With Run The Series, A.A. Dowd examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment. Fair warning: Spoilers are inevitable.
When it comes to horror franchises, familiarity doesn’t breed contempt; it breeds boredom. Is there any creature so terrifying that it can’t be defanged through repetition, its power stolen by one too many return engagements? Some of cinema’s scariest creations, from Boris Karloff’s monster to Norman Bates to the hungry leviathan of Jaws, have been rendered ineffectual by a string of sequels. (Universal Studios, as those examples illustrate, was especially guilty of beating its undead horses.)
But the Halloween franchise holds a special place in the history of diminishing scares. Here’s a series that started in peak form, with a near-perfect specimen of the genre, and then proceeded to bleed its premise dry over and over again. Has pure dread ever been this thoroughly, systematically diluted, one unnecessary installment at a time? Over the course of six lesser sequels—No. 3 doesn’t count, for reasons I’ll get into later—series producer Moustapha Akkad transformed his ultimate bogeyman, the masked maniac Michael Myers, into a run-of-the-mill threat. Were the films better, the damage might be less, but all are pale imitations of the John Carpenter original, trotting out its familiar components—the escaped lunatic, a last-day-of-October timeframe, that iconic score—while jettisoning much of what made it uniquely unsettling.
A shoestring shocker that singlehandedly turned the spectacle of teenagers being slaughtered into a foolproof box-office draw, Halloween tweaks one of Jean-Luc Godard’s most famous theories: All that’s required for a movie, as this one proves, is a girl and a long kitchen knife. The plot, conceived by Carpenter and his longtime producer (and sometimes writing partner) Debra Hill, is simplicity itself. The night before Halloween, a mute psychopath busts out of an insane asylum, returning to his (fictional) hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois, where—15 years earlier, as a young boy—he stabbed his older sister to death. Hot on his trail is Dr. Loomis (a hammy Donald Pleasence, in his first of five appearances as the character), who decided years earlier that his patient wasn’t disturbed, but simply and purely evil. That theory gains credence once the killer begins stalking and murdering a group of teenage babysitters, eventually setting his sights on virginal wallflower Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, in her first film role).
From this skeleton of a premise, Carpenter works his black magic. Reviewing Halloween for The New Yorker, legendary critic Pauline Kael wrote, “The film is largely just a matter of the camera tracking subjectively from the mad killer’s point of view, leading you to expect something awful to happen. But the camera also tracks subjectively when he isn’t around at all.” Kael meant this observation as a slight, but it neatly sums up the vague, persistent menace of the movie. Carpenter is always watching, his camera creeping in on the actors at all times, and this gives the mundane events of the first half—in which Laurie and her doomed girlfriends wander around town, chatting about boys—a charge of perpetual unease. Halloween is hardly the first slasher movie; depending on whom you ask, that distinction belongs to everything from Black Christmas (1974) to Twitch Of The Death Nerve (1971) to Michael Powell’s 1960 masterpiece Peeping Tom. But in its purity of execution, its absolute efficiency as a scare machine, it remains the pinnacle of the subgenre.
Made for just $325,000, Halloween went on to gross $47 million in the U.S. alone; by percentage, it’s still one of the most successful independent films of all time. Carpenter’s predatory approach quickly became a model. Many of the holiday-themed knockoffs released in the years that followed swiped his lurking, leering camera moves. (The lengthy POV shot of the prologue, a murder scene filmed through the eyes of the murderer, is basically the template for the entire Friday The 13th series.) Condemned by some cultural critics as puritanical, Halloween also popularized new rules of engagement: Good girls live longer than bad (or promiscuous) girls—though later additions to the slasher genre more plainly underline this sex/violence connection, increasing the misogyny considerably. Curtis, a fine scream queen who quickly graduated to less “disreputable” fare, epitomizes what writer Carol J. Clover would later dub “the final girl”—a heroine whose virtuous nature, more pronounced when compared to the loose morals of her friends, qualifies her to take on the villain in the final reel.
