In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—this year, K. Austin Collins, Amy Nicholson, and Bilge Ebiri—about the year in cinema. Read the first entry here.
Greetings, my dudes—
Inspired by Kam’s confession that he’d happily watch 2001 reflected off a spoon, I’ll admit that I like to drive four neighborhoods across L.A. to a sticky, sloped-floor movie theater with cheap hotdogs and low standards. No one cares if I swing my legs over the next row (I’m, like, a total monster), and no one depends on the film itself to do all the entertaining. Behold: “the collective experience.” There’s an agreement to fill in the gaps with extra laughs, groans, gasps, and conversations, both with the characters onscreen, and sometimes on the phone with whoever. Once, a woman offered to fistfight when I asked her to hang up during the silent opening of Wall*E. For Thursday midnight clunkers that don’t screen for critics, it’s as ideal a setting as a Fabuloso-scented isolation tank is for Roma.
Since I do a couple of film review shows on Friday morning radio, I spend many Thursday nights watching forgettable films to scare people into seeing something—anything—else. I’m, like, a total martyr. As good as everyone claims horror films were in 2018, there was still a lot of that dark-room-creepy-doll-jump-scare crap, the movies that are more about hammering your nervous system than engaging your brain. Anyone else lured into seeing Winchester by the false promise of goth Helen Mirren? Or Slenderman, which was basically just a montage of GIFs occasionally interrupted by a goofy Jack Skellington linguini creature?
Two films don’t make a trend, but I’m curious where else sensory-deprivation horror can go after see-no-evil Bird Box, in which Sandra Bullock does battle wearing a blindfold, and hear-no-evil A Quiet Place, whose smart hook got drowned out by narrative quibbles. Why did John Krasinski’s character get progressively dopier until he became the kind of clueless dad most often seen in commercials asking his wife how to use a mop? I get that Krasinski worships his wife, Emily Blunt—who wouldn’t?!—but as much as I dug her silent birth scene, I couldn’t get past the dorky monsters who just looked like something a stoner doodled in geometry.
Let me admit my bias: I am not scared of ghosts, demons, dolls, zombies, or CG creatures with six rungs of teeth. I am scared of people. (I’m, like, a total misanthrope.) Give me a crazed lunatic over any supernatural creation. To me, Suspiria would be more terrifying if the ballerina coven merely wished they were witches. Tilda Swinton’s violent sacrifices would get a twist of futility. All those lovely young limbs snapped for nothing (which is also how Suspiria haterz think of the film).
Lately, I grit my teeth whenever a film shifts from mortal to mystical. Hereditary had a terrific, human-grounded first half, and when debut writer-director Ari Aster smacked us with that plot turn, I nearly stood up to applaud his brazenness. But the movie spun into silliness when Toni Collette climbed on the ceiling. I haven’t forgiven the script for veering toward the bizarre-banal, but I’ll see every film Aster goes on to make.
So yes, I admired that David Gordon Green’s Halloween had the guts to delete nine interim sequels and make Michael Myers human again. Or at least, human for now, depending on what excuse Blumhouse cooks up to resurrect him again. By erasing Halloween 2, Green and co-writer Danny McBride scrapped four decades of dynastic intrigue about Michael hunting his sister, Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode, to return to John Carpenter’s original vision of Michael Myers as a random, relentless serial killer.
Carpenter was scared of humans, too. Researching my eight-episode podcast miniseries Halloween Unmasked, I learned that he was scarred by growing up in the South during the civil rights era. His high school friends would shoot guns at black families’ porches, yet still thought of themselves as the heroes. Carpenter began to think that leafy, superficially lovely suburbs were as nightmarish as any creepy old castle, and he built Haddonfield, Illinois—Myers’ hometown—on that dread. When your neighbors wear white masks, no one is safe.
David Gordon Green’s childhood, however, was on the vanguard of modern trauma. In the early ’90s, Green was a sophomore in suburban Texas when his classmate shot himself at school. Back then, the death was so shocking it inspired the Pearl Jam music video “Jeremy.” Today, there’s a crisis of unstable young boys who shouldn’t get near a weapon. There’s even a bitter quip in Green’s Halloween about how “a couple of people getting killed with a knife is not that big of a deal, by modern standards.” When I asked Green why his sequel quadrupled the original’s body count, he said we live in a “post-Columbine world.” Even Michael Myers has to try harder to make headlines.
Green’s Halloween was a great, big, buttery tub of popcorn. I had a blast. But he’s serious about sticking up for communities who endure both the initial bloodshed and the media’s morbid interest. On the press circuit, Jamie Lee Curtis touted Laurie Strode as a #MeToo survivor. True—yet I was also touched by Green’s empathy for Haddonfield’s teen boys. Slashers get so fixated on final girls that the guys are basically walking boners. But Green made his young men flawed, sensitive individuals who break as many gender norms as do his warrior women. One dude happily wears a dress and high heels to the high school dance—and once Green’s past the comedy beat, the guy becomes an even more irresistible date. Say yes to the dress—it just might save your life.
This Columbine talk has us dangerously poised to dive into Natalie Portman’s school-shooting-survivor-turned-popstar flick, Vox Lux. But first, Bilge, we both tangled with Assassination Nation, a gonzo and, to me, dissatisfying thriller about four girls who become feminist vigilantes when their gossipy town goes violently insane. You felt it “captures a certain anxiety that is very much of the moment.” As we head into what’s likely to be a tumultuous 2019, are you in the mood for more films that poke the bear, or would you rather have a soothing balm like First Man—a film you liked way way more than I did, which zipped past the political chaos of the ’60s to remind us that even when the country felt like it was falling apart, Americans could still be united by a big dream?