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Front Page - Friday, November 2, 2018

Critic's Corner: Michael, Jamie give ‘Halloween’ a strong, fresh update

Until I surprised myself by purchasing a ticket for the new “Halloween” film, I hadn’t seen a single installment in the series since watching the original John Carpenter classic years ago.

It turned out I didn’t miss a thing, as the people who made the latest reboot wiped the slate clean after 40 years of sequels and reboots and sequels to reboots with a single stroke of the pen (or clack of the keyboard).

Mere moments into their movie, a true-crime podcaster utters a single line that reveals Michael’s true fate: he’s been incarcerated at a rehabilitative hospital for 40 years and hasn’t spoken a word.

I appreciated the gesture, as it spared me the task of watching the 10 films that followed Carpenter’s original to catch up. I like going into sequels prepared, but I couldn’t stomach the thought of watching 10 low-grade slasher pics just to get ready to view this one, as I don’t like this kind of movie at all.

It’s a personal preference. I’ve never liked the cold brutality, gory bloodletting or exploitation of female characters. Plus, to put it colloquially, most slashers are utter crap.

But the new “Halloween” has been tallying impressive numbers at the box office – really impressive numbers – so, I grew curious.

My second surprise of the evening came as I watched the film and realized it’s actually pretty good.

Part of the strength of the new “Halloween” film is its simplicity. There’s no attempt to explain who Michael is; he’s simply a purely evil human being and an unstoppable force of nature.

The closest the movie comes to enlightening viewers is when Michael’s doctor suggests predator-prey syndrome has kept Michael and Laurie Strode, the girl who escaped Michael’s blood-stained fingers all those years ago, alive.

The three writers credited with the film’s script also kept the storyline simple: Michael escapes while being transferred to a prison. As he makes his way to Laurie’s heavily armed and fortified home (not sure who gave him directions), he leaves a trail of unfortunate corpses in his wake.

The writers didn’t sacrifice character development, though. “Halloween” follows two generations of Laurie’s family – her daughter and granddaughter – as they come to realize that maybe mom and grandma isn’t crazy after all.

The events of the original “Halloween” deeply scar Laurie. Two failed marriages, an incurable bout of agoraphobia and an obsession with killing Michael has isolated her from not just her family but life. This has caused a great strain on the family.

The handful of slasher pics I’ve seen weren’t concerned with developing sympathy for any of its characters, so I was surprised (this week’s Critic’s Corner is sponsored by the word “surprise”) to find myself hoping none of these women wound up skewered.

I was pretty sure the men in their immediate vicinity were doomed, but I don’t want to give anything away, no matter how glaringly obvious it is, so I’ll stop there.

My memory of the original “Halloween” is hazy, but I do remember a few of the impressions it made on me. One was how Carpenter shot with a wide lens and often placed his characters in the middle of the image.

This gave the movie an unrelenting sense of jeopardy, as it felt like Michael could jump out from behind any bush, or emerge from any shadow, to claim his next victim.

David Gordon Green, who directed the new film, employs this same technique, but to even greater effect than Carpenter. After Michael’s escape, Green provides fleeting glimpses of him on the edges or in the cluttered parts of his image and gradually brings the killer closer to the front.

By the time Michael filled the frame to unleash all the madness that had boiled up inside him during his captivity, I was nearly leaning forward in my seat, my eyes glued to the screen.

Green also did excellent work building tension and dread. The most boring aspect of any horror film are the scenes in which impending victims creep through a house on a slow parade to death. But through build-ups that are nearly Hitchcockian in quality, Green keeps the tension simmering.

Green was not, however, good at framing or editing the action that follows. The moment a chase would begin, “Halloween” would deflate like a punctured balloon. This doesn’t kill the movie, but it does make it less effective.

One thing that didn’t surprise me was the strong thread of nostalgia that runs through the movie. There are many visual callbacks to the original film, including the creepy spray-painted William Shatner mask and a clever twist on the famous scene in which Laurie looks down at the lawn from the second story of her house and sees that a severely injured Michael is no longer there.

Also, many of the original actors return to the roles that made them famous – or not. I doubt I would have recognized Nick Castle as Michael, given that none of the films have ever shown his face, but he’s back, as is Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie.

For several years following “Halloween,” Curtis was Hollywood’s “scream queen.” She appeared in a string of horror and slasher pics, including “Prom Night,” “Terror Train” and another Carpenter classic, “The Fog.”

It wasn’t until Curtis appeared as Ophelia, the prostitute in “Trading Places,” that the movie industry realized she could be funny and act in other kinds of roles.

Thank goodness for that, too, because “A Fish Called Wanda” and “True Lies” would have been lesser movies without her.

Curtis can still act, and ably so, as she demonstrates in the new “Halloween.” Seeing her resurrect a slightly kooky but fiercely driven Laurie is easily the greatest pleasure the film has to offer.

In a nice behind-the-scenes nod to the film’s lineage, Carpenter returns as executive producer and even contributed music to the film’s soundtrack.

As I’ve said, “Halloween” surprised me in a lot of ways. It takes the story and characters seriously without layering them with too much complexity. It eschews the cheesiness and slipshod nature of most slasher films while still maintaining some of the feel of the classics in the genre and it offers many well-constructed and nerve-rattling scenes of suspense. It’s also, at times, effectively funny.

I liked it, and I was surprised that I did. I still don’t like slasher pics, but that’s no surprise.