Oct 10, 2012

DAY TEN: UNSUNG HORRORS – HALLOWEEN 4: THE RETURN OF MICHAEL MYERS

Every once in a while, a genuinely great horror movie—one that would rightfully be considered a classic, had it gotten more exposure and love at the box office—makes an appearance. It comes, no one notices, and it goes. But movies like this are important. They need to be treasured and remembered. If intelligent, original horror is supported, then that's what we'll begin to receive, in droves. We need to make these movies a part of the legendary genre we hold so dear. Because these are the unsung horrors. These are the movies that should have been successful, but were instead ignored. They should be rightfully praised for the freshness and intelligence and craft that they have contributed to our genre.

So, better late than never, we’re going to celebrate them now… one at a time.

Dir. Dwight Little
1988
Trancas International Films
United States

Halloween is a classic. No doubt about it. Carve it in stone next to “water is wet” and “fire is hot.” That statement will be true from now until the end of time. Halloween 2…not so much. It kind of tries, and the execution is halfway decent (only because it apes Carpenter's style, right down to using the same DP from Part 1), but the sole reason it exists (besides money) is for the third-act maguffin which reveals that Laurie Strode and Michael Myers are siblings. Halloween 2 never had a chance with critics, but it was never really meant to be a critic’s movie, anyway. Then came Halloween 3: Season of the Witch, which blew the minds of audiences everywhere, but for all the wrong reasons. “Where is Michael Myers? Who is this Irish guy? Fucking Stonehenge?” Season of the Witch is cheesy great, but it’s not a Michael Myers movie, so it took a long time to be accepted. (Looking back, it was a wise move by Carpenter et al. to try and introduce the concept of releasing Halloween-inspired films every couple of years, which didn't try to continue the Michael Myers saga, but would instead be their own standalone adventures. Sadly, the death rattle for this idea sounded during the dismal opening weekend of Season of the Witch.)

Thanks to its lineage, Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers never really had a chance, critically. First, it had the extreme misfortune of being released with that damned “4” in the title, and to this day it’s doubtful any film series has received commendation for its 4th entry (except maybe for the first batch of Star Trek films, which I admittedly know shit about). Second, it seemed like a typical call-and-response move bankrolled by clueless movie execs. “Fuck, trying something new didn’t work! Let’s go back to what we know brings in the crowds!” And so the title couldn't have been more direct - Michael Myers is back, folks. And that damned mask of his was made the forefront of all marketing.

Because of this, Halloween 4’s critical response – you know, of the “important folks” – was doomed from the start.

For Unsung Horrors, I typically try to choose a film that was released with little fanfare, remained under everyone’s radar, and vanished into near obscurity. This edition of Unsung is a different beast. Everyone and their mother knows the Halloween series made it to at least Part 4. It was a juggernaut in theaters upon its release, and not to mention, if folks have seen Halloween 8 (and God help them if they did), it’s safe to assume they knew at one point a Halloween 4 had to exist.

No, I chose Halloween 4 for one basic and important reason: it is not the bloody, classless affair that most “legitimate” (there are those quotes again) critics want to label it. Reviews for the film back in ’88 contained nothing short of the typical vitriol predictably lobbed at the horror genre. Gore! Exploitation! Teen hijinks! But those go-to slanders aren't really accurate, because Halloween 4 is actually pretty fucking good—not just from a sequel standpoint, but an in-general standpoint.


If the series hadn’t already fallen off the rails after the zzz Halloween 2, and the unaccepted direction change with Season of the Witch – if Halloween 4 had actually been released directly following the first film – it would be the Jaws 2 of the franchise. It would be recognized as an effort not nearly as effective as the film it is following, but still pretty decent in its own right. The possibility of recognizing a quality sequel after the previous two had marred everyone’s willingness to sift through franchise baggage and recognize a gem for what it is—well, that simply vanished. And much like Jaws 2, worse and worse sequels would follow Halloween 4, allowing it to really shine and prove that sequels can be done well, whether or not they are brought to life by only dollar signs.

By the time 1988 rolled around, franchise godfather Moustapha Akkad (RIP) and John Carpenter/Debra Hill (RIP) had already fought in court over the rights to the franchise. For reasons beyond my understanding, Team Carpenter lost, and the rights reverted solely to Akkad. At this point, Carpenter had long peaced-out of the franchise and was busy putting the finishing touches on the second movie of his Apocalypse Trilogy. Additionally, Jamie Lee Curtis had waved bye-bye to the horror genre, having been a part of Halloween and its sequel, as well as The Fog, Prom Night, and Terror Train. By now, Trading Places had put her on the map, and her non-horror (read: serious) offers began rolling in.

No Laurie Strode? Uh oh. What’s a screenwriter to do?

Concoct a relative to take up the mantle and become Haddonfield’s whipping boy. Or girl.

