Do not underestimate the power of the mask. You will see it on fans, decked out in their best Michael Myers cosplay for the Toronto Film Festival’s midnight premiere of Halloween — just two yahoos in dark blue coveralls rocking that bleached-out, rubber Shatner mug — and you will mildly shudder. You watch someone dressed as Myers walk onto the stage and stand there menacingly, a bit of post-intro performance art after director David Gordon Green and the cast have said their hellos, the lights dimmed to blackness, John Carpenter’s score barely being heard over the fanboy applause … and you will feel genuine chills. When this revisiting of the slasher-flick Rosetta stone’s mythology, one with more than a few callbacks and hat tips and some revisionist tweaks, makes a British true-crime podcaster — hello, 2018 — pull it out of a bag and hold it up, showing it to an institutionalized Myers, the dread in you will rise.
And then, after Michael has escaped and killed some folks (this is sort of a spoiler, but really, is it though?) and actor Nick Castle, the original “Shape,” slips it on, the familiar blank face of one of the most famous horror-film psychopaths ever, and he turns to the camera — oh man, never mind that for 40 years, this image has been burned into our brains. You. Will. Freak. The. Fuck. Out.
This is the power of the new Halloween, as well as its blessing and its curse. It might seem pretentious to quote Faulkner instead of Fangoria when you’re talking about a film so dedicated to bringing back the scrappy, jagged B-movie feel of the 1978 original. (Which, for the record: Yes, it does.) But the past is not done with Laurie Strode, the famous “final girl,” or Jamie Lee Curtis, who revisits the role so ass-kickingly here, or the new version itself. It’s not even past, etc. For a movie so invested in the history of this story even as it declares the franchise’s additional chapters one collective mulligan, Green and co-writer/co-producer/co-superfan Danny McBride’s valentine is equal parts buoyed by our memories of this landmark and burdened by them. Everything gets filtered through your connection to Halloween 1.0. They’re relying on that mask to still hit all of your primal buttons.
“Given everything that’s happened in the world … how is one guy with a knife scary?” a character says pretty early on, which is the creators’ sly way of acknowledging that in The Year of Our National Nervous Breakdown 2018, your basic average unstoppable force of evil is child’s play compared to IRL horrors outside your door. It then spends the next few hours reminding you why such a thing is indeed terrifying, one brutal (and often gory) kill at a time. Those fame-seeking podcasters show up to Smith’s Grove Asylum to kick the hornet’s nest the minute they step on to the hospital’s chessboard-like “recreation” area, with strait-jacketed patients tethered to concrete blocks inside safety-zone squares. (The fact that the trailer has already showcased this shot doesn’t make it any less effective; it’s still a creepy production-design bullseye.) Naturally, the authorities immediately decide to move Michael Myers to another facility. What’s the worst that could happen, except a violent escape during a nighttime transfer, a trail of corpses and a killing machine making a beeline to the one person he has unfinished business with?
Luckily, that person has been preparing for this encounter for decades. Like the mask, Jamie Lee Curtis immediately channels a history of horror-film highpoints the second she appears on screen, straddling a chair and fixing her interrogators with a please-fuck-the-fuck-off glare. All long white hair and sinew, her Laurie Strode lives on a compound built like a fortress; fortified doesn’t do it justice. Her paranoia and unprocessed, unresolved trauma over what happened to her as a teenager has turned her into a suburban survivalist, alienating her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) in the process — even a reconciliatory graduation dinner turns into a wine-guzzling, teary breakdown. To its credit, this new Halloween is as dedicated to exploring the notion of final-girl PTSD as it is to resurrecting the past, which is probably what enticed Curtis to return. That, and the notion that she would get to be a bona fide action-hero alpha to Myers’ omega. Comic-book readers might remember the sequence in Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke, in which Batman and the Joker sit across from each other, discussing how at this juncture in their hero/villain relationship, they’re locked in a dysfunctional cycle of mutual need. This is where Strode and her mute tormentor are now. It’s not a question of if so much as when they’ll square off and how many bodies it’ll take to get there.
The answer: a lot. Green and McBride have clearly studied Halloween ’78 like holy scripture, taking a lot of their cues from Carpenter’s tension-release idea of slasher stalking and how he used the frame to withhold info, goose viewers, conjure unbearable levels of fear. There are scenes in which you see an out-of-focus character (guess who) moving in the background, or just momentarily glimpse something god-awful happening through a window or behind a house. A sequence in which Myers travels from house to house, randomly dispatching residents as trick or treaters nab candy, is pure virtuoso horror filmmaking. As is the extended final stand-off, in which a psychologist named Sartain — “You’re the new Loomis!” exclaims Laurie; cue reference-based applause — a cop with a connection to the case and the Strode women play cat and mouse with the killer. And we find out just how well our matriarch has prepped for this occasion. At the risk of saying too much, we can confirm that the last shot of Myers (if not his curtain call; franchises, people) is haunting, and the sight of a sorority of women refusing to go gently under the knife is empowering.
Still, it’s hard not to feel that this love letter is so caught up in its admiration for its source material that you occasionally get that wax-museum-with-a-pulse feeling — a sensation that blood is not the only thing gushing here. Green and Co. have made a tribute that consistently runs the risk of being trapped by its own fanboyishness, so busy trying to balance big-upping a legacy that leaving their own mark on the series becomes a bit of an afterthought. It’s their take all right, but one so marked by callbacks and a checklist of beats to hit that there’s not a lot of room for much else. It never quite escapes the admittedly huge shadow it’s under.
None of which mattered late Saturday night, long past the witching hour, when you had Jamie Lee Curtis standing on stage, basking in well-earned applause and sing-song cooing into the microphone “Happy Hall-o-ween, motherfuckers.” Happy Halloween, indeed. If the premiere’s reception is any indication, the die-hards will be in ecstasy. The rest will simply be scared to death.