Less influential, alas, was Halloween’s patience and restraint. A few critics at the time of release, the autumn of 1978, were hip enough to make Alfred Hitchcock comparisons: Carpenter shares the master’s voyeuristic tendencies, but also his command of cinematic space and his privileging of suspense over violence. For all the heinously gory pictures it inspired, Halloween contains scarcely a drop of the red stuff. (It doesn’t need blood to chill ours.) And, all told, only five characters die over the course of the film, one of whom Michael Myers kills offscreen. After the opening set piece, it’s nearly an hour before the next casualty; Carpenter masterfully racks up the suspense in the interim, delaying the inevitable carnage for as long as possible. The following clip demonstrates the director's defiance of expectations, his ability to create tension and deny release.
Dubbed simply “The Shape” in the credits, Michael Myers is introduced as an almost abstract threat. Loomis builds him up this way in the opening scenes, ranting about evil in human form, and the movie smartly allows that reputation to precede his rampage. (For a long stretch, Carpenter keeps him on the periphery, filming him only from a distance or chopping off his head with the top of his frame.) “He’s not a man,” Loomis eventually says of this silent, relentless assassin. But the scary thing about Myers is that he’s both man and not man, his face wear—a Captain Kirk mask painted bone-white along with other alterations—suggesting a blank, unconvincing approximation of human features. Like Steven Spielberg’s shark, Carpenter’s killer is an uncaring creature, as terrifying offscreen as on. And like the zombies of Dawn Of The Dead, that year’s other great horror movie, he’s the familiar made unfamiliar, returning by instinct to a place from his past.
Of course, by the time Halloween II hit theaters on Devil’s Night 1981, there was nothing so unfamiliar about Michael Myers anymore. Not only had the character become iconic, his rubber visage available in costume shops across the country, he had been widely imitated, too. Movie theaters were filthy with copycat killers; a slasher parody, Student Bodies, opened just two months earlier, proving that the dead-teenager craze had reached critical mass. It’s no wonder, then, that Carpenter seemed intent on yanking audiences back to 1978, before Friday the 13th, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve, graduation day, and prom night received their own murderous mascots. Co-written (with Hill), but not directed by Carpenter, Halloween II takes place literally moments after the events of its predecessor, with Laurie hauled off to the hospital while Loomis continues searching for his escaped patient, who disappeared into the night at the conclusion of Halloween.
Some of the creeping dread of the original survives, particularly in security-camera footage of Myers prowling the perimeter of the Haddonfield hospital. By functioning as a continuation, the film also sustains a steady level of urgency; its fleet 92 minutes are divided between a desperate manhunt and the systematic disposal of the hospital staff. (Unlike the other sequels, part two wastes almost no time on rehashing an old plot or setting up a new one.) Yet in other ways, Halloween II feels like a poor substitute. Beginning with a fantastically unintuitive soundtrack selection—Pat Ballard’s cheerful pop confection “Mr. Sandman,” rendered creepy by context—the movie quickly revives Carpenter’s effectively primitive piano melody, one of the most memorably spare themes in movie history. Only this time, it’s been played on a synthesizer, which essentially robs the score of its minimalist menace. Also missing is Carpenter’s widescreen craftsmanship: His replacement, Rick Rosenthal, mimics the subjective POV, but not the glorious tracking shots, of the first film.
But restraint is the true casualty here. Made for about seven times as much as the original, Halloween II begins with a car exploding and ends with a man doing the same. To keep up with its slasher contemporaries—including the first two Friday The 13th movies—the film amps up the graphic violence. The body count leaps from five to 11, with Myers employing inventive, elaborate new means of dispatching the innocent. Why just stab or strangle unsuspecting victims when you can fracture their skulls with a hammer, burn their flesh off with boiling sauna water, and jab their eyes with syringes? Surprisingly, it was Carpenter, not Rosenthal, who shot the film’s goriest sequences; he added them later, as a means of appeasing assumedly desensitized genre fans. Only the most vicious offenders could compete in the arms race that was early-’80s slasher cinema.
In her last appearance in the franchise until H20, Curtis spends most of Halloween II bedridden and heavily sedated. She has very little dialogue, possibly because the filmmakers recognized how much the actress had changed during the three-year gap between movies. (She both looks and seems older, which one could charitably blame on her character having gone through an intense trauma that night.) In a sense, however, her role in the film is pivotal, as Carpenter and Hill add a rather momentous narrative wrinkle—and the first of the series’ many continuity cheats: Laurie Strode is Michael Myers’ other sister, adopted by another family when she was young. This twist reinforces the impression that the Halloween films are about the dirty secrets of suburbia, and that Myers is the ultimate black sheep, acting out against his neglectful parents. But it also, regrettably, provides a psychological rationale for the fiend’s actions. He’s now a dysfunctional, estranged brother working his way down the family execution list. Isn’t it much scarier, much more disturbingly mysterious, if he’s just a force of pure, unmotivated malevolence?
