Film franchises are curious things, often taking stories into places that weren’t obvious from the series launch. The Halloween films began simply enough with an idea summed up by its working title: The Babysitter Murders. The babysitter-murderer became Michael Myers, and the film became 1978’s Halloween, a hit that made John Carpenter’s career and ushered in a wave of slasher films that defined the horror genre for years to come. From there, the series took various turns, forgetting Myers for one entry, bringing in druidic rites, hitting the reset button for the self-aware 1990s, then starting all over again with a pair of entries directed by Rob Zombie.
The recently released box set Halloween: The Complete Collection, from Shout! Factory and Anchor Bay Entertainment, gathers together all 10 movies in the series. It doubles as both a history of modern horror films, and a convenient way to chart the weird way simple ideas can mutate over the years. For our readers’ convenience, the staff of The Dissolve watched all 10 movies and broke them down into a series of helpful charts and graphs. Want to know which movie features the most kills? The highest percentage of Donald Pleasence yelling at a child? Look no further.
Don’t mistake the ruthless efficiency of the original Halloween for a lack of ambition. When producers Irwin Yablans and Moustapha Akkad asked John Carpenter to make a movie about a killer stalking babysitters, he and his producing and co-writing partner Debra Hill aimed to make the scariest movie since The Exorcist—or even since Psycho. Borrowing liberally from Bob Clark’s slasher classic Black Christmas and the POV-heavy kill-fests of the Italian giallo genre, Carpenter took the idea of a relentless force of evil and stripped it to its essence, making a 90-minute movie that’s mostly just one scene after another of young people being stalked by a hulking mental patient in a pale white mask. And Hill made sure the young people were likable enough to root for, upping the fright-factor by setting the story in a normal small town populated by normal teenage girls—like Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), the smart, sweet, resourceful sitter whom the maniac Michael Myers hunts. (The first film also introduces Donald Pleasence’s Dr. Loomis, Michael’s psychiatrist, who carries the burden of containing this monster for many films to come.)
Halloween inspired so many imitators—some of them pretty good—that it’s easy to forget how much craftier Carpenter’s film is than what followed. Carpenter takes his time getting to the kills, knowing that actual violence is less nerve-wracking than the persistent threat. Even after Michael makes use of his enormous kitchen knife, Carpenter takes a beat to show the killer looking quizzically at his victims, as though Michael keeps murdering people in order to find the answer to a nagging question. The atmospheric qualities of Halloween are haunting, too. The flickering candle of a jack o’lantern, the rustle of fallen leaves, Carpenter’s minimalist synthesizer score, and the voyeuristic tracking and POV shots all foster a sense of dread. But the payoffs in Halloween are nothing to shrug off. The anxiety intensifies when the story shifts from Halloween day to Halloween night, and Carpenter can start playing with the empty blackness, making the audience keenly aware both of how exposed Michael’s prey is and how easy it would be to suddenly fill those blank spaces with something horrible. [NM]
The original Halloween feels complete. It’s a perfect genre-defining horror classic, executed with a technical skill that even Alfred Hitchcock would envy. Why go any further? For a while, it seemed like Michael Myers would be content to bow out on top. Halloween’s first sequel didn’t appear until three years after the original, at which point it joined the dozens of Halloween clones that flooded the market in the years since the first film. Halloween II turned back the clock anyway, picking up where Halloween left off, and following Laurie Strode (Curtis, again) as her night goes from awful to unbelievably awful. Set largely at Haddonfield General Hospital—an understaffed facility with serious lighting issues—it finds the seemingly unkillable Michael resuming his attempt to kill Laurie while Dr. Loomis (Pleasence, again) attempts to stop him. The film also introduces new elements that were picked up and dropped by other Halloween films, revealing Laurie as Michael’s sister, and making a connection between Michael, Halloween, Samhain, druidic fire rituals, and other stuff that’s saved from sounding like hokum only by Pleasence’s grave delivery.
