His face is blank and emotionless and yet is one of the most recognizable in all of horror. Never before has an entirely white rubber visage held in it such a force of terror for audiences for 35 years. And all they did was paint a William Shatner Star Trek mask.
From a humble beginning such as this, Michael Myers and a franchise was born. Beginning simply as a low-budget babysitter-stalking movie, it has spawned six sequels, a remake, a sequel to the remake, and a movie that has nothing to do with anything but is still worth talking about. As we near the holiday that bears its name, it’s time to take a look back at the one, the only Halloween.
In 1978, fresh off of the indie success of his modern day Rio Bravo, Assault on Precinct 13, writer-director John Carpenter and his producing partner Debra Hill got an offer to make another movie for executive producer Irwin Yablans. He gave Carpenter and Hill the simple mandate of it being a scary movie about babysitters being stalked. After the initial draft, fittingly called The Babysitter Murders, which took place over several days, was deemed too expensive, the decision was made to make it all happen in one night (to ease the cost of location and costume changes) and Yablans suggested it be on Halloween, the scariest night of the year that hadn’t been the subject of a movie to that point. The rest, as they say, was history.
Hill wrote much of the dialogue between the three central high school girls, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), Annie Brackett (Nancy Loomis), and Lynda van der Klok (P.J. Soles), while Carpenter instilled the script with the backstory of the killer, Michael Myers, through the pivotal character of his psychiatrist, Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance). It was a good splitting up of duties and served to continually up the stakes for the unaware girls while the audience learns of all the terror that is all around them.
Though the character is named Michael Myers, Nick Castle’s portrayal of the masked killer is credited as “The Shape” because that’s exactly what he is and should be. Ostensibly, he is the embodiment of everything scary and unknown in the world and everything awful that is waiting just around the darkened corner and behind the far-off hedge. He’s just a guy in a jumpsuit and a mask, and Castle’s performance is actually as devoid of “performance” as you could probably get, but it’s this lack of anything tangible that makes the Shape such a powerful image, and such a symbol of terror. More than even Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers is the omnipresent threat that will not go away. He’s not supernatural (really) and doesn’t have any discernible deficiency; he simply snapped as a little boy and never un-snapped.
Carpenter’s direction in the movie is masterful, and it’s due to mainly two things:
1) he always keeps the Shape just out of focus and away from the action, but always visible. He’s there at just about every moment. Despite what happens in later pictures, Laurie just happens to have to go drop something off at the Myers house and the escaped lunatic sees her. That’s all she does to warrant the night of terror she’s just about to receive.
2) He lets the lighting and camera work create the scares and not any gore. This is largely a bloodless film, for budgetary reasons, sure, but it doesn’t really need it. Sounds, images, and silence give us all the info our brains need to fill in the gaps and make it even scarier.
The other undeniable contribution that Carpenter gave to the film that is as, if not more, iconic as the Shape himself, is the score. It’s simple yet incredibly effective, and affecting. The theme is, of course, very memorable and troubling, but the incidental music, the stings and rumbles of the synthesizer, really make the movie pop and the tension build. Try watching Halloween with the music track off, somehow. It’s immediately less scary. This can be true for many horror films, but Halloween specifically has magic in the notes. The scene of Michael walking steadily across the street toward Laurie, who desperately tries to enter the locked house, is like the turn of a screw, and our fists clench that much tighter because of the music. It’s truly the greatest theme in horror, and everything that came after simply tried to ape it.
Halloween stands as just about a perfect horror movie and one that still stands up today, from the opening POV shot to the final shots of empty locations, letting us know the Shape could be anywhere. This could have easily been a one-off, and in many circles it should have been, but this was not to be the case. Carpenter expressed interest in doing a series of Halloween movies, each having a different story and not having anything to do with each other, but all falling on October the 31st. However, the money people wanted one more Michael Myers, and so we got “More of the Night HE Came Home.”
