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‘Halloween’ horrifies once again

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When it comes to scary movies, you can conjure up all manner of ghouls and supernatural forces. Ghosts and monsters and gibbering creatures from beyond the dimensional veil – all of that stuff can make for solid scares.

But sometimes, all you need for good horror is a guy in a mask wielding a knife. He doesn’t have any special powers or superhuman abilities. He’s just a strong psychopath with an affinity and aptitude for stabbing.

That’s what made John Carpenter’s 1978 horror film “Halloween” such a classic. Just a dude killing people on Halloween. In a lot of ways, it was the Platonic ideal of the slasher movie. Of course, the film’s success led to sequels and reboots galore, with seven installments following the original and then a pair of Rob Zombie-helmed reimaginings.

So what was writer/director David Gordon Green going to do to set his own take on the tale apart? Well, plenty, but here are the two big ones: he got Carpenter’s blessing and then basically threw away all the convoluted canon. He flushed the ridiculous lore and made a straight-up 40-years-later sequel. That’s Green’s “Halloween.”

And you know what? We’re all the better for it.

Four decades after the horrific Halloween night when Michael Myers killed five people in the town of Haddonfield, Illinois, his presence still looms large over the community. He has been incarcerated since his capture in a mental hospital, examined by legions of medical professionals under the watchful eye of Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer, “Shelter”). When a pair of intrepid podcasters show up in town, looking to do a “Serial”-style series on Myers, they try – and fail – to engage with the killer before he is transferred to another, much less lenient facility.

Their efforts next take them to the home of Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, TV’s “Scream Queens”), whose survival that long-ago night left her terrified and paranoid. She lives in isolation in a heavily-protected compound, convinced that she’ll one day have to finish Myers off for good. Her struggles destroyed her relationships – particularly with her daughter, who was taken away from her at the age of 12.

Karen (Judy Greer, “Driven”) still lives in Haddonfield. She has largely shaken off the traumas of her childhood, though she and her husband Ray (Toby Huss, “Destroyer”) agree that their own daughter Allyson (Andi Matichak, “Miles”) should be kept away from the unstable Laurie.

Of course, when the time comes for Michael to be transferred, it doesn’t go well. The bus quickly crashes and the killer is once again loosed on the sleepy town. Despite the best efforts of Haddonfield’s finest – specifically Officer Hawkins (Will Patton, “An Actor Prepares”) – the murders start. And once they start, they pile up at an impressive (and increasingly gruesome) rate.

While there are plenty of other people out there with their own reasons to take down Michael, it is Laurie who must ultimately confront her own personal boogeyman if she is to have any hope of protecting her family and finally finding peace.

When it comes to a movie like “Halloween,” the simple truth is that less is more. The accumulated narrative detritus that accumulated around the franchise with each sequel served only to weight the whole thing down. By neatly excising all of that nonsense, Green has pared this film down to the lean, mean roots of the thing.

(One thing he kept – and thankfully so – was Carpenter’s iconic score. There are some variations, but the leitmotif is there and it is everything. The proper music is vital for horror success … and this music is definitely proper.)

It’s not necessarily the kind of project you’d expect from Green (not to mention co-writer Danny McBride), but he displays a real knack for the genre, magnifying the silent relentlessness of Michael Myers while also taking a delighted glee in brutally splattering victims all over the screen. And while there are a few moments that strain credulity, it mostly stays within the realm of possibility, if not necessarily plausibility.

At the center of all of it is Jamie Lee Curtis, whose Laurie Strode is an exquisite rendering of what might happen to the Final Girl after the end credits roll. She is angry and fearful and utterly fixated; it’s a combination that makes her fascinating to watch. Curtis spent a long time distancing herself from her scream queen origins; this film is the culmination of her re-embracing her roots in recent years. She’s great. Ditto Matichak, who embodies the spirit of the modern horror movie heroine much like Curtis encapsulates the classic. She gives a stellar performance. Judy Greer is surprisingly strong as well; she’s not someone you’d necessarily pick for a role like this, but she nails it. And the generational dynamic between the three women makes for a nice hook.

As for the men? They’re fine. Nothing to write home about, though Patton, Huss and Bilginer are all fine. And the actor playing Myers – James Jude Courtney – is a silent, slow-moving non-entity; we never even see his face clearly without a mask. Of course, that’s a deliberate choice – Michael Myers is supposed to be a blank slate.

“Halloween” doesn’t quite reach the level of its predecessor, but the heights to which it does scale are admirable. It’s a welcome addition to the franchise – one that allows us to ignore the many forgettable installments that came before.

[4 out of 5]

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