Arts & Events » Movies

Hallowhiffing

“Halloween Ends” offers a character movie without characters and a slasher flick without slashings.

By

In John Carpenter’s final good film, 1995’s “In the Mouth of Madness,” an insurance investigator gets lost in the horror novels of a hack writer who suggests a blend of H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King. Are the novels coming to life, is the insurance investigator going mad, or, most evocatively, is the endless regurgitation of pop cultural hits itself a form of dislocation?

If today’s hit film is a sequel to a remake to a reboot, what is our identity?

“In the Mouth of Madness” ends with one of Carpenter’s most nihilistic sequences: the protagonist watching himself in the movie we just watched, his life reduced to a sick joke while the film he’s in devours itself. Are we trapped too?

By 1995, Carpenter’s “Halloween” had already been mined for many sequels, but, given the parasitic nature of the remake/reboot/sequel machine these days, “In the Mouth of Madness” still feels prescient. Especially when watched the same weekend as the release of “Halloween Ends,” the capper to director David Gordon Green’s self-contained trilogy of reboots. Where are we as a society when phrases like “self-contained trilogy of reboots” are now necessary?

Before we move forward, a recap: Green’s first film in the cycle, 2018’s “Halloween,” was acclaimed for adequately ripping off Carpenter’s slow-burn aesthetic, while last year’s “Halloween Kills” was derided for more than adequately ripping off the ultraviolent contemptuousness of the original “Halloween II.” So far, “Halloween Ends” has proven more polarizing for trying something new, or at least something new by the standards of cannibal remake culture.

“Halloween Kills” ended with Michael triumphant, having just murdered roughly 4,000 people in one night, including a mob that failed to destroy him. Michael and Green might as well have flipped us the finger, given how thoroughly they reveled in the powerlessness of the other characters and audience alike. Set four years later, “Halloween Ends” adopts a surprisingly plaintive tone. Green tries to throw you off guard by feinting left just when you expected a right, and for a while the film holds you simply by stoking curiosity. Watching a young woman bond with a new bad boy, one may indeed wonder where the hell this thing is going. Michael, foregrounded to an exhausting degree in “Halloween Kills,” is nowhere to be seen here. For a while.

One certainly cannot accuse Green of failing to speak nerd shorthand. The title credits of “Halloween Ends” are in the same font as those of “Halloween III: Season of the Witch,” that creepy, atmospheric fable that has nothing to do with Michael Myers. Green similarly changes tacks by riffing on Carpenter’s “Christine” within the context of the “Halloween” world, with Michael Myers taking the place of the Plymouth Fury. Like “Christine,” “Halloween Ends” is driven by the internal conflict of an outsider who’s attempting to embrace normalcy, as represented by an attractive and well-adjusted young woman, but who feels the pull of bitterness, as represented by a demonic interloper. Michael Myers is more a ghost this time, proof of evil’s possibility that continues to haunt Haddonfield.

It doesn’t sound bad on paper but that’s as far as it goes. In “Christine,” adapted from a Stephen King novel, Carpenter beautifully dramatized the film’s various evolving relationships, particularly the love quadrangle between a boy, a girl, the boy’s friend, and an evil car. Whatever gift Green once had with characters though, back when he still wanted to be Terrence Malick, has left him in these movies. Here, he aims for “Christine” and lands at something that often suggests a wan reprise of “Gilmore Girls.”

Throughout “Halloween Ends,” one feels the structure being strenuously contrived to get Green where he wants to go. The new twentysomething bad boy, Corey (Rohan Campbell), has a ridiculous backstory, and, given his strapping frame, it makes no sense that he would be pushed around by high school kids. It makes even less sense that Laurie Strode’s granddaughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak), would be attracted to an outcast who toils in a junkyard, has a weird sexual tension with his mother, and is, lest we need reminding, bullied by children. As Michael Myers eventually takes Corey on his padawan learner, the results are laughable rather than tragic. When Corey looks to the aging monster, motions at a knife, and utters “teach me,” we’ve entered the realm of self-parody. “Halloween Ends” compelled me to ask the same question as Green’s other two movies in the series: What is this guy’s deal?

Green sprang into American cinema as the orchestrator of tender, intimate dramas like “George Washington” and “All the Real Girls,” the latter of which abounds in the sort of romantic textures that he needs to sell “Halloween Ends” but can’t conjure. Green then took a detour into stoner comedies like “Pineapple Express” and “Your Highness” with the help of the Judd Apatow crew, while working on similarly themed TV shows like “Eastbound & Down” and “Vice Principals,” which are headlined by this “Halloween” trilogy’s most unlikely screenwriter, Danny McBride. With his take on “Halloween” presumably over and done with, Green has signed on to write and direct a self-contained “Exorcist” reboot trilogy next.

It would be easy to assume that Green was tired of making small and earnest movies that no one but critics see and decided to go where the money is. Too easy, I think. Ironically, if the new “Halloween” movies were just bald cash grabs undertaken by a relapsed auteur turned proficient craftsman, they’d probably be more watchable. A hack would’ve just served up the gore on cue. By contrast, these “Halloween” movies feel so lifeless because Green keeps trying to “explain” the hold this series has on people. Honestly, what is there to explain? People like being goosed by violence while hooking up, getting loaded, and eating junk food.

Carpenter’s “Halloween” is made with profound technical skill, but it’s nowhere near his best work, and its intimations of exploring timeless evil are consciously hacky. Carpenter might know all that too, as “In the Mouth of Madness” abounds in bitterness at being associated overridingly with one slim idea.

Laurie, played by an egregiously wasted Jamie Lee Curtis, has long ceased to be a character, but a mouthpiece for the Green’s rote psychoanalysis of how slasher movies reflect fear of trauma. Given that Curtis’ role hasn’t made sense in decades, and that her dialogue in “Halloween Ends” is unspeakable, her performance is remarkably appealing. But that isn’t enough. What we have here is a character movie without characters and, given its narrative eccentricities, a slasher movie that’s largely without slashings.

Watching it, I thought of Rob Zombie’s “Halloween II,” which is virtually a “Halloween” movie in name only. Zombie dispatches with the series signifiers, including, for the most part, Michael Myers’ ghostly mask, and stages a free-associative nightmare that is truly concerned with the erasure of identity that can spring from ongoing trauma. It is a grisly, ugly, vital movie, set in a fugue state shared by Michael and Laurie, who’re locked into mutual annihilation by diseased family dynamics. The murder scenes aren’t fun, meaningless punctuation marks, but prolonged and agonizing expressions of violation.

There are more memorable images in the first 20 minutes of Zombie’s “Halloween II” than there are in the entirety of this new trilogy. Green thinks he wants to do something different, but just enough so as to null a slasher movie’s reason for being without replacing it with anything else. He can’t bring himself to commit fully to imagining the actual hell of an endless murder spree in a small town, despite his pretensions.

Zombie “went there,” and his film’s hostile reception sent him back into the margins of remaking “Devil’s Rejects” over and over again for the VOD crowd. Green, who might be chasing the check at least a little after all (I mean, come on) can’t quite put his money where his mouth is.

Tags