To cap off 31 Days of Hell, Blake brings us an epic review of every movie in the Halloween series.
The legacy of John Carpenter's Halloween needs no introduction, but in the spirit of the holiday, let's give it one. The film was released in 1978 to a lukewarm reception… at first. Unbeknownst to its own director, the word of mouth and critical praise was slowly piling on. Siskel and Ebert gushed over the film with 4 star reviews, audiences everywhere started going crazy for it, and before John Carpenter could even sign his film deal with Avco Embassy (a deal which gave us another genre classic, The Fog), Halloween was the highest grossing independent film of its time, bringing in $75 million on a $300,000 budget.
Ever since then, a slew of sequels and imitators have been released, seeming hellbent to destroy the legacy of this enduring classic by over-explaining and over-complicating a beautifully simple story that carries an elemental root of horror in its bones: Evil never dies. Neither does Hollywood greed. With that being said, let's take a look at the decalog of films that have come to define this time of year, now all available in a terrific 15-disc blu-ray box set from Shout Factory.
Halloween (1978, directed by John Carpenter): There are lots of films adorned with the label of “classic” that don’t withstand the test of time. Halloween is not one of them. This story of the psychopathic mental patient escaping from an institution to randomly stalk three teenagers on Halloween night, nestled in the heart of safe and secure suburbia, hits us right where we live to this day. Granted, it’s no technical masterpiece—it’s mired with many of the limitations of low budget productions, like continuity—but there’s a charm and a craftsmanship at work here that the rest of the series has never matched. Carpenter’s use of moody and atmospheric music is the perfect compliment to the cinematography by the gifted Dean Cundey, who would go on to shoot other classic films like Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Donald Pleasance plays Dr. Sam Loomis, the psychologist who makes Michael Myers his life’s work after Michael murders his sister Judith with a huge butcher knife at the tender age of 6. Fifteen years later, Loomis is determined to keep him locked up for the safety of the world when Michael breaks free, heads back to his home town, and after a quick stop off at a convenience store, decides that William Shatner masks are the bomb. His trick or treat route takes him to two adjacent homes occupied by Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Annie Brackett (Nancy Loomis), where he stealthily lurks about in the shadows, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. This leads to some of the most iconic imagery and macabre scenarios in the history of the horror genre, elements that other slasher flicks continue to imitate to this day.
The key to Halloween’s endurance in our collective consciousness could be traced to its formula—the masked silent killer who stalks and kills (sometimes likable) young people. It’s really so basic and user friendly that it’s been re-dressed and re-packaged as “new” a million times over. Just between the Friday the 13th series and the various knockoffs like Terror Train, we’ve seen this exploited every which way but loose, and even then, there’s enough sex going on in these films for that term to apply as well. So what is it about Halloween? It really is something intangible, just like the abstract of evil itself. It just plain works, striking a chord deep within us that resonates, and it keeps working no matter how many times we’ve seen this formula played out in other forms. There’s something to be said about doing something first, but even more to be said about doing something right
Halloween II (1981, directed by Rick Rosenthal): This is where I tick a lot of people off, because I’m going to get right to it: This is not a good movie. In fact, I submit that the only reason this remains beloved is because it was followed by Season of the Witch. On the surface, Halloween II looks and feels like a necessary sequel. It has the same atmospheric look, the same actors, the same music; it even takes place on the same night, and brings the story to what should have been a logical conclusion. So why is it bad? To put it simply, because this is a Halloween film trying to be like all the other 80s slasher films that were trying to be like Halloween.
After surviving the wrath of Captain Kirk, Laurie is taken in an ambulance by a couple of paramedics to a practically vacant hospital, where she remains sedated and off screen for over two-thirds of the film’s run time. All the while, Donald Pleasance runs around on various wild goose chases, given one or two scenes to remind us why the speech he gave in the first film will always be a better two minutes of film than anything we see here. Especially while we are being subjected to a prolonged scene of this rotisserie rent-a-cop flicking the pad locks off of store rooms in a vain attempt at creating suspense. We can plainly see it’s not physically possible for anyone to be in those rooms, so is the concession stand still open? I require more sugar for my attention deficit disorder that I didn’t have prior to sitting down to watch this.
