Tricks and Treats

Halloween Kills

by Brandon Thomas

Confession time: John Carpenter’s Halloween is my favorite movie of all time. After years of okay to terrible sequels, I was more than a little shocked when David Gordon Green’s 2018 legacy sequel turned out as well as it did. By slavishly adhering to Carpenter’s original mythology, Green made something that fit nicely alongside the 1978 original.

Halloween Kills is still Green doing his best Carpenter impression, but it’s Carpenter dialed to a brutal, bloody 11.

After a harrowing flashback to the events of Halloween night 1978, Halloween Kills picks up right where the 2018 film left off. Laurie Strode’s house is in flames and The Shape (James Jude Courtney) is trapped in the dungeon-like basement. Unfortunately, first responders don’t know that, and they free the murderous Michael Myers from his burning tomb. As the town of Haddonfield descends into chaos, survivors of The Shape’s original rampage – Tommy Doyle (Anthony Michael Hall, The Breakfast Club), Lindsey Wallace (Kyle Richards, Halloween), and Marion (Nancy Stephens, Halloween), lead a mob through the small town. Recovering in the hospital from her fight with Michael, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), her daughter, Karen (Judy Greer, Adaptation) and granddaughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak, Halloween 2018) try to come to terms with the people they’ve lost. 

Halloween Kills is an astonishingly brutal film. The Shape rampages through scenes like he’s never done before. This brutality will probably turn off a lot of fans who enjoyed the relative tameness of Green’s first Halloween. I’m impressed with how effectively Green handles the on-screen carnage while still keeping The Shape in the shadows and scary. That air of mystery is important and keeps the character from becoming too humanized.

The new cast additions are fun but largely wasted. Hall runs around and shrieks his way through scenes like a kid after too many candy bars. Stephens and Charles Cyphers as Brackett are more or less glorified cameos. Only Kyle Richards manages to make any kind of positive impression. Like the rest, her scenes are brief, but Richards brings a better sense of gravitas and fear to her encounter with The Shape.

Greer is once again MVP and easily walks away with the movie. She carries all of the grief of the Strode women but none of the irrational rage. Curtis is regulated to the sidelines for the majority of the film – spouting off gobbly goop dialogue so nonsensical, it would make the late Donald Pleasence proud. It’s a cynical move that was clearly made so that Laurie and Michael’s final face-off can be the focus of the upcoming Halloween Ends.

The biggest problem with Halloween Kills is that it just moves too fast. Scenes begin and end without a chance for the audience to catch up. The pace makes it hard to simply sit with the new characters and get to know them. Their entire existence is to move the plot forward at breakneck speed.

I sound pretty sour on Halloween Kills, but the truth is that I admire a lot of the chances the film takes. It’s a mean movie that allows The Shape to be bloodier than ever. Kills also points a finger at our heroes and the residents of Haddonfield, as it implicates them as spiritual partners in these murders. This isn’t a deep film, but it is one with more than set pieces on its mind.
Halloween Kills will be divisive. One thing it isn’t, though, is boring.

Parasites

Knives Out

by Hope Madden

It’s interesting that three of the most deliciously watchable films of 2019 exist to question the societal value of the rich. Earlier this year, the action-comedy bloodbath Ready or Not pitted one regular schmo in a bridal gown against a mansionful of one-percenters looking to end her life.

Too bloody for you? How about Joon-ho Bong’s masterpiece of social commentary, Parasite? Who, exactly, is it living off the blood of others?

Rian Johnson follows this path with the hoot and a half that is Knives Out.

If you only know Johnson for his brilliant fanboy agitator The Last Jedi, you should give yourself the gift of every other movie he’s ever made, Looper and Brick, in particular. This guy is an idiosyncratic storyteller, one who balances style and substance to create memorable worlds you aren’t ready to leave when the credits roll.

Knives Out is his own Agatha Christie-style take on the general uselessness of the 1%. And it is a riot.

