ReelThoughts: October 27, 2008

"Halloween Through the Years"

Commentary by James Berardinelli

Return with me to 1978. 30 years ago - it doesn't seem that long. Back then, the "horror movie" of today did not exist. There were, instead, "monster movies." This broad category encompassed everything from the old Universal classics (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man) to King Kong, Godzilla, and the Hammer series. There were also thrillers, whose spectrum included such dissimilar subgenres as police procedurals and supernatural tales. "Horror" grew out of the venn diagram intersection of these two genres. It's possible to hold a long debate about what the first true modern horror film was, but there's less division of opinion when it comes to the title of the first successful modern horror film: Halloween.

John Carpenter did not set out to pioneer a genre, but that's what happened. Nor did he intend to establish the foundation for a franchise, but that occurred as well. Halloween started life as a low-budget, independent film that had modest expectations at best. But karma was on its side. Perhaps it came out at just the right time, or maybe the marketing was brilliant, or maybe… Whatever. Halloween did not vanish like so many other non-studio sponsored late '70s productions. It exploded, becoming the most profitable indie film of all time (at least until it ceded the crown to another horror picture, The Blair Witch Project).

Halloween is very nearly a perfect horror film. When I use the term "perfect," I'm not referring to the technical details (Halloween, like all movies made on the cheap, has its share of goofs and gaffes) but to the overall experience. If you want chills and thrills, if you want to be scared shitless, it's hard to get better than this. Like the best thrillers, this one keeps viewers white knuckled, with the coil of anxiety and tension tightening with every passing scene. Like the best monster movies, it features an implacable, inhuman creature that is best described by Dr. Loomis: "pure evil."

Halloween has not aged in the way so many of its contemporaries have, and that's because Carpenter's method of storytelling is timeless. He touches primal fears, and they are the same in 2008 as they were in 1978. Society may change but there's always a "boogeyman." Strangely, for a movie that is credited with giving birth to the slasher genre, Halloween is nearly bloodless. Crimson liquid does not fountain. It does not spurt. It does not spray. The murders are presented as rungs on the ladder of plot, not mini-orgies of carnage. What's the goriest scene in Halloween? Probably the death of Lynda's boyfriend, whose late-night refrigerator run is interrupted. His fate, however, is shrouded in darkness and shadow. While it's clear what happens to him - and it's not pretty - there are no close-ups. It's a singularly effective moment, but not a graphic one. Carpenter achieves with restraint what other directors could not do with a full battery of gory special effects.

Halloween has a great ending. At the time, it was not meant to suggest that Michael Myers, like Luke Skywalker and James Bond, would have an encore cinematic appearance. It was just a nice, nasty little twist. Evil, after all, cannot die - not even after being shot six times. Unfortunately, such a wide-open final scene had Halloween's unexpectedly large fan base craving more and, when copycat movies were financially successful, talk of a sequel began. Lucre lured Carpenter back for Halloween II, and what began life as a terrifying little thriller turned into a soulless franchise.

There have been eight Halloween movies (nine if you count the odd Halloween III, which has nothing to do with Michael Myers or any of the other films). Putting aside the original, which is in a class all its own, three entries into the series can be deemed interesting, although not entirely successful.

Halloween II, directed by Rick Rosenthal, picks up where the original ended. However, while on-screen events passed seamlessly from installment #1 to #2, three years had elapsed off-screen and, during that period, the "slasher" or "splatter" film had been born out of the ashes of Halloween. Consequently, Halloween II is more about blood and gore than scares and suspense. The film is a treasure trove of viscera and dumb characters doing stupid things. Laurie Strode has been transformed from the plucky heroine of Halloween into a whining zombie who hobbles through the benighted corridors of a lonely hospital with Michael in dogged pursuit. The film is largely a disappointment, with one exception. Donald Pleasance, as Sam Loomis, has never been better. Brandishing a gun, he delivers one-liners with perfect comic timing. To the extent that it's worth watching, Halloween II is Pleasance's film. Michael is boring, Laurie is worse, but Loomis holds the attention to the very end, when he blows up himself and his inhuman adversary.

It would be seven years before Michael Myers made a comeback. After the failure of Halloween III, which was disconnected from its predecessors, it was thought the franchise was dead. But Moustapha Akkad, who owned the rights to Halloween, watched with ill-concealed jealousy as the Friday the 13th and A Nightmare of Elm Street sequels raked in the money. Eventually, he decided that Michael Myers deserved another chance. The explosive ending of Halloween II was ignored. Neither Jamie Lee Curtis nor John Carpenter was interested in re-visiting Haddonfield, but Akkad had convinced Donald Pleasance to reprise his role and that was all he needed. So he fast-forwarded the story to ten years after Michael's killing spree and provided viewers with a pint-sized protagonist in the person of the late Laurie Strode's daughter.

Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers is a relatively straightforward slasher film with one important distinction: a great ending. The epilogue, which pays tribute to the beginning of the first Halloween with a point-of-view stabbing, promises that the evil originally possessing Michael has passed to his niece. The final scene is chilling. Young Jamie stands at the top of the stairs with a pair of bloody scissors in her hand while Sam Loomis screams in horror from below: "Noooooooo!" Like the end of Halloween, it's a brilliant way to conclude a movie. Sadly, when it came time to make Halloween 5, the fertile possibilities of continuing the story with Jamie as the new Michael were ignored. Halloween 5 turned out to be more of the same, told with less flair than anything to precede it. Still, compared to Halloween 6, one of the worst-ever slasher movies, it is a slice of brilliance.

Halloween would make its last stand in 1998, the original's 20th anniversary, with H20. A partial reboot, this movie ignores everything post-Halloween II (although it retains the idea that Michael and Loomis did not die in the explosion). Jamie Lee Curtis returns to do battle with Michael, although this time in a setting far removed from Haddonfield. The film contains some interesting elements, including briefly flirting with the concept that Laurie's new visions of Michael might not be real. Eventually, after a series of routine killings, we end up with a showdown between sister and brother. This time, Laurie wins the struggle, decapitating Michael. Finally, it appeared that Halloween had an ending… until the decision was made to go forward with a Halloween 8.

Halloween: Resurrection is a bad movie, but it is noteworthy because it's the film in which Michael (who, it turns out, doesn't really die at the end of H20) finally kills Laurie. Following the segment featuring their final confrontation, which comprises the opening 15 minutes, the movie is an utter waste of time. In the wake of this film, the filmmakers were at a loss about where to take Halloween. Eventually, they turned over the property to Rob Zombie, who elected to remake the original. Zombie's excruciatingly mediocre new Halloween has one notable strength: by comparison, it illustrates how brilliant Carpenter's 1978 production is.

Did Zombie's film finally kill Michael Myers? Probably not, although there are no concrete plans for the next Halloween. The most likely step is to take Michael out of any sort of continuity stream and have him begin a new mass slaughter in some place divorced from his past. My idea: have the film focus on a copycat killer with the real Michael showing up at the end. However, wherever the franchise's owners decide to take their iconic mass murderer, things probably can't get any worse for Michael than they were in Halloweens 5, 6, and 8. And no matter what antics the killer with the blank Captain Kirk mask gets up to in the future, we'll always have that 1978 movie to slip into the DVD player and chill us anew. To me, re-watching Halloween is a far better option for October 31 than sitting through what studios are currently peddling as "horror."


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