Really? A new “Halloween”? Of course. The 1978 original, directed by John Carpenter, was a disreputable low-budget shriek-a-thon that is now enshrined as a horror movie game-changer and generational touchstone. That may be a bit much, but good luck talking anyone out of it. Catering to our collective nostalgia is what Hollywood does best these days — correction, that’s all it does — so here we are.
And as franchise reboots go, the new “Halloween” is top shelf. Jamie Lee Curtis returns with a vengeance to the role of Laurie Strode, the first and most ferocious of all “final girls,” and David Gordon Green — a sensitive indie director (“George Washington”) who some time ago opted for a wayward Hollywood genre career (“Pineapple Express”) — is behind the camera. The screenplay Green has written with Jeff Fradley and actor Danny McBride plays knowing, witty havoc with the iconography of the original “Halloween” while jettisoning every one of its sequels. The movie’s a true reboot — of “Halloween 2.”
Much more to the point, it’s scary. The three college women sitting next to me at the promo screening spent the movie looking like the See No Evil-Hear No Evil-Speak No Evil monkeys, and by the climactic scenes, their coats were over their heads. “Halloween” 2018 has a busier plot than “Halloween” 1978 — it kind of has to — and its violence is more brutal and more invested in sadistically straddling the line between “entertaining” and “sick,” but it lays on the dread with finesse before turning the tables in mostly creative ways.
The genius of the first “Halloween” is that it was just a campfire scare story — the primal urban legend — brought to the screen with no frills whatsoever. It didn’t need them. The hulking Michael Myers, his face and motivation hidden behind a pasty rubber mask, was just out there killing the idiot teenagers of Haddonfield, Ill., and anyone else in his way. The movie became a date movie and group must-see among young moviegoers because it briefly thrilled them with the thought that they might actually be mortal.
And guess what? Michael’s still a hulking, silent figure of Pure Evil. Why mess with a bad thing? Transferred early in “Halloween” to a new mental institution, the killer (played both by the first movie’s Michael, Nick Castle, and by stuntman James Jude Courtney) escapes and heads back to Haddonfield, crossing paths on the way with a pair of investigative journalists. They’re British and they’re podcasters, so they’re really asking for it.
But I’m burying the lead: The real star of “Halloween” is Curtis, who plays the elder Laurie Strode as a cross between a raging paranoiac and a hot grandma. Holed up in a booby-trapped cabin in the woods, her hair an electric silvery mane of righteous anxiety, Laurie has long since alienated her grown daughter, Karen (Judy Greer, still waiting for a movie that gives her the attention she deserves and this ain’t it) while holding on to a relationship with teenage granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak).
Laurie’s a pillar of beleaguered strength, and Curtis puts across that strength as well as the pain: In this movie, just because you’re paranoid definitely means someone’s out to kill you. Green and his writers spread the carnage around liberally, and some of the most shocking deaths in “Halloween” are the most random.
And some are the most predictable. If you’re a high school student in this movie and you’re interested in getting drunk or laid, your ticket’s basically going to get punched. (I’m sorry, was that a spoiler? If so, you need to get out more.) Carpenter’s 1978 original was the first to blatantly toy with an audience’s hypocritical voyeurism, the urge to see characters — especially female characters — transgress and then get punished for it. (OK, Hitchcock got there first.) The new “Halloween” indulges that see-saw sensationalism less obviously and less misogynistically, but it does indulge it. Give the people what they want, and all that.
Other actors adorn the movie — Will Patton as the wily local sheriff, Haluk Bilginer as Michael’s somewhat over-invested primary care physician, Jibrail Nantambu as Julian, the smartmouthed 10-year-old charge of a babysitter (Virginia Gardner) who has the batting average of most baby sitters in these kinds of movies. Julian’s almost the only person in the entire film with enough sense enough to be scared by what’s out there.
So is Laurie, and the new “Halloween” entertainingly tilts the odds slightly in her favor. Green includes specific camera shots that push the audience’s buttons by aping the first film with a twist: It’s Laurie who’s watching or who’s suddenly not there. The movie pays more than lip service to the character’s agency, and, anyway, Curtis is a sharp enough actress to take what she can get and run like hell. “Halloween” 2018 isn’t part of the new wave of tough, subversive horror movies (many of them from women filmmakers: “The Babadook,” “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” “Raw,” “Prevenge”). But it’s good enough to show there’s undead life in the old wave yet.
Directed by David Gordon Green. Written by Green, Danny McBride, and Jeff Fradley, based on characters created by John Carpenter and Debra Hill. Starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, Nick Castle, Will Patton. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 106 minutes. R (horror violence and bloody images, language, brief drug use and nudity)Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.