Thursday, October 28, 2021

Trick or Treat 2021: Halloween Kills (2021) and Devil’s Five (2021)

Halloween Kills 


David Gordon Green’s Halloween (2018) was a great, perhaps even classic sequel to John Carpenter’s 1978 slasher landmark. The 2018 effort stands by itself as a bookend to that watershed, and that fact alone guarantees it a place of honor in the horror film pantheon. 


However, at some point, it was decided that the 2018 film would serve as the first in a new trilogy of Halloween films. 


This choice may have been a mistake.


The decision to go big and create a trilogy, more than anything else, explains Halloween Kills (2021).  Halloween Kills is a middle chapter, and thus a film with no real beginning and no real ending.  In short, nothing important really happens here, except for one death at film’s end.


This sequel basically marks time between the trilogy set-up of the 2018 film and the presumably gut-shattering climax of the long-lived saga that audiences will witness in 2022. The trilogy’s legendary final woman, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is mostly sidelined in the hospital, recuperating in Halloween Kills, while her nemesis, Michael Myers cuts a bloody swath to his old home in Haddonfield.  But the enemies don’t even meet face-to-face in this film. 


And neither of ‘em dies, either.  


It’s all prelude.


Certainly, some ‘middle’ films in trilogies have succeeded admirably. One can’t help but remember The Empire Strikes Back (1980) or The Godfather 2 (1974).  On the other hand, there are tiresome efforts like the overlong, under-plotted The Two Towers (2003), which grind on endlessly to little dramatic effect.


For the Halloween saga, the matter is even more problematic.  


This is a franchise built around a single night of the year, and an unstoppable killer who, mostly, eliminates characters violently.  There’s not a whole lot of room in that formula to grow a new mythology. And any new character in this Michael Myers cinematic universe is almost instantly undone by Michael’s knife.  The Halloween films are anti-world building in the strictest sense. 


No one can really survive long enough for the audience to get to know and love them.

But Halloween Kills is ambitious. It reaches back to an old Twilight Zone (1959-1961) episode called “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” for inspiration and wishes to serve as a commentary on the mob mentality. Characters who we last saw forty years ago (at least in-universe), such as Tommy Doyle (Anthony Michael Hall), Lindsey Wallace (Kyle Richards), Sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers) and Nurse Marion (Nancy Stephens) all return only to become hardcore, weapon-toting vigilantes hunting Michael Myers during his murder spree.  


The problem is that these rabble rousers don’t much care who gets caught in the crossfire, and innocent people are harmed by their actions. Just the way Michael Myers harms innocent people


Get it?


This plotline is meant, no doubt, to suggest MHGA (Make Haddonfield Great Again) and remind the audience of the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.  The mob chants of “Evil dies tonight” might as well be that tired old refrain:“Lock her up!”


It’s perfectly understandable why this imagery has bubbled up into our cinematic horror dreamscapes. January 6 was a terrifying day for this country. People died, including heroic police officers who defended our lawmakers and our public property from harm. The peaceful transfer of power, for the first time in over 200 years, was jeopardized by armed insurrectionists.


Certainly, I admire and seek out sub-text in horror films, but this “vigilante mob” plot in Halloween Kills is not effective sub-text.  On the contrary, it is ham-handed text. It feels obvious, belabored, and a bit of a red herring in the saga. It’s a time killer too. Time that could be spent with Laurie’s family, or with Michael on his journey, is wasted instead with the angry mob chanting in Haddonfield Hospital or chasing down an innocent suspect. 


So, perhaps, given the context of January 6th, this is the Halloween film we need right now. Our psyches demand a replay and parsing of what happened that day. As long as those who tried to destroy our country are allowed to escape responsibility for their treason, or play the riot down, that imagery is going to replay in our entertainment.  Over and over.  It is a boogeyman that demands to be exorcised.  As the late great Wes Craven often suggested in his horror films, things that are ignored and repressed re-emerge in scary ways.


And yet, despite its connection to our everyday lives, Halloween Kills doesn’t feel like the Halloween film we want right now.


These are films that should thrive on simplicity. The terror of Halloween is that white mask, that Rorschach Test for our subconscious. We can imprint our own fears on that shape, on that blank, emotionless visage, and we do so. Yet Halloween Kills, despite its intense violence, doesn’t really go for scares or suspense.  The movie got my blood pumping precisely once. In one scene, Michael dispatches with a Haddonfield posse in a playground, and there is just one survivor, Lindsey. She runs to escape him, and he follows, through the dark park. This scene gets the classic Halloween equation just right: a predator and prey in the dark, in a place where law and order can’t reach, where the mechanisms of modern society can’t save anybody.  There is only the law of the jungle, or the prehistoric law of the cave, perhaps.  