Halloween II came out in 1981, and was meant to take place immediately after the events of the first film, with Myers still on the loose and Dr. Loomis and Sheriff Brackett after him, all the while with Laurie receiving treatment at the local Haddonfield hospital. Carpenter and Hill returned to write and produce and left the direction to Rick Rosenthal, the pair turning their attentions to other movies like The Fog and Escape from New York. However, Carpenter came to direct additional scenes and reshoots for Halloween II uncredited, the full list of which can be found in various locations.
The sequel gave Michael Myers a backstory beyond that which was given to him in the first movie and forever changing the shape of the Shape. He was no longer a faceless, reasonless, emotionless killing machine; he now was the subject of an occult ritual involving Samhain, accounting for his seeming indestructibility, and it is revealed that, though he killed his older sister as a child, Michael had a younger sister who, it turns out, is Laurie Strode. It’s interesting, I suppose, but it lacks the initial menace and unknowable quality of the first film’s version of the character.
The bulk of the second film has Myers stalking the skeleton crew of the hospital, killing off various nurses, orderlies, and staff in increasingly horrible ways. The gore quotient of this film, which is now in a post-Friday the 13th world, is much higher and more graphic than its predecessor. Michael stabs people with hypodermic needles, burns people in hot water, and even crushes somebody’s head. It’s well done, but somehow less effective. Nothing wrong with gore, per say, but it took the character, especially now that he was played by stunt man Dick Warlock instead of regular dude Nick Castle, into the realm of the hulking slasher. At least they kept the mask relatively the same.
Halloween II, despite its shortcomings, was a big success, making $25 million domestically, allowing Carpenter to produce a third film the following year, this time turning away from the Myers storyline (which effectively ended here) in favor of the first in what would be an anthology series: Halloween III: Season of the Witch. The film was directed by Carpenter’s childhood friend and production designer Tommy Lee Wallace, who also got the sole writing credit, despite the fact that sci-fi legend Nigel Kneale and Carpenter himself did versions of the script. If they were going to make a movie that had little to do with the predecessors, this is probably the furthest they could go.
The film concerns a sinister Halloween mask company, Silver Shamrock, which has a series of catchy and insipid television commercials for their three varieties of mask, who are using the masks, microchips, subliminal signals, and ancient witchcraft to turn the wearers’ heads into a writing bag of snakes, maggots, and cockroaches. Pretty normal, right? After a bizarre murder, Dr. Dan Challis (Tom Atkins) and the daughter of one of the victims (Stacey Nelkin) travel to the secluded country town that is home to the factory, and little else. There they meet the CEO of the company, an Irishman named Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy), who seems pleasant and helpful… AT FIRST. He, it turns out, wants to resurrect the true meaning of Samhain and bring about the death of millions.
This is really more of a body snatchers/robot replica/witchcraft hybrid film, and on its own merit, it works rather well. It’s very gory, which is part of the reason Kneale took his name off of it, but it’s no worse than most horror of its kind at the time. But, because it had Halloween in the title, and that it wasn’t marketed the way Carpenter and Hill wanted, the large moviegoing public was left confused, angry, and unsatisfied. It’s not the film’s fault, nor Wallace’s, who directed a very creepy and atmospheric apocalypse movie, but that didn’t save it. If it had just been titled Season of the Witch, it might be better regarded. Alack and alas, that is not the case.
Everyone thought the franchise was over until in 1988 when Moustapha Akkad, who had exec-produced the earlier films and owned the rights still, decided to resurrect Michael Myers for Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, proclaiming grandly that the movie was back and so was the guy with the white face. Sort of. The mask in this movie is totally different, and even less expressive than it had been before. It brought the franchise up to speed with the times, in which Jason had taken control of the slasher genre, which was about to see the 8th Friday the 13th outing.
