Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers (United States, 1988)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

When the original Halloween reached screens in 1978, director John Carpenter intended for it to be a one-off project. However, the film's unexpected financial success paved the road for Halloween II, an inferior sequel that tied up most of the loose ends left dangling at the end of the first installment. Although Carpenter did not direct the sequel, he was heavily involved, sharing production and screenplay credits with Debra Hill. While not duplicating Halloween's box office bonanza, Halloween II was a money maker, leading executive producer Moustapha Akkad to push for a third feature. Carpenter reluctantly agreed, but with a condition - Halloween III would involve different characters in a situation that had nothing to do with Michael Myers or Haddonfield. Audiences were not appreciative of that film's direction and it tanked.

For six years, from 1982 through 1988, the Halloween franchise lay dormant while other slasher movie series capitalized on the craze Halloween had started, turning out countless gore-filled, mindless sequels that inexplicably reaped box office rewards. Finally, Akkad (the only man to be involved in all seven Halloween movies) decided that he wanted to become a player again. He approached Carpenter with the idea of resurrecting Michael Myers, but was met with a firm rejection. Carpenter had no desire to return to Haddonfield. Nor did Jamie Lee Curtis, whose career had moved beyond the Scream Queen stage (although Curtis eventually did battle Michael one more time, in H20, and she is scheduled to have a cameo appearance in the eighth Halloween installment, due out in October 2001). Undaunted, Akkad decided to move forward without Carpenter or Curtis. At least he had Donald Pleasance.

The premise behind Halloween 4 was simple: ignore the ending of Halloween II, in which both Dr. Loomis (Pleasance) and Michael (George P. Wilbur) were undeniably, irrevocably killed off. Postulate instead that the inferno which consumed them wasn't as bad as it looked - they both escaped with a little scarring. Now, ten years later, Michael is back on the hunt again, this time going after his orphaned niece, Jamie (Danielle Harris). The only things standing between the single-minded serial killer and his target are an ill-prepared local police department, the indefatigable Dr. Loomis, and Jamie's foster sister, Rachel (Ellie Cornell) - not very daunting obstacles for a force of "pure evil" who can't be killed by conventional means. So, one-by-one, Michael slices and dices his way through the men standing between him and his goal, with Loomis a step behind and Rachel, Jamie's protector, a step ahead.

For the most part, there is nothing striking, interesting, or exceptionally memorable about Halloween 4 - until the ending (more on that later). The movie's genesis was the result of financial, not artistic, impulses, and, as a result, it adheres religiously to the slasher film formula - a high body count, a little sex, a lot of gore, characters who consistently do stupid things to put themselves in potentially fatal situations, and a likable protagonist in danger. In this case, the imperiled individual is a little girl, which raises the stakes. Who wouldn't root for a cute seven year-old being menaced by a homicidal psychopath?

Michael is about as menacing here as he was in Halloween II, which is to say, not very. He is awkward and plodding, and the only reason he successfully kills so many people is that his victims tend to suffer extreme brain cramps whenever he's around. In the original Halloween, Carpenter used Michael's slowness as a means to elevate the tension to almost unbearable levels (I'm thinking specifically of the scene where he approaches Jamie Lee Curtis as she bangs on a locked door to be admitted to a house). Since then, however, this characteristic has become a liability.

That being said, however, Halloween 4 is a better movie than Halloween II, if only because it opens up the setting rather than restricting the action to a dimly-lit, nearly empty hospital. Michael is more frightening when he's on the loose in the outdoors. And there are some effectively chilling moments, such as an early dream sequence where Jamie comes face-to-mask with her uncle and the ending, which is, in a word, inspired - or at least as inspired as anything in any of the Halloween sequels.

Halloween 4 ends on a note of darkest irony - a bleak conclusion that works largely because it is as daring as it is unexpected. It also promises to take the franchise in an entirely new, unexplored direction. Unfortunately, when it came time to produce Halloween 5, the producers chickened out, ignoring the ending of Halloween 4 as effectively as Halloween 4 ignored the final sequence of Halloween II. Nevertheless, for those who choose not to subject themselves to the various indignities of Halloween 5, the final minute of Halloween 4 remains as unsettling today as it was during its 1988 theatrical run. The real reason to see this movie is not for the predictable build-up, but for the cliffhanger provided by director Dwight H. Little and screenwriter Alan B. McElroy.

While there are some good elements to Halloween 4, there are also some inexcusably bad ones - the most obvious of which is a group of rednecks who decide to form a vigilante group bent on blowing Michael away. The movie isn't clear about its attitude towards these caricatures - are we supposed to take them seriously or are they intended to be camp comic relief? Either way, they don't work, and Halloween 4 would have been a better movie had they been eliminated. Fortunately, their total screen time doesn't amount to more than ten minutes, although they are used as a plot device on at least three occasions. I was also somewhat irritated by the "trapped in the house" situation near the end because it is so obviously contrived.

The stabilizing influence here is Donald Pleasance, who leant his considerable screen presence to five of the first six Halloween movies (the exception being installment #3), making his name synonymous with the series. One can debate whether Pleasance was slumming by appearing in the films, but the sequels provided him with a steady diet of work and, by the end (he died shortly after completing work on Halloween 6), he admitted feeling a sense of commitment towards the fans. Regardless of Pleasance's reasons for appearing in the Halloween sequels, the character of Dr. Sam Loomis, even as beaten and broken as he is in the later installments, represents a rock of solidity. The ending of Halloween 4 would not have been as effective without Pleasance's entirely convincing reaction of unimaginable horror.

As has always been the case, there is a significant step down in talent between Pleasance and his co-stars. Neither Ellie Cornell nor newcomer Danielle Harris has gone on to have a distinguished career. Both are adequate for this sort of film, which doesn't require much beyond the ability to look petrified and to scream at the appropriate moment (Harris possesses a great set of lungs), but, based on the little evidence presented here (such as the "dramatic" scenes in which the two - intended victim and would-be protector - bond), their acting range is limited. George P. Wilbur, a stunt man by trade, dons Michael's mask for this outing and does all that's required of him - walk slowly, wave around a knife, and appear implacable (not difficult with one's facial features obscured).

As has been true of nearly all the Halloween movies (even the bad ones), the filmmakers demonstrate the ability to craft an ominous atmosphere. Peter Lyons Collister's camera work is evocative - especially the series of opening shots that establish Haddonfield during the autumn, with pumpkins, corn fields, falling leaves, and a twilight sky ablaze with the orange of a setting sun. Composer Alan Howarth combines his own dissonant music with the eerie chords of John Carpenter's "Halloween Theme". Howarth uses the familiar tune to punctuate certain scenes, employing it sparingly but effectively.

Of all the Halloween sequels, including the irrelevant and unwatchable Halloween III, Halloween 4 stands out as the best of a generally uninspired lot. Provided you aren't averse to the formula, the film actually provides about 90 minutes of reasonable, slasher-based entertainment - nothing deep or momentous to be sure, but enough shocks, scares, and campy fun to make it worth a rental, especially as the Season of the Witch draws nigh. And that's really the only time of the year when anyone would consider spending an evening with Michael Myers in the first place, isn't it?

Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers (United States, 1988)

Run Time: 1:28
U.S. Release Date: 1988-10-21
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1