It’s impossible to overstate or forget the importance in cinematic history that John Carpenter’s ‘little’ independent horror film Halloween had 40 years ago in 1978; it fused and synthesized a barely recognizable sub-genre of horror movie into the juggernaut of 1980s and 90s popular culture, gave a name to this sub-genre (the slasher), and most importantly, showed that low-budget shockers like Carpenter’s could be easily replicated and mined for millions of dollars with minimum effort (sadly an attitude that produced mostly dreck in terms of plot and character, but for the advancement of gore and shock in films, it was an indispensable sub-genre; boundaries could be pushed – and in most cases, smashed). But there is another concept and culture that has arisen thanks to the slasher film: the remake/reboot.
Because most slasher films produced after Halloween were lacking in the same talents that made that film so successful and tightly wrought – even by today’s standards – it seemed clear that they were inferior copies, ways of living off the success of Carpenter’s film, and, even more, were simply simulating the same events in a different setting or location, and with different groups of people. While not directly, they share many markers that today’s remake culture clings to: familiar situations and villains, and cameos from former cast members. It’s a staple of any remake nowadays. Even The Force Awakens (2015) embraced some of this formula. And if it’s good enough for Star Wars, then it’s certainly good enough for smaller, less successful franchises to try.
I’ll cut to the chase with my argument, as lingering on the subject could fill entire studies. My point is this: the idea behind production company Blumhouse’s and David Gordon Green’s revival of Halloween-scheduled this year for October release-is utter genius. When I first heard that there was to be a reboot/remake of Halloween (I honestly didn’t know what distinction they were making between the two, nor did I care at first) I was sceptical. And rightfully so; I’d seen so many of my favourite horror, and specifically slasher, films go down the toilet with awful remakes or reboots or prequels or whatever type of ‘_quel’ you can think of. Friday the 13th (2009) was an awfully dull and predictable shade of its original; Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013), while attempting something quite promising (ironically, the same as the new Halloween: a sequel taking place after the original as if none of the other previous sequels happened), ultimately turned into a parody of what was being attempted; Prom Night (2008) is literally one of the worst remakes I’ve ever laid eyes on, channelling nothing of its original, and slapping on a 15 certificate? Please! And the 2010 Nightmare on Elm Street remake? Two words: don’t bother.
There do exist, however, good – even great – remakes out there. Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead was an enjoyable, if action-oriented zombie film for the new hyper-kinetic generation, that thanks to its location and subject matter, managed to maintain the spirit of the original; Dennis Iliadis’ 2009 remake of Wes Craven’s original 1972 torture porn (I maintain it is the first of its kind, and the only one to do it right) nightmare, The Last House on the Left was a more than passable reimagining, hitting all the right notes to disgust and repulse; and, if you want a real knock-out-of-the-park remake, then surely the most famous example of a remake better than its original lies in John Carpenter’s mesmerising and terrifying 1982 film The Thing (a remake of Christian Nyby’s The Thing From Another World (1952)) is unsurpassable.
The recurrent pattern here, the formula, if you like, is that each successful remake, in some way or another, channels and disseminates the spirit of its original, and maintains what made that original so special (or, in cases like The Thing, improve upon the elements that dragged the original down) and timeless. It’s also, on the flip-side, what makes the weaknesses of the bad ones stand out so much: they simply capitalize on the original’s success; steal its name and package it as a part of that series in name only. They stifle the material of the original, using it as either their only plot, or as a diluted and compressed concoction that evokes none of the enjoyment, wit, intelligence, or foresight of the original.
As an illustration, look at the ground-breaking Dead trilogy of the wonderful and frighteningly persuasive George A. Romero: each self-contained part of that trilogy serves as a filter for social commentary on aspects Romero either finds undesirable or downright unacceptable in real life. Night of the Living Dead (1968) represents the outrage at both Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement; Dawn of the Dead (1978) takes a savage blow at the rampant and almost cannibalistic (they’re not zombies for no reason, you know!) attitude we hold towards capitalism; and Day of the Dead (1986), arguably his most scathing vision, holds a stern view towards the institutions of the military, and their irresponsible conducts during times of crisis.
