Lindsey Wallace from a masked homicidal maniac. Lindsey herself (Kyle Richards, revisiting her role from the original Halloween after all this time!) is in the audience tonight, as are two other survivors of Michael Myers’s long-ago Halloween rampage: retired psychiatric nurse Marion Chambers (Nancy Stevens, also returning from Halloween— and from Halloween H20, too, for that matter) and Lonnie Elam (Robert Longstreet, of Show Yourself and Doctor Sleep), Cameron’s father, who was a child just like Tommy and Lindsey back then. None of these people understand just yet how horribly relevant Tommy’s grim reminiscence has become over the past several hours, but they will soon enough.

     And elsewhere again, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis— obviously), the heroine of Tommy’s narrative, is being rushed to Haddonfield Memorial Hospital, together with her daughter, Karen (still Judy Greer), and her granddaughter, the aforementioned Allyson. They’re all in remarkably good spirits for people bleeding from several knife-wounds apiece— one of Laurie’s quite severe— because to the best of their knowledge, they’ve just killed Michael Myers. When they last saw him, he was trapped in the basement of Laurie’s heavily fortified house, with the whole place burning to the ground around and above him. What none of the Strode women realize is that Michael has turned some of Laurie’s own meticulous preparations against her, taking shelter behind the sensibly fireproof roller door of her armory, and awaiting the arrival of the fire department with the patience of a trapdoor spider. Myers repays the inadvertent rescue by massacring the entire firefighting crew, after which he hits the road back to town.

     The steadily worsening story of the escape of Michael Myers, possibly in company with a second, less obviously dangerous inmate (Ross Bacon, who was indeed visible in the asylum yard during the podcasters’ visit to Michael in the previous movie), makes the evening news, which is playing silently on the television behind the bar during the final phase of the talent show. Once Tommy notices that, nobody in the crowd can bring themselves to give much of a shit about ventriloquists or singing triplets or whatever anymore. Soon thereafter, Vanessa and Marcus, a doctor-and-nurse couple enjoying a rare night off from duty at Haddonfield Memorial (played by Carmela McNeal and Michael Smallwood, whom the sharp-eyed might also recognize from Halloween), run in from the parking lot, claiming that Myers is lurking in the back seat of Vanessa’s car. Actually it’s the other fugitive loony, but the mistake is understandable given the circumstances. Tommy and a few of his braver fellow drinkers are unable to prevent him from getting away again, nor do they ever get a good enough look at him to realize that they were attempting to catch the wrong man. Inspired by Laurie’s example from 40 years ago, Tommy forges Lonnie, Lindsey, Marion, Vanessa, and Marcus into the core of an impromptu neighborhood watch dedicated to finding Michael Myers and spreading the news of his return throughout the community. But as the corpses start piling up, Tommy’s mission takes a succession of darker turns, and his followers transform first into a vigilante posse, and ultimately into a full-fledged lynch mob.

     While that’s going on, Cameron, Hawkins, and a swarm of detectives from the sheriff’s department arrive at the hospital, bringing with them tidings of the Strode women’s failure to destroy Myers after all. Predictably, Laurie, Karen, and Allyson each react very differently to the bad news. Laurie tries to gear up to resume her self-appointed kamikaze mission against the killer, but a bunch of popped stitches in her freshly repaired belly wound demonstrate that she’s too badly hurt to do anything of the kind. Karen puts her faith in Sheriff Barker (Omar J. Dorsey, from Race to Witch Mountain), exhorting her mother, her daughter, and anyone else who’ll listen to let the system do its job. Allyson minds her mother at first, but comes around, as she so often does, to her grandmother’s way of thinking in the end. The turning point comes when Tommy, having failed to prevent Myers from slaughtering one of his search parties, swings by Haddonfield Memorial, cannily recognizing that those of the townspeople who have not yet joined up with him are likely to start congregating there, as Myers butchers more and more of their loved ones. Barker does his best to tamp down the bloodlust that Tommy stokes in the hospital waiting room, but once retired ex-sheriff Leigh Brackett (grizzled old Charles Cyphers— Halloween Kills commits hard to getting the band back together!), now supplementing his pension and keeping busy by working part-time as a hospital security guard, takes Tommy’s side, it’s all over. When Michael’s fellow escapee finds his way to Haddonfield Memorial as well, the crowd goes berserk. After all, Laurie, Karen, Allyson, and Hawkins are the only ones still alive who have actually seen the killer tonight. By the time their protests sink into enough overheated brains to make any difference, the damage is already done. Chastened by his surrender to hysteria, but no less determined to do what needs to be done, Tommy cedes leadership of the vigilantes to Karen, who devises an altogether clearer-headed approach to the problem of finding Michael Myers. The change in strategy may come too late to help Lonnie, Cameron, and Allyson, though, for they’ve already charged off at Allyson’s recommendation on a half-cocked offensive against the house where Myers grew up, which she correctly intuits as the killer’s most likely destination if he isn’t in fact on his way to the hospital for a rematch with Laurie.

