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Posts Tagged ‘Halloween’

I was talking to my nephew the other day about the difference between a ‘good’ sequel and a ‘bad’ sequel (and he even managed to stay awake); a good sequel exists because someone has had a good and original idea about doing something new with the material, probably moving the story on, and either expanding or deepening the world of the story (maybe even both). (The example I suggested was The Empire Strikes Back.) A bad sequel, on the other hand, is just there to revisit the key elements of the original for the purposes of making more money. (And at this point the majority of the stellar conflict films made in the last six years or so came up.)

The weirdest thing about Dominique Othenin-Girard’s Halloween 5 (aka The Revenge of Michael Myers) is that very occasionally it really does feel like someone attempting to do a ‘good’ sequel. This is what sometimes happens well into a franchise or series – some ambitious young talent is brought in, possibly from an entirely different film-making background, to freshen things up and use some brave new ideas. What often happens, however, is that the producers or studio get frit, because the daily rushes look just a bit too ambitious, fresh, and brave, and the final cut invariably attempts to drag things back to familiar territory, often at the expense of things like coherency and logic. The result is usually a very bad sequel indeed.

This is what happened to Halloween 5, I think. That said, as the film gets underway it feels more like a mid-period Hammer sequel than ever before: the end of the previous film is revisited, which previously seemed to show the antagonist’s apparent demise – however, the secret of how they survive into the new movie is also revealed.

The previous film ended with Michael Myers being repeatedly shot by the police and falling down a mineshaft (which, in the recap, someone then throws dynamite into: I think this constitutes excessive force under the terms of most police handbooks). However, he crawls off just in time and is washed out of the mine into a river, which carries him off. The odd thing is that the film feels like it’s almost urging us to root for Michael and cheer when he survives; he’s the only character we’ve properly seen so far and he does seem very much like the underdog (for the first time in the series so far).

Anyway, Michael crawls out of the river and into the dwelling of someone who appears to be a hermit, where he collapses. The implication is that he is then in a coma for nearly a year, no doubt receiving the top-quality medical care and general support that all hermits are famous for providing, before waking up on ‘Halloween Eve’ the following year. (Just go ahead and call it Halloweeneen, why don’t you; dearie me.) There’s a quick shot of a tattoo on his wrist which eventually proves to be just simply confusing, before he murders his host, masks up, and picks up where he left off in the previous film. The sheer mass of odd creative choices and things which are just plain dumb and stupid get the film off to exactly the wrong kind of start.

Anyway, the focus of the film is still Michael’s pursuit of his niece Jamie (still Danielle Harris); she is in a clinic for the pathologically upset after having possibly-or-was-it-all-a-dream stabbed her stepmother at the end of the previous film; Halloween 5 fudges the question of exactly what happened to an unforgiveable degree. Still hanging around in Haddonfield is Dr Loomis (Donald Pleasence), although the events he’s been caught up in (in addition to making his burn scars change between movies) also seem to have driven him completely nuts. (That, or too much red wine has inspired Pleasence to take it way over the top.)

I say ‘the focus’, but after a while everything becomes rather centred on Michael Myers’ pursuit of a teenage girl named Tina (Wendy Kaplan), for no particularly convincing reason – the main character of the previous movie, Rachel (Ellie Cornell), is unceremonious shifted off-screen, another creative choice which is simply rather baffling. This is all very slasher-convention-congruent and rather reminiscent of something out of a Friday the 13th movie, right down to the bit where a couple of teens enjoying some whoa-ho-ho in a barn are interrupted by someone wielding agricultural implements.

It may come as no surprise if I reveal that the closing sequence of the film, which doesn’t have much connection to this, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense either, but the sheer brazen oddness of what happens might well be; an ominous figure dressed all in black has been stalking Michael and Loomis around town for most of the movie (his stature as an emissary of the Dark Powers is somewhat undermined by the fact he travels on the bus); he has the same tattoo as Michael. Suffice to say the connection between this mysterious personage and Michael Myers is central to the ending of the film, not to mention the fact that it doesn’t really have one.