Christopher Plummer is Harlan Thromby, the recently and mysteriously deceased mystery novelist whose family is in a pickle. Though they believe their gregarious patriarch offed himself, the notion seems unlikely however clear the death scene seems to make it.

Renowned gentleman detective Benoit Blanc (that’s a name!), played by a priceless Daniel Craig, joins two police detectives (LaKeith Stanfield and Johnson go-to goof Noah Segan) to dig into the affair.

As little as possible should be said about the plot, as it is a whodunnit, but at the very least it’s appropriate to acknowledge this cast.

The spoiled and entitled are played by Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Jaeden Martell (from It), Toni Collette as well as Michael Shannon and Chris Evans and their sweaters. Each finds a memorable character and each clearly has an excellent time doing so.

Credit also Ana de Armas as Marta, the homecare nurse and anchor for the story. De Armas has previously been cast primarily for her looks (Blade Runner 2049, War Dogs, Knock Knock), but proves here that she can lead a film, even a film with this strong an ensemble. Her Marta is wholesome but funny, gullible but smart. Her chemistry with Craig is enough to generate some interest in their next collaboration. (Well, that and the writing.)

Johnson proves that you can poke fun without abandoning compassion. More than that, he reminds us that, as a writer, he’s shooting on all cylinders: wry, clever, meticulously crafted, socially aware and tons of fun.

Murky and Absent Danger

An Acceptable Loss

by Brandon Thomas

Morality tale.

That phrase kept popping up in my mind while watching An Acceptable Loss. Unfortunately, the subject of morals mixed with politics was something the film was only concerned with on a surface level.

Libby Lamm (Tika Sumpter) has just started a teaching position at a prestigious Chicago area university. Although she’s excited about this fresh start after leaving a position at the White House, many staff and students are less than enthused with her presence on campus. One of Libby’s pupils (Ben Tavassoli), in particular, is fixated on the new professor and begins tracking her every move around campus and her home. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn about the devastating decision that led Libby out of politics, and into being one of the country’s most hated pariahs.

The most frustrating aspect of An Acceptable Loss is how it sets up a central conflict that could have made for a spellbinding thriller. It instead settles for a Cinemax-level B-movie.

One of the earlier scenes between Libby and her student, Martin, is a tense clash between two people who couldn’t be further apart, and it makes you wish for the movie that might’ve been. Instead, character motivations change on a dime, and that early sense of dread is replaced with a sense of “been there, done that.”

The majority of the cast doesn’t make the material any easier to swallow. Sumpter’s wooden delivery of political jargon is more reminiscent of a freshman PoliSci major than a beltway professional. Tavassol spends the first half of the film brooding at every other character (I honestly expected him to start giving extras the Stink Eye), and the second half doing his best (worst?) Shia Labeouf on cough medicine impression.

Jamie Lee Curtis, in her small role as vice president and president, fares somewhat better. Her natural gravitas lends itself well to being the leader of the free world; unfortunately, the dialogue she’s delivering is almost 100 percent clunky exposition.

It’s unclear what director Joe Chappelle’s (Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers) original intentions were. Did he envision a taught political thriller in the vain of Three Days of the Condor or was a low-rent Pelican Brief always the plan?

Chappelle’s mishandling of the film’s focus and pacing hobbles the An Acceptable Loss early on and it’s never able to recover.

Maybe this movie was never going to be anything other than cheap Tom Clancy. The promise of that first act, however, hangs over the rest of the film, and in the back of this viewer’s brain, like a giant “What If?”





The Shape of Horror

Halloween

by Hope Madden

Any sequel to an iconic horror—particularly one that introduced a nightmarish, game changing villain—is bound to disappoint in some fashion because our imagination has attached its own terror to the story and the boogeyman that no one else can match.

Though they certainly tried their best with the Michael Myers franchise, to the tune of seven sequels and two reboots preceding this 40th anniversary comeback, Halloween.

Wisely, director/co-writer David Gordon Green and his writing partners Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley ignore all those other films, creating a universe where only John Carpenter’s 1978 original exists.

