Friday, October 26, 2018

Franchise Friday | Halloween

In celebration of the release of David Gordon Green's new Halloween sequel/reboot, and in the spirit of the upcoming holiday, From the Front Row takes a look at the 40-year history of the Halloween franchise with all its highs and lows along the way. 40 years. 11 films. Here we go.

At this point, John Carpenter's original Halloween has become so iconic, so endlessly imitated, that it's almost easy to forget just how effective, how perfect, a film it actually was. Despite eight sequels and two remakes, Halloween's luster remains undimmed after 40 years. If Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho was the grandfather of the slasher genre, then Halloween is its father, spawning an entire sub-genre of horror where masked, knife-wielding killers stalk unsuspecting teenagers and dispatch them with merciless abandon.

Yet no one did it better than Halloween. Not Friday the 13th. Not A Nightmare on Elm Street. Not Scream. While it took inspiration from such films as Mario Bava's Bay of Blood (1971) and Charles B. Pierce's The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976), Halloween laid the groundwork in popularizing the genre and has never been topped. It's often surprising to discover just how simple it was. Before all the subplots about Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) being serial killer Michael Myers' sister, before giving him a niece Michael spends three movies trying to kill in order to annihilate his entire family, before the clumsy attempts to connect him to a cult of druids and ancient pagan rituals, Michael Myers was simply known as The Shape, a masked killer stalking babysitters on Halloween night.

As The Shape, he materialized out of nowhere, calm, soulless, completely focused, a force of nature who could be anywhere at any time. He was the Boogeyman, he was, in many ways, fear itself. Carpenter gives us just enough back story to let the audience know who and what Michael is, but his motivations remain a mystery. He was, as Doctor Loomis (Donald Pleasance) opined, "purely and simply evil." That's the beauty of Halloween - it's a cat and mouse game, free of unnecessary myth-building or attempts to psychoanalyze the killer. It almost feels pure, a distillation of the eternal struggle between good and evil, shadow and light, perfectly represented by Carpenter's own iconic score, which turned what was once a standard drum rhythm into one of the most primally terrifying pieces of music ever composed; simple, repeating, building, unstopping, like the evil it represents  - Carpenter's music and the film it supports remain not just the gold standard for American horror, but one of the greatest achievements in cinematic history.

Picking up right where the original Halloween (1978) left off, Halloween II (1981) promises "MORE of the night HE came home." Of course, more of the same is all it really gives us, just in higher doses. Michael Myers continues his Halloween night killing spree (this time with more blood), while Laurie Strode is taken to Haddonfield Hospital with Michael right on her trail. Why is Michael so obsessed with Laurie? It turns out she's his sister, and he's bent on finishing what he started as a child - killing off his entire family.

The revelation that Michael is actually Laurie's brother undercuts some of the randomness that made the original film so terrifying, but it begins a piece of Halloween mythology that lasted all the way through five more sequels and two remakes before being retconned in 2018's Halloween - that Michael's ultimate goal is to kill his entire family. It feels like an unnecessary bit of explanation but isn't really the biggest issue with Halloween II, given that it at least gives Michael some sort of motivation to continue through the sequels unlike so many other slasher franchises.

No, the biggest issue with Halloween II is that it's just kind of dull. It feels pedestrian and uninspired where Halloween felt fresh and terrifying. Everyone involved is just going through the motions, with the exception of Donald Pleasance, who starts to unveil the Captain Ahab-like obsessiveness in Dr. Loomis that will only ratchet up throughout the rest of the series. Halloween II continues the original film, but it doesn't have any of its intensity or verve. Even The Shape, once so purposeful and deliberate, feels slow and lumbering here. On the plus side, the empty hospital is an appropriately creepy location for Michael's final massacre, and his final confrontation with Laurie with his tears of blood in a silent room conjures up some strong images. And for sheer creepiness, it's hard to beat the image of Michael Myers stalking through the empty halls of a hospital at night. Halloween II is solid in fits and starts, but it never really distinguishes itself from the glut of substandard slashers that its predecessor helped spawn.


The odd-duck, the black sheep - Halloween III: Season of the Witch departed from the Michael Myers storyline, the first step in a planned Halloween anthology series telling spooky stories set around Halloween. It was Carpenter's original concept for the Halloween franchise - one not set around Michael Myers but around the holiday itself. It ultimately proved to be a failure, and the series returned to Myers for Halloween 4. Because of this, Halloween IIIgets something of a bad rap, but examined on its own merits, it's not a bad film at all.

