David Gordon Green

Halloween

22/10/18

Talk about a daunting proposition.

‘Okay, we’re going to reboot one of the most famous horror movies of all time. We’re going to forget about the plethora of terrible sequels that have already reared their William Shatner-masked heads and we’ll bring Jamie Lee Curtis back to the role that made her famous. Oh yes, and for good measure we’ll try to ignore the fact that John Carpenter’s illustrious original is back in the cinemas, so anybody can see for themselves what made it one of the most imitated movies in cinema history.’

So, no pressure there.

The good news is that David Gordon Green and Danny McBride’s resulting film isn’t anything like as terrible as what has gone before. While it rarely achieves the thrills of version one, it offers some interesting twists on those classic scenes and manages to demonstrate how the horrors that Laurie Strode underwent as the world’s most ill-fated babysitter have certainly left their mark on her. There’s also a ‘twist’ that I don’t see coming, mostly because it’s so risible, but let’s pass over that.

Forty years have (quite literally) gone by since Michael Myers’ infamous killing spree in the little town of Haddonfield. Laurie Strode (Lee Curtis) has managed to survive two failed marriages and social workers removing her daughter from her care, and now lives alone in a rambling house. She seems to have mutated into a kind of suburban Sarah Connor, multi-locking all of her doors and housing a personal armoury that would take down an approaching army. She is convinced, you see,  that one day, Michael Myers will return and when he does, she wants to be ready for him. All this adds to the strain on her relationship with her now adult daughter, Karen (Judy Greer), and with her teenage granddaughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak). Michael is currently locked up in a secure psychiatric unit under the ministrations of Doctor Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), who, perhaps unwisely, allows a couple of British podcast makers to interview  him – but, since Michael hasn’t spoken a word since his arrest, that doesn’t make for great broadcasting material.

But then an attempt is made to move Michel to a more secure unit and… well, I don’t think it’s exactly a spoiler to say that soon enough, he’s on the loose again and is in possession of that mask and some navy blue overalls. (That’s still Nick Castle wearing the outfit, by the way.) The resulting rampage manages to generate some thrills, especially in an extended sequence where Laurie hunts Michael through a dark house but, whereas in the first film ‘The Shape’ had some sense of purpose, now he just seems to want to kill indiscriminately and the resulting higher body count serves to make us care less about each successive murder. What’s more, this is a good deal more visceral than its predecessor, which – to my mind at least – also dissipates some of the tension.

But still, there’s plenty to enjoy – if that’s the right word. Lee Curtis is terrific as a once meek woman now transformed into something much more assertive and it’s lovely to hear Carpenter revisiting his most famous score, in collaboration with his son, Cody. If nothing else, this beats all those other sequels, prequels and reboots into a cocked hat, resulting in a decent horror movie that manages not to crap all over the heritage it has been handed.

Maybe now though, we might let this franchise go and admit that nobody is ever going to measure up to what we saw in 1978.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

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John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978)

10/10/18

There’s no way around it. I’m getting old.

Of course, I kind of already know that but, lately, a series of cinematic arrows have been whizzing in out of the blue, as if to remind me of the fact. Apparently, it’s been twenty years since The Big Lebowski. Hell, it’s been thirty since Repo Man! And now, somehow, John Carpenter’s Halloween is celebrating its 40th anniversary. Can this be right? I mean, for God’s sake, I remember seeing it for the first time so vividly. It was back in… yep, sure enough. It was in 1978.

I saw it at the Odeon in Gants Hill. I was twenty-seven years old, my first novel had been published a year earlier, and I was just getting settled into my long and heady love affair with cinema. I’d read a review in New Musical Express that seemed to suggest that this low-budget horror movie was something worth catching up with.

Which turned out to be an understatement. Halloween blew me away.

It’s still one of most successful independent films of all time and certainly the most imitated, initiating a whole cavalcade of We-Know-What-Your-Babysitter-Did-on-Friday-the-Thirteenth pretenders, none of which have the wit or sophistication of the original, and all of which make the cardinal mistake of substituting gore for suspense. Even the eight or more sequels that came trotting gamely along in the film’s wake fail to measure up to their illustrious progenitor. (Okay, so I’ve a bit of a soft spot for Halloween 3, but only because it has nothing whatsoever to do with the source story.)

