The entertainment quotient of a horror film isn’t entirely dependent on a high body count. While plenty of horror films leave in their wake enough corpses to fill an Olympic swimming pool, there are also plenty of films without a single death that still cause weeks of nightmare-filled, sleepless nights. Stacks of dead bodies in a movie don’t guarantee anything, beyond some extra carnage and cleanup. Halloween Kills not only has “kills” in the title, it has the most onscreen deaths of any Halloween to date. That still doesn’t make it a worthy heir to the Michael Myers legacy.
The original 1978 Halloween is rightly considered one of the most terrifying films in the history of American horror, as well as one of the earliest slasher films. It’s a tense cat-and-mouse stalking game between a babysitter, the boogeyman, and his doctor. Just the mere suggestion of the film’s stark score and its isolated piano notes are enough to make in-the-know horror fans stop whatever they’re doing and carefully check that no one is watching them from behind a hedge. But even with such a dark aura glowing around the film, Halloween’s body count is a lowly five people. The roots of Michael Myers’ reign isn’t a numbers game.
Watching bodies hit the floor does have a clear appeal for some horror fans. That isn’t always about gore — sometimes the sheer number of lost lives is the core of the tragedy in the film. Carrie would not have been as shocking if she hadn’t wiped out everyone at prom. Similarly, the sheer volume of deaths across the sequels to The Purge only emphasizes the disgusting dehumanization of the traditions in the franchise’s alternative America. In these cases, the films’ kills cumulatively contribute to the monsterization of the antagonists, and deepen the overall horror.
But when horror fans laugh about death and destruction in a movie, they’re rarely celebrating that type of body count. Some people love cathartic onscreen vengeance, and delight in what they see as earned punishment for horror characters. Others love schlock, and appreciate the craft of a good murder effect. Laughing at death and celebrating the films that see the humor in its inherent absurdity can disarm the natural fear of its unknowns. On a psychological level, looking at death and terror straight on, then dismissing it with a joke is one sure-fire way to feel empowered and less anxious about mortality. It’s the equivalent of seeing the Grim Reaper trip over his own robes.
But that’s one of the major downfalls of Halloween Kills: Director David Gordon Green tries to have it both ways. He wants the audience to mourn certain deaths, while scolding them for not grieving for others. He lets the series’ signature killer, Michael Myers, cut a swath through the town of Haddonfield, indiscriminately identifying certain residents for hilarious deaths, and others for tragic deaths. Whether they’re nameless, faceless canvases for Michael’s killing spree, or characters the film has emotionally invested in seems to have little bearing on whether their deaths are treated seriously.
Halloween Kills starts moments after the 2018 Halloween ends, then flashes back to 1978, and the Halloween night of John Carpenter’s franchise-launching movie. The 2018 Halloween returned to that film’s canon, ignoring all the other sequels and reboots that followed. The flashback shows what the police were up to during the hunt for killer Michael Myers. In the abandoned Myers house, a young officer named Hawkins (Thomas Mann) has an encounter with Michael that haunts him for the next 40 years. This face-off doesn’t change anything franchise fans know about Michael, but it does provide additional framing for Hawkins’ attachment to Myers, and his preoccupation with vengeance against the masked slasher.
Meanwhile, in the present, Michael has survived the fire at the home of 1978 Halloween survivor Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), and he’s thriving. He swiftly kills all the first responders at the scene, then takes off to find more bodies to stack up. Laurie is brought to the hospital for treatment, with her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and teenage granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak). Worried that Laurie will die of her injuries, Karen orders Allyson to stay with her, but true to teenage rebellion, Allyson wants to hit the streets and kill Michael herself.
Conveniently for Allyson, there are posses forming to go hunt Michael too. Survivors of his 1978 killing spree are bonding over drinks at an open-mic night when the news breaks about a string of violent murders. The survivors, along with a bar full of easily frenzied locals, split into armed groups who spread out over town, looking to kill the re-emerged boogieman.
Green and his co-writers, Danny McBride and Scott Teems, spend an awful lot of Halloween Kills watching this growing posse, with varied appraisal. Sometimes they seem to think the mob is constructive, while at other times, the film is clearly arguing against any mob that is unwilling to listen to the voice of reason. Introducing this morally indeterminate yet violent crowd muddles the franchise’s previously pristine line between good and evil.
While there’s plenty to be said about humanity being the true monsters on earth, that has never been the message of the Halloween films. Michael Myers is supposed to be an uncut evil machine, and all the viewers want is to see his victims fighting back. This mob isn’t about pure, satisfying retaliative justice. While there’s nothing wrong with moral complexity in horror films, Green and company go further with their muddied message, using the mob to hold a mirror up to a bloodthirsty audience, and condemn them for enjoying the kind of cinematic violence Halloween Kills provides.
Intentionally humorous horror films that also pile on the gore tend to downplay the humanity of the victims. There’s no real emotional tragedy in the entire bay of munched-to-death spring breakers in Piranha 3D. No one’s asking viewers to contemplate the previously rich home lives of the infected crowd decapitated by a helicopter in 28 Weeks Later. As cruel as it may sound, the swarms of victims in most corpse-packed horror movies are consciously prevented from becoming full characters, so the gorehounds in the audience can enjoy the cathartic release of watching heads roll. Halloween Kills instead puts names and faces on the victims, making them the protagonists’ neighbors or friends. Then it still mows them down in an over-the-top way, signaling to the audience that all this is meant to be fun, while making sure it isn’t.
Beyond the sloppy judgments leveled against the audience is an equally sloppy portrayal of Michael Myers. The villain who started the franchise as a 6-year-old sister-killer grew up to become a looming figure who lives in the uncanny valley of serial killers. Unlike the later, more humanized version of the character, Carpenter’s version, and now David Gordon Green’s, looks like a man, but doesn’t talk or walk like one. He doesn’t emote. He studies humans as if they were otherworldly. He does not even show his own face. The tension between humanity and monster seethes beneath his coveralls and William Shatner mask.
But that tension is often lost in Halloween Kills. Some of Michael’s kills are inexplicably played for laughs, and some are played with high drama, with little reason given as to why one life is made to feel more valuable than the other. Worst of all, there’s no consistency to Michael as either a masked person, or an inhuman force. Sometimes he toys with the bodies, sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he taunts the victims, sometimes not. While previous Halloweens portray him as cold, methodical, and unreactive, Halloween Kills shows him as inconsistently playful. If Michael Myers is supposed to be the one consistent factor throughout the franchise, these tonal missteps distract from his character and killing style.
Halloween Kills has its merits, including a few good laughs and a few inventive kills. But those momentary bursts of entertainment can’t carry the weight of the legendary Michael Myers legacy. This is the monster who helped kickstart the entire slasher subgenre, and audiences who love those films have high expectations when it comes to their beloved bad guys. Fans of Michael Myers might get a kick out of seeing him on the big screen again, but those who truly know him will likely be let down by his wavering representation. Bloodthirsty gorehounds could perhaps feel indulged by the inventive kills sprinkled throughout, but will likely be turned off by some characters’ obvious morality and atonal losses. Halloween Kills never settles on a tone, a morality, or its killer, and while it lives up to its aggressive title, it still feels sloppy and hollow.
Halloween Kills debuts in theaters and on Peacock Oct. 15.