The Night He Rode Home on a Dragula

The 2010s were a very fundamental time for my movie-going in a lot of ways, the most relevant to this review being that there was a handful of, shall we say, vulgar auteurists whom I had disliked in the fashion of the conventional reception that I began to re-evaluate after releases they had dropped in my early 20s that I responded hugely towards. That in turn begin my development into out-and-out apologists for them as artists by the time I turned 30. Such examples being Lana & Lilly Wachowski, Paul W.S. Anderson, Zack Snyder, and our current subject Robert Zombert Cummings who is a heavy metal musician and horror filmmaker better known by the name of Rob Zombie.

This is basically a roundabout way of acknowledging had I been writing about movies in 2007 and talked about my feelings for Zombie’s remake of Halloween that released this year, we would have probably gotten a different tone, a largely negative one. And to be real, regardless of director, the proposal of a remake in the late 2000s when remakes were fucking drowning genre fans to one of the most perfect works of horror cinema ever created is already a dubious in itself. As the follow-up to a sequel that all but threatened this franchise’s consigning to the direct-to-video purgatory of Dimension Studios’ Hellraiser and Children of the Corn editions, even less promising. And I think it’s fair to say that there are things on paper that Zombie’s screenplay basically goes firmly against the core of what made the original film such a perfect little fairy tale, but I also think it’s fundamental to understand those decisions as deliberate and the product of Rob Zombie’s Halloween trying to do an entirely different thing than John Carpenter’s.

Let’s address that thing straight on: Halloween ’07 looks to revisit the same kind of beats that occur in Halloween ’78 and makes its way through them all before the film is over but the rub is that the very first two beats – Michael Myers (Daeg Faerch when we first meet him) kills his sister Judith (Hanna Hall) and is institutionalized with Dr. Sam Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) examining him – is expanded to feature length for the entire first hour. Hell, Zombie starts even further back as we initially witness what sort of environment Michael grows up into a day before he decides to commit his act of violence and it’s really not surprising to see what the director of The Devil’s Rejects visualizes: a white trash realm of hostility with a venal stepfather who also meets young Michael’s knife (William Forsythe), a neglectful sister in Judith, and a caring but absent mother Deborah (Sheri Moon Zombie, as is Rob’s habit to cast his wife in his films and frankly I think they get a lot more shit for this than they deserve) who also is the subject of a lot of high school bullying for Michael as a notorious stripper.

And so the unknowable shape in the shadows of the 1978 film is made flesh and blood and recognizably human, but to my great esteem he’s still largely unknowable in spite of where we find him: for one, it’s not particularly like there was a “last straw” written for the character since the first thing we witness is the implication that he murdered his latest pet, all of whom it seems he’s tortured to death. So it ends up being an inevitability when one particular bully (Daryl Sabara, who I am forever unable to disconnect with the Spy Kids franchise in spite of Sabara’s later niche of douchebags like this, The Green Inferno, and World’s Greatest Dad) meets his unpleasant end with Michael only hours before the fateful night where he murders his sisters, her boyfriend, and his step-dad all in one go.

But for another in that unknowability, once we are thrown into the aftermath sentenced processing of Michael, he seems to have virtually no memory of his actions: he states he has no clue why he’s there, asks of his family’s well-being, and Faerch performs these sequences with a sort of blank child-based naivete that feels like an unnerving mask for young innocence in the context it’s given (introduced already early on by a casual throwaway scene of him playing with candy just before he retrieves a knife). This is not helped by Michael’s insistence on interacting with everyone from behind his makeshift paper masks like an aspiring member of Slipknot, which Deborah and Dr. Loomis indulge with unease until Michael’s growing frustration with being forced into a box for possibly the rest of his life transforms into his slow insularity from speaking to either his mom or Loomis to a vicious murder of a nurse where everything between the three central characters in this half of the picture collapses. Deborah exits the picture in heartbreaking desperation unable to cope with what her son became, Loomis deems Michael a lost cause after 15 years pass and his ward has developed into an adult (Tyler Mane) without saying a single word since his mother left the picture.

At which point Michael eventually escapes from the institute in violent fashion and leaves to Haddonfield – killing the coolest truck driver in the world played by Ken Foree* – with Loomis racing after him so that Zombie can put into play the same beats of the 1978 original for the remaining hour and such. Zombie is basically performing a structural gambit that resembles his original pitch to the Weinsteins and Malek Akkad (Moustapha’s son who took over fully after his father’s tragic death, having been involved with the franchise since Curse): he wanted an entire movie dedicated to Loomie and Deborah trying to reach Michael that ended at this precise point of his disappearance into the night and then a sequel that went through the events that befell poor Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) as Michael fixates on her one Halloween in Haddonfield.

Frankly, it’s clear which of these halves is the one that most animated Zombie as a storyteller: Michael’s backstory gave license for Zombie to invoke all his hellbilly aesthetic honed in his first two Firefly pictures (including a very indulgent soundtrack of classic rock needledrops) with Michael’s upbringing, a perhaps obnoxious but effective way to fray out the mental state of any viewer who has to spend the little time we have with Forsythe’s disgusting and antagonistic performance and the cluttered mess of dinge that the Myers house is. But even outside of that house, there’s an uncomfortably intimate cruelty to Michael’s violent acts that makes it impossible to consider this as spectacle the way most slasher movies present their murders as. For example, the bully – Michael’s very first human kill – is shot almost exclusively in close-up with his crying bloodied face intercut with serene trees against the sun. We never see a single blow outside of the one to his knee that knocks him to the floor. And once we are stuck within those uncomfortable white walls with Michael, Faerch’s sudden shift from surly focus and unhinged lashing out to playing out the high-register boyishness is precisely what we’re not prepared with: actively rejecting remorse is one thing, but not even having remorse figured as a concept in a logic we can’t compute is just a knife wedged into us to align with Moon’s exhausted desperation at losing virtually all of her family with Michael’s psychological receding.

And there’s still room for sympathy with Michael himself, especially in the director’s cut where we are frequently hit back-and-forth with black-and-white footage and tape of Loomis’ observations that treat Michael like a bug under a microscope at times, in spite of the ostensible sincerity Loomis has with Michael’s well-being. In the end, Michael is a tragic figure certainly but he still remains a complete blank to not only us but to the people who ostensibly care about him in an entirely different way that Carpenter’s original boogeyman of the shadows: Michael is a human being but he just did not keep his humanity. When that was, who knows? It’s likely something that snapped before the movie even begins. Nevertheless, it lends itself to a presentation of movie violence and its aftermath in a way that’s fully distressing and makes our investment in this murderous child who is forced upon us as protagonist to be hopeless and futile, especially in the knowledge of what’s on the other side of this material. Punctuating this is a humane bit part performed by none other than Danny Trejo and used savagely as an indication of just how impossible it is to salvage Michael’s human quality.

Suffice it to say, I think this first half of Zombie’s Halloween is… near-perfect. What keeps the theatrical cut version for me from being perfect is the lack of that Loomis tape material, what keeps the director’s cut version from that is a remarkably awful and brutal rape scene ostensibly used to facilitate Michael’s escape but clearly the theatrical cut was able to circumvent around. It is horrible enough to undo the good-will of the added material and make the theatrical cut my preference (though I am kind of tempted to make a fan-cut of the director’s cut replacing that sequence maybe for my own watching). In any case, there is no doubt a drop of quality to come once the movie arrives back in Haddonfield and realigns itself to Laurie as a protagonist, a speed bump I feel the movie has trouble recovering from particularly because of Taylor-Compton is never more than adequate in the role. I think she’s relatively accurate to a high school girl in 2007 with her casual vulgarisms and affable sisterhood towards her friends, especially Danielle Harris triumphantly returning to the Halloween franchise now as Annie Brackett. But there’s nothing there that stands her out as the sort of girl who would believably be willing to babysit two kids over going to Halloween parties and it feels like our alignment is merely a formality to indicate we are now back to retracing the steps of Carpenter’s film. Much of its relevance feels like that pre-existing knowledge, particularly when it comes to Laurie’s true identity as Angel Myers… the baby sister of Michael who was the only person in that home who Michael showed kindness to and spared on that horrible night.

Zombie, I have to say, spent his remake duology (as we’ll see when we get to his Halloween II) making a boon out of that relationship rather than its twist ending treatment in Carpenter’s movies fucking up the complexity of the original. It’s not NOT treated as a twist here when Annie’s father Sheriff Leigh Brackett (Brad Dourif who reliably gives a competition for best in show the way that Dourif has done his whole career) reveals he was responsible for Laurie’s re-adoption by the Strodes (played by Pat Skipper and that patron saint of movie moms, Dee Wallace, with a particular scene in the DC between Wallace and Taylor-Compton that patches over my least favorite beat in the younger actor’s performance). But it feels like the eventual point we are going to get to considering how much screentime in the early few minutes is dedicated to establishing the presence of a baby in all of this madness and her reaction to Michael’s presence, especially given the cries of that baby are the very last thing we hear before that 15-year jump.

And that’s not the only “past fuck-up” that Zombie has made into a strength: after the past two movies specifically forcing us to keep looking at Michael’s eyes behind the mask when he’s best visually portrayed with empty shadows there, now we have reason to see them: an anchor to that young boy (which is interesting in that none of his paper masks give us a window to his eyes) and a recognition of the curdled soul within this large behemoth of a man that Mane is. It brings focus to the brutal source of these events.

But that knowledge of Laurie and Michael’s relation and the journey we took with Michael watching him curl into the shadows of unknowable thoughts behind his paper masks ends up all the movie needs (even though I think it would do better to just keep Michael as the single point of view for the second half) to act as auto-critique regarding what the original film depicts in the fashion of how that most dismissed of horror movie remakes Psycho acts as auto-critique of its own act of remaking a classic. The beats are familiar indeed, even with the notable diversions (biggest of all being a layover in Michael’s wrath towards the Strode parents themselves), but the differences are THE point of the movie and being tethered to the first half means we recognize these unpleasant and ferocious actions are not in a vaccuum at all. Michael is all too real and so is the irreversible sadism he delivers, consistent from first frame to last. None of which undoes the horror we feel when met with the carnage he’s causing, which is sustained in ways that uncharacteristically refrain from focusing on the (still present) blood that is discharge with every contact he makes or even twice over using the still nighttime exterior of a home disrupted by Michael’s malignant actions. It’s just a wholly distinct tone from Carpenter’s film with the same material and in its deliberate approach, it feels essential to recognize that however one lands with the film overall at the end.

