Halloween (2018)

The David Gordon Green-directed, Danny McBride co-written, Blumhouse-produced Halloween is colloquially being framed as the Force Awakens of its respective series. This makes total sense from a franchise storytelling POV. It’s a decades-late sequel to a widely beloved classic that’s meant to reinvigorate interest in its brand by both wiping out the taste of lesser franchise entries of the past in a nostalgic return to basics and setting up a foundational storyline that can excite new fans for future installments, box office willing. However, Halloween (2018)’s context as the Force Awakens of its franchise is ringing true to me in other unexpected, even blasphemous ways. Like with The Force Awakens’s relationship to A New Hope, I found this soft-reboot to be an improvement on the original Halloween film through thoughtful, purposeful revision – although one indebted to nostalgic homage. More enthusiastic appreciators of the John Carpenter original are likely to have a drastically different relationship with Halloween (2018), but that seminal 1978 work has never been a personal favorite of mine. I much prefer the later, weirdo outliers it helped inspire: The Final Destination, Slumber Party Massacre II, Sleepaway Camp, The House on Sorority Row, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, etc. Carpenter’s score for the film and the visual design for serial killer Michael Myers are undeniably iconic, but the overall effect of the barebones horny-teens-hunted-by-a-masked-killer slasher is never as interesting to me as the stranger, more outrageous mutations of the formula that followed. I’m appreciative of Halloween (1978)’s influence on the horror genre, but skeptical of most after-the-fact academic assessments of the film that explain Michael Myers to be the embodiment of pure, senseless Evil as if that were that were a mythology it fully defined. Beyond lip service to philosophical ponderings on the nature of Evil provided by crazed psychologist Dr. Loomis, what’s mostly onscreen in the original Halloween is hot teens being punished for behaving badly (like a decades-late update to the 1950s “road to ruin” pictures where sex = death). The philosophy behind its supposed explorations of Fate & Evil have become part of its lore in the decades since its release, so that this 2018 update to its formula has much more to chew on subtextually, growing from those early seeds of ideas through focused revision.

Halloween (1978) co-writers John Carpenter & Debra Hill rationalized Michael Myers’s targeting of young, wayward teens by explaining him to be the Shape of Evil itself (even billing him as “The Shape” in the end credits), but in the text itself he effectively acts like a typical human serial killer with both prurient & prudish interests. The original sequel to Halloween, Halloween II (1982), attempted to ascribe logic to his targeting of Original Final Girl Lorie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) by making him her brother instead of a random violent stranger. Halloween (2018) ditches that sibling explanation entirely and does more with the Shape of Evil rationalization than what’s enacted in the original. 40 years after the Halloween-night serial murders of the first film, Laurie Strode is a traumatized wreck. She has alienated her family by morbidly obsessing over the murders, still attempting to make sense of Michael Myers’s impulses all these years later, preparing (read: looking forward to) his return for a “final” bout of bloodshed & closure. True crime podcasters, obsessive criminal psychologists, and a few superstitious locals share this belief that a showdown between Michael Meyers & Laurie Strode is Fate – an inevitable, momentous event. This stubborn belief in Fate and the impulse to ascribe meaning to senseless, random cruelty & chaos only leads to more personal tragedy. Laurie Strode, in her need for closure, and others obsessed with understanding the mind of the killer artificially orchestrate this final showdown with a perverse glee, like how Doomsday Preppers not-so-secretly look forward to the Apocalypse instead of approaching it with a healthy sense of dread. When Michael does eventually escape police custody to go on another killing spree (there wouldn’t be much of a movie if he didn’t), he just sort of stumbles around, indiscriminately stabbing at anything. It’s Laurie who insists on reliving her past trauma at his hands because she’s stuck in it, putting her whole family at risk as a result. She gets the supposedly fated showdown with Michael she’s been preparing for at her doomsday compound, but only because she & others obsessed with her case make it happen. In the decades since the original Halloween, people on & off the screen have been attempting to rationalize The Shape’s chaotic, emotionless enacting of Evil. No film has actually made use of that theme in a clear, substantive way as well as Halloween (2018).

