Written by: Daniel McDonald
I have been a horror film fan for 53 years. In that time, I’ve seen pretty much every type of what fans consider to be horror or terror or thrillers, and I’m proud of the fact that each time I paid for a ticket, or sat down in front of my TV, I did so with a true sense of fanboy excitement and anticipation. No pre-judgmental negativity (that has been and still is one of my pet peeves, why give your time or/and money, only to decide you’re not going to let the film tell you its story, and take it’s ride?). In the spirit of the season, I pondered several options of which series of films I felt were significantly qualified and varied enough to warrant a subjectively opinionated look back at the individual quality and entertainment merits of each installment.
I feel good about examining (briefly) each of the 10 installments of the Halloween film series. Now, as I’ve said numerous times in my The View from the Trailer Park column here on Addicted to Horror Movies, coverage and critical analysis are seriously subjective things to be asked to do. You’re never going to achieve a unanimous sense of validation and agreement from all horror fans (a tough, opinionated, intelligent crowd). The best one can hope for, is the feeling that in opposition or complete agreement, I will be given an opportunity to establish why I have the opinions I do. This column is in no way an attack on, or derision of other’s feelings regarding the object in question, simply my observations and opinions.
As luck would have it, my feeling regarding sequels and groupings of films has been interesting to me, but not something I found resulting in better quality and entertainment, or in most cases strictly being created not because there’s a strong need to continue a narrative, but because a table full of executives see multiple dollar signs emanating from low budgetary investments, high recognition factor films. I think of films like The Exorcist, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Summer Camp (the film itself or anything plunked down in the middle of the woods, whether it has a cock-shot or not). God help me, The Exorcist and all of the derivative junk it inspired by becoming a worldwide phenomenon, the already stultifying but still eroding Friday the 13th, which just like A N.O.E.S. had turned its monstrous, terrifying, consummate evil into a Borscht Belt comedian. I’m not fond of these types of celluloid regurgitation time wasters, the studios’ unsuccessful attempt to disguise basically the same film over and over leaves me feeling totally insulted. The assumption that horror film fans are all of low intelligence, mentally and socially underdeveloped, artistically undiscerning, low-brow rubes is not only completely prejudicial, it is (for the most part) absolutely false.
Good Horror can be hard to find. Great Horror can be a true rarity. Iconic Horror comes along so rarely, that when it does it literally makes news. The Hollywood reaction to Award worthy horror films (sparse) is genuinely shocking. There are only a few horror films that made it to the possibility of Oscar glory (aside from technical and makeup contenders), and even they (nominees like Jaws and The Exorcist) that were extremely well-made films, with high levels of talent on both sides of the camera, and became moneymaking blockbusters, were accompanied by snickers and gossip among the power players who felt they were simply popular popcorn movies, not worthy of Oscar consideration. Things went as far as when the terrifying, savage and violent The Silence of the Lambs won five Oscars in all of the major categories, several of the promotional team and producers Kenneth Utt, Ron Bozman and Edward Saxon tried (unsuccessfully) to change the critical (it got rave reviews) and popular (it made 272 million on a 19 million dollar budget) opinion, that the film was definitely not a horror film in any way. The stigma of a horror film not being a quality product was incredibly powerful.
Then in 1978 a small team of independent filmmakers, led by director, John Carpenter, set out to make an inexpensive thriller called The Babysitter. Carpenter had made some student films at USC and won an Oscar (believe it or not!) for the documentary, The Resurrection of Bronco Billy. His first real industry recognition came with the attention given to Dark Star, a low-budget Sci/Fy feature that enabled Carpenter to create a “production posse” that led to the creation of Assault on Precinct 13. This (again) low-budget crime melodrama, got maximum mileage out of a script that had a traditional, almost Western feel (Carpenter has been quoted as saying his favorite films are the studio produced 1940 and 50s Westerns), and above average action filmmaking credited to the up and coming independent’s darling John Carpenter, and his creative team.
So, when producers Mostapha Akkad and Irwin Yablans (Hill and Carpenter co-produced) offered up the chance to create a low-budget (seems Carpenter was getting the reputation of being, as they say, “effectively frugal” – meaning he could squeeze a nickel ‘til the Buffalo pooped, but still manage to deliver a quality product) horror film, Yablans wanted to change the title. It seems films with titles related to holidays were becoming the “new thing” and after a bit of charmed detective work, he found that no one had taken the title Halloween. So Halloween became the new title, and also inspired Carpenter and his business partner Debra Hill to quickly come up with the script.
