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Monday, January 7, 2019

Resolve: 2019 Edition


Well, it’s a week into 2019 and I’m just committing my resolutions for the year to writing and public posting. Full transparency: I struggled a bit this year formulating an attack plan because, frankly, I wasn’t feeling motivated. I let myself down in some aspects of last year’s goals and have been rather hard on myself, which might explain my lack of gusto as the New Year kicked off. Last year, like the one before, I committed to an agenda of resolutions. Here’s a recap and how I did with each:
Last year’s mind-related resolution was to read more than last year by cutting out some TV hours. (Farewell, GOTHAM and MADAM SECRETARY…) and—more importantly—to read more widely with a goal of branching out from horror to include more literary fiction, mysteries, LGBT fiction, and at least one non-fiction book that struck my fancy in my TBR pile.
How’d I do? Eh. I maintained the reduction in television hours but didn’t quite read as much as I’d hoped. I’m a slow reader and one who needs near-perfect conditions (i.e. quiet, comfort, a cup of tea), which I recognize as a self-limiting behavior. Although I matched my reading output of the year prior, I’d still only give myself a 5 out of 10.
My 2018 body-related resolutions were, first, to continue on my then-current weight loss trajectory (I’d lost 50 pounds by year’s end) to lose another fifty pounds and, second, to decrease my psychological reliance on Starbucks coffee.
How’d I do? I failed miserably. I never quite managed to recalibrate following Oprah’s tinkering with the Weight Watchers’ successful SmartPoints program by adding the nonsensical “freestyle” element. The result: I re-gained forty of the fifty pounds lost in 2017. Yep—and I’m as addicted as ever to Starbucks lattes and their cursed egg/bacon/gouda breakfast sandwich. Epic fail on my 2018 body goals.
Lastly, with regard to my soul/spirit-related goals from last year, I’d committed to two resolutions. The first was to continue to build on the momentum I’d gained in 2017 with my writing. The second, coming on the heels of my 365 days of gratitude social media postings, was to seek out something that inspired me every day in 2018—a quote, a piece of art, a person, a place, a photograph, a book or film, a historical figure, a motivational article, a clever meme, a current events story reported in the media—and post it to Facebook each day. The idea was to refocus my perspective on all the inspiring people, places, and things that surround me and use those as inspiration to be the best possible version of myself and motivation to do the work required to do so.
How’d I do? Happy to say that I did far better with this last set of resolutions than I did with those in either the mind or body categories. The daily inspiration postings were completed—365 of them in all, one for every day of the year. While I don’t think they resonated as meaningfully as the previous year’s gratitude postings, I think I inspired myself and others on occasion. Or at least gave us all something inspirational to chew on.
I continued to write up a storm, with two pieces published this year—one a historical-horror reimagining of the last night of Judy Garland’s life called “The London Encounter” which was published in a hefty and wildly entertaining anthology titled Fantastic Tales of Terror: History’s Darkest Secrets edited by Eugene Johnson, the second a non-fiction piece called “What Came First: The Monster or the Plot? In Conversation with Stephen Graham Jones” which found a home in the second book in a series of how-to guides for new and established authors titled It's Alive: Bringing Your Nightmares to Life edited by Joe Mynhardt and Eugene Johnson. I can’t say enough nice things about working with both of these editors or Crystal Lake Publishing, the outfit that published both books. I was also asked by Lambda Literary to contribute a piece on queer book to film horror adaptations. The result: “Five UnconventionalQueer Horror Films to Fright and Delight this Halloween.”
And although I didn’t make headway with either of my two novels-in-progress, I stuck to my resolution and wrote my ass off. In addition to a few additional short stories, I also made significant progress on something I’ve been keeping under wraps—a poetry collection. Yep, you heard me correctly. Back in 2015, I relocated to the state of Michigan for a year with my fiancé, Brian. While there, I challenged myself to start reading more poetry and then I started to intensively study and work within the form. Surprisingly, a collection of decidedly horror-themed verse has emerged. I’ve literally only showed it to one beta reader—a dear friend and colleague who’s very well-respected within the horror writing community—and she went crazy over it. Her generous and enthusiastic feedback has now energized me to finish it and find it a fitting home…
…which leads me to my resolutions for 2019. I’ll start the mind/body/spirit sequence in reverse this time. This year, I’m borrowing a tip from the nuns who used to teach me back in my parochial elementary school days: KISS. Keep it simple, stupid. 
I. Soul (Spirit)
My priority this year with regard to my writing is to finish that aforementioned poetry collection and find it a fitting home. I’m also resolving to finish a handful of unfinished short stories and find homes for the ones I completed last year. One has already been submitted to a very cool themed anthology.
I’m going to eschew a “theme” this year and forgo any kind of numbered daily posts. I was grateful, I was inspired…and now I’m tired. To be honest, 730 consecutive days of prescribed posting was a worthwhile exercise in self-discipline and now it’s time to apply that same level of self-discipline to other areas of my life, including my writing. 
Toward the end of 2018, I engaged in this cool little exercise called a “reverse Advent calendar” during which I added a food item each day during Advent to a holiday basket for those in need. At the end of the cycle, I brought the non-perishable items to a local food pantry. In 2019, I’m going to try and be more generous and giving in general. I’m setting a goal of performing at least one charitable act each month. 
II: Body
It’s simple: I need to eat less and move more. Period. No excuses, no blaming Oprah. Where there is a will, there is a way. Oh—and there’s that group cruise to Bermuda in early May to provide some extra motivation. I’ve rejoined Weight Watchers and will commit to weighing in every week. I’m also going to strive for one positive diet and/or fitness action per day—might be as simple as this past Saturday when I skipped the Starbucks. Speaking of which, yes, I’d like to break the coffee chain’s hold over me but I know that denial has never worked for me. That feeling of depravation builds and builds and I crash hard with a relapse that’s worse than the habit. So I’m going to try gradually cutting back when my stamina is strong (like I did on Saturday). On days when I succumb to the lure of the latte, I’ll count it in my daily points and work it into the program. As far as a weight loss goal? I’m going to shoot for 60 pounds by year’s end—the 40 that I regained plus an extra 20 for this year.