The brilliance of this conceit of artificially orchestrated “Fate” is that it allows Halloween to split itself into two separate narratives that satisfy two entirely different appetites. One narrative follows Laurie Strode as she (along with other Michael Myers obsessives) endangers her family in her struggles to process her decades-later Final Girl trauma. The other follows Michael Myers indiscriminately doing his thing, completely unconcerned with the Strode Family drama. It’s in that latter thread where the film has its fun as a nostalgic slasher genre throwback, both gleefully referencing callbacks to previous Halloween films and reliving the horny-teens-punished-for-their-supposed-transgressions formula of the genre Carpenter helped establish (for better or for worse). The payoffs in the Michael Myers murder spree “plot” are much more muted than those of the Strode Family drama. You can only derive so much pleasure from spotting the latex Halloween masks from Season of the Witch or hearing Michael’s original murder spree referenced as “The Babysitter Murders” (the 1978 film’s working title), which I suppose is the less forgiving implication when you refer to this soft-reboot as the series’ Force Awakens. The murders themselves, although they leave a grotesquely contorted body count in their wake, also have a limiting entertainment value; they’re deeply indebted to the usual tones & methods of the traditional slasher. When considered in isolation, the two separate plot threads of Halloween (2018) – the Strode Family drama & the Michael Myers killing spree – feel woefully incomplete. One is too brief in screentime to land with full emotional impact, while the other is too reference-heavy & genre-faithful to feel memorable or distinct. The film’s brilliance lies in the way these separate tracks work in tandem. Cutting between Laurie’s conviction that Michael is staging a showdown with her specifically and Michael’s entirely unconcerned, indiscriminate killing spree in seemingly an entirely different movie creates a fascinating narrative tension. It becomes increasingly tragic as Laurie gets what she wants by artificially forcing the two threads to converge as if it were her Fate.

Like with The Force Awakens, this Halloween sequel/remake/reboot has the impossible task of pleasing everyone, ranging from devotees of the original who want to know how Laurie Strode’s doing 40 years later to first-weekend horror-gobbling teens who just want some jump scares & interesting kills. I believe it did an excellent job of satisfying the most extreme ends of that divide by treating them as separate tracks, then giving them a substantive reason to converge. Fans of the franchise with sky-high standards & hyper-specific requirements of how the Laurie-Michael story should be told (Star Wars-type fans, if you will) are going to be the most difficult to please, since their beloved property has to cede so much screentime to roping in newcomers who needed to be won over for this gamble to work. For me, it’s that exact tension between the original Halloween’s storyline’s need to logically seek closure & the slasher genre’s need to propagate random, senseless violence that makes this film one of the best examples of its franchise – one that has something substantive to say about Fate & Evil in a way the original only motioned towards. And it managed to do so while still playing reverent homage to that seminal work’s iconic sense of style.

-Brandon Ledet

A Swampflix Court Dissenting Opinion: Prometheus (2012) & Alien: Covenant (2017)

The unknown is terrifying, and Ridley Scott used to know this. As much as I love A Nightmare on Elm Street, The VVitch, Get Out, Raw, Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, and the Argento canon, 1977’s Alien is actually my favorite horror movie of all time. It’s claustrophobic and atmospheric, and the terror of it works on multiple levels. Atypical heroine Ellen Ripley and her compatriots are forced to contend with two different faceless evils that press inward upon them from different directions: the known and the unknown, the “company” and the alien itself. Both of these entities pose a different kind of existential threat to the crew of the Nostromo, and that’s a huge part of why the film works.

The xenomorph, as it would come to be known, is a horrifying Lovecraftian nightmare, an unknown and unknowable force that lies outside the realm of all previous human existence. It lives only to consume, kill, and reproduce, and its grotesque chitinous body is hidden in shadow and smoke, and our revulsion upon seeing it is primal; the alien is simply not right, and its existence is a reminder that space itself is an eternal night of darkness that extends in every direction, full of sights that chill the blood and churn the stomach. The quietly understated human characters who comprise the Nostromo‘s crew are not Starfleet’s finest or mystical monks with laser swords: they’re blue collar blokes like most of the audience was and is, and they, like us, are completely unprepared for the horrors that lie in the deep darkness beyond our tiny, sunlit hospitable zone.