Carpenter and Hill returned to script the film, but handed directing duties over to Rick Rosenthal. Rosenthal had lesser material to work with (much lesser), but he and cinematographer Dean Cundey make the most of it. Halloween II looks great and often plays like a Steadicam demo reel. The camera creeps through darkened corridors, finding cheap but real thrills around every corridor. At heart, it’s really no better than most other slasher films, but style counts in this genre, and Halloween II has plenty of it. [KP]
“Why do they hate this movie so much?” John Carpenter wondered after Halloween III failed at the box office, according to a retrospective interview he conducted with AICN in 2011. “I could understand some of the critics. I got that, but why do the fans think I just raped Madonna; the Madonna off the cross? Why do they think I just defiled a classic? I didn’t get it and I still don’t understand it.” Nor do film buffs today; Halloween III is often praised as the most ambitious entry in the classic series after the original Halloween itself. Carpenter and his writing-producing partner Debra Hill were ready to be done with Michael Myers after Halloween II, and his seemingly definitive death-by-fire at the end of the film was meant to be final. Halloween III was an ambitious attempt to launch a one-a-year anthology series of unrelated films, each telling a spooky story based around the holiday. The series’ third installment isn’t a slasher movie, and doesn’t even kill off any nubile babysitters. It’s a weirder, darker, and frankly more memorable film than its immediate predecessor, or the back-to-basic-murder sequels that followed when fans were adamantly unwilling to make the leap to a new story.
Seen today, Halloween III feels more of a piece with creepy homemade science fiction like Phantasm than like another Halloween film. (It also nods to a 1950s classic, setting the key action in a town called Santa Mira, also the home of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers.) While it’s distinctly cheap, eating up plenty of screen time with long scenes of characters traveling, or hanging out in a small, dingy hotel room, it has a lunatic’s dream of a plot, involving an attempt to kill children en masse through a popular line of Halloween masks. A toy-store owner gets wind of the plot, babbles his fears to a gas-store attendant and the staff of a hospital, then gets murdered in his hospital bed, in a way that gives investigators some pause. (“You don’t just pull someone’s skull apart without a little lower arm strength,” a doctor observes.) The man’s daughter (Stacey Nelkin) and his doctor (Tom Atkins) investigate out of sheer curiosity, and in the process are exposed to intense horror—though for the audience, the film is less based in tension or jump-scares, and more in psychological squeamishness at the extremity of the ideas and a few of the images. Michael Myers stabbing people gets old. Batshit-crazy deaths by lasers, brain-bugs, and Stonehenge feedback are still pretty fresh ideas. While Halloween III reads as fairly campy by today’s standards, it’s the best kind of camp: straight-faced, ambitious, bizarre, and actually shocking. [TR]
After the strange and wondrous aberration of Halloween III: Season Of The Witch, the pressure was on to get the franchise back to the essentials: Michael Myers breaking out of the asylum, going back to Haddonfield on Halloween, and murdering as many teenagers as possible, all while Donald Pleasence acts himself red in the face. In other words, Halloween 4: The Return Of Michael Myers is a mid-franchise reboot, serving a generation of moviegoers who were grade-schoolers when John Carpenter’s classic came out, and probably wouldn’t object to the same basic elements getting recycled. Myers’ mission revolves around hunting down his 7-year-old niece (Danielle Harris), but otherwise, the game remains largely the same: The girl’s foster sister (Ellie Cornell) stands in for Jamie Lee Curtis, babysitting the girl as Myers stalks around, and Loomis raves about Myers’ indomitable evil to anyone who will listen.
The one X factor to Halloween 4 is the introduction of a vigilante mob that forms in a local bar and deploys in a fleet of pickup trucks, roving around Haddonfield with shotguns. “These men may be the only chance you’ve got,” Loomis tells the police chief, with ludicrous conviction, before four of them blast an innocent man for the crime of rustling some bushes. The best that can be said of Halloween 4 is that it’s a proficient exercise in horror filmmaking that brings the Michael Myers legend back onto terra firma. Pleasence takes his above-the-title credit very seriously, which leads to some high-volume hamminess (“a filling station in flames!”), but otherwise, the film is as conservative and rote as Halloween III was ambitious and off-the-wall. [ST]
Halloween 4 ends with Michael being hit by a car, shot, thrown down a mine, and dynamited—all of which is bad enough to knock him unconscious for about a year, but not to kill him. Halloween 5 opens with a scene of him crawling out of the back of that mine just before the explosion, and floating down the river to the shack of a helpful hermit, who looks after the comatose killer—and for his trouble, gets murdered when Michael wakes up. Though the previous movie suggested that Michael would pass his evil on to his niece Jamie (Danielle Harris again), instead she spends most of the movie using her psychic connection with her uncle to try and warn people that he’s stalking them, which is difficult to do given that’s she’s mute with shock from 4, and given that Dr. Loomis is constantly limping around, snapping at her. So Halloween 5 quickly becomes just another Halloween movie, with Michael hacking his way through a group of teens who are loosely related to his ultimate mission to get to Jamie.
