Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Jamie Lee Curtis’

Halloween comes but once a year, albeit for a period lasting several weeks of multiple showings every day – if we’re talking about the movie franchise, anyway. Thirteen movies in forty-four years is a pretty decent showing – not far off the Bond series in terms of productivity, even if the Halloween films have never been quite as respectable or consistent in their quality (some of the late 80s films in particular are very hard work). That said, the last couple of offerings, as overseen by David Gordon Green, have actually been pretty good and worthy successors to John Carpenter’s original.

Still, all good things must come to an end, and we are informed that the third Green Halloween (Hallogreen?) is definitely, absolutely, indisputably going to be the end of this particular iteration of the story (don’t get too exercised by this news, all that’s happening is that the rights are reverting to the Akkad family, for whom they have been a reliable cash-cow since the franchise began – so there will almost certainly be future Halloweens sooner or later). So there are obviously some expectations attached to the new film.

It opens with an unusual problem not often encountered by films in this series – the whole point of the Halloween concept is that Shatner-masked vessel of pure evil Michael Myers only really does his thing on one night of the year, and occasionally the couple of days prior to it. So some of them just carry straight on from the end of their immediate predecessor, i.e. on the same Halloween – others opt to stick Michael back in the looney bin for a year, or leave him in a coma for twelve months or so. Last year’s Halloween Kills, however, took the unusual step of concluding with him on the loose and more mythically potent than ever. So the film is forced to raise the issue of what exactly it is that Michael Myers would do, were he at liberty but it not to actually be the run-up to Halloween night itself. The answer is not particularly plausible or interesting.

It’s surely slightly surprising that the people of Haddonfield still do anything in the way of actually celebrating Halloween – after the events of the previous films in continuity with this one, one would expect to find everyone retreating to a reinforced concrete bunker for the duration – but, well, the film makes it clear that everyone’s terrified of Michael Myers, but not so terrified they won’t dress up and go out partying on the night in question. Nevertheless, the implication is that the town has been left with horrible psychic scars, as amiable babysitter Corey (Rohan Campbell) has his own shocking moment of horror on Halloween 2019, brought about partly – it is implied – by memories of Michael’s killing sprees.

Three years on (for anyone not keeping up, this means that Halloween Ends is almost exactly contemporaneous with the time it has been released), not much has changed, except that Corey has become a pariah, scorned and reviled by the good people of the town. Probably the only person with any time for him is young nurse Alysson (Andi Matichak), who just happens to be the granddaughter of original Final Girl Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) – there is perhaps something just a little bit odd going on with the chronology here – Laurie herself is currently trying to move on, by writing what sounds like a rather pretentious book about her experiences.

But the silly townsfolk just keep on giving Corey a hard time, and he eventually is driven to crawl into the dark places beneath the town (reasonable symbolism here), where he finds… well, you can probably guess. Does Michael Myers perhaps detect a kindred spirit in this deeply troubled young man? Or, as he approaches pensionable age, is the original masked stalker simply engaging in a spot of succession planning? Either way, events are going to take a very different turn this Halloween…

One of the issues with any sequel is, of course, striking a balance between doing all the stuff that audiences enjoyed in the previous film or films, and attempting something new and different so it isn’t just an outright retread. Some of the Halloween sequels in the past have erred a little too much in favour of sticking with the tried and tested; others have struggled mainly because they wandered off into some peculiar new territory (occult curses and so on). One thing you could say about Halloween Ends is that it at least finds a new way to be problematic and quite possibly disappointing.

I’ve heard it suggested that the film gives the impression that everyone in the writers’ room (it took four people to assemble the script for Halloween Ends) were cracking on with the storyline about Corey and his descent into antisocial behaviour and feeling pretty good about themselves, when someone put their hand up and said, ‘Haven’t we forgotten about Michael Myers?’ I wouldn’t go that far myself, because the film does seem to be the idea about evil as a kind of infection and contagion that spreads and lingers in people and places, and the story of Corey’s fall is closely tied up with this. But on the other hand, one of the things which made Michael Myers scary in the original film is the fact he is essentially pure evil, with no discernible personality or motive for killing. Corey in this film is the absolute opposite of this – we understand entirely why he’s gone bad and how he’s choosing his victims. (The throughline here is a bit like really unsubtle Stephen King, but that just goes to make the attempts at characterisation more obvious.)

It is definitely true that Michael is sidelined for much of the film, which is probably a flaw, but also kind of inevitable given the nature of the piece. Quite apart from the fact that some of the material in the main storyline here is not very good (there is a romance between Corey and Alysson which is a load of old melodramatic cobblers and profoundly unconvincing), you have to wonder about the wisdom of going down this route in what’s supposed to be the finale of the series. If you were going to go on to make a series of films where the masked killer is Corey rather than Michael, and this one primarily functions as a passing of the torch, then it might be understandable. But this quite plainly isn’t going to happen – the next Halloween will likely be a full or partial reimagining of the series, ignoring previous continuities, and the main job of this one should therefore have been to give this version of Michael Myers a worthy send-off.

