by D.W. Lundberg

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


The problem with a movie like Halloween – along with, say, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Jaws, even Poltergeist – is that the law of diminishing returns tends to corrupt the filmmakers' original intentions. Too often sequels are rushed into production as an excuse to cash in on a title's good name; horror sequels, in particular, generally offer the same scares, the same chills, nothing more – only gorier, at a higher pitch than before.

Released in 1978, and made on a budget of $325,000, John Carpenter's Halloween is the granddaddy of all slasher pics – more than Chain Saw (1973) or Psycho (1960), movies not yet in the Butchered-Horny-Teenagers mold. Written by Carpenter and producer Debra Hill, the story couldn't be simpler: maniac escapes from asylum, stalks victims. Yet the movie's atmospheric scares galvanized audiences hungry for just such a thing. Its reputation built slowly, word of mouth eventually helping to bring its final worldwide box office tally to around $55 million (or $172 million, adjusted for inflation). While hardly what you'd call a blockbuster success by today's standards, this was fairly staggering stuff for a late-70s, low-budget shocker – enough to spawn countless rip-offs and seven (count 'em) sequels, a reboot, and a sequel to the reboot.

Would it surprise you to learn that the first Halloween contains virtually no blood? Like the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it's a movie fondly remembered for gory scenes that don't actually exist. Instead – horror of horrors! – Carpenter favors suspense over bloodletting, and uses subjective camera movement to generate chills.

Carpenter's widescreen compositions often frame one to two people in any given shot – then, just as they're distracted by other business (i.e., making out or popping popcorn), the camera slowly pans to the side to reveal the killer, watching from the shadows. The effect is unsettling; we know there are terrors lurking around every corner, even if the characters do not. Oh, the movie still has its fair share of violent shocks – they don't call 'em slasher movies for nothing – but aside from one intense bit in which a man is impaled against a wall with a butcher knife (you only hear the blade pierce his flesh), it's far from graphic. (Indeed, of the film's four other victims, two are killed off-camera, and the other two are strangled.)

Before Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees embarked on their elaborate killing sprees, Michael Myers (aka "the Shape") terrified audiences for how much he didn't do: he planned his attacks stealthily, under the cover of darkness, watching over his victims with the silent precision of a peeping tom, his motives as blank as the fright mask that covered his face. (In a nifty bit of happenstance, the film's producers could only afford a $2 William Shatner mask from a local thrift store. Production Designer Tommy Lee Wallace widened the eyes and painted the face completely white, says Hill, "to make him almost humorless, faceless - this sort of pale visage that could resemble a human or not.")

Over time, though, Michael became a little... soft when compared to other cinematic serial killers. Not as quick with the quips as Freddy (Michael, in fact, never utters a single word), or as "creative" with his kills as Jason, the boogeyman of Halloween is a cipher, a MacGuffin, a force of nature in mechanic's overalls. And that made him all the more frightening.

Or did, that is, until the inevitable sequels - which turned Michael into just another maniac on a mission. Talk about your diminishing returns...


The Original: Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)

Cast: Donald Pleasance, Jamie Lee Curtis, Nancy Loomis, P.J. Soles, Charles Cyphers, Nancy Stephens, Kyle Richards, Brian Andrews, John Michael Graham, Arthur Malet, Nick Castle

Plot: A child institutionalized for murdering his sister escapes fifteen years later and returns home to kill again.

How It Set The Tone: From its elegant opening Steadicam shot, shown from the perspective of a 6- year-old boy as he stalks and brutally murders his teenage sister, it's obvious director John Carpenter is out for something other than cheap shocks. His camera glides, it creeps, it creates a sense of unease in scenes that would otherwise play as teenage comedy clichés. Carpenter wants to spook you, and he does so by constantly tweaking your expectations - never have your preconceived notions of what should or should not exist within a given motion picture frame been toyed with so often, or so unnervingly. Twenty-year-old Jamie Lee Curtis (in her film debut) is more than a match for maniac Michael Myers, fending off attacks while Donald Pleasance, his former psychiatrist, sets out to stop him. This notion of the unstoppable killer has become so commonplace since Halloween's debut, you may be tempted to shout, "What are you doing? Don't drop that knife!" whenever an unsuspecting character does such a thing. But its chills have gone unmatched for decades.

Room For Improvement: To be perfectly honest, Halloween kick-started an entire subgenre of Promiscuous-Teenagers-Die-While-The-Plucky-Frigid-Heroine-Survives slasher plotlines, and so has a lot to answer for. Characters speak just enough to mark them as potential victims. The movie's final dialogue exchange ("Was it the boogeyman?" "As a matter of fact, it was") is the deepest in the entire movie.

Grade: A-

Sequel: Halloween II (Rick Rosenthal, 1981)

Returning Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasance, Charles Cyphers, Nancy Stephens, Kyle Richards, Brian Andrews, Nancy Loomis (cameo)

New Cast: Lance Guest, Leo Rossi, Jeffrey Kramer, Pamela Susan Shoop, Gloria Gifford, Tawny Moyer, Dick Warlock

Plot: Michael Myers continues to stalk Laurie Strode, who’s been rushed to Haddonfield Hospital to recover from the events of the first movie.

How It Compares: As if trying to compete with the ever-escalating gore quotient set by Halloween's countless imitators, Halloween II opened in October 1981 with a bigger budget and bigger body count. No longer content to focus on the suspense, Carpenter and his co-writer, Debra Hill, load the movie with gross-outs galore: a hypodermic needle jammed close-up into an eyeball, a hammer landing with a sickening thwack into the head of a security guard, a woman dunked repeatedly into scalding hot tub water until her face melts off (though, conspicuously, Michael's hands go relatively unscathed). And Jamie Lee Curtis' character turns out to be Michael's sister, an unnecessary plot twist that not only gives the guy a motive for his murders but also severely diminishes his mystique. In short, a violation of everything that made the original such a classic fright-fest.

Grade: D

Sequel: Halloween III: Season Of The Witch (Tommy Lee Wallace, 1982)

Returning Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis (uncredited voice cameo), Nancy Loomis (different role)

New Cast: Tom Atkins, Stacey Nelkin, Dan O'Herlihy, Al Berry

Plot: A doctor's investigation into the mysterious death of a patient uncovers an insidious plot by a mask-making company to kill millions of unsuspecting children on Halloween night.

How It Compares: Hands down the strangest excuse for a sequel ever made. John Carpenter and Debra Hill intended to turn the franchise into an anthology series from this point on, with a new story each time out. So, naturally, they dropped Michael Myers in favor of witchcraft, Stonehenge, killer masks, and an ending straight out of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. Also this. Then, as if that wasn't confusing enough already, ads for the original Halloween play on TV! Mystifying, in concept and execution. Audiences, wisely, decided to stayed away.

Grade: F

Sequel: Halloween 4: The Return Of Michael Myers (Dwight H. Little, 1988)

Returning Cast: Donald Pleasance

New Cast: Ellie Cornell, Danielle Harris, Beau Starr, George P. Wilbur

Plot: Ten years after his initial killing spree, Michael Myers awakens from a self-imposed coma to hunt down his seven-year-old niece.

How It Compares: That "anthology" idea turned out so well they decided to bring Michael back for another go-round. Donald Pleasance returns too, which is strange, since the last time we saw his character, he'd blown up a hospital room with both himself and Michael inside it (oh, wait – his face is a little scarred and he walks with a cane now, so I guess that explains everything). Also, did Michael gain superhuman powers while he was asleep? He kills one guy by jamming a single thumb through his forehead, and then later rips another guy's throat open with his bare hands. Aside from these wacky new touches, there's nothing new on offer here. Even the previous films' 2.35:1 widescreen ratio is sacrificed for a more standard 1.85:1, which is oddly fitting for a franchise that's now as generic as they come.

