Soundtrack Review: ‘Assault on Precinct 13/Dark Star’

Assault on Precinct 13 Dark Star soundtrack cover

Of all the soundtracks to John Carpenter’s movies, the ones for “Assault on Precinct 13” and “Dark Star” remain the hardest to find. “Dark Star’s” soundtrack has been out of print for years and is basically comprised of dialogue and music from the movie. As for “Assault on Precinct 13,” its soundtrack was available only as a bootleg until 2003 when a French company named Record Makers gave it its first commercial release. But now BSX Records has released “Assault on Precinct 13/Dark Star,” a soundtrack which contains the music from both movies and has been newly recorded by Alan Howarth, and the results are truly fantastic.

“Assault on Precinct 13” and “Dark Star” were Carpenter’s first movies which he directed and did film music for, and they were extremely low budget affairs which forced him to make the best use of whatever he had available. The soundtracks for each ended up inaugurating what is known as “the Carpenter sound” which was expanded on in later films such as “Halloween II” and “Prince of Darkness.” The theme to “Assault on Precinct 13” is one of Carpenter’s most memorable, and it was inspired in part by Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” His music for “Dark Star” helped to illustrate the movie’s more thoughtful elements as well as its most comically absurd.

Other artists have re-recorded Carpenter’s music over the years with varying degrees of success, but BSX Records really lucked out here in getting Howarth to recreate these two soundtracks. A highly regarded sound designer and pioneering electronic musician, Howarth worked with Carpenter on the scores to many of his movies all the way up to 1988’s “They Live.” With “Assault on Precinct 13” and “Dark Star,” Howarth doesn’t try to update either soundtrack, but instead aims to remain faithful to Carpenter’s original versions and how they sounded back in the 1970’s. The only real difference is while both soundtracks were originally recorded in mono, Howarth gets the opportunity to record them in stereo which allows for a more powerful presentation.

“Assault on Precinct 13” ends up sounding better than ever here, and the main theme will give your stereo speakers a really strong workout. Track 16 is my favorite on the disc as Howarth takes the movie’s theme and adds orchestral elements on top of the electronic ones. It’s the closest he comes to updating any of Carpenter’s soundtracks, but the theme still stays very close to its original sound.

As for “Dark Star,” Howarth sounds like he’s having a blast recreating all those primitive computerized sounds which dominated the score for the 1974 movie. He even recreates “Doolittle’s Solo” which had the character of the same name performing on a makeshift instrument made up of bottles and tin cans, and he adds in those crazy sounds which emanate from that beach ball of an alien. In addition, composer Dominik Hauser arranges and performs a new version of the song “Benson, Arizona.”

This CD also comes with a highly informative booklet entitled “Assault on a Dark Star: The Musical Pulse of Early John Carpenter” written by Randall D. Larson, a film music columnist and author of the book “Musical Fantastique: 100 Years of Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Horror Film Music.” Larson goes into excellent detail over the challenges Carpenter faced in making both “Assault on Precinct 13” and “Dark Star,” and of how he went about created the music for each. Larson also talks in depth with Howarth on how he went about re-recording the scores for this release and the types of equipment he had to work with.

When it comes to re-creating a well-known soundtrack, composers and musicians usually find themselves at a loss. Whether they do a good job or not, they end up giving us something which makes us pine for the original version. The great thing about BSX Records’ “Assault on Precinct 13/Dark Star” release is how Alan Howarth makes both film scores sound as they were always meant to sound. Listening to them is like traveling back in time to the 1970’s when these two movies came out, and it makes for one of the best soundtrack re-recordings I have heard in a long time.

Click here to purchase a CD copy of the soundtracks.

Click here to purchase the digital copy of the soundtracks.

 

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All-Time Favorite Trailers: ‘Maximum Overdrive’

Okay let’s be honest, “Maximum Overdrive” is not a good movie, and that is being generous. It is one of the many adaptations of a Stephen King novel or short story, in this case “Trucks,” and it also marked the feature film directorial debut of King as well. The fact he hasn’t directed a movie since should be no surprise to anyone who has seen this one. The acting is embarrassingly over the top, the editing very sloppy, and not even a rock and roll score by AC/DC is enough to lift, as King described it, this “moron movie” out of the cinematic abyss.

But when all is said and done, the trailer for “Maximum Overdrive” is one of my favorite movie trailers of all time. Watching King gleefully describe what he has in store for us makes me want to watch this movie again, and that’s even though I already know just how bad it is.

Right from the start, King makes it clear to the audience how “Maximum Overdrive” will be a unique movie compared to the others based on his work, and as the camera closes in on his face, he gives off a wide-eyed expression and a twisted smile which quickly reminds us how this is the same man who wrote “Carrie,” “Salem’s Lot” and “The Shining.” I love how he talks about how he “sort of enjoyed” directing a motion picture, but it makes me wonder if this was the cocaine talking as he later admitted how “coked out of his mind” he was while making this Golden Raspberry nominated film.