“Hack” is an apt word for Halloween 5, which aside from the supernatural mojo—and some setup for the sixth film—hits all the slasher beats that had gotten duller by the late 1980s, once horror movies became brighter and more synthetic. (Halloween 5’s worst addition is a pair of comical policeman, who are accompanied by clown noises on the soundtrack.) But Michael does get to do some things he doesn’t ordinarily do, including wearing a different mask to pretend to be a victim’s boyfriend, and later chasing that victim down in a car. And the movie is competently directed by Dominique Othenin-Girard, who deftly manages all the fake-out jump-scares, voyeuristic tracking shots, and long scenes of young people casually lounging around big empty houses and barns—the latter a handy repository of murder weapons. [NM]
The Halloween series lay dormant, with poor Haddonfield blissfully unmolested, for six years before Halloween: The Curse Of Michael Myers appeared. It wasn’t a happy return. While the gap might seem like a good chance for a fresh start, the film picks up threads left over from previous entries and weaves them into the series’ most convoluted story. A teenage Jamie (now played by J.C. Brandy) gives birth in the opening scene, only to have her baby taken by a druid cult, some of them doctors, operating out of the cavernous underbelly of a sanitarium. Jamie escapes, pursued by Michael, who kills her, but only after she leaves her baby in a safe place. Well, a bus-station bathroom, but that’s still safer than any place Michael Myers might be. He’s found by Tommy (Paul Rudd, credited as “Paul Stephen Rudd”), the little boy Laurie babysat in the first movie, who’s since grown up into a Myers obsessive. And, to bring it all back home, there are return appearances from Dr. Loomis (a clearly feeble Pleasence, in his series swan song), the man in black from Halloween 5, Michael’s obsession with killing family members, and other elements.
The sixth Halloween film had a troubled, reshoot-filled production, as evidenced by a plot that doesn’t make a lot of sense, and an ending that makes even less sense. Apart from a Rudd performance that, in light of his later work, looks as if he was trying to have fun in an otherwise fun-free film, it doesn’t have much else going for it. Very much a horror film of its time—the exhausted, witless, pre-Scream 1990s—it opts for elaborate, plentiful kills at the expense of everything else. [KP]
When Dimension decided to revive Halloween in 1998, the horror genre was red-hot, largely thanks to Kevin Williamson, who wrote the scripts for the zeitgeist-capturing, paradigm-shifting, metatextual smash Scream, as well as the less influential but still successful I Still Know What You Did Last Summer. Sure enough, Williamson wrote a treatment for what would become Halloween: H20 and reportedly worked on drafts of the screenplay, though his work on the script went uncredited, and he was ultimately cited as an executive producer rather than a writer. Williamson’s smudgy fingerprints can be felt in a handful of winking references to both the history of Halloween and horror-movie history in general, as well as in the sassy banter of the film’s doomed teenagers, including such future actors of note as Michelle Williams and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Otherwise, Halloween: H20 is painfully generic, despite boasting one of the best casts in horror-sequel history.
Jamie Lee Curtis returns for the first time since Halloween II, and she’s supported by fellow celebrity progeny Adam Arkin, Curtis’ mother Janet Leigh, Josh Hartnett, and LL Cool J, who has a bewildering comic-relief role as an ineffectual security guard with dreams of becoming a best-selling romance novelist. Halloween: H20 has ambitions of being a classy, upscale horrorfest in the Scream mold, but those aims are as admirable as its complete inability to realize them are regrettable. The film is more ambitious than previous entries, but it’s nevertheless a blunt instrument of a movie filled with fake-out scenes of Curtis’ Laurie Strode being confronted by things that sound like they could, and should, be Michael Myers, but are not. Halloween: H20 was designed to be a fresh start for a tired franchise, but it nevertheless feels exhausted and padded, even at 86 minutes. When Strode climactically chops off Michael Myers’ head with a machete, it feels like she’s putting the series out of its misery as well, though as with most slasher-deaths, the endng didn’t take, either for Myers or for the seemingly deathless franchise. [NR]
No ending is too final if there is money to be made, and 2002’s Halloween: Resurrection not surprisingly opens with creaky exposition among the workers at a mental hospital for the criminally insane, explaining that Strode accidentally decapitated the wrong dude (whoopsie!), so now she’s in a mental hospital biding her time until Michael Myers comes for her again. This occupies the film’s first 15 minutes (and Curtis’ contractual obligation to the series that launched her). Then the focus shifts to a disreputable reality web show run by Freddie Harris (Busta Rhymes, enjoyably channeling Vincent Price’s theatrical bigness) that strands a motley crew of college kids in Michael Myers’ childhood home for a night of terror, webcast to an easily entertained online audience. For its first act or so, Halloween: Resurrection is a shameless guilty pleasure. The web-series gimmick misunderstands the way the Internet (and, for that matter, the world) works in amusingly preposterous and increasingly ridiculous ways, and Rhymes is clearly having a blast as the show’s larger-than-life, kung-fu-fighting impresario. But like Halloween: H20, this quickly turns dreary and generic once Myers begins dispatching the web-series’ cast in poorly-lit sequences that are brutal but unimaginative. Halloween: Resurrection starts out as dumb fun, but by the end, it’s merely dumb. [NR]
In the rush to remake every recognizable horror title for a modern audience—from franchise standards like Friday The 13th and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to the table scraps of A Stranger Is Calling, My Bloody Valentine, and Black Christmas—only Rob Zombie’s Halloween, like it or not, stands as a bold, distinct, idiosyncratic attempt to do something new. And while the notion of finding out what young Michael Myers was like before the murders is a dubious endeavor, combining Serial Killer 101 banalities (he tortures small animals!) with a family life out of Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects, the film has a grimy resonance all the same. In true Zombie fashion, one of the distinguishing factors is a certain sympathy for the devil. His Myers (played by pro wrestler Tyler Mane) becomes a monster—his actual physical size is more myth than man—but Zombie doesn’t want us to forget the sad, angry, impulsive little boy within.