My biggest problems with Prometheus when it first came out (I am much less willing to overlook or reinterpret its faults than Brandon is), was that the chain of events needed to create the not-quite-xenomorph seen in the finale was needlessly complex. First, the mutagen goo has to be ingested, then it has to mutate Noomi Rapace’s lover’s zygotes, then said sperm has to enter another person (perhaps with conception happening, although it’s not explicit), then the new lifeform had to leave the life form in which it was incubating to then seed another life form for another form of incubation, then we get the chest-bursting and the derpy alien that followed. There are simply too many variables and the requirements for too many different forms of life for the process to seem like a cohesive possibility, relying on contrivance and truly unlikely coincidence to exist. My suspension of disbelief is pretty extensive, but even I have limits. And I will give Covenant this: as annoyed as I am by the continuing revelations of where the classic xenomorph came from, at least the film makes it apparent that it took a significant amount of time and experimentation for David to create them.

Covenant on the whole feels wrong on multiple levels. Everything that happens after the xenomorph erupts and starts tracking down the remaining members of the ship’s crew works, for the most part, capturing a lot of the claustrophobic terror of the original (give or take the scene where David’s littlest newborn alien spreads its arms out like it wants to give him a hug, which is actually more unintentionally comical than the parody chestburster scene in Spaceballs was intentionally humorous). That outright horror, however, highlights how little this film works as a cohesive whole, as the deeper philosophical issues that Scott seems to think he’s exploring simply don’t mesh with the campier elements of the film (the aforementioned chestburster and its need for a hug, David’s laughable wig in his first scene, everything that Billy Crudup does) or with the frightening alien stalking the Covenant itself. More than anything, the film reminds me of 1997’s Lost in Space, a movie that I frequently cite as being a flick full of ideas, which is praiseworthy, save for the fact that all of those ideas are bad.

For me, the latest problem isn’t one of aesthetic nitpicking (why does the Covenant look so much more advanced than the Nostromo?) or valid scientific questions (why is no one wearing something as basic as an air mask when they go down to the planet?), although those are valid criticisms, it’s the fact that all this retconning has minimized the terror of the xenomorph by telling us too much about it. This is a frequent problem with prequels in general: in the original Star Wars, we’re never given any reason to believe that Obi-Wan’s robes are some kind of special Jedi outfit; the viewer is left to assume that he wears robes because that’s what you wear in a desert, just like the Jawas do. We never see Luke wearing robes in any of the later films; he wears what appears to be standard civilian garb. But the prequels decided to make the robes that Alec Guinness wore in A New Hope the uniform of the Jedi, for no reason that I can think of except that, perhaps, the assumption was that the audience was stupid. I suppose that this Jedi conformity could have been mentioned in the extended universe books, but I’m not going down that hole.

I’m not saying that Alien is ruined by Scott’s later works, but I would go so far as to say that he is doing as much damage to its legacy as The Phantom Menace and its follow ups did to the Orig Trig, at least in my opinion. Before Scott dreamed up a reason to call it an “Engineer,” the Space Jockey was just one more part of an unsolvable riddle: a giant dead body from an unknown race, seemingly eviscerated with its chest open, fossilized. It’s a tableau that induces anxiety because the riddle doesn’t seem like it can be solved, with the perpetrator and the victim both lost to time immemorial–or so it seems until the monster is born again when a group of little humans, completely unprepared for the horrors that exist beyond the fragile atmosphere of their world, stumble into the killing fields of an implacable star beast they cannot comprehend or reason with. Until Prometheus came alone, there was no reason to believe that the Space Jockey had anything to do with the creation of the xenomorph; instead, he seemed to represent a previous incarnation of the cycle of violence, another innocent stargazer who happened upon a living nightmare in an earlier time and succumbed to it, its titanic stature further cementing just how fucked Ripley and her comrades are.

By explaining where the Space Jockey came from, showing him to be part of another monolithic species (seriously–all the Engineers look the same) who are adept at genetic manipulation and space travel but live like shepherds, and also making them interstellar saviors, that awe and fear and majesty of that original scene in which the tiny humans approach the body of a dead giant is completely undermined and cheapened. The film series seems to be headed towards a revelation that David was responsible for engineering the situation that leads to the creepy scene that the crew of the Nostromo will eventually stumble upon, making the diorama less of a frightening exhibit that defies explanation and more of a crime scene with fantastic genetic weapons, which is not only insulting but insipid.