It doesn’t really manage it, needless to say. The main storyline is resolved, rather clumsily, only for there to be an extended coda which doesn’t have a great deal of connection with what has gone before but does provide a sort of definitive closure to the series. Again, it feels a touch melodramatic and also rather anticlimactic. At least it finds Jamie Lee Curtis something significant to do; for most of the movie she’s either narrating sections from her book or just coming across as the town scold.

One of the advantages of there having been so many dud Halloween sequels back in the 1980s and 1990s is that any new film is likely to look good in comparison to them, and Halloween Ends isn’t the worst film in the series by any means. It isn’t particularly scary or tense, but it does have some interesting ideas – even if they’re ideas that sit awkwardly in this particular context. Nevertheless, it’s a hard film to recommend unless you’re a particular fan of slasher movies in general or this series in particular.

Read Full Post »

There are a number of noteworthy and unusual things about Everything Everywhere All At Once, directed by ‘Daniels’ (this is the working name for the duo Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert); the film has apparently done unexpectedly well across a long and carefully-managed release, it is an (almost unprecedented) star vehicle for a leading lady a quarter-century on from her turn as a Bond girl; and there is the simple fact that the film is so damn weird. What is not so noteworthy or unusual is the film’s theme, which concerns an infinite multiplicity of closely connected parallel worlds and the main character’s perception of them. This is pretty standard story material at the moment, as we have already noted.

Michelle Yeoh, whose star has waxed impressively in the last five or six years despite her appearing in some (to my mind) decidedly iffy projects, plays Evelyn, a Chinese immigrant to America who has devoted her life to running a not especially successful laundrette with her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan, making what is surely one of the most impressive comebacks in recent years). But her relationship with her daughter (Stephanie Hsu) and father (James Hong, a veteran actor with a remarkable CV) is not good.

Worst of all, the business is being audited by the IRS, requiring all of them to go to the local tax office and contend with a not entirely sympathetic official (Jamie Lee Curtis). But strange things begin to occur as they arrive: Waymond in particular starts acting very oddly, writing strange notes to Evelyn giving her rather peculiar instructions. When she eventually follows them, she finds her consciousness transported into the janitor’s closet, which contains another version of her from a parallel universe. Or is the whole closet in another parallel universe? (It’s probably best not to worry too much about this kind of minor detail – and the thing about Everything Everywhere All At Once is that which universe the characters are in at any given moment really does constitute a minor detail.)

Well, it turns out that a parallel-universe version of Waymond is looking for Evelyn; or, to be exact, looking for an iteration of her with the potential to defeat a tyrannical multiversal despot named Jobu Tupaki (‘You’re just making up noises,’ complains Evelyn when told of this, not unreasonably). Jobu Tupaki has created a bagel with the potential to destroy the infinity of the multiverse (I promise you that this really is the plot), which interested parties are obviously keen to stop.

Fairly soon parallel-universe minions of Jobu Tupaki and members of other factions are possessing the bodies of their counterparts in Evelyn’s universe, intent on causing her some mischief, and so it falls to her to borrow the skills of some of her other iterations in order to fend them off (given Yeoh’s pedigree in Hong Kong action cinema you can probably imagine how this turns out). But what is the secret of Jobu Tupaki and can the apocalyptic bagel be neutralised before the whole of creation suffers?

Having just read that back I am aware that Everything Everywhere All At Once sounds like one of the stupidest, or at least most bloody-mindedly whimsical films ever made – and it does contain many moments which are finely-crafted pieces of absurdism and surrealism: quite apart from doomsday baked goods, there are transcendental paper cuts, dialogue scenes between rocks, and people doing things with trophies that defy genteel description. Not for the first time, the essentially cautious nature of the Marvel project is thrown into sharp relief by a smaller movie – the Dr Strange sequel suddenly looks very restrained indeed compared to the relentless frantic daftness of this film, both of them of course playing the idea of a multiplicity of parallel worlds. (What briefly resembled a spat between the two films on Twitter is rather peculiar given that talent both behind and in front of the camera on Everything Everywhere All At Once has been involved in Marvel Studios projects.)

It’s not quite as arbitrarily silly as it sounds, for there are rules and reasons for nearly everything that happens. What it really feels like, and I’m aware I don’t usually like this kind of reductionist comparison, is The Matrix blended with an offbeat indie comedy-drama: the kung fu stuff is great, even if it is quite daft, there’s a fairly solid rationale behind it all (though you do have to hang on really tight to keep track of all of the plot), and – somehow – underpinning everything is a relatively serious story about a woman coming to terms with her life and her relationships with her family.

