Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers

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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 * * * *

 

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Halloween II (1981)

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Sequels are usually beaten to a critical pulp, and it’s not hard to understand why. They are primarily made because the original made a ton of money, and heaven forbid that the money train stops there. It’s not enough to make a killing at the box office (no pun intended); you have to capitalize on what you made because greed still reigns supreme. Heck, these days studios are franchise crazy and are always on the lookout for the next one to start up. However, audiences these days are a lot more discerning and are quick to question why certain sequels were even made. They can tell when they are being scammed out of their hard-earned money, but the curiosity of what the sequel has to offer can be hard to ignore.

In a lot of ways, sequels are undone by the high expectations placed on them. Certain movies have no chance of living up to the brilliance of their predecessor, but maybe they can be enjoyable enough when you come to them with reduced expectations. Sometimes that can be enough.

Case in point is “Halloween II,” the sequel to, at the time, the highest grossing independent film ever made. “Halloween” was and still is one of the scariest movies ever made. The ending of the movie had Michael Myers disappearing from sight, and it was visual proof of how evil never dies. “Halloween II,” however, takes place at the exact moment the original ended with Michael still on the loose, and even while he moves a hell of a lot slower, he still proves to be a very deadly threat to everyone around him. Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) continues to hunt for the man he tried to keep locked up, and Jaime Lee Curtis returns as Laurie Strode who is taken to Haddonfield Memorial Hospital to recover from the injuries she suffered a few hours earlier.

“Halloween II” was torn apart by the critics for being nowhere as good as the original, proclaiming it a rehash of what we saw before and for having nothing new to say about Michael Myers  or anyone else from the original. Even John Carpenter, who co-wrote the script for this one with the late Debra Hill but did not direct it, said he hated it, and the only thing which got him to finish writing this sequel was a six-pack of Budweiser. Even he realized he was making the same movie which is probably why he declined to direct it. The only really fresh aspect of this one is that we discover how Laurie Strode and Michael Myers have a closer bond than they realize, and it comes to explain why he made the long trip back to Haddonfield after waiting for years while staring out a window in total silence.

But despite its flaws, I still enjoyed “Halloween II” for what it was. Yes, it is a retread of the original, but what else are you gonna do with Michael Myers? Do you want him to win the Nobel Peace Prize? Get rehabilitated? Make peace with his sister after killing so many people? Don’t you remember? Evil never dies!

The one thing to note about “Halloween II” is how much bloodier and gorier it is than its predecessor. When this sequel came out, there had already been so many knock offs of “Halloween” with the psychotic and silent killer wearing a different kind of mask and using a different weapon which suits their murderous rages more than any other. “Friday The 13th” would not have existed without Carpenter’s original masterpiece.

At the very least, “Halloween II” tries to be more creative in the way Michael kills his victims as he proves to be  inventive with hypodermic needles, scalding hot water, and he even conducts a blood drive which doesn’t require anyone from the Red Cross to help out. If you run into Michael, you’re a donor whether you driver’s license says you are or not.

While “Halloween” only showed us so much of Michael and kept him hidden in the shadows for the most part, “Halloween II” pretty much shows everything. While it makes this sequel less effective than the original, I still got a kick out of it. Carpenter apparently came in to reshoot some scenes because he felt audiences would be demanding more blood and guts as horror movies have upped the ante in that arena since the original. Whether or not this was the right decision may be up for debate, but fans of Fangoria Magazine will not be complaining. The scene where Michael plunges Pamela Susan Shoop into scalding hot water is shocking and highly unnerving, and seeing a hypodermic needle get inserted into someone’s eye is very unsettling.

One thing this sequel has to its advantage is that is made by the same team which made the original. Director of photography Dean Cundey came back for it, and he gives “Halloween II” a dark and creepy look to where you want to keep an eye on what is hiding in those shadows across the hall. Michael could be anywhere, waiting for you to come out into the open.

At the very least, Carpenter and Hill do a good job of giving us characters who are as down to earth as those in the original. There’s a little scene where three of them are in a hospital lounge watching TV and talking about what just happened their previously quiet little town of Haddonfield. The young nurse claims she saw Michael, and one of the guys is a sexually frustrated prick who is more interested in having sex than the fact this force of evil is still on the loose.

