ANALYSIS: “Evil Dies Tonight” / “Make America Great Again” – Trump, Myers and Right-Wing American Hysteria in HALLOWEEN KILLS (2021)

Spoilers

It’s the most divisive genre film of the year: but could David Gordon Green’s Halloween sequel be the first great post-Trump horror?

The traumatic aftermath of slasher films are often glossed over: in early entries the deaths were comparatively quick and clean, and even when the subgenre edged into more sadistic territory there was rarely a sense of the emotional impact such experiences might have on survivors (beyond the trope of making someone “crazy” – read: unstable and/or a potential killer themselves). In Halloween Kills, director David Gordon Green along with co-writers Scott Teems and Danny McBride redress this balance, looking beyond the trauma of former final girl Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), which was primarily the focus of Halloween (2018), and expanding it to consider the communal psychological scars inflicted upon the town of Haddonfield. What’s more interesting still is the way the film goes on to explore how that unresolved group trauma creates a context ripe for exploitation, the emotional need for healing being hijacked by radical, extremist voices.

An early scene sees Tommy Doyle (Anthony Michael Hall) – the little boy from the ’78 original – making a slightly cack-handed speech about surviving, and how he, Lonnie (Robert Longstreet), Lindsey (Kyle Richards) and Haddonfield more widely will defy the spectre of their shared trauma at the hands of Michael Myers. The script here is overblown (something we’ll come back to later) but oddly sets up a kind of cognitive dissonance both in Tommy – as emergent, emblematic Haddonfield ideologue – and the wider community: the words smack of triumphalism, but don’t fully hang together, the cracks already evident, sounding more like surface sound bite than anything with deep foundations.

This lack of meaningful substance to Tommy’s words is not appreciated by anyone else present however: they all seem to buy into it, raise their drinks and coalesce around the sentiment in a need to form community, identity and to try and find a way forward. So when moments later another attendee (wrongly) believes that Michael is in the back of her car (one of many call-backs to the original) Tommy leads a gang outside with baseball bats and other assorted weapons to rain down vigilante justice. It’s a movement which rapidly gains town-wide traction, as a mob formulates and mobilises, arming themselves with guns and creating a feedback loop of increasingly hysterical rhetoric that both amplifies and directs their energy at a dehumanised “bogeyman”, othered repeatedly as being less than human.

Things reach a pinnacle on this front when a further grand-standing speech by Tommy – now shouting, gesturing, fully whipping up the community’s fear – leads to perhaps the film’s most upsetting scene, as another patient from the psychiatric hospital who also escaped the previous film’s bus crash is wrongly identified as Myers and pursued up several flights of stairs in the hospital by a baying mob, before ultimately throwing himself to his death.

In the run up to this moment the line “Evil dies tonight” is repeatedly chanted by multiple characters, to the derision of some critics. And to be sure, the dialogue is jarring. But one can’t help but wonder at the similarities between this catchphrase of an armed militia and the battle-cry of real world right-wing mobs, “Make America Great Again”.

Had Halloween Kills come out in Oct 2020 – as originally scheduled, before coronavirus disrupted worldwide theatrical releases – this parallelism might not have been so evident. But after the storming of the Capitol building on 6th January 2021 by a Trump-supporting mob – fuelled by the lies and propaganda of the President himself as he erroneously claimed that the recent election had been “stolen” from him – the similarities are striking. In both incidents there’s a large group who resort to violence out of a shared sense of being under-siege by a shadowy other (at the Capitol, this “other” was a loose amalgam of Biden, the Dems and a legion of invented bogeymen of the QAnon conspiracy theory); both groups felt a sense of disempowerment (with Trump literally on the edge of having to yield power) and both organised into a frenzy which ultimately cost lives (both first responders and rioters). Arguably, with a wide range of rubber Trump masks available for retail, there is even some similarity between the iconography of Michael Myers and 45’s brand.

This is of course an imperfect dualism: the mob of Halloween Kills are not acolytes of Myers, but are united to enforce his destruction. But nevertheless Myers is instrumental in changing the cultural temperature around him, being the catalyst and creator of a fear which motivates hysterical mob action. And it’s worth noting how ineffective and dangerous this mob is: not just to the innocent man driven to suicide at Haddonfield Hospital, but to group members themselves.

During a mid-point confrontation, one band of vigilantes – including Marion (Nancy Stephens), the nurse from the original film – track Myers to a Haddonfield playground where most are brutally slain (aside from Lindsey, who manages to escape). Crucially the manner of their deaths is facilitated by their own idiocy: when Michael mounts the car roof (again mirroring Marion’s first encounter with him, bringing a sense of awful inevitability to her fate) the group remain in the vehicle, fire errant bullets that miss their assailant, and – in one almost comedic moment – manage to shoot themselves in the face. It might be tempting to dismiss this as another example of dumb slasher characters acting stupidly – which is fair – but through a MAGA lens it also plays in that dissonant gap of Tommy’s earlier speech: this space between words and actions, rhetoric and reality. In their minds they are weekend warriors, survivors, victors: in reality they are gung-ho, frightened people driven to foolish action in their attempts to reclaim power, and are surprised – though we are not – when they are ultimately destroyed by their own behaviour.

A later moment with Lonnie suggests that – on some subconscious level – there is an element of Freud’s death drive to this. Lonnie, believing Michael has returned to his old family home, insists he goes in alone. Again, a surface reading is that this is utterly stupid – he’s with two other characters, both armed – but, as with Marion meeting her end in a way symbolic of her first encounter with Myers, Lonnie feels compelled to run towards his trauma, and is consumed.

One final element of this is in the climatic showdown between Michael and the mob. Karen (Judy Greer) demasks Myers, and leads him into an ambush where he is set upon by Tommy and other Haddonfield residents. He is shot, beaten and stabbed before Karen leaves him, only for Michael – perhaps predictably – to rise once more and kill them all. Again, a literal reading of this ending is ridiculous, but as the closing voice-over suggests this is more symbolic: Myers – like MAGA as an ideology – cannot die by human hands, but rises again and again, resurrected, energised and fuelled by fear. In a post-Trump world this denouement acts as a chilling warning that the latent corpse of Trump’s poisonous ideologies are not dead, but are waiting patiently, ready to return once more.

It’s a lesson Karen learns too late, as she ascends the steps in the Myers’ house only to be killed by the newly reinvigorated Michael. Evil never dies, America is not great again (the killer is literally within) and – like the numerous characters who stare at their reflections from that bedroom window – we too would do well to reflect on what role we play in this paradigm.

Tim Coleman

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