I’m not entirely decided on that, to be clear. In the 15 years since its release, I’ve truly come to admire what it does and probably because I came to be more of a Rob Zombie fan* and I think writing these 2500+ words (way more than I aimed for) have come to make me realize that enough goes right in Zombie’s Halloween to accept it as a passing film. I don’t know that I’d call it great yet: even in the understanding that this is the result of having a lot of stuff to explore and being able to recognize the rhythms in the second half I couldn’t once, it feels quite long in its 2 hours and the fact that the movie bulldozes past the ending beat of the original to several more minutes of further aimless flailing in gray dustiness until this movie finally finds an emotionally harrowing closing note. The early introduction of our recognizable Michael Myers mask as a tool for sex-play feels like an arbitrary bit of contempt for the material. And I appreciate how certain moments late in the film bring a nugget to what Zombie would explore in his sequel, a single sequence of confusion between a horrified Taylor-Compton and a soulful and exhausted Mane, but it feels like it’s in the wrong Zombie Halloween movie. Keep in mind both of those irksome elements feel tied to elements that I think are brilliant which I think embodies how this movie feels like dealing with good and bad tied together.

But I now come to feel the good outweighs the bad: Zombie may have had his public struggles with the studio to make his Halloween films his way, but I think he succeeded in making something idiosyncratic by the time his first film landed and presented a view of a quintessential horror movie killer that interacts with the audience’s knowledge of what he will become to investigate how far back can you explore him psychologically before just giving up and recognizing that’s nothing there. That’s a proposal that I think is no less scary than just the idea that there’s a mysterious shape in the shadows that might just arrive and force you to the big sleep, simply because that is what evil does and some people just are.

*Justice for Joe Grizzly, I wanna see a Joe Grizzly trucker picture, bitch.
**as filmmaker, mind you; I’ve honestly been banging Hellbilly Deluxe, La Sexorcisto, and Astro-Creep as Halloween time replays since I became a metalhead in middle school so there was never room for revisionism there.

On Cloud Nine

To go into the ways that Cloud Atlas has affected me as a person when I went to an extremely late screening one October night 2012 at one of the lowest points in my adult life would involve being a lot more emotionally and psychologically vulnerable than I’m willing to be in public. I only vaguely refer to how that watch was one of the most fundamental moments in my development as the person I am today to at least give an explanation on why I simply don’t think I can be THAT objective about the movie. I can give the impression of it – it doesn’t take too much effort to acknowledge at least one particular element that is out-and-out racist, full stop – and I think I’ve done enough hair-splitting on what defines “best” and what defines “favorite” to me that I can disrupt the illusion of perfection in any movie, let alone Cloud Atlas which has pretty clear missteps in my eyes. But all of that qualifying is just formalities in the face of the fact that there are few movies in the 21st Century that I feel changed my life the way that Cloud Atlas did.

Fortunately, there are also few movies that I can think of that radically codified what I look for in movies: I had definitely seen Intolerance beforehand, so ambition on this level was not new to me in 2012 but I think this made me consciously aware of what a vast canvas of styles and stories as realized by filmmakers Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, and Lilly Wachowski, all three of whom are visionaries in their own right (it is safer to say in 2022 now that the Wachowskis are working separately than in 2012 when they were still kind of an item). Of which Cloud Atlas would demand given that the 2004 novel by David Mitchell which it adapts is literally six different storylines, structured in the source material so the stories bookend each other snugly into a Russian nest doll style and flipping different forms of dialect appropriate to their setting. Tykwer and the Wachowskis decided to be a bit more radical than that structure where the only logic to Cloud Atlas‘ continuous cross-cutting between its stories is their momentum and trying to map their climaxes alongside each other, though I am certain they worked very closely with editor Alexander Berner to make sure that the patterns in character arcs and visual compositions were arranged like a cinematic symphony alike one of the central leitmotifs, the “Cloud Atlas Sextet” which is credited in the narrative to Robert Frobisher but actually is composed like most of the score by Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, and Reinhold Heil.

Anyway, the stories: we have a sea-faring period adventure in 1849 about a fresh young lawyer connecting with a Moriori slave while a doctor in the lawyer’s employ reveals his intentions. We have a 1932 queer tragedy centered around a passionate amateur composer and the aging legend’s home he infiltrates. We have a 1973 conspiracy thriller centered on a journalist who has a chance encounter in an elevator that puts her in a position to blow a big damn whistle. We have a 2012 screwy British comedy on a publisher manipulated in his fleeing from crooks to be entrapped in a prison-like nursing home. We have a 2144 science fiction picture set in Neo-Seoul that depicts a class-based insurrection essential to asserting the personhood of clones (the closest it gets to resembling the CGI-heavy popcorn movies we think of these days, specifically with special effects miles better and more stimulating than most MCU movies). And last but not least, a post-apocalyptic yarn on an Islander’s survivor’s guilt and challenge towards his worldview when he is commissioned to guide a visitor from a more advanced civilization.

That’s a whole lot of material and that translates in the hands of these filmmakers (the Wachowskis directed 1849, 2144, and the post-apocalypse, which makes sense given their history with genre filmmaking, while Tykwer took on the more contemporary period pieces of the movie) with purpose to that as we are suggested the idea that these tales actually intertwine and influence each other’s course of action in subconscious ways, largely through the running theme of souls transcending time and identity and such. That last part is certainly embodied by the extensive cast of names and familiar faces continuously reappearing in roles whose arcs seem in conversation with each other or at least consistent in their carriage: Tom Hanks (whose unflappable enthusiasm reportedly was why the very unstable development of what was to be a very expensive production came through), Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Bae Doona, Ben Whishaw, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, Keith David, David Gyasi, James D’Arcy, Zhou Xun, and Robert Fyfe altogether play multiple roles in the many storylines and most of them have been saddled with roles that reflect each other in ways I had never guessed from reading the novel with all of them finding the most dedicated ways to keep their performances in conversation (Broadbent, Grant, and Whishaw are absolutely the best at this; Weaving has the easiest path for this since all of his roles are characteristically villainous; Hanks I think has the most difficult set overall and therefore is most admirable in his loopiness).

This is where I must confess the primary reservation I have in recommending this movie to others liberally: part of the admirable conceit is that the actors play roles that cross genders and age and in one particular case… race. Specifically the Neo-Seoul storyline is almost entirely populated by non-Asian actors in latex makeup meant to make them resemble Koreans (Tom Hanks is a notable exception who appears in that storyline without the yellowface makeup, which no doubt would have demolished his screen image) and I truly understand the thought process that gets to that decision, but that’s not the same as thinking it’s particularly the right decision. It’s just racist. But in a film as expectedly indulgent as Cloud Atlas very much is, one would expect that not every decision will be the right decision and I personally consider messy self-betrayal of the lapses of the artist to be very much essential to art.

But returning back to that central idea: souls defying the end of life to find its way to some peace and satisfaction (I think most beautifully represented in Hanks’ characters – particularly when it comes to how interacting with Berry’s characters relates to his character’s corruptions), the connectedness of separate lives (the most heartbreaking instance: two lovers meet their ends in similar ways, one commits suicide through the mouth and the other is murdered by a gunshot through the mouth), the idea that one act can make ripples that it will never be aware of for the better (“What is an ocean but a multitude of drops”), all of this stuff drives Cloud Atlas as the most convicted embodiment of these admittedly fanciful but much attractive ideals. It is a very humanist picture at its core and its aesthetic decisions come from that humanism – explicitly through the cross-cutting that mostly tries to keep the movie at a propulsive rate but also finds the smallest gestures to make up the connective tissue within those cuts (characters on the phone, writing, running on elevated and slim platforms). In virtually every way, Cloud Atlas basically signals towards the future television series Sense8, but that is settled towards globetrotting in the present time and Cloud Atlas just takes blockbuster money to fully create worlds like Neo-Seoul’s futurism in spacey action movie laser blast setpieces and the ruins of civilization in the post-apocalypse against beautiful Pacific Islander landscapes as well as revisit dated designs like pre-war Belgium or 70s San Francisco (captured by production and costume designers and cinematographers regular to the director of their respective segments: the Wachowskis brought on Hugh Bateup, Kym Barrett, and John Toll; Tykwer brought Uli Hanisch, Pierre-Yves Gayraud, and Frank Griebe) that can only be made compatible by the beautiful visuals, mannered performances, or simply the familiar emotions within those distant worlds.

Such inspired and grandiose pursuit will of course collapse and fail in areas, even outside of the Asian make-up. There are performances that do not work, the Sloosha’s dialect is much easier to read than it is to say, the old age make-up is so blatantly artificial and cartoony. But all of that comes from the movie’s fearlessness and actually enhances the broad dramatics of its storyline with its artifice much more than its undisciplined screenplay could. I frankly feel the script flattens the complex density of the novel’s themes to near-incomprehensibility, even when its final third gets annoyingly didactic about what it thinks it’s saying. It pretty much aids the movie to be so sprawling to the point of disaster, particularly in the face of everything it miraculously gets right which outweighs what it gets wrong despite the odds. And it is never less than beautiful (both to look at and to listen to), watchable, and entertaining: it is as cinematic as things get and it is specifically a movie that best represents what it is to BE moved. In the darkness of that theater for its fully-felt 3 hours, I came to recognize that boldness extravagant to the point of chaos is the pinnacle of expression that a film artist can accomplish: daring, sincere, full of personality, and defiantly establishing its own terms. That’s Cloud Atlas: it’s the first movie that crosses my mind when I think of those specific superlatives, maybe my favorite example of “interesting messes” in cinema and unlocking what about them embeds their takeaway to my heart. Now what that takeaway was that I feel changed the course of my life 10 years… that’s between me and Cloud Atlas in the dark of that cinema.

Lipstick on a Corpse

I mentioned in the last review that Jamie Lee Curtis’ return to the Halloween franchise in H20 included some conditions and it’s about time we talk about the most crucial one: she was coming back under the strong impression H20 was going to be the last word on the franchise and more particularly that her character Laurie Strode would be the one to kill Michael Myers ensuring the full wrap-up. Well, the wrinkle in that deal is that Moustapha Akkad has his own contract with its own terms, a major one being that Michael Myers cannot die. Kevin Williamson was ordered to invent a lifeline through which Michael could cheat death once more. The result was a development in which prior to Laurie’s climactic hijacking of the ambulance in which Michael was being transported at the end of the previous film, the paramedic who was moving Michael was knocked out and made incapable of speech before having his clothes swapped with the serial killer. So when Laurie finally swung that axe that decapitated her boogeyman, it was not in fact him.