It was also a brilliant move to use the “Chariots of Pumpkins” theme John Carpenter and Alan Howarth composed for the “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” soundtrack here as the wonderfully creepy music adds to King’s creepy appearance while he stands in front of the Green Goblin mask which is featured prominently on the front of the biggest truck in “Maximum Overdrive.”

The worst parts of each actor’s performance are kept to a bare minimum here, but the annoying nature of the character Yeardley Smith plays is something even the makers of this trailer could not hide from the public. But do not feel bad for Smith. She has more than persevered since “Maximum Overdrive” as she still is the voice of Lisa Simpson on “The Simpsons,” and it is enviable role for any actor which she has held onto now for decades.

When King points his finger at us and says “I’m going to scare the hell out of you and that’s a promise,” it is a wonderfully unsettling moment as those of us who are fans of his writing are well-aware of how often he has kept us up nights. Of course, this movie is anything but scary, so perhaps he was talking about one of his books instead without even realizing it.

In a world filled with an infinite number of movie trailers, the one for “Maximum Overdrive” stands out for me among so many others. Even though the movie it advertises proved to be a critical disaster, I still enjoy watching it from time to time as there are few other trailers like it.

 

 

There’s Nothing Like a Hot Summer Day in February

Burbank High School TrackOkay, it has been a very busy few weeks between working and training for the 2018 Los Angeles Marathon. After cutting short a run just a couple of miles before I could have made it to the finish line, I started to wonder if I would be better off running the half-marathon in March instead of the full 26.2 miles. But after forcing myself to do more cardio exercises throughout the week, I came back with a vengeance and surprised my fellow runners with my speed as we ran several laps on the Burbank High School track. Coach James wanted us to work on our tempo and run each mile faster than the previous one. Even with my pronounced belly, I held my own against my fellow Pablove Foundation runners who continue to run at a much faster pace than me. It even got to where I arrived back at the park only a few minutes after the last runner had left for the day.

The following week had us enduring our longest run yet – 20 miles. This took us further out into Burbank and Glendale than ever before, and I think we all ran through part of North Hollywood at one point. The longest runs are always the hardest for obvious reasons, but this 20-mile run had us enduring something more vicious: 90-degree weather. The heat was intense to where I couldn’t believe I allowed myself to continue. Seriously, I felt like Uma Thurman as she walked through the desert on her bare feet in “Kill Bill.”

Kill Bill Uma Thurman walking

We all must have gone through every single electrolyte drink available to us on this run, and it reminds me of how I need to bring some money next time so I can go by the nearest 7-Eleven if I ever need to for Gatorade or its equivalent. Also, I have long since run out of suntan lotion to where I wondered if I would get sunburned for the first time in years. Oh well, at least I got a good dose of Vitamin E… Or is it Vitamin D?

The weather in Los Angeles these past weeks has been seriously bipolar. During the day, it reaches temperatures cities should only experience during spring and summertime. At night, thinks get so frigid to where us Angelinos are suddenly reminded why God created sweaters. Running early in the morning allows us Pablove runners to escape the higher temperatures Southern California typically gives us more often than it should. But despite our best efforts, we still got caught in weather we typically live to avoid. While training for the LA Marathon takes place during the coldest months of the year, we Pablove runners still live in a place which doesn’t always have seasons.

When I finished the 20-mile run, I told Coach James how there is nothing like a hot summer day in February. He got a kick out of hearing me say this, and it’s always great to make your friends laugh. This isn’t even Hawaii, and yet it felt like we were suddenly much closer to the equator than we were ever led to believe. Let us pray things will not be overheating like a car engine when we run 26.2 miles.

This past Saturday had us doing the first of two recovery runs. We stayed in Griffith Park ran up and down the insane hill in the back of it twice. The first time we were told to run at an easygoing pace like we are going to on marathon day. The second time, however, we were to run up it at a much faster pace. This was all about improving our overall marathon time, but just staring at the hill was enough to make me say, “Bitch, please!”

In years previous, the coaches advised us not to wear headphones while running. This was done to keep us safe and aware of our surroundings, and it also allowed us to converse with our fellow runners so we would get to know one another better. But since I have spent more time this season running by my lonesome, I said screw it and brought along one of my two 160GB iPods. I have two of them because one is solely dedicated to containing film scores and soundtracks, and that was the one I brought for this run.

Actually, I did bring this same iPod with me the previous week, but I forgot to charge it up. Upon attempting to use it, the screen indicated it needed to be hooked up to a power source. This is code for, “you idiot!”

American Flyers movie poster

Music really did help me run up that merciless hill. One piece which did wonders for me was the theme from “American Flyers,” a movie about bicycle racing which co-starred Kevin Costner. Truth be told, I have not actually seen it all the way through, but I do remember the music from the movie’s trailers, and it is the kind of cheesy movie music which 1980’s movies typically employed more often than not.