Perhaps aware that they had stretched their bare-bones premise as far as it could go, Carpenter and Hill deviated from a successful formula the next year with the in-name-only sequel Halloween III: Season Of The Witch. Imagine the confusion and anger fans must have felt when they sat down for another Myers/Strode title fight and were instead treated to the unrelated, somewhat muddled tale of a mask manufacturer attempting to sacrifice the nation’s children to ancient druid gods. (Or something.) Essentially a riff on Invasion Of The Body Snatchers—much of the action takes place in Santa Mira, the fictional town the pod people invaded in that 1956 classic—Halloween III was Carpenter’s attempt to reclaim his franchise, attaching the Halloween brand to what he hoped would be a series of stand-alone stories. Had the strategy worked, part four would have supposedly been a ghost story, but both critics and audiences reacted venomously to this strange blend of horror and science fiction.
Cursed with bad acting and some rather momentous plot holes, Season Of The Witch is nevertheless a fascinating oddity—and for this writer, the most interesting of the Halloween sequels. Admittedly, the villain’s master plan, which involves the theft of a Stonehenge rock and a complete disregard for television time zones, makes very little sense. That said, writer-director Tommy Lee Wallace, who went on to helm the TV adaptation of Stephen King’s It, manages some memorably grotesque imagery: crushed faces, blown-open faces, and one face that explodes into a teeming pile of vermin. The film’s biggest claim to fame is probably its earworm-catchy jingle, set to the tune of “London Bridge Is Falling Down” and repeated ad nauseam throughout. It plays a starring role in the climax, an admirably bleak ending that nods again to Invasion.
After Season Of The Witch flopped, killing any hope of saving the series from a creative regression, Carpenter and Hill washed their hands of Halloween. They couldn’t kill Michael Myers—and neither, as it turns out, could Loomis. Released 10 years after the original, Halloween 4: The Return Of Michael Myers begins with a total backpedal: Turns out neither Loomis nor Myers died in the fiery finale of Halloween II. The latter awakes from a decade-long coma on the night before Halloween, during an ill-conceived attempt to move the slumbering psycho to a new sanitarium. Why would they move him at all, especially on the anniversary of his killing spree? Ten minutes in and the film is already drowning in improbabilities—though, to be fair, the original required viewers to accept that someone would teach a dangerous mental patient how to drive.
Now much too big of a star to appear in movies like this, Jamie Lee Curtis is a no show; her Laurie Strode has apparently died in a car crash, which sounds more peaceful than whatever her brother had planned for her. Heroine duties are hence split between a poor JLC substitute (Ellie Cornell) and Strode’s 8-year-old daughter, Jamie (Danielle Harris, later cast in the Rob Zombie Halloween movies). Both are stalked by Myers, who in turn is hunted by both a scarred, limping Loomis and a mob of trigger-happy hillbillies. Beyond an evocative, magic-hour credits sequence, Halloween 4 has an almost televisual blandness to it. What scarce flavor it exhibits comes from the plotting, not the execution, as when Loomis hitches a ride with a holy man even more prone to theatrical speechifying than he is.
By this time, Myers is no longer simply an expressionless death dealer, a bit more powerful and relentless than the average man. He’s now a bona fide super soldier, strong enough to put his hands though human flesh as though it were papier mâché and crafty enough to set up elaborate traps and ruses using his victim’s corpses. He clings to the bottom of a car like a ninja and plows through a police station like The Terminator. And by somehow moving from the roof of a house to its lawn in 15 seconds flat, he also seems to have inherited Jason Voorhees’ teleportation powers—an ability to be anywhere, at any time, without ever breaking into a jog.
As Myers evolved throughout the course of the series, becoming more and more godlike in his abilities, Loomis outright refused to change. With each new movie, he delivered the same damn speech, ranting and raving about knowing evil, staring it in the eyes, etc. By Halloween 5: The Revenge Of Michael Myers, Donald Pleasence’s shtick had shaded into self-parody. He spends most of this regrettable fourth sequel bellowing into a little girl’s face like a lunatic. Said little girl is Jamie, back to be terrorized again by her inhuman uncle. Perhaps the best thing about the previous chapter was its twist ending, in which Myers’ bloodlust seemed to pass to his niece, who murders her stepmother in the final minutes. (In a callback to the original, the scene is shot from the perspective of the pint-sized killer.) Continuing a series tradition of bailing on interesting new directions, Revenge negates that taking-up-the-mantle finale by revealing that the stabbing wasn’t fatal and that Jamie’s flirtation with the dark side was quite temporary. In part five, she’s lost her voice, but gained a psychic bond with Myers—a development that results in lots of scenes of Loomis trying to literally shake information out of the kid.
Set and released one year after the last entry, Revenge pulls a Psycho-style switcheroo by killing off Cornell’s character in the opening act, thus making room for a loopy new teenage heroine (Wendy Kaplan). Setting aside this surprising plot turn—made all the more shocking by the fact that it happens in the supposed safety of broad daylight—Halloween 5 is a total wash. It’s hard to pinpoint the film’s worst quality. Is it the endless supply of kant angles and fish-eyed lens employed by director Dominique Othenin-Girard, whose wildly excessive approach is essentially the antithesis of Carpenter’s style? Is it the bevy of disposable teenage targets, a far cry from the more relatable kids Myers tears through in part one? The shot of a single tear rolling down Michael Myers’ cheek? There are so many to choose from!
Perhaps the most baffling component of Halloween 5 is the appearance of a mysterious, black-clad cowboy, who seems to operate in the margins of the movie, only to play a prominent (but still unclear) role in the finale. Those who could muster the enthusiasm to actually care would have to wait another six years to discover the identity of this supporting character, which was finally, obliquely revealed in 1995’s Halloween: The Curse Of Michael Myers. The original idea behind this installment was to reveal the origins of the titular villain’s evil, tracing his homicidal tendencies and immortality to an ancient Celtic curse. That’s a mostly moronic notion, in that it makes the textbook blunder of attempting to explain away what should remain frighteningly unexplained, but it’s hard to fault the filmmakers for wanting to try something new with this shopworn material. Again, however, producers retreated to the safety of convention, mostly excising that angle in post-production. A work print of the movie, unreleased but available in bootleg form, reportedly contains elements of the original script.
Curse is often derided as the lowlight of the Halloween series, but it’s not much worse, ultimately, than the two films that came before it. Notable mostly for containing the first big-screen appearance of Paul Rudd (as Paul Stephen Rudd), who plays a grown-up Tommy Doyle (the kid Laurie babysits in part one), the film does little more than trot out another collection of expendable youths. Like a desperate sitcom, Curse also adds a baby to the mix, as well as a scheming cult, to which the black-clad cowboy belongs. That this was one of Pleasence’s final movies—he died during the reshoot process—is a little sad. His Loomis deserved a better swan song.
Given how thoroughly uninspired the previous three installments were, it’s easy to see why many fans embraced Halloween H20: 20 Years Later as a return to form. It’s not just that this seventh chapter is significantly stronger than its immediate predecessors, with a better cast—including Michelle Williams, a very young Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Josh Hartnett, in his feature debut—and a Carpenter-like investment in delayed gratification. Aptly opening with “Mr. Sandman,” the film also retcons every Halloween movie since the second, announcing that Michael Myers has been MIA since that first fateful night in 1978. That’s a brilliant narrative coup, even as it fails to actually erase the franchise’s legacy of lousiness. The damage has been done; Michael Myers has already been reduced to a shadow of his former self and no amount of comic-book revisionism can restore the power of his first appearance. To that end, perhaps H20 works best for those who haven’t seen a Halloween movie since 1981.
There’s some irony in hiring Steve Miner, the director of the second Friday The 13th movie, to take this franchise back to basics. Didn’t the Halloween series begin its descent into mediocrity and worse by emulating the kind of cheap thrills F13-2 made immensely profitable? Truthfully, while Miner is no John Carpenter, he comes closer than any of his counterparts to recapturing the atmosphere of impending doom that characterized the original. Besides, the real authorial voice of this sixth sequel isn’t the man behind the camera, but the one seated at the keyboard. Though he failed to receive credit for his contributions, Scream writer Kevin Williamson came up with the film’s story, in which Myers finally tracks down a middle-aged Laurie Strode at the private academy where she teaches. In its less self-conscious way, H20 is as referential as Scream. There are numerous callbacks to Carpenter’s movie, among them a playful riff on the classroom scene, complete with an implied passing of the scream-queen torch. The allusions don’t end with Halloween: Janet Leigh, Curtis’ real-life mother, drops in for a wink-wink cameo, asking if she can be “maternal for a moment,” and noting that “We’ve all had bad things happen to us.” She then climbs into the car from Psycho, a snippet of Bernard Herrmann’s famous score playing her off.
Mostly, what H20 has going for it is a strong conceit, as simple as Carpenter’s original one: The boogeyman returns, intent on finishing what he started 20 years earlier, but this time the damsel in distress is ready for him. Curtis, too, is truly great in the reprised role, turning what could have been an easy-paycheck performance into a convincing portrait of long-term PTSD. (The scene where she sees Myers on campus, and tries squinting to make him disappear, is a potent vision of nightmares coming true.) Taken as a whole, the Halloween series is perhaps most interesting as a study in the lingering effects of trauma; Laurie, Loomis, Tommy, and Jamie all suffer from the repercussions of that one night back in 1978, with Michael Myers—the fiend that won’t die—a specter of their shared, lingering anxiety. That’s what makes the last scene of H20 such a powerfully cathartic punctuation, both for the film and the whole series: Laurie finally conquerors her fear, putting the past behind her with one swift, therapeutic swing.
That could have been it for the Halloween series, which fought its way through several execrable installments to arrive at a rather fitting finale. But calling it quits there would have required pulling the plug on a property that hadn’t quite been exhausted. So naturally, Rosenthal revived Michael Myers for what currently stands as the last and worst of the Halloween movies. Resurrection (2002) doesn’t just cheat its way around the absolute finality of H20’s conclusion—in what amounts to the series’ most insultingly stupid backslide. It also robs Laurie of her victory, cheaply knocking her off in the opening scene. And for what? To see one more batch of unlikable kids get picked off, one by one, this time as part of some Internet reality-TV stunt? Resurrection can’t even be bothered to come up with a credits sequence, which was the one area in which even the other bad Halloween sequels excelled. The movie’s true crime is finally, fatally stripping Michael Myers of any lingering traces of fearsomeness. There’s no coming back, after all, from getting shamed by Busta Rhymes.
Watch: Halloween; Halloween II; Halloween III: Season Of The Witch; Halloween H20: 20 Years Later
Skip: Halloween 4: The Return Of Michael Myers; Halloween 5: The Revenge Of Michael Myers; Halloween: The Curse Of Michael Myers; Halloween: Resurrection
Outside canon: In 2007, shock rocker Rob Zombie rolled out his grisly Halloween remake, which amps up the brutality—Michael kills four people as a kid, not one—at the expense of suspense. There’s a seed of an interesting idea here: Zombie actually takes us inside the asylum, making us privy to a couple of the sessions between Dr. Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) and the institutionalized Myers. But the movie only half commits to the idea of giving “The Shape” psychological dimension; Zombie basically half-asses the therapy angle, so his Michael is neither a convincingly complex sociopath, nor the soulless epitome of evil that Carpenter envisioned. What’s worse, the second half of the movie devolves into an abbreviated, hyper-violent imitation of the original, with more blood and a higher body count.
Zombie would improve on his own approach with Halloween II, which is not a remake of the 1981 Halloween II, despite a pretty scary sequence in a hospital. Instead, the movie chronicles Michael’s Homeward Bound-style journey back to Haddonfield. As a piece of writing, it’s no more successful than the remake, but Zombie—the first genuine auteur since Carpenter to tackle Myers—manages some surprisingly elegant imagery, as well as some suitably intense mayhem. Again, though, he seems convinced that simply jacking up the kill count is preferable to building and sustaining tension, which makes his twin Halloweens little more than stylish cousins to the sequels.
Finally, there’s been some talk of Platinum Dunes, the production company responsible for slick remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday The 13th, and Nightmare On Elm Street, mounting another Halloween reboot. No solid word on whether that dubious plan is a go, but storyboard artist Federico D’Alessandro has created a cool animatic pitch. Worse case scenario, his version would have to be better than Resurrection, right?
Next up: Revenge Of The Nerds