Review: HALLOWEEN (2018)

If you have been listening to the hit podcast My Favorite Murder, you might be a tad more clued up on the horrors of serial killers lately than most, and you will know that serial killers were pretty prolific in the 1970s – operating slap-bang in the Vietnam War, before the Cold War preoccupied 1980s and the ‘satanic panic’ of the decade. The period informed the horror monsters of cinema from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) to Friday the 13th (1980).

So it’s easy to see why John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) itched at the fears of so many upon its release. Now 40 years later, are these fears still terror-inducing? As one character in the latest reboot-sequel, Halloween (2018) says, there are so many more scary things to be afraid of these days, why focus on a long-imprisoned middle-aged serial killer wearing a (warped William Shatner) mask?

But as the new instalment, directed by David Gordon Green, posits, the societal fear might have changed, but the bogeyman of trauma will still haunt. This rings true in a world that is seemingly constantly having to cope with the reveal of past and hidden crime, from the abuses of the casting couch, a would-be senator’s college frat parties and most public spheres across the spectrum. Crimes can be buried, perpetrators might even be caught, but the slate is rarely wiped of the vivid trauma that will affect whole lives and communities. This is part of the reason why Halloween unexpectedly gets to be a relevant tale for our times. The slow-moving man in a mask might induce the odd titter from modern viewers of the original, but Michael Myers works as a reincarnated spectre of our world-weary anxiety.

Jamie Lee Curtis, one of the original ‘final girls’, is finally given an opportunity to put demons to rest, namely Myers, who first murdered her friends four decades earlier in 1978. The quiet, bookish 17 year-old Laurie has transformed into a hard, jacked-up action woman in the intervening years, isolating her family in the process. The film demonstrates how Laurie has coped, for better or worse, choosing life as a self-created recluse in her fortress-like compound.

Laurie’s strained relationship with her family, namely her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and granddaughter (Andi Matichak), is excellently depicted, hinting at a childhood scarred by a mother’s maniacal determination to better equip her family to eliminate invading evil. One scene where Laurie implores Karen to take hold of a gun for her own familial home’s protection is a particularly telling moment, saying plenty about the cognitive dissonance that occurs in the people of Haddonfield, Illinois when seeking revenge on a murderer…with murder.

Halloween manages to be a satisfying generational story as well as a truly blood-splattering gorefest, upping the scares of Carpenter’s original for a modern audience without slipping into lazy gratuitousness. The score, also updated by Carpenter himself, is more lavish, much like the rest of the film (the Halloween of 1978 was made on a shoestring and the gloriously understated Carpenter always stated he was the cheapest composer he could afford). The same haunting piano stabs once again, but this time with added modern synths, playing ominously over the nostalgic opening credits.

After the countless sequels and reboots that Halloween inspired (when even WAS Halloween III: Season of the Witch, though!?), David Gordon Green, Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley managed to make a continuation worth telling, a rare feat in Sequel City, Hollywood. It does descend into the well-worn horror tropes, much of them first conceived in the first Halloween, but manage to play out as affectionate nods rather than tired rehashes.

Just a final note to say what a thrill it is to have Jamie Lee Curtis headlining a movie again. She really gave her all to this role and it shows. Long live the mature female lead and the final girl. Now thanks to Halloween (2018), that’s the same thing.

 

 

 

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Review: THE HAUNTING (1963)

After watching Friday the 13th Parts 1-3 (1980, 1981, 1982 respectively) and witnessing the body count stack up well before we ever see Jason Voorhees don the famous hockey mask, I decided to take a retro trip down horror memory lane (you know the one, it has over-hanging trees and a creepy caretaker who tells you to turn back) and return to one of the earliest but creepiest haunted house films, The Haunting (1963).

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In stunning black and white Panavision, the film was directed by the incomparable Robert Wise. Right after shooting West Side Story (1961) and two years before The Sound of Music (1965), Wise was always an artist behind the camera first and foremost, and the horror trickery and innovation is what immediately stands out on returning to this classic. It is clear that Wise must have had fun making this film, experimenting with new technology in the form of infra-red film and 30mm lens for the ghostly panning shots and low-angle camera takes which can be seen throughout.

The story is what we’ve come to expect from the haunted house genre. Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson), a paranormal investigator, brings together a group of people  to investigate a suspected haunted house by gathering and  recording evidence in order to prove the existence of the supernatural. Stage actress Julie Harris plays the susceptible Eleanor ‘Nell’ Lance, a woman who is uniquely touched by the possible spirits within the house. In a ground-breaking role, Claire Bloom is Theodora or ‘Theo’ and is generally thought of as being the one of the first lesbian characters in Hollywood cinema. Though sanctioned by the film studios to keep the evidence of her sexual orientation to a minimum, to the contemporary viewer, it is harder to ignore even adds to the already dialled-up-to-the-max tension in the film. As Nell becomes increasingly enamoured with Dr. Markway and the house itself, Theo beings to show a slight hint of jealousy. When Nell and Theo are locked together in their bedroom, the tension of the scene goes beyond the fear of the paranormal, but the fear of the unknown in terms of their relationship with one another, platonic or otherwise.

The film takes the usual twists and turns, slowly making each character more suspicious of one another and ramping up the spookiness until the final act of the film. What starts off as a pleasant stay (well, free food and board sounds pleasant enough to me anyway!) at a beautiful country house soon turns into a psychological nightmare of a place where all your fears and doubts are amplified. Indeed right until halfway through the film, Nell is still convinced she is there for a relaxing holiday regardless of the success of the study, but is soon traumatised by her grave past.

What makes this film stand out from the numerous haunted house pictures that thrilled audiences in this era is that we are never quite sure if what Nell has seen is genuine or if we are witnessing is just the manifestations of her own tortured psyche. Since all the spooky happenings are directed at her or are in her presence, we can never be certain of their validity. While this is a perfect get-out clause for the writers,  the lack of explanation ultimately creates an unsettling film which leaves the viewer frustratingly still in the dark by the end of the film.

The Haunting is an important horror film which ought to be included in any must-see lists for classic horror fans. Like Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) released two years before, the horror genre was in flux. No longer able to solely rely on the popularity of the Dracula and Frankenstein outings, filmmakers had to look to within the human psyche to explore what could really frighten us. The Haunting is a successful experiment in this ideal and remains spooky today. Please whatever you do however, DO NOT watch the horrific 1999 remake of this film. It IS scary, but for none of the right reasons…