Not many fans had any idea of the slow but steady rise of the legendary Halloween. At first being distributed locally, with small promotion and initially mostly negative press, the producers were about to discard the film, to be forgotten like so many before it. Then came a regional release in North East theaters, and something amazing occurred. A few phenomenally positive reviews in key publications, and even more, coverage of the fantastically enthusiastic audience responses caused Producers to pump more funding into a National promotional campaign. The film ultimately got a much wider release, and enormous word of mouth on not only the film itself, but even more the event of being part of the “in the theater” experience. This was post Rocky Horror, and Halloween audiences were very vocal, emotional and invested in the characters, story and actions.
John Carpenter’s Halloween (his two contractual demands were that he had final cut control, and that his name would precede the title) was a surprisingly simple story of three Haddonfield Illinois high school seniors, who either have an unknown connection to, or just happen to experience “wrong place/wrong time” in the worst possible way. As is soon discovered, an escaped insane asylum prisoner has returned to his hometown (guess where?). In the film’s beautifully deceptive, simple opening, we get a wonderful POV lengthy tracking shot, not knowing whose eyes we’re looking through. But after a suspense-fully shot stalking scene (a mask is added to “creep up” the feel and add more suspense to this already creepy opening) we see a young woman attacked and stabbed to death (although due to the mask POV we see no gore, but the sound design of the knife entering her body repeatedly, is extremely effective). After the arrival of an adult couple who remove the mask of the mysterious attacker, we are witness to a young boy with a cold, unemotional face, holding a huge bloody knife. His name is Michael Myers. The elements of this scene are a true blueprint for Carpenter’s style and vision while creating an unusual looking and feeling way of telling the story.
Smoothly kinetic camera movements, the use of sound (Charles Bornstien and Carpenter “go to guy” Tommy Lee Wallace who performed multiple duties on the film) and wonderfully creative cinematography (frequent collaborator Dean Cundey) are used to tell us the degree of violence to anticipate and other key information occurring in certain scenes, plenty of which are frightening without any gore, yet enhanced by an often recognized, enthralling score (also composed by Carpenter, due to budgetary limitations). The film’s seemingly simple story, a maniac returns to his hometown, followed by the doctor (the wonderful hero of the series, Sam Loomis as played by the late legend, Donald Pleasance) who has been “monitoring” Michael Myers since the first murder, and is terrified of the possibilities of what he might do. Michael’s seemingly obsessive interactions with the high schoolers, especially our heroine (Jamie Lee Curtis, quite wonderful and identifiable to audiences, as she went on to enjoy a very successful film career, initially focusing on horror projects, but quickly advancing to all genres), Laurie Strode. This stylish, relatively non-violent but terrifyingly effective film became a box office champion and Carpenter was dubbed a phenom, a young ambitious talent. Hollywood took notice very quickly.
With the obvious box office success of this initial project, and Carpenter’s choice to leave this (by now) supernatural embodiment of pure evil seemingly alive for a chillingly ambiguous finale, the word sequel was on everyone’s lips.
Were I asked to rate the individual productions of the series, I would definitely rank this original film as number one. I was very happy to hear that recently Carpenter gave major props to Bob Clark’s top quality, truly terrifying Canadian film Black Christmas (editor’s note: Carpenter has long acknowledged the inspiration delivered by Black Christmas, and at one point had the idea of creating Halloween as an actual sequel to Black Christmas), which had many similarities to Halloween, and was released in 1974, a near half-decade prior to Halloween. The fact that so many critics and fans lauded Carpenter’s masterpiece as a seminal, original, leader of the wave of decades worth of slasher films to come, I always felt Black Christmas was overlooked or forgotten (Another editor’s note: Black Christmas has steadily – and rightfully – grown into the highly respected piece and true sub-genre launch that it is over the last two decades), and I think it was a superior product in every way.