During walk breaks, I kept choosing different pieces of music to listen to like Peter Gabriel’s “The Heat” from his soundtrack to “Birdy,” and the music composed and performed by John Carpenter and Alan Howarth for “Big Trouble in Little China” came in handy as well. Towards the last half of the run, John Powell’s adrenaline rush of a score for “The Bourne Ultimatum” helped me get over the top of the hill. I love Powell’s music for the Jason Bourne franchise as his scores make you feel the character’s desperation to stay alive as his antagonists continue to hunt him down whenever he is in their sights.

The Little Engine That Could

I tell you, every time I go up the hill in Griffith Park, I get reminded of the book “The Little Engine That Could.” You know, the one with the young train trying his best to ascend a hill while telling himself over and over, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” I wonder if anyone considered doing a follow up in which we catch up with that same train when he’s in his forties. Sure, the train may still think he can, but he most likely has put on a lot of weight since his glory days as his metabolism is not what it used to be, and the testosterone his body once thrived upon is now in short supply. I kept going up the hill saying to myself, “I think I can, I think I… Aw shit, I need to walk.” Seriously, we need these hills in our training as they will be part of the marathon course, but it takes no time for me to get winded as I attempt to ascend them. Just looking at it is enough to make me feel like those energy gels I just consumed won’t be nearly enough. Heck, I kept thinking of Roy Scheider’s classic scene in “Jaws” where he tells Robert Shaw, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

Well, I did make it back to our starting point in Griffith Park in one piece, and Coach James told me to wait a few days before doing my maintenance runs so my body could have time to recover from the soreness it was already feeling. After indulging in a Sausage McMuffin with Egg sandwich at McDonald’s, I went back to my apartment and took a super long nap as I didn’t get much sleep the night before.

BREAKFAST

This Saturday’s run will be another recovery run before we run the longest one of all – 23 miles. Till then, I need to keep up with my maintenance runs and stay hydrated. Granted, maybe I’ll have to occasional Jack and Coke, but alkaline water should be at the top of my menu along with Gatorade and Pedialyte.

FUNDRAISING UPDATE: I want to thank all of you for donating to my fundraising efforts for The Pablove Foundation, an organization determined to find a cure for pediatric cancer. So far, I have raised $891 towards my goal of $1,500. Be sure to make a tax-deductible donation sooner rather than later. If all you can donate is $5, I will happily accept that. Heck, if all my Facebook friends donated just $5 each, I would be exceeding my goal by quite a margin.

CLICK HERE TO MAKE A DONATION TO THE PABLOVE FOUNDATION.

 

ALSO, CHECK OUT SOME OF THE GREATEST HITS OF THIS PARTICULAR PABLOVE RUN WHICH GOT ME TO THE FINISH LINE:

Blu-ray Review: ‘Prince of Darkness’

Prince of Darkness blu-ray poster

It continually amazes me how the movies of John Carpenter have endured years after their release. Many of them were critical and commercial disappointments when they first came out, and it seemed for the longest time that Carpenter would forever be trapped in the shadow of his most successful movie, “Halloween.” “Prince of Darkness” was one of those movies, but it has long since gained a cult following to where the original DVD release became a very valuable collector’s item once it went out of print. Now, Shout Factory has released a special collector’s edition of it on Blu-ray, and it shows us why this movie has lingered in our minds long after we first saw it.

“Prince of Darkness” is about a research team of academics, students and a priest who discover an ancient canister in the basement of an abandoned church. This canister contains a liquid which ends up turning people into zombies, and the team eventually realize they have unknowingly unleashed the evilest thing imaginable as it could destroy anything and everything. It is not your typical horror movie as it deals with theoretical physics and atomic theory, but once you get into the story and look closely at the theories being explored, everything becomes quite terrifying.

I won’t bother going into how great the audio and visual elements of this Blu-ray are because it goes without saying “Prince of Darkness” has never looked as good as it does here. Let’s just skip ahead to the special features on the disc as the ones included here will provide fans with a wealth of information.

First off, the Blu-ray case states there is a commentary track with John Carpenter, but what it neglects to mention is that he is joined on this track by actor Peter Jason. Jason plays Dr. Leahy in “Prince of Darkness,” and he has appeared in many of Carpenter’s movies from this one to “Ghosts of Mars.” Carpenter’s commentary tracks are always great fun to listen to, but they are even more entertaining when he’s pared with someone else, and the conversations he has with Jason are tremendous fun as they discuss what it was like making a horror film with a budget of only $3 million dollars. Actually, this track was originally included in the Region 2 DVD release of “Prince of Darkness,” so it’s nice for those us who lack multi-region players to finally get the opportunity to listen to it.

Another special feature to is a brand-new interview with Carpenter called “Sympathy for the Devil.” In it, Carpenter explains how he had been making big budget studio movies before “Prince of Darkness” and had gotten tired of making them. With “Prince of Darkness,” he got the opportunity to go back to making low budget features where he had complete creative control. Carpenter speaks of how a book on quantum physics inspired him to write the script for this movie, under the name of Martin Quatermass, and of how he loves to view the apocalypse through movies even though he does not look forward to it in real life.