Grade: D+

Sequel: Halloween 5: The Revenge Of Michael Myers (Dominique Othenin-Girard, 1989)

Returning Cast: Donald Pleasance, Danielle Harris, Ellie Cornell, Beau Starr

New Cast: Like it matters

Plot: One year after H4, Michael reawakens to chase after his niece again.

How It Compares: I have to admit, these movies are starting to blur together a bit by now. I honestly can't differentiate between much of anything that happens between Part 4 and this one. Michael kills a lot more people, I know that. Some guy gets a pitchfork shoved through his abdomen during sex. And then there's the "shocking" twist ending, with Michael rescued, at the last minute, by a mysterious man in black who mows down an entire police station with a machine gun. And the series, at last, descends into utter insanity.

Grade: F

Sequel: Halloween: The Curse Of Michael Myers (Joe Chappelle, 1995)

Returning Cast: Donald Pleasance, George P. Wilbur

New Cast: Paul Stephen Rudd, Marianne Hagan, Mitchell Ryan, Devin Gardner

Plot: Michael Myers returns to kill more family members.

How It Compares: Is this stuff actually supposed to scare us anymore? It feels like I just typed the words "Michael Myers returns to kill family members" for the hundred and fiftieth time. How many people are related to this guy anyway? Why haven't we heard about them until now? Such questions are pointless, of course, because either you're still paying to see victims chopped, garotted and filleted, or you're not. Paul Rudd shows up (the same year he romanced Alicia Silverstone in Clueless) as a character from the original Halloween, convinced our titular killer's been controlled by an ancient Druid curse this entire time. Not that you even care.

Grade: F

Sequel: Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (Steve Miner, 1998)

Returning Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Nancy Stephens

New Cast: Josh Hartnett, Michelle Williams, Adam Arkin, LL Cool J, Jodi Lyn O'Keefe, Adam Hann-Byrd, Janet Leigh, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Chris Durand

Plot: Laurie Strode, living under an assumed identity since Michael's initial rampage, fears that her brother has come hunting for her again.

How It Compares: It took them a couple of decades, but someone finally made a Halloween sequel that's actually worth a look. Based on a story by Scream scribe Kevin Williamson, and sprinkled with nifty self-referential humor (Janet Leigh, star of the original Psycho and Jamie Lee Curtis' real-life mother, has a cameo), H20 wisely pretends that episodes 4-6 never happened, and injects some much- needed suspense back into the franchise. Michael brandishes his butcher knife again, and not much else, much to the chagrin of anyone expecting gorier deaths this time. He still gets to butcher his share of horny teenagers, of course, but the movie builds to a final confrontation that's surprisingly, potently powerful.

Grade: B-

Sequel: Halloween: Resurrection (Rick Rosenthal, 2002)

Returning Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis

New Cast: Busta Rhymes, Bianca Kajlich, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Sean Patrick Thomas, Tyra Banks, Katee Sackhoff, Daisy McCrackin, Ryan Merriman, Luke Kirby, Brad Loree

Plot: Michael Myers returns to his childhood home, finds a documentary crew filming there, and starts another killer spree.

How It Compares: For the second time, director Rick Rosenthal (Halloween II) takes everything that worked about a previous entry and flushes it completely down the toilet. More precisely, H20's respectable run at the box office (and producer Moustapha Akkad's insatiable knack for beating a dead horse) brought Michael back from the dead purely for financial reasons, with Blair Witch-inspired hi-jinks tossed in for good measure. Oh, and Jamie Lee Curtis' Laurie Strode officially exits the series after the first fifteen minutes. We should all be so lucky.

Grade: F

More To Come?: As mentioned previously, Rob Zombie rebooted the series in 2007 with an over- explanatory, overly sadistic remake of John Carpenter's original movie. (It tells virtually the same story with the same characters, and so for the sake of redundancy will not be discussed here.) A sequel to that one followed in 2009, to minor box office fanfare.


Need more Franchise Face-Offs? Check out my previous entry/introduction here.

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