III: Mind
Included back in the 2017 slate of resolutions was a goal to limit my news sources, filtering out biased sources in favor of more unbiased, legitimate sources. I did this successfully but, sadly, much of the rest of society has only dug deeper into their partisan holes. To that extent, I’m going to drastically limit political postings to my Facebook wall and try to refrain from commenting on political threads elsewhere. I’ll likely limit those political posts I do make to the upcoming primary season as various candidates throw their hats into the proverbial ring. These are conversations worth having, in my humble opinion. 
Above all else, I’m going to resolve—mind, body, and spirit—to practice more self-love this year. I’m going to try to do things for myself that bring me enjoyment, satisfaction, and contribute to my inner peace. Because, in the immortal words of one RuPaul Charles, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you going to love anybody else?”

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Top Ten Albums of 2018


What do three bands, three solo male artists, and four female solo artists all have in common? Yep—each earned a ranking in this year’s Top Ten Albums. The year was a solid one for ‘80s-era artists wanting to prove they’re more than nostalgia acts—with Culture Club, Rick Astley, The Motels, former Spandau Ballet frontman Tony Hadley, Swing Out Sister, and Edie Brickell and New Bohemians all releasing excellent new material. Cher was back, too—this time with a feel-good album of ABBA covers—but she defies a designated decade. There were at least two emerging artists who caught my attention with their sophomore albums, while one former frontman of an eclectic glam-rock-pop outfit really impressed with his solo bow. The Brits (again) figured prominently in my annual year-end list with half hailing from the across the pond. Last year was a hard one to beat—with favorites Alison Moyet, Jessie Ware, Sam Smith, and Paloma Faith all releasing great albums—but 2018 was no slacker when it came to outstanding music.
Without further ado, here are my favorite albums of 2018, ranked from 10th to 1st with a few honorable mentions thrown in for good measure. I hope at least a few selections from my humble annual countdown pique your interest or maybe even made your own year-end list of favorites. 


#10—TALKING TO THE MOON / Tony Hadley

Hadley—former frontman of the iconic 80s New Romantic outfit Spandau Ballet—has one of pop music’s most instantly recognizable voices that’s soulful, charismatic, and larger-than-life. It’s no surprise then that TALKING TO THE MOON—his fifth solo album and first in a decade—pairs the singer’s bombastic pipes with a slick, perfectly crafted collection of radio-friendly pop songs that allows him to show off his vocal range and versatility. Whether scaling the operatic heights of the stadium-ready “Tonight Belongs to Us” or romantically crooning the Go West-penned “Skin Deep,” TALKING TO THE MOON was designed as a re-introduction to Hadley’s unmistakable voice and vocal prowess.
Highlights: The melodramatic “Killer Blow,” ballad “Unwanted,” and the stunning closer “What Am I?” 


