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Movie Review: “Halloween”

As longtime readers will know, I don’t usually review horror movies on this site. In this case, I’m making an exception for two reasons: first, it’s not so gruesome that I feel like I can’t recommend it to anyone (just as in the original, nothing here is much worse than your average episode of “Supernatural”), and second, it’s the rare installment in the genre that has some real, objective merit.

David Gordon Green’s new flick picks up precisely 40 years after masked killer Michael Myers’ first rampage through the town of Haddonfield. (All prior sequels, reboots, and forays into increasingly convoluted internal mythology are disregarded: instead, “Halloween” 2018 is a direct sequel to the original 1978 film.) Myers (Nick Castle) has spent the last four decades under psychiatric observation in a heavily guarded hospital facility. Not once, in all those years, has he uttered a single word.

Not far off, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis)—now a grandmother—has never been able to shake the specter of her last confrontation with Myers. She’s become a survivalist, training her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) to defend herself since childhood and outfitting her home with a secret basement and plenty of guns. But these efforts have come at a terrible cost: the breakup of her marriage and estrangement from her daughter, who has a teenage daughter of her own (Andi Matichak).

Inevitably, Myers escapes from custody, grabs a knife, and starts killing again. This time around, though, Grandma’s packing heat.

It’s a great setup—and true to that strong vision, this is a very high-quality production across the board. Following one of the best opening scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie like this (and opening credits scored by John Carpenter), we’re catapulted straight into a narrative that feels both familiar and novel. Yes, lots of the same ideas from the original are still there (including a particularly gratuitous homage during the climax), but they hold up quite well: in particular, “Halloween” doesn’t overrely on startling moments to build and release tension. (At this point, I’m increasingly convinced that only James Wan can do jump scares properly.) Instead, we get some cinematographic innovation—most notably, an extended tracking shot as Myers’ onslaught begins.

Maybe the most interesting dimension of “Halloween,” though, is its curious political subtext. Given that it was billed as a horror film for the #MeToo era, it’s surprising to find that “Halloween” shares very little in common with the dominant feminist discourse. (Intersectionality? Get outta here. In this movie it’s white folks all the way down.) If this version of “Halloween” indeed has a feminist ethos (and it does), it’s one that draws heavily on the sharp-elbowed second-wave feminism of Camille Paglia and Germaine Greer, stressing women’s independence and autonomy without necessarily entailing a commitment to left politics. Quite the opposite: the film takes remarkable joy in demolishing various modern progressive pieties.

For instance, one of the film’s central questions is whether Karen, a (probably liberal) suburban mom, must wield firearms to protect herself and her daughter. The movie’s answer is crystal clear—indeed, the NRA itself couldn’t have made a better argument for gun access than this movie. Likewise, Laurie’s early pronouncement that the world isn’t full of sunshine and light, but profound danger, is vindicated in a very bloody way as Myers storms across Haddonfield. “Rehabilitative” approaches to criminal justice similarly come in for skewering: clearly, forty years of treatment have done nothing to help reform Myers’ proclivities toward carnage. The answer to this problem, “Halloween” declares, is self-defense.

It’s worth mentioning here that the film roots its justification for retaliatory violence in the nature of its antagonist. While Rob Zombie’s 2007 remake explored Myers’ backstory at great length—essentially, blaming a bad childhood for his bad character—the 2018 reboot takes precisely the opposite tack. Here, Myers is the same emotionless, wordless force of destruction he was in the original film.

Why is this so frightening? Consider this: in traditional Christian thought, sins have sometimes been understood as disordered means of pursuing some legitimate good. For instance, even though his conduct is wrong, the boy who sneaks into a movie theater without paying is seeking something objectively valuable—perhaps an aesthetic experience of beauty and creativity. So too, someone who kills out of anger at what has been done to him is still pursuing some “good,” albeit a very muddled one—a scale-balancing rooted in an idea of justice, however twisted.

