"With everything that's going on in the world right now, murdering five people isn't that bad," one teen opines early on in this year’s “Halloween” reboot/sequel. It's a crass, clueless argument, and the dude is eventually punished for it the way everyone in slashers is punished — by being bloodily and gratuitously executed and then hung on a hook. That'll teach him to keep his glib cynicism to himself.
Teen dude has a point, though. For all the screaming and terror and gore, the stakes in slasher horror films like “Scream” or “Freddy Krueger” tend to be pretty low. “The First Purge,” which premiered earlier this year, was a horror movie about a fascist American government engaged in systemic ethnic cleansing. But “Halloween” is just about some jerk with a knife who murders a bunch of generally unlikable and poorly developed characters. The scares are visceral but produce little lasting anxiety. This latest iteration of “Halloween” is predictable; it's a horror you can count on not to be too horrible. Even the jump scares are comforting.
The new movie, produced by Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Productions, is set 40 years after the events of John Carpenter's famous 1978 “Halloween.” The film resolutely and wisely ignores all the sequels and reboots since, clearing away all the superfluous bodies to make room for fresh meat. In this version, homicidal murderer Michael Myers (played by both Nick Castle and James Jude Courtney) has been incarcerated in a mental institution for four decades following his Halloween night murder spree. Meanwhile, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), who survived the carnage, has been preparing for a rematch by stockpiling guns and training her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) to fight. Michael escapes again on Halloween, finds his old mask, and starts killing, while Laurie and Karen try to protect Karen's daughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak).
Part of the reason the movie is comforting for fans is that it's so deliberately familiar. Director David Gordon Green provides numerous visual references to the original film, each of which elicited a giggle of appreciative laughter from the preview audience. Allyson looks through her classroom window and sees her grandma Laurie standing there, just as Laurie looked through the window and saw Michael some decades back. There's a variation on the famous moment when Michael's body disappears after a fall from a window. And there's a new babysitter, whose life expectancy you know is limited as soon as you see her on screen. Viewers aren't expected to watch with terrified suspense, but with the kind of mellow glow you get from revisiting a treasured memory with a friend.
The main treasured memory here is Jamie Lee Curtis herself. Laurie Strode is older and more weathered, but she's still angular and focused and surprisingly tough. In the first “Halloween,” you didn't necessarily know for sure what Laurie's fate would be. But at this point she's as much a force of nature as Michael himself. Hit by a car, thrown from a window, shot, stabbed, burnt — Michael and Laurie both keep coming back, invulnerable, implacable and ready for more.
Laurie's reliability is tied, in this sequel, to motherhood. In the original, Laurie is distinguished by her asexuality. Her sexually active peers get murdered around her, but responsible Laurie survives. In 2018, though, Laurie is twice-divorced with a child and a grandchild. Fortified by the arsenal in her basement, she channels badass mother figures like Ripley from “Aliens” or Sarah Connor from “Terminator 2.” In 1978, Laurie had no one to rely on but herself. In 2018, grandma and mom are both there to protect Allyson and bring down the silent killer.
Turning the slasher into a parable about the all-encompassing victory of a mother’s love isn't as odd as it seems. Slashers present themselves as tales of meaningless and irresistible evil, but the truth is they often surreptitiously provide a vision of a more just world. The irritating journalists who invade Laurie's privacy and fetishize serial killers — they deserve to die, right? Allyson's dad, who makes uncomfortable comments about sex and sees Laurie's proficiency with violence as a threat to his manhood, is similarly hard to mourn.
Obviously in real life you wouldn't want any of these people to get slaughtered. But this isn't real life. In this universe vengeance is swift, bloody and completely inconsequential. Everybody deserves to die, and everybody gets what they deserve. Then you clean up the fake blood and get ready for the next reboot.
Justice also, inevitably, comes for Michael himself. The film takes all the evil in the universe and funnels it into one jerk in a mask. And once you've got all that evil in one place, it's relatively easy to exorcize it with a shotgun blast or three and some cleansing fire. When Michael rises from the dead again (and again), is it to haunt you, or to give you yet another chance to wreak righteous retribution? The ritual defeat of the unholy monster was so much fun the first five times, why not do it again?
Of course, evil is actually a lot more diffuse than one looming mouth-breather who Mom can light on fire for you. Michael wears a mask because if you saw his face you'd realize he's just some guy, not an avatar of cruelty and viciousness. Even though the body count is higher in 2018 than it was in the 1978 original, Michael remains a smaller than life villain in comparison to actual mass shooters, much less perpetrators of political atrocities. But that's the point. Michael is an evil, but he's a manageable evil. For "Halloween" lovers, it's soothing to sit back for a couple of hours and pretend that he's the worst thing we have to deal with.