Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Franchise Corner Entry: HALLOWEEN


HALLOWEEN ***** USA 1978 Dir: John Carpenter. 91 mins

Those who got their knickers knotted by Rob Zombie’s HALLOWEEN remake duo have a short memory: John Carpenter’s original film is a scare machine precision-tooled from elements of earlier genre works. Its legendary opening alone (contrary to popular belief, the only time in the film in which we witness events through the eyes of Michael Myers) riffs on the subjective first scenes of PEEPING TOM and BLOOD AND LACE, while his debt to Argento’s DEEP RED and Bob Clark’s BLACK CHRISTMAS are both obvious.
 From the marvellously grim tableau that ends the prologue – suburban parents staring in disbelief at their knife-wielding child – the film is, of course, strong enough to survive its own endless cycle of sequels, imitations and rereleases. Whereas its own sequels were content to reinvent Michael Myers as a killer with a contrived family grudge, Carpenter establishes the character as a random, indestructible force of evil, his identity blurred into that of the fictional, all-purpose childhood monster “The Boogeyman” (a transformation reinforced by the final dialogue exchange). As the “inhumanly patient” Myers flees incarceration fifteen years after becoming infamous in his home town of Haddonfield, long-term psychiatrist Donald Pleasence (playing it with a canny combination of vulnerability, genuine fear and implied menace) faces up to his own professional failure and the realisation that, ultimately, Myers represents a force no one can contain. Myers stalks and / or kills some of the most endearing and empathetic characters in the slasher canon, notably sardonic smart-ass Nancy Loomis and jumpy yet perceptive wallflower Jamie Lee Curtis, whose loneliness allows her time to watch (just as Myers does) and acknowledge the threat facing her idyllic suburban existence. More than any of the sequels, this film portrays Myers as a potentially supernatural entity (often represented via a shadow on the wall or a ghostly face in the window) who enjoys scaring people more than killing them, relishing the chance to don a ghostly sheet and admiring his handiwork after one murder, like an artist operating at the peak of his powers. The script by Carpenter and Debra Hill is unusually witty: “Maybe someone around here gave him lessons” notes Pleasance wryly, highlighting the implausibility of Myers driving home after his escape. It also cleverly segues from the proliferation of wide tracking shots of open, sunlit spaces in the first half to the darkness-swamped, mounting claustrophobia of the final half hour, which evolves into a breathlessly tense, extended chase, trapping our trend-setting heroine (Curtis balancing near-hysteria and determined resilience as she fashions weapons out of everyday domestic objects) in a series of confined spaces. It’s comfortably familiar to genre fans these days, but HALLOWEEN deserves every bit of its lofty reputation as a holy slasher text.

Halloween (Trailer)

HALLOWEEN II *** USA 1981 Dir: Rick Rosenthal. 92 mins

A cynically conceived sequel reuniting most major HALLOWEEN personnel (co-writers Carpenter and HIll, cinematographer Dean Cundey, surviving cast members) and unusually picking up the action exactly where the original left off. Michael kills a few Haddonfield residents before tracking Laurie (Curtis in a wig striving to disguise the three years in between productions) at the local hospital. Replacing the old sci-fi movies punctuating the original, TV news broadcasts report on the town’s fresh crime scenes and the film offers a rare, effective focus on the aftermath of its predecessor’s events - one grimly ironic sequence involves the accidental demise of Ben Tramer, an unseen but significant character in HALLOWEEN, here the victim of the town descending into understandable hysteria. The Haddonfield street scenes are the best in the movie, as outraged locals react to news of the tragedies by desecrating the notorious Myers house (“This is a wake…one of their tribe was butchered…”). Pleasence’s Dr Loomis is briefly reunited with a grief stricken Sheriff Brackett (father to Nancy Loomis’ character) and Nancy Stephens’ Nurse Marion (later a victim in HALLOWEEN H20), who provides the film’s hokey, post-EMPIRE STRIKES BACK revelation about the family connection between heroine and killer. Sadly, the need to keep up with the bodycount-centered slasher cycle instigated by FRIDAY THE 13TH, sees HALLOWEEN II devolving into repetitive scenes of under-developed characters stalked and killed in dark corners of the hospital, while Laurie’s post-trauma mental and physical condition results in HALLOWEEN’s strongest character reduced to a whimpering, sometimes catatonic, mostly inactive near-victim. The murders are occasionally vicious (including a hot tub kill that quotes DEEP RED), the twist (echoing a key story beat of Jamie Lee’s PROM NIGHT) dilutes the more frightening notion of Michael as a random killer and the backdrop of Haddonfield Memorial proves a less effective than the Autumnal suburban streets. Despite strong moments, HALLOWEEN II isn’t as much fun as the cheesier hospital-based slasher fest X-RAY, though it does have uniquely eerie use of The Chordettes’ “Mr Sandman” at the very end.

