Reflections on the "Halloween" Eight (1978-2002)


The Shape. Our Shadow. Otherwise known as Michael Myers.  

Our Shadow never dies, and The Shape returns semi-regularly to remind us. He's partial to anniversaries, and indeed he's back for the 40th anniversary of his small-town massacre, with a new variant on the Halloween timeline. I'm sure many are in a reflective mood. My own reflections on the series, though, end at the 2002 instalment, Halloween: Resurrection: the subsequent Rob Zombie-directed revisions, Halloween and Halloween II, while not without merit, just feel too far a universe away from the general essence of the preceding eight. 

Halloween (1978): I feel obliged to mention the masterfully orchestrated "cat and mouse" tension. It is tremendous. But the original film I remember almost exclusively as a mood piece: all that (Pana)gliding through the familiar, safely manicured streets of Pasadena (playing Haddonfield, Illinois)... only for the camera to settle on a masked figure in the distance. So simple, economical, effective. So surreal. Only the synthesised "stingers", and a mounting sense of unease, break up the mood. Another thing to register was the sense of guilt and barely contained overwhelm etched on the face of the escaped madman's psychiatrist, Dr Loomis (Donald Pleasence). You can see why the character captured an audience, and why his tendency for grand proclamations was not only tolerated but deemed eccentrically sincere. And then there's that wonderfully natural dialogue and byplay between the three stalked girls, with the sensitive girl - Jamie Lee Curtis' Laurie Strode - strikingly attuned to danger (and Carpenter's directorial eye is lovingly attuned to her alertness). It's a classic example of horror suspense, but there are many other reasons it has left an imprint. 

Halloween II (1981): what a kick when a sequel picks up seconds after the original ends. Interesting, then, in what has emerged a stupendously retconning series, that the first sequel itself immediately "splits" from the thesis of the original, with Loomis' doomy expression of " I knew he couldn't be stopped" replaced with a disbelieving "My God, where is he?" Look, I don't think any of the sequels are scary like the original. But they are effective. Michael Myers' get-up, for one, is remarkably simple - man in boiler suit with William Shatner mask painted white - and cut-price costuming to boot...and quite hypnotic. We should probably be slapping Halloween II on the wrist for its multitude of shots of Myers wandering corridors of Haddonfield hospital, except that the imagery casts its spell. Kubrick had his spaceships, Halloween II's director Rick Rosenthal has his wandering psycho! Atmosphere is certainly on Rosenthal's mind, and such proprieties make sense when the fun ride surprise of the original could not surely be repeated. When The Shape finally renews his chase of Laurie - now revealed as his sister, in what feels an anxious attempt to supply the sequel with legitimacy (would Laurie's survival have been dismissed as too narratively slim a motivation for Michael's ongoing rampaging?) - you realise how Rosenthal's slow, methodical build has ultimately benefited the film: the chases are singularly intense, and amplified, as it  were, by a booming rendition of Carpenter's chase theme. (Rosenthal's films, we'll see, always have the boomiest of musical scores and offer the most ample - and dynamic - views of The Shape.) The film also departs from the original in significant ways: those with more sway in the film's final cut felt Rosenthal's vision needed some beefing up and decided that "something" was to ride the gruesome wave of the slasher movement that Halloween itself inadvertently evoked. (Not that the original film's restraint in graphic detail afforded its victims quicker deaths). The crimson, fortunately, is often effectively deployed; but the scalding death, complete with its bare breasted victim, is emblematic of why the slasher sub-genre is so regularly despised. 