Curtis was understandably furious at this sudden undercutting of her character’s development and close to dropping right out of H20 before being alleviated by a new set of terms:

1 – any footage that gave the slightest inkling Michael was still alive could be filmed during H20‘s production (and indeed material was shot the very day after filming ended) but would not appear in the feature and could only be intended for use in the follow-up.

2 – the very first thing the follow-up would do is have Laurie die as penance for killing an innocent person.

Indeed, when Halloween: Resurrection finally rolled out in 2002 – four years since H20 dropped – it opens specifically to satisfy the latter request: Laurie is shown to be institutionalized for her trauma and crime as a pair of nurses (one of whom is played by Lorena Gale, making her one of two future cast members of the excellent 2003 Battlestar Galactica remake show) dump that explanation on how things REALLY rolled in H20, complete with the footage shot four years ago on that set. Michael (now played by Brad Loree) finally shows up to finish her off, but she’s went and set a trap in anticipation of this which gets her dangerously close enough to killing him that she hesitates to wonder “what if I’m wrong again?”. She wasn’t, as the knife shoved in her would prove before being dropped down to her death. Throughout this miserable obligation of an opening sequence to be totally divorced from the rest of the film, the returning nemesis of this franchise Rick Rosenthal provides more perfunctory direction than he did in Halloween II and Jamie Lee Curtis is simply fucking done, maintaining the one “thousand yard stare” for the entirety of her screentime so she can dissociate from what a major betrayal she’s forced to give a character she worked so hard on. It is thoroughly dispiriting, that opening of Halloween: Resurrection is.

And here’s the rub: this is the best part of the movie, the only moment the film feels like it has consequence. Not a single fucking thing goes right in that section, least of all how it begins to introduce this movie’s transition of Michael Myers from mysterious shadowy force to broad and burly Jason Voorhees. Michael doesn’t open doors, he busts through them messily like he’s on a drunken bender. Meanwhile, Rosenthal uses Michael as a proxy for the one thing that will end up connecting this introductory scene to the rest of the movie: there’s a really shitty moment of Michael’s POV handing some dweeb in the hospital the knife he killed Laurie with, with the angle suggesting Michael is moonwalking out of the patient’s room and into the hallway.

For you see, Halloween: Resurrection proper is about an reality show set to stream live on the internet from none other than Michael Myers’ childhood house in Haddonfield on Halloween night. The brave souls who have been recruited for the endeavor are a bunch of college students who seem to have no personality beyond loudness (including Katee Sackhoff, the OTHER Battlestar Galactica cast member here with no opportunity to showcase the wonderful work she’d do in that show). We can pinpoint the final girl to be Sara (Bianca Kajlich) simply because she’s the quiet one and looks frequently bothered by stuff. Regardless of their capability to walk in a straight line, every participant is fitted up with a webcam rig that lets audiences see what they see.

Good for the drunken high school douchebags at a Halloween party we keep cross-cutting with throughout the movie as they find this broadcast compelling enough to watch, but for yours truly… this is torture. The quality of the web cam footage is about as poor as you’d expect in 2002, very noisy and busted up with video disruption and the movie is happy to pad its remaining 75 minutes with as much of these dingdongs flinging around a lens with a string connection as it possibly can. This shit starts before the college kids start their stay, since we get another Michael POV shot where he shows us and the poor cinematographer setting up cameras in his house he’s learned a kill from Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. At least he’s getting his proper slasher education, y’know. For indeed, Michael has been sticking around in the house since killing Laurie left him with nothing to do. And who is he to be rude to his guests and leave them unattended?

Anyway, it’s really thin gruel as a story that writers Larry Brand and Sean Hood put together for this toss off, harmless enough as to be expected from any slasher sequel THIS close to be a direct-to-video dump. But including reality tv? Internet shit? Circa early 2000s primitivism? Featuring a subplot where Sara’s chatroom catfish friend Deckard (Ryan Merriman), an attendee of said Halloween party, is her only hope to survive as he watches all angles of the house to see where Michael is? This is just made grating and dated. Much as Halloween 6 and Halloween H20 embodied the most annoying parts of 90s culture in their own way, Halloween: Resurrection turns round the millennium with The Blair Witch Project as the latest horror movie craze and trying to figure out “how do we use 21st Century technology to make this the stupidest fucking thing ever?”. The reliance on a visual resource that was not even ready for the family’s trip to Disneyland, let alone a professional and wide-released feature film with Hollywood money, just blankets over everything already wrong and casual about this money job of a picture and makes it agonizing to force upon my eyes, accompanied with shrill characters to torture my ears, and not a single fucking bit of it feeling spooky.

There’s only one salve, one true saving grace, a champion for this disaster of a picture: rapper Busta Rhymes as Freddie, one-half of the founders of this reality show Dangertainment (the other is celebrity Tyra Banks doing her… Tyra Banks thing). He knew there wasn’t a single fucking thing anybody could take seriously about this movie and he rolled with it from there: providing impromptu speechifying for his persuasive character, imbuing an obsession with kung fu flicks that leads into his character’s hand-to-hand with Michael himself, and even making a boon out of H20‘s heinous decision to let us see Michael’s eyes so we can watch the fearful death of a paramedic by having an extended amount of the film be Freddie trying to manufacture terror on his show and play at being Michael in a cynical fashion. It’s the sort of deranged character and performance that would be so-bad-it’s-good in any other film, except that his ability to provide enjoyment out of a film so vehemently anti-pleasure as this one means that one can’t possibly take an ironic distance from the genuine entertainment he brings. Busta Rhymes is doing God’s work in the Godless place that is Halloween: Resurrection, walking away from one of the worst movies ever made (which of course it joins Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers‘s theatrical cut so its not bereft of company in this franchise) without a single thing to be ashamed of and blessing us with the one-liner to end all one-liners as we head out the door:

Hallowater

Enough was enough for Daniel Farrands after Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers was such an exhausting and failed power struggle that he decided to exit out of the development of a follow-up. Enough was enough for Moustapha Akkad as well who used the money the franchise had generated for him over the last 2 decades to wipe his tears after observing the extant profits of the last four entries were dwarfed by what the first Halloween movies brought in.

What did those two movies have that the rest of the franchise didn’t? To be frank, a lot. But the critical needs became evident – especially in the absence of the now-dead Donald Pleasence, whose Dr. Sam Loomis cameos in voiceover by Tom Kane – when Kevin Williamson, hot off the success of Scream and with Dimension Films still involved in this entry, pitched the return of Laurie Strode to the franchise (not even the first writer to pitch Laurie’s return to the producers, ’cause it was evidently that desired). And Jamie Lee “I Dislike Horror Movies and Don’t Watch Them (Despite My Early Career Being Propped Up by the Genre)*” Curtis agreed to come back, to certain conditions that I think it’s best to discuss with the next Halloween movie. With the triumphant return of the series’ original heroine after establishing her death, we come to the first of the Halloween franchise’s two major retcons, assuming we ignore the way Halloween III and the Rob Zombie remakes throw further wrenches in chronological solubility. And yet The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is right next door having literally every sequel re-write the last entry.

Curtis was also interested in seeing John Carpenter come back to the directing chair, but that collapsed when Carpenter demanded enough money and a multi-picture deal with Dimension that would restitute payment he felt owed for on the original 1978 film. Not to worry though, as Akkad instead hired Steve Miner for the job, a slasher film habitué by then with his Friday the 13th entries. One of those entries – Part 2 – is essentially the slasher film from which I compare all other slasher films, so how does the ceremoniously titled Halloween H20: 20 Years Later… fare against Part 2?

Not really all that well.

Williamson, for the record, is not the credited screenwriter. Robert Zappia is and I’m sure he earned that credit by building the entire set of events on Williamson’s pitch. But it’s also a known fact that Williamson had a major hand in carrying the production with Miner, including retouches of Zappia’s screenplay that I’m certain were extensive and ok’d by either Akkad, Weinstein, or both in the desire to re-capture that hip winking attitude of Scream (obvious to the point that even the credited composer for this movie, John Ottman, had his own score retouched by Scream‘s composer Marco Beltrami. Even outright cues from Scream were recycled here).

I don’t like Scream and I REALLY don’t like Williamson’s manner of writing, especially dialogue. It belongs to teenagers, sure, but the most annoying teenagers possible. And as it would turn out: Halloween H20 had been transplanted to take place in Hillcrest Academym a boarding school populated by such teens. Our main focus turns out to be John (the eternal non-entity Josh Hartnett, who would star in another Kevin Williamson/Dimension Films production The Faculty later that year). For you see, John is the son of the headmistress Keri Tate and Keri turns out to be the brand-new identity of Laurie, who faked her own death by car crash** and re-located all the way to sunny California to escape her past. Which means – with our first Michael Myers entry that does not take place in Haddonfield – we are shortchanged from any of this franchise’s characteristic indulgence in color-correction and chilly atmospheres to disguise its locations as the Midwest, save for a very satisfying opening sequence in which the movie plays the same trick with then-tv-star Joseph Gordon-Levitt that Scream played with Drew Barrymore.

Here’s what I will cop to: convincing Curtis to come back absolutely paid off because she brought a vengeful interest to interrogate how one truly goes back to living after an experience as horrifying as the events of 1978. She’s doing a lot of deep character work connecting what Laurie was back then with the now hyper-protective potential alcoholic that IS able to keep everything together but looks like she won’t give herself an inch more breathing room than she has right now. It is very tempting in 2022 to compare Keri Tate in H20 and Sarah Connor in Halloween ’18 because H20 appreciates with that perspective, but even on its own merits, the movie is rather excellent when Laurie’s internal struggle with walking through life with painful psychological scars and letting her son live his own life.

John is treated as a duotagonist and gets his own extent of material out of the shadow of Curtis. And by god it is really dire, a teen drama about wanting to sneak out because “parents don’t understand” so he can hang out and drink with his crew. A crew which includes an early-career Michelle Williams as Hartnett’s girlfriend, who I forgot broke out with Williamson’s later smash hit tv show Dawson’s Creek and was once capable of rivalling the wet blanket Hartnett for worst performance in a movie before she’d meet Kelly Reichardt. The dialogue is very “how do you do kids?” in a sterile way and the goals are shallow enough in a manner that makes sense for any middle-of-the-road slasher looking for a body count (and this is the smallest body count of any Halloween movie since the original). Those failings are thrown into sharp relief compared to the three-dimensions of Curtis’ material and ends up frustrating how little of this after-school special about lying to your parents acts like a horror film. Prior to the 50-minute mark in the shortest Halloween movie (at 86 minutes), there’s 2 thriller setpieces: the afore-mentioned opening scene and one that “subverts expectations” by putting nobody in the scene in any real danger.