Halloween II (Trailer)

HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH ***** USA 1983 Dir: Rick Rosenthal. 99 mins

Acknowledging that the Michael Myers “story” had played out by the end of HALLOWEEN (and that his own involvement with II was for purely financial reasons), John Carpenter boldly attempted to turn the HALLOWEEN franchise into an anthology showcasing different Halloween-set horror stories. The result alienated fans expecting another repetitive knife movie and largely ignored by audiences confused by the marketing. Original writer Nigel Kneale (of QUATERMASS fame) took his name off the credits when Carpenter added commercially essential head-rippings, eye gouging and even an implied drill-kill. Sporting the marvellously sour tagline “The night no one came home”, it unfolds in Santa Mira, where Celtic toy-making genius Dan O’Herlihy (he invented the sticky toilet paper gag and the “dead dwarf” joke, whatever that is!) resents America’s commercialisation of Halloween so much he is engineering the ultimate “joke on the children”. In other words, the revival of the much missed art of mass human sacrifice via the 20th century’s most odious soul-sucking medium: television. Cannily appropriating the aural landscape and ‘scope camerawork of the Myers Halloween films -with the most evocative synth soundtrack of any 80’s movie -, this throws in left-field ideas (a monotonously knitting old lady robot is a creepy detour) and gives Tom Atkins his finest screen showcase as an alcoholic, womanising hero last seen impotently yelling “You gotta believe me!” (in homage to INVASION OF THE BODYSNATCHERS) and “Stop it!!” in the nihilistic closing scene. The climax suggests a mass-séance created by a live network broadcast (later a core element of the Kneale-inspired GHOSTWATCH) annihilating America’s children, while the script sympathises with its own villain’s hatred of the USA’s crass adaptation of old traditions. The Typical American Family Unit are given short shrift in a “Test Room” sequence, in which a deliberately OTT, horrid sitcom family are briskly decimated, the camera lingering with relish on the brat’s cranium as it is pulped by a mess of worms, snakes and insects. It’s the highlight of a movie that, once regarded as a misfire, now increasingly looks like one of the best American horror films of the 1980’s.

Halloween III: Season Of The Witch (Trailer)

HALLOWEEN 4: THE RETURN OF MICHAEL MYERS **** USA 1988 Dir: Dwight H Little. 88 mins

Moustapha Akkad’s successful attempt to revive the Michael Myers legend (seven years after his last movie appearance and minus Carpenter) takes a back to basics approach, de-emphasising sex and gore, and building upon the original film’s notion of a credible small town under siege from an unstoppable boogeyman. It revives Myers via a throwaway slasher sequel gimmick (escaping with ease during a “routine” transfer) before catching up with the Haddonfield law enforcers, teens, kids and beer bellies. Danielle Harris is terrific as Myers’ new target - pre-pubescent daughter of Laurie Strode, whose character has died in the ten years since the events of parts one and two - and Ellie Cornell a naturalistic presence as her foster sister. The movie makes the mistake of staging a potentially awesome police station massacre off-screen, and has ridiculous scenes of local rednecks forming an incompetent lynch-mob, but Little vividly captures a sense of a haunted town and stages some ballsy, scary set pieces, including a great rooftop chase and a jolting twist ending bringing the series full circle to the prologue of the 1978 film. In truth, this would have been a great way for the series to permanently end. Other part 4 highlights: Kathleen Kinmont’s tarty, busty Sheriff’s daughter, Pleasance as a now-crazy, mildly scarred Loomis (“evil on two legs!”) and a wonderful title sequence montage that really captures the chilly Autumnal anticipation surrounding Halloween night. Alan Howarth, who worked on the scores of the preceding two films with Carpenter, does a superb job of alternating the maestro’s famous original themes with an evocative new soundscape.

Halloween 4: The Return Of Michael Myers (Trailer)

HALLOWEEN 5 *** USA 1989 Dir: Dominique Othenin-Girard. 97 mins.