Further, by giving the alien menace a face in David, Scott further distances himself from the Lovecraftian menace of the original film, in which there was no human face that represented the xenomorph and its interest. Aliens featured Paul Reiser as a villain with a face, but he was merely the representative of the faceless corporation that had been in the background of the first movie, and it worked by giving us someone to hate as a balance to the xenomorph queen, which we fear. By putting a human(oid) face on the alien menace in the form of David and his devotion to the destruction of the human race for its folly in playing god and creating him by, um, playing god and creating new life, we cross into Marvel style supervillainy. For lack of a better term, it’s basic as fuck masquerading as deep. And hey–I like the Marvel movies, but that’s a different franchise for a reason (although I wouldn’t object to an MCU movie that featured The Brood, unlikely as that may be).

I’ve dwelt on this long enough, so I’ll wrap up my argument as well as I can: Covenant seems like Ridley Scott’s attempt to reinvigorate the Alien franchise with a soft reboot, akin to the reinvention-by-way-of-remaking of the Star Wars franchise using The Force Awakens to wash away the taste of the prequel trilogy. But instead of doing away with what Alien: Mission to Mars Prometheus did wrong and moving on from there to recreate the original Alien with a fresh start, there’s an attempt to smash Prometheus and Alien into one movie, and it simply doesn’t work to wipe the slate clean or build a new framework. It’s not a problem of design, or performance (I’ve been adoring Katherine Waterston since Queen of Earth, although I have yet to figure out what Danny McBride has been putting in the water that makes everyone love him so much), or casting, or editing, or cinematography. Frankly, all of these individual components work pretty well. The ultimate failure of both Prometheus and Alien: Covenant is one of Ridley Scott’s vision. He created one of the greatest horror movies of all time, and he just can’t stop himself from ruining it with his bad ideas and desire to explain what works better as a mystery.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Alien: Covenant (2017)

Of all the wacky, scary, goofy, gory follow-ups to Ridley Scott’s space horror masterpiece Alien, it’s Scott’s own 2010s prequel Prometheus that stands as my clear favorite. Aesthetically, Prometheus is on the exact wavelength of arty pulp I crave in my genre cinema, the same gorgeous-imagery-meets-dime-store-novel-idiocy dynamic that wins me over in titles like Interstellar & The Neon Demon. I also love that film on a basic thematic level, though. The idea of human beings asking Big, Important philosophical questions about our origins & purpose to literal gods and receiving only brutal, wordless violence in response is such a killer concept, one that’s both morbidly funny & surprisingly truthful to the human condition. Alien: Covenant, also directed by Scott, picks up ten years after that Prometheus timeline, positioning itself as a sequel to a prequel (what a time to be alive). In some ways it attempts to continue those exact questions of Who We Are & Where We Come From, as if they’re the only things that matter. Humanity is once again punished for the hubris of trying to prove that its existence is no random accident, but rather a deliberate design from gods beyond our solar system. The results & significance of that query are severely downplayed in this second run-through, however. Instead of aiming for the arty pulp of Prometheus, Covenant drags these themes down to the level of a pure Roger Corman creature feature. This prequel-sequel is much more of a paint-by-numbers space horror genre picture than its predecessor, but that’s not necessarily a quality that ruins its premise. Through horrific cruelty, striking production design, and the strangest villainous performance to hit a mainstream movie in years, Covenant easily gets by as a memorably entertaining entry in its series, only middling because the Alien franchise has a better hit-to-miss ratio than seemingly any other decades-old horror brand typically has eight films into its catalog.