The characters may come across as clichés after having seen the first one, but to me, they still felt real enough to where I wasn’t snickering at their actions. Among them is Jimmy, a paramedic played by Lance Guest, who ends up developing a protective crush on Laurie. After seeing Laurie being all shy in the first film, it was  nice to see her get something of a boyfriend in this one, and seeing him get hurt actually made me feel bad. If this were any other sequel to a slasher flick, I probably would have been cheering the killer on more than the victim.

There’s also the ever so serious nurse Mrs. Alves played by Gloria Gifford. She plays the boss you probably have been stuck with once or twice in your life, and one which you hope you never have again. Pamela Susan Shoop plays the well-meaning but always tardy Nurse Karen Bailey and, she is very good and appealing here and shows off the appropriate cleavage for a horror movie like this.

If there is a major weakness in “Halloween II,” it is the way Laurie Strode is written. She is not the same brave heroine we saw in the first movie. Here, she is drugged out after the doctor works on her injuries, and there is only so much she can do as a result. She is smart enough to run away when she feels Michael closing in, but she becomes utterly helpless instead of being inventive in the ways she protects herself. Regardless, I still liked Laurie Strode here, but it would have been better to see her kick more ass like she did the first time around. Perhaps she could have been much more vengeful towards Michael and much more eager to put an end to his rampage.

Donald Pleasance once again gives the demonic lines he is given a lot of depth to where they stay with you long after the movie has ended. His little speech on the festival of Sam Hain, the Lord of the Dead, and how we are all afraid of the darkness inside of ourselves is a great moment. The unconscious mind can be a very frightening place indeed.

I also have to say that when it comes Pleasance and Curtis, I have never really seen give a bad performance in any film they have ever been in. Put either of them into the worse movie ever made, and they will still be good.

But my most favorite thing about this “Halloween II” is the gothic score composed by Carpenter and Alan Howarth. It’s not any different from the score for the original, but I loved how it was done with synthesizers this time around. It feels all the more atmospherically consuming even after all these years, and I never get sick of listening to it. The piece of music where Michael  finally finds Laurie in the hospital and pursues her remains one of my favorite pieces of music in any movie ever.

Dick Warlock takes on the role of Michael this time around. I do agree that it would have been great if Nick Castle came back to play Michael again, but I imagine his own directing career must have been keeping him busy at that point. Warlock tries a little too hard to mimic Castle’s movements, but it is understandable why he moves so slowly in this one (he was shot six times). All the same, Michael still came across as a very threatening figure to me. Even if he moved so slowly, I was still terrified of him coming up on unsuspecting hospital employees, and it was excruciating to wait for that elevator door to open.

“Halloween II” might not be a great movie, but I still enjoyed it a lot. This sequel in many ways marked the last time where these characters seemed relatable as just about all the other sequels in this franchise as they came to feature infinitely stupid characters played by mediocre actors. Perhaps the passage of time has been kinder to this sequel than others as the series soon descended into mediocrity, but it didn’t decrease in quality as quickly as other slasher franchises have.

I have no shame in saying I really enjoyed this sequel. Then again, why should I have any shame about like it? Other critics can bash it all they want. But for me, “Halloween II” still delivers.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978)

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What is there to say about “Halloween” which hasn’t already been said? It has been discussed ad nauseam, and even Carpenter must be sick of talking about it all the time. Granted, he did take the time to record a new commentary track with Jamie Lee Curtis for Anchor Bay’s 35th anniversary edition, but when the 25th anniversary edition came out it just had the same commentary track from the Criterion Collection laserdisc.

We all know the story, and this is in large part due to the countless imitators who rushed to create their own psychotic killer following “Halloween’s” astonishing success. At the time of its release, it was the most successful independent movie ever made. Made for about $300,000, it ended up grossing over $50 million. “Friday The 13th” would never have existed without “Halloween,” and that franchise is far more responsible for those clichés horror movies exploit to infinity.

What I love about “Halloween” is how down to earth it is. All of these characters come across as very relatable. The way the script is written and how the actors played their roles, they easily reminded us of people from our own lives we grew up with. The only character in the whole movie who is NOT down to earth is Michael Meyers as he is a killer who has no real motive for why he heads back home to kill. As the movie goes on, we eventually stop seeing him as a person and instead as a force of evil which cannot be easily stopped.