For Zombie auteurists, Halloween draws on all the familiar obsessions: the heavily dressed sets, like an asylum cell festooned with homemade masks; the callbacks to vintage horror and classic rock; the parade of veteran character actors (Udo Kier and Clint Howard in the same scene!). He also gets a worthy Pleasence successor in Malcolm McDowell, who also knows a thing or two about hamming it up, but brings real pathos to his relationship to Myers. (After 15 years of getting the silent treatment from Myers, Loomis confesses, “In a weird way, you’ve become, like, my best friend.”) At a certain point—the final hour, more or less—Zombie has to return to the Carpenter original and deliver on it, but even then, the small departures are telling. [ST]
Fans were divided on the departures from the John Carpenter bible in Rob Zombie’s Halloween remake—the backstory, the family connections, the expansion of Loomis’ role—but Zombie himself was clear about the fact that he’d felt somewhat hampered by the restrictions placed on him, in terms of adhering to canon. (Though “series canon” is a strange burden to place on any installment of a franchise where the leading man graphically dies in nearly every installment, then continues afresh in the next chapter.) But the box-office success of 2007’s Halloween was a compelling reason to bring Zombie back on board, especially after the lead producer rejected an early script draft for the quick-turnaround sequel, written by the two French directors originally signed to make Halloween II. Zombie returned to the franchise comparatively late in pre-production, with an extremely tight turnaround to make the film before its scheduled release date, but also with more freedom to make the film his own. That resulted in some further departures from canon, which again made a subsection of particularly vocal fans scream with fury at set photos showing Michael Myers walking around—gasp!—without his mask on. He even speaks in this movie, for the first time in his adult life. (One word, and not a surprising one: “Die!”)
Halloween II does have some exceptional strangeness going on: Michael and Laurie Strode (his sister, though she doesn’t know it until late in this film) are haunted by their dead mother and by a child version of Michael, who sometimes shows up in the clown suit and mask he wore in Zombie’s 2007 film. The two of them hang around, backlit and gothed-up like something out of a Blackmore’s Night video, acting like a Greek chorus for Michael (Tyler Mane again), who’s sometimes fully masked, and at other times bare-faced, except for a giant bushy hermit’s beard and mustache. Meanwhile, Laurie has frequent breakdowns due to long-term trauma, and self-medicates with booze. She also throws tantrums at her psychiatrist, who helpfully informs her, “They never found [Michael’s] body, so it’s very hard for you to get closure on this.” Thanks, psychiatrist! And she hangs out with a bevy of attractive young friends who are mostly onscreen to provide extra meat for the bloody grinder.
There’s certainly some campy oddity in the dead mom, who sometimes leads a white dream-horse around to symbolize “instinct, purity and the drive of the physical body to release powerful and emotional forces.” And Loomis’ assholish struggles to earn respect while blatantly cashing in on Michael Myers fascination carries a satirical message about Americans’ ghoulish fascination with violence, and Puritanical, hypocritical judgment of people who give them the gore they want. But the equation still gets pretty tiresome: Once Michael enters a scene, every other person in that scene (and in one case, a dog) will eventually be wet wads of meat. “It’s a different emotional journey about a character named Laurie Strode,” Zombie says at the end of the commentary track, “not a slashy movie about Michael Myers.” If that’s true, why is there so much unimaginative, repetitive, exhausting slashing? [TR]
Original art and charts designed by Joy Burke.