Had Halloween II  not focused on the Michael Myers story, the idea of a Halloween anthology might have worked. But since one sequel had already featured Michael Myers, audiences were conditioned to expect more. Halloween III introduces us to Silver Shamrock, an evil novelty toy company bent on sacrificing millions of children on Halloween night through their booby trapped masks, ubiquitously advertised on TV stations everywhere in order to ensure as many children beg their parents for them as possible. It's a goofy premise, but its distinctly 80s mix of sci-fi and horror works surprisingly well meshing perfectly with the Halloween theme.

The film is supported by a pulsing score by John Carpenter and Alan Howarth that helps create its dread-soaked atmosphere, itself rooted in classic B-movie sci-fi horror like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. No one will ever mistake Halloween III for a great film, but it is a misunderstood one, a curious experiment in franchise filmmaking that was as bold as it was ultimately foolish. Taken apart from the Halloween franchise and evaluated as a stand-alone film, it's a solid piece of 80s horror, and a fascinating "what-if" that offers a window into an alternate universe where the series took a vastly different direction. It leaves one to wonder - which direction could have ultimately yielded greater results? With a brief look at the dearth of creativity apparent in some of the later Halloween sequels, it's a tantalizing question indeed.

Easily the strongest of the original Halloween sequels, Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers sought to return the series to its roots after the box office failure of Halloween III. With Jamie Lee Curtis deciding not to return, producers decided to focus on her daughter, seven-year-old Jamie Lloyd (Danielle Harris), now living with her adopted family after her mother was killed in a car accident years earlier (don't worry, this will all get ret-conned later).

Michael Myers is, of course, not dead - and his doctors have decided to transfer him to another facility on the night before Halloween (they never learn, do they?). When he learns that he has a niece, he kills the ambulance crew and makes a bee-line for Haddonfield, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. The middle section is mostly standard slasher fare, but director Dwight H. Little infuses it with enough eerie autumnal atmosphere to elevate it above the pack. The evolution of Dr. Loomis into Captain Ahab chasing his great white whale (Michael Myers) is nearly complete here, and the pitch perfect ending (the strongest of any of the sequels) allows his quixotic journey to come full circle.

It's unfortunate that Halloween 5 chose to brush this film's ending under the rug, because it leaves so much room for a new direction for the franchise that the producers chose to completely ignore. Yet even though its promise goes unfulfilled in subsequent films, Halloween 4 feels like the most genuine successor to the original Halloween of any of the sequels. This thing just feels like Halloween, capturing the misty mornings and fading browns of late fall with a spooky air of a rural community on All Hallows Eve. Add to that a town in darkness, a wiped out police force, and a roving band of angry, gun-toting rednecks, and you have a film that provides some of the most fun of any slasher sequel to date.

If Halloween 4 was one of the best Halloween sequels, then Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers, is one of the worst. The film began shooting without a complete script, and it shows. Picking up right where Halloween 4 left off,  Halloween 5 finds Michael crawling away from the mine explosion that was thought to have killed him in the previous film, and shacking up with an old man who nurses him back to health.

One year later, he awakes on the night before Halloween and heads back to Haddonfield to kill off his young niece, Jamie Lloyd, who has been in the hospital ever since attacking her mother on Halloween the year before. Rather than do anything interesting with Jamie's character after she seemingly became Michael's murderous successor in the fourth film,  Halloween 5 instead decides to quickly rehabilitate her and keep the franchise going in the same direction. Michael, now almost completely divorced from the faceless, anonymous boogeyman idea from the original  Halloween, is now hell-bent on wiping out his family. This time, however, instead of cutting down anyone who gets in his way, he goes on a mostly pointless killing spree, attacking a Halloween party of teenagers that has nothing to do with Jamie - in fact Jamie, sensing he's there through her newfound psychic link with Michael, comes to him instead.

The psychic link idea isn't the dumbest idea this franchise has ever had, but it's awfully close, and it borrows heavily from territory already covered at this point by the Friday the 13th series (it even apes one of Jason's more famous kills). Michael is also followed around by a mysterious "Man in Black," whose identity is never revealed, leaving that ultimately pointless loose end for the makers of the next film to deal with (which they did, poorly). What's frustrating about  Halloween 5 is that it's a successor to the film that kickstarted the slasher genre, still the best film that the genre has ever produced, and at this point in the series the filmmakers were leading from behind, copying from the copycats rather than blazing new trails.

Halloween 5 is a mess. It's clear that the filmmakers didn't know where this was headed, and the result is an aimless, muddled mess, filled with awkwardly placed comic relief and a sense that no one is really behind the wheel here.