Jamie Lee Curtis returns to the star-making role of Laurie Strode, Carpenter’s final girl who has spent the last 40 years struggling to recover from the trauma of that Halloween night by stockpiling guns, booby-trapping her home and alienating her family.

She’s not the only character with a one-track mind. Myers’s attending doc, Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer) thinks of, studies and devotes himself to nothing else but his star patient.

“You’re the new Loomis,” Laurie Strode quips upon meeting him—exactly what we were thinking. And though Bilginer’s performance borders on camp (and not in that respectable way Donald Pleasance had of overacting), his musings articulate the film’s basic principles. After 40 years of obsessing over having failed to achieve their goals—neither killed the other—Laurie Strode and Michael Myers are as connected as they might be if they were still siblings.

See, that came up in 1981’s Halloween II, so no longer canon.

Green’s direct sequel is, above all things, a mash note to the original. Visual odes continually call back to Carpenter, often in ways that allude to an intriguing about face the film is leading to.

Aside from Bilginer and Andi Matichak—unmemorable as Strode’s high school-aged granddaughter, Allyson—the cast is far stronger than what any of the other sequels could boast.

The humor peppered throughout the film, mainly as dialog between characters about to be butchered, too often undermines the tension being built. But Green, whose style refuses to be pinned down, embraces the slasher genre without submitting to it.

Kills—more numerous and grisly than the first go round—are often handled offscreen, just the wet thud or slice of the deed to enlighten us until the corpse gets a quick showcase. The result is a jumpy, fun, “don’t go in there!” experience reminiscent of the best of the genre.

The film takes it up a notch in its final reel, as tables turn, panic rooms open and cop heads become Jack-o-lanterns. The result is a respectful, fun and creepy experience meant to be shared with a crowd.





Fright Club: Best Final Girls

A staple of the horror genre – the final girl. She’s been beaten, tied up, duct taped, stabbed and generally misused, but she soldiers on. Whether through virtue, savvy, or just general badassedness, these women are not above doing what’s necessary to make it through to the sequel – even if that means putting on Jason’s dead mother’s moth-eaten sweater, because that shit had to be gamey. So today our Senior Aussie/Slasher Correspondent Cory Metcalfe joins us again to celebrate the best final girls in horror.

6. Erin (Sharni Vinson – You’re Next, 2011)

Erin is Australian, which is clearly the deciding factor here. She joins her boyfriend for a family holiday in a gorgeous vacation home deep in the woods. Which sounds worse, the first meeting with the family or “deep in the woods”? In her case, that is seriously a toss-up. The gathering is disrupted by violent, mask-wearing psychopaths, but they weren’t prepared for Erin.

Erin’s one of the few at the event who’s new to the family, so she’s hard for the villains to predict. And we find that her boyfriend – a college prof who dates his students, including Erin – doesn’t know nearly enough about her. It’s a great tale of unreasonably low expectations. It’s also, a great character because Erin is savvy, tough, and fearless.

5. Mia (Jane Levy – Evil Dead, 2013)

With the helpful pen of Oscar winner Diablo Cody (uncredited), Fede Alvarez turns all the particulars of the Evil Dead franchise on end. You can tick off so many familiar characters, moments and bits of dialog, but you can’t predict what will happen.

One of the best revisions is the character of Mia: the first to go and yet the sole survivor. She’s the damaged one, and the female who’s there without a male counterpart, which means (by horror standards), she’s the one most likely to be a number in the body count, but because of what she has endured in her life she’s able to make seriously tough decisions to survive – like tearing off her own damn arm. Nice!

Plus, it rains blood! How awesome is that?!

4. Sarah (Shauna McDonald – The Descent, 2005)

Sarah is another one who appears to be the weak link but proves her meddle. She suffers an almost unendurable tragedy in the opening scene, and a year later, when she and her friends regroup to spend a holiday together spelunking in West Virginia, she appears to be the delicate one. What she goes through in the early part of the film informs her ability to survive – as her friend Beth points out (to her and to us) when Sarah gets caught in the narrow tunnel.

