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Sunday, October 21, 2018

Revisiting Haddonfield in 'Halloween'

It seems that the promotional machine behind the new Halloween hasn’t stopped since star Jamie Lee Curtis took to Twitter in September of last year to announce that Laurie Strode was headed back to Haddonfield. From the earliest teaser photo of Curtis standing on a leaf-strewn porch in the same babysitter garb she donned in the ’78 film with nemesis Michael Myers looking on, the franchise’s sizable fan base has—quite literally—gone along for the ride from pre-production to premiere. Momentum grew in earnest after the first trailer dropped and reached fever pitch after the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. The promotional buzz has been deafening, and Curtis has so often and so eloquently now articulated both her gratitude for the career that Carpenter’s original gave her and the new film’s feminist timeliness in the #MeToo era that diehard fans could probably recite her answers to interview questions like lines from a script.


Logically, with such buildup comes expectation. And meeting those expectations would be a monumental task for any director of any film—let alone an unproven genre director who’s boldly taken on an iconic horror franchise with a fiercely loyal (and hyper critical) fanbase. Even with the blessing of the film’s original director and co-screenwriter and the all-in participation of, arguably, the most popular and recognizable scream queen in film history, success in the age of the armchair critic and Internet mob rule will be an uphill battle for David Gordon Green’s Halloween. For as eager as fans were for a new addition to the venerable franchise, they’re also loyalists and experienced genre veterans. Just as film scholars have come around to give Carpenter’s Halloween its rightful due, horror movie fans who grew up on the ’78 film and its countless knockoffs have hardened, grizzled a bit, and, perhaps, become slightly more discerning in their tastes.

The last time we visited Haddonfield, Michael Myers got a backstory, someone else was playacting Laurie Strode, and fans were polarized—like Clinton versus Trump-level polarized. Indeed, Rob Zombie’s revisionist take on Carpenter’s source material in 2007, and then again in 2009, is still the stuff of much debate and deliberation—and sometimes raw emotion. Prior to that, we endured the largely unwatchable Resurrection outing in 2002—helmed by the original 1982 sequel’s director, Rick Rosenthal—that saw Laurie Strode die within the first ten minutes of the movie and Myers go on to terrorize Busta Rhymes and Tyra Banks. That trainwreck was preceded by the decidedly more watchable—and arguably one of the best—H20 installment. That film came 20 years after the original and took on much of the narrative that Green’s Halloween takes on two decades even further in—how does Laurie Strode fare after the fateful events of Halloween night, 1978? Going back even further than Halloween: H20, there were another four direct sequels to Carpenter’s film and one weirdly standalone film when Carpenter and Halloween co-writer/producer Debra Hill had thoughts of the series branching into an anthology series centered around the titular holiday—long before American Horror Story revolutionized the anthology concept. The Halloween franchise now consists of eleven films and stands—pre-release of the 2018 outing—as the fourth highest-grossing domestic horror franchise at approximately $668 million.

Not to put too fine a point on this, but David Gordon Green—who shares co-writing credit with Danny McBride and Jeff Farley on the new Halloween’s script—had his work cut out for him long before the cameras rolled. History, expectation, and nostalgia are strong forces in the universe of fandom. So, how’d he do? Let’s examine.

The first smart choice Green makes—and, ironically, his most controversial—is to fashion the new Halloween as a direct sequel to the ’78 film. That’s right: No hospital massacre, no sibling ties, no Jamie Lloyd, no faked death and headmistress gig, no fall off the sanitarium roof. Just Laurie sobbing on the floor declaring to Dr. Loomis “It was the bogeyman” and a forty-year flashforward. Interestingly, it’s not the first time the franchise retconned a timeline; H20 jettisoned the events of the fourth, fifth, and sixth films. This retroactive continuity allows Green and company to reset the clock and imagine a new series of events not mired in the myriad inconsistencies and questionable creative decisions of previous films in the series. And—color me crazy—but I find it vaguely comforting to know that Nurse Chambers never met the end of Michael’s butcher knife after all and picture her chain-smoking on a porch somewhere with a faithful Golden Retriever at her feet while she waits for a carload of grandbabies to visit(!). 