For what it’s worth, the actors all seem pretty game for the material, what little it gives them to work with. While the characters in the original were likable individuals, the script for Halloween II reduces them to idiotic slasher archetypes who all received better treatment and more character development in the deleted scenes added back in the television version. Add to that the numerous logistical loopholes, not the least of which involves Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) actually remembering going to visit Michael Myers in the institution before the “stunning reveal” at the end that they are siblings. The real razor in your Butterfinger is Dick Warlock’s profoundly awful portrayal of Michael Myers. This man walks slower than the speed of smell—it wouldn’t surprise me if you caught a whiff of this turd of a performance when it was still down the empty hall. He. Sucks. And so does this movie.
Halloween III (1982, directed by Tommy Lee Wallace): We’ve already touched on this film in our list of Third Chapter Disasters, so needless to say, the third time was not the charm here. Season of the Witch is reviled by average filmgoers for one simple reason, and that’s the absence of Michael Myers, made all the more perplexing because the first two films in the series told the same story. So only one year after Michael Myers burned to a crisp, we got what was supposed to be the first in an ongoing anthology series, telling a different Halloween-themed story every year. As you no doubt have guessed, that idea sputtered out like a balloon fart.
Instead of Laurie Strode and Dr. Loomis, we get Dan Challis (rhymes with phallus), played by Tom Atkins, and Ellie Grimbridge (Stacey Nelkin). They’re introduced after Ellie’s dad gets his nose snapped like a Milk Bone by a dude I can only describe as a Nazi Pee Wee Herman, who then proceeds to douce himself in gas before doing his best Human Torch impression. Instead of leaving well enough alone, Dan and Ellie decide to play Shaggy and Scooby, going on a road trip to a small town where they plan to hold up in a motel and solve the mystery of her father’s murder in between creepy daddy issue-fueled sexcapades.
All Michael issues aside, the film taken on its own merits is just friggin’ weird. They discover this corporate mastermind played by Dan O’Herilhy is using his mask-making factory to enact a mass sacrifice of children so he can return Halloween to its sacrificial roots. Okay… why? So we can have a scene that actually tells us how to pronounce Samhain correctly? Or perhaps it’s to break one of the cardinal rules of making a bad movie: Never EVER put another film on screen that’s better than the one we’re watching. In this case, it’s the original Halloween. I wish I was kidding. Top it all off with the most ball-crushingly annoying commercial jingle ever written, and you have a singularly insufferable experience. This movie may have Halloween in its title, but it owes more to bad James Bond movies than it does John Carpenter, even if he did provide the score for this film, which is its one saving grace.
Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988, directed by Dwight H. Little): After fans drank copious amounts of alcohol to wash the memory of Halloween III down the drain, Moustapha Akkad (financier of the original) bought the rights back to the series from Universal, and decided to resurrect Michael Myers for his ten year anniversary. Knowing exactly what Michael’s condition was in the fiery bowels of that hospital at the end of part two, you know going into a film like this that a lot of logical concessions will have to be made. After all, how the hell could anyone survive an explosion like that? Oh wait, Donald Pleasance made it out, too? We’re just going to ignore that and move on.
So what could possibly be so stirring as to awaken Michael out of a decade-long coma? Well, sometime in the last ten years, his sister Laurie got knocked up and shat out Danielle Harris, and for that, we are most certainly grateful. Oh, and then she died in a car accident along with her husband, leaving Jamie (how clever) in the care of the Carruthers family. Michael doesn’t take too kindly to the news that he has a young niece, so he decides to spring back into action with a new mask that looks like the Shatner mask from the original had a stroke, and is now frozen in a permanent derp face. Dr. Loomis sees all this coming, and hobbles briskly on his cane back to Haddonfield to enlist the help of the new sheriff (Beau Starr), whose daughter provides three of the films best visual moments—and yes, two of those are her boobs. True, they’re only seen swinging from the back, but that’s the best part of any horror movie: Using your imagination.
Where the last two films failed in the character department, Halloween 4 is filled with many likable, well-written characters whose motivations are fleshed out and make sense. Danielle Harris in particular is fantastic, giving the best child performance in a horror film next to Linda Blair in The Exorcist. The cinematography and atmosphere are top notch, the direction is stylish, and the kills are creative. Most of all, though, this feels like Halloween, and it’s damn good. If you can overlook all of the logical fallacies that come hard-wired with bringing things back to the status quo, this is—far and away, hands down—the very best of the Halloween sequels.
Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989, directed by Dominique Othenin-Girard): With The Return of Michael Myers being a smash hit with both audiences and critics, producer Paul Freeman had another round in the chamber as quick as possible to fire off another sequel. Halloween 5 (no subtitle on the film’s actual title screen) was released barely a year later… and it shows. This film feels rushed from the first frame, as if the screenplay was still in the preliminary stages when they began shooting, and no one took a moment to read it and say to themselves, “You know, aside from Jamie, the characters in this movie are total assholes.”
That’s where Halloween 5 shoots itself in the foot. Our lovely first-time director dispenses with one lovable protagonist from the last film, only to leave us with new characters that are shrill, annoying, and never stop pranking each other. This leads to several scenes of false jump scares, followed by screaming and laughing that comes from everyone but the audience. I remember loving this movie when I was a kid. As I’ve grown older, I’ve found myself rooting for Michael to slice and dice these jerk-offs like a hibachi chef at Beni-f**king-hana. This is the closest the series comes to dipping below that waterline of the worst Friday the 13th films.
In regards to story, Michael is still just after Jamie. The end of part 4 introduced a promising story thread of a potential psychic link between niece and uncle, which is only utilized briefly in the opening scenes, and then promptly forgotten as soon as it’s no longer convenient for the plot. Instead, we get a new faceless character we know only as the Man in Black (not to be confused with Tommy Lee Jones or Will Smith), who arrives on a bus in town with one purpose: To skulk pointlessly in the shadows until the film’s abrupt twist finale, which functions only to leave things open for another sequel. Oh, and they share a similar tattoo on the inner side of their right wrist… but they left that for another creative team to explain, and it would be another six years before anyone even attempted to clean up the mess.
Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995, directed by Joe Chappelle): If only this was Chappelle’s Show instead of Joe Chappelle’s show. At least then it would’ve been funny on purpose. Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers not only brings it full circle with all the Pink Panther titles (Return, Revenge, and Curse), but it also introduced the world to Paul Rudd, and my favorite Halloween-themed drinking game. It’s kind of like Waterfall; you have to keep drinking for as long as it takes Paul Rudd to blink while he’s on screen. There is not even a hint of the talent we would come to know from Rudd evident on screen here. His performance as Tommy Doyle, the grown up version of the little boy Laurie babysat in the original, is the stuff of piss-poor legend. Our first glimpse of him is as a peeping tom, spying on our female lead in her underwear. That’s a great start, right? Worked for George McFly.
Then we have the screenplay by Daniel Farrands, which has the unenviable job of explaining all of that enigmatic crap in Halloween 5, like the symbol of Thorn on Michael’s wrist and the mysterious Man in Black. Maybe the first draft did a better job of this, but no less than eleven drafts later, the explanation we got was less than satisfactory. In fact, it almost makes you wish you were watching Halloween III. Almost. It begins by killing off Jamie (not played by Danielle Harris this time) after she gives birth to the next twig in Michael’s family tree, and since the infamous “curse of Thorn” is to kill off his whole bloodline… but Jamie was being held captive in the same place as Michael for the last six years… but the Producer’s Cut includes an explanation of the baby’s parentage that makes even less sense… You can see where this is going.
Suffice it to say, this film pulls out all the stops in its quest to burn down John Carpenter’s legacy and bury the ashes in a litter box. It takes the idea of “Michael Myers, evil incarnate”, and reduces him to “Michael Myers, pawn of a sadistic cult with motives so bass ackwards and illogical that it gave me clinical depression”. Whether you’re watching the infamous Producer’s Cut (pristinely restored for this blu-ray release), or the theatrical version with its third act re-written by Joe Chappelle, there is no denying it: Halloween 6 is an atrocious mess. If you asked me, gun to my head, which version was better, I would say the Producer’s Cut feels more like a Halloween film. There are scenes where the original score submitted by Alan Howarth combine with some impressive visuals to strike a note that truly takes us back to the level of majesty achieved by Carpenter’s work, but there is nothing on this planet that could have saved this script.