It takes a while to get here, naturally, and one of the criticisms I’d make is that the endless possibilities that the film explores turn out to be just a bit too endless: I’d say it was about 15-20% too long, with most of the fat coming in the second and third acts. There are still some good jokes and inspired ideas, but I found myself flagging as the film bounced through yet another new take on its characters and concepts without much going on in the way of forward motion.

This being, at least in part, a film about the Chinese-American experience, it’s not entirely surprising that it eventually resolves as a kind of family saga – this is one of those films where colossal mayhem and an apocalyptic threat proves to be mainly a pretext for the protagonist to sort out their domestic relationships. But it’s a bit deeper than that – rather as with the TV series Life After Life, it eventually tackles concepts of existentialism and nihilism – if you can have or be everything, then ultimately you reach a point where nothing means anything. I’m not entirely convinced by the film’s solution to this particular philosophical quandary, but it at least does present some kind of answer to it.

Everything Everywhere All At Once is the kind of film which looks brilliant and inspired in the trailer; the challenge is how to take such a soaringly high concept and turn it into a functional and satisfying narrative. The Daniels do a pretty good job with it, in the end, although this is not a film which is especially strong on coherence. Nevertheless, there are so many good individual bits to enjoy that I am very happy to overlook the flaws in the overall story. It’s a mad and challenging film, but I mean that in the most positive way.

Read Full Post »

Stabbing, shooting, gas explosions, falling from a great height, decapitation: some people just can’t take a hint, and so it is little surprise that Shatner-masked homicidal vessel of pure evil Michael Myers has once again shaken off apparently certain death and is back doing his thing on screen. This time the movie is Halloween Kills, directed by David Gordon Green. Technically this is Halloween XII, but that’s the sort of title that doesn’t go down too well with focus groups, I imagine, and the one they’ve gone for is concise and catchy and tells you what to expect (like you couldn’t already guess).

The eleventh film, just called Halloween, disregarded all of the previous sequels and remakes, and displaced Halloween II as the continuation of the 1978 original. Perhaps it is therefore slightly ironic that there are quite a few call-backs to Halloween II, both explicit and structural, in the new film, not least in the way that it carries straight on from the end of the last one.

As you will of course recall, in that film Michael ended up caged in a burning cellar by Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), the final girl from his 1978 killing spree, after she spent decades and a fortune preparing for his eventual return. However, no plan is perfect and what Laurie has reckoned without is the prompt and diligent response of the Haddonfield fire department, who get stuck into trying to put the fire out. Suffice to say that not everyone who goes into the burning building comes back out.

It actually takes a little while for the film to get to this point, as it opens with an extended flashback to Halloween 1978 and the events surrounding the end of the original film (in this continuity at least). Quite what purpose all of this serves doesn’t immediately become obvious, but what Green is seemingly trying to do is establish the sheer extent of the psychic trauma inflicted on the town by Michael’s visitations and the long-term effect it has on many of the inhabitants.

Back in the 2018 narrative, news of Michael Myers’ return slowly filters out, initially causing panic and distress – but a group of survivors and their friends decides they have done enough running and hiding, and decide to go on the offensive by hunting Michael down and dealing with him permanently. Laurie and her family are initially oblivious to this, as she is in surgery at the hospital (much less gloomy and deserted in this movie).

Michael, on the other hand, has polished off the fire crew and is steadily making his way through the town, visiting gory trauma on everyone in his path. But just who or what is he heading for…?

I note that Halloween Kills has had some rather mixed reviews, some suggesting the film is about nothing more than finding new ways for a man in a mask to bash people’s heads in, but I think it’s another rather superior Halloween film, respectful to the original to a degree that verges on reverence. Certainly they’ve done their due diligence in terms of getting the original cast on board: apart from Jamie Lee Curtis and Nick Castle, Charles Cyphers comes back as the sheriff, Nancy Stephens as the nurse, and Kyle Richards as one of the now-grown-up kids being babysat back in 1978 (making the transition from child actor must be a bit easier when you’re in a super-long-running franchise like this one). The other now-grown kid is played by Anthony Michael Hall, who is rather good in the part. It also looks like they digitally resurrect Donald Pleasence for a few scenes, but this is kept to a respectful minimum. There is also a rather bizarre pseudo-cameo by Bob Odenkirk as the yearbook photo of one of Michael’s original victims (apparently they couldn’t track down the original actor and then someone noticed the resemblance).