This new film surmises that Michael Myers survived the explosion at the end of Halloween II (even though he was totally and completely immolated) and has been in a coma ever since. However, upon hearing hospital personal say that his only living relative, his young niece Jamie Lloyd (Danielle Harris), the daughter of the now-deceased Laurie Strode, is alive and well and living with a new family, Uncle Mikey sits up and heads to torment a new group of kids. Luckily for them, kind of, Dr. Loomis ALSO survived the massive, fiery explosion and, though scarred, is available to help fend off his nemesis.
While Jamie may be the focal point of the film, the real main character is her teenaged foster sister, Rachel Carruthers (Ellie Cornell), easily the most likeable character in any of these movies since Laurie herself, and really the last truly interesting heroine. Though she has a boyfriend, a rarity for the “final girl,” he’s fooling around behind her back with the new sheriff’s slutty daughter. It’s okay, she gets IMPALED ON A SHOTGUN, so she gets her just desserts.
There’s a great deal of excellent carnage and even a pretty impressive chase scene toward the end of the movie, and it all comes down to Jamie attempting to reach her uncle’s long-dormant humanity, failing, and him being shot by every bullet and shell in the greater Illinois area and falling down a mineshaft. The movie ends with Jamie taking up the mantle of her seemingly-deceased uncle by stabbing her foster mom with a pair of scissors whilst wearing a clown costume, a la the original.
It’s a bit of a dumb ending but, while sleazier, Halloween 4 is probably the best of the sequels, with due reverence to part 2. There’s something about it that is altogether creepy and of the time without entirely turning its back on the traditions laid forth by the original. Donald Pleasance solidified himself as being intrinsically tied to the series evermore with his appearances in this and the two subsequent films. He is 100% Michael’s “Ahab,” if we subscribe to the kind of labeling done by Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, which we all should. In summation, Halloween 4 is not the best, but pretty good.
This is totally in opposition to the abominable sequel Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers. It basically spits in the face of everything part four tried to do, even though the fifth chapter is supposed to pick up immediately thereafter. The biggest indicator of crappiness of this movie is that Michael, after falling down the mineshaft, riddled with bullets, somehow doesn’t die and floats down a river, only to be taken in by some dude in a shack. They even go so far as to show the scenes from the previous film… but his mask is suddenly different! It doesn’t even look the same, aside from being white with slicked-back hair. It’s clearly too big around the neckpiece and flaps goofily.
The fault for much of the crappiness of this movie falls on its director and co-writer, Dominique Othenin-Girard, who went on to direct the masterpiece that is The Omen IV: The Awakening. Othenin-Girard actively decided to do whatever the hell he felt like, including making Jamie mute and in a mental hospital, killing off Rachel very early on in an undignified manner, and leaving most of the “sistering” duties to Rachel’s most irritating and ditzy friend Tina (Wendy Kaplan). It’s brutal for no reason, and Michael does things he as a character wouldn’t do, like killing people in broad daylight. It’s just a very, very, stupid and disappointing movie that seemingly ends with Jamie being brought back to the world of the living.
And then, in the next movie, she dies right away. The 1995 installment, Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, was written by a young fan of the franchise, Daniel Farrands, and picks up a lot and runs with the earlier film’s never-explained “Man in Black” subplot, having to do with the person or people behind the whole Samhain occult stuff that explains Michael’s immortality. Is this movie good? No, it is not. Is it interesting? Kind of. Have I seen it several times anyway? Of course.
Jamie Lloyd (now played, briefly, by J.C. Brandy) is now 15 and has escaped from the Man in Black who has impregnated her. After delivering, she attempts to flee, but Uncle Michael kills her with a corn thresher on a farm after killing quite a few other people, though he can’t find the baby. Elsewhere, ol’ Dr. Loomis is retired, but Dr. Wynn (a nobody character from the first movie) wants him to return, given that Michael is still out there. Tommy Doyle, the boy Laurie babysat in the first movie, is now a grown up played by Paul Rudd, of all people, in his first film appearance. He is obsessed with Michael Myers after his fateful night and also with the people who live in the old Myers house: the relatives of Laurie’s adopted family, the Strodes. Michael kills a whole lot of people. It ends on a weird cliffhanger.