This is, as you may have guessed, the point at which the ‘occult curse’ storyline really becomes prominent in the Halloween series, but on the other hand it seems like most of the exposition relating to this has been cut out by nervous producers, in favour of pedestrian and un-scary scenes of Michael Myers killing unsympathetic teenagers and tooling around Haddonfield in a stolen muscle car he shouldn’t really be even able to drive (though to be fair he does something similar in the original movie).

You almost feel sorry for the director, if this is the case: the series certainly needed a new direction by this point. (Whether the occult curse angle, or indeed the more humanised version of Michael Myers Othenin-Girard was also keen on introducing, are actually notions with any mileage to them is a different question, of course.) You certainly feel sorry for Donald Pleasence, who delivers virtually all of his dialogue with the same bug-eyed expression and in the same raspy whine; it’s as if he got sick of being the only person in one of these films actually bringing any class to proceedings and just decided to fit in with all the others.

The most remarkable thing about Halloween 5 is the way it manages to make Halloween 4 look like a coherent and thought-through movie. The difference is between something pedestrian, predictable and dull, and complete mess. So maybe the message is that sometimes you should be grateful when things are merely really bad, rather than absolutely dreadful. Which even for a horror movie is a rather downbeat message; depressing rather than actually scary. Then again, that’s a good summation of Halloween 5, unfortunately.

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That leap beyond the second sequel is an important step for a young film franchise: you’re not just settling for being a trilogy, you’re potentially in this for the long haul. It is not surprising that many series take some time to reflect before coming back for a fourth instalment – Jurassic Park took fourteen years, the Indiana Jones series nearly twenty (and many people still feel the eventual decision may have been the wrong one in this case).

The Halloween series took a relatively brisk six year break between third and fourth outings – grit your teeth, but it also switched from Roman numerals (Halloween III) to the more regular kind (Halloween 4) at this point. Given that this series seems to have been a reliable income stream for the Akkad family, who were loathe to give it up, one suspects the delay was initially due to logistical concerns, and ended up having something to do with the value of releasing a film for the tenth anniversary of the original.

Apparently John Carpenter initially wanted to do a ghost story for the fourth film; whether this had anything to do with a proposed script about a spectral Michael Myers being summoned into existence in a fear-wracked Haddonfield, I’m not sure, but Moustapha Akkad opted not to take any chances and commissioned another screenplay much closer in tone and substance to the first two films. The result was Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, directed by Dwight H Little.

So we end up with Michael Myers, who has been comatose for a decade after being repeatedly stabbed, shot, and blown up in a gas explosion on Halloween night 1978, being transferred by ambulance from one institution to another. Unfortunately one of the medics overseeing the move makes the mistake of mentioning that Michael has one sole surviving relative, a little girl living back in Haddonfield. Needless to say this perks our man up, and soon he is ramming his thumb through someone’s skull like he’s never been comatose at all.

Yes, we are told that Laurie Strode has died off-screen in a car crash, leaving behind a young daughter named Jamie (played by Danielle Harris, who is nearly as cute as the in-joke behind her character’s name). She is living with a foster family, and has a dislike of Halloween (unsurprisingly, given it seems to be public knowledge that her uncle is ‘the bogeyman’). Her foster sister (Ellie Cornell) is Rachel, and she is one of those decent and virtuous but slightly dull final girls fairly and squarely in the lineage established by Laurie Strode herself. Rachel and Jamie prepare for Halloween, unaware as they are that Michael is coming to town.

Equally unaware that Michael was due to be transferred was good old Dr Loomis (Donald Pleasence), who has made his own impressive recovery from being stabbed and blown up in Halloween II; Pleasence has some burn-scar make-up on one cheek that makes him look a bit like he’s still playing Blofeld, and also does a limp. When he learns that Michael has escaped again, Loomis delivers another variation on his usual ‘He’s not human… pure evil… they should have listened to me!’ speech and sets off in pursuit.

And you can probably write most of what ensues for yourself, given a passing acquaintance with the first two films in this series – in fact, whatever you come up with will probably be rather more imaginative and interesting. The cycle of slasher movies Halloween had inaugurated had arguably peaked by 1988, when Halloween 4 came out – Friday the 13th Part VII came out a few months before this film, indicating a certain degree of market saturation – and there is a definite sense of creative exhaustion about the film. It’s not so badly done that it’s completely risible, it’s just often very predictable and not especially tense, scary, or cinematic.