Jamie Lloyd (Danielle Harris) is nine years old and Halloween is just around the corner. She wants to be happy about it like most children her age would be. But she can’t. She’s still reeling from the car accident that claimed the life of her mother (Laurie Strode) and father (assumed to be Jimmy, the surviving [?] paramedic from Halloween 2). Jamie has been adopted by the Carruthers family, which includes Rachel, her older stepsister. But this tragedy is not the only thing weighing down on our little protagonist. No, in a move wisely avoiding seeming derivative of the third-act twist of Halloween 2, Jamie Lloyd is fully aware of who she is, and who Michael Myers is. She knows that the masked maniac responsible for the deaths of sixteen people a decade ago (an inaccurately high figure used both in marketing materials and in the film itself) is also her uncle. She knows about his crimes, the ten-year-old Halloween massacre, and even about his white, featureless mask. This knowledge, too, haunts her, leading her to have waking nightmares about seeing him in her bedroom, or in the closet, or under the bed.


While Halloween 4 marks the first of several appearances of Danielle Harris throughout this franchise, it also marks the return of a familiar, reassuring, and haunted face: Donald Pleasence, who returns for a third time to the series (in a way that tests the durability of the phrase “suspension of disbelief”). Despite his valiant attempts to blow up both Michael and himself at the conclusion of Halloween 2, both of them have survived. And when word hits that the transport vehicle tasked with taking Michael Myers to another facility is found on the side of the road, the driver and doctors dead, and Michael missing, Dr. Loomis straps on his trusty trench coat, unpacks his steel-plated pistol, and heads to Haddonfield.

What follows is another night of mayhem perpetrated by the boogeyman himself. Once again, Michael’s carnage fills the streets as he dispatches one victim after another. He has ten years of quiet to make up for, and people are stabbed, torn apart, electrocuted, and crushed. And despite how it sounds, it’s really not all that violent. And not in a “compared to today’s standards” kind of way, but in an actual way. Well, at least not that violent. That same year, entries in the Friday the 13th, Phantasm, and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises were also released, and all perpetrated a level of violence against their audiences that made Halloween 4 look tame by comparison. Yes, though in Halloween 4 thumbs go through foreheads and shotguns through people, the filmmakers were more than wise to look back on Carpenter’s original movie for inspiration. Dark and shadows, fleeting glimpses of The Shape, an emphasis on developed and likeable characters—these are things that made the first film great, and they are also the same things that make Halloween 4 more than just another sequel. But in a move echoing that of Halloween 2's troubled production, several days of additional shooting occurred strictly to beef up the movie's violence, because (wisely) at that point, Halloween 4 had been rather light on blood. Because of this, the violence that does occur feels jarring and out of sync with the tone the movie is trying to create. It's not really a detriment, however; by this time, Friday the 13th had given audiences brutal deaths, and A Nightmare on Elm Street fantastic ones, and so producers felt inclined to give their own audiences a little bit of both. And when this violence does occur, it takes you by surprise.

There’s a reason why Danielle Harris is so highly praised among Halloween fans, even if she did appear in most of the series’ lesser entries (especially Zombie’s complete ass-fuck attempts.) Though she only worked scantly in television before her feature film debut with Halloween 4, she proved, at nine years old, that she had the chops to be a sympathetic and likeable lead. Her job was to carry the movie on her shoulders. Sure, Dr. Loomis was there to help even out the weight, but it was Jamie Lloyd who was in true danger. She was the one The Shape was stalking. And if she, like so many other child actors, proved irritating, unlikeable, or not up to the task of dealing with the mature themes the film presented, then Halloween 4 never would have had a chance.

The Halloween series was not like Friday the 13th, a series ironically inspired by the former. While F13th utilized revolving-door casts for every movie, an emphasis was made throughout the Halloween series on featuring the same actors (or at least characters). Jamie Lee did Parts 1, 2, H20, and (ugh) Resurrection. She even provided a voice cameo for Season of the Witch, as well as appeared on a television playing the first film.  Danielle Harris did Parts 4 and 5 (while an oddly aged version of her character appeared in Part 6) as well as Zombie’s entries. Pleasence did one entry after the other until dying in post-production on Part 6 in 1995. The familiarity of these actors and characters is the same reason why the Phantasm series is looked upon with such reverence: Because these series are family affairs. We like seeing the same faces return time and again. We like the notion of catching up to see how life has treated our characters since the last film. If the filmmakers have done their job right, we do care. And this really does make all the difference in the world.

