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Film Review: New Halloween, Old Halloween and the Donald Pleasence factor

31 October 18 words: Gemma Finch

Gemma Finch gives her two cents on the Halloween franchise, including the new remake and the Nottingham connection to the 1978 original... 

John Carpenter’s Halloween, the 1978 horror masterpiece about an unrelenting serial killer on the loose in a small town called Haddonfield, has been revisited forty years later, in the form of a sequel that explicitly rejects the plethora of sequels that came after the original. David Gordon Green’s Halloween decides to press the reset button on a franchise that spans forty years. With John Carpenter also scoring the film as he did for the original, I initially possessed a level of hope that the new film was perceived by Carpenter as being as successful as his original.

Each now eradicated Halloween sequel (there are eight that focus on Michael Myers) expanded Myers’ mythos in increasingly convoluted and bizarre ways - suddenly Michael gained several long lost family members, including Laurie Strode herself as his sister. Psychic connections, and even ancient curses, were forced in to the narrative in a misguided attempt to embellish an idea thats success lay in its simplicity. What these sequels failed to realise or replicate is the fundamental elements that created the horror within the original, and this is unfortunately also the case with the 2018 version.

I’ve watched the original film every Halloween, so to avoid falling over myself with praise I shall only briefly highlight the main successes of the original. The soundtrack is one such element, scored by Carpenter himself. The electronic synthesised score is used sparingly in the original, and feels less like music but instead acts as a tangible realisation of the feelings of dread and tension you already feel due to the expertly crafted horror scenes, which are just as terrifying when they are set in the daytime as well as when they are obscured by the shadows of the night. The original showcases mastery of the horror genre, but also relies on its characters to really sell the horror. It is one key character that contributes to the film being one of the scariest of all time - Dr Sam Loomis.

Dr. Loomis was played by the late great Donald Pleasence, who was born in Worksop in Nottinghamshire. In 1978’s Halloween, Dr. Loomis has been the psychiatrist of Michael Myers since he was institutionalised for brutally murdering his older sister aged 6. Loomis then witnesses Michael Myers’ escape on Halloween night, years later, and warns the police and other authorities trying to re-apprehend Michael of the appalling horror that he is convinced will be inevitably unleashed upon the town of Haddonfield. His warnings and his fear is not communicated or manifested using fearful hysteria, but by adopting a cynical and adamant resolve - Dr. Loomis has been so horrified by what he saw in Michel Myers, he has no delusions of his eventual betterment - Myers is no longer his patient, he no longer sees him as a human man.

The new Halloween is lacking in many ways - however, in the film’s defence it is difficult to envision where the franchise could go to add something valuable to it, after so many attempts at rekindling the spark of the original. The plot of the latest film has already been tackled in 1998’s Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, which also takes place years after the events of the original film, and also focusses on Laurie Strode coming to terms with the horrors she witnessed as she escaped Myers’ grasp on the night he came home.

What detail the latest film lacks is Dr. Loomis, or a similar character that adequately embodies the role throughout the film that he had in the original. Pleasence stars in the majority of the now disregarded sequels, so it is clear each director saw his character as pivotal to the franchise, despite not always using him to his full potential. However, it is his characterisation in the original Halloween that makes him part of the formula for its success, and one of the reasons the latest instalment falls short - although not the sole reason. In fact, the new film is at its best when it pays homage to Pleasence in the opening scene, in which two investigative reporters, Dana and Martin, are accompanied by Michael’s new psychiatrist Dr. Sartain - the protege, we are told, of the now deceased Loomis - through the mental hospital, preparing to try and communicate with the chained up Michael Myers. Sartain’s descriptions of Michael are reminiscent of Loomis’ - he sounds world weary, and speaks matter of factly, with damning certainty of Michael's evil nature. Michael is labelled a monster, and is referred to using the pronoun ‘it’ instead of ‘he’. This opening scene is well crafted, and the nod to Loomis and clear replication of Pleasence’s expertly intense acting style starts the film off well, as I experienced a feeling of foreboding over the horror I was hoping to be confronted with. However, the rest of the film does not understand horror, much less Halloween.

It is as if the film makers are more concerned with making a comedy the majority of time than a well crafted horror

Like the original, Myers escapes the mental institution, whilst being transported to a new facility, forty years after the original murders to the exact night, which is not mentioned at all by any character as being the most ridiculous idea ever conceived. Michael then inevitably heads for his hometown of Haddonfield. Prior to this, after Dana and Martin visit Michael, we are introduced to Laurie, as the pair visit her in her home, which is weaponised and booby trapped, completely renovated for a Michael Myers attack. Throughout the film, Laurie is one moment represented as weak, and the next as strong, resulting in less of a nuanced performance but more of a muddled narrative.

Laurie’s purpose could have been to warn the other characters, like Loomis did, of the unrelenting nature of Michael Myers – a solely rebellious character who has been hardened by trauma. This would have also complemented the film’s comedic lighthearted tone, which is completely out of place, considering the fact that the film also wants to be taken seriously in parts. In one scene, Laurie is identified as needing cognitive behavioural therapy by her daughter, and in another Laurie gatecrashes a restaurant meal with her daughter’s family, then tragically breaks down in tears over her past. This unsurprisingly kills the badass heroine vibe dead, making later scenes that try to resurrect this nature within her seem wrong. I would have liked the film to have dedicated more screen-time to Laurie, so that her character could have been fully realised instead of appearing to have a jarring dual nature. However, most of the film is focused on the new cast, Laurie’s family, whose acting performances - particularly Judy Greer, who plays Laurie’s daughter - are shockingly weak. It is, oddly, as if Greer is trying not to burst out laughing through every line of poorly considered dialogue. Laurie’s granddaughter is another underdeveloped character, with the film erroneously believing that showing a number of inconsequential scenes of her joking around with her brash school friends makes her sufficiently likeable.

When Michael does escape there is a frankly laughable bolt out of the blue plot development regarding Dr. Sartain which destroys all attempts at a homage to Dr. Loomis. Unexpected and bizarre, it thankfully resolves itself quickly. As the characters and the majority of the elements that led to the success of the original are lacking, the film only has Michael Myers’ kill scenes and the music score left to try and save it, and disappointingly these also fall short. It is as if the film makers are more concerned with making a comedy the majority of time than a well crafted horror, with a child responding to seeing Michael Myers in his bedroom closet in one scene with “Oh shit!” Reasonable levels of tension are built in the early stages of Michael’s escape as we see corpses in his wake but not the acts of murder themselves, but afterwards there are no scenes reminiscent of the original, where we would get a glimpse of him in the shadowy background before a kill, or scenes, like the most memorable from the original, where Michael Myers is lying down behind Laurie in the background after being stabbed by her, then unbeknown to Laurie sits up after a few moments.

Most disappointingly of all, the music score is not used like in the original to complement the horror, but instead as a theme tune for Michael Myers. The main original theme, as excellent as it is, is mindlessly played, completely inappropriately over any scene in which Myers appears, with little consideration for creating mood or tension. I’d expected at least Carpenter to do an expert job. This is when I truly knew that the dream of a flawless sequel was over. 

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