“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” “The Girl in the Spider’s Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story.” “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” One of the many downsides of Hollywood’s franchise mentality is that movie titles have become such long, torturously bisected affairs; you could be a gastroenterologist and not see this many colons. The burden of advertising something new — but don’t worry, not too new — has rarely seemed more laborious or self-defeating.
This is hardly a recent development, as the beleaguered “Halloween” franchise can attest. The general futility of the Michael Myers Cinematic Universe has only been compounded by its more torturous titles, from “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” to “Halloween H20: 20 Years Later,” a movie that I had until recently assumed takes place underwater.
And so it is with admirable economy and brazen self-assurance that the new “Halloween” movie bills itself simply as “Halloween,” an elegant solution that runs the risk of inviting some tough comparisons. Four decades’ worth of sequels, reboots and pointlessly revisionist plot lines have failed to match the sleek, ruthless perfection of John Carpenter’s 1978 masterpiece, which set a slasher-movie standard and elevated Jamie Lee Curtis to the scream-queen pantheon.
Fortunately, director David Gordon Green, who wrote the “Halloween” 2018 script with his frequent comedy collaborator Danny McBride (“Your Highness,” “Pineapple Express”), seems determined to invite such comparisons in the first place. Set 40 years after the notorious “baby-sitter murders” rocked Haddonfield, Ill., this “Halloween” offers a series of callbacks and allusions to that seminal killing spree, stripped of irony and cleverly reverse-engineered into the story of an epic rematch. Scary and propulsive, it doesn’t just forge a direct link to Carpenter’s original; it pretends all the garbage in between never even existed.
This “Halloween” does not venture too deeply into the weeds of serial-killer psychology in the manner of Rob Zombie’s 2007 remake; nor does it traffic in hoary elements of Druidic mythology like 1995’s “Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers.” Its most thrilling image, of Curtis storming down a darkened hallway with a shotgun in hand, recalls Jean-Luc Godard’s famous saying that all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun. Butcher knives, hammers and hard-stomping boots come in handy too.
But for all the weaponry on hand, the emphasis here is rightly on the girl. With a canny balance of empathy and exploitation, “Halloween” treats its heroine’s lingering trauma with surprising emotional realism and only a hint of comic exaggeration. Laurie Strode has clearly never recovered from her terrifying ordeal, as emphasized by Curtis’ severe, bespectacled scowl and long, untidy hair that eerily mirrors her look from 1978. The collateral damage includes two failed marriages and an estranged daughter, Karen (Judy Greer), who keeps a healthy distance, along with her husband, Ray (Toby Huss), and teenage daughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak).
Rather than leave Haddonfield and seek out a new identity, as past alternate versions of this story have suggested she might, Laurie has stayed put, walling herself off in a house fortified with metal fences, heavy door bolts and a basement panic room stocked with firearms. She’s preparing for — and perhaps even looking forward to — the day when Michael bursts out of maximum-security lockup and comes looking for her and her family.
There would be no movie if Laurie’s paranoia were not completely justified. Triggered by a pair of snooping British podcasters (Jefferson Hall and Rhian Rees) trying to cash in on the true-crime craze, Michael (the masked character played here by both Nick Castle and James Jude Courtney) once again escapes during a nighttime transfer — is it Illinois state protocol that the criminally insane can be moved only around Halloween? — and makes his way back to Haddonfield. The killer’s homecoming is signaled by a resurgent blast of Carpenter’s immortal piano theme, tricked out with additional music by his son, Cody Carpenter, and Daniel A. Davies, but still as gloriously dread-soaked as ever.
Music is not the only motif in “Halloween” that functions as a cue of sorts, a detail meant to secure our recognition and pleasure. Once more we will be reminded of the horrors that lurk in car backseats and behind slatted closet doors. Once more there are lusty baby-sitters and boyfriends just one kiss away from getting pinned in ways they hadn’t bargained for. Once more a bunch of cops will hit the streets with an excitable shrink (the great Turkish actor Haluk Bilginer of “Winter Sleep”), searching for a white-masked killer who can camouflage himself behind shadows, bushes and unsuspecting trick-or-treaters.
From his stirring art-film debut, “George Washington,” to slapdash comedies like “The Sitter,” Green has enjoyed one of the strangest careers ever to straddle the Hollywood/indie divide. In “Halloween,” another sharp left turn, he and his cinematographer, Michael Simmonds, demonstrate a solid, efficient grasp of the mechanics of terror, expertly reproducing Carpenter’s horror syntax by shooting the murderous Michael (Myers, not Simmonds) in smooth, serpentine long takes. But the kills come faster this time; the body count is through the roof. After four decades behind bars, Michael clearly has some catching up to do. He still likes to play hide-and-seek with his prey and the audience — note the terribly ingenious use he makes of a motion-sensor-activated light — but he might not count as high as 10 this time.
There is zero originality in all this mimicry, but there is an unusual and highly effective sense of purpose. The single-mindedness with which this “Halloween” ties itself to its landmark predecessor isn’t strictly a matter of fan service, though that commercial imperative is certainly present. It feeds into an overarching narrative ethos that says Michael Myers — an avatar of pure, banal, motiveless evil — will kill and kill again in ways that are not just inevitable but borderline predictable. And if you know this in your bones, the way Laurie does, you have a slightly better chance of turning the tables.
This marks Curtis’ fourth return to the role that made her famous, and she must have had an especially grand time playing Laurie as Haddonfield’s resident gun-toting crackpot, an unhinged teller of inconvenient truths. But within that highly entertaining formulation, there’s a sliver of insight that feels especially true to the present moment. Curtis’ performance is an intensely physical reminder that every assault leaves lasting damage, and that it behooves everyone to believe the survivors in their midst.
That might make this “Halloween” sound heavy with topicality, but it isn’t. It’s nasty and nimble and stumbles only occasionally, mainly when Green and McBride’s love of slacker humor gets the better of them. And by the time the movie reaches its pulse-quickening final act, it has somehow managed to make repetition feel awfully close to subversion. I won’t spoil the fun, but it’s no accident that there are three generations of Strode women on-screen, and all of them — Greer’s character gets an especially terrific moment — are determined to ensure that Michael’s latest rampage is his last. Give or take 40 years.
Rating: R, for horror violence and bloody images, language, brief drug use and nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Playing: Opens Oct. 19 in general release