Halloween starts on October 31st 1963, when six-year-old Michael Myers takes his trick-or-treating a little too seriously and kills his sister. We cut to 1978, when Doctor Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) sees an adult Michael escape from the institution where he’s been held ever since that fateful night. Loomis heads off in hot pursuit, knowing where Michael will inevitably be headed: his home town of Haddonfield, just in time to celebrate his favourite night of the year, and where he has some unfinished business. There, young Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends, Annie (Nancy Loomis) and Lynda (PJ Soles), are about to experience the longest and most traumatic babysitting session of their lives.

Even after all these years, the film holds up superbly (although, now transferred to digital, Dean Cundy’s gleaming Panavision widescreen shots have lost a little of their brio. What I wouldn’t give to see it projected on celluloid again!). But that’s really my only quibble. Carpenter’s no-nonsense direction is still exactly what’s needed and, if some of the tropes now seem predictable, you have to remember that in 1978, we were seeing them for the first time ever. Those voyeuristic steadicam shots along deserted streets; the perfectly timed jump-scares; the killer who seems to be dead but just won’t stop moving – oh, and of course there’s Carpenter’s wonderful soundtrack, featuring that theme tune, the same one that now, converted to a ringtone/alarm, wakes me every morning of my life. Yes, that’s how much I adore this film.

Interestingly, we’re only days away from David Gordon Green’s reboot of the same name, which is ditching all of those dodgy sequels and picking up forty years after the events of the first film. Jamie Lee Curtis is returning to the role of Laurie Strode, who has, apparently, been waiting for Michael’s return all these years. Will it be in the same league? Or even close? I seriously doubt it, but I’m ready to be pleasantly surprised.

For my money, Halloween may just qualify as the greatest horror movie of all time – it’s certainly in my top five. If it comes to a cinema near you, grab the opportunity to watch it again on the big screen – which, as Carpenter observes in the preceding interview, is easily the best way to see it.

Oh yes, one other thing. In 1984, I interviewed Nick Castle for his film, The Last Starfighter. In Halloween, Castle plays Michael Myers, the deadly presence behind that creepy William Shatner mask. When we said goodbye, I shook hands with the man. A thought flashed through my mind. I am shaking hands with ‘The Shape.’

Some things you never forget.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Stronger

11/12/17

This film makes an interesting companion piece to Patriots Day, in that both movies cover the same event – the bombing of the 2013 Boston Marathon. But where Peter Berg’s offering concentrates on the hunt for the perpetrators of the crime, Stonger opts to focus on one of the bombing’s victims: twenty six year old Jeff Bauman, who had the misfortune to be standing too close to the rucksack that held one of the homemade explosive devices.

When we first encounter him, just days before the bombing, Jeff (Jake Gyllenhaal) has recently split from his girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany) and is doing everything he can to encourage her to come back to him. When he hears that she is planning to run the Boston Marathon, he dutifully turns up on the day carrying a homemade placard to show his support… and moments later, loses both his legs in the bomb blast. When Erin spots his blood-spattered face on a TV report, she hurries to the hospital, where Jeff’s dysfunctional family, headed by his mother, Patty (an almost unrecognisable Miranda Richardson) are already gathered, waiting for him to come back to consciousness. Erin finds herself inexorably drawn into being his carer/companion, even moving into the little apartment that he shares with his mother – but as his long, slow recovery begins, it’s apparent that Jeff still has a lot of issues to come to terms with; and it doesn’t help that the people of Boston constantly  want to celebrate him as a homegrown hero…

David Gordon Green’s film expertly walks a perilous tightrope. This powerfully affecting story could so easily have descended into pure corn, but the fact that it doesn’t is only one of its many strengths. The script (by John Pollono, based on Jeff Bauman’s book), refuses to turn its lead character into the hero figure that the people of Boston so evidently want him to be. There’s no rose-tinted glasses here. Jeff is presented as a feckless, often selfish individual, with a self-destructive personality – and a similar ‘warts-and-all’ approach is taken with the various family members who weigh in to lend  their support with all the finesse of a herd of stampeding elephants.

Gyllenhall’s performance is superbly affecting (here’s yet another movie which I viewed mostly through a fog of cascading tears), while anyone who has watched her assay multiple roles in Orphan Black will know what to expect from the very talented Maslany. Miranda Richardson’s turn as the boozy, hapless Patty is also beautifully judged. Suffice to say that the various mutterings about the film’s Oscar potential may not be entirely misplaced. But who knows? Oscar can be a notoriously fickle beast.

Stronger is ultimately a film about the process of healing. I loved its honesty and passion and though it keeps its most shocking images for later on in the proceedings, when they do arrive, in a series of brilliantly edited flashbacks, it doesn’t hold back.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney