The Narrative of the 'Halloween' Saga Gets Confused Over Time

by Thomas Britt

18 March 2015

The message of John Carpenter's Halloween is simple: "Evil is here!" To expect any sequel to enhance that idea is to miss the point.
 
cover art

Halloween: The Complete Collection

Director: John Carpenter
Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence, Kyle Richards

US DVD: 23 Sep 2014

Director John Carpenter and producer Debra Hill’s Halloween (1978) is a movie about the presence and persistence of evil. Decades of horror film history and theory have conferred a mountain of meanings to the killer Shape at the center of the film. Yet no opinion is more explanatory and longstanding than the repeated assertion of character Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence): “Masked murderer Michael Myers is Evil.”

In Halloween, Carpenter maximizes the anxiety, not the bloodshed.

Halloween‘s rudimentary plot combines the Gothic origins of horror film with other contemporary strands of the genre. The invaded home of Night of the Living Dead (1968) and the slasher killing of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) are touchstones that opened the door for Myers to step through. The legacy of Carpenter’s low-budget movie is one of exceptional profitability, unquantifiable artistic influence, and successive revival and/or exploitation in sequels. Halloween: The Complete Collection, a 2014 box set from Scream Factory and Anchor Bay, gathers all of the films and creates an occasion for overall appraisal.

More than 35 years after the original film’s debut, the enduring quality of Halloween is the classicism with which Carpenter, Hill, cinematographer Dean Cundey, and others executed what would become a foundational slasher film. Yes, this is a tale of a soulless killer with a knife, but the field of action is a comfortable suburban neighborhood of autumn leaves and shadowy homes. Here, the menace of the mundane is transformed by the threat of the boogeyman. The increasing goriness of subsequent Halloween films and hundreds of slasher entries influenced by Carpenter only reinforces the restraint of the original.

Myers the boogeyman is one of a few characters central to the drama. In 1963, at age six, he is institutionalized for killing his sister on Halloween night. His psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis, knows him better than anyone and trails him when he escapes the sanitarium in 1978 (the present day). Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), a teenaged babysitter, becomes Myers’ intended prey but counters his attacks. Strode and Dr. Loomis halt Myers’ killing spree this Halloween night.

Halloween (1978)

Halloween (1978)

Nonetheless, in the end he retreats into darkness, as is Evil’s wont.

That bullets do not stop Myers is not surprising. In his original incarnation, he’s not a creature that operates on logical development. He moves from place to place slowly, but effects an impression of omnipresence. He need not move quickly, for he always catches up to his target.

In addition to Myers as the embodiment of the presence and persistence of evil, the other distinguishing feature of Halloween is a focus on trauma involving children and/or teenagers. Myers is six years old when he murders his sister. Strode is only 17 years old when she combats his “adult” materialization. The children she protects in her role as a babysitter are much younger than she is. The plot of Halloween is one in which the safety of youth is challenged, and the key to staying alive is to recognize the threat before he/it catches up with you.

Carpenter executes this dramatic idea with only a small amount of graphic violence. True to his youth-centric premise, he does not overuse adult content to make real the consequences of not believing in the boogeyman. He maximizes the anxiety, not the bloodshed.

Strode’s female friends do not take Myers seriously when he appears before them by day and night. They pay a high price for such carelessness. Though Strode initially denies the existence of the boogeyman, she and her charges take no chances once he makes himself known. One indelible moment of tension in Halloween is the sight of young Lindsey (Kyle Richards) and Tommy (Brian Andrews) sprinting out of the house and screaming into the night for help.

Halloween II (1981)

Halloween II (1981)

There Is Such a Thing as Too Much of Myers

At its best, Rick Rosenthal’s Halloween II (1981) sharpens this theme of the first film: the experiences of youth are not free of the threat of evil. Picking up the action directly where Halloween ended, the sequel contains many references to the “dead kids” of the first movie. As a result of Strode’s heroic efforts to battle Myers, she has escaped the mold of the helpless gothic damsel in distress. Yet she has arrived in a hospital, portrayed here as another dark and mysterious gothic setting. Intensifying the threat to youth, this location also includes newborn babies as the innocent but possibly imperiled counterpoint to the Evil that haunts the doors and corridors.