This hasty follow up to the popular part 4 has a great, unnerving pumpkin-carving title sequence and, although it lazily offers a plodding reprise of 4’s junior-final-girl-in-peril scenario, it does sustain an eerie mood. Facing a franchise need to keep Michael as the antagonist, the movie immediately undermines its predecessor’s twist ending by downplaying Jamie’s (Danielle Harris) murderous behaviour - though the now-mute pre-teen still has a psychic connection to her uncle Mike -  and oddly depicts a wounded Myers nursed back to health by an ageing hermit, a la BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Haddonfield persists with Halloween celebrations, while returning Sheriff Beau Starr stupidly disbelieves Dr. Loomis’ dire warnings despite the fact that much of his town (and his own daughter) were slaughtered just a year earlier. Aiming for a Janet Leigh-style shock, the film cynically kills off plucky, likeable survivor Ellie Cornell in the first half-hour before regrettably introducing some of the most obnoxious characters in the franchise, including an odious Fonz-like narcissist, a shrill, hyperactive new teen lead (Wendy Kaplan) and the most cringe-inducing “comedy” cop duo since THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. It’s a relief when they all die, though at least Girard revives the original’s concept of MIchael as a playful boogeyman with a fondness for spooking later victims: echoing the “Ghost” get-up of HALLOWEEN, at one point he wears the fright mask of Kaplan’s murdered boyfriend to trick her. It’s often dumb, and showcases an insulting array of cat-scares and fake-outs, but 5 at least strives for creepiness, and achieves it with an eerily shot extended woodland chase sequence, and an intense finale at the old Myers house in which Jamie is trapped inside a laundry shoot. The queasy highlight involves Harris lying in a child’s coffin (exhumed by Myers with her in mind) in a bid to reason with her uncle (“You’re just like me…”) The introduction of a mysterious man in black, sporting the same Druid wrist symbol that Myers now has, sets up a resonant, downbeat ending (though the guy is ultimately a walking plot device) while the always game Pleasence gives it his all and perishes for the second time in the series as he bashes Michael repeatedly with a 2” by 4”. Harris, terrorised, catatonic and suffering for the entire duration, gives by far the film’s best performance, and the final scenes of her, resigning herself to a horrible fate as he wanders around yet another decimated Haddonfield police station, are genuinely unsettling.

Halloween 5 (Trailer)
 
HALLOWEEN: THE CURSE OF MICHAEL MYERS ** USA 1995 Dir: Joe Chappelle. 85 mins

As with JASON GOES TO HELL, the sixth HALLOWEEN movie handed the creative reins over to a young fanboy filmmaker keen to rejuvenate an increasingly stale franchise. In this case, screenwriter Daniel Farrands admirably picks up the many loose ends left by part 5, killing off Jamie Lloyd (no longer played by Danielle Harris), whose new born baby (apparently fathered by Michael in between films, the ickiest plot point of the whole series!) is wanted by a cult worshipping the Druid “Thorn” symbol seen on Michael’s wrist. Michael returns to Haddonfield, his intermittent rampages seemingly coinciding with the occasions on which the “Thorn” symbol appears as a constellation of stars - as opposed to….er, it being Halloween. The mystery man in black from part 5 is revealed to be Dr Loomis’ old medical colleague, who wants to harness the evil of Thorn to his own end. A visibly ailing Donald Pleasence gets to rant yet again about Michael’s “rage” in his final film, while a grown-up Tommy Doyle (Paul Rudd) makes for a feeble hero. The ambitious multiple plot threads dissolve into incoherence, and post-production studio tampering awkwardly amped up the routine slasher hijinks: horny teens, false scares, “homages” to the original (Michael admiring a fresh kill, cocking his head), elaborate gory deaths (even a ridiculous exploding head totally out of character to Myers), and a baffling finale in which characters repeatedly hit Michael over the head with heavy objects. It’s not without merit: Alan Howarth’s rousing electric guitar interpretation of the classic theme is awesome, and the bold opening stretch suggests the movie had real promise. Love the Greek chorus of Haddonfield’s radio station, where horny female listeners express their attraction to Myers (“He’s so untamed, he’s so uninhibited!”) and conspiracy nuts voice their opinion that the CIA are employing Myers as the ultimate assassin.