In the 2018 version of Halloween, we’re re-introduced to the two central figures in the series—Michael Myers and Laurie Strode. Myers is revealed to have been apprehended and captured after the events of ’78, locked up in Smith’s Grove Sanitarium ever since. For all intents and purposes, his life and murder spree ended as if someone hit the pause button. Conversely, Laurie has lived forty years’ worth of life—she’s married and divorced twice, had a daughter, and now has a granddaughter—but it’s been a life irrevocably altered and affected by what’s come to be largely forgotten and relegated to an anecdotal footnote in Haddonfield’s history. Myers may be the one physically imprisoned, but Laurie’s been mentally held captive by the trauma of “the Babysitter Murders” for four long decades.  We see the toll her PTSD has taken—from her estrangement from the daughter taken away from her to the labyrinthine compound of traps, triggers, and panic rooms she’s rigged together. She’s a woman lying in wait, confident in her intuition that Myers will come for her again—even if everyone else from the local townsfolk to her own family have come to discount such certitude as the ravings of a damaged woman. She’s like the survivalist version of the neighborhood crazy cat lady.

Green chooses to re-introduce us to Myers first during a gorgeously shot sequence in the enclosed courtyard of Smith’s Grove. Two ill-fated British true-crime podcasters are there to interview him on the day (aka Halloween eve) he’s to be transferred to an out-of-state maximum-security facility. We’re introduced to his new psychiatrist, Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer)—or the “new Loomis” as Laurie snarkily dubs him later—who’s a poor stand-in for Donald Pleasance. After inciting everyone but Myers with his old mask and histrionic pleas to “SAY SOMETHING, MICHEAL!”, the podcaster pair set off—post-opening credits—to interview the lone survivor of Myers' murderous rampage. Deep in the woods, locked behind sliding gates, steel-reinforced doors, and more deadbolts than you can count, we get our first look at this older, damaged version of Laurie, who’s apparently as short on patience as she is on cash.

We eventually meet the other key players, including daughter Karen (Judy Greer), son-in-law Ray (Toby Russ), granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak), and Allyson’s assorted besties—Vicky (Virginia Gardner), Vicky’s boyfriend Dave (Miles Robbins), her boyfriend Cameron <wink-wink> Elam (Dylan Arnold), and Cameron’s best bud Oscar (Drew Scheid). Introductions are cursory at best because—as horror diehards know well—cast of characters in a slasher film is little more than code for body count. And Green doesn’t disappoint in that facet of the film.

Laurie is barely finished with her Annie Oakley-style target practice (complete with every leftover mannequin from the prop closet of Tourist Trap it seems) when Michael’s transfer goes not-shockingly-but-necessarily awry. Carpenter’s updated iconic score kicks in and Myers is back on the streets of Haddonfield, slicing his way through town before an incoherent, annoyingly convenient, and completely out-of-left-field twist delivers him to Laurie’s well-lit doorstep to kick off the film’s third—and most satisfying—act. Suffice to say that it takes a village—or at least three generations of well-armed women anyway—to bring Myers’ reign to its simultaneously inevitable and questionable end. It’s kickass, well-paced, and loads of fun; the audience I saw it with was screaming and cheering.

Curtis delivers the goods and is the heartbeat of the film. This is a movie about a victim weary of being a casualty of her shared history with her aggressor. Laurie has painstakingly prepared and patiently waited for forty years—at great personal sacrifice—to reclaim her narrative, and Curtis’ performance reflects that well-worn resolve. She’s nothing short of a marvel—particularly in a scene where she waits outside the sanitarium in her pick-up truck, gun in one hand, booze in another, and watches until Myers is loaded onto the bus and pulls away. Her face conveys everything the character has suffered and lost—pain, rage, vulnerability.