That “subverts expectations” element is a real bruiser when Michael Myers (Chris Durand this time) finally makes his way to the campus of Hillcrest Academy and gets close enough to John that Laurie needs to get into action and face her stalker once-and-for-all(-for-the-first-time). As we become aware of Michael’s presence and the horror movie conventions that should be activated by him entering the movie, there’s just so many fake-outs: fake-outs of what gruesome violence will be enacted like putting a person’s hand in a food disposal or a character suggested to be dead coming back just because the name celebrity playing him needs to survive, I guess. It feels like another symptom of H20‘s desire to be another Scream despite being significantly more irritable than anything Scream performed.

But if there’s one thing Miner as slasher filmmaker has shown himself reliable at: it’s Final Girl moments. And H20 would, by its premise, demand quite a Final Girl moment so all the development of Laurie as a figure wouldn’t be for naught. It gets it: Curtis expectedly gives a lot of hyper-tension and furious release in impressive modulations while Miner keeps a phenomenal handle on the geography of this two-way hunt and the impact of each blow made in this struggle. It particularly makes a boon out of cinematographer Daryn Okada’s naturalist interiors in the dark and the shafts of lighting cutting through the darkness that give the fight a real comic book gravitas.

Halloween H20 is a movie that really does open and close on its best material, right down to the very last shots of Jamie Lee Curtis’ face as the climax spills over from that final girl sequence to the seconds prior to the end credits that suggest this might be the best performance of Curtis’ whole career. So it’s not particular a movie I find all that difficult to watch. But those good moments are very imbalanced by the awful stuff: the 90s hipness, the teenage characters, the impish teasing over horror fundamentals, and most of all an understandable but heinously fatal decision to provide Michael with a shit-designed mask and lighting schema that allows us to see his FUCKING HUMAN EYES. Who needed that? Who wanted to feel like there was any humanity behind this being in any capacity? Turns out that it was fundamental to the manner through which this “final” face-off between the two central figures in the Halloween franchise leads into the next (and worst) film…

(as a fun little N.B.: like its immediate predecessor, this entry has a title card dedicating itself to Donald Pleasence, but this time misspells his last name as “Pleasance”. It was this particular error that caused me to realize I spent my entire life to this point misspelling Pleasence’s name.)

*Halloween, Terror Train, Prom Night, Roadgames, The Fog and – if you count it – the nepotism of being the daughter of the star of Psycho (from which Loomis himself got his namesake) who herself cameos in this picture.
**Which we shall note was the reported cause of death for her in the Jamie Lloyd trilogy and therefore this movie’s existence doesn’t necessarily negate that set of films. There was a scene that was never shot involving Laurie learning of Jamie’s death and I suspect that would have been a lot more upsetting than this movie is equipped to handle.

Like a Thorn in the Heart

As I mentioned in the previous review, Halloween 5 wrote out checks on the mysterious appearance of a Man in Black and his relationship to white-masked killer Michael Myers. Those checks were intended to be cashed in by the sixth Halloween movie. Except the writers for Halloween 5 did not end up coming back for that sixth movie and a ridiculously protracted development history – partly spurred on by Moustapha Akkad finding the reception for Halloween 5 disappointing and trying to figure out the best way to right the ship – that eventually landed on franchise super-fan Daniel Farrands to construct ten different screenplay drafts. The one that stuck involved an extensive supernatural mythology surrounding Michael that would make up the spine of that sixth Halloween movie. A dreadfully malformed spine that couldn’t possibly support any movie, let alone the two that essentially would have to make up our current subject.

For you see, there’s the rub in discussing the sixth Halloween: throughout the production, Bob Weinstein (as head of Dimension Films, which had partnered with Akkad’s Nightfall in producing the film) and Akkad butt heads a lot over the direction of the picture and this climaxed after the movie’s initial NYC test screening in which audience members responded to a lot of the plot developments with derision and confusion. From there, Weinstein went above Akkad’s head to have an entirely new final act drafted by an unknown replacement writer and then had it reshot and cut into the picture with absolutely no grace whatsoever. The subsequent legal battle between Akkad and Weinstein landed on Weinstein being able to release his new cut in theaters in 1995 and Akkad’s cut – subsequently called The Producer’s Cut – became a bootleg item until its first official public screening in 2013.

So we have two versions of the sixth Halloween picture available for all: the 87-minute theatrical cut (which features the title card referring to itself as Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers) and the 95-minute “producer’s cut” (which features a title card Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers, with the “a”s made in the form of a familiar rune). Despite mostly following the same plot thread for the majority of their runtimes, they are radically different movies beyond their divergent final acts and it’ll take more than a bit of housekeeping to discuss the two of them thoroughly.

But let’s start with what they DO have in common, which begins in a horrible place for us to revisit our heroine Jamie Lloyd in the 6 years since we left her: she’s been kidnapped by that mysterious Man in Black alongside Michael, has somehow been impregnated within the custody of their evil underground cult, had the child removed from her care upon birth, and worst of all… she is not played by Danielle Harris. No, Harris dared to ask a $5 million dollar budget production for a $5,000 payment and was balked at, so now Jamie is played by J.C. Brandy*. Probably just as well since it’s already upsetting enough to imagine the young traumatized child being carted off to be raped without having to recognize her in adulthood. Either way, the treatment of Jamie as a character within this film is a level of mean-spiritedness on par with Rachel’s disposal in the previous film. And I know that cruelty is an essential part of this subgenre, but it feels like the degree of suffering and targeting a character who basically acted as our emotional anchor for the last two movies feels unnecessarily punishing in a way that cuts out the fun of the subgenre, y’know?

But I digress: Jamie is aided by an ill-fated nurse to retrieve her baby and escape as Michael follows her relentlessly through the dark and stormy night (George P. Wilbur returning to the role officially after Halloween 4, even though he still performed stunts for the character in Halloween 5). He catches up and violently attacks her, but Jamie manages to hide her child beyond Michael’s grasp and make a wide call for help on a radio broadcast before meeting her fate.

A call heard by not only Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence in his final outing with the role, passing away months before the movie’s release) and his colleague Dr. Terence Wynn (Mitch Ryan), but another individual who has history with Michael: Tommy Doyle, the young boy who Laurie Strode babysat that fateful night in 1978. He’s now grown up, obsessed with his childhood near-death experience, and played by a fresh-faced actor known as Paul Rudd who would notoriously retain that boyish look into his 50s. Undoubtedly the subsequent stardom Rudd experienced left him not missing this production one bit. Anyway, Tommy deduces Jamie made her call at the local bus station and finds the baby there, bringing it back to his home right across the street from the Myers house itself.

A house populated by another strand of the Strodes it turns out, headed by Laurie’s until-now-unseen uncle John (Bradford English). John appears to be a complete piece of shit to everyone under that roof, especially his daughter Kara (Marianne Hagan) and her out-of-wedlock son Danny (Devin Gardner) as she tries to rebuild her life moving in with her parents and going back to school. Also there is Kim Darby of all actors playing John’s long-suffering wife, surpassing Pleasence as the most overqualified actor in the picture. Loomis tries and fails to convince the Strodes to vacate the home, whose history was shadily known only to John. Kara and Danny are at least brought out of harm’s way by Tommy, who begins to unwrap the mystery behind why Michael does what he does as the Man in Black and his cult tightens in on our protagonists.

I think that gets about as far as the two cuts come before splitting entirely into their different movies, but already by this point watching one yields unalike experiences from the other. The best summary one can give about the two cuts’ distinctions is how clearly jumpy and jagged the theatrical version is. It feels like Weinstein saw the patient breathing room that Akkad, Farrands, and director Joe Chappelle brought to each thriller setpiece and thought “why is it taking so long?” because it’s very clearly the same material but the space between incidents is fully removed so everything is high impact. Added to that is the increased amount of gore shots crafted by the legendary John Carl Buechler (who also the designed the film’s mask and therefore supplied Michael with his best look in any of the sequels), some of which is much appreciated like how the most unlikable character has his head explode. And there’s a heinous musical score that Alan Howarth and Paul Rabjohns forced upon the viewer by pasting hair metal guitar and drums over the Producer Cut’s moodier synthesizer music. In general, the theatrical cut leans into an incoherent amount of aesthetic excess that underline all the things wrong with the disorienting visual choices Chappelle and cinematographer Billy Dickson dig in. Farrands considered the resultant version with its continuous flashes and bombastic sounds to be “more of an MTV music video and a Halloween movie” and he’s right. The Producer’s cut is still not an elegant little thing with added material that makes it feel denser in the way that forcing a lid on an overfilled jar also feels denser. And I haven’t determined whether I find the dispatching of Jamie as a character in the theatrical cut is less contemptible than Akkad/Farrands’ version (the theatrical cut is of course gorier, but the Producer’s cut feels more miserable in its prolonging). But at least the Producer’s cut allows itself a coherence and legibility that the Weinsteins’ version willfully neglects.

There is are at least two major saving graces that are consistent regardless of the cut you’re watching, at least in terms of the recent Scream! Factory release through which I watched these. One of them is Pleasence, who makes his final go-round count and treats every development with a whole lot more dignity than it deserves. The other is the exterior photography, especially in the daytime, which grasps hard to every red, yellow, and brown that appears in frame and stresses the autumnal atmosphere of this Haddonfield Halloween, ending up the closest these never-shot-in-the-Midwest movies felt to being Midwestern late Octobers. Granting this was retained in both cuts I watched, my understanding is that the originally bootlegged Producer’s Cut – which was more workprint than official release and therefore more unfinished – had ENTIRELY different color grading from the theatrical. That’s not really the case with the Scream! Factory 2022 releases so I must assume the change occurred at least before then (I do own the 2014 blu-ray release and am curious if that has the original coloring, but am in no rush to rewatch this. I’m sure y’all understand).

But really when reckoning with how there are two unalike movies under the guise of being the sixth Halloween, one truly has to acknowledge the contrasting final acts of both because… it’s really something. They both maintain the production’s desperation to ride on that latest X-Files craze that was rolling in the mid-1990s with a determination that Michael is driven by the Druid curse of the rune þ (pronounced “Thorn”) and that rune is being controlled by the mysterious Man in Black and… goddamn is that some doofy fan fiction out of Farrands (ostensibly this was pulled from the novelization of the original 1978 film and that’s why books are obviously evil).

But then there’s the Producer’s cut, which at least revisits the opening sequence with as a cyclical structural decision for the film’s climax. It even tries to make a resolution out of the Man in Black reveal (because of course his identity is revealed) and Tommy’s knowledge of Druid runes. It’s just that it’s all so blatantly stupid and impossible for me to take seriously despite Pleasence’s best efforts.

And it’s still more satisfying on its own merits than the theatrical cut of the final act. First off, it is so disinterested in clarity that it took me refreshing myself with Wikipedia JUST AFTER watching that version to get what happened. Then there’s the further flop sweat behind the movie’s aping of X-Files by setting itself in a location that stresses science fiction and medical conspiracies over the primitivism of how the Producer’s Cut presents Thorn cult’s lair. And then there’s the blustering way it transforms into a Michael Myers ex machina AND back to a generic slasher chase sequence, except at a level of incoherent shot assembly that completely collapses the theatrical cut into a work of anti-art. The final moments of Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers as released to paying audiences in 1995 is fully illegible and outright disorienting, with a repetition of same-scale and composition shots of Paul Rudd going toe-to-toe with Michael Myers at inhuman velocity and assaultive flash cuts that suggest you are literally dying as you watch the film and instead of your life flashing before your eyes, it’s one of the worst fucking movies of the 1990s. And then to top it off, it rips out the context for Pleasence’s last acting beat in the entire franchise, maintaining the pained scream he delivers but making it feel like it just generated out of thin air and like he… idk… just Ben Kenobi’d his way out of Halloween forever?

Halloween 6 – the Producer’s cut – is undeniably more functional than Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers – the theatrical cut – as the latter’s method of reconstructing the film and shoveling both new material and a re-assemblage of the same material gives the impression of performing a heart surgery by removing the intestines and lungs and kidneys and deliberately neglecting to put that shit back after inserting a pipe bomb where the heart should be. It’s honestly fascinating in a way: both because the formal wrongness of the theatrical cut just invites more awe in how Hollywood men can fuck something up with their money on the line, but also in how the ways it fails are so evidently “corrected” effortlessly with the Producer’s cut that the sole value of the picture is illustrating the difference between function and dysfunction in all aspects of post-production. Still, even for academic reasons, I couldn’t bring myself to recommend a version to watch, but that’s largely because I couldn’t bring myself to recommend the sixth Halloween movie at all. It’s all the same shitty movie, just served differently in a manner where the poisons you pick are either one of the worst Halloween movies (Producer’s cut) or one of the worst movies ever made (theatrical cut).

*This shan’t however be the last we see of Harris in the Halloween franchise, of course.

On Wings of Fear, The Terror Sweeps

It’s tough to write about as a masterpiece where everything said has already been said, as is the case with the 1978 original Halloween. Almost as tough is trying to write about a movie that is such an empty nothing and provokes virtually no response from you. Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers* is that nothing, a movie that it’s hard to even muster hatred for.

Let’s start with observing that the screenplay written by Michael Jacobs, Shem Bitterman, & Dominique Othenin-Girard – the last of whom is also the director – embodies the sort of contempt for its immediate predecessor that ALIEN³ has for Aliens and by the same means. Fortunately, Jamie (Danielle Harris) is alive. Not well, mind you, as the final beat of Halloween 4 saw her attack her adoptive mother in the aftermath of Michael Myers’ chase and she’s been admitted into a clinic accordingly with enough trauma from her non-lethal actions to go completely mute. But she’s alive one year later and she’s being visited with lots of love by her sister Rachel (Ellie Cornell) and their friend Tina (Wendy Kaplan) right up until Michael (now played by the appropriately-named Don Shanks wearing I think the same mask from Halloween 4, but worse for the wear and completely loose at the neck. Which I suppose makes sense given what we watch the killer go through, but it’s hideously unintimidating in how thin it it makes his face look) goes and stabs Rachel to death in a characteristic “vulnerable girl who just got out of the shower” slasher sequence whose prolonging fizzles out any tension when Rachel is trying to figure out what that uneasy sound is in the house. It’s also where we meet two intolerable comic relief police officers (Frank Como and David Ursin) and their musical cue that sounds like an off-brand version of the “Bulk and Skull” theme from the Power Rangers franchise.

Turns out Michael has survived his ostensible death at the hands of the posse in Halloween 4 by diving out of the open mine he was blasted into and landing in a river just as they tried to finish the job with dynamite, giving us the single most hilarious image of the entire franchise as we watch Michael float through the river as the franchise’s theme music tinkles along. Also turns out Jamie’s nightmares of Michael from that film have developed into full-on EyesofLauraMars-level real-time visions from his point of view, leading to her watching Rachel’s death without being able to do anything. Understandably, such an experience has her retreating further from the interactions of others, especially that of Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence). After learning of Jamie’s psychic connection, Loomis has been trying to coerce her into assisting him to find Michael and put him away once and for all. His insistent speechifying leads to the most exciting and engaged acting Pleasence has given since the first Halloween, but it’s also definitely the sort of shit that would intimidate a traumatized child into inaction.

Most of all, since Jamie is psychologically and emotionally out of commission for the time-being, the only protagonist left for us to latch onto is Tina and… she is just… the worst. She’s somehow the least obnoxious of the party teens that make up her friend circle and therefore the early body count of Michael’s violent return to Haddonfield (the worst is her greaser boyfriend Mike, performed by Jonathan Chapin like a future domestic abuser). But she’s still absolutely the worst protagonist I can think of in the franchise: doomed to exemplify everything about the 1980s that damn well should have stayed dead in the 1980s from the garish wardrobe design (where her first outfit is some unholy cross between a goth corsette and a loud purple lace boa that is sewn on to look like it’s the worst flotation device ever) to her shallow party girl attitude that can’t even convincingly segue into her character’s ostensible concern for Jamie’s well-being without feeling like Kaplan’s playing it as a small joke. It’s a dive down in quality from the work Cornell did in the previous film and in that context the amount of time we have to spend with Tina is torture.

The good news is – and forgive me as I will acknowledge this is a vague SPOILER ALERT but I strongly suspect anyone who was that invested in the plot of Halloween 5 has seen it by this point – but Tina is NOT our final girl and she’s forced to carry only 2/3 of the picture at most. Michael’s terrorizing of her eventually catalyzes Jamie to help Loomis and Sheriff Meeker (Beau Starr being the fourth returning actor from the last film) to set up a trap in the old Myers home for Michael, which leads to a mildly satisfying chase sequence for Jamie.

The mechanics of that final girl sequence is not the only satisfying element of the protagonist switch, but simply the fact that Harris – with the challenge that Jamie brings as a role in refusing to speak and requiring expressiveness through other means – has enhanced her already incredible work in Halloween 4 while Pleasence allows himself a chance to strategically map around Loomis’ raves and desperate appeals into maybe the most emotionally accessible version of the character he’s ever provided.

But their efforts are for naught when put in the context of a movie directed by Othenin-Giraud, recommended to franchise producer Moustapha Akkad by former co-producer Debra Hill in an act that I must assume was vengeful sabotage on her part**. He seems to just be demanding Charles Tetoni and Jerry Brady at the editing chairs construct the movie out of shots that merely happen to have the characters in them performing the script’s directions rather than any conscious progression that could be determined from the sequence or any desire to establish the spaces in which the incidents take place. This is most horrid in the disastrous cutting for a talent show at the clinic, but it’s also film-destroying for crucial thriller moments like Michael interrupting a roll in the hay by having one of his victims run through the barn in mediums that establish no direction to her flee or a critical moment in the above mentioned chase where Jamie slides down a chute to escape Michael’s grasp, climbs back up as Michael races down to meet her at the end, and makes her way back to the ground floor. And that latter one ostensibly should be straight forward in ups and downs, but Othenin-Giraud clearly hasn’t met any angle in such a closed space that he didn’t love.

Most vital (at least for me), Othenin-Giraud has not done any work with cinematographer Robert Draper to give this the characteristic atmosphere that the first four Halloween movies aimed for. Returning to Salt Lake City as a filming location, the two neglect color-correction so hard that the movie ends up looking in its bright greens more like California than the entries that were ACTUALLY shot in California and the night sequence just feel so flat and matter-of-fact with no sense of chill or dreaminess or anything. It’s a movie fully lacking in visual personality, probably the greatest backbone to making even the bad Halloween movies watchable in some capacity.

Halloween 5 is not alone in its company of slasher films for the absurdly terrible year that 1989 – when it was released – turned out to be, with A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child and Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan each heralding the first death of the slasher genre’s heyday. But it feels like the entry with the least to offer, everything about it basically going through slasher movie motions without the slightest bit of inspiration. The most engaged the film seems to be with itself is the suggestive presence of a mysterious Man in Black (also played by Shanks) hanging around in the background and watching over the proceedings with a menace that leads itself into the movie’s exhausting sequel hook final beat. But that in itself seems to reveal what makes Halloween 5 feel so much like an obligation: it was a movie made to act as a trailer for its next entry, like a proto-MCU movie that’s trying to shovel in a mythos for a character like Michael Myers who did not invite any reason to explore what makes him such an impactful entity. If only the movie in and of itself promised any excitement to come.

*Mind you that subtitle is missing from the actual in-film title card.
**The originally targeted director was Jeff Burr, who went on after losing the job to direct another major slasher sequel Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III. That movie’s not very good either, but compared to this disaster, it makes me think of what could have been.

Homecoming

So Halloween III made less money than expected? That was enough to make Dino de Laurentiis jump ship. And audiences apparently demanded to see more of Michael Myers and nothing else? Well, that wasn’t exactly enough to convince John Carpenter and Debra Hill to disembark, but their early struggles in development to determine a suitable premise in agreement with Moustapha Akkad led eventually to them just deciding to wash their hands of the franchise by selling their rights to it*. So now the entire franchise was left in the hands of the moneyman to just arbitrarily write-off the deaths of not only Michael Myers but also Donald Pleasence’s zealous psychiatric adversary Dr. Sam Loomis after they pretty conclusively got sucked into a fireball at the end of Halloween II. And to top it all off, the screenplay Akkad seemed satisfied enough to move forward with production on was written by Alan B. McElroy, a scribe who we have the foresight in 2022 for recognizing over such exemplary dramaturgy as Spawn, Left Behind, and Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever. All for the sake of maintaining some credibility with the franchise name. Halloween is basically doomed, isn’t it?