Producer’s Cut: 5/10, Theatrical Cut: 3/10
Halloween: 20 Years Later (1998, directed by Steve Miner): Now this is more like it. The Curse of Michael Myers left a taste in fans’ mouths so sour, the only thing that could have possibly washed it out is the return of Jamie Lee Curtis. We finally got what we wished for. Is it everything we hoped it would be? No, of course not. If we got everything we wanted, it would have included a title card that said “written and directed by John Carpenter.” To be honest, we didn’t even get the next best thing—we got the director of Friday the 13th: Part 3D—but he does a damn good job. What Miner’s film lacks in solid storytelling, it makes up for in sheer gusto. The pacing of H20 is brisk and entertaining, topping out at less than 90 minutes.
The film picks up outside of Haddonfield, with Michael inexplicably turning up to raid the filing room of the late Dr. Loomis’ nurse, who we recognize from the first two films. It’s a darn good cameo to put us in the right mood, right before the setting shifts to California. I suppose it was inevitable for the series to finally take place in the state that always stood in for Illinois, with all its green leaves and palm trees in October. This is where Laurie lives now, assuming the name of Keri Tate, living as the headmistress of a posh private school where Josh Hartnett is her son, who is dating Michelle Williams from Dawson’s Creek, and LL Cool J is her security guard. All of this sounds like a “two rabbis walk into a bar” joke, but that’s what you get in a post-Scream Halloween sequel. (Not surprisingly, the film was executive produced by Kevin Williamson, who also did uncredited rewrites.)
You may never hear me say this about another film, but H20 moves too fast to suck. There’s a self awareness to the material that suggests an understanding between Steve Miner, Jamie Lee Curtis, and the core group of fans they wanted to bring back into the fold with this collaborative love letter. They keep things interesting in the early scenes by populating the screen with a fun cast—LL Cool J in particular almost steals the show from Curtis—and setting up a final act that is just about perfect. They know exactly why we paid to see this: We want to see Laurie kick Michael’s ass. So when she locks herself behind the school gates, walks into that perfect key-lighting with the familiar theme swelling up from the undercurrent, carrying an axe and sporting 20 years of repressed pissed off, when she screams “MICHAEL!”… It’s not even a conscious choice. We cheer our asses off, because dammit, they earned it.
Halloween: Resurrection (2002, directed by Rick Rosenthal): When the cheers following the Highlander ending of Halloween: 20 Years Later had died down, someone had the bright idea of making another one of these things. Jamie Lee Curtis agreed to return on one condition: that they kill off Laurie Strode to pave the way for new characters in the “new millennium.” So watch with a sour stomach as the emotional crutch who took us through 20 years of bad sequels gets gut-knifed and cast aside before the opening title card. That is, if you can make it beyond the explanation given for Michael not being dead without wanting to punch a baby. You ready for this?
When we begin Resurrection, Laurie is in a mental institution because she killed a man, and it wasn’t Michael Myers. Somehow, a lone paramedic sent in to check Michael’s body poked the sleeping bear, and got his windpipe crushed. Michael switched clothes with him and wandered off the property undetected, carrying a giant knife, according to the flashback footage. Sigh. To hit the high points: 1) You happen to know anyone who survived a crushed windpipe? Me either. Because people don’t survive that. They either suffocate within minutes or drown in their own blood. 2) If the man in the body bag in the back of that van wasn’t Michael, how did he survive smashing through a windshield, being hit at high velocity by a van, and getting pinned to a tree? 3) If the man behind the mask wasn’t Michael, once he reached up and realized he was wearing a Halloween mask—let me take a breath for this one—WHY DIDN’T HE JUST TAKE IT OFF?! I mean, he just clutches at it like a lunatic and does nothing about it?? WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?
They have not invented the words necessary to describe the annals of pissed off I treaded back in 2002. But did I leave the theater? Nope. Not even when I realized the star of this new Halloween film was Busta Rhymes, a man that looks like he was crossbred with a shark, who ironically refers to Michael Myers as a killer shark. He plays the producer of a reality TV show set in the Myers house on Halloween night, called—ugh—Dangertainment. There is not enough migraine medicine in the world. Even the promising multi-camera gimmick is wasted because of the intelligence-insulting setup, and a new female lead (Bianca Kajlich) whose acting makes Kristin Stewart look like Meryl Streep. She was cast for two reasons: Her lips. Because if she sucks as hard in private life as she does when she’s “acting,” it’s no wonder she got the job.