Even the bits that are surprising aren’t necessarily positive features. There’s a definite sense that Michael Myers has transformed from a figure who is terrifyingly simply because his crimes are so inexplicable, to a single-issue monomaniac with a weird compulsion to hunt down his surviving family members. He also displays a surprising degree of tactical thought in this film, carrying out a de facto pre-emptive strike against the Haddonfield PD and also taking out the town’s power grid (needless to say, this is achieved by throwing a hapless lineman into the works).

While this is going on, we keep cutting back to the doings of Rachel and Jamie – particularly Jamie, who is mixed up in a teen soap-opera subplot where her boyfriend (who doesn’t exactly seem like a catch) takes the first opportunity to get a little jiggy with her friend, the sheriff’s daughter. Needless to say they meet the fate of anyone who gets amorous in a mainstream slasher movie, and even the T&A is unexpectedly tame (the whole movie is surprisingly well-behaved – apart from the thumb-through-the-skull scene and a bit where Michael tears a man’s throat out with his bare hands, there’s so little explicit violence in this movie it could almost have been made for TV). Soon enough Michael catches up with his niece and the stage is set for a low-octane chase.

Given the fact the film is silly, dull, and often not scary, I was quite surprised to learn that Halloween 4 is considered by some serious critics to be the second-best film in the series. To me it just seems the purest kind of knock-off, inferior in every way to the first film, and not as cinematic as the second one. Donald Pleasence remains a terrific presence – he’s the only reason to see the film, really – but he’s so much better than everyone and everything around him that in a funny way he’s the one who becomes incongruous.

The film’s one and only interesting idea is alluded to early on, when Jamie chooses a Halloween outfit suspiciously similar to the one Michael wore twenty-five years earlier, the night he killed his sister. This is setting up the conclusion of the film, which is a little too laborious to count as a twist ending, but is certainly striking and offers some potentially interesting new directions for future episodes. You can sense the series losing touch with all the things that made the original film so great, but such is the nature of the franchise business, I fear. Halloween 4 was not born out of a desire to do anything interesting or creative, but just to extract more money from a lucrative property. It may have made money back in 1988, but these days the film looks just about as bad as you might expect.

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Just as every family has its oddballs, its black sheep, and its estranged relations, so every long-running film franchise has its weird outliers – its equivalent of Licence to Kill, or Godzilla’s Revenge, or Terminator Salvation. In the case of the Halloween series, the film that probably never gets invited round to dinner by the others is the third one, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, simply because they have so little in common.

What makes it even odder, perhaps, is that this was the intention all along – nine sequels further on, it seems hard to believe, but John Carpenter and Debra Hill had concluded there was no further mileage to be extracted from the doings of Michael Myers. Their idea was for Halloween to become effectively an anthology franchise, each film introducing new situations and characters.

Hence this film, which is not a slasher movie, and only refers to the original diegetically (characters in Halloween III are seen watching Halloween on TV, where it is modestly referred to as a ‘classic’). Looking for a new angle, Carpenter made the inarguably smart move of hiring Nigel Kneale (writer of The Stone Tape, amongst other things) to produce a script – but an intervention by the producers to add more gore and violence led to Kneale disowning the film, and the screenplay is credited to director Tommy Lee Wallace.

Perhaps this was a typically smart move by the veteran scribe. The film opens a week or so before Halloween and counts down towards the night in question. We initially see a man being pursued by sinister figures in grey suits, from who he barely escapes, wandering into a man’s shack and then collapsing. The man has one of those handy exposition TVs, which only shows things which have some bearing on the plot of the film, and so we soon learn that Halloween masks made by the Silver Shamrock company are important to whatever’s going on, along with the fact that someone has apparently managed to pinch one of the blocks from Stonehenge (yes, I know your disbelief is turning a funny colour, but just keep it suspended anyway).

The man who was being chased is whisked off to hospital where he is placed in the care of Daniel Challis (Tom Atkins), a slightly boozy doctor with a failed marriage behind him. One of the grey-suited men manages to sneak into the hospital and crush the patient’s skull, which I would describe as evidence of negligence, but Challis at least chases after him – the grey man immolates himself in the hospital car park.