The “final girl,” as it’s become commonly known in the slasher genre, was once embodied by only Jamie Lee in the series’ first two films. This time, however, the idea of that final girl has been separated and distributed between Jamie Lloyd and Rachel Carruthers. Ellie Cornell as Rachel also proves a more-than-competent lead. She's Ripley-tough - not just against Michael Myers, but in every day life. Jamie, though showing strength and resolve at several key points, is the victim. She is the one who will endure most of The Shape’s wrath and unending rage. Because of her age and emotional baggage, she has no choice but to be weak. Rachel, however, must be the strong one. She must be the one to become a bad-ass when the time calls for it. She is the one who will go above and beyond to save her stepsister. Once again, it is a strength of the screenplay that, instead of just introducing a replacement heroine, two characters were created to carry the weight.

One of the best scripted scenes in the film is the conversation between Dr. Loomis and the eccentric old Reverend Sayer, who is kind enough to give the doctor a ride after he is left stranded at a gas station following an explosive confrontation with The Shape. The two share a drink, not to mention a conversation about the apocalypse. "It always has a face and a name," Mr. Sayer explains, and Dr. Loomis is quick to agree. Both men understand that they are seeking the same thing, but both are looking for it in very different places. This scene could easily not have happened, and most likely would not have in more modern films of this sort, but it's small touches like this that make Halloween 4 worth praising. Though this theme of end-times is only touched on, just the fact that it was included elevates this entry.  


As for Donald Pleasence…what is left to say about him? The words “living legend” don’t even begin to do the man justice. When Rob Zombie announced cast member after cast member for his Halloween remake, fan boys everywhere waited with bated breath to see who would don the patented Loomis trench coat and obsessive madness. When Malcolm McDowell was announced, many were excited, but many were not. Zombie angrily took to his MySpace (remember MySpace?) as well as used an interview opportunity with Rue Morgue to voice his disdain for the negative reception. He small-mindedly deduced that, had it not been for the Halloween franchise, no one would even know who Donald Pleasence was.
"How many horror fans keep saying they were Donald Pleasence fans before Halloween? Like, did they ever even hear of Donald Pleasence before Halloween?"
- Rob Zombie
It was that comment that made me lose all respect for Rob Zombie as a filmmaker, a so-called horror fan, a pop culture representative, and anything else he was purported to be. Because Donald Pleasence wasn’t just Dr. Loomis throughout his illustrious career. He was Himmler in The Eagle Has Landed. He was the slowly-blinding Blythe in The Great Escape. He was the Devil in The Greatest Story Ever Told. He was Blofield for fuck’s sake, the iconic Bond villain who would go on to inspire Mike Myers’ (irony!) creation of Dr. Evil. Loomis isn't the only reason "horror fans" love and respect Donald Pleasence, but thankfully Halloween did expose him to an audience of as-appreciative fans who might not have yet crossed paths with him.

In Halloween 4, Pleasence turns the Loomis up to eleven. The guilt and determination that had driven him thus far has now malformed into maddening obsession. He officially becomes Ahab. And he will not fail this time. He cannot. Limping on a cane, and much slower than he was a decade ago, he knows he cannot prove a physical match against his former patient. But he does not let that deter him. To give up is to die, and only death will stop him from chasing down his white whale.

It would seem that Sheriff Brackett (played by Charles Cyphers in the previous films) has retired and moved down to Florida. Whether this was the actor refusing to return or an organic choice during the scripting process, we simply don’t know. But the creation of Sheriff Meeker, and the subsequent casting of character actor Beau Starr, was an inspired choice. Starr’s portrayal of Meeker as a no-nonsense lawman turns a potentially forgettable supporting role into strong character work, and his first scene with Dr. Loomis sets the stage for what will soon follow. Upon Loomis entering the Haddonfield Police Department and telling them of Michael’s imminent return to their town, Sheriff Meeker looks all but surprised to see him there, almost as if he was expecting this would one day come—not Michael’s return, however, but Loomis’, propelled and maddened by years of haunting regret. Meeker wants to be indignant and dismissive—he doesn’t want to believe that it’s true. But once he does, his protective and unyielding instincts kick in. He proves to be a powerful and dominating figure, more so than Sheriff Brackett ever was. Because Sheriff Brackett represented a pre-tragedy small town, where nothing ever happened except for kids “parking and getting high.” Sheriff Meeker represents the post-tragedy Haddonfield. He's optimistic, but not naive. In a town that has been silent since Michael’s 1978 rampage, Sheriff Meeker is on reserve just in case shit should ever again hit the fan. Once he is convinced of the town’s real danger, those considered likely victims are immediately scooped up and brought to the sheriff’s insanely fortified home: steel doors, a CB radio powered by a generator, and an arsenal the NRA would salivate over. Like any lawman presiding over a town in which a tragedy took place, Meeker always wanted to believe nothing like that would ever happen on his watch…but just in case, he wanted to be ready.