Myers’ violence is upsetting because it reflects no disordered orientation toward some good. One is reminded of an old adage: the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. And indeed, the killings Myers commits indifferently are purposeless, pointless, acts of absolute life-denying negation. We’re told early on that despite his confinement in a treatment center, Myers isn’t really mentally ill: he’s an agent of “pure evil,” fully aware of what’s going on around him and fully in control. Here, “evil” feels like a misnomer, insofar as it suggests some possibility of redemption.

When confronted with that sort of horror, what can one do but fight back? And fight back Laurie and her family members do.

As should be obvious, “Halloween” is not a movie for everyone; this is a film for people with strong stomachs. But for those with an appreciation for this sort of thing, the movie is a remarkable achievement, one that melds technical proficiency with some genuinely interesting ideas. Heading in, I didn’t expect to reach this conclusion, but “Halloween” is a very strong contender for the year’s best film of its genre.

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Posted by on October 24, 2018 in Thrillers

 

Movie Review: “A Quiet Place”

I don’t usually review horror films on this site—mostly because there’s not much of an audience for such commentary—but I’ll make an exception here (and, to be fair, this one’s more of a thriller). “A Quiet Place” is creative, memorable, and evokes the best of Hitchcock, and it demands to be seen in a distraction-free theater.

The year is 2020, and the human race has been overrun by waves of terrifying, nearly indestructible alien predators who hunt only by sound. Deep within a lonely forest far from the wreckage of civilization, the Abbott family makes their stand. Father Lee (John Krasinski, perhaps best known as Jim Halpert from “The Office,” who’s also the director) and mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt, Krasinski’s real-world wife) struggle to protect their three small children from the monsters at their door. But it’s impossible to live in a constant state of panic, and the Abbotts have made the best of their unenviable situation: communication unfolds through sign language, paths through the forest are covered with sand to mask the noise of footfall and board games are played with cloth tokens.

Yes, it’s a simple premise, but it taps into an elemental childhood fear—that somewhere, waiting in the blackness just beyond your vision, is a creature waiting to gobble you up if you won’t be quiet.

In many ways, “A Quiet Place” feels like a fusion of M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs” and the Audrey Hepburn classic “Wait Until Dark.” In that spirit, most of the film’s action unfolds across a single night—a bold but brilliant choice. Mediocre thrillers punctuate their jump scares with cutaways to “the next morning,” where everything’s brightly lit and there’s nothing scary in sight. Effective thrillers never let the viewer off the hook, but keep slowly ratcheting up the tension until it’s almost unbearable. And Krasinski also deserves credit for crafting monsters that are genuinely scary in both design and behavior: if you thought the Velociraptor kitchen scene in “Jurassic Park” was nerve-wracking, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

But that’s not the only reason “A Quiet Place” works so well. The film takes its sweet time before turning up the heat, weaving in glimpses of the Abbotts’ pastoral life—Evelyn homeschooling the children and cooking dinner, Lee teaching his son to fish, and so on. Certainly an aura of tension and danger is always there, but Krasinski leaves enough breathing room to fully humanize his characters. As a result, when the terror comes, it lands hard.

Side note: over the years, I’ve noticed that the most gripping thrillers tend to involve parents struggling to protect their entire family. Such movies refuse to adopt the ubiquitous and-then-there-were-none approach to the horror genre—that is, family members don’t try to buy a few more minutes of life by sacrificing one of their number to gory violence. Yes, this typically means that far fewer quarts of fake blood are spilled, but the actual felt intensity of the movie is much greater (and if anything goes south, it feels like a real punch to the gut). Speaking of which, a word on content issues: although this isn’t a bloodbath by any means, the whole movie hinges on the stalking, lurking presence of creatures that really are the stuff of nightmares. Despite the PG-13 rating, don’t take the kids.

If I said much else, I’d be giving away plot points—and honestly, the less known about “A Quiet Place” prior to viewing, the better. (I deliberately avoided detailed reviews and was glad I did.) I’ll say this much, though: at bottom, “A Quiet Place” ranks with “The Babadook” and “Insidious” as one of the best nail-biters of the last several years. Eat your heart out, James Wan. (But please, not literally.)

 
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Posted by on April 17, 2018 in Thrillers

 
 
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