It turns out the murdered man was a toy store owner, who was last seen heading to the small town of Santa Mira to collect a load of – oh, is that a bell ringing? – Halloween masks. So Challis, largely because the plot requires it, goes up there to investigate, in the company of the victim’s rather striking young daughter Ellie (Stacy Nelkin, who as a teenager was in a brief relationship with Woody Allen and claims Manhattan is partly based on this). Despite there being no discernible chemistry between them, Challis and Ellie get it on: this happens like someone turning a switch, and is presumably just there to meet some kind of assumed audience expectation. Needless to say, Nelkin gets a couple of nude scenes, Atkins (thank God) doesn’t.

I’m guessing the setting of Santa Mira is one of Wallace’s amendments to the original Kneale script, as it’s a very obvious call-back to the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which this seems in part to be a rather clumsy homage to. The parallels between the two films become much more pronounced as it continues, anyway, not that there isn’t always a lot of other stuff going on.

Santa Mira is a company town for a Halloween mask-making outfit run by wealthy old Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy), and he and various other characters turn up to pad out the plot a bit. Cochran is obviously a bad ‘un and the other characters are there to meet sticky ends of various kinds – someone gets zapped by the maker’s tab off the back of a Halloween mask and their face falls off, someone complaining about Cochran has their head removed by two grey men, and so on. Cochran clearly has special plans for this year’s Halloween…

The act of reviewing some films does make demands upon your critical judgment and ability to articulate complex philosophical concepts. Halloween III is not one of those films. Halloween III is the kind of film that only really requires you to describe what happens in it, in order to provide a very clear picture of the kind of quality involved.

That said, simply describing the plot does not quite do the film justice. As the plot concerns an insane toymaker with an army of android duplicate henchmen, who steals part of Stonehenge and grinds it up to hide the dust in Halloween masks, which will then respond to a particular TV commercial by killing the wearers and causing poisonous vermin to erupt from their corpses, all because of a sentimental fondness for the traditions of Halloween, this is no small thing. The basic synopsis does not cover the quality of the playing, which is basic, to say the least: the closest thing to an acting performance comes from Dan O’Herlihy, who seems to have nicked it from Alec Guinness in The Ladykillers. Tom Atkins resembles someone who has wandered onto a film set, possibly to make a delivery or do some maintenance, and accidentally ended up being cast in the lead role. Stacy Nelkin is better, but grievously underused.

I can imagine a version of this film in which the sheer lack of narrative cohesion worked in the film’s favour – where it had something of the accelerating quality of a hideous unfolding nightmare, with a succession of bizarre images (mutilated faces, masks erupting with snakes and insects, characters revealed to be androids) piling up on top of one another to a disorienting cumulative effect, rather as in Hellraiser II. Unfortunately, Tommy Lee Wallace doesn’t have the skill or narrative control to pull something like that off, and he takes a very meat-and-potatoes approach to the material. At the very end, when the film’s debt to Body Snatchers is clearest, it does acquire a certain kind of energy, but it’s really too little, too late.

It would be interesting to speculate on a parallel world where Halloween III was, well, good, and the series went off on the anthology tangent Carpenter and Hill originally envisaged (in our world, the relative failure of the film meant that every subsequent episode has been firmly Michael Myers-centric). But it’s hard to imagine that world, based on this film. Halloween III isn’t just poorly assembled, it’s weird and tonally inconsistent, often mixing unintentional camp with stodgily-presented B-movie staples. This may have been quite a good idea, but it’s also an extremely poorly executed one.

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We are now at a point where there are three films called Halloween, so it follows as logically as anything else that there are also multiple Halloween IIs – although I feel obliged to make it clear that the sequel to the most recent Halloween is, of course, not one of them (like I say, logical).

The first Halloween II was probably inevitable from a financial point of view, given the immense returns of the original film ($70 million on a £325,000 budget), and I suppose this is one of those cases of the sequel being the film which really laid the groundwork for an ongoing franchise – the original film is brilliant, but one of the reasons why it’s brilliant is because it’s such a perfectly self-contained narrative. It’s also a very slight outlier when it comes to the slasher movie genre, and the sequel is more conventional in this respect too.