#9—BLOOM / Troye Sivan

On this second studio album from Australian singer and songwriter Troye Sivan, the 22-year-old confidently catalogs the everyday experiences of the modern young gay man, laying them out in with startling vulnerability and transparency in this collection of mid-tempo, luxuriant post-Lorde pop songs. The ten tracks on BLOOM are remarkable for their nonchalance with the subject matter and Sivan’s frank and unflinching exploration of his sexual orientation through song, even when topics like Grindr hook-ups with older men and the anxiety over bottoming for the first time are steeped in clever metaphors and witty double entendres. Earnest and honest and bold, BLOOM is as mature an effort as it is playful.
Highlights: The beautifully plaintive “Postcard,” opener “Seventeen,” and the title track. 


#8—ALWAYS IN BETWEEN / Jess Glynne

On her second solo outing, the one-time Clean Bandit vocalist steps out confidently on this cohesive set of upbeat, radio- and club-friendly pop-EDM that melds the more contemporary soul stylings of Joss Stone with the gospel-tinged tropical house synths of M People. At the center of it all is Glynne’s increasingly familiar full-throated warble, a voice that falls somewhere between Adele and Heather Small. ALWAYS IN BETWEEN is a perfectly-curated collection of catchy pop songs filled with piano-based beats, infectious sing-along choruses, and raucous horn sections. Pure cotton candy for the ears.
Highlights: The sassy, middle-finger-flippin’ “Rollin,” the acoustic guitar-driven “Thursday” co-penned by Ed Sheeran, and bouncy “All I Am.”


#7—HIGH AS HOPE / Florence + The Machine

The acclaimed English indie rock band—fronted by powerhouse vocalist Florence Welch—shines on its fourth studio album, HIGH AS HOPE. It’s their finest effort to date, boasting a lyrical maturity and depth that's grown steadily with each subsequent release. Instrumentally, the bombastic percussion, handclaps, and soaring strings germane to the band's signature sound remain intact, toned down just enough to elevate Welch's vocals to the forefront even more than previous efforts.
All ten tracks were written or co-written by Welch and her lyrics on this outing are as personal as they are poetic. There's a strong confessional vibe at play here, from acknowledgement of a past eating disorder and experimentation with drugs and alcohol to an admission that happiness is something transitory and fleeting—merely moments among hours of loneliness—and that catharsis may not exist at all.

In an understated collection of songs largely focusing on lament, what HIGH AS HOPE lacks in the theatrics and vocal histrionics of past records, it more than makes up for in its intimacy and beautiful ruminations on how hope is predicated on the past.
Highlights: “Hunger,” “Big God,” and the exquisite “The End of Love.”


#6—JAKE SHEARS / Jake Shears

On his eponymous debut solo album, Jake Shears keeps the Scissor Sisters sheen and adds some introspection that never gets mired in sentiment. Recorded in Kentucky and New Orleans with live musicians from My Morning Jacket and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the album is part funk, part glam-rock, part honky-tonk and completely infectious—musical swagger for the soul. Wisely, Shears never strays too far from the winning dance-pop formula of the eclectic band he once fronted, opting to stuff his first solo album with the same jubilant escapism and a wild melding of appropriated New Orleans authenticity. Whether he’s fronting a band or striking out solo, Shears proves here that he’s a pop provocateur and the consummate showman.
Highlights: The country twang of “Sad Song Backwards,” the insinuating bass line of “Creep City,” and the playful funk of “Clothes Off.”


#5—DEEPER / Lisa Stansfield

Nearly three decades after Lisa Stansfield debuted on the worldwide stage with AFFECTION—now, arguably, a classic—the English songstress returned this year with DEEPER. And—like AFFECTION and its follow-up, 1991’s REAL LOVE—it’s co-written and co-produced by her long-term partner (and real-life husband) Ian Devaney. Overall, DEEPER is something of a return to form for Stansfield, who’s described the album as the musical “lovechild” between her first two albums. Like those albums, DEEPER has a timeless quality to it, anchored by Stansfield’s husky voice—now slightly raspier, adding some grit and texture. DEEPER is a comforting slice of Brit-soul—replete with horns, strings, and Motown stylings—that gives a sly wink to the nostalgia of Stansfield’s earlier efforts without sounding dated. The only thing the album lacks is a sense of risk—something overrated in this case when you’ve got the distinctive name-brand loyalty Stansfield does after thirty years. Why reinvent the wheel when the wheel turns so well?
Highlights: The title track—with its killer ‘80s-era synth bass line—would sound perfectly at home on a new Tina Turner album, while “Hercules” is an infectious stomper and the danceable “Desire” sounds like an updated “This Is the Right Time.”