There’s also a brand-new interview with musician Alice Cooper who plays the leader of the street people who surround the abandoned church (he is billed as “street schizo”). The interview is called “Alice at the Apocalypse,” and Cooper talks about how he grew up on black and white horror movies like “Creature from the Black Lagoon” which he said “scared him appropriately.” He even admits he was glad his character had no dialogue, and I loved how he described how his songs get at how Satan’s greatest trick is in getting you to believe he doesn’t exist.

Then there’s “The Messenger,” an interview with actor and Special Visual Effects Supervisor Robert Grasmere. Grasmere portrays Frank Wyndham, the one guy who thinks that the research team’s job at the abandoned church is just a bunch of hooey. He starts off the interview talking about the practical effects used in “Prince of Darkness” and of how much of a nightmare the canister was to move around the set. Then he goes into how he got cast as an actor in it, and of how he ended up speaking some of the movie’s most famous lines of dialogue.

I want to take this time to tell you “Prince of Darkness” features of my favorite scores by Carpenter and Alan Howarth. Howarth himself shows up for the interview “Hell on Earth” in which he discusses how they worked on the music for this movie. Howarth has done interviews on other Shout Factory releases like “Halloween II” and “Halloween III: Season of the Witch,” but this feels like the most detailed interview he has given on working with Carpenter yet. It’s also fascinating to hear what it was like to make a film score before everything was recorded digitally.

Other special features on this collector’s edition include an episode of “Horror’s Hallowed Grounds” in which host Sean Clark toured the locations where “Prince of Darkness” was shot. Some of it was filmed at Carpenter’s Alma mater USC, and the church used is located in downtown Los Angeles and is now known as The David Henry Hwang Theatre. The scenes of the church were shot in a deserted ballroom in Santa Barbara which has long since been demolished.

You will also find the movie’s theatrical trailer which seems to imply things were supposed to end a little differently than it did. There are also radio spots which are amusing to listen to, a still gallery, and the alternate opening from the movie’s television version. Regarding the alternate opening, it makes the whole film look like it was all a dream in Jameson Parker’s head, and I never quite understood why Universal Pictures did this (it was definitely not Carpenter’s idea).

In addition, there is an easter egg to be found on this Blu-ray. When you click on the Bonus menu, you will see a cross on the right side. Click on it, and you can watch a Q&A with Carpenter at Screamfest 2012 where “Prince of Darkness” was screened in honor of its 25th anniversary. The whole thing was shot on iPhone so you will need to pump up the volume a bit to hear what is being said.

“Prince of Darkness” is by no means a perfect movie. Some of the acting is weak and the special effects do show their age, but it is still a very compelling horror film which deals with scientific theories that give the story more of an edge. Those of you who are big John Carpenter fans would do yourselves a disservice by not checking out this release. Those who really like this film will agree Shout Factory has given it the respect it deserves.

Alan Howarth Discusses Working on Film Scores with John Carpenter

alan-howarth-photo

A screening of John Carpenter’s “Assault on Precinct 13” at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood brought out a number of guests such as Austin Stoker who played Lieutenant Ethan Bishop and Douglas Knapp who was the film’s director of photography. But the one guest I was really interested to hear from was Alan Howarth, the composer and sound designer who collaborated with Carpenter on a number of his film scores from “Escape From New York” to “They Live.” Howarth even took the time to do a live performance of his and Carpenter’s music, something I never thought I would ever see in my lifetime.

During the Q&A, Howarth talked about how he came to work with Carpenter, their process for scoring his films and his favorite film scores of the ones they worked on together. Howarth wasn’t actually on board for the original “Assault on Precinct 13” though he did work on a remastered version of the soundtrack for it and “Dark Star” for BuySoundtrax.com. It wasn’t until he worked on his first big film when he became inadvertently acquainted with Carpenter.

alan-howarth-and-john-carpenter

“I came on board at ‘Escape from New York,’ and that was kind of happenstance because my very first movie, less than a year earlier, was ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture,’” Howarth said. “I had come on as the sound designer and created the sounds of the Enterprise like the warp drive and the transporters and stuff like that. The picture editor from that movie, Todd Ramsay, his next assignment was ‘Escape from New York,’ so I had slipped him some cassettes and he knew I was a musician. John had worked with another fellow on ‘Halloween,’ Dan Wyman, and there was some change up there, and so literally the guy comes over to my little, rented house in Glendale and set up in my dining room. It was nothing formal. I sat down and I played him a few things and he goes, ‘okay, let’s do it.’ That was it.”

“John always wanted somebody who knew about the technology,” Howarth continued. “In fact, a couple of times I tried to explain to him how it worked and he was all, ‘I don’t want to know that. It’s your job to make it work, make it in tune, and when I push down the note the red light is on.’ So that’s where I started, but he’s a collaborative person. I love working with people. I’m from the bands and rock & roll. I was one of those people. So, it was really great and my first film score was ‘Escape from New York.’”

escape-from-new-york-soundtrack

From there, the two of them worked on several projects all the way to “They Live.” As he continued discussing the work he did with Carpenter, we came to discover he played a larger part in Carpenter’s film scores than we ever realized.