The problem with a calendar-date horror movie like Halloween is that you’re a bit limited when it comes to staging the sequel – you can’t just move on to the day after or the title will become a bit spurious, while jumping ahead a whole year also brings its problems. So Halloween II is one of the most direct continuations in movie history, very slightly tweaking the end of the original film but pretty much just carrying straight on.

So: Shatner-masked embodiment of pure homicidal evil Michael Myers is still on the rampage in his home town of Haddonfield, despite having been repeatedly shot and stabbed by feisty babysitter Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and obsessed shrink Dr Loomis (Donald Pleasence). However, Haddonfield being the kind of folksy place where people leave their doors open at all hours, he is quite soon able to shrug off multiple bullet wounds, resupply with a big knife, and do in someone just down the street from the scene of his earlier crimes, just to keep his hand in.

Laurie, meanwhile, is whizzed off to hospital by nice young ambulanceman Jimmy (the film debut of Lance Guest, perhaps best remembered for quintessential 80s nonsense The Last Starfighter and Jaws: The Revenge), while Dr Loomis keeps up with his increasingly frantic attempts to hunt Michael down. But having heard where Laurie has been taken, Michael also heads to the gloomy and seemingly almost-deserted hospital, seemingly intent on finishing the job he started before the clock ticks twelve and they have to call the movie All Saints’ Day (though Day of the Dead would also be very appropriate and was still available back in 1981)…

John Carpenter really didn’t want to do a Halloween sequel, as he couldn’t see a place to take the story; he eventually limited himself to co-writing and producing, with Rick Rosenthal actually in charge of direction. Carpenter has said the creative process involved a lot of beer and him sitting in front of the typewriter saying ‘What am I doing? I don’t know.’

Then again, a classic slasher movie generally has two elements to it, the overarching storyline, and all the individual set-piece kills which punctuate the film. I suspect you can get away with making quite a congruent and popular slasher movie with very little actual plot and just a lot of good murders. Sending Michael to the hospital certainly presents the opportunity for a number of inventive slayings as he thins out the supporting cast (as ever, anyone foolish enough to have recreational sex in a Halloween movie is signing their own death warrant) – there’s death by scalpel, death by claw hammer, death by syringe, death by exsanguination, death by hydrotherapy pool, and what may be an attempt at death by slippery floor – though this may just be an accident. As you may perhaps be able to tell, the body count in Halloween II comfortably exceeds that of the first film, and where the original had a long period of Carpenter relentlessly cranking up the suspense before the killing begins in earnest towards the end of the story, in this one there’s a murder every few minutes, just to keep everyone paying attention I suppose. As I say, this is much more of a conventional slasher film than the first one.

It’s when Carpenter moves on to wider elements of the plot that the script begins to wobble somewhat – initially, it’s a spot-on continuation of the original film, with even some of the original cast returning just to play the corpses of their characters. Then Michael starts scrawling ‘SAMHAIN’ on the wall in blood and Donald Pleasence is issued with some cobblers about the history of Halloween and suddenly we’re on rather shaky ground.

The notorious plot device which the film introduces, simply because Carpenter felt it essential, is the revelation that Laurie and Michael are siblings, hence his monomaniacal pursuit of her. It feels like the film has suddenly gone a bit soap-opera at this point, and to be honest I don’t think the story really needed it – the really scary thing about Michael in the first film, after all, is that he doesn’t actually have a recognisable or intelligible motivation.

Most of the film is passably entertaining, anyway; Rosenthal manages a decent mimicry of Carpenter’s style, although the film is never as tense or scary as the original. However, the ending does feel weak – after Laurie is comatose for most of the first hour (I’m guessing there were issues with how available for filming Jamie Lee Curtis was), she ends up being chased round the hospital while Loomis – who’s just been conveniently informed of dynastic revelations – is racing to her aid.

This was, apparently, intended to finish off the story of Laurie and Michael in the most definitive way possible – let’s just take a moment, nine further films later, to reflect on just how successful that was – and I suppose it does just about hang together. (Just how do you kill off the bogeyman, though?) That’s about the best you can say about Halloween II – virtually every film in this series has basically the same plot, which is dressed up and tweaked in a new way every few years or so, and one of the jobs of the sequels is to disguise this fact as well as possible. Halloween II does a serviceable job of it; it is a sufficient sequel, but hardly a necessary one.

