WASHINGTON — Forty years ago, John Carpenter’s “Halloween” (1978) changed filmmaking forever with a creepy piano theme, admirably simplistic premise, memorable characters and a master directing class of how to make us fear what’s lurking just outside of the frame.
Today, after an onslaught of franchise building, it’s easy to take for granted that the original “Halloween” (1978), “Friday the 13th” (1980) and “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984) were actually inventive before they were satirized in “Scream” (1996), my own teenage touchstone.
Now, after four decades, “Halloween” finally gets the sequel it deserves, providing a scary good time for slasher horror fans by faithfully following the formula. This 11th installment asks us to forget the silly sequels and, for plot purposes, pretend like they never happened.
Instead, the story picks up 40 years later as Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) grapples with PTSD after watching masked killer Michael Myers (Nick Castle) dice up her friends on Halloween. The stress has strained her relationship with daughter Karen (Judy Greer), but granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) tries her best to keep in touch. The three generations are forced to work together when Myers escapes during a prison transfer from Smith’s Grove Sanitarium to a maximum-security prison, returning to Haddonfield for another slaughter.
As the daughter of “Psycho” (1960) star Janet Leigh, Curtis was born to pioneer the teen slasher genre. It’s great seeing her back, lending the same gritty resolve as her babysitter role, but expanding it to explore the nature of trauma. In the year of #MeToo, it adds a whole new layer to the notion that her virginal code was the reason that she was the last one alive.
There’s also references to other societal changes in a world where mass killings have erupted since 1978. One character asks, “Is it even a big deal that only a handful of teens died?” It’s as if the body count in Haddonfield is no longer high enough in the wake of Columbine and Aurora and Tucson and Charleston and Parkland and Newtown, a damning indictment that we the people have allowed our society to get to this point without common-sense solutions.
Thus, the body count is fittingly high in this movie, as the killings come early and often with the increasingly gory demises of throwaway characters. Non-slasher fans will poke holes at the dumb decisions by helpless characters, particularly a dad who tells his son to stay in the car as he gets out to “make sure everything is OK.” Yes, it’s formulaic, but that’s the point.
Director David Gordon Green (“Stronger”) knows that all we crave is a nostalgia ride. Fans will appreciate the clever nods to the 1978 original, including someone standing outside of a classroom window (only this time it’s Curtis) or having someone peer over the edge of a roof only for the body to be missing from the front lawn (only this time it’s Myers looking down).
Sadly, the late Donald Pleasence can’t return as Dr. Samuel Loomis (a “Psycho” reference), replaced here by Will Patton (“Remember the Titans”) as Officer Hawkins. Still, you’ll get goose bumps when Castle (sharing the role with James Jude Courtney) retrieves his infamous mask and slides it on (a William Shatner mask painted white with eye holes cut out).
Beyond all the clever callbacks, Green proves his skill in the jolt of false alarms. That’s often the best way to gauge a horror flick — how much it scares us even when no one is being harmed. These are the jumpscares that earn points because they’re much harder earned. Time and again, characters stand next to walls, fences and corners that cause us dread.
If there’s one major misfire it’s the boy being baby-sat by Allyson’s friend Vicky (Virginia Gardner). Young Julian (Jibrail Nantambu) insists he sees a “boogeyman,” just like the 1978 kid Tommy Doyle (a “Rear Window” reference), but he constantly curses, which is never as funny as folks think. It’s likely the product of co-writer Danny McBride, but the kid plays it for laughs when he should be screaming. His out-of-tone reactions make it hard to take the danger seriously.
Thankfully, it builds to an epic finale where Curtis gets her licks in and overcomes her PTSD with a few close calls, satisfying character bonding and a clever resolution. And like most horror sequels, the end credits provide a nice subtle hint that there might be more to come.
Will Michael Myers return? Who cares? Enjoy the ride this Halloween.