There are three standouts in the supporting cast: First, Andi Matichak who does a competent job essentially portraying Laurie’s younger self. As Allyson, Matichak embodies the quintessential high school girl—an updated Laurie Strode, if you will—with enough presence to be memorable without overshadowing the character she’s modeled after. Although this Halloween doesn’t give her the screen time that the original gave Curtis, she still manages to leave her mark. The second standout is veteran character actor Will Patton. As Haddonfield’s current lawman Officer Frank Hawkins, Patton is given a sizable role on point with that of Charles Cyphers, who played Haddonfield’s original sheriff in the 1978 film. He’s believable and likable and really lends solid support, especially in his scenes with Curtis as you see his reluctant transition from someone who fell squarely into the camp who dismissed Laurie as an eccentric to someone who now—with equal reluctance—realizes that she was right all along. Finally, Judy Greer gives a beautifully nuanced performance as Laurie’s adult daughter, who herself has been the victim of generational trauma. On the surface, it first appears that Greer is given yeoman’s work here but watch a little closer and you’ll see an exquisitely subtle rendering of a daughter grappling with the necessity of self-preservation against the strength of familial bonds. It also doesn’t hurt that Greer gets, arguably, the best line and cheer-worthy moment in the movie.

Overall, Green delivers the requisite slasher goods. The film’s post-Myers’ escape pacing is spot-on, and the body count is suitably upsized from the film’s 1978 counterpart, which is cleverly acknowledged as being tame by today’s standards in the film. He does an exceptionally good job of liberally sprinkling in Easter eggs for the franchise’s faithful—almost two dozen by count—without pulling the new Halloween out of the present and into the past. This reviewer isn’t sure that the casual viewer (or even the diehard fan for that matter) will realize what a tricky balancing act this is. After all, with forty years of history, it would be a missed opportunity not to pay tribute in some way to what precedes Green’s film; conversely, done too obviously or without careful regard for tone and pacing, viewers could be pulled right out of the film. Wisely, Green limits most of his Easter eggs to visual references—sheets hanging on a clothesline, familiar rubber Halloween masks, a closet with louvered doors, a memorable tombstone, a hastily drank glass of wine—and eschews actor cameos (with the brilliant exception of one vocal cameo by a member of the original film’s cast). Sure, I still think Kyle Richards’s adult Lindsey Wallace bumping into Curtis’ character on the street while trick-or-treating with her kids would have been brilliant, but I give Green credit for resisting the easy and obvious stunt cameos.

Again, with forty years investment in the franchise—its characters, its storylines, its hits and misses—it would be easy to nitpick the hell out of the new Halloween. After all, who knows the film better, more intimately than its loyal fanbase whose affection for the series rivals the generational affection of any sports fan for a particular team? I’ll limit my criticisms to those I felt actually detracted from the film—as made—versus any personal projection of what should have been done/included.

My chief grievance is the film’s uneven editing. There are scenes—important scenes like the one with Curtis, solo, in her truck—that are cut so abruptly that they’re jarring. It leaves the finished film feeling like there was too much to cram into some subjective studio-mandated running time constraint. No doubt the film’s future home video release may shed some light on what was cut and how—or even if—the trimmed footage changed the movie’s original footprint. My second beef is the inclusion of too many unnecessary characters—chief among them Sheriff Barker (Omar Dorsey) whose wholly pointless presence seems purposed only to fill an arbitrary diversity quotient and whose ridiculous cowboy hat to remind us that we’re in the Midwest. Third, Green’s film has been woefully shortchanged by the film’s marketing. Too many trailers showing way too much footage (including some footage that obviously fell victim to the editor’s hacksaw). Forget what I said a moment ago about ruminating on the should’ve, could’ve, and would’ve. The studio should have literally let Curtis talk the movie up the way she has with virtually nothing but perhaps a single trailer with flashes of images. Less would have been infinitely more here. Audiences know—or can easily deduce—the entire storyline going in. That lends itself to the problem of expectation mentioned earlier. Truly brilliant marketing would have been to let audiences walk in blind, having only Curtis’ well-articulated treatise about post-generational trauma in their heads as they settled into their multiplex seat to watch the movie.  