We have all lived in a town like Haddonfield, a small town where families can raise their children in peace, or so it would seem, and the problems they face there end up paling in comparison to those they were forced to endure in the city. The parents see small town life as a home away from reality, but for the children it is reality. It is all they know. So when multiple murders occur there, it threatens to define the town more than anything else. Was there anything interesting about Haddonfield before young Michael Meyers took a knife to his sister when he was only a boy?

I also love how “Halloween” was shot. Working with Director of Photography Dean Cundey, Carpenter creates truly unnerving visuals of a killer lurking in the shadows. One moment Michael appears in the frame, and in the next he is gone. Michael could be anywhere and there is no escape from him. How does one escape from evil anyway? One of Carpenter’s main themes with “Halloween” is how evil never dies. It is a force which is with us whether we like it or not, and it is always just around the corner…

One of my favorite shots is when little Tommy is fooling around with Lindsay as they watch Howard Hawks’ version of “The Thing.” But when Tommy turns around and looks out the window, he sees a man carrying a lifeless body from the garage to the front door. The bullies at school kept warning him about the boogeyman coming, and it is an unfortunate and infuriating coincidence that they are correct. It is one of the creepiest images from “Halloween,” and it is one which always stays with me. Don’t you wonder what your neighbors are up as you look at their houses across the street?

The other brilliant thing about “Halloween” is how it was edited in such a way where you cannot be sure when or where Michael will appear next. The best example of this is when Laurie Strode is running away from Michael. Carpenter puts us right in her shoes as she desperately tries to escape the madman who wears an altered William Shatner mask. The editing plays with your emotions beautifully. You want her to escape, but you soon feel as helpless as her as she yells at Tommy to wake the hell up.

The moment where Laurie is at the front door of Tommy’s house, screaming for him to let her in, is one of the scariest scenes I have ever seen in a movie. It intercuts with her banging on the door while the Shape approaches her, and Carpenter succeeds brilliantly in leaving us stuck in a place we are desperate to escape from. Like her, we are begging for Tommy to unlock the door to where we want to yell at the movie screen, TV set or whatever device you are watching this movie on.

And who could ever forget the music? Carpenter’s score for “Halloween” ranks among the greatest horror movie scores ever composed to where I would put it up alongside Bernard Herrmann’s score for “Psycho.” Carpenter’s musical work has been done mostly in a minimalist style, very much unlike the bombastic orchestral scores from every other Hollywood composer. After all these years, the main title for “Halloween” is a piece of music I never get sick of listening to. The music succeeds in heightening the ever growing tension which never lets up even after the movie is ovr.

The final shot is unnerving and utterly perfect in the way Carpenter shows how evil never dies. We see images we have become familiar with throughout the movie, and they now have the stain of evil on them. The point is point he could be anywhere at this point.

This is definitely one of my all-time favorite movies, and the recent 35th anniversary edition Blu-ray reminded me of how I never get tired of watching it. Jamie Lee Curtis is great here as Laurie Strode, the only one who is the least bit observant about what’s going on around her. Then you have P.J. Soles and Nancy Loomis as Laurie’s so-called friends who frolic around, completely unaware of the killer stalking them from a distance. And you have Donald Pleasance, and his Dr. Loomis is a character which pretty much came to define the latter half of the franchise.

Many say “Halloween” originated the undying cliché of how teenagers who have premarital sex and do drugs are the first ones to be killed off. In the Criterion commentary, both Carpenter and the late Debra Hill make it abundantly clear they were not trying to lay any sort of judgment on these characters. Religion was not intended to shoved down our throats by anyone involved with this movie. These characters don’t get murdered because they are sinners, but because they aren’t paying attention to what is going on around them. Laurie Strode, on the other hand, is always very suspicious of her surroundings.

John Carpenter’s “Halloween” will always remain the best of all the so-called slasher movies in my humble opinion. There is no way anyone can top what he did with the 1978 classic, and this is even though Rob Zombie’s take on Michael Meyers was better than people gave his “Halloween” movies credit for. It has reached such a high level of praise in the ever growing pantheon of cinema to where duplicating its power is extremely difficult to pull off. The fact it still has the power to unsettle generations of audiences is a testament to Carpenter’s brilliance as a director, and its amazing success led him to make many other great films which continue to stay with us long after the end credits have finished.

* * * * out of * * * *