“Next, he went off to do ‘The Thing’ and they wanted to make ‘Halloween II,’ so again John said, ‘I’m going to be busy. You’re going to have to do Halloween.’ Same thing, so I did ‘Halloween II’ and I used his original ‘Halloween’ music, overdubbed it and created new stuff.”

 

After “They Live,” they seemed to part ways for reasons Howarth never explained, but it gave him the confidence to start scoring films on his own. Of course, he was still eager to get Carpenter’s blessing when it came to a franchise the director never planned to start.

“I found out they were going to do ‘Halloween 4’ and I said to John, ‘they asked me to do this and you’re my buddy and I want to do something with this.’ He said sure, so I wound up doing ‘Halloween 4, 5 and 6’ and that really launched me as a composer which is what I love to do the most, and as we are in a world of economic stasis, I had to do it all by myself. As you see, this is my studio right here. It’s all down to a laptop and a guitar and some recorders when it used to be a million dollars’ worth of stuff. Not that that stuff isn’t valuable, but you can do without it now,” Howarth said.

 

halloween-4-original-soundtrack

One audience member asked which of the scores he did with Carpenter is his favorite, and the answer was a little bit of a surprise.

“I think ‘Halloween III’ because it was really an artistic departure for both of us, and ‘Big Trouble in Little China’ is the most produced and has the widest range,” said Howarth. “We had rock and roll and scary things and chases and this whole Asian influence, so it was really a broad scope of things. That’s one of my favorites.”

halloween-iii-soundtrack

Like many in the audience, I was eager to hear how Howarth and Carpenter would go about working on a score. Did they start working on it before shooting began? Did they work on it after shooting was finished? Did they think about the music while making the film? We hear how composers spend so much time preparing the perfect score for a movie, but Howarth made his process with Carpenter sound quite simple.

“It’s all one big jam. It’s improvised,” Howarth said. “Sometimes he would come in with a theme in mind. I’d set up the piano before he came over and started something. A lot of it we just made up on the spot. In fact, I introduced him, because I’m a technical person, to the synchronization between a videotape and a tape recorder. It almost seems like we were the first to do it. Before that, everything was done with a stopwatch. So, you would make a cue that was three minutes long and kind of set a tempo, and then you would go back and literally copy it on a Moviola and fool around with the scene.”

“This was the first time you could watch the movie and play at the same time, so he referred to that as the electronic coloring book which made it even easier to improvise,” Howarth continued. “Through that whole period we also benefited from the evolution of electronic music instruments, so from analog synthesizers and a 24-track machine to midi and digital sequencers, these scores had a new installation in the progress of musical instruments, so it’s almost a chronology or a music lesson in the gear.”

Another audience member asked Howarth how long he and Carpenter would jam until they found something they really liked. His answer illustrates how fast these two worked on their music.

“We did a cue a day,” Howarth said. “One quote I always get from John, and it’s just really true, he said, ‘Alan if you want to be a director you only need two important words, yes and no. Just be very decisive. Even if you say no today or yes today and tomorrow, you change your mind. You got twenty or thirty people that are taking direction, and you don’t want to leave them in a lurch, so it’s better to just be decisive.’ So, it was a couple of times we did something and came back and said that wasn’t working, but it wasn’t very often.”

Having worked in movies and music all these years, Howarth clearly has a wide knowledge of musical instruments and electronics. When asked what he would consider as the go to synthesizer, Howarth’s answer shed some light on how far musical technology has come over the years.

“I chose all the gear and I arrived at being a fan of the Prophet 5,” Howarth said. “It sounded good, but the other reason was that it was the first programmable synthesizer. Prior to that, you had to literally make little diagrams of where all the knobs and switches were to get back to the same sound, so this was the first time you could do something and save it. That really moved things forward a lot, and I brought in the programmables and the sequencers.”

One big question many had about the music Carpenter and Howarth worked on was the score to Carpenter’s remake of “The Thing.” This was Carpenter’s first big studio movie, and it allowed him to work with his all-time favorite composer Ennio Morricone. However, when you listen to the score, some it sounds like it was done by Carpenter and Howarth, and this is especially the case with the movie’s main theme. Howarth went into detail about who really composed the score to “The Thing.”

“They (Carpenter and Morricone) took a meeting, and he (Morricone) saw a little bit of the footage and he scored his score,” Howarth said. “He comes back and, of course, how does John talk to his hero about what just went down and where he wants to go? And there’s a translation issue between English and Italian and all this other stuff. So John played the stuff we did for ‘Escape from New York’ and he says, ‘Can you do something like this?’ Ennio goes back for a second pass now with keyboards, and that’s where ‘The Thing’s’ theme came from. So it’s Ennio Morricone doing John Carpenter really. At the very end after all that, there was one more pass on about four or five cues where John came over for just an afternoon and we did some cues that kind of sound like ‘Christine’ that you can tell is basically our synth stuff. So basically, it took three scoring passes on the show to get it.”

the-thing-soundtrack

It was a real treat to have Alan Howarth talk about his musical collaboration with John Carpenter. The film scores they worked on are among my favorites of all time, and I never get sick of listening to them. Howarth continues to work as a film composer, and his more recent credits include scores for “Backstabbed,” “The Dentist” and “House at the End of the Drive.” Here’s hoping we get to hear more scores from him in the near future.

Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers

halloween-4-poster

WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS. DON’T SAY YOU WEREN’T WARNED!

Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers” is actually one of the best films in this long running franchise, and it did more than just drop a bunch of bloody good killings on us with little regard to everything else which makes a movie strong. There was actually some thoughtful work put into the screenplay, the acting is better than you might expect it to be, and it does have some very scary moments the other sequels seriously lack.

The “Halloween” movies often defy the timeline of events they set up for themselves because logic doesn’t always apply to horror movies. Despite the huge explosion which ended “Halloween II,” Michael Myers and Dr. Loomis somehow managed to survive. It never seemed likely either of them would have come out of the burnt wreckage without turning into shish kabobs which were left on the barbecue for far too long, but this sequel shows you can’t keep a doctor or an evil monster down.

“Halloween 4” starts off with a couple of doctors assigned to transfer the seemingly comatose Michael back to Smith’s Grove where he should have stayed from the beginning. But of course, Michael wakes up and kills his naïve caretakers who think he is nothing more than just another prison transfer. These doctors also make the mistake of mentioning how Michael has one living relative left, his niece Jamie. Guess where she lives…

Going into a description of the plot is tiring, but you know what happens from there on out. “Halloween 4” is genuinely scary at points. The first appearance of Michael through the reflection of the mirror definitely had me standing up straight, and childhood terrors like the monster under the bed are exploited to strong effect. The movie does play around with the clichéd moments we often find in horror movies, but then it manages to pull the rug out from under you. You think you have a good idea of what is going to happen, but the filmmakers smartly play on your misplaced confidence to pull a fast one on you.

“Halloween 4” was directed by Dwight H. Little who later went on to direct one of Steven Seagal’s best movies, “Marked for Death.” Little deserves credit for not just doing everything according to formula. What he accomplishes here isn’t groundbreaking for the horror genre, but he pulls off something stronger than your average slasher flick. Instead of doing the usual opening with the pumpkin, he fills the screen with symbols of the October holiday which eventually leads us into the dead of winter. With that, he perfectly sets the mood and atmosphere for this particular sequel. He remains respectful of the original and does the right thing by keeping Michael hidden in the shadows like Carpenter did in the original. When that mask of his peeks out of the darkness, it becomes even more unnerving than watching him tilt his head.

The writer, Alan B. McElroy, managed to finish the script just mere hours before the 1980’s writer strike began. Listening to his audio commentary from the Anchor Bay release, McElroy makes it clear he came to this film as a fan of the original and was not about to throw the usual crapfest at us. He also gives us characters we actually come to care about and who don’t always do the stupid things we expect them to do in the average horror flick. You even find yourself caring about that hunk of a man Brady (Sasha Jenson) even after we find him cheating on his girlfriend with the movie’s obligatory big breasted lady (who also happens to be the sheriff’s daughter no less).

In retrospect, “Halloween 4” was one of the last slasher movies which featured actors who looked and felt down to earth. After this sequel, the genre was invaded by beautiful models with bodies very well taken care of or surgically enhanced. Whether or not they could act was another story, one which usually didn’t matter to the financiers.

This one is also not as bloody or gory as the other sequels came to be. Granted, there are a couple of nice bloody shots which illustrate how creative Michael is at killing people after coming out of a long coma. On top of sinking his thumb into a doctor’s skull, he also rips a big hole in a beer guzzling vigilante’s neck. Actually, this does bring up a weakness in the movie which involves a subplot with a bunch of middle aged guys who are regulars at a local bar. They almost seem tossed in as an afterthought, and their own hunt for Michael leads them to do the dumbest things.

Watching Danielle Harris here is a little weird as she has since grown up and gone on to play a completely different character in Rob Zombie’s “Halloween” movies. She plays Jamie, the daughter of Laurie Strode who was said to have been killed in a car accident along with her husband (Curtis would later return in “H2O”). You have to admire any young actor who does a horror movie at the age of 11 because it’s like we’re asking them to become emotionally scarred for life. On top of having a great set of lungs, Harris instantly wins our sympathy gives this movie one of its scariest images.

Ellie Cornell, who plays Rachel Carruthers, does Jamie Lee Curtis proud. We’re not talking an Oscar winning performance here, but she gives us the heroic female character we want to root for as she goes from being vulnerable to Sigourney (“Aliens”) Weaver tough.