Well it is, but surprisingly Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers was not a nail in its coffin. In fact, it tore off a couple of those nails. The production gave Halloween a new lifeline despite the absence of Carpenter, Hill, cinematographer Dean Cundey, or star Jamie Lee Curtis (who was too deep in the momentum of her post-slasher stardom to go back to that well just yet…). All four of those are pretty critical shoes to fill as causes for the first movie’s success as a work of art, but if I was to pick the most essential one to Halloween 4‘s accomplishment, it’s probably Curtis’ replacement. Instead of simply one actor for the role of final girl, Halloween 4 saw the adequate substitute to be two: Ellie Cornell was cast as the teenage Rachel Carruthers while Rachel’s adopted little sister Jamie Lloyd was played by Danielle Harris.

Jamie Lloyd is central in the fixations of a surviving Michael Myers (this go-round being played by Tom Morga or his mid-production replacement George P. Wilbur and donning a new mask whose eyebrows and cheeks make it tougher to take seriously as he looks more like… shall we say… Teddy Perkins?). This is because she is in fact his niece – the orphaned daughter of a deceased Laurie. And Jamie herself has got her own fixations on Michael with continuous nightmares of a masked man rolling up and killing her, which is enough to make her uneasy within a foster family that is as benign as one could hope. The only real tension comes from Rachel being volun-told to babysit Jamie over her Halloween boyfriend plans. Once Myers decides to fulfill these nightmares by escaping a custody transfer, Dr. Loomis races right back into Haddonfield to catch the attention of the current Sheriff Ben Meeker (Beau Starr) and get Jamie and Rachel holed up in Meeker’s barricaded home with a set of officers. As Michael finds his way into the home, Rachel finds herself the one person between her sister and her living doom.

As you can tell, this is a sparse narrative almost as worthy of Carpenter and Hill’s original screenplay. And while it’s not particularly a swift movie even with the below-90-minute runtime it has – there’s a subplot involving Rachel’s unscrupulous boyfriend Brady (Sasha Jenson) finding his way into the Sheriff’s home ahead of time to answer a booty call by Meeker’s daughter Kelly (Kathleen Kinmont), ostensibly existent only to answer the tawdry demands of the slasher genre and pad the body count – but the simplicity in the three-pronged conflict between Rachel, Jamie, and Michael is an appreciated manner of refocusing what this franchise’s strengths were in thriller fundamentals. And the locked house scenario at the latter half acts as a horror movie remake of Rio Bravo the way that you’d expect Carpenter to indulge (and he did).

Really though, Halloween 4‘s winning strategy ends up being its focus on Rachel and Jamie’s relationship as sisters, which is given good enough bones from the screenplay but truly enhanced by Cornell and Harris as actors. The two of them give here the two best performances the franchise would see since the original film and arguably the remainder of the franchise save for one final return by Curtis, certainly outshining Pleasence’s frustratingly sedate outing as Loomis until the ending beat allows him to shout like we want him to. Harris handles a complex mix between unrelenting dread that escalates into terror but then transforms that into fascination with finally meeting the figure from her worst dreams. By that merit, her psychologically sophisticated performance is single-handedly justifying Halloween II‘s infamous twist more than any other non-Rob Zombie follow-up. Cornell is more down-to-earth and conventional as a slasher film heroine comes, but her chemistry with Harris grounds the conflict with a recognizable desire to protect your younger sibling and deepens the most essential stakes of this film.

That’s a lot of words without even acknowledging the director Dwight H. Little and that’s mostly because he stays out of the way of the parts that make it work, acting as a much more functional journeyman than Rosenthal in Halloween II in that he’s not interested in mimicking the long takes and color grading of the 1978 film. That makes things a little less stylish and visually interesting but Little does bring one boon to the proceedings: he is the first director in the franchise to come from the Midwest and the Ohio-born director works exceptionally well with cinematographer Peter Lyons Collister to transform the springtime Salt Lake City into a believable Illinois in the middle of autumn, starting the movie at its peak of gorgeousness with magic hour fields against the opening credits. Collister goes even further to distinguish this from his predecessor Cundey’s work when it comes to ignoring all the nighttime blues (which remain present in outdoor scenes) for heavy blacks that weigh down the interiors of that Sheriff’s house, bringing a different flavor of visual intensity from the dreaminess of the first two Myers entries.

Nobody will ever mistake Halloween 4 for a masterful work of art, but its ambitions were never such and that does plant a hard ceiling on how well it works. But all the ingredients introduced to replace the best components of the 1978 masterpiece end up resulting in something that is more than the sum of its parts. The outcome is an entry that is satisfying enough as a middle-of-the-road slasher thriller, but also brings a lot more promise in its two young heroines and the direction they can take things story-wise. No way the franchise could possibly undercut them after saving Halloween, is there?

(Also this has a personal place of esteem for yours truly as one of two movies that most inspired my favorite contemporary musician of all, guitarist Brian “Buckethead” Carroll. So, y’know, extra love for that even if the other movie is the shrill Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2).

*Carpenter, once again in characteristic fanboy fashion, fought hard alongside Debra Hill to get a greenlight on a draft they commissioned from another genre literature heavyweight: Dennis Etchison.

Oh, Saints Preserve Us!

Ostensibly part of John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s unwillingness in their participation with Halloween II is that they wanted to continue the Halloween franchise, they just didn’t want to have to do it with Michael Myers. In fact, they had long visualized it as an anthology film themed around the holiday and after ostensibly closing the book on Myers, they finally got the opportunity to realize that with Halloween III: Season of the Witch. They convinced their old friend and art director Tommy Lee Wallace to jump on-board as director (although this time Wallace was the second choice after Joe Dante dropped out close to the last second) and Carpenter got his fanboy dreams recognized by having iconic sci-fi horror author Nigel Kneale write the initial draft of the screenplay (but he found the process working with Dante and executive producer Dino de Laurentiis so deflating that he requested to be uncredited, the final screenplay credit is to Wallace for his revisions).

To the dismay of all, the movie was released to critical failure (not commercial failure, though it performed disappointingly enough that de Laurentiis decided to jump off the Halloween train after this). The 4 decades since have found this movie receiving a revisionist reclamation for its value as a horror picture and a view into a possibly different direction for the entire franchise. Some of that comes with the not-terribly-well-founded claims that the movie got its bad rap because outside of a diegetic usage of the 1978 film as a plot point, Michael Myers is nowhere to be seen.

I think the record should be set straight: Halloween III does not suck due to an absence of Michael Myers.

Halloween III does suck, though.

Playing entirely fair, there are good parts of Halloween III but they are severely backloaded and that makes the watch a painful waiting game. So it only makes sense to start from the beginning: we open in on a very distressed old man (Al Berry) being chased by men in suits, one of whom he manages to dispatch of in a very unnatural way, before being taken by a good Samaritan to a hospital*. The hospital calls in their best doctor, Dr. Dan Challis (Tom Atkins), whose work ethic seems strongly driven by a desire to be in a different room than his kids and ex-wife. In any case, the new patient is murdered before the sun comes up and identified by his daughter Ellie (Stacey Nelkin) to be a local toy store owner Harry Grimbridge. Which seems to explain why the only thing he had on him was a novelty jack-o-lantern mask made by a mysterious toy company on the Northern coast of California named Silver Shamrock. Ellie happens to have been re-examining the circumstances behind her father’s death and recruits Dr. Challis to come with her to the related company town of Santa Mira** and see what precisely goes on up there.

That gets us about halfway through the movie and probably a good point to confess something on why I find Halloween III such a major bore. It’s easy to understand the appeal of an 80s movie where some cool action movie-faced guy is such a stud that all the ladies want to get at him, including of course the grieving daughter of a man who died in this stud’s care (for the cover story Ellie gives is that they are newlyweds and far be it from any red-blooded man to object to playing the part with Nelkin). And so while I understand the cult of Tom Atkins that almost certainly feels a contingent of the cult following turning this movie’s reception around, I am not a member of it. I simply cannot find that guy appealing as a lead in any factor. It’s not as huge a problem when he’s a member of an ensemble like in his earlier collaboration with Carpenter, The Fog, but him alone to carry a movie? Sorry but he just doesn’t have any charisma. It just feels like an taxman was recruited to play a Chuck Norris role.

So that was honestly always going to be something of a dealbreaker and it doesn’t help that the mystery plotting Atkins feels so blatantly pro forma just to get us on our way to Santa Mira. Virtually every clue that guides them to that place is already brought in hand by Ellie’s introduction as a character and the direction it’s pointing to is flashing right in front of our eyes every second of the epileptic commercial for Silver Shamrock including an earwormy theme song that’s recognizably “London Bridge”. I’m willing to bet a quarter of the runtime is dedicated to that commercial and burning it into the viewer’s brain by the end, which I’m going to consider a plus in the interest of generosity and the knowledge of what the movie does with that material. But it makes for a slow investigation that follows characters who are not at all interesting to begin with – at least Dr. Challis has character traits, Ellie has none to speak of – and the ridiculous skipping of the title cards declaring the dates from October 25th to October 29th doesn’t help things (was there absolutely no way they couldn’t just have the movie start later? It was ONLY the title cards declaring the chronology).

Besides that, Santa Mira as a location itself has three traits, two of which I already mentioned and the last one is enervating to the point of destroying any tension: it’s populated by Irish stereotypes hoarier than The Quiet Man and only slightly less hoary than a Lucky Charms commercial, brogues a plenty. I can see a manner in which its low activity, its isolation, and its closeness to a foreboding industrial edifice like the Silver Shamrock factory could give way to a strong eeriness but the cartoon voice coming out of the motel owner just detaches the entire space from any threat it could give.

Still the arrival of the two in Santa Mira mean that our waiting game is almost over: by the time they finagle their way into a private tour of Shamrock’s facilities hosted gregariously by the founder Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy), the men in suits are surrounding our duotagonists and the car of Ellie’s father is found at the facility. That’s discovered just in between witnessing the making of the amusing masks that Shamrock is taking the Trick-or-Treaters by storm with and that’s a sequence I find personally fascinating in depicting the process of creating latex masks. In addition to the jack o’ lantern, we have a witch and a skull and all three of them are especially vibrant and fun to look at with their thick caricature lines and solid colors that I confess if I had the opportunity to have one of each (designed by none other than the legendary Don Post company), I’d take it in a heartbeat. So the desirability of these masks, to the point that Dr. Challis’ own kids roast his ass in an early sequence for getting them lame ass masks while their mom won the night for getting them Silver Shamrock masks, is very credible here.