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There was a lot of fuss in Oxford a couple of days ago, as the city prepared to go into level 2 virus control. This started one second after midnight on the 31st, which just made me happy, in the end, that I’d decided to make my weekly cinema trip on the evening of the 30th. This all turned out to be worrying and fretting over nothing, as the whole country is effectively going back into lockdown in a few days anyway – which, amongst other things, will mean the remaining cinemas shutting their doors again. Have I said ‘stuck in a moment we can’t get out of’ here before? I can’t remember.

Normally I would have had a go at the Odeon for questionable scheduling, as October 30th is obviously not the right day for a special revival of John Carpenter’s Halloween. Not that I would necessarily have expected the Odeon staff to have clocked that, as most of them were standing around in the lobby discussing which film they were actually about to show, trying to work out if it was the 2018 version, the 2007 remake, and so on. One of them was wearing a Halloween III: Season of the Witch T-shirt and I found myself compelled to wonder aloud if he knew that this was the only film in the series to have a different premise to the original. (Apparently he did, and defended his choice of apparel by saying it’s the best of the sequels. Being a Nigel Kneale fan myself, I could hardly demur.)

There was a pleasingly big turn-out for the movie, made up mostly of younger people who gave the impression of having turned up for a bit of undemanding camp fun – which just meant they got a bit restive during the ‘special introduction’ to the film, what looked like a slightly cheesy DVD extra made in 2015, in which Carpenter himself discussed the origins of the film. Oh well – soon enough the lights went down and – oh, is that someone’s phone going off very loudly? It sounds like a ringtone. Tut. Hang on a minute – sorry, it’s a John Carpenter score (and probably his best).

Carpenter opens with a lengthy, bravura sequence in which an unseen assailant stabs a young woman to death in her home. The camera sees through the killer’s eyes throughout, up until the moment at which his mask is torn off – and we see it is a six-year-old child. Flanked by his incomprehending parents, the child stares vacantly into space as the camera pulls back and up in a crane shot, a magisterial choice from Carpenter. We eventually learn the boy’s name is Michael Myers – nothing to do with the Wayne’s World dude, but named in honour of the British film distributor who helped make Assault on Precinct 13 such a big success.

Nearly fifteen years pass, and we meet Dr Sam Loomis, who has been Michael Myers’ psychiatrist all this time. Carpenter wanted Peter Cushing for Loomis, but couldn’t afford him; Christopher Lee later said that turning the same role down was the biggest mistake of his career. Anyway, Carpenter ended up with Donald Pleasence, apparently because his daughter was a fan of Carpenter’s music, but also because he had an alimony payment due, and I think this bit of serendipity is one of the things that makes the movie so effective – Pleasence may not quite have Cushing’s sheer technical virtuosity, or Lee’s monumental presence, but he brings the part a fantastic nervous intensity.

Loomis has become convinced that Michael Myers is irredeemable, pure evil, and has devoted himself to ensuring he is kept safely locked up. Suffice to say this does not come to pass, and the evening before Halloween 1978, Michael Myers escapes, steals Loomis’ car, and disappears into the night. This is the first big scare sequence of the film – and it’s a long time before the next – but it’s already clear that Carpenter knows his business, deploying camera and music with surgical precision. The moment when the ghost-like figure of Michael Myers scuttles across the rear window of Loomis’ car and onto the roof never fails to give me a start.

Michael Myers heads back to Haddonfield, naturally, pausing to kill a mechanic and steal his overalls on the way. (The point at which he acquires the iconic William Shatner mask he wears for the bulk of the movie is one of a couple of points which the film appears to fudge just a tiny bit.) Here he becomes fixated with sensible, bookish high-school student Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis in her movie debut), apparently simply because she’s the first person he sees up close.