Alien: Covenant is, above all else, a Michael Fassbender showcase. Reprising his role as the A.I. robot David & appearing simultaneously as a second A.I. named Walter, Fassbender delivers his strangest onscreen performance going at least as far back as Frank. In the context of how Covenant fits into the Alien franchise at large, it could maybe be understood as a Jason Takes Manhattan-type eccentric outlier, if only retitled as Michael Fassbender: Sex Robot. A whole new crew of intergalactic colonists find themselves stranded on an alien planet with only one non-xenomorph related resident: David, Fassbender’s chilling A.I. robot from Prometheus. Among the crew is Fassbender’s Walter, who David takes a special liking to while the disposable human characters are picked off one by one by xenomorph teens (they’re less evolved, less “perfect” offshoots of the typical alien species). There’s a strange sexual tension between these two Fassbender bots that only gets stranger as they spend more time alone together. In the movie’s best moment there are no killer xenomorphs to be seen, no on-screen bloodbath to placate anyone looking for a straightforward body count horror. It’s a quiet moment in David’s art studio (which could easily pass for HR Geiger’s masturbatorium) where he teaches Walter how to play the flute, openly bringing any unspoken sexual tension to the surface by directly hitting on his A.I. brethren. Lines like, “Watch me, I’ll do the fingering,” & “Put gentle pressure on the holes” are almost enough to push Covenant solidly into outright camp and their relationship only gets more perverse from there. Fassbender does a mesmerizing job of differentiating between his two characters: one is a spooky robot with barely-secretive agendas and one’s a tough guy soldier with mommy issues involving his mothership. You never forget which character you’re watching, even when the plot should probably ask you to, and that kind of dramatic craft confidently carries a lot of scenes that could easily devolve into absurd inanity, like the seductive flute blowing or a brief foray into kung fu. Regardless of your thoughts on Prometheus or the collection of Alien sequels as a whole (which each seem to be individually divisive), Covenant is worth seeing for the Fassbender weirdness alone.

David & Walter aren’t the only romantic couple in Covenant, but they are the only one that matters. The titular space mission in the title references Abraham & Noah’s covenants with with God, setting up the spaceship, Mother, as a kind of Ark meant to rebuild humanity on an alien terrain. Every crew member is married in pairs and responsible for the transportation of thousands of future citizens meant to populate a distant world with human seed. Mostly, these human characters have no more personalities or purpose than the drawers full of human embryos they’re being paid to transport across the universe. Katherine Waterson does a decent job of physically emoting as she watches her crew members die at the hands(?) of the film’s teenomorphs. Billy Crudup is believably off-putting as a captain who’s in way over his head commanding a crew who doesn’t respect him because he’s a Kirk Cameron-style “man of faith.” Danny McBride never truly disappears into his role in any detectable way, but he somehow isn’t the most distracting celebrity presence in the film, against all odds (there’s a celebrity death that needs to be seen to be believed; it’s essentially a prank). None of these characters matter. Unlike in Prometheus, the questions of Faith & the Meaning of Life don’t matter here either. Only Fassbender’s Cruella De Vil levels of villainous camp & the teenomorph (and eventually straight up xenomorph) creature attacks register as memorable, worthwhile aspects of Covenant, but they’re both effective enough to save the picture from from horror film tedium, even individually. The moments of horrific monster movie gore are both plentiful & plenty fucked up. Fassbender’s weirdo characters are given plenty of screen time to warp the picture into a strange dual character study, correcting the one frequently cited Prometheus complaint I can truthfully echo. As with a lot of post-Corman creature features, the monsters & kills are exciting enough to cover up the shortcomings of the film’s basic philosophy & humanity. In fact, the human aspect of the film is so weak that it almost directly supports its own villainous arguments about the superiority of other, “perfected” beings.

I’m never really sure what audiences want from Alien sequels. Prometheus & Resurrection are my favorite follow-ups to the original film because they push its imagery & mythology into unexpected directions – goofy, gorgeous, or otherwise. They’re also both frequently cited as the worst of the franchise because they deliberately stray from a more-of-the-same horror sequel ethos, so what do I know? I can see Covenant eliciting a similar polarizing reaction from Alien devotees, as it dabbles both in the goofiness of Resurrection and the overreaching philosophy of Prometheus without ever landing convincingly on either side. I ultimately find that split a little middling in the grand scheme of the series, but the film is brutal enough in its sequel-by-numbers gore & campy enough in its Fassbender weirdness to survive as yet another entertaining entry into an increasingly trashy, but eternally mesmerizing horror franchise that’s likely the most consistently rewarding one we’ve got running.