But…here’s the opposite view, coming from their remakes: Tom Savini’s 1990 remake of Night had none of its original cut-and-thrust. Indeed, it served more as a vehicle for Savini’s career; Dawn, as we mentioned earlier, was a highly enjoyable film, but there’s barely any subtext, simply the shopping mall to identify it as related; and the remake of Day (2008) is barely worth mentioning, holding none of the wit and intelligence of its original, and not even achieving release in theatres. All three simply utilized the locations of their original, and it’s not enough to carry the narrative or the characters if there is no direction apart from where they exist. It’s like an empty room with no furniture; you can inhabit it, but you can’t do anything with it.
And don’t for a second think I’m suggesting that Halloween hasn’t experienced this affliction. Rob Zombie’s 2008 remake of the same name and it’s 2009 sequel, Halloween II, hold nothing up to their originals; simply because they employ the empty room analogy again: they have Michael Myers in them…and that’s about it. They do nothing to improve or expand upon the original. To be honest, I am one of few who thinks his first effort is at least trying to do something different; seeing Myers’ childhood and his development into the monster we know was an interesting idea, but one that ultimately went nowhere when the last 40 minutes of the film are a straight carbon copy of Carpenter’s original.
But there is an example in the franchise of what I hope Green will achieve with this one: a reboot, or more specifically, what geekdom calls a retcon. For those of you unfamiliar with this term: it stands for retroactive continuity, and is used when writers feel they can take the ideas of the original no further without either noticeably altering them, or irrevocably changing them. For those familiar with the franchise, this describes the seventh incarnation of the series, Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998), which did away with every sequel after 1981’s Halloween II, and simply took place twenty years after its original, in which Laurie Strode (played, as ever, perfectly by the legendary Jamie Lee Curtis) is trying to get on with her life with her son John (Josh Hartnett) when Michael Myers once again comes to destroy her. I felt this direction was the right one, excising the chaff that had built up over the years in the series (Michael’s psychic connection with his niece; the revelation that his immortality comes from his manipulation by the stupidly-named Cult of the Thorn; and the mercurial change in Dr Loomis’s (Donald Pleasance) attitudes, to name a few) and establishing a new jumping-off point from which to carry on. It worked, for the most part, and apart from some pacing issues, H20 was a valuable and original concept in horror.
And now we come to Blumhouse and David Gordon Green. Blumhouse’s successes are almost divine in occurrence: Paranormal Activity (2009), Insidious (2010), Sinister (2012), The Purge (2013), and the spellbinding hit of 2017, Get Out, all represent the image of successful (whether you like them or not) and marketable property. And on the other hand, Green has shown his adeptness at handling different types of stories with equal success; George Washington (2000) was a heart-felt exploration of childhood a la Stand By Me (1986); Pineapple Express (2008) was a decent comedy; and 2013’s Joe was a brilliant experiment in thriller and crime drama. Hearing that these two forces had teamed up to make the latest Michael Myers vehicle had me excited, to say the least, and the real crux of this attractiveness came from their retcon premise: that 2018’s Halloween would go even further in paring back its narrative in imagining that only the 1978 original existed, and none of the others. Now it is 40 years later, with Laurie as a grandmother, hell-bent on revenge on Michael, who once again manages to escape. There was one part of this refinement, however, that had me from the start: Michael was no longer Laurie’s brother. This was a plot contrivance that bothered me even in the original sequel; it seemed too convenient, too blueprintey, if you will.
Now Michael is back in his original form: as a force. Of nature or evil is up to you; that’s the beauty of the original: its raw simplicity. Michael had minimal backstory, zero motive, and absolutely no limits to his capabilities, and we got the time to know the girls before they were terrorized. Their pain and fear was ours, lived as they lived it. The truth was Michael could be anyone, and that’s the point behind his character: those “blackest eyes” that Dr Loomis mentions are just that, black and lifeless and cold, like a shark’s eyes – eyes which hold the blackness of evil within them, but which are so vague and dark that no explanation can be given for that evil. That’s what made all those endless slasher variations throughout the 80s and 90s so banal and vapid: they had motive, and, what’s more, they had bad motives (revenge, pettiness, past traumas etc). Michael has none of these – even the murder of his sister was passed off as random exhilaration, not contrived killing. He simply was, and nothing anyone could do was enough.
After seeing the trailer for this new instalment, I can honestly say that I think these criteria have been met and exceeded. Even the mask looks perfectly dark and aged. I think this is indeed the reboot we all needed in a culture and a genre that has become just a little stale with incessant copies and shadows of itself, and if it pulls this off, it could be the restart all our favourite horror franchises need. In Blumhouse we trust. Long live Michael!
Halloween slashes into cinemas on October 19th 2018.