Well-crafted but not particularly well thought-out, “Halloween Kills” is a hot mess of a horror homage.
David Gordon Green’s take on venerable slasher franchise has ambition, an attempt at intellectual heft and one of the most empathetic performances of the great Judy Greer’s career. What it lacks is frights. What it traffics in is nostalgia, a warm feeling for John Carpenter’s 1978 horror classic. And it all but murders that.
The Scott Teems (“That Evening Sun”) script travels along two timelines –1978 and 2018 — and weighs in on our troubled era as Haddenfield, Illinois descends into mob rule and sloganeering mob violence.
No, Michael Myers hasn’t changed masks as he enters his AARP years. But the Trumpism analogy is right there in the open, with no less than Anthony Michael Hall (“Sixteen Candles” to “The Dead Zone” to “The Goldbergs”) playing a child survivor of that “Halloween” night long ago, leading the enraged citizenry in “Evil Dies Tonight!” chants as he sends vigilantes far and wide, hunting for the masked mass murderer who is literally changing the town’s demographics in a single night.
This is a “Frankenstein” village, assembling to meet a threat, but ranting and raving and following their worst instincts. All that’s missing are the Tiki torches.
The story begins as Laurie Strode (Jamie Leigh Curtis), that babysitter of yore for kids like Tommy (Hall), now “that crazy lady that almost got killed,” is wheeled into a hospital, gut-stabbed and still screaming “We GOT him. Shot him in the FACE. BURNED him alive!” She’s sure they finally shot, clubbed, stabbed and burned Michael Myers to death.
Her daughter (Greer) isn’t relieved. And when others start showing up — a bleeding-out Officer Hawkins (Will Patton) and corpses — daughter Karen starts shouting what we already know from the film’s dull “first kills,” what the TV news is in the process of confirming. Myers isn’t dead. He’s staggered out of that burning house, wiped out a fire brigade, impaled and gutted a teen or two and shown us he’s just getting warmed up.
Nobody listens as Karen pleads and demands police protection for her mother in the hospital, or that her daughter (Andi Matichak) at least stick around, help keep watch over her grandma.
But Tommy, who we see tell “The Haddenfield Boogeyman” story as part of a bar talent show this All Hallow’s Eve, has other ideas. Hall takes on the “Dead Zone” scowl of a man scarred by trauma, enraged into fanaticism by this latest twist in that murderer’s story. He picks up a baseball bat and rallies the citizenry.
Flashbacks take us back to Tommy, Laurie and others 50ish adults’ (Kyle Richards, Richard Longstreet) childhood memories of that awful Halloween of 1978. We see the worst night of Officer Hawkins’ life (Thomas Mann plays Patton’s character as a rookie).
New characters are introduced, set up to become someone the audience might root for, and pitilessly ventilated with knives of every description, without suspense or frights. As we hear the random giggles of slasher film fans feigning appreciation of this fireman’s saw slaughter or that pithy punchline — “This is for Doctor LOOMIS, Michael!” — punctuated by Michael killing the speaker, “Halloween Kills” pretty much goes to hell.
The idea here, aside from giving this renewed franchise some topical/socio-political relevance, it to make an “Empire Strikes Back” chapter in this planned trilogy. There’s a hopelessness and sadness that permeates every scene that doesn’t have mouthy tweens playing pranks on the gay couple (Scott MacArthur and Michael McDonald) now living in Michael Myers’ old house. Greer’s now-ironically named “Karen” embodies this.
Karen weeps for her murdered husband, fears for her hunted, wounded mother and her vengeance-seeking teen daughter and despairs at “what Michael Myers has done to us” — fomented an unthinking, chanting mob, misled by fear and ignorance.
Much respect for the director of “Pineapple Express” and the franchise-renewing “Halloween” of 2018 and the screenwriter for trying, but this misshapen, unfocused blunder is never more than a space-filler franchise installment, killing time and a whole lot of Haddenfield until the third film comes along.
The flashback references but doesn’t use Carpenter’s iconic film or even get a firm handle on its style in recreating the slaughter way back when. Finding a Donald Pleasance impersonator is just one of the crimes against cinema of those scenes.
Curtis isn’t the only actor from the original seen in this sequel, but not all of those cast as “surviving kids who grew up and hit middle age in Haddenfield” are very interesting actors. And Curtis, burdened with heavy-handed sermonizing speeches at the film’s conclusion, wipes away some of the goodwill the 2018 “Halloween” won her.
The film’s flurry of close-ups, a view of a fireman facing death by fireaxe from inside his glass-covered helmet, can be arresting.
But you can’t help but sense Green, who used to make self-conscious, sensitive and geography-specific indie films like “All the Real Girls,” “Undertow” and “Snow Angels” until the New York Times profiled him and noted that he’d never made a movie that made money, isn’t wholly invested in this genre or this subject. The director of “Joe” and “Prince Avalanche” and TV series like the hilarious “Vice Principals” seems to more interested in commenting on horror than actually delivering frights.
Even die-hard horror fans can’t help but notice “Halloween Kills” stumbles through the nostalgia that made Green’s “Halloween” reboot work, and that “Kills” isn’t scary in the least. Is he laughing with you as you giggle as the many ways Michael Myers kills (not that inventive), or is he saying “Dear Dr. Fauci, here’s what happened to American empathy for others” with his latest?
The fact that Green is in pre-production on “Halloween Ends,” the “finale,” and “Hellraiser” and “The Exorcist” should give Green fans, horror fans and Green himself pause.
But at least the New York Times will be happy.
Rating: R for strong bloody violence throughout, grisly images, language and some drug use
Cast: Jamie Leigh Curtis, Anthony Michael Hall, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, Thomas Mann, Kyle Richards, Dylan Arnold and Will Patton
Credits: Directed by David Gordon Green, scripted by Scott Teems, based on the John Carpenter/Debra Hill films and characters. A Universal release.
Running time: 1:46