     Halloween Kills undeniably sets off in the most promising direction for a follow-up to the 2018 Halloween. Whereas that movie dealt, like the best of its predecessors, with Laurie’s lingering trauma as a survivor of Michael’s sanguinary 1978 rampage, this one examines the effects of an infamously ghastly event on the community where it took place. That’s a smart move for two reasons. First, it enables the filmmakers to sideline Laurie (and thereby to play fair with the beating she took at the end of the last movie) while still meaningfully continuing the story that John Carpenter and Debra Hill began 40-odd years before. And second, it enables Halloween Kills to break completely new ground for the franchise— again like the best of its predecessors. It also offers a significant bonus, insofar as it creates the perfect excuse for fan-pleasing stunt casting on a mass scale. Small-town people put down deep roots, and tend to stick around as long as their communities remain economically viable. So by bringing back so many characters from Halloween and Halloween, David Gordon Green and his co-writers, Scott Teems and Danny McBride, get a head start on portraying Haddonfield not merely as a living, breathing town, but as the same living, breathing town that Michael Myers terrorized in 1978.

     Because Halloween Kills is about Haddonfield rather than the Strode clan, it stands to reason that Green, Teems, and McBride should devote plenty of effort and attention to showing us what the rest of the town was up to while Laurie and her family were fighting for their lives. Thus we get three quite substantial scenes— Cameron’s interrupted homeward walk from the Halloween party, the first of Deputy Hawkins’s 1978 flashbacks, and Tommy Doyle’s storytelling performance at the talent show— before Laurie, Karen, and Allyson are reintroduced. Thus, too, we get to spend a fair amount of time with various cameo characters from Halloween. I’ve already mentioned Vanessa and Marcus, but they’re just the beginning. The cemetery caretaker who showed the podcasters Judith Myers’s grave (Diva Tyler, of Prosper and The Last Exorcism, Part II) gets a nice, meaty scene together with her husband (Lenny Clarke) as Michael’s first victims after returning to town from the firefighter hecatomb at Laurie’s place. The trio of trick-or-treaters wearing Silver Shamrock masks familiar from Halloween III: Season of the Witch (Salem Collins, Giselle Witt, and J. Gaven Wilde, the latter from Spooked and The Black Phone) play a central role in the most chilling scene in the entire film, when Lindsey comes across them in the park, and they laughingly tell her about the big, goony weirdo in the blank, white mask who keeps lurking in the trees trying futilely to scare them. (That scene ends very, very badly for those kids, making it probably the most shocking one in the film as well.) Even Julian (Jibrail Nitambu), the boy whom one of Allyson’s doomed friends was babysitting when Myers struck in the previous installment, gets another brief moment in the spotlight, via an eyewitness interview on the TV news. And speaking of Julian, his slot as the scene-stealing supporting character who turns out not to be in nearly as much of the movie as you’ll misremember later on goes this time to Big John (Scott MacArthur, from The Diabolical and The Babysitter: Killer Queen) and Little John (Michael McDonald, of Leprechaun 2 and Carnosaur 3: Primal Species), the affluent, middle-aged homosexuals who bought the old Myers house for a song, and turned it into something straight out of an HGTV renovation show. None of their scenes advance the plot a single inch, but the pair are so funny and warm and well observed, and, strange as it is to say, so downright fucking wholesome that their inevitable deaths hit harder than nearly any other slasher movie murder I’ve seen.

     It’s hard, though, for a whole town to be a protagonist, or even an ensemble, and so Green and company put their tightest focus on Tommy Doyle. They and Anthony Michael Hall make him well worth the attention, too. Tommy, in contrast to Laurie and her family, is motivated by something much more complex than 40-year-old trauma, although that’s naturally in the mix somewhere. First and foremost, he’s driven to lead the fight against Michael Myers by his gratitude and admiration for Laurie, stepping up to become her successor by protecting Haddonfield the way she once protected him. Notice, however, that there’s an element of narcissism in the way he goes about it, arrogating to himself the authority and responsibility that legally belongs to Sheriff Barker, and allowing himself to be so seduced by visions of his own heroism that he whips up the crowd at the hospital into a frenzied mob that ultimately murders an innocent man. (Or at any rate, a man innocent of the crimes for which he’s hounded to death. One probably doesn’t become a wardmate of Michael Myers by being a Friend to All Children.) Just the same, Doyle is right that Barker and his deputies have thus far been unable to contribute anything but their own spilled blood to Michael’s recapture, and it’s hardly an unreasonable position that there’s nothing to be done with Myers at this point but to put him down like a rabid animal. There’s considerable power, too, in using a character who was just a terrified child when last we saw him as a lens through which to examine the limits of both trusting the system and taking matters into one’s own hands. And that’s doubly true here, where the ultimate goal— stopping an unstoppable murder machine— is both unambiguously worthy and agreed upon by all sides in the debate.