#4—DIRTY COMPUTER / Janelle Monáe

Funky, fun fabulousness from the (now) obvious successor to Prince’s mantle. The album is filled with tracks that are harmonically lush, intertwining racial and gender politics with hook-laden funk-pop punctuated at times by ferocious raps. Monáe wisely sets aside the high-concept funk-opera science-fiction stylings of both her debut (The ArchAndroid) and its follow-up (THE ELECTRIC LADY) and lets loose with some polished postmodern pop grooves and a refreshing lyrical directness that seem to liberate her creatively. The album’s influences (besides the obvious nods to Prince) are many and varied—from Janet Jackson (circa the Rhythm Nation era) and Daft Punk, to Grace Jones and David Bowie. Musically and lyrically, DIRTY COMPUTER is the pop-funk equivalent of St. Vincent’s boldly cerebral alt-pop gem, last year’s MASSEDUCTION. It’s radical, artful, and empowering music with a message that never eclipses the beats while not remaining submissive to them either.
Highlights: The propulsive funk of “Take a Byte,” the rollicking “Screwed,” and the gentle sexiness of “Don’t Judge Me.”


#3—TAKE ME TO THE DISCO / Meg Myers

At least once a year—if I’m lucky—I stumble across an artist I’ve never heard of and fall in love. This year, that artist is Meg Myers and the album is TAKE ME TO THE DISCO, her second after splitting with Atlantic Records. The dozen songs here are lyrically introspective and dark—anger, anguish, and an obsession with mortality all play central roles—and combine catchy pop melodies and haunting vocals in a lush guitar-synth soundscape. Singer-songwriter Myers is the modern-rock musical lovechild of Alanis Morissette and Kate Bush, and TAKE ME TO THE DISCO is alt-rock for the thinking man's soul.
Highlights: The raw rage of “Done,” “Tourniquet,” and the wordplay of “Jealous Sea” are standouts in a collection without a single filler track. 


#2—VIOLENCE / Editors

The sixth album by this consistently inconsistent five-piece English rock band pulses with electro-rock bravado and brutal industrial edges that call to mind the goth-pop bangers of Depeche Mode and Muse while ushering the band through yet another tonal shift that brings a much-needed infusion of pop hooks and cool bass grooves. On VIOLENCE, the characteristic moodiness of previous efforts remains—anchored by Thomas Smith’s gloriously pathos-ridden baritone voice—but it’s balanced somewhat by bigger anthemic arrangements and a shimmering New Wave synth-rock exterior that bring an emotional richness that helps melt all the ice of those dark lyrical undertones. Side note: Hands-down, the best album cover of the year, too!
Highlights: “Nothingness,” “Hallelujah (So Low),” and the title track.


#1—THE LAST FEW BEAUTIFUL DAYS / The Motels

Approaching 40 years since the band's self-titled Capitol debut dropped, Martha Davis and company released THE LAST FEW BEAUTIFUL DAYS—the band's 13th studio recording and first album of new material since 2008's THIS—and it's easily one of their best in their long and accomplished career.

THE LAST FEW BEAUTIFUL DAYS is an amazingly cohesive, perfectly-crafted collection of AOR that channels the band's more polished production aesthetic from its 80s heyday into a thoroughly modern musical soundscape. The band's signature film noir sensibility remains intact—thanks largely to Martha Davis's distinctively sultry voice—and is juxtaposed against glossy pop-rock hooks galore to astonishing effect. The gorgeous title track alone will leave you in shambles and serves as a pitch-perfect curtain call for one of the best albums of the year.
Highlights: The aforementioned title track, opener “Punchline,” and the gorgeous “As Long As.”


Notable efforts that fell short of making my Top Ten for the year but worthy of honorable mention:

LIFE / Culture Club
DANCING QUEEN / Cher
RECORD / Tracey Thorn
BEAUTIFUL LIFE / Rick Astley
ROCKET / Edie Brickell & New Bohemians
PRAY FOR THE WICKED / Panic! At the Disco
JULIANA HATFIELD SINGS OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN / Juliana Hatfield
ALMOST PERSUADED / Swing Out Sister

Friday, December 14, 2018

The Year’s Best in Thrills, Chills, and Kills

Although I’ve mentioned elsewhere that my favorite book of the year was The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai, truth is that most of the books I’ve read this year fall squarely into the darker side of fiction. Horror, mysteries, and thrillers are, by far, my proverbial cup of tea. This year continued with the upswing in quality genre works—with horror continuing its meteoric rise in creativity over cliché, mysteries harkening back to the comforting familiarity of the cozy, and thrillers continuing to deliver twists and turns with whiplash speed.