And, of course, we have the only returning actor from the original “Halloween,” the late Donald Pleasence. Having miraculously survived the fiery explosion which should have killed him were a highly profitable box office possibility not taken into consideration, Dr. Loomis has become absolutely single minded in his pursuit to destroy Michael once and for all. Even if Pleasance was slumming by doing this movie, he still played this role to the hilt and gave this particular entry a legitimacy which eluded future installments. Heck, it probably would have been criminal to do a “Halloween” movie without Dr. Loomis at that point as he was an essential part of this franchise.

Actually, there is another “Halloween” veteran who returns to the fold here: Alan Howarth. Along with Carpenter he scored “Halloween II” and “Halloween III: Season of the Witch,” and they also provided great scores for “Prince of Darkness” and “Big Trouble in Little China.” Howarth goes solo on this one, but even without Carpenter he composes a memorable and atmospheric score, and his opening theme to “Halloween 4” is one of the best pieces of music in the franchise.

Stunt performer George Wilbur plays Michael here, and he does good work as the heavy-breathing killer. While no one can touch what Nick Castle did in the original, it’s nice to see a Michael who more mobile than Dick Warlock’s was in “Halloween II.” Wilbur gives Michael a formidable look which strikes terror in us even when this murderous character is not onscreen. The thought of Michael Myers in this one is just as scary as seeing these characters come face to face with him, or it as Dr. Loomis describes him:

“You’re talking about him as if he were a man. That part of him died years ago.”

DANGER! DANGER! SPOLIERS AHEAD!!!

Now let’s talk about Halloween 4’s” ending. Michael has been shot dozens and dozens of times in a scene which reminded me of the scene from “Predator” when Schwarzenegger and company blasted a forest to waste with their massive weaponry. Everyone is back home and safe, but then a scream erupts from upstairs. Loomis runs up to find Jamie has stabbed her stepmother with a pair of scissors and is covered in blood, looking much like young Michael did after murdering his sister. Like Pleasance, you find yourself screaming “NOOOOOO!!!!!!” Harris holding those scissors ranks as one of the series’ most chilling moments. Indeed, the corruption of innocence is a terror that can be all too real onscreen as well as off it.

Now this could have led the franchise in an inspired direction, but the producers wussied out and instead found a way (they always do) to bring Michael back from the dead yet again. Perhaps the late Moustapha Akkad felt the fans would never accept any killer other than Michael himself. It’s a shame because this brilliant plot twist could have made the series even more frightening than ever before, but the demands of the box office always dictate just how much you cannot change a winning formula.

Regardless, “Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers” still proves to be a strong entry in the undying franchise, and this is especially the case when you watch the two sequels which followed it.

* * * out of * * * *

 

Tommy Lee Wallace Talks about ‘Halloween III’ at New Beverly Cinema

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PLEASE NOTE: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS ABOUT THE MOVIE.

Tommy Lee Wallace dropped by New Beverly Cinema on October 30, 2010 to talk about his directorial debut, “Halloween III: Season of the Witch.” This is the Michael Myers-less sequel of the long running franchise and it played as a double feature with “Trick ‘r Treat.” All the “Halloween” movie fans were in for a special treat as Wallace gave us more trivia about the making of it than we ever could have ever expected.

When Wallace was brought up after the movie ended, he admitted his reaction to watching it after so many years was that it resembled one of the strangest and most bizarre movies he had ever seen. The original plan for “Halloween III” was to work from an original screenplay by Nigel Kneale, best known for his work on the “Quatermass” series. What Kneale ended up writing was, as Wallace put it, “brilliant and deeply, darkly grim” and more of a cerebral, intellectual horror movie than your typical slasher fare. But it turned out everyone thought the overall story needed work, and Wallace said he and Carpenter wanted to make it more commercial and scarier for audiences. As a result, Kneale took his name off the movie as he felt the filmmakers would simply butcher all he came up with. Wallace did say that he really liked Kneale’s script and hopes to put it online someday in its entirety for all to see.

While making the movie, Wallace described himself and the crew as being under the gun as it was a low budget affair like most horror movies. Understanding how to do work on the cheap, he said all the “el cheapo” special effects taught him a lot about simplicity which turned out to be a great virtue.

As for Carpenter’s participation, Wallace said Carpenter gave him full autonomy as he himself always expected to have it on all his movies. Joe Dante, the director of “Gremlins” and “Innerspace,” was originally set to helm “Halloween III,” but he later turned it down when something else came up. Having worked on many of Carpenter’s movies, Wallace was originally offered the gig of directing “Halloween II,” but he turned it down as he saw no way to top the original. But upon being offered “Halloween III,” Carpenter and the late Debra Hill told him neither of them wanted to do a direct sequel as Carpenter hated “Halloween II.” With that in mind, Wallace jumped at the chance to direct it.

The only real barrier Wallace had to deal with before accepting the job was getting the blessing of Dino De Laurentis. Wallace had previously written the script for a movie De Laurentis produced called “Amityville II: The Possession,” and he said the one rule everyone needed to remember was “you do not fuck with Dino.” In response to Wallace’s request, De Laurentis begged him not do the film, but Wallace said he was determined to get De Laurentis’ blessing because he would have directed it anyway.