Thematic continuity turns out to be the only strong point of the sequel. We see too much of Myers; here, he’s no longer a looming Shape who appears from nowhere. There’s also more blood, which works against the judicious approach to screen violence in Carpenter’s film. Add to these conspicuous modifications the sexualization of violence and the film fades into irrelevance as a follow-up to a significant genre film.

One of the benefits of home video releases is the opportunity to provide additional context and/or retrospective assessment for a film through featurettes and other bonus features. This is especially true of a box set that presents a series of connected films that nonetheless vary wildly in narrative coherence and general quality. In “The Nightmare Isn’t Over—The Making Of Halloween II”, several members of the Halloween family acknowledge the shortcomings of the second film.

Tommy Lee Wallace, production designer and editor of the original Halloween, says he declined an offer to direct the film because the script seemed like “everything that Halloween was not.” He identifies a scene in which Myers inserts a needle into a victim’s eyeball as being emblematic of the script’s problems. Producer Irwin Yablans agrees, saying he prefers the “theater of the mind” style that Carpenter perfected in the first installment.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

Halloween III and the Intertexuality of the Saga’s Mythology

Wallace does helm the third film of the series, seen by many as the most drastic departure from Carpenter’s original vision. Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) does not feature Myers as the movie’s primary monster, and in its basic plot has no connection to the events of the first two movies. By all accounts a critical and commercial disappointment at the time of its release, the film now stands as one of the most entertaining and enduring entries of the Halloween saga.

In “Stand Alone: The Making of Halloween III: Season of the Witch,” included as a special feature, Wallace says that the script he updated for shooting was a largely unchanged draft originally written by English writer Nigel Kneale. Often characterized as a science fiction writer, Kneale had an ability to mine sci-fi for satirical, existential, and yes, horrific qualities. This unique approach distinguished him as a pioneer of the genre’s movement into the post-modern. Though the line dividing Wallace’s contributions from Kneale’s is not clearly drawn, Halloween III is pleasantly overstuffed. The film cannily communicates the origins and effects of the horror genre.

The plot of the film is easy to recount: Loutish doctor Daniel Challis (Tom Atkins) and young Ellie Grimbridge (Stacey Nelkin), daughter of a mysteriously murdered toy salesman, investigate the Silver Shamrock Novelties company. There is a killer secret behind the company’s sought-after Halloween masks, which are heavily advertised on television commercials throughout the movie. The basic scenario is packed with so many strange and/or referential details that repeated viewings yield a greater appreciation of the knowing tone Wallace was attempting.

Halloween as a series is indebted to certain aspects of classic horror film. Carpenter’s homage to The Thing from Another World (1951) in the original Halloween was an acknowledgement of movie monsters past as well as a nod towards his own future filmography. His version of that alien horror film, John Carpenter’s The Thing, would be released in 1982, just a few months before the debut of Halloween III.

One key to understanding Wallace’s balancing act between Carpenter’s vision (to which Myers is central) and his own standalone installment (in which Myers isn’t real) is to observe Halloween III‘s chosen allusions to horror films. As Challis sits in a bar, a trailer for none other than Carpenter’s Halloween plays on the nearby television. That the actual movie being advertised is brought to us by the fictional sponsor within the film (Silver Shamrock Novelties) is a humorous sort of intertextuality bridging the two mythologies, a transgression by way of tradition.



Nods to Italian gialli, which were present in Halloween II, increase in number and effect. Black-gloved hands are the implements of shocking murder scenes. The film is replete with threats to eyes and heads. Challis and Grimbridge behave like detectives, though neither is trained for that sort of work.

The main villain of the story is Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy), founder of Silver Shamrock Novelties. Cochran is not a masked killer, but rather a supplier of killer masks. In the figure of Cochran, Kneale and Wallace bridge future and ancient fears.