Top Ten Horror Reads of 2018

This weekend, I’ll be submitting my recommendations for the prestigious Bram Stoker Award in various categories. I’ll be recommending sixteen works of horror this year that I felt rose to the level of the “superior” designation of the venerable awards program. This overall number is up slightly from the number of works I recommended last year, which I think is indicative of how far the current crop of horror writers continue to raise the bar in terms of creativity, quality, and innovation within the genre.

#10— Inhospitable by Marshall Moore

#9— The Devil and the Deep Edited by Ellen Datlow

#8— Porcelain by Nate Southard

#7— Distortion by Lee Thomas

#6— Dracul by Dacre Stoker and J.D. Barker

#5— Neverworld Wake by Marisha Pessl

#4— The Third Hotel by Laura Van Den Berg

#3— Unbury Carol by Josh Malerman

#2— The Hunger by Alma Katsu

#1— A Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay



Honorable mentions (which also garnered Stoker recommendations):

The Outsider by Stephen King

The Saturday Night Ghost Club by Craig Davidson

Of Echoes Born by ‘Nathan Burgoine

Rabid Heart by Jeremy Wagner

Scream All Night by Derek Milman

The Fives Sense of Horror Edited by Eric J. Guignard



Top Ten Mysteries/Thrillers of 2018


#10— The Surviving Girls by Katee Robert

#9— The Other Mother by Carol Goodman

#8— In Prior’s Wood by G.M. Malliet

#7— All These Beautiful Strangers by Elizabeth Klehfoth

#6— Into That Good Night by Levis Keltner

#5— The Last Time I Lied by Riley Sager

#4— An Unwanted Guest by Shari Lapena

#3— The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware

#2— The Word Is Murder by Anthony Horowitz

#1— The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton


Thursday, December 13, 2018

Television Top Ten of 2018


Once again, the increased competition among network television, pay-cable outlets, and streaming services created a plethora of quality television from which to choose. The choices were many and varied with something to please even the most discerning viewer. Below, I list my year-end Top Ten (sorry, network television!) with a few words of free association about what tickled my television taste buds about each. Included at the end is a short list of shows deserving an honorable mention (There you are, network television!) that fell short of my Top Ten but nonetheless merit mention.

#10 – The Deuce (HBO)

At a glance: Hookers with hearts of gold and career ambitions set against a gritty Times Square backdrop circa 1977. Come for Maggie Gyllenhaal but stay for Emily Meade.

#9 – YOU (Lifetime)

At a glance: Based on a novel by Caroline Kepnes, YOU offers up a refreshing 21st-century take on stalking that leaves you questioning the real power balance between perp and victim.

#8 – TIE: The Alienist (TNT) and The Terror (AMC)

At a glance: Period piece terror at its finest.

#7 – The Kominsky Method (Netflix)

At a glance: Male version of Grace and Frankie. Come for the delightful camaraderie between Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin but stay for the ghostly advice of the divine Susan Sullivan.

#6 – Sharp Objects (HBO)

At a glance: Atmospheric Gillian Flynn adaptation dripping with gothic Southern tension. Come for Amy Adams, but stay for Patricia Clarkson. And Matt Brewer. And Elizabeth Perkins.

#5 – Pose (FX)

At a glance: Drag pageantry and pathos. Come for the colorful glamour and catty one-liners, but stay for Billy Porter’s career-turning performance.

#4 – American Horror Story: Apocalypse (FX)

At a glance: A fine return to form for the venerable anthology series. Come for Sarah Paulson and Kathy Bates as a terrible twosome, but stay for the delicious return of Joan Collins.

#3 – Killing Eve (BBC America)

At a glance: Oh, Sandra!

#2 – The Assassination of Gianni Versace (FX)

At a glance: Come for Darren Criss’s career-making performance, but stay for Judith Light who really shines.

#1 – The Haunting of Hill House (Netflix)

At a glance: Mike Flanagan continues to cement his reputation as one of horror’s best visual storytellers. Horror with family at its heart.

Honorable Mentions: Yellowstone (Paramount); Shameless (Showtime); Howard’s End (Starz); How to Get Away with Murder (ABC); Will & Grace (NBC); The Cool Kids (FOX); Murphy Brown (CBS).

Biggest Disappointment: Castle Rock (Hulu)

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?