One of the pleasures of David Gordon Green’s Halloween reboot was its willingness to take a carving knife to the series’s increasingly flabby mythology—all those soap-opera twists and the dubious black magic that decades of sequels had dumped on top of John Carpenter’s lean, mean original slasher. The 2018 film openly sneered at its own ostensible lore, sharply reiterating the point, made some forty years ago, that Michael Myers isn’t a mystery to be solved, but rather pure, unadorned evil. There’s no sense trying to understand him, Halloween argued. Try and get inside Michael’s head, and he’ll only pop yours like an overripe melon.

There are no clones or ancient druid curses in Halloween Kills, which arrived October 15 in theaters and on Peacock. Yet Green’s follow-up can’t resist that compulsion to create needless clutter. The sequel frequently comes off as a pretentious critical reading of itself, passed off in real time by an overreaching grad student. Its characters spend most of the downtime between slaughters gazing into the middle distance and holding forth on the nature of evil, or endlessly rehashing Myers’s origin story, as though “The Shape” who has yet to be killed by shooting, stabbing, or fire might at last be felled by some emotional breakthrough. 

That’s not even getting into the film’s clumsy political messaging, a contrived attempt to turn the blank-faced killer into a lumbering metaphor for “the anger that divides us.” Whatever excitement there was in seeing Halloween return to its bare, brutal roots last time out is suffocated here beneath a lugubrious tone and too many groaning allegories about man’s capacity for evil. It’s all enough to make you wish for the days when the franchise was about simpler things, like children’s cults and telepathy.  

To be fair, there is a perverse comedy to be found in watching Michael Myers indifferently stride about town, slicing people up while others stand around having a group therapy session about it. If you’re the type of horror fan who grades films according to their body counts, a la the great Joe Bob Briggs, then you’ll likely be satisfied with Halloween Kills, which boasts the series’s highest number of on-screen deaths to date. Heads are smashed and necks are twisted, eyes are gouged and throats are slashed, and blood, organs, and brains are splattered across pavements with bravado. Beginning with 1981’s Halloween II, the franchise has long abandoned the eerie, unsettling stillness of Carpenter’s quietly stalking bogeyman for this kind of nihilistic, nonstop gore. 

If Halloween Kills had merely set out to raise the kill quotient, then it would have been a perfectly enjoyable, if redundant, new chapter. Where Halloween Kills stumbles, perhaps unforgivingly, is in its persistent need to make some of these murders—though not all of them—seem like they matter. The film is awash in guilt and tears, sucking out whatever sick fun there is to be had by suggesting that some of these deaths are tragic, actually, even as it treats others like slapstick punch lines.

Much of the burden of reminding us that murder isn’t always hilarious is laid, yet again, on the shoulders of Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), whose return as a harried, yet hardened survivalist in 2018’s Halloween near-single-handedly justified that film’s existence. Picking up just minutes after Laurie, her daughter Karen (Judy Greer), and her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) have escaped the bunker where they left Michael Myers to burn, Halloween Kills opens with the gravely injured Laurie being rushed to the emergency room, her pain ameliorated only by the fact that, at long last, she’s slain the monster that ruined her life. Except—and here I’ll assume you’re familiar with the basics of horror movies, so I’m not really spoiling anything—naturally, Michael Myers has miraculously survived. And it’s not long before he’s back to slaying everyone who’s unlucky enough to cross his path.

The anguish Laurie feels over having failed, yet again, to finish Myers once and for all plunges her right back into the state of hollowed-out trauma she spent the last film exorcising. Likewise, whatever inner warrior Karen discovered in that movie’s climax has already been forgotten, replaced by grief and panicky fear. The Strode women don’t just regress emotionally. They spend much of the film physically sidelined, nursing their wounds and regrets in Laurie’s hospital room while most of the real action is taking place elsewhere. They’re soon joined in their miserable convalescence by Deputy Hawkins (Will Patton), Laurie’s retconned savior from 1978, who’s also survived his latest brush with death and lived to feel really bad about it. Soon Hawkins and Laurie are holding hands and relitigating the past, their tedious dialogue fleshed out by flashbacks that reveal Hawkins has his own secret trauma to hide.

With most of the ostensible protagonists laid up, Halloween Kills scrounges around for other familiar characters who might plausibly still be around, eventually hitting upon a loose, somewhat illogical coalition of survivors from Myers’s original 1978 rampage. Among them are the kids Laurie was babysitting that fateful night: Real Housewives star Kyle Richards as the now middle-aged Lindsey Wallace, and Tommy Doyle, played with glandular menace by Anthony Michael Hall. There’s also Rusk, Texas, native Nancy Stephens, who’s been called out of retirement to reprise her role as Marion Chambers. As they frequently remind everyone, these people have spent the last forty years haunted by what happened in Haddonfield (only not, you know, enough to change towns). So when they hear that Myers is once again on the loose, they decide, once and for all, that “the system is broken.” With Tommy leading the charge, they take up guns, baseball bats, and a catchy chant (“Evil. Dies. Tonight!”) as they take to the streets, looking to mete out a brand of mob justice that—get this—suggests maybe they’re the villains. (Actually, scratch that, because one character just comes right out and says it: “Now he’s turning us into monsters.”)  

Appropriating the tone and imagery of the January 6 insurrection as an attempt to make some larger point about how fear is the real menace (or whatever) is the film’s most egregious overstep, even as it feints at a subplot about police corruption. But horror movies and unsubtle social allegories go together like killers and Oedipus complexes. Really, the problem with Halloween Kills is just how artlessly it’s all handled. 

We’re long past the point of wondering what the hell happened to David Gordon Green, the Richardson-raised heir apparent to Terrence Malick who long ago traded idiosyncratic indie fare for a successful career spent polishing up other people’s intellectual property. But even for such a proudly workmanlike director, Halloween Kills seems like especially aimless filler, deliberately plunked down in the middle of a predetermined trilogy solely to forestall a final-for-real showdown between Laurie and Myers. Its script, cowritten with Danny McBride and Scott Teems, adds a few good one-liners and a handful of left-field quirks to the mix, most of these stemming from the adorable gay couple who now occupy Myers’s childhood home, and who spend Halloween night getting high, watching John Cassavetes movies, and terrifying trick-or-treaters with clearly relished stories about their house’s infamous past. Yet these detours all lead down the same predictable road, as the corpses are dutifully cleared and tables are reset for the next, inevitable chapter. 

As Green recently told Uproxx, that third film, the promisingly titled Halloween Ends, will take place in the present day, rejoining the residents of Haddonfield after they’ve not only been forced to process yet another local massacre, but also “a worldwide pandemic and peculiar politics and another million things that turned their world upside down.” It’s a pretty tall order, folding something as enervating—and, let’s face it, decidedly uncinematic—as COVID-19 into a serial-killer movie. And unfortunately, Halloween Kills doesn’t offer much in the way of reassurance that the topic will be handled with all that much grace or purpose. It also fails to ratchet up the anticipation for seeing how this story ends, which is largely the point of any second film of a trilogy. For her part, Curtis has said of her next—and likely final—Halloween film that “it’s going to make people very angry . . . People are going to be agitated by it.” At least it will make them feel something, which is more than can be said for this.