There are some memorable moments in Halloween Kills, including a gunshot death that points out -- in a jaw-dropping split-second -- the danger of irresponsible gun ownership, and another virtuoso scene in which Michael uses a stair bannister as a murder weapon.  There are some fascinating flashbacks in the movie too, that, to my heart’s delight, resurrect the great Dr. Loomis (and the equally great Donald Pleasence) without resorting to CGI.


But none of this material gets at the core fear of Halloweenthe fear of being chased in the dark by a relentless predator, one who will not stop, and who cannot be reasoned with.


Contrarily, some of the staging of the action in the film is laughable. My son loved Halloween 2018 but he burst out into hysterics during the firefighter battle at the start of Halloween Kills. To set it up, Michael emerges from Laurie’s house brandishing a weapon. The firefighters on the lot, without blinking an eye, grip their hatchets and go after him, one after the other.  


There’s not even an instant -- or a single shot -- of those fire fighters registering a ‘WTF’ expression when they see Michael. There is not the slightest pause for the firemen to consider their actions. Instead, they just grip their weapons and go lemming like, into battle, against Michael.  It’s ridiculous. Any sane fire fighters would have stepped back, not lunged mindlessly into battle. Consequently, a moment that should have led to a kick-ass action scene plays as unintentionally funny.


But my son was right about something else. When the film was over, he said he didn’t hate it. He observed instated that the quality and value of Halloween Kills won’t really be assessed until after Halloween Ends (2022).  If that film proves a great punctuation to this saga, Halloween Kills will be re-evaluated and seen as a bizarre, if ambitious and interesting middle chapter.  If Halloween Ends is terrible, the narrative will be that the trilogy lost its way with Halloween Kills, and just couldn’t recover from it.


Again, see how difficult it is being the middle chapter?


Halloween Kills didn’t slay me, but it didn’t entirely murder the mystique of Michael Myers, either.



Devil’s Five


Meanwhile…Devil’s Five (2021) is an ultra-low-budget independent horror anthology concerning a dark plot to summon Satan, dramatized across a series of vignettes. The film opens with a crime scene on a dark highway and depicts police detectives interviewing the mysterious perp at a local station. The officers then view a number of video files on thumb drives that provide a jigsaw-like puzzle perspective of the apocalyptic plot. 


One story in Devil’s Five involves a photo shoot gone wrong at an abandoned mental asylum (think Session 9 [2001]), and another involves a video blogger sharing decades old footage of stoners who attempt to summon Satan in the woods with the help of an evil book (think Evil Dead [1981]). This story features some sharp humor as the deadly serious blogger is interrupted by his mother, who vacuums the carpet in the background of a shot and punctures the self-important blogger’s narratives.


Yet another tale in Devil’s Five, “Choke” involves a married actress and a scene of auto-erotic asphyxiation that goes supernaturally wrong. This story represents the emotional highpoint of the film in some ways and could have been expanded to be even more effective and human.


The technical credits for the independently made Devil’s Five are solid. There are some sequences here that deliver the goods, at least from a purely visual perspective. I especially enjoyed one almost 360-degree shot of Satanists emerging from the sanitarium in pursuit of their prey. I remember all too well from my days of guerilla and independent filmmaking the thrill of executing a good shot like that one. And in “Choke,” split screens are utilized to good effect, suggesting a multiplication of a character’s shame, and regret. This choice of editing technique also ties into the film’s leitmotif, which is, simply stated, that the film’s audience --you and me -- is an integral part of the story (and the devil’s apocalyptic strategy).


At a running time of nearly two hours, Devil’s Five doesn’t sustain its visual ingenuity. And when the performances falter or fall flat, it becomes clear that the stories feel more like sketches than fully-fleshed-out narratives. In fairness, this is a difficulty shared by many low budget anthology horror films, including ones I’ve worked on, myself.


The film’s wraparound climax -- which explains that the Satanic apocalypse has been transmitted to the audience itself -- boasts a Carpenter-ian, In the Mouth of Madness (1994) vibe, and that is an admirable quality that might have been integrated more consistently throughout this independently shot and produced anthology.

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