Cochran’s clockwork killers are robotic and uncanny in their proximity to business suit-clad corporate drones. The threat of television, by 1982 a decades-old theme in horror films, finds new life here in the risk such technology poses to kids transfixed by the commercials. In Halloween III, television actually rots their brains. Though Cochran uses modern technology to carry out his scheme, his sacrifice of a bunch of boys and girls is fueled by Stonehenge and designed to mark the occasion of Samhain.

The arrival of Challis and Grimbridge to the small town of Santa Mira brings to mind horror film classics like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and The Wicker Man (1973). Politeness is to be mistrusted. Serenity is sinister. Wallace and Cundey show us the means through which visitors are monitored. This theme of surveillance has only strengthened in the decades since the film’s release, as that technology has proliferated to fearful effect.

For many who write about horror films, a favorite subtext to identify is the critique of capitalism or the evil of corporations. These observations often spring more directly from the writers’ attitudes to society and economy than they do from any concrete source within the films. However certain movies such as Alien (1979) use corporate avarice as a significant driver of plot. Halloween III is not as serious-minded a film as Alien, but its portrayal of corporate villainy is admirably straightforward. And Cochran is doubly scary because he is a self-styled god of a corporate enterprise as well as a man driven by a greater supernatural wickedness, one that has nothing to do with the bottom line.

In summary, there is so much happening in Halloween III that some of it is bound to get away from Wallace. Critics are correct to question the minimal characterization of Challis as a doctor and husband. And O’Herlihy deliciously delivers details of Cochran’s scheme, but the mechanics of his sinister magic are puzzling. And to whom is Challis shouting over the phone at the film’s end? The FCC? Television stations? No one knows. Viewers and critics in 1982 were understandably perplexed. But the present day is much more amenable to Halloween III‘s messy mixture of horror, science fiction, and reflexive comedy, thanks in part to filmmakers such as Edgar Wright.

Wright, the writer/director of Shaun of the Dead (2004), Hot Fuzz (2007), and The World’s End (2013), cites Kneale as an inspiration for his work. In a 2013 interview with The Hollywood News, Wright said of Kneale’s influence on The World’s End, “There’s a particular sort of strain of British sci-fi that I thought felt darker and would tackle global events through a very narrow focus in terms of, this is just one town, but it has consequences over the whole planet.” It is a worthwhile experience to re-view Wright’s “Cornetto Trilogy” through the lens of Wallace’s deployment of similar themes in Halloween III.

Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)

Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)

Myers Goes Blonde in Halloween 4

In 1988, Halloween 4 arrived with the reactionary subtitle The Return of Michael Myers. This overt attempt to rebound from the failed departure of the third film is, conversely, too dependent on facets of the original plot. There is a patient transfer. Dr. Loomis chases Myers. A subplot involves babysitting. More interesting than the retread of the story events are more subtle details, such as the various uses of masks and faces within the production design.

The most memorable aspect of the film, directed by Dwight H. Little, is the performance of young Danielle Harris. She stars as Jamie Lloyd, the seven-year-old daughter of Strode and niece of Myers. Though her performance is unconvincing when she is made to recite routine dialogue scenes, Harris is superb when her character is being tormented. An early scene involving cruel classmates, and ongoing hauntings by “the boogeyman” and Myers, showcase Harris’ ability to express an uncomfortably real form of sadness onscreen. She singlehandedly creates a legitimate connective thread to the first film’s concerns about the fears and horrors of youth.

Ultimately, however, Halloween 4 is too problematic to recommend to casual viewers of the series. The audio track of this Blu-ray edition loses sync with the image for several minutes, perhaps befitting a movie with such careless oversights as Myers’ appearing-then-disappearing blonde hair. An unnecessary final plot development (twist?) feebly imitates the genuinely shocking prelude of Carpenter’s original film. In nearly every way, The Return of Michael Myers is a sequel that invites negative comparisons to the movie that began the series.

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