Laurie is baby-sitting for Halloween, which mainly involves letting small children watch classic sci-fi movies (one of them is the 1951 version of The Thing, more evidence of Carpenter’s fondness for Howard Hawks films, as well as being an unintended in-joke given his later career). Her friends Lynda (Pamela Soles) and Annie (Nancy Loomis, who was also in Precinct 13) have slightly more adventurous plans for Halloween night, mostly involving their boyfriends. However, Michael Myers’ plans for the evening involve all of them, although ‘adventurous’ may not be quite the word to use in his case…

Slasher movies aren’t really my speciality, but I believe that students of the genre agree that the Golden Age of the Slasher Film ran from 1978 to 1984, inaugurated by this film. Halloween wasn’t the first slasher film – that honour goes to either Psycho or Black Christmas – but it is the film which codified many of the conventions of the genre – a maniac with a mask, young and unsuspecting teenage victims, and so on. The most memorable things about Halloween have all been repeated ad nauseum or parodied to death, to the point where it’s almost difficult to take the movie seriously as a film in its own right.

Certainly, as is often the case with these classic old horror movies, parts of it seemed more likely to draw laughter rather than fear from a contemporary audience. Bits of it could seem a bit melodramatic or even campy by modern standards. That said, as the film got going, there was notably less amusement, and even the occasional yelp of what sounded like genuine alarm and fear. (I imagine there would have been people in the audience even back in 1978, who tutted at the way Jamie Lee Curtis doesn’t bother to make sure her attacker is dead, on not one but two occasions.)

The enduring effectiveness of the movie comes mainly from the remarkable patience and confidence shown by Carpenter: after the opening couple of scenes, there is considerably more stalk than slash for a long time – lots of lurking about by Michael Myers, but very little actual mayhem. It’s also worth noting that this is a much more restrained movie than many of its successors: there is relatively little in the way of explicit gore, and only five murders (one of which is essentially a flashback, while another occurs off-screen). This is hardly a splatter movie, more an exercise in suspense.

Of course, underpinning this is the suggestion that Michael Myers isn’t just a homicidal maniac with a knife, but something much worse – a vessel of pure evil, as Loomis has come to believe. Certainly the film plays up the idea of Michael Myers as something less than human – Nick Castle, who mostly plays him, is billed as ‘Shape’ – he never speaks, wears that blank mask for most of the film, and is generally just a cypher, or – as the film suggests – the bogeyman given substance. Again, it’s a potentially slightly corny idea, but the movie sells it, mostly thanks to Pleasence’s performance.

Pleasence does all the heavy lifting in terms of the acting in this movie, lending it gravitas but also the odd moment of leavening humour (the doctor seems gleefully pleased after scaring small children away from the old Myers house). Jamie Lee Curtis is stuck in an almost wholly reactive role for most of the movie, but still manages to bring presence to what could have been another cypher.

In the end, though, it’s Carpenter’s movie, as writer, director, and composer of the music: he seems to have been paying attention to Jaws in particular, as the score for this movie acts as a cue for the audience in the same way that John Williams’ music fills in for the absence of shark. It’s entirely understandable that film executives who saw a rough cut of Halloween before the score was added dismissed the film as nonsense. Even with the music added, it’s still not what you’d call a film of particular depth: Halloween is simply a machine for scaring audiences, no more and no less. But it does this one thing superbly well.

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The good thing about going to see a film called Halloween on the actual day of Halloween is that you can be pretty certain you’re at or near the peak when it comes the appropriacy of your choice of movie. The bad news, if you fill the long hours by maintaining a light-hearted film review blog, is that your thoughts on the film are likely to be of little real topical interest to anyone stumbling across them – who cares about Halloween once we hit early November, anyway? Everyone is just busy growing moustaches or writing novels.

Yet here we are: Halloween, directed by David Gordon Green, and produced by Blumhouse, a company which currently rules the roost when it comes to making ultra-lucrative low-budget horror films (they also made the really good non-genre movie Whiplash). As you are doubtless aware, this is far from the first film entitled Halloween to be unleashed upon the public. The new Halloween is the tenth sequel to the original 1978 film – this is another example of a follow-up having exactly the same title as the film it’s based on, something which only seems to happen with John Carpenter movies (see also The Thing).

The new movie takes the Godzilla-esque approach of disregarding the nine previous films in the series (which wandered off into some fairly peculiar territory and didn’t all share continuity anyway) and being a direct sequel to the 1978 one. It opens with a couple of self-regarding and pretentious online journalists (Jefferson Hall and Rhian Rees) visiting a psychiatric institution for the criminally insane in order to attempt to interview Michael Myers, who has been incarcerated there for forty years after murdering five people for no apparent reason on Halloween night.