One consequence of this big cast is that it isn’t immediately at all clear what the focus of the story is going be this time around, beyond the requisite scenes of regular bloody slaughter. Slowly it becomes apparent: Laurie may have been the most prominent survivor of Michael’s 1978 attack, but there is a town full of other people who lost friends and family and their sense of security, and the film is largely about how they respond to his return. And while this initially seems positive – friends banding together to support each other and take steps to defend themselves – as the film progresses it transforms into something disturbingly similar to mob hysteria, something nearly as ugly and dangerous as a masked killer on the loose. Perhaps there is a political subtext too – Laurie observes that the system has failed all of these people, and hence they are taking matters into their own hands. Quite what comment the script is trying to make is wisely left for the viewer to decide, but it brings a welcome extra layer of texture to the film.

That said, this isn’t the most tense or scary film, with the main innovations being some reasonably inventive killings and a repeated motif where Michael finds himself confronted with large mobs of armed and aware enemies. What ensues is more like a kung fu movie than anything else, as they essentially charge him one at a time and get gorily despatched. (You would have thought that the seventh guy in line, the one with the power saw, would have thought, ‘You know what, on the basis of what’s happening, I’m not going to chance it,’ and run away.) The careful ambiguity as to whether Michael is an actual human being or something more fantastical is really stretched to its limit, anyway: the film is openly playing with the character’s mythic aspects by the end, even suggesting he is somehow powered by the fear and anger of the people around him.

The film certainly ducks the issue of actually attempting a conventional conclusion to the story, although this is probably because it was announced at the same time as Halloween Ends, due out next year (the title is suggestive, but as the Akkad family (long-time producers of the franchise) apparently have a legal clause preventing anyone from actually killing Michael Myers off without their permission, we’ll have to see). In the meantime, though, I think this is an effective and satisfying new riff on the Halloween franchise.

*Yes, I know that because some of these films take place on the same night and another doesn’t feature the character at all, the strictly accurate title would be The Nine Nights of Michael Myers. But you try coming up with names for these things.

Read Full Post »

We are now at a point where there are three films called Halloween, so it follows as logically as anything else that there are also multiple Halloween IIs – although I feel obliged to make it clear that the sequel to the most recent Halloween is, of course, not one of them (like I say, logical).

The first Halloween II was probably inevitable from a financial point of view, given the immense returns of the original film ($70 million on a £325,000 budget), and I suppose this is one of those cases of the sequel being the film which really laid the groundwork for an ongoing franchise – the original film is brilliant, but one of the reasons why it’s brilliant is because it’s such a perfectly self-contained narrative. It’s also a very slight outlier when it comes to the slasher movie genre, and the sequel is more conventional in this respect too.

The problem with a calendar-date horror movie like Halloween is that you’re a bit limited when it comes to staging the sequel – you can’t just move on to the day after or the title will become a bit spurious, while jumping ahead a whole year also brings its problems. So Halloween II is one of the most direct continuations in movie history, very slightly tweaking the end of the original film but pretty much just carrying straight on.

So: Shatner-masked embodiment of pure homicidal evil Michael Myers is still on the rampage in his home town of Haddonfield, despite having been repeatedly shot and stabbed by feisty babysitter Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and obsessed shrink Dr Loomis (Donald Pleasence). However, Haddonfield being the kind of folksy place where people leave their doors open at all hours, he is quite soon able to shrug off multiple bullet wounds, resupply with a big knife, and do in someone just down the street from the scene of his earlier crimes, just to keep his hand in.

Laurie, meanwhile, is whizzed off to hospital by nice young ambulanceman Jimmy (the film debut of Lance Guest, perhaps best remembered for quintessential 80s nonsense The Last Starfighter and Jaws: The Revenge), while Dr Loomis keeps up with his increasingly frantic attempts to hunt Michael down. But having heard where Laurie has been taken, Michael also heads to the gloomy and seemingly almost-deserted hospital, seemingly intent on finishing the job he started before the clock ticks twelve and they have to call the movie All Saints’ Day (though Day of the Dead would also be very appropriate and was still available back in 1981)…

John Carpenter really didn’t want to do a Halloween sequel, as he couldn’t see a place to take the story; he eventually limited himself to co-writing and producing, with Rick Rosenthal actually in charge of direction. Carpenter has said the creative process involved a lot of beer and him sitting in front of the typewriter saying ‘What am I doing? I don’t know.’

Then again, a classic slasher movie generally has two elements to it, the overarching storyline, and all the individual set-piece kills which punctuate the film. I suspect you can get away with making quite a congruent and popular slasher movie with very little actual plot and just a lot of good murders. Sending Michael to the hospital certainly presents the opportunity for a number of inventive slayings as he thins out the supporting cast (as ever, anyone foolish enough to have recreational sex in a Halloween movie is signing their own death warrant) – there’s death by scalpel, death by claw hammer, death by syringe, death by exsanguination, death by hydrotherapy pool, and what may be an attempt at death by slippery floor – though this may just be an accident. As you may perhaps be able to tell, the body count in Halloween II comfortably exceeds that of the first film, and where the original had a long period of Carpenter relentlessly cranking up the suspense before the killing begins in earnest towards the end of the story, in this one there’s a murder every few minutes, just to keep everyone paying attention I suppose. As I say, this is much more of a conventional slasher film than the first one.