Carpenter was immediately approached for Halloween II, which he turned down, but agreed to produce and co-write. Despite ever-increasing salary offers to direct, Carpenter said “I have no interest in making the same movie.” Both he and Hill’s involvement with the sequel, was not evident in almost every way. Filmed as a direct continuation of the original film, the director’s reigns were turned over to neophyte Rick Rosenthal. Most of the original technical talent and some performers, notably Miss Curtis and Mr. Pleasance, returned for the much larger budget production.
The film itself received very mixed press, mainly being compared to the original. The visuals were inhibited by the stationary hospital setting, the much more evident presence of Michael, the large dose of (inventive, but unneeded) gore which was added at the insistence of distributor Universal Pictures, were all held against the film, which still did solid box office figures and left the audience with the impression that both Michael and Dr. Loomis died in an explosion. I feel a bit sorry for this episode, being abandoned by critics (and cast) simply for being the “next one.” Perhaps the script chose rather predictable, uninspired elements while audiences expected bigger, better scares, and the film became a slasher film, not an atmospheric horror film. I’ll comfortably give this one number 5.
I might as well be honest with you. Slots eight and nine are Rob Zombie’s reboots in order of release. I felt that his efforts to humanize Michael took away the mystique, the legendary “have you ever looked into the eyes of a monster?” and “this isn’t a man” and especially “and I looked into his eyes, the Devil’s eyes” qualities. It seemed to me that in trying to “go another way” (because the last few episodes of the original series had deteriorated and were critically reviled) Mr. Zombie not only negated so much of what creeped me out and actually made me feel vulnerable on the first of 13 times I saw the original, the savagery of the violence and lack of empathy for the characters in the two final (?) episodes took these two attempts from Horror Hierarchy to Grind-house mediocrity.
So we have numbers one, five, eight and nine. Onto the final six! In 1998 Hill and Carpenter had an inspired idea. What happened to Laurie Strode? It took much hemming and hawing from all parties concerned (particularly Jamie Lee Curtis) to produce a terrifying farewell once and for all. After Robert Zappia and Matt Greenberg finished writing a script that satisfied all parties, director Steve Miner, who helmed the second Friday the 13th was brought on board. The film was very well and logically written, picking up the original story 20 years later. I especially enjoyed the atmosphere and energy of the first and third acts, as well as the details surrounding Laurie’s past and how it still haunted her. Producers Moustapha Akhad, Kevin Scream Williamson, Bob and Harvey Weinberg had put a healthy amount into this film’s budget. In addition to Curtis the cast included up and comers Josh Hartnett, Michelle Williams Joseph Gordon-Levitt, LL Cool J, as well as Adam Arkin and Curtis’ mother, Janet Psycho Leigh.
Some terrifically suspenseful set pieces (particularly the moment where Curtis and Michael meet face to face, truly an iconic moment) are supplied by Miner who has developed quite a bit since Friday the 13th 2. Top of the line work by Wes Craven’s go to editor Patrick Lussier, cinematographer Darren Okada (some terrifically effective photography) and music by Marco Beltrami, John Ottman and Jeremy Sweet. The “final confrontation” has the epic feel of something substantial occurring, and a sentimental and incredibly savage finale left me satisfied to say goodbye to Michael and Laurie. I’m impressed by not only its quality, but also its efficiently, effective wrap up for the series. This one is a solid number two.
After Halloween II, the creators decided to try producing a series of various sub-genre films (a la Twilight Zone or Outer Limits). So with Tommy Lee Wallace directing and writing, Halloween 3 was a witchcraft/ sci-fy concoction that flew under the Halloween banner. Most critics and public dismissed the film as being silly, rather cheap looking and having something unpopular with most fans, but not me, a nihilistic finale. Even with the assistance of Carpenter’s “posse”, the usually inspired cinematography of Dean Cundey, editing by Millie Moore, serviceable (but beginning to feel stale) music by Carpenter and Alan Howarth, this film was an ambitious attempt to create something new, but looked lower budget than it actually was.
Special FX (killer Halloween masks?) were anything but special, production design that resembled an empty studio with Styrofoam Stonehenge rocks.
This film was easily one of the least popular and profitable of a film under the Halloween banner. Gotta go with number 6.