Lastly, and ideally, I would have liked to have seen a new Halloween that was relentlessly grim and frightening. Yes, I know in the post-Scream era that horror films—especially slashers—are required to infuse humor in between the murder and mayhem. But why? As films like The Descent and The Witch and The Babadook and Hereditary have shown us, it’s ok to just go for the jugular and scare the living shit out of an audience. Horror audiences are a durable bunch who don’t need chuckles sandwiched between the jump scares. Halloween, circa 1978, worked so well and has endured because Carpenter understood that. Any laughter elicited was nervous laughter. Tommy Doyle and Lindsey Wallace added to the tension with their childhood fears, not detracted from it with precocious one-liners like (the admittedly adorable) Jibrail Nantambu’s Julian does. His Webster-like comedy schtick just undermines what should have been a horrific, traumatizing scene.

And there you have it: David Gordon Green’s Halloween is an enjoyable, if imperfect, roller-coaster ride that does what it sets out to. Buoyed by a franchise-best performance from Curtis, some impressive set design and cinematography that captures the essence of the titular holiday, and an altered timeline that simplifies matters and brings the proceedings back to the spirit of Carpenter’s original, the new Halloween is a respectably solid addition to the Michael Myers mythos. Like time proved ultimately kind to Carpenter’s original—hey, even The New York Times recently gave the original film a proper review after a forty-year oversight—years and endless analysis will ultimately give Green’s film its rightful ranking within the franchise canon. For now, go see it—have a laugh, scream a little, cheer a lot. There’s something cathartic about watching a woman long-scorned taking names and kicking ass in this revitalized feminist age.

Plus, it’s Halloween—everyone’s entitled to one good scare, no?

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

In Praise of the Understated Excellence of 'The Middle'

I'm going to admit it: Last night's series finale of The Middle reduced me to a blubbering fool. After nine seasons and 215 episodes, the Heck family said goodbye to their viewers with a pitch-perfect, lovingly-executed swan song titled "A Heck of a Ride" that honored the show's tone, characters, and—most of all—its audience.

For the uninitiated, The Middle is a half-hour ABC sitcom that premiered in 2009 and follows the misadventures of an endearing, perpetually cash-strapped Indiana family. And although the show never achieved water-cooler status, it did achieve an enduring charm. The show boasted no major cast changes over its nine-year run, a narrative consistency that established its own sense of history, and an upbeat warm-heartedness without the saccharine aftertaste. It was one of those shows that I began watching because it was likely wedged between two destination shows and became an accidental favorite over the years.

The end was on par with any of the great series finales in TV history, with Patricia Heaton (as family matriarch Frankie) having a roadside meltdown during a family road trip to deposit oldest son Axl (Charlie McDermott) in Denver for his new job and adult life. “It’s the end of an era,” she laments. “It's never going to be the same again.”

“That’s the way it’s supposed to be,” Neil Flynn's Mike (husband and family patriarch) says, as we flash-forward to the family's post-Middle lives, which leave every beloved character exactly where our hearts want them to be—especially Eden Scher's eternal optimist Sue. We even get a glimpse of a bright romantic future for her gay bestie Brad (played with such joyful zeal by Brock Ciarlelli, who has been a scene-stealing highlight over the years). The show ends with a certain character's reprisal of a beloved speech quirk, and I (literally) just sobbed.

In a world that moves so fast and in a medium that cancels shows in the space of a few episodes, the comforting consistency and longevity of The Middle is worth noting—and celebrating.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Theresa Rose Danko: A Mother's Love (and Death)

Last year around this time, I received word that my mother had passed away. This information came via the divorce courts that handle my father's alimony payments so the details were scant. I did a little digging and requested information through New York State Vital Records. When I got home from work one night, I received a UPS delivery—a copy of my mother's death certificate. She apparently died in September of 2015, shortly after my fiancé and I had moved to Michigan for what turned out to be about a year.

As you can imagine, this came as a shock. Although I hadn't had any contact with my mother in the many, many years since she left my father and me when I was 16, the idea that a mother could die and the only child—technically, the next of kin—would not be at least notified was a bit of a blow.