-Brandon Ledet

Don Verdean (2015)

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threehalfstar

I can’t blame everyone else for not caring, but I personally want the best for Jared & Jerusha Hess. The married couple/filmmaking partners started their career as something of a novelty act with the titles Napoleon Dynamite & Nacho Libre, but their third film, Gentlemen Broncos, is a personal pet favorite of me. It’s a nerdy, delightfully misshapen work that found the Hesses embracing their inner strange in a seemingly authentic way and I’ve made it something of a personal mission of mine to shepherd the too-easily discarded film into cult classic territory. The Hesses recently seemed poised to top that success with a pair of talent-stacked comedies going into wide release the same year. Unfortunately, their Zack Galifianakis/Kristen Wiig bank heist comedy Masterminds suffered a blow when its distribution company financially collapsed & its release was shelved indefinitely. The other movie, Don Verdean, made not even the smallest splash at the theaters and quietly slipped onto streaming on Netflix with no apparent fanfare. It seems the Hess heyday is still somewhere ahead of us (unless it began & ended with the “Vote for Pedro” t-shirt craze, which seems just as likely).

Again, I can’t exactly blame critics & audiences for not falling head over heel for Don Verdean. For a comedy this deeply strange & off-kilter it’s also oddly subdued, as if the Hesses were aiming to make a lowbrow version of a Coen Brothers film. Don Verdean is a screwball comedy about four snake oil-selling religious hucksters trying to make a dishonest buck in the faith industry: Sam Rockwell as the titular “archeologist” (read: artifact thief); Danny McBride as the living “miracle” Tony Lazarus (whom The Good Lord decided brought back to life so that he could marry the hooker he overdosed with & start a ministry); Will Forte as a competing minister/former High Priest of the Church of Satan; and Jemaine Clement as a con artist producer of religious artifacts both real & forged (in an unfortunate bit of Middle Eastern Jew racial caricature). All four of these dark souls are condemnable in their exploitation of religion as a racket, which may be an indication of the Mormon filmmakers Hesses’ disgust with certain, cynical factions of Evangelicals within the Christian community. The film never aims to be a satire about gigantic institutional shortcomings within organized religion’s opportunistic hucksters, however. It’s more of a character study of a small, oddly specific group of barely human weirdos who sometimes allow their thirst for financial gains & notoriety outstrip their faith in God.

I don’t think going small & narrowly focused is necessarily a problem for Don Verdean, but it’s definitely not a comedic style that’s going to grab much attention. Sam Rockwell’s quiet, oddly undignified portrayal of a past-his-prime archeologist seemingly plucked from a Chuck Norris promo VHS scrounged up by Everything Is Terrible isn’t flashy or over-the-top in any particular way. His quiet convictions, both religious & self-serving, are hilarious in their absurdity, however. His company Holy Land Investigations is in the business of searching for artifacts like the scissors that cut Samson’s hair, Lot’s wife’s salty remains, and Goliath’s rock-cracked skull and bringing them to the “USA where they belong” in order to prove that The Bible is “true”. He may not go full living cartoon at any particular moment in his performance, but there’s plenty of unreal amusement is his statements like “Finding treasure in the Earth is meaningless unless it helps someone get to Heaven who wouldn’t get there otherwise” & “What makes you think you can carbon date the wrath of the Almighty?”

Don Verdean may not be a far-reaching satire of Evangelical opportunism or an over-the-top riot of wild caricature, but I do think Jared & Jerusha Hess have a lot to say about outsized hubris and the divisions that arise between faith & financial gain in the more theatrical wings of Christianity. Their point is just quietly grounded in a muted character whose soul is just as grey-brown as the earth tone colors of his Chuck Norris cosplay. The movie only falters when it loses focus on this troubled antihero & instead follows the larger-than-life characters that color his outdated, insular world. They did a much better job of sticking to a grounded, focused POV in Gentlemen Broncos, which may help explain why that film was more artistically successful (to me anyway; neither movie was received especially well), but I still enjoyed most of what goes down here. My uncontrollable urge is to again recommend that you give Gentlemen Broncos a fighting chance, but if you already have & enjoyed what you saw, Don Verdean‘s not too shabby of a follow up. I wouldn’t be surprised if Masterminds plays out much the same way (if it ever sees the light of day in the first place). Here’s to hoping.

-Brandon Ledet