It’s when Carpenter moves on to wider elements of the plot that the script begins to wobble somewhat – initially, it’s a spot-on continuation of the original film, with even some of the original cast returning just to play the corpses of their characters. Then Michael starts scrawling ‘SAMHAIN’ on the wall in blood and Donald Pleasence is issued with some cobblers about the history of Halloween and suddenly we’re on rather shaky ground.

The notorious plot device which the film introduces, simply because Carpenter felt it essential, is the revelation that Laurie and Michael are siblings, hence his monomaniacal pursuit of her. It feels like the film has suddenly gone a bit soap-opera at this point, and to be honest I don’t think the story really needed it – the really scary thing about Michael in the first film, after all, is that he doesn’t actually have a recognisable or intelligible motivation.

Most of the film is passably entertaining, anyway; Rosenthal manages a decent mimicry of Carpenter’s style, although the film is never as tense or scary as the original. However, the ending does feel weak – after Laurie is comatose for most of the first hour (I’m guessing there were issues with how available for filming Jamie Lee Curtis was), she ends up being chased round the hospital while Loomis – who’s just been conveniently informed of dynastic revelations – is racing to her aid.

This was, apparently, intended to finish off the story of Laurie and Michael in the most definitive way possible – let’s just take a moment, nine further films later, to reflect on just how successful that was – and I suppose it does just about hang together. (Just how do you kill off the bogeyman, though?) That’s about the best you can say about Halloween II – virtually every film in this series has basically the same plot, which is dressed up and tweaked in a new way every few years or so, and one of the jobs of the sequels is to disguise this fact as well as possible. Halloween II does a serviceable job of it; it is a sufficient sequel, but hardly a necessary one.

Read Full Post »

There was a lot of fuss in Oxford a couple of days ago, as the city prepared to go into level 2 virus control. This started one second after midnight on the 31st, which just made me happy, in the end, that I’d decided to make my weekly cinema trip on the evening of the 30th. This all turned out to be worrying and fretting over nothing, as the whole country is effectively going back into lockdown in a few days anyway – which, amongst other things, will mean the remaining cinemas shutting their doors again. Have I said ‘stuck in a moment we can’t get out of’ here before? I can’t remember.

Normally I would have had a go at the Odeon for questionable scheduling, as October 30th is obviously not the right day for a special revival of John Carpenter’s Halloween. Not that I would necessarily have expected the Odeon staff to have clocked that, as most of them were standing around in the lobby discussing which film they were actually about to show, trying to work out if it was the 2018 version, the 2007 remake, and so on. One of them was wearing a Halloween III: Season of the Witch T-shirt and I found myself compelled to wonder aloud if he knew that this was the only film in the series to have a different premise to the original. (Apparently he did, and defended his choice of apparel by saying it’s the best of the sequels. Being a Nigel Kneale fan myself, I could hardly demur.)

There was a pleasingly big turn-out for the movie, made up mostly of younger people who gave the impression of having turned up for a bit of undemanding camp fun – which just meant they got a bit restive during the ‘special introduction’ to the film, what looked like a slightly cheesy DVD extra made in 2015, in which Carpenter himself discussed the origins of the film. Oh well – soon enough the lights went down and – oh, is that someone’s phone going off very loudly? It sounds like a ringtone. Tut. Hang on a minute – sorry, it’s a John Carpenter score (and probably his best).

Carpenter opens with a lengthy, bravura sequence in which an unseen assailant stabs a young woman to death in her home. The camera sees through the killer’s eyes throughout, up until the moment at which his mask is torn off – and we see it is a six-year-old child. Flanked by his incomprehending parents, the child stares vacantly into space as the camera pulls back and up in a crane shot, a magisterial choice from Carpenter. We eventually learn the boy’s name is Michael Myers – nothing to do with the Wayne’s World dude, but named in honour of the British film distributor who helped make Assault on Precinct 13 such a big success.

Nearly fifteen years pass, and we meet Dr Sam Loomis, who has been Michael Myers’ psychiatrist all this time. Carpenter wanted Peter Cushing for Loomis, but couldn’t afford him; Christopher Lee later said that turning the same role down was the biggest mistake of his career. Anyway, Carpenter ended up with Donald Pleasence, apparently because his daughter was a fan of Carpenter’s music, but also because he had an alimony payment due, and I think this bit of serendipity is one of the things that makes the movie so effective – Pleasence may not quite have Cushing’s sheer technical virtuosity, or Lee’s monumental presence, but he brings the part a fantastic nervous intensity.