Halloween (2007, directed by Rob Zombie): Another remake that no one asked for, but at least it wasn’t produced by Michael Bay. Rob Zombie’s Halloween makes the mistake early on of taking the easy way out by attempting to explain Michael Myers’ psychological baggage in the best way he knows how: White trash family dysfunction, of course. While we can certainly understand that being gay-bashed by a crippled William Forsythe would require years of therapy, Zombie’s take on the material reduces Michael Myers to being little more than a problem child, acting out in an environment that seeks to oppress and belittle him. So it’s only fitting that he winds up being Tyler Mane, who tops out at 7-feet-tall and certainly doesn’t need a mask of any kind to scare the jeebus-creebus out of someone.
Ironically, it’s these early scenes in the film that work the best. Even if Daeg Faerch really is a little too sweet and feminine looking as a young Michael Myers, that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t do a good job playing him. Basically, he happened to fit Zombie’s compulsive need to transpose a version of himself onto at least half of his characters. Why else would most of the characters have long hair, goth fashions, and long beards? Meeting two of those criteria is Malcolm McDowell, a casting choice no one ever even thought about arguing with, because he is awesome as this version of Dr. Loomis, which is a far more narcissistic take, painting him as more of an opportunist than an idealist.
Where the film falls short is in the later passages, which are just a condensed and more graphic remake of the original. It’s like Zombie took only half of John Carpenter’s advice about “making it his own.” It’s a shame, too, because what does work here, really works. The sequence when young Michael nonchalantly decides to murder his family is both harrowing and disturbing, shot and cut with the precision of a truly gifted director. But the defining moment of the film, when Michael returns home after 15 years to retrieve the mask he hid beneath the floor boards, and he slides it on with the classic theme kicking in, that was truly awesome. Rob Zombie earned that moment. If only he hadn’t already used the Halloween theme earlier in the film at a rather inappropriate time, it might’ve made it worth the wait.
Halloween II (2009, directed by Rob Zombie): There’s really only one way to go into Rob Zombie’s Halloween II, and that’s with the understanding that you will be watching trash. Pure, exploitation trash. On that level, not only does it work, but it’s almost profound in its ability to push the boundaries of what’s acceptable to the typical slasher audience. From the first moments that pick up after the last film’s riveting finale, we see the coroners are driving Michael’s body down a stretch of rural highway having a conversation about necrophilia that’s filmed so deliberately over the top, it’s not long before we realize we are finally watching a Rob Zombie film. He finally did “make it his own.” If you’re a fan of The Devil’s Rejects, this is your time to rejoice. If you think everything Rob Zombie touches turns to poison, why are you even reading?
This entire film is an exercise in pushing excess to the point of black comedy. The first time I watched it, I felt like the kills were overlong to the point of oppression. Upon revisiting it, I’m finally in on the joke. Watch the pointlessly vicious stabbings that seem to stretch on longer than the stargate sequence in 2001 with the same perspective you would approach the violence in a Sam Raimi film, and it starts to make sense. The longer it goes on, the funnier it becomes. In fact, some sequences in Halloween II are so efficient in their riotous grotesquery that they only require a single shot, such as when the bearded, maskless Michael is feasting on the remains of a dog. Substitute a sunset in the background and he could be John Wayne in a western. He looks content and downright stoic, as if he’s daring you to get pissed off at him for killing a dog when he just laid waste to three human beings for no reason. I’m sorry, but that is f**king hilarious.
Where this film loses people is in its approach to two things: 1) Laurie, played again by Scout Taylor Compton, is a bitch. She removes herself from our sympathies entirely, which I’m still deciding is either a bold move or foolishly stupid. 2) The psychedelic white horse motivation is in direct contrast to the nature/nurture debate stance Zombie took the first time. I can’t say I completely agree with this critique. The first film was told largely from the perspective of Dr. Loomis—from the outside, looking in. Not to mention, it was far more audience friendly, a comfort zone that is certainly not comfortable for Rob Zombie. This time, we are completely in Michael’s head. I’m not saying this white horse crap makes any more or less sense, but I don’t think it’s a glaring contradiction just because the first film laid out a different take. Whether or not this new angle works for you, with its unexpected side dish of psycho-screwy Ken Russell imagery, is entirely a matter of taste. Halloween II has none. It’s brutally funny, just plain brutal, and shows that Rob Zombie plays more in tune when he’s riding solo.
- Blake O. Kleiner