Return of the mask: finding new meaning in the old horror of Halloween

The bloodthirsty Michael Myers is back 40 years on from the original movie.

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Remorseless, unstoppable and apparently immortal, the Halloween series closely resembles its central character: the dead-eyed killer Michael Myers, who was apprehended and institutionalised at the age of six after slaying his sister, only to escape from hospital 15 years later to return to his Illinois neighbourhood for a spot of late-October commemorative butchery. Since John Carpenter’s lean, efficient 1978 masterpiece, there have been seven sequels as well as a sort-of remake that spawned a sequel of its own. The latest Halloween takes up the story 40 years from the original and behaves, Bobby-in-the-shower-in-Dallas-style, as if none of the intervening episodes had happened. As one character says, in a script littered with in-jokes, “Why don’t we press the reset button and start over?”

The new film doesn’t deviate too far from the formula. Yes, Michael is back in town, having escaped from his maximum security hospital, and no, he isn’t looking to have a pumpkin latte with the old gang, principally because he killed the old gang 40 years ago. His bête noire, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), is now a virtual recluse, though the world’s most insensitive reporters (“Let’s talk about why the state took your daughter away”) are hoping to persuade her to face her tormentor again. All at once you get the mental image of Laurie and Michael joining Sue MacGregor for a cosy edition of The Reunion on Radio 4.

Laurie is estranged from her adult daughter, Karen (Judy Greer), who resents a childhood dominated by her mother’s survivalist training techniques. But Laurie keeps in touch with her granddaughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak), so the scene is set, once Michael returns, for a showdown with three generations of feisty Strode women. That, along with a slight correction in the usual slasher-movie bias towards female victims, makes this Halloween an unusually enlightened example of the genre.

The frights in the early scenes are staged with an elated horror: there’s an agoraphobia-inducing prologue in a prison yard with a chessboard floor, and some clever he’s-behind-you! moments that make resourceful use of the widescreen frame. The characters are affectionately sketched, and though few of them survive to see 1 November there is the sensation, unusual in a slasher film, of feeling momentarily glum when the nicer ones perish.

That’s down to the director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) and his co-writers Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley, who lend the film its conscience. The camera keeps picking up on moments that echo the tableau of ruined innocence from the original Halloween in which the dazed young Michael is discovered holding the murder weapon. The new film includes a similar shot of a young hand clasping a bloody knife but there is also a frightened child who accidentally shoots someone, as well as flashbacks to the target practice that scarred Karen’s youth. Laurie herself is depicted as vaguely sinister, loitering outside Allyson’s school like a stalker. The film seems to be asking whether in battling monsters it is possible to become monstrous too.

The second half of the picture sacrifices its compositional tightness and geographical focus as the characters split up and spread out, forgetting that a decent Halloween movie should take its cue from Michael Myers: low on chat, high on surprise. Even so, this one can still boast a higher-than-average proportion of treats among its tricks.

The effect of Possum is altogether ickier and more insidious. Its writer-director, Matthew Holness, is best known for the flawless TV horror parody Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, and though Possum is fastidiously joyless it exhibits the same thoroughness of tone and aesthetic. Sean Harris, whose carved frown and spooked eyes give him an ideal face for horror, plays a 1970s children’s entertainer who returns home to destroy the puppet that gave him his livelihood: a giant malevolent spider with a pale kabuki face, which the film deploys sparingly but menacingly. Past and present bleed into one another as memories of a schoolboy’s disappearance resurface, and the film moves productively between clammy interiors (all damp-blackened walls and nicotine-stained net curtains) and the striking, sun-baked Norfolk countryside. In taking his inspiration from Jimmy Savile, Holness has placed at the centre of his film the sort of bogeyman who could give even Michael Myers nightmares.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 26 October 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit crash