Almost a year later, I am still feeling a very peculiar mix of unsettled, angry, and sad all at the same time. Please don't misunderstand: I'm not sad because of the loss. I lost my mother decades ago—likely to an undiagnosed mental illness, probably bipolar disorder—and I've grieved the loss appropriately during the ensuing years. No, I'm sad because the last bit of information I'll ever know about her comes from typed snippets on a death certificate, nuggets of impersonal data that beg more questions than provide answers. News of her death brought back a flood of memories from my childhood (some of which I’ve shared on social media more as an emotional purge as Mother's Day approaches), and I was left feeling a bit sucker punched in the aftermath.

My mother apparently died at 12:51 PM on Monday, September 14th, 2015. She had been admitted to the Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Binghamton, New York, ten days earlier on September 4th. She was cremated on September 17th at the Northern Bradford Crematory in South Waverly, Pennsylvania. According to her death certificate, she was a farmer who lived in Greene, New York. The person notified of her death was a woman named Dorothy who lived in Port Chester. Her attending physician is named, as is the fact that he had been attending her since July 30th, 2014; he last saw her alive on August 24th, 2015. Her manner of death is listed as "natural cause" but the copy of the death certificate is cut off after that and the remaining cause of death information is not included on the copy. Digging further, it looks like this woman who was notified of my mother's passing was a close friend; several months after my mother's death, there are records that this woman sold a piece of property that was listed as my mother's address on the death certificate.

Sometimes closure doesn’t come wrapped in a pretty box with a bow. Sometimes it’s messy, incomplete, and opens a Pandora's box of questions. It's an odd feeling, knowing that my mother no longer exists. Even in our longtime estrangement, I'd periodically entertain the fantasy of a death-bed reunion or even a post-death letter. Among the many things the woman denied me and did to me, it comes as no surprise that she would slip quietly from this world without so much as a nod in my direction—before or after her death. In some weird way, I can admire the fact that she made a decision and never looked back. Not even a pang of nostalgia could bend her resolve.

In any event, there was no obituary that I could find online anywhere. I find this sadder than any aspect of this surreal situation. Hers was still a life, and that life should be somehow marked. I'm going to post some photos of my mother to do just that, acknowledging that she was here, lived for 70 years, and then died.

Theresa Rose Danko
4-25-1945 to 9-15-2015
Rest in peace, Mom.

A caveat: After reading this, although you may be tempted to express a kind wish of sympathy, please don't. This is a weird situation for me and the customary rules simply don't apply here.

Monday, February 26, 2018

The Cerebral Sci-Fi of 'Annihilation'

I've always been inspired by speculative fiction that makes you think. Case in point: Yesterday's screening of Annihilation. It was so refreshing to see a thought-provoking science fiction film that didn't mimic or remake anything that came before it. It's a cerebral film that treats its audience with respect and the presupposition that moviegoers are intelligent and focused enough to wade into a metaphorically-rich exploration of inward annihilation.
 
Challenging, tense, visually arresting, Annihilation is a thinking man's science fiction film ripe with heady ideas and layered with provocative thematic elements. Genetic malleability as villain is a terrifying body-horror concept that director Alex (Ex Machina) Garland nails brilliantly. Like the classic slasher convention the-call-is-coming-from-inside-the-house, the idea of the terror within is executed with precision, aided in large part by the film's acting ensemble. While Natalie Portman gives an astutely understated lead performance, it's Jennifer Jason Leigh's sublime turn as the expedition's psychologist leader and Gina (Jane the Virgin) Rodriquez's career-turning performance as a lesbian EMT that are the real standouts.
 
It's equally inspiring that instead of another remake or Alien knockoff, Annihilation was adapted from the first of three novels in the excellent Southern Reach trilogy (collected in the omnibus Area X) by Jeff VanderMeer. I sincerely hope that the female-led sci-fi actioner's fourth-place bow at the box office this weekend doesn't dissuade Hollywood from making more original genre fare, mining the rich supply of original speculative fiction out there hiding in plain sight in myriad novels and short stories instead of endlessly recycling uninspiring cinematic clichés.