In 1998, after the success of Scream, Dimension decided to make another movie in the franchise, but (wisely) ignoring the previous three movies. Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (or as I will henceforth call it, Halloween Water) saw Jamie Lee Curtis return to the franchise as Laurie Strode, now living in a completely different town under the name Keri Tate with her son (Josh Hartnett). Michael Myers comes to find her and finish what he started, making mincemeat of lots of people in town including his sister’s boyfriend (Adam Arkin) and a security guard (LL Cool J).
Halloween Water plays a lot more like a modern-era slasher movie than an old-school one, but there’s some decently scary moments. At the end of the film, Michael Myers is in the back of an ambulance, presumably knocked unconscious, and wakes up and crashes the vehicle in the woods. He’s pinned under some debris and Keri/Laurie comes up to him with an axe. He reaches out to her and she reaches back before hacking his head off. So THAT should be the end of the franchise, right? Wrong-o!
In 2002, Rick Rosenthal of Halloween II returned to direct the eighth movie in the series: Halloween: Resurrection. “Resurrection” because Michael Myers got his head cut off at the end of Halloween Water, or so we thought. Turns out, in the storyline, that Michael traded places with the ambulance driver, putting tape over his mouth and making him wear the mask. Laurie actually decapitated a completely innocent man, which has sent her into a crazy-shame spiral ending up in a mental institution. As the movie begins, Michael goes there and finally finishes off his sister once and for all. Mostly, I think, because Jamie Lee Curtis wanted to not have to do these movies anymore.
The rest of Resurrection is so painfully of its time as to be completely archaic today. An internet reality show (how novel!) is being filmed in the old Myers house, and the contestants each wear camera rigs and stuff. This is the brain child of Busta Rhymes and Tyra Banks, so you know it’s a pretty good idea. While people get killed by Myers in the house, kids at a Halloween party watch and think it’s all fake. I really can’t read this social commentary; it’s much too subtle, he said sarcastically. Resurrection is a very dumb movie, and almost was the sputtering end of a once-great franchise…
…Until 2007, when Rob Zombie, director of House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects, decided to make a prequel/remake/reimagining of Halloween showing much more of the child’s past, and showing what a gross and trashy family he came from. For about the film’s first half hour or more, we see Michael as a child who kills his sister, her boyfriend, and his mother’s abusive boyfriend and is put into a mental institution where he’s looked after by Dr. Loomis (Malcolm McDowell in a bit of brilliant casting). At a certain point, for seemingly no reason, the troubled but talkative Michael turns catatonic and becomes a massive brute played by pro wrestler Tyler Mane. He escapes and the rest of the movie plays like a sped-up version of Carpenter’s original, with the added tension of knowing Laurie Strode (now played by Scout Taylor-Compton) is Michael’s baby sister from the beginning. As far as remakes go, Zombie’s version is probably the least offensive fans of the original could want.
And, I’m going to admit to being a bad Halloween fan, because I’ve never seen Zombie’s 2011 sequel to his 2007 remake. It was the tenth, and, as of this writing, last entry into the storied history of Michael Myers and his now-infamous mask. I wonder: after a certain point, when Michael needs to acquire a new face covering, does he just go straight to the Michael Myers mask in the store? Because they’re everywhere.
At any rate, Halloween is a franchise that has stood the test of time better than it ever probably should have, due almost entirely to the effectiveness and durability of Carpenter’s genre-defining work in the first movie, lo those 35 years ago. It never became the jokey, gimmick-fueled movies that the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street films did and, a couple of clunkers aside, generally maintains a certain level of quality, even if it’s a level that can’t match the film that started it all.
This Halloween season, revisit 1978 Haddonfield if you haven’t in a while. It’s not a bad way to spend an evening. And if you are a frequent visitor, take one of the later jaunts to the neighborhood, perhaps go to the hospital or have some Water, or even go to the Silver Shamrock factory. You might not get out alive, but you’ll certainly be glad you went.