With “Halloween III: Season of the Witch,” Carpenter and Hill wanted to turn the franchise into an anthology of movies about the occasion of Halloween. Looking back, the original was really not about Halloween at all (the original title was “The Babysitter Murders”). But when it came to releasing this particular “Halloween” movie, Wallace said Universal Pictures did not do enough to prepare audiences for it. Sadly, audiences did not want something new. They wanted Michael Myers back and breathing heavy while slashing over stimulated teenagers.

One of the biggest influences on “Halloween III” was the 1956 version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” directed by Don Siegel. Like that one, this sequel was meant to be a pod movie and could not be mistaken as something nice. Wallace even wanted to shoot it in Sierra Madre where Siegel’s classic was filmed, but it didn’t look good enough. The production team had driven all over Northern California looking for the perfect small town to film in, and it took forever to find it. Wallace said they were never as lucky as they were with Carpenter’s The Fog.” Also, the town’s name, Santa Mira, is the same as the one used in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

But the big difference between “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “Halloween III” is in the way each movie ended. Siegel wanted his film to close on a highway with star Kevin McCarthy screaming frantically, “THEY’RE ALREADY HERE! YOU’RE NEXT! YOU’RE NEXT!” Instead, “Invasion” ended the same way it began, in a police station. All this did was indicate to the audience everything was going to be alright. Wallace said the ending of “Halloween III” was dedicated to Siegel for what he tried to pull off, and it leaves the fate of the world up in the air which makes things far scarier as your mind was forced to imagine what could have happened. Universal Pictures, however, put pressure on Carpenter to change the ending to something more upbeat. When Carpenter asked Wallace if he wanted to change the film’s ambiguous climax, Wallace said he refused to do so and Carpenter defended Wallace’s decision to the studio.

Tom Atkins’ name in the credits as well as his first appearance onscreen generated a huge applause from the audience. When it came to casting “Halloween III,” Wallace said Atkins was already a part of Carpenter’s company of actors, and his performance in “The Fog” served as his audition for the role of Dr. Daniel Challis. Wallace then went on to explain how horror movies can easily be ruined by “pretty boy casting,” and he felt this didn’t need to be the case here. Atkins naturalistic performance is commendable considering much of what he has to deal with is utterly ridiculous. You also have to give him credit for wasting no time in bedding the main female character, Ellie Grimbridge, played by Stacey Nelkin.

Another actor who got a lot of applause was the late Dan O’Herlihy who portrayed the movie’s chief villain, Conal Cochran. Wallace described O’Herlihy as being perfect for the part, and he was always prepared and ready to go. He also said O’Herlihy was a man from the British Isle, Irish and was someone who was never afraid of getting sentimental. O’Herlihy’s performance was a fiendish mix of a friendly persona which is a cover for his grisly nature.

As for Nelkin, the first question from the audience was whether or not her character was a robot throughout the entire movie. Wallace said he honestly didn’t know and figured Cochran’s company was really good at making robots in the first place. Nelkin was a very appealing presence in “Halloween III,” and perhaps Roget Ebert put it best in his one-and-a-half-star review of the movie: “Too bad she plays her last scene without a head.”

Then there’s the movie’s commercial for the Silver Shamrock masks which features one of those annoying jingles which, like any other commercial, you cannot get out of your head. Alan Howarth, who composed the score along with Carpenter, was given credit for doing the jingle and putting it to the tune of “London Bridge” from “My Fair Lady,” but Wallace said it was his idea more than anyone else’s.

As for the voice on the jingle, it is Wallace’s. They were originally going to hire someone else, but when they found out the guy wanted $550, it was quickly determined they couldn’t afford him. Wallace got the job soon after and said he got into the mood by doing the smooth tone of a “stupid radio voice from the 50’s.”

Another audience member asked Wallace if there were any product placements in “Halloween III,” and he said there were not. Truth be told, this wasn’t really the kind of movie which would allow for that, and it was also clarified how no one was ever asked to move the can of Miller Lite closer to the camera.

“Halloween III: Season of the Witch” was designed to be a diatribe against consumerism, and it didn’t turn out to be a very elegant one. The movie cost $2.5 million to make and grossed about $14 million at the box office. While it did make a tiny profit, the sequel was considered a critical and commercial disappointment. Wallace said he fell into an abject depression for months afterwards as he felt he did a shitty job on the sequel and figured he would be consigned to movie hell.

Years later, however, Wallace discovered “Halloween III” had developed a cult following and a new generation of fans. He was stunned to hear a lot of people telling him they watch it every single year, and he said people continue to invite him to speak at annual horror conventions about it. Having been originally released in 1982, audiences have had plenty of time to reflect on the kind of movie it was and reevaluate it critically. While still not a great film by any stretch, it’s much better than its reputation suggests.

Certainly, there are other “Halloween” sequels that are far worse (“Halloween: The Curse of Michael Meyers” is the pits), and the moderator put it best when comparing the third movie to “Halloween: Resurrection:”

“Do you prefer this or Busta Rhymes?”

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