Saturday, October 30, 2021

Serialized Killers: HALLOWEEN KILLS and

A big part of loving a horror franchise is often loving the movies even when you don’t like them. I think that’s probably what’s happening with fans of Halloween when looking at Halloween Kills. This sequel to 2018’s reboot once again finds the masked Michael Myers stalking the streets of Haddonfield on Halloween night, this one picking up mere seconds after the last ended with his perpetual final girl Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) seemingly trapping him in a burning building. This new one has a great early scene in which the Strodes, weeping and exhausted in the back of an escaping truck (a la Texas Chain Saw Massacre), see a fleet of firetrucks speed by in the opposite direction. “Let it burn!” Laurie howls. Chilling stuff. Will the masked killer escape the building, slaughter the first responders, and keep on stabbing? What do you think? Of course the audience, having seen all the other movies that the new ones pretend didn’t happen—namely Halloweens two through eight—knows that Myers is nigh unkillable and a total psychological blank. These folks, having only experienced the terror in the classic original, would have a much more limited view of his danger. That’s why it’s funny to see this movie build back up the mythos, like it’s speed-running the ones it previously ignored. It finds a town gripped with certainty that Myers is a totem of unstoppable evil and must be hunted down, to the point where survivors of the ’78 film are now much older and prowling around looking to confront the monster and kill him themselves, whipping up frenzies and gathering hunting parties before inevitably walking right into their own slaughters.  

This is an idea director David Gordon Green (now on his fourth filmmaking identity after art house indie darling, stoner comedy helmer, and star-driven based-on-a-true-story maker) uses to make a commentary on mob mentality, which is weirdly undercut by the fact that, given the franchise’s evidence so far, Myers really is the rare guy who should be taken out. He’ll just keep stabbing otherwise. The movie, then, asks us to root against the people who want to stop him and enjoy the extravagantly bloody kills as sharp objects jab into people quickly established for the purpose of feeling a little bad as the gore geysers. It’s entirely confused, and ends with an hour-long chain reaction of inscrutable decisions on the part of everyone on screen. Best and worst is that it sidelines Curtis in a hospital for the entire runtime, keeping her almost completely separated from the main action and never really in danger. At least she didn’t have to get involved in all this violent nonsense. It’s funny that a series that started with John Carpenter’s stone-cold genre classic and was immediately ripped off by hundreds of filmmakers has never been able to approach that level of skill again, and, in fact, has only made sequels worse than the best of the rip offs. I’ll give Halloween Kills this, though. It’s definitely a Halloween. There’s even a neat flashback prologue where Jim Cummings plays a Haddonfield deputy on the original night. For fans, that, and the return of all the old signifiers of the series, might be enough.

For my money, Paranormal Activity is one of the main horror series for which weak entries have yet to dim my affection. I love the whole project, even when individual films within it are bad, which they are about half the time. Par for the course, I suppose. Final Destination. Friday the 13th. Scream. Nightmare on Elm Street. Chucky. The great horror series are all so iconoclastic that the ideas and imagery push fans through all kinds of subpar stuff. With Paranormal Activity movies, I like the slow and steady feature-length crescendos, and the ways in which the scares come not from any recurring slasher but from the filmmaking techniques. Here’s a franchise that teaches the audience to study the frame and the angle to be able to predict from where the unsettling qualities will creep in. The characters are always trying to figure out what exactly is going on in the setting, with strange bumps in the night and eerie circumstances escalating slowly but surely.

The original was a resourceful $15,000 homemade project from some self-taught amateurs that was such a scary use of its found-footage concept. It gives these films a queasy semi-real intimacy that makes, say, the sudden slamming of a door in the middle of the night truly spine-tingling. When the frame is a static shot of a bedroom, or the screen cycles through security feeds, or the camera is placed on an oscillating fan, the very predictability of the pattern has an audience leaning in to spot the unsettling details that may or may not emerge. It plays on that typical horror film idea that we do and do not want to see what’s hiding just…around…that…dark…corner. This makes for great scares throughout the series, and the best (1, 3, and 5 in my book, with some good sequences in 2 and 4, too) pass the hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck lights-on-in-the-house-that-night test.

After some downtime following a largely unsatisfying 3D effort back in 2015, Paramount has brought back the little franchise that could for a Halloween treat. The new idea is Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin, and it’s barely connected to the mythology built up before. Instead of a close-quarters haunted house experience, it changes up the setting to a wide-frame wintry fields-and-forests vision. The grey sky and chilled air—and vast silent stretches of isolated nowhere—builds the same sense of paranoia and unease. The film follows a young woman (Emily Bader) whose boyfriend (Roland Buck III) goes with her to upstate New York to meet the family she never knew. Discovering that she was adopted after her birth mother, an Amish teenager fleeing her family, left her out-of-wedlock baby at a hospital, she decides to make a documentary about her reunion. Hence an excuse for another movie of self-shot footage. (It also looks a little too slick for the series’ usually rougher effect. Once or twice I even had to ask myself what in-story camera got certain angles.) The family live in a tiny village with a few houses, an enormous barn, and a mysterious locked church in the middle of the woods. While our protagonists settle in for a week’s stay, we start to get the sense that the Amish family isn’t quite on the level. And just before you start to wonder if it’s all a bit insensitive in its folk-horror spin on a real religious minority, you’ll probably guess these cultists aren’t really Amish.

The setting is novel for these movies, and the lead performance is appealing, but the shivers it tries to spin are, after some time, all tired echoes of previous tricks. That gives more time to wonder why characters do what they do. By the time I’d discovered the possibly haunted room directly above the guest quarters, or the hidden cultist passages under the ground, or the hidden supply closet of [spoilers], I think I wouldn’t stay that last night. Nonetheless, director William Eubank (whose deep-sea Alien riff Underwater made good use of economical dark corners) and the series’ regular screenwriter Christopher Landon (whose Happy Death Days and Freaky are crowd-pleasingly clever horror treats) do what they can to wring suspense. There are some shadowy secret passages, a deep hole in the ground, and a fiery climax, including a genuinely funny thrill when a couple characters go through hell to get to their van and realize they left the keys back at the beginning of the escape sequence. But overall it’s mostly a long wait for a meager pay off, as the worst of these so often are. It’s a pleasant enough sit to be back in the creepy vibes and shaggy conversations and low-fi effects for a while, though. I’ll be hyped for another one. Guess that makes me a fan.

The slightly more satisfying trip down memory lane for my fellow fans might be Unknown Dimension: The Story of Paranormal Activity. Now streaming on Paramount+, it is a decent promotional retrospective documentary—closer to the sort of thing that would’ve been a DVD special back in the day than longer, more in-depth efforts like Crystal Lake Memories, a nearly seven-hour look at Friday the 13ths' creation—that shows the ingenuity and cleverness behind the series’ construction. It interviews all the principal creatives of cast and crew and is honest about some of the mistakes that were made in growing the series. (Producer Jason Blum admits “4 and 6 are the weakest.”) It’s nice to see clips and remember the context for each entry while hearing the thought processes and negotiations behind their makings. (I never tire of hearing that Steven Spielberg was so freaked out by the original that he returned his screener in a garbage bag.) It’s enough to make this viewer want to revisit the whole series. That it ends with an uncritical ad for the new feature is just something horror fans have to be used to by now. There’s no great idea that can’t be done again and again and again, for better and worse. And we’ll show up for it.

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