Loomis has become convinced that Michael Myers is irredeemable, pure evil, and has devoted himself to ensuring he is kept safely locked up. Suffice to say this does not come to pass, and the evening before Halloween 1978, Michael Myers escapes, steals Loomis’ car, and disappears into the night. This is the first big scare sequence of the film – and it’s a long time before the next – but it’s already clear that Carpenter knows his business, deploying camera and music with surgical precision. The moment when the ghost-like figure of Michael Myers scuttles across the rear window of Loomis’ car and onto the roof never fails to give me a start.

Michael Myers heads back to Haddonfield, naturally, pausing to kill a mechanic and steal his overalls on the way. (The point at which he acquires the iconic William Shatner mask he wears for the bulk of the movie is one of a couple of points which the film appears to fudge just a tiny bit.) Here he becomes fixated with sensible, bookish high-school student Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis in her movie debut), apparently simply because she’s the first person he sees up close.

Laurie is baby-sitting for Halloween, which mainly involves letting small children watch classic sci-fi movies (one of them is the 1951 version of The Thing, more evidence of Carpenter’s fondness for Howard Hawks films, as well as being an unintended in-joke given his later career). Her friends Lynda (Pamela Soles) and Annie (Nancy Loomis, who was also in Precinct 13) have slightly more adventurous plans for Halloween night, mostly involving their boyfriends. However, Michael Myers’ plans for the evening involve all of them, although ‘adventurous’ may not be quite the word to use in his case…

Slasher movies aren’t really my speciality, but I believe that students of the genre agree that the Golden Age of the Slasher Film ran from 1978 to 1984, inaugurated by this film. Halloween wasn’t the first slasher film – that honour goes to either Psycho or Black Christmas – but it is the film which codified many of the conventions of the genre – a maniac with a mask, young and unsuspecting teenage victims, and so on. The most memorable things about Halloween have all been repeated ad nauseum or parodied to death, to the point where it’s almost difficult to take the movie seriously as a film in its own right.

Certainly, as is often the case with these classic old horror movies, parts of it seemed more likely to draw laughter rather than fear from a contemporary audience. Bits of it could seem a bit melodramatic or even campy by modern standards. That said, as the film got going, there was notably less amusement, and even the occasional yelp of what sounded like genuine alarm and fear. (I imagine there would have been people in the audience even back in 1978, who tutted at the way Jamie Lee Curtis doesn’t bother to make sure her attacker is dead, on not one but two occasions.)

The enduring effectiveness of the movie comes mainly from the remarkable patience and confidence shown by Carpenter: after the opening couple of scenes, there is considerably more stalk than slash for a long time – lots of lurking about by Michael Myers, but very little actual mayhem. It’s also worth noting that this is a much more restrained movie than many of its successors: there is relatively little in the way of explicit gore, and only five murders (one of which is essentially a flashback, while another occurs off-screen). This is hardly a splatter movie, more an exercise in suspense.

Of course, underpinning this is the suggestion that Michael Myers isn’t just a homicidal maniac with a knife, but something much worse – a vessel of pure evil, as Loomis has come to believe. Certainly the film plays up the idea of Michael Myers as something less than human – Nick Castle, who mostly plays him, is billed as ‘Shape’ – he never speaks, wears that blank mask for most of the film, and is generally just a cypher, or – as the film suggests – the bogeyman given substance. Again, it’s a potentially slightly corny idea, but the movie sells it, mostly thanks to Pleasence’s performance.

Pleasence does all the heavy lifting in terms of the acting in this movie, lending it gravitas but also the odd moment of leavening humour (the doctor seems gleefully pleased after scaring small children away from the old Myers house). Jamie Lee Curtis is stuck in an almost wholly reactive role for most of the movie, but still manages to bring presence to what could have been another cypher.

In the end, though, it’s Carpenter’s movie, as writer, director, and composer of the music: he seems to have been paying attention to Jaws in particular, as the score for this movie acts as a cue for the audience in the same way that John Williams’ music fills in for the absence of shark. It’s entirely understandable that film executives who saw a rough cut of Halloween before the score was added dismissed the film as nonsense. Even with the music added, it’s still not what you’d call a film of particular depth: Halloween is simply a machine for scaring audiences, no more and no less. But it does this one thing superbly well.

Read Full Post »

I don’t want things to get too confessional around here, especially so soon after I owned up (again) to not being that big a fan of Blade Runner (probably best not to mention I’ve always been fairly lukewarm about Goodfellas, too), but: I’ve never entirely seen what all the fuss is about when it comes to Agatha Christie, either. I know, I know: two billion sales, translated into over a hundred languages, author of the best crime novel ever, apparently – words like massive and enduring don’t begin to do justice to her appeal. She is the kind of writer, it seems, that other people don’t just read and enjoy, they read and enjoy and want to have a go themselves – a friend of mine writes Christie pastiches as a hobby. (This isn’t just limited to her particular brand of suspense, of course; another friend has half a dozen Scandi noir mysteries for sale on Amazon.)