It took six years for filmmakers to figure out what the hell to do with the mess that was Halloween 5, and the resulting film, Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers did nothing to clear things up, instead muddying the waters with bizarre subplots about druid cults and ancient runes. In the world of the sixth Halloween film, Michael is the victim of an ancient curse, dictating that he must kill every member of his family before he can be free to pass the curse onto another.

The mysterious Man in Black from Halloween 5 is revealed to be Dr. Wynn, under whose watch Michael escaped from the sanatorium in the original film, now played by Mitchell Ryan. It turns out that Wynn is the leader of this cult, for whom Michael is some sort of mystical guardian, and they have forced him to have a child with his niece, Jamie Lloyd (J.C. Brandy, stepping in for Danielle Harris). It's all very convoluted, and done no favors by having too many cooks in the kitchen - the writer, director, producers, and studio honchos all trying to exert influence over the troubled production.

The theatrical cut of the film was all but destroyed by reshoots that left so many loose ends hanging that the film just doesn't make any narrative sense. The producer's cut rectifies some of these issues, but the "Michael as mystical druid enforcer" angle is just so aggressively dumb (not to mention a betrayal of the integrity of the established character and series mythology). In some ways, it's actually a better directed film than its predecessor, which began filming without a completed script and mostly felt like a tired retread. The middle section of The Curse of Michael Myers actually feels somewhat spooky and cohesive (the death of Kim Darby's Debra Strode is especially terrifying), but it all goes off the rails in the ludicrous finale, which transfer's Wynn's "curse of thorn" to Dr. Loomis.

Michael Myers has always been somewhat supernatural, but by removing his humanity and turning to magic to explain his evil, The Curse of Michael Myers takes away what made him so scary in the first place, and replaces it with something that feels like goofy make-believe. It's just too strange, too outlandish, and too convoluted to be frightening, serving as a constant reminder of just how far away we are from the world created by John Carpenter in 1978.


Set and released 20 years after the original HalloweenHalloween H20 was, in many ways, the sequel that the original film needed and the fans had always wanted. The film allowed an adult Laurie Strode to confront her tragic past and finally put it behind her - at least until Dimension Films decided to trot Michael Myers out again for another substandard sequel in 2002.

Coming out two years after Wes Craven so indelibly deconstructed the slasher genre with ScreamHalloween H20 has a decidedly 90s aesthetic, but it allows the original slasher franchise to adapt, grow, and fit in comfortably with a more cynical, savvy audience that was hip to the genre's tricks. It's a film that is very much in tune with its own past. Director Steve Miner, who also helmed Friday the 13th parts 2 and 3, understood the roots of the slasher genre and did a fine job adapting it for a 1990s audience, despite a few studio mandated setbacks, including switching the Michael Myers mask mid-production resulting in an inconsistent look for the iconic killer.

Set in a rural prep-school, Halloween H20 has spooky atmosphere a-plenty. But its highlight remains the 20-years-in-the-making showdown between Laurie Strode and her brother, Michael Myers. It's a film as much about confronting childhood trauma as it is about a knife-wielding killer. Laurie can only run from her past for so long before it catches up with her, affecting not only her own well-being but that of her family as well. It's a almost shame that this is being ret-conned by David Gordon Green's new Halloween, because even though it feels dates with its 90s teen movie tropes and icons, it has a real sense of gravity, weight, and sense of history that was often missing from the other Halloween sequels. This one got it what made the original film so special, and it reckons with history in a way that remains a series highlight, even if it's no longer official canon.

By 2002, the slasher genre had basically become a parody of itself. Scream had upended the genre's tropes in such a way that it was difficult to take them seriously, especially when the film in question was taking them very seriously. Into that world stepped Halloween: Resurrection, the final entry in the mainline Halloween series before Rob Zombie's 2007 remake.

Released three years after The Blair Witch Project, and at the height of reality TV popularity (Survivor and Big Brother were major hits), Halloween: Resurrection attempted to piggyback onto this new found footage trend by focusing on a group of teens who spend the night in the Myers house for a company called Dangertainment, who equips them all with bodycams to broadcast their adventure on the internet.

Putting aside for a moment its now badly dated depiction of early 2000s internet technology, Halloween: Resurrection was a blatant attempt to make the aging slasher series appeal to the youth market of 2002. The results, featuring a host of bland young actors and a karate-kicking Busta Rhymes, are awkward at best, laughable at worst. Director Rick Rosenthal, who also helmed Halloween II (making him the only director to tackle multiple Halloween sequels), gives Resurrection a more cohesive storyline than Halloween 5 and 6, but the story is just so dumb that it hardly matters.