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982): suppose you delivered another Halloween-themed horror film, but the audience came out to see the masked stalker. Where's Michael? This third instalment instead positions androids at the corners of the Panavision frame. They're minor compensation, secondary figures within a conspiracy orchestrated by a murderous Willy Wonka. Fortunately, the mad toy maker in question - intent on returning Halloween to its blood-soaked origins, via modern merchandise (masks) and technology (microchips) -  is a superb creation, played by Dan O'Herlihy with a smiling theatricality that belies something very warped and reptilian, indeed. I came away wishing he had had been granted some more screen time...and the gruesome details - which regularly feel gratuitous - a bit less. The centrality of masks in this sequel forms an interesting link with its predecessors. A slight pity, then, that a fun bit of inter textually - Halloween III's protagonist wearily observing a TV spot for the original Halloween - denies Myers a reality in this universe, thus removing the possibility that Michael was one of Col. Cochrane's original child guinea pigs. In short, it's a fun diversion from The Shape, with enough stylistic themes and links to make it an acceptable cousin. But it's nice Michael returned... 

Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988): Myers return is heralded in this chilly, blue-hued little horror number. He's back in Haddonfield, out to get his niece, and the lines of homes he stalks this time have a more rustic feel: we feel we're in a wilting country town. The teenagers dialogue is less Debra Hill-infused "slice of life", and more perfunctory and didactic sexual politics. That's how it struck me. But that's the problem when - as I did with the first two films - you get stuck on a particular style and approach for a Halloween film. Halloween 4 is a fan favourite: it's slickly produced and resists any excesses, but it seems a bit undistinguished to me. There is a scene where Loomis & co. are surrounded by a group of Michael Myers figures, and that moment, suggesting a small-town traumatised to the point of psychosis, points to a richer set of ideas than the sequel ultimately explores. (A great many of the locals are certainly boorish and obnoxious, but I felt it was more script convenience than linked to previous traumas.) There is also a great moment where Loomis, accepting a lift from a man madder than he, is a simultaneous picture of bemusement and sheepishness. Otherwise, it's business as usual, with Michael less playful, more Terminator in the shadows. The film's oppressively chilly atmosphere is perhaps its most effective quality, ably supported by composed Alan Howarth's slow, pulsing and eerie synthesised breaths. 

Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989): this one was rushed into production after Part 4's strong box-office opening. And so it inevitably showcases a fair serving of half (and quarter)-baked ideas (including a psychic link between characters), plot holes and choppy transitions to ensure a much-maligned reputation. And that's fair enough. And yet it also has an "oh fuck it, let's go for broke" vibe, with Loomis, beside himself by this stage, memorably unleashing climactic hell on our suburban stalker via a beam of wood. Similarly vivid is the performance of Danielle Harris as The Shape's niece. I found her a bit "perfunctory doe-eyed kid" in Part 4. I marvel at her performance in Part 5, a cocktail of palpable desperation, vulnerability and fear. There is a sense of escalation from Parts 4 to 5, with director Dominique Othenin-Girard appropriately taking the prowling camera from (Pana)gliding to the hand-held and oftentimes plain frenzied. That perhaps deprives Part 5 of the cinematic elegance of its predecessors; this is Halloween by way of Tobe Hooper. There is a great deal of stalking, fair to say too much, and yet such things are regularly imbued with creative, offbeat touches. Michael is given more of the blackly playful moments we associate with the original. Anyway, however guided by creative desperation the film's sense of non-restraint may have been, that quality makes Part 5 a more satisfying entry for me than Part 4. It's all over the place, and the scrappy dog of the series - but it's most definitely out there punching. 

Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995): I don't think anyone was fooled into thinking Part 5's cliffhanger contained any creative master plan. But that film's mysterious Man in Black suggested that Part 6 would likely offer a treatise on what appeared to be Michael's No. 1 Acolyte. After all, it seemed entirely borne of reality that a mass murderer would be steadily acquiring some heavy duty acolytes and willing accomplices / enablers. The film that eventuated, though, weaves the cliffhanger into a well-mounted Druid conspiracy tale complete with an unneeded, "but-hey if-we-have-to-have-one-it's-pretty-good" explanation of why Michael does what he does. It's as though the alchemy of Part III has infected the veins of the Myers universe. Ironic, then, that in positing a rationale for Michael's actions, he at times drifts perilously towards becoming as secondary a figure as an android from Part III. That is not to say he is without menace. If you can go with the explanations posited, Part 6 is an enjoyable tale (the producer's original cut, that is) although you can see that by nineties standards, this cut was relatively tame in a stalk'n'slash sense. But the theatrical cut, in seeking to hype proceedings up for that very reason, comes a severe cropper. The attempts to intensify the film - persistent flash cuts, amplified "stingers", stabbings that sound like guttings & a general Halloween III-level of bodily harm - contrast sharply with (what is left of) Joe Chappelle's carefully built atmosphere, thus rendering the latter a bore. How fantastic the producer's cut arrived in high definition in 2015. Let this be the official version of Halloween 6. 

Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (1998): The series first really aggressive stroke of retconning. H20 - Halloween 7 in any other parlance - is a direct, alas 20 years later, sequel to the events of 1978's (and '81's) "The Night He Came Home". In a long-running series that spans decades, any new revival will, it seems, be imbued with the styles and preoccupations of its times. It has to capture a new generation of film-goers, rather than depend on long-standing fools, oops, stalwarts like me. The film, though, ultimately seems less a reassertion of the original film's strengths, as it does a pitch for legitimacy in the knowing, self-reflexive meta-world of Kevin Williamson's Scream. In that latter regard, the film has to be considered a success. In the former, the issue is more complex. Like Halloween 4, H20 has all the respectful strokes necessary for a "general" audience, but has that slight feeling of being warmed over in the process, a feeling exemplified by John Ottman's orchestral overture of the Halloween theme; it's not without merit, but the synthesised beats of versions past  jangle the nerves more definitively. Still, Steve Miner effectively orchestrates an extended climactic chase - the kinetics of which continue to impress - proving that a long-standing association with TV's Dawson's Creek ain't gonna suppress his Friday the 13th-honed flair for some good 'ol slasher pursuits. Chris Durand's Michael, meanwhile, faced with some more resourceful victims-to-be than usual, gives us a notably shirtier take on the character. I feel ambivalent about that development; there's a tad less of the spooky supernatural calm on show here. But the menace is there, and that's the main thing. And, of course, it's a pleasure to have Jamie Lee Curtis back, bringing movie star gravitas to her character's 20 years of anxiety-ridden existence. How to reconcile, though, my preference for her sad, haunted cameo in H20's sequel. Speaking of which... 

Halloween: Resurrection (2002): the one with Busta Rhymes. Enough said? Hardly. Of all the Halloween sequels, this is the one I most regularly revisit. Yes, it rewrites the conclusive strokes of H20 (there's a franchise's financial health to attend to, after all), but it does so in a thematically clever way: Michael delivers his most diabolical demonstration of "trick or treat" spirit. And - after bringing the family threads to a close in its masterfully dark opening scenes, Resurrection returns Myers to the "purposeless killer"-status of the 1978 original (purposeless beyond solidifying his legend), stalking a group of young adults while they participate in an Internet broadcast from the dilapidated Myers family home. Resurrection even makes a comment on the reliance of backstory revelations in sequels past: all the suggestions here of an abusive home are revealed as a desperate internet hoax to keep viewers hooked. Meanwhile, Resurrection's mix of fluid, beautifully gothic camerawork with grainy cam footage is terrifically enveloping, as is the pounding dread in Danny Lux's score. The extended use of a contained space is similar, too, to what the original achieved. I found the young cast as entertaining in their antics as the youthful triptych of 1978. And Busta Rhymes? Well, just as many didn't like the inclusion of one Spielbergian universe (the world of aliens) in another Spielbergian universe (the world of Indiana Jones), so many a Halloween fan struggled with a character - who would seem utterly at home in the Carpenter world of macho posturing (They Live, Big Trouble in Little China) - falling into a Halloween film. I found the merging of universes enjoyable; although I think I'd have preferred the original ending, where the Internet geek saves the girl and Mr Rhymes appears genuinely - rather than showily - contrite for his role in the Internet debacle. Resurrection is campier than many a fan would like, but it is confident in what it is, and, like the original, is an effectively contained piece, making the most with less. Through this latter quality, plus killing off the family links and returning us to the purposeless killer, the series came full-circle in 2002.

Published June 30, 2018