Oh well, I suppose I will just have to get used to being in the minority about this, along with everything else. Someone else in the Christie fan club is the writer-director Rian Johnson, whose new movie Knives Out is the purest example of knocked-off Agatha I can remember seeing on the big screen in a very long time. Johnson is best known for work in a different genre – he made the superior SF movie Looper a few years back, and was then responsible for the last main-sequence stellar conflict movie (apparently the worst movie ever to make $1.3 billion, if you believe the voices of the internet) – but if you dig down into his career he clearly has a fondness for the mystery genre. One of the good things about your last film making $1.3 billion, is that – regardless of how derided it is – you can basically write your own ticket for a while, and Johnson has made wise use of this.

The plot of Knives Out is, not surprisingly, twisty-turny stuff, but the basic set-up goes a little something like this. Famous and successful mystery author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead, the morning after his eighty-fifth birthday party, apparently by his own hand. The police make the necessary enquiries, interviewing his various children and their partners (Michael Shannon, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson and Toni Collette amongst them); it soon becomes apparent that nearly everyone in the family had a reason for wanting the old man dead – but they also all have alibis for the time of his demise, and there is no forensic evidence of any foul play. The cops are inclined to list the whole thing as a suicide and go about their business, but also on the scene is renowned private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, deploying an accent as outrageously thick as his pay packet for the next Bond movie), who is convinced there is more going on (not least because some unknown individual has retained him to consult on the case). He confides all this to Harlan’s former nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), who has her own insights into the family’s somewhat unusual internal dynamics – and, from Blanc’s point of view, the useful psychological quirk that she is incapable of telling a lie without experiencing an alarming degree of projectile emesis. Can Blanc and Marta crack the case? Is there even a case to be cracked?

As you can perhaps discern, all the essential elements of the classic country house murder mystery are present, making this a recreation of a form which was probably creaking a bit even before the Second World War. In those terms it probably sounds like a bemusing folly, the continuing popularity of the genre notwithstanding, but Johnson is smart enough to be aware of this and deftly update the form for a modern audience. Part of his response is to ground the film firmly in the present day: there are jokes about the alt-right and snowflakes, and references to the modern political situation in the US; if you look hard enough, there is a sardonic subtext about the tension between established, entitled American citizens and the immigrant workers they are so reliant on. Of course, this may mean the film is liable to date rather quickly, but I suspect this is incidental enough to the plot for it not to be a major problem.

The other notable thing about Knives Out is how knowing it is: the film isn’t desperately ironic, but it is fully aware of how camply absurd Christie-style plotting is, and makes it work by embedding it in a film with its film firmly in its cheek. This borders on being a full-blown comedy thriller, with a lot of very funny moments mixed in with the detective work and exposition. The family are a collection of comic grotesques, while Craig turns in one of the biggest performances of his career so far. Just how much fun he is having playing Blanc is palpably clear, and one could easily imagine a post-Bond career where he swaggers his way through another film like this every few years; rumour has it that talks regarding a follow-up are already taking place. Craig pitches it just a bit too big to be credible, but big enough to be so entertaining you don’t really care; Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael J Shannon, Toni Collette, Don Johnson and Chris Evans follow his lead. That some of the other participants turn in much more naturalistic performances without the film collapsing into a mess of jarring styles is also to Johnson’s credit.

It seems that you can still make this kind of story work for a modern audience: the trick is not to try and make it terribly relevent to contemporary concerns, but to embrace the confected nature of the form and run with it, concentrating above all else on simple entertainment value. It sounds simple, but this is a ferociously clever, witty film, both in its mechanics and in terms of the sly games it plays with the audience. Fingers crossed that it connects with cinema-goers to the extent that it deserves to; the early signs are good. As noted, I am agnostic about Agatha Christie and that whole subgenre of mystery fiction, but I still had a whale of a time watching Knives Out; I imagine most people will have a similar experience.

Read Full Post »

The good thing about going to see a film called Halloween on the actual day of Halloween is that you can be pretty certain you’re at or near the peak when it comes the appropriacy of your choice of movie. The bad news, if you fill the long hours by maintaining a light-hearted film review blog, is that your thoughts on the film are likely to be of little real topical interest to anyone stumbling across them – who cares about Halloween once we hit early November, anyway? Everyone is just busy growing moustaches or writing novels.

Yet here we are: Halloween, directed by David Gordon Green, and produced by Blumhouse, a company which currently rules the roost when it comes to making ultra-lucrative low-budget horror films (they also made the really good non-genre movie Whiplash). As you are doubtless aware, this is far from the first film entitled Halloween to be unleashed upon the public. The new Halloween is the tenth sequel to the original 1978 film – this is another example of a follow-up having exactly the same title as the film it’s based on, something which only seems to happen with John Carpenter movies (see also The Thing).