There seems to be a good idea buried here somewhere, examining the idea of becoming so desensitized by violence and reality TV that we can no longer distinguish between them and real life horror, but Resurrection never allows itself to go there, aiming for cheap thrills over everything else. And that's not to mention the truly, mind-numbingly awful way it wraps up Laurie Strode's storyline, unceremoniously killing her off in the opening scene. Thankfully, David Gordon Green rectified that injustice in his new Halloween (2018), but this bottom of the barrel sequel feels like a cheap knock-off of the original, ending the series with a pathetic whimper rather than the bang it deserved.

On the surface, Rob Zombie's Halloween (2007) remake seems ill-advised from the start - a film that ostensibly attempts to explain the origins of Michael Myers, a character made frightening by being a the blank face of pure, inescapable evil. Surprisingly, it works for the most part, excelling in the first half when it focuses on young Myers (Daeg Faerch), a child with such cold, terrifying eyes that he was seemingly born to play the young version of one of cinema's most iconic serial killers.

The lurid, trashy milieu stands in stark contrast to the suburban setting of the original Halloween, showing Michael's troubled upbringing and his special relationship with his baby sister, Boo. There are moments that are perhaps some of the most disturbing of the entire franchise - young Michael beating a bully to death, murdering a nurse in the hospital while his mother looks on. But when the film reaches the part of the story already covered by John Carpenter, it falters somewhat - Zombie's brutal style standing in stark (and inferior) contrast to Carpenter's more understated suspense building. Rob Zombie's Michael Myers is a force of nature, an unstoppable battering ram who breaks through doors, walls, and anything that gets between him and his intended victim. Yet at a time when most horror remakes seemed aimed at a teen market, Zombie's vision was decidedly more hardcore and uncompromising.

Once Michael gets going he's like an out of control locomotive, essentially a child in a man's body pitching a temper tantrum. Born of abuse and hate, Michael has no clear outlet other than violence, and he exacts it on everyone he meets. Yet in recapping Carpenter's original Zombie feels somehow constrained, and the ideas he begins to explore here are much better articulated, and much more original, in his superior sequel Halloween II (2009).


Perhaps the most misunderstood and under-appreciated Halloween of them all, Rob Zombie's Halloween II boldly dances to the beat of its own drummer. Rather than follow the plot of the original Halloween II, which picked up on the same night as the first film (a fact that Zombie acknowledges in an extended dream sequence at the beginning), this Halloween II fast forwards to two years after the Halloween night massacre survived by Laurie Strode.

Michael Myers is presumed dead, although his body is missing. Dr. Loomis has let fame go to his head, and is on a nationwide book tour making money off his involvement in the murders. And Laurie has moved in with Sheriff Brackett (Brad Dourif) and his daughter, Annie (Danielle Harris), as she attempts to recover from the trauma of that night. Her recovery is not going well; she is plagued by nightmares and begs her therapist for drugs. All the while Michael is slowly making his way home to finish the job he started two year prior, haunted by images of his deceased mother, and dreams of reuniting his family in the afterlife.

Halloween II is essentially an exploration of the aftermath of tragedy. Zombie deftly juxtaposes Laurie's journey of recovery with Michael's own deteriorating mental state. What's so great about Zombies films is that Michael is so clearly human, a living, breathing person who's as much a product of trauma as his sister. Zombie alludes to Paul Wegener's 1920 German Expressionist classic, The Golem: How He Came Into the World, casting Michael as a kind of misunderstood monster, born of pain and suffering, cursed with this affliction by the very family he seeks to reunite in death. Here, Michael and Laurie are vastly different (or are they?) twin products of abuse and violence, as much about what’s going on inside them as it is what’s happening around them. There are no easy answers here, no happy endings, no bright lights at the end of the tunnel - just broken humanity and the carnage left in its wake. It's almost shocking that a major studio released a film this abstract, savage, and surrealistic in wide release. It’s better than any of the original Halloween sequels, a brilliantly surreal nightmare journey into the heart of darkness that is not only a great Halloween film, but a great film period.

To read my review of David Gordon Green's Halloween, click here.

Series ranking:

1. HALLOWEEN (1978)
2. HALLOWEEN (2018)
3. HALLOWEEN II (2009)
4. HALLOWEEN 4: THE RETURN OF MICHAEL MYERS (1988)
5. HALLOWEEN H2O (1998)
6. HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH (1982)
7. HALLOWEEN II (1981)
8. HALLOWEEN (2007)
9. HALLOWEEN: THE CURSE OF MICHAEL MYERS (1995)
10. HALLOWEEN 5: THE REVENGE OF MICHAEL MYERS (1989)
11. HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION (2002)

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