And this is part of the biggest trouble I have with Halloween III, which requires I work very hard not to involve spoilers: it becomes a better movie, but on the basis of plot revelations that are fully incompatible with the cheap paranoid thriller that preceded it. I suppose one could already guess based on Nigel Kneale’s involvement that this will eventually have to do with folklore and be declared in mystic menace by the character easiest to guess is behind all this. But it still tries to tie itself particularly to the grounded industrial mystery and specifically leans into the science fiction in a manner that absolutely makes the film a wreckage of tone and atmosphere. There’s weird movies where you’re astounded by how far they went and there’s weird movies where you end up wondering how did anyone sign off on these components without checking if they fit together. This is sadly the latter.

And yet there’s still a momentary reveal of what the endgame is for the villains that is as absolutely unnerving in its implication of violence, its invocation of creeping gross-out creature imagery, and its disorienting undercutting of nuclear domesticity (targeted at a family that up until this scene was part of the grating humor, which only adds brutality of the moment). And there’s the dispatching of the mysterious henchmen in suits surrounding our protagonists that brings hallucinatory bodily dysfunction involving fluids totally incongruous with our knowledge of what those henchmen are, by this point.

Most of all, our regular MVP of the franchise up to this point, cinematographer Dean Cundey, returns for his final time in the Halloween franchise to comfortably play with the California landscape’s greens rather than against it now that we have a movie actually set in that state. And his control over the thick blacks of the night are no less en force here than they were in that film, this time allowing him the opportunity for a montage during the climax of the picture portraying children as playful autumnal silhouettes on the hills of North California against an illogically red sunset. Any retaining sense of Halloween verve and atmosphere is almost entirely pulled onto the film by Cundey’s expertise with color and shadow in a manner that plays within Halloween III‘s goals rather than feel separate from the film.

I admire the cult trying to salvage this movie’s reputation, I really do. One certainly has to admire Carpenter and Hill’s desire to switch things up after they went about as far as they felt they could go with the Michael Myers story and there’s absolutely great stuff here. But that stuff sticks out against a movie that feels like a madlibs exercise of various genre ideals stacked into a desperation to prove this franchise doesn’t need Myers. The humor, the plot, the casting, and the atmosphere are all doing that thing where they are functioning for an entirely different movie from one another. That discordancy in the movie ends up quite exhausting to watch to the point that when it finally gets itself together within the darkened halls of that Silver Shamrock factory (right down to an excellent doom-heavy final beat), it’s too little too late.. I’m sorry to Michael Margetis if he’s reading this, but shots of Tom Atkins’ ass are simply not enough.

*Currently I’m in the middle of rewatching this whole franchise with my cousin (who is encountering these films for the first time) and he recognized that the hospital where Dr. Challis works appears to be the exact same set as the hospital where most of Halloween II takes place.
**Another instance of John Carpenter showing his fanboyishness, given that Santa Mira is the central location of Don Siegel’s 1956 classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

You Don’t Know What Death Is

I’ll be honest: my attempt to write about Halloween felt like a daunting task, maybe the most daunting in all my reviews. Not simply in a “what is there to say that’s new” kind of way or in a “I have already failed with my first review to satisfy myself” (though those were both active anxieties) but in a “how do I comprehensively put into words the deep and unique pleasure I have watching this thing work”. I’ll let time decide whether or not I have sufficiently represented my intense feelings on that movie’s workings, which is not as certain as fellow horror masterpiece mulligan review subjects Suspiria or Night of the Living Dead, both of which made me feel like I said what I needed to say and could make peace. It just got to the point where I had to click “publish” and move on with my life.

Fortunately, Halloween II – the 1981 sequel to the 1978 masterpiece, mind you – doesn’t seem like it needs that kind of apprehensiveness at all: it graces me with a film that came out just as Friday the 13th kick-started the explosive slasher overglut of the 1980s (specifically in the year I’d identify as the best for the subgenre). In that Halloween represents the quintessence of that subgenre’s blunt force potential, Halloween II is merely another 1980s slasher picture.

You can hardly blame Moustapha Akkad – after executive producing the first Halloween – for jumping on the new hot movie thing in the 1980s, that’s just savvy business mind. Who wouldn’t expect the sequel to the previous most profitable budget-to-earning picture of all time* to make some more dime, especially after Friday the 13th‘s overnight success blew the floodgates wide open? And you also couldn’t expect anything less of his new partner in funding this picture: the legendary Dino de Laurentiis, no stranger at all to mercenary pursuits in cinematic moneymaking. And hey, they even did the smart thing of re-involving the people responsible for Halloween being such an impactful masterpiece: stars Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasence, cinematographer Dean Cundey, producer and co-writer Debra Hill and of course the director/producer/composer/co-writer John Carpenter. Except this time around Carpenter opted to remove himself from the director’s chair and hand it over to the original film’s production designer Tommy Lee Wallace, who declined (and yet this shan’t be the last time we refer to Wallace in this franchise run, faith and begorra!). From there, the production settled on Rick Rosenthal, a television journeyman.

In any case, de Laurentiis’ involvement meant more budget money than the humble beginnings of Halloween and therefore a more impressive and well put-together work, wouldn’t it?

Well… as it turned out, that was only the case for Cundey.

And wouldn’t you know it, part of the fault of Halloween II‘s failings lay specifically at Carpenter’s feet as its co-writer. It’s fairly easy for someone such as I and others who consider the essential terror of Michael Myers as a figure to be his mystique to declare this movie’s notorious twist as its fatal flaw. And it is, to be fair, a terrible twist: probably my least favorite in all of cinema, one that recontextualizes its predecessor with a logic pat enough to suffocate everything good about that movie. But it does not do to forget that the movie leading up to that moment had terrible bones to begin with, ostensibly the result of Carpenter and Hill – by the former’s admission – writing a sequel they didn’t even want to exist**: our heroine Laurie Strode (Curtis) is relegated to a virtual non-entity and the flippancy embodied by Dr. Sam Loomis (Pleasence) and Sheriff Leigh Brackett (Charles Cyphers, the one other return from the original cast) lead to a teenage boy being killed by the police with no faze whatsoever to their consciences. Mind you, that death occurs in a explosive ball of fire (because that’s Dino de Laurentiis for you) and requires the identification of the boy through dental records (because that’s what the actual fuck).

But all of that is getting ahead of discussing what Halloween II is actually portraying: Hill and Carpenter’s screenplay opts to take place on the same Halloween night as the first movie, beginning at the very last moments of the previous film just as Laurie evacuates the children she’s babysitting. Michael (Dick Warlock in whatever shots are not Nick Castle and Tony Moran from the first film) attempts to attack her once more and Loomis appears just in time to shoot Michael right over a balcony. Yet when Loomis attempts to confirm his kill, the body is gone.

Quite honestly, this opening sequence is the earliest point where you can tell something is wrong: it’s mostly the same footage as in the first movie, but the shots that are new feel like they’re using entirely perfunctory angles that mute any expressiveness and it adds the weird choice to have Loomis look down from the balcony (a la the ending of the first film which confirmed he was looking at an empty patch), run downstairs, look again from outside at the blank spot, and NOW HE’S SHOCKED. Even outside of the abrupt shift that the new shots bring, there’s a complete disconnect from what Loomis is doing and thinking per each shot so I’m not sure Rosenthal and editor Mike Goldblatt had that mapped out.

Anyway, after Loomis goes back on alert mode and scoffs to an annoyed neighbor “you don’t know what death is”, he runs into the night as Carpenter’s iconic theme plays… in this truly warped thicker pop music tone that feels more disarming than the re-cutting of the opening sequence. It’s probably the second most fatal element of this movie’s source of tension right behind that twist, which only further ensures that giving John Carpenter more money doomed the hell out of this project because if there’s one musical score that did not need a polished remix, it’s the Halloween theme.

As Loomis continues his hunt for Myers with Deputy Gary Hunt (Hunter von Leer), whom Sheriff Brackett tapped out for so he can grieve his daughter as a victim of Myers’ rampage, Laurie is admitted into Haddonfield Memorial Hospital with Michael in a strict tow to finish off the teenage trio he terrorized hours ago. Her only apparent ally in her certainty that Michael is still coming for her is a paramedic named Jimmy (Lance Guest) as the remaining staff find themselves going straight from the graveyard shift to the grave. Jimmy turns out to do most of the leg work while Laurie mostly has to crawl her way out of bed and out of frame for most of the runtime. So we have material that has Pleasence amping up his histrionics to a level beyond the relatively collected but still nervy work he did in the masterpiece prior and we have Curtis having virtually nothing to do except lay on a bed or limp around. And I’m sorry but Jimmy just ain’t cutting it as a human presence.

On top of the extra gaudiness that the plot ensures – complete with a nurse hot tub sex scene interrupted by a murder because de Laurentiis KNEW what kids went to slashers in the 80s for – this is all delivered in a painfully perfunctory manner by Rosenthal’s blunt summary direction. Carpenter is not particularly a filmmaker who is given to “artistic flourishes” for their sake, he’s there to make the most efficient thriller but he also crafted a unique atmosphere out of less tools than this production. Rosenthal is connecting the plot threads and calling it a day on almost anything else.

It’s not a complete wash craft-wise. I mentioned Cundey up above as a triumphant return and it’s true: the extra money meant he could be more deliberate and deeper with his usage of shadows and blues that results in some beautiful images like Jimmy finding an exsanguinated corpse in a high-angle single spotlight where the blood on the floor relegates it a theatrical red splash in an abyss. Or a close-up of Michael’s mask with a single trail of red running down his white mask from each eyehole. These are among the few poetic images that feel aligned with the giallo roots of the slasher genre to begin with (which is also apparent in how one death is ripped from Deep Red).