She’s quiet and observant, smart and proactive – all excellent qualities once we find out that the group is not only lost inside an unmapped underground cave with no hope of being found, but that the cave already has residents, and dude! Are they creepy!

The way Sarah evolves, and the turns the character and the film take, are surprising and impressive.

3. Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974)

Back in 1974, the “final girl” formula hadn’t been perfected. The slasher genre barely even existed, but Tobe Hooper already knew how to play with genre expectations. Yes, Sally Hardesty is the sweet one, the pretty one, the one likeliest to be the last in line for that chainsaw, but there’s a lot more to her than halter tops and bell bottoms.

Marilyn Burns mines for something primal in this performance, which is absolutely necessary if we’re to believe this girl has what it takes to survive the cannibal family. Sally’s mania is recognizable, necessary to the viewer. No one is yelling advice or judgement at the screen because who in the hell could possibly know what to do in this situation?

Unlike so many female characters in horror before her and since, Sally doesn’t whimper and rely on the villain’s conscience to save her. She negotiates, and when she realizes that’s getting her nowhere, she makes tough choices (like throwing herself out a window – because no fate could be worse than the one that clearly awaits her otherwise). In keeping with the film, Burns’s performance is gritty, unpleasant, insane and perfect.

2. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis – Halloween, 1978)

In 1978, Laurie Strode became the definition of “final girl” in much the same way that Carpenter’s horror masterpiece became the definition of slasher – the blueprint for the genre. For many, Jamie Lee Curtis’s girl-next-door is the ultimate final girl.

There’s great reason for that. She distilled everything that came before and became the model for what would come after in the slasher film: virtuous, smart, self-sacrificing. But Curtis does it with more intelligence and onscreen grace than those before or (mostly) after in the slasher genre. She’s virtuous, but not judgy. She’s hot, but not overtly so. She’s also brave and smart.

The reason the character transcended genre trappings to become iconic is not the writing or the film itself, but Curtis’s performance. An effortless intelligence shines through regardless of Laurie’s actions, and it elevates the film and the genre.

1. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver – Alien, 1979)

Who could possibly push Laurie Strode to second place? Ellen Ripley could.

Sigourney Weaver’s character in Alien and its many sequels is a savvy, tough, no-nonsense survivor. She is clearly the smartest member of the Nostromo crew: she understands chain of command and values quarantine regulations; she’s the first to recognize Ash (Ian Holm) as a villain; she understands the need to blow the ship; she outsmarts the predator.

Her sexuality is beside the point, which is entirely refreshing in this genre and for the role of final girl. She also changed the game for “final girls.” No longer could we accept a beautiful, sobbing mess who made ridiculous decisions, refused to fight back, and survived based entirely on her virtue. Ripley is never a victim, rarely makes an uninformed decision, and kicks all manner of ass. That’s why she survives. She’s not hoping to be saved, she’s just doing what it takes to get the F out of Dodge and keep Earth safe.

Thanks, Ellen!





A Scary Movie a Day for October! Day 1: Halloween

 

Halloween (1978)

Look past the ton of weak imitations, the awful sequels and the jokes about the Shatner mask, and remember that the original Halloween was pretty effective. No film is more responsible for the explosion of teen slashers than John Carpenter’s babysitter butchering classic.

Sure, you’ve seen it, but from the creepy opening piano notes to the disappearing body ending, this low budget surprise changed everything. Agreed, there are several terribly flat lines, and P.J. Soles as a giggling, dead-eyed airhead irritates the shit out of you, but Carpenter develops anxiety well, and plants it right in a wholesome Midwestern neighborhood. You don’t have to go camping or take a road trip or do anything at all – the boogeyman is right there at home.

Michael Myers – that hulking, unstoppable, blank menace – is scary. Pair that with the down-to-earth charm of lead Jamie Lee Curtis, who brought a little class and talent to the genre, and add the bellowing melodrama of horror veteran Donald Pleasance, and you’ve hit all the important notes. For the coup de grace, John Carpenter’s minimalistic score is always there to ratchet up the anxiety. Nice.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8SFmmROBUto