George Wilbur provides a curious but perfectly satisfying performance as The Shape, which is sometimes stunted by the terrible plain-Jane mask, itself having devolved into something a little less interesting than its last iteration. And those damn shoulder pads Wilbur wears don't help matters either when it comes to Michael's intimidation. It makes him look like he's wearing several mom sweaters beneath his jumpsuit. But he has the slow walk down pat, and when he moves towards his victims, he does so with exacting and particular movements. He’s not in a hurry to kill you, because he knows you’ve got nowhere to go.

Though his screen time is limited, even Michael Pataki as Dr. Hoffman, Michael’s new doctor, adds a certain dynamic to the film. He plays the “other” doctor—the one not chasing down evil in the night, but faced with the bureaucracy of having to deal with keeping a comatose masked murderer in his hospital. He doesn’t want Michael destroyed, vanquished, or exorcised of the supposed evil inside him—he just wants him gone. He wants him to be someone else’s problem. And eventually, he becomes just that—Haddonfield’s. His last scene sees him watching from the shore as Dr. Loomis, undaunted, walks directly into a lake to examine the bloodied and mangled ambulance that has been driven off the road. Dr. Hoffman sees that Dr. Loomis had been right all along, and the realization of that is reflected in his eyes. Perhaps the (unrealized) groundwork for a new Dr. Loomis is being laid?


Director Dwight Little (of Marked for Death fame, which also stars Danielle Harris), deserved a better career than what he ended up with. After dabbling in some additional obscure features, he made the successful jump to television, having directed episodes of “The X Files,” “Millennium,” “Prison Break,” and “24,” among many others. Much like the common practice of today’s Hollywood, it was an interesting independent film called Bloodstone that got him the gig of taking on more general studio fare. But he proved he was up to the challenge. His emphasis on character and story, mood and creep, propels this particular entry miles above the others. (Trivia! Quentin Tarantino agrees, calling Halloween 4 the best installment in the series following the original. I’m inclined to agree.) Little knows when to dial it back and rest on suspense, and he knows when to kick things into gear and get the pulse racing. The opening credit crawl of the movie doesn't feature nonsense montages of newspaper clippings to get us all caught up, nor does it launch right into the events of the film. No, Little captures static shots of small town Americana on the cusp of Halloween. Familiar icons, like pumpkins, skeletons, and scarecrows wielding mighty scythes are on display. And it's there for no other reason than to tell you that behind Haddonfield's Halloween is an underbelly of fear and blood. For some places in the world, it's not just another holiday, but a reminder of wounds long scarred but nowhere near healed.

The last act of the movie, in which a caravan of truck-driving good-ol-boys scoop up Jamie and Rachel to transport them safely out of town, is immensely suspenseful. Alan Howarth’s too-synthy but still-great rendition of the Halloween theme rockets across the screen as Michael dispatches one man after the other, tearing faces, stabbing spines, and throwing them off the moving truck like they were rolled-up newspapers. The entire sequence is sublimely realized, and not only that, is in its own way a sequel to the events that took place in Meeker’s house. Like the first Halloween, the action builds and builds before ending (?) inside a dark suburban home. But unlike the first film, Michael Myers is not yet done with our characters. There’s more carnage to unfold, and this leads to the highway chase sequence, which works like gangbusters.

The ending is wisely constructed, in that while it serves as a perfectly satisfying conclusion to Part 4, it also doesn’t present too many obstacles to kick off a potential Part 5. (Ironic, in that Halloween 5 completely bungles building off this ending sequence, anyway.)

Funnily enough, many fans have expressed their disappointment in that the final development presented in Halloween 4 – that of Jamie Lloyd having inherited her uncle’s madness and stabbing her stepmother – was not explored in the next installment. Even Donald Pleasence himself found that to be an interesting idea, and it had him enthusiastic about returning for another a go-around.

To me, such an idea would not have worked. And, while Halloween 3 is a perfectly entertaining film, its reputation and box office performance proved that. Halloween and Michael Myers are one entity. He remains the creepiest of the masked and silent killers, and he needed to remain the focal point of the franchise.

Regardless, that last-act twist, with Jamie holding the bloody scissors and Loomis seeing everything he feared taking shape before his eyes, causing him to shout himself hoarse before beginning to sob, has never once failed to give me chills.

Jamie Lloyd all grown up.
God. Damn.

Halloween 4 was the beginning and the end of the Halloween franchise, really. It was the last great entry of the A story, which was still continuing the events of the first film. Part 5 and 6 would then botch the story so much, and introduce so many oddball developments (like the fucking Man in Black subplot), that no writer even knew how to clean it all up. Halloween: H20 – the B story – would eventually come along and sweep the events of Halloween 4-6 under the rug and pretend they never occurred, and while this was certainly for the best, it’s also a little saddening in a way. Laurie Strode’s return to the franchise meant retconning her daughter completely out of existence. Also sad that while Halloween: H20 is a fun time, it’s no Halloween 4.

No comments:

Post a Comment