The failure and slight embarrassment from the Universal powers that be, regarding the crash and burn feel of Halloween 3, resulted in a slight break. The immediate return of Michael Myers was the inspiration behind the (slightly underrated I think) creation of Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers. Writers Alan B. Mc Elroy and Larry Shepard came up with a script that paid honor to Laurie Strode, but has only Donald Pleasance’s Dr. Loomis as a member of Carpenter’s posse involved. An entirely new twist allowed B-movie specialist Dwight H. Little to do some fairly simple, but imaginative atmospheric shots (one a particularly well-lit, framed and executed pan when Loomis and Myers are reunited) I think several of the set pieces successfully create a sense of anxiety, especially the sequence of Michael and new character (and reason for this film’s existence) a very talented Danielle Harris as Jamie, Laurie Strode’s daughter. Laurie was killed in a fire, so Michael moved on to the next relative on his shit list. After some fairly well-staged truck vs Michael sequences, Michael is shot and falls into an abandoned mineshaft. After returning home, everything seems fine until, unexpectedly Jamie puts on a clown suit and mask (a la Michael in episode one) and kills her mother, revealing to a screaming Loomis Michael may be reborn…
All in all a well done B-movie, with solid acting and violence. I’m giving it a number 3.
We’re counting down to the (in my opinion) dishonorable mentions (including both of Rob Zombie’s ambitious Halloween 1 and 2 which I felt were damaging to the tone, atmosphere and especially otherworldly legendary quality that was so effective in the original). Turning Michael into an abused, neglected White Trash (does Mr. Zombie not know any other type of people?) violent man, is about as far from Hill and Carpenter’s wonderfully unique creation as you can get. Before everyone comes back at me with the “but you’re comparing two different films and two different director’s visions!!!” Totally understood, but as I’ve repeatedly stated these are my subjective and (I hope) seemingly intelligent and reasonably explained opinions. If you want to take me to task, contact the editor and put your (I’m sure) worthwhile opinions in writing.
On to those dishonorable final few. Being completely honest, I felt the “creative wheels” were coming off the bus. I went into Halloween 5 with hope that some of the B quality efforts of Dwight Little, would be built upon and we weren’t going to witness another uninspired tale of boy meets girl, boy stalks girl while killing half the town, boy dies but not really, YEESH!!!
Well this is definitely a “be careful what you wish for” situation. Director Dominique Othenin Gerard (lovely name, but…) gives the film a dual personality. At times it has a very generic look and feel, while other times the action scenes had a good energetic feel. I was prepared to credit Charles Teloni’s editing, which was serviceable. Then I found out Halloween 4‘s B movie expert Dwight Little was called back to the set to do several action scenes and reshoots – uncredited. Well that gave my Dr. Jekyll/Sister Hyde feelings some credibility. But then we come to screenplay and acting… D.O.G.’s (no shade, it’s just a long name) skills with actors seemed to reveal a sense of intimidation. The lead performances by Donald Pleasance and Danielle Harris are at times so “off the rails” I was looking for teeth marks on the set. That combined with a screenplay by Michael Jacobs who seems to think you can fix anything by throwing more characters and more blood at the screen, which caused cinematographer Robert Draper to feel the need to erratically try large establishing shots with awkward close-ups, not always giving the viewer a sense of location or how and why characters appear. The fact that the overacting actually caused derisive laughter, and so many locations were confusingly not well established, really created a feeling of both time and budget constraints, or a lack of vision and leadership was sinking this ship fast!
The one actual surprising event in this film is the Marion Crane-like murder of Rachel, the heroine of Halloween 4. The screenplay’s attempt to connect all of the dots of family relationships and story connection elements is completely confusing at times. Around this point I was disconnecting from the film, and began to think things such as “this dude can get knocked out by a 2×4 to the head, but has had more lead pumped into him than a pencil factory and Ever-ready Bunnies it through several of these films”. I’ll grudgingly make this a number five.
Now I want you to remember where we are on the ratings scale. I told you Rob Zombie’s two efforts didn’t work for me, hence the eight and nine slots are filled. Why, that leaves two installments from the original series to compete for numbers seven and the ultimate disappointment, the big 1 0. Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers (CURSE huh? That’s a feeling almost everyone felt by this point).