     And that, alas, is where the trouble starts. Even in the original Halloween, Michael Myers was more a metaphorical stand-in for external threats in general than an individual villain, with his own specific history, personality, and motivations. David Gordon Green’s take on the franchise has run with that, to the point that it’s barely even subtext anymore. Ever since the podcasters arrived at Laurie’s front gate in Halloween, Green has been using this story to mull over what it costs to become capable of dealing with something like Myers, whether as a person or as a society. Last time was all about the cost to Laurie Strode, the monomaniacal obsession to which she sacrificed her family, her friendships, her standing in the community, her capacity to feel anything not tainted by fear or the need for revenge. Halloween Kills counts the cost to Haddonfield, seeming to suggest that the best-case scenario is for each of the townspeople to cultivate the capacity to kill, when necessary, as calmly and dispassionately as Myers himself. That’s all pretty bleak, of course, but I dig bleakness in horror movies when it’s used intelligently. It creates problems for this one in particular, however, because Halloween Kills is not merely a franchise entry, but the middle installment in a trilogy. Everything in this movie points toward one of two endings, and neither of them is anything that Green and his co-writers can afford to use.

     One possibility would be to have Karen and Tommy just succeed. The united citizens of Haddonfield accomplish what Laurie and Dr. Loomis alone, and three generations of Strode women together, could not, and kill Michael Myers deader than disco. The End. That would be a strange conclusion to this story, not least because it would leave the audience grappling with what it means for the Halloween franchise to have suddenly become Tenement after all these years, but it also seems obviously valid within the context of Halloween Kills and its immediate predecessor. That can’t work as a practical matter, though, because Green was under contract to deliver two sequels to his Halloween. The other thematically fitting ending would be to have Karen and Tommy succeed only at a horrifying cost that they didn’t anticipate, but which the audience would see coming from the moment the crowd at the hospital erupted into violence. The united citizens of Hadddonfield kill Michael deader than disco, but one or more of them discover that they enjoy premeditated murder. The final film of Green’s trilogy could then confront the survivors with a brand new legacy of Michael Myers, in the form of an indeterminate number of copycat killers. I think I might actually like to see that movie, but it also seems like an obvious invitation to fan revolt. After all, I remember how pissed off people got over Friday the 13th, Part V: A New Beginning back when.

     So if Green is contractually obligated to make another sequel, but marketing considerations militate against the one that best fits what he’s done so far, how is he supposed to end this thing? By making two gigantic blunders, it turns out. The first is one that I’ve come to think of as “Moustapha Akkad Fights Back from the Grave.” You may recall that one of Akkad’s strictures for Halloween sequels was that under no circumstances could Michael Myers be irrevocably killed off. There always had to be some loophole, however bullshitty, through which he could escape to strike again next Halloween. At best, that might mean an ending like the original Halloween’s, in which Michael just mysteriously and inexplicably survives something that ought to have done him in, and slips away without comment. At worst, it might mean the inept retcon that opens Halloween: Resurrection. Green seems to have been trying here for the former variant of the Moustapha ending. Tommy’s mob surrounds Michael, beats him to a pulp, pumps him full of lead, and shish kabobs him with every sharp object that comes to hand. Myers falls, Karen delivers the coup de grace, and heads off to check up on Allyson… and then the killer just gets up like nothing happened, and does to the vigilantes what he did to all those firemen earlier.

     Now if Green had stopped there, it would have been cheesy and lame— a lamentable return to a form that the series decisively outgrew after Malek Akkad took over its management from his father— but no worse than that. What really sinks this ending, and arguably sinks Halloween Kills along with it, is a conversation between Laurie Strode and Deputy Hawkins that we overhear while Myers is turning the tables on his attackers. This is what Laurie has to say:

I always thought Michael Myers was flesh and blood just like me. But a mortal man could not have survived what he’s lived through. The more he kills, the more he transcends into something else, impossible to defeat: fear. People are afraid. That is the true curse of Michael. You can’t defeat it with brute force.

     And then Hawkins replies, “If we only knew then what we know now…” I’m honestly not sure what Green is trying to do here, but nothing good can come of it. The most benign interpretation I can see is that he’s basically having Laurie say, “Do you get it, dumbasses? Michael Myers is a metaphor! Now put your fan theories back in your pants!” I won’t deny that some of the more oyster-brained responses to the Halloween franchise in general, and to Green’s Halloween movies in particular, imply that some of the fans really do need it spelled out that bluntly, but it kind of spoils the trick for the rest of us, you know? And the other possibility that occurs to me is much, much worse. Maybe this is actually Green’s attempt to walk back his allegorical read on the character in favor of a Halloween 6-like deep dive into the true, secret nature of Myers! Maybe he’s warning us that the next movie is going to get bogged down in quasi-mystical horseshit about the One Weird Trick for permanently getting rid of indestructible homicidal maniacs that psychiatrists don’t want you to know! So while I’m still very curious to see how Green wraps up this story, that curiosity has now taken on a decidedly morbid cast.



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