But mostly that money is not going to artistry – even elements of Cundey’s work like the increased amount of long-takes that are impressive but don’t have either the ambition or psychological cache of the steadicam shots of the first film – and Halloween II ends up feeling like the antithesis of everything that made Halloween work. It seems, even though the objective to make money with this is no different than what conjured the initial masterpiece to begin with, everything wrong comes from Dino de Laurentiis giving too much money and no challenges: we have explosions and a bouncy score and a whole lot of idiot plot convolutions to justify itself. Sometimes you’re George Miller and expand your palette from such freedom. This isn’t that. John Carpenter – much as it burned him out of filmmaking in the long run – was at his best when under the wire.

*That record was broken the year immediately after Halloween‘s success by Mad Max.
** “Mainly dealt with a lot of beer, sitting in front of a typewriter saying ‘What the fuck am I doing? I don’t know.'” is a direct quote from Carpenter according to Murray Leeder’s writing on the franchise and it only goes to remind me that interviews from someone as no-nonsense as Carpenter are kind of my favorite thing and I would definitely encourage anyone to seek out as many as possible for their reading and listening pleasure.

The Night He Came Home

If I made a mulligan on every review here that I think does not hold up, this blog would be going nowhere at all, even by the standards of how much my posting here has slowed to a crawl. Nevertheless, there’s been no movie previously reviewed that I found more deserving of a second go at than John Carpenter’s 1978 classic horror film Halloween – 8 years after having shared an insufficient split-post with fellow mulligan’d horror masterpiece Night of the Living Dead. This is partially because Halloween is one of the movies I think about most often, a point of intersection between my love for slasher cinema, for movies that make minimal resources feel properly big, and as an example of peak fundamental form.

And I guess the only better context to revisit this classic than Shout! Factory’s current 4K re-release of the original franchise is the imminent “finale” of at least the recent David Gordon Green trilogy, Halloween Ends, a title which makes promises certainly not going to be kept as long as it keeps money in Carpenter and Malek Akkad’s pockets. And it’s a context that compels me to review the full feature film franchise from 1978 all the way to 2022.

But let’s start from the beginning: obviously not the beginning of slasher cinema as we know it, given how Halloween is preceded by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Black Christmas alone (and if you’re even snootier about the starting line, there’s Psycho, Peeping Tom, Blood and Black Lace, and Bay of Blood but I don’t think those are correct), but the starting line of addressing what Halloween is outside of the legacy it made as the most profitable picture of its time, as a recognizable horror brand, and as a foundational blueprint for the slasher boom in the 1980s. Because you take away all that context – including the developments that the sequels provide to the characters, which we will complain about when we get to them – and what you have…

… is a simple straightforward yarn: One Halloween in the sleepy Illinois town of Haddonfield, an indistinct shape of a man (Nick Castle) is following a young babysitter with stoic obsessive focus. That nutshell summary is basically all the essence needed for this movie, a stripped-down elemental tale scripted by Carpenter and his long-time producer Debra Hill of predator and prey and the dread that is pulled out of such a random and evil occurrence. Given that that man is the subject of his own frantic chase by his doctor Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence), we have the context to know this man is Michael, who 15 years earlier as a child (Will Sandin) murdered the teenage Judith Myers (Sandy Johnson) before being institutionalized and escaping the night of 30 October 1978. And that context is probably more information than we should want to maintain this story’s mystique except for two things in its favor…

To begin with, that murder is portrayed to us from the very first scene with a miraculous first-person Steadicam shot (made up of two, but there’s an extremely well-disguised cut) as we watch Judith make out with her boyfriend from outside through a window, enter the house after her boyfriend has been satisfied by like… 3 minutes of action it seems (teenagers…), follow the stairs up to her room, stab her to death (with an awkward stare at the stabbing hand at one point), and exit the home in time to have his mask removed in a chilling cut that reveals him staring off absently into the night. And the uninterrupted smoothness of that ambitious camera movement is more than just Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey showing off how much they can get done in a take: it’s a very cinematic way to portray the fixation of a patient assailant to just have the camera lock onto a character and never waver or cant. It’s a discomfort putting us in the headspace of that violent individual and feels no less alien seeing things through Michael’s eyes than watching in horror from the third-person. Compare that to the brilliant hypnotic low-level shots of fellow Steadicam exemplar The Shining and it’s fair to say horror cinema exhausted the capabilities of that game-changing tool.

But the other thing is that this cold turkey open into an act of random violence feels no more explicable than Michael’s sudden stalking of Laurie in the movie itself proper. There’s no explanation, no motivation, barely any discernable dialogue and only the smallest identifiers of the characters. It is fully impossible to comprehend the thoughts behind Sandin’s vacant stare as the camera hovers away and above the scene.

And that’s the launchpad for Michael Myers as character and performance, at least in terms of the 1978 film. He’s fully unknowable. Nick Castle’s performance of the character as adult is an understated masterstroke of minimizing any motion that could betray the possibility of relating to this giant figure, to the point that the famous moment where he stares at a body he just pinned to the wall and cants his head back and forth only furthers the distance between the viewer and this force of evil, daring us to figure out what thought process is communicated by that shift. Certainly it helps prevent reality from interfering with Loomis’s doom-laden monologues on how Michael was identified by him as “pure evil” since childhood and making him look like a terrible psychiatrist. You can’t dehumanize a figure that the movie treats as inhuman, even when Michael appears otherwise grounded. We can’t see him as flesh and blood for most of the film: just his characteristic all-white William Shatner mask and faded dark boiler suit. Hell, even his actions don’t seem corporeal as – outside of Judith’s killing with a large splotch of stageblood – none of the kills are particularly bloody. The production explanation is probably based on the limitations of this admirably low-budget picture, the contextual basis is probably in how most of the deaths are by Michael’s firm hand rather than a knife and the one on-screen knife kill is bathed in darkness. Whatever the case, the aftermath is nevertheless dissonant from the vicious brutality performed.

So, everything vague about Halloween as a situation is anchored to Michael himself and that’s something the movie wields gloriously. But that vagueness especially cuts deep when dropped into the specificity of a plausible real-world town targeting plausible human characters. Which is where the cast comes in: I’ve mentioned Pleasence’s heightened alarmist take on Dr. Loomis but he seems more like an urgent element than a source of naturalism in the cast (though his screen partner for the latter half, Charles Cyphers, reacts to him with due skepticism of an everyman). It is in Curtis’ exemplary example of a horror movie final girl in Laurie Strode – the babysitter Michael locks into his sightlines – with her down-to-earth personality and intelligence that provides that anchor to reality as she plays into a lengthy wariness at the figure she sees in the distance. And aiding that even with their stock type characterizations are PJ Soles, Nancy Kyes, and Brian Andrews portraying believably clumsy sex-obsessed teenagers. We’re not talking about 1:1 psychological realism here, merely characters we’d buy as a first impression walking by them on the sidewalk.

And the city they populate is just as well something we’d recognize as a small town, the arena in which Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey show their best hand. First, there’s the application of Panavision’s anamorphic width to stress the depth and distance of that shape staring at us from behind the hedge or beyond the window. In the lines of the hedge, windows, and streets through those “Michael watching” shots, we have perfect visual parallels to the frame’s length or height so that the interruption of that far-off figure stands out and captures our eye, aligning with Laurie’s suspicions so the viewer feels eerie too.

And then there’s the coloring, which is probably the most fun thing to talk about. The story of Carpenter and Cundey’s problem-solving is endearing to me: having to shoot summertime Pasadena for autumnal Illinois and inspired allegedly by one of the great cinematographic representations of midwestern Halloween Meet Me in St. Louis, they decided to color correct the shit out of the daytime scenes to orange and the nighttime scenes to the deepest blues which doesn’t make Haddonfield more recognizable but does make it moodier in a strong way reconciles the realism of the setting with the mythic element of Michael, especially during the night scenes that Carpenter openly confessed were inspired by Suspiria. Halloween‘s colors aren’t illogical the way Suspiria‘s are, but the blues are affective with a profound spookiness. And I guess the 44 years of home video releases since have given Cundey multiple chances to just continue playing around with the sharpness or color tones of those visuals (the variety has to be deliberate at this point, since there never seems to be an exact match to what played in 1978) and this excites me when a new release comes. In this recent 4K Shout! Factory release’s case, Cundey opted to wash out the daylight oranges with whites which is extraordinarily different from any other version and actually starts to resemble the pre-winter chilliness I feel when I walk my dog on the street as I close up my 2nd year living in Chicago.

When it’s shots that Michael and his prey get to share together, it’s even stronger in expressing the relationships between the teenagers and the unknown: a two-shot of a frightened Laurie in a darkened blue hallway with a doorframe filled with black before a key light illuminates Michael watching in the darkness, just enough to recognize him without separating him from that inky abyss. Another two-shot of Laurie completely shaken in the foreground as Michael sits upright after being prone in the background. A shot of a woman strangled through the haziness of a dark car windshield in a garage. A single bedsheet ghost standing upright in a doorway staring directly at us as we sit in the perspective of his next victim. All of which gets stronger in the context of indoor sequences that call attention to the walls and their angles against the frame trapping these characters with Myers in dreadful fatalism.

And of course – even at the risk of derailing my train of momentum – one can’t possibly close out an accolade of Halloween as a work without acknowledging Carpenter’s immediately iconic score and what it does for the movie’s suspicious tension, a result of how strange it is: minimalist in its reliance on a synthesizer’s high tones, abnormal with its odd 5/4 time signature, fast-tempo’d in a manner that influences the heartbeat of one who hears it, and particularly used in a sharp way to stress Michael’s appearance as an audible premonition of an evil deed to come. It’s a properly uncanny accompaniment to the Shape (as Castle is to be credited as in the cast) and the final layer to connecting the spare storytelling to the specifics of who and where that is to be forever marked by this grave presence.

So that’s the power of Halloween put together by the cast and crew behind it: a bedtime story monster brought into a setting that could reasonably be identified for the street right outside your door and attacking people that your could have bumped past a few days ago without realizing. An “it happened in your neighborhood” sort of fable of mysterious doom fixating on otherwise unexceptional people. All of these brought together by poetic technique applied to mundane real-world lives. None of this is particularly innovative in the wake of Hitchcock or Black Christmas or the endless gialli and Carpenter never pretended otherwise. But like Citizen Kane – a movie that wasn’t the first to do the things it did but instead found the most exhaustive ways to use the tools it was adopting – so too did Halloween basically give final form to what the quintessential slasher movie is by simply knowing the vocabulary of tension and violence and fear from those influences and getting the best mixture of those ingredients to never be surpassed again. And as Laurie and Loomis confirm when their paths finally converge in the final minutes of the film, the end creation is the boogeyman.