Michael’s shrink, Dr Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), has become fascinated by his patient, but warns the journos that the killer is ‘dormant’ and has not spoken in all his time at the facility. And indeed he refuses to respond to their questions, even when one of them produces the shrivelled remains of the mask he wore while committing his crimes (this is, famously, a William Shatner mask painted white). This is, by the way, a superbly orchestrated scene: the iconic mask is brandished like some kind of unholy fetish, with the other inmates of the facility stirred into a frenzy of moans and whines and a distinct sense of some primordial evil being summoned back into existence. The smash cut to the title card and the appearance of Carpenter’s justly famous theme music puts the shine on a very strong opening which the film largely does justice to.

The thing about a Halloween movie is that it’s easy to get carried away and over-plot it: these films are basically about the bogeyman, an apparently unstoppable force of pure evil who kills for no rational reason. Previous sequels introduced notions of occult curses and Michael being fixated on killing members of his own family, this latter idea being introduced to rationalise his extended pursuit of Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), as increasingly laborious methods of putting new spins on the basic idea. The new film makes reference to the idea of Michael and Laurie being siblings, but dismisses it as an urban legend.

Instead, it seems that Laurie was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and has paid the price for it ever since: forty years on from the first movie, she is a damaged, paranoid woman whose relationships with her daughter (Judy Greer) and granddaughter (Andi Matichak) are strained at best – she has basically turned into Sarah Connor from Terminator 2, obsessed with preparations for the time when Michael inevitably returns.

And, of course, he does, although you have to cut the film some slack and accept that the authorities would decide to transfer Michael Myers to a new facility on October 30th, just in time for him to attain his freedom (in one of many call-backs to the original film, exactly how this happens is left somewhat enigmatic), suit up in his mask and overalls, and begin to carve a swathe through the good people of the town of Haddonfield…

Now, I’m no more a fan of the occult curse or long-lost sister plotlines than most people, but they do give Michael (credited, as is usual, as ‘the Shape’) something to do beyond just carving up random people (to be fair, he broadens his palette to include garrotting, strangulation, and blunt-force trauma this time around). Carving people up at random just about works for a film where the protagonists are unsuspecting everypersons being menaced, but here there is a much stronger element of role-reversal: both Laurie and the local sheriff (Will Patton) are tooled up and actively hunting Michael, giving an odd double tension to the film.

The film is really at its best in the extended sequences leading up to Michael’s actual attacks (which are, you will not be surprised to learn, frequent). At these points the film basically becomes a battle of wits between the viewer and the director as the latter attempts to mislead and surprise the former – is Michael going to turn out to be in the closet? Is he outside in the garden? Lurking on the stairs? Green is rather good at this, and restores a good deal of presence and menace to one of the great horror icons of the 70s and 80s – less annoying than Freddy Krueger, less of a fantastical cartoon than Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers is practically shy and retiring as far as homicidal forces of pure evil go, and the film carefully walks the line between depicting Michael as an exceptional but still human threat, and suggesting he is the vessel for some supernatural power.

Also getting good material is Jamie Lee Curtis, and the clash between these two old enemies at the climax of the film is tense and engrossing. One of the themes of the film is the baleful effect Michael has on those who come into contact with him and survive, and Curtis has a lot of meaty scenes as someone almost pathologically obsessed with refusing to even contemplate being a victim again. There is perhaps a whiff of the Unique Moment about the film, with three generations of Strode women coming together to combat perhaps the ultimate predatory male, but then I suppose the whole trope of the Final Girl represents this in some way.

For the most part, though, this is a film which feels quite self-consciously retro in its approach to the story – an act of reverence towards one of the foundational texts of American horror cinema. It revisits the old beats rather than doing anything especially innovative, but does so very well – the only issue being that Haluk Bilginer, to some extent filling the Donald Pleasence role in the plot, ain’t no Donald Pleasence. Nevertheless, it’s an engaging and scary film and one that discharges its obligations with some style. I can imagine the Halloween franchise advancing into the future for many years to come, propelled by remakes and sequels and reimaginings, assuming that those responsible for it treat it with the same kind of care and respect shown here.

 

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