The new movie takes the Godzilla-esque approach of disregarding the nine previous films in the series (which wandered off into some fairly peculiar territory and didn’t all share continuity anyway) and being a direct sequel to the 1978 one. It opens with a couple of self-regarding and pretentious online journalists (Jefferson Hall and Rhian Rees) visiting a psychiatric institution for the criminally insane in order to attempt to interview Michael Myers, who has been incarcerated there for forty years after murdering five people for no apparent reason on Halloween night.

Michael’s shrink, Dr Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), has become fascinated by his patient, but warns the journos that the killer is ‘dormant’ and has not spoken in all his time at the facility. And indeed he refuses to respond to their questions, even when one of them produces the shrivelled remains of the mask he wore while committing his crimes (this is, famously, a William Shatner mask painted white). This is, by the way, a superbly orchestrated scene: the iconic mask is brandished like some kind of unholy fetish, with the other inmates of the facility stirred into a frenzy of moans and whines and a distinct sense of some primordial evil being summoned back into existence. The smash cut to the title card and the appearance of Carpenter’s justly famous theme music puts the shine on a very strong opening which the film largely does justice to.

The thing about a Halloween movie is that it’s easy to get carried away and over-plot it: these films are basically about the bogeyman, an apparently unstoppable force of pure evil who kills for no rational reason. Previous sequels introduced notions of occult curses and Michael being fixated on killing members of his own family, this latter idea being introduced to rationalise his extended pursuit of Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), as increasingly laborious methods of putting new spins on the basic idea. The new film makes reference to the idea of Michael and Laurie being siblings, but dismisses it as an urban legend.

Instead, it seems that Laurie was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and has paid the price for it ever since: forty years on from the first movie, she is a damaged, paranoid woman whose relationships with her daughter (Judy Greer) and granddaughter (Andi Matichak) are strained at best – she has basically turned into Sarah Connor from Terminator 2, obsessed with preparations for the time when Michael inevitably returns.

And, of course, he does, although you have to cut the film some slack and accept that the authorities would decide to transfer Michael Myers to a new facility on October 30th, just in time for him to attain his freedom (in one of many call-backs to the original film, exactly how this happens is left somewhat enigmatic), suit up in his mask and overalls, and begin to carve a swathe through the good people of the town of Haddonfield…

Now, I’m no more a fan of the occult curse or long-lost sister plotlines than most people, but they do give Michael (credited, as is usual, as ‘the Shape’) something to do beyond just carving up random people (to be fair, he broadens his palette to include garrotting, strangulation, and blunt-force trauma this time around). Carving people up at random just about works for a film where the protagonists are unsuspecting everypersons being menaced, but here there is a much stronger element of role-reversal: both Laurie and the local sheriff (Will Patton) are tooled up and actively hunting Michael, giving an odd double tension to the film.

The film is really at its best in the extended sequences leading up to Michael’s actual attacks (which are, you will not be surprised to learn, frequent). At these points the film basically becomes a battle of wits between the viewer and the director as the latter attempts to mislead and surprise the former – is Michael going to turn out to be in the closet? Is he outside in the garden? Lurking on the stairs? Green is rather good at this, and restores a good deal of presence and menace to one of the great horror icons of the 70s and 80s – less annoying than Freddy Krueger, less of a fantastical cartoon than Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers is practically shy and retiring as far as homicidal forces of pure evil go, and the film carefully walks the line between depicting Michael as an exceptional but still human threat, and suggesting he is the vessel for some supernatural power.

Also getting good material is Jamie Lee Curtis, and the clash between these two old enemies at the climax of the film is tense and engrossing. One of the themes of the film is the baleful effect Michael has on those who come into contact with him and survive, and Curtis has a lot of meaty scenes as someone almost pathologically obsessed with refusing to even contemplate being a victim again. There is perhaps a whiff of the Unique Moment about the film, with three generations of Strode women coming together to combat perhaps the ultimate predatory male, but then I suppose the whole trope of the Final Girl represents this in some way.

For the most part, though, this is a film which feels quite self-consciously retro in its approach to the story – an act of reverence towards one of the foundational texts of American horror cinema. It revisits the old beats rather than doing anything especially innovative, but does so very well – the only issue being that Haluk Bilginer, to some extent filling the Donald Pleasence role in the plot, ain’t no Donald Pleasence. Nevertheless, it’s an engaging and scary film and one that discharges its obligations with some style. I can imagine the Halloween franchise advancing into the future for many years to come, propelled by remakes and sequels and reimaginings, assuming that those responsible for it treat it with the same kind of care and respect shown here.

 

Read Full Post »