Halloween: The Curse Of Michael Myers (Trailer)

HALLOWEEN 6: THE CURSE OF MICHAEL MYERS (PRODUCER’S CUT) ***

Available for many years as a bootleg VHS / DVD, the so-called “Producer’s Cut” of CURSE has a different title design and differs in many respects from the studio-altered theatrical version. Just as Dimension Films recut the similarly timed HELLRAISER: BLOODLINE (with that film’s director Kevin Yagher opting for an Alan Smithee credit), they were responsible for several changes here, including the addition of gaudy gore FX: the abusive step-dad gets a gratuitous exploding head fate in the theatrical cut. Most notably, Jamie is killed with farm machinery in the first reel of the released version, but in the original conception is simply stabbed, surviving most of the film in hospital. The alternate cut clarifies Michael’s role in the Thorn cult, expands on Tommy Doyle’s use of positive runes to fight Myers’ evil and also fleshes out the relationship between Dr Wynn and Loomis. The original ending is totally different to the messy finale of the theatrical version: we learn why the heroine’s son was hearing voices during the film, and also why Loomis was screaming off-camera: he realises he possesses the Thorn symbol and is thus destined to take over from Wynn as his new “caretaker”; Michael leaves in the “Man In Black” outfit. Although still deeply flawed, this version is the superior one, playing out far less awkwardly than the theatrical release and, for all its failures, representing a brave attempt to take the franchise away from the monotony of yet another Myers rampage.

HALLOWEEN H20 **** USA 1998 Dir: Steve Miner. 83 mins

Perhaps the best of the post-SCREAM Hollywood slasher movie revival, this attempt to simultaneously revive the HALLOWEEN franchise and offer a 20th anniversary tribute to the Carpenter original is taut and suspenseful. Director Steve Miner is on familiar turf, having directed the second and third chapters of the rival FRIDAY THE 13TH franchise, and the film’s main coup pays off: Jamie Lee Curtis is outstanding as a credibly insecure, paranoid, alcoholic adult Laurie Strode, now a schoolteacher with a new name and a new life. The plot ignores every sequel except HALLOWEEN II, following Michael’s resumed pursuit of his sister, alongside her own teenage son (Josh Hartnett). In a nice touch, Nancy Stephens returns as Dr Loomis’ former assistant, killed at home in an intense opening sequence, and Miner - aping Carpenter’s use of the widescreen frame and Stedicam - stages dynamic set pieces, with stand-outs being a chilling near-miss in a public toilet and a nerve-wracking bit of business involving a dumb-waiter. The finale offers definitive franchise closure, conveying Laurie’s inevitable, disturbing transformation into a single-minded instrument of vengeance as relentless as Michael himself, pummelling him repeatedly with new-found defiance, and decapitating him at the first display of a vestige of humanity behind the mask. The final image of the axe-wielding, grim-faced Curtis would have made a marvellous conclusion to the series. Fortunately, the film avoids the self-conscious “post-modern” tropes of the SCREAM series, though there is a crudely shoe-horned clip from SCREAM 2 and a knowing cameo from Curtis’ mom Janet Leigh that provides an excuse for a bunch of PSYCHO jokes. Shame about Dimension’s annoying decision to replace stretches of John Ottman’s evocative original score with soundtrack excerpts from Marco Beltrami’s SCREAM score.

Hallowen H20 (Trailer)

HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION * USA 2002 Dir: Rick Rosenthal. 94 mins

All the good work done by the smart, scary H20 is effectively destroyed within about two minutes of this insultingly dumb and rushed follow-up: Michael’s seemingly irreversible beheading is given a duff, swiftly explained “get out of jail” card that shows the film’s contempt for its own audience. HALLOWEEN II director Rosenthal was recruited to trudge through the slasher movie motions, bringing back a suitably haunted-looking Curtis for a thankless cameo as an institutionalised Laurie and callously ending her franchise presence for good with a feeble final confrontation with her brother. Subsequently, Michael returns to his original home, which is now host to reality TV guru Busta Rhyme’s “Dangertainment” live web-cast. The carnage is captured partially by various strategically placed web-cams, though not before a bunch of tedious fake scares in which Rhymes strives to boost viewing figures by roaming around in a Myers mask. Any HALLOWEEN movie featuring the title card “Starring Busta Rhymes” was always going to struggle and, although he is appalling and sadly prone to surviving mortal wounds (despite delivering the line “Trick or treat, motherfucker!”), he’s arguably no worse than much of the cast, including Tyra Banks, who has the screen presence of a freshly defiled corpse. Rosenthal quotes from his own HALLOWEEN movie (Myers “dies” a fiery death, someone slips in a pool of blood), steals his only decent murder from PEEPING TOM and fails to “resurrect” a script clearly conceived in a rush by committee. Worst. Halloween. Movie. Ever.

