Brow Beat

What Makes Michael Myers Scary?

David Gordon Green’s new Halloween is fine fan service. But for a more disturbing take on Michael Myers, he could have taken notes from Rob Zombie.

Side-by-side stills of the 2007 and 2018 Halloween films: In each, a masked Michael Myers brandishes a long knife.
Michael Myers in Halloween (2007) and Halloween (2018).
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Universal Pictures.

From its first moments, David Gordon Green’s new Halloween seems designed to reassure. From opening credits that recall those of John Carpenter’s 1978 original—and which roll out over a slightly updated version of Carpenter’s familiar theme music—to clever callbacks and echoed shots, Green’s film is designed as a companion piece to Carpenter’s as much as a sequel. As such, it works quite well. Jamie Lee Curtis returns as Laurie Strode, the one who got away from masked killer Michael Myers 40 years ago, and the film’s greatest innovation is to ponder what kind of effect surviving such an incident might have on someone, an intriguing element it never explores that deeply. That kind of sidetrack would mean not playing it safe, which isn’t on Green’s agenda.

Which is fine. Co-written by Jeff Fradley and Green’s frequent collaborator Danny McBride, Halloween is the film many fans have been waiting for, one that pits Laurie against Michael in a rematch (which Halloween H20 already did in 1998, but who remembers or cares?) and brings the series back to its basics by throwing out all the sequels and their accumulated mythology (no more odd ties to Celtic curses). The film has a clever opening involving a pair of obnoxious true-crime podcasters, a middle sequence in which Michael goes on a door-to-door killing spree that plays like the best ’80s Halloween sequel never made, and, without spoiling too much, a battle royale finale that makes Laurie seem like a formidable threat to her longtime foe. It’s fun and impeccably crafted by a highly skilled director who clearly loves the material. And it offers virtually nothing to chew over on the ride home.

Halloween fans old and new will see the movie in crowds, and they won’t be disappointed. But watching this faithful bit of fan service put my mind somewhere else: the last film to bear the name Halloween. Released in 2007, in the middle of a decade blighted with unmemorable horror remakes, Rob Zombie’s version of the dead-babysitter saga was a mirror image of Carpenter’s film instead of a slavish and wink-filled tribute. Although a modest hit, it received mostly dismissive reviews, and it’s now been all but swept aside. That’s a shame, because more than a decade on—and especially compared to the new Halloween—it remains a fascinating and underappreciated experiment. That’s mostly in how it treats Michael Myers.

For Carpenter, Myers’ unknowability is part of what makes him scary. He’s blank, an anonymous figure made all the more scary by a nondescript mask (actually a modified William Shatner mask Halloween production designer Tommy Lee Wallace picked up on the cheap). When his face is revealed in the film’s climax, it’s not the image of a monster. It’s just some kid who’s only a few years older than the babysitters he’s spent the evening terrorizing. He’s the boogeyman, sure, but really he could be anyone.

“I met this 6-year-old child with this blank, pale, emotionless face, and … the blackest eyes—the devil’s eyes,” Dr. Samuel Loomis, played with plummy flourishes by Donald Pleasence, says of the boy he’s spent years trying to understand in the 1978 film. “I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up, because I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply … evil.” That’s a pretty thin medical analysis, but one keeping with Carpenter’s chief inspiration, a college visit to a psychiatric institution in which he spotted a dead-eyed kid.

It also keeps with a ’70s understanding of mental illness and violence. As critic Amy Nicholson notes in her excellent podcast Halloween Unmasked, the term “serial killer” wasn’t common in 1978, much less an understanding of the pathology and predictive behaviors of those driven to kill and kill again. It was easier to think of such murderers as impossible-to-understand monsters—and maybe a little more comfortable too.

That had shifted dramatically by 2007, and Zombie’s film reflects that shift. Where Carpenter’s opens with a famous, relatively brisk, first-person Steadicam sequence in which we see a 6-year-old Michael killing his sister, Zombie’s version dwells on Michael’s childhood. We see him ridiculed by his mother’s abusive boyfriend (William Forsythe) and bullied at school. We learn he’s acting out by killing animals. His only real connection is with his frequently absent mother (Sheri Moon Zombie). When he takes his first human life, it’s because he’s pushed too far. Then he just keeps going.

The film doesn’t rush past this. In fact, it dwells on it. Michael’s childhood takes up over a quarter of the film in Zombie’s director’s cut, and the effect is to make him more pitiable than scary, at least for a while. He’s a boy who needs help, and when it arrives in the form of Loomis (Malcolm McDowell, matching Pleasence’s theatricality note for note), it seems at best inadequate and at worst counterproductive. In Carpenter’s film, Michael doesn’t speak a word after killing his sister. In Zombie’s version, Michael talks and talks until he starts to shut down, withdrawing from a world he increasingly doesn’t understand. Loomis seems ill-equipped to bring him back from the abyss.

Eventually, this being a Halloween remake, he has to get down to the business of breaking out and returning to his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois, to get on with the murdering (and to seek out Laurie, the sister he couldn’t kill, a detail that Zombie kept from the Carpenter-scripted 1981 sequel Halloween II but wasn’t actually in the original film). Yet even here, Zombie doesn’t stick to the script. Played by wrestler-turned-actor Tyler Mane, Michael is a looming, terrifying, single-minded figure in the slasher tradition, but Zombie stages his kills to linger a beat or two too long. The violence is drawn out and bloody, but it feels less sadistic than provocative. Zombie’s Halloween isn’t Funny Games, but it asks some of the same questions: Why are you watching this? Is this really what you want to see?

Spending so much time with the broken little boy who became the monster gives it an extra sense of unease. Zombie’s Halloween is a tragedy that unfolds on two fronts: the killings themselves, and the neglect and mistreatment that made the killer. (His 2009 follow-up, Halloween II, can’t quite sustain that unease, unfortunately.) It never asks us to sympathize with Michael, but it does ask us to understand him.

It’s a dare that Green’s new movie, which reverts back to the stock good vs. evil talk of the original, never attempts. That might make it easier to like than Zombie’s strange, messy, challenging reinterpretation, but it also makes it much easier to forget.