First and foremost, I want to know, not Michael’s survival methods from 1000 gun shots, several stabbings, numerous connections with the front of automobiles etc., etc. No, he’s the Boogeyman as Donald Pleasance has reminded us ad nauseam. The otherworldly embodiment of pure evil. What I want to know is, all of that nasty “Yabba Dabba Doo” that is Michael Myers is housed in a human shell, we’ve seen him as a young boy inhabited by “pure eeeeeviiil.” But if it is a human shell, how the hell does that “shell” have the ability to move, walk, still have physical strength to lift heavy murder weapons, and bodies, let alone what muscle strength it takes to commit these strenuous acts of violence? We have been told until he was a young child, he was a perfectly normal human being. He now has more shrapnel and lead pretty much everywhere in his body, I mean the guy should retire into a junk yard. What is his fitness regimen, Holiday Spa? Planet Fitness?
These observations may seem silly and superfluous, but I mention them because it was my (and several others) mindset heading into see Halloween 6. So obviously created simply because as long as the budget is low, any piece of crap that flies under the Halloween banner will turn a profit. As I watched the “everything but the kitchen sink” effort, my heart broke a little bit. I imagined what it must be like for someone as no bullshit as Carpenter, to sit through this barely recognizable junk and know you planted the seed that resulted (with much studio involvement) in something that is literally a 180 from your artistic intention. The fact that Jamie is now in a mental asylum and mute, at least gives us a break from her “unrestrained” style of acting. Director Joe Chapelle had a helluva challenge with this film (shockingly written as a final ABC end of the series by Hill and Carpenter supporting an 11th draft effort script by Daniel Ferrands; guess they needed money for a summer home). This time we find out that Michael is under a Celtic curse placed upon him by a local coven of druids (guess they didn’t have a Knights of Columbus) that requires him to kill his family bloodline – yeah I heard it – and also makes him unkillable. We also get expositional family background info filling us in on the Strode/Lloyd family connection, including the fact that Jamie had a child with Michael (just eeeuuww)… I really thought this film not only felt, but looked like it had been filmed in dullovision (courtesy of Billy Dickson) and edited with a chainsaw (Randy Bricker). The plot seemed both overstuffed and confusingly empty at times – not an easy thing to do. Apparently in post-production the film was chopped up and rearranged by Ferrands and the studio. The result was a confusingly ugly mess that leaves the door open for…you guessed it: Number seven it is!!
So we finally get to a film so wrongheaded, so uninspired and infuriating that I honestly almost walked out, and I have never done that in 53 years of some really stupid, boring crap, that I managed to give a chance. Halloween Resurrection (ugh) begins where the quite wonderful Halloween H20 ended. Laurie Strode faced off with Michael and ends the franchise fittingly by decapitating him, a well done, fitting finale to the franchise – which was also the main reason Jamie Lee Curtis agreed to come back to the franchise, honoring Laurie’s journey through and surviving as the ultimate final girl, killing the monster once and for all. I saw this film out of curiosity, wanting to know where the franchise could possibly go, with the villain of the piece finally dead. Well it seems Miss Curtis didn’t read her contract very well as it contained a clause stating the Michael Myers character could never officially be killed off.
So after much apologizing (and I’m sure a massive amount of salary compensation) Resurrection opened with Laurie now in an asylum because Michael had apparently switched places with an ambulance driver and he was the man Laurie decapitated at the end of H20. That pissed me off big time!! Even more contrived is the fact that she is housed in the same asylum where Michael was apparently taken at the end of H20.
At this point my blood began to boil, I felt the producers of this “for dollars only” piece of shit was basically assuming I was brainless enough to accept this utter disrespect for Horror fans that had followed this franchise for years. Of course it had to continue spitting in my face by having Laurie and Michael have a generic fight where Laurie is killed by Michael being stabbed in the back and falling (a truly beautiful shot, I’ll admit) into the treetops below. Well I was so completely shell-shocked that the rest of the film concerning a group of teenagers winning a contest where they would get camera and video equipment applied onto them and we get the opportunity to…guess what? See Michael stalk and kill them in visually diverse ways.
The Myers house burns down and Michael’s body is prepped to go… guess where? The morgue, and guess what? In the final shot he begins to move!!!
I cannot remember any time in 53 years of film-going that I left a theater feeling as sad, angry and betrayed.
There you have my subjective opinions on the Halloween franchise. I say take ’em with a grain of salt and have a HAPPY HORROWEEN…I’m just saying…