Halloween Resurrection (Trailer)

HALLOWEEN **** USA 2007 Dir: Rob Zombie. 109 mins

Rob Zombie’s cinema career - and much of his music - acts as an unsubtle love letter to the exploitation cinema of the 1970’s he clearly adores, and he was an appropriate choice to join the 21st century craze of remaking 70’s horror landmarks, partly using it to indulge in his love of the era’s music, news events and genre icons. He spends over an hour expanding upon the event Carpenter conveyed in less than five minutes, compellingly following the 10 year old Michael Myers (an unnerving Daeg Faerch) as he rebels against the relentless abuse from his alcoholic stepfather (a suitably repulsive William Forsythe) and school bullies, by progressing from killing animals to murdering everyone at home except his baby sis Laurie and his loving stripper-mom (an excellent Sheri Moon Zombie). Malcolm McDowell offers a fun interpretation of a self-aggrandising Loomis, and there are scenes of raw power, notably Zombie’s breakdown as an incarcerated Michael kills a nurse at the sanatorium, signalling his point of no return despite Loomis’ efforts. The bodycount is vast (Michael kills almost as many people as a child than he does in the whole of the 1978 film) and the violence is characteristic of Zombie’s approach: brutal, joyless and, once Michael has grown up, doled out by a towering, brick shit-house reinvention of HALLOWEEN’s maniac. The second half is not quite as effective, as the script devolves into direct remake territory, speeding through the film-long modern-day narrative of the 1978 film, though the Zombie incarnations of Laurie, Annie (played, in a cute casting touch by a grown-up Danielle Harris) and Linda are well played. Flaws aside, it’s a rare late-franchise entry that looks and feels totally different to any previous episode, and at its best captures a true sense of threat and terror that has been almost entirely absent from the Myers films since the original.

Halloween (Trailer)

HALLOWEEN II **** USA 2009 Dir: Rob Zombie. 101 mins

Engaged to fast-track a sequel to the commercially successful (though critically revived) 2007 HALLOWEEN, writer-director Rob Zombie stripped away that film’s distracting cameos and was released from its awkward structure (existing somewhere between prequel, overly reverential remake and a pure “Rob Zombie” film). He expands on that film’s strengths, heightening the visceral attack scenes to reflect the ferocity and power of the reinvented Myers, while developing his amusing take on Dr Loomis. Refusing to take the formulaic sequel path pursued by the 1981 HALLOWEEN II (the only real connections are a hospital massacre at the start and clips from NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD), Zombie follows the miserable post-trauma life of Laurie (Scout Taylor-Compton) and fellow survivor Annie (Danielle Harris in her 4th HALLOWEEN series appearance, equal to Jamie Lee’s franchise toll). Laurie discovers the familial connection between her and Michael via Dr Loomis’ sensationalistic books while Myers himself (Tyler Mane), driven by the persistent presence of his dead mom (Sheri Moon-Zombie) returns to Haddonfield. There are flickers of welcome wit (notably Loomis on a chat show with Weird Al Yankovic) but for an R-rated major studio horror sequel, this is remarkably grim and misanthropic – shot in dirty, grainy 16 mm and favouring gruelling brutality over crowd-pleasing splatter and funhouse-scares. This Myers towers over everyone, wanders around minus the mask looking like some monstrous hobo and is portrayed as a brute with major rage issues, far from the playful quick-killer boogeyman of Carpenter’s film (in an explicit nod to the ’78 film, he is seen devouring a dog, too). McDowell, like Zombie, is let off the leash, no longer saddled with rehashing Donald Pleasance lines, and he gets the best of Zombie’s typically cynical dialogue (“Bad taste is the petrol that drives the American dream…”) as an irredeemable media whore. Remaining fascinated by trashy, hateful incidental characters (including a necrophiliac paramedic), Zombie is the only filmmaker who was able to put his own individual stamp on a HALLOWEEN sequel. The expansion of Brad Dourif’s incarnation of Sheriff Brackett gives the actor his warmest, most human role to date – his tortured depiction of a dismayed, rage-fuelled father after Annie’s death is one of the most extraordinary moments in the whole franchise. Also refreshing is the attempt to truly capture the scars of those who have eluded Myers’ rampage: Compton’s washed-up, unsympathetic portrayal of the drug-dependent Laurie one year on offers a Zombie-universe equivalent to Jamie Lee’s H20 turn, and for once we feel the widespread psychological and emotional cost of one of Haddonfield’s regular town massacres. Bowing out with a genuinely creepy, resonant ending riffing on the strongest aspect of HALLOWEEN 4 (and, to some extent, the final image of H20), Zombie should have been commended for turning a potentially bland cash-in into something surprisingly powerful and nightmarish.

Halloween II (Trailer)

Reviews by Steven West


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