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One Good Scare: A ‘Halloween’ Retrospective: Part 1

Before Jigsaw, Ghostface, Pinhead, Chucky, Freddy Kruger, and even Jason Voorhees, there came Michael Myers. Film historians and aficionados will point towards some earlier films like Psycho or M as the starting point of the slasher genre, but whether they agree or not that 1978’s Halloween was its true originator, few argue against the impact John Carpenter’s film had on horror, or its role in providing the slasher genre with incontestable wind in its sails, the effect of which is still felt to this very day.

There is another, crucially important name associated with the Halloween franchise, part from the legendary John Carpenter, that being Akkad, both father Moustapha and son Malek. In the mid-to-late 1970s, the elder Akkad had already carved a place for himself within the film industry as a respected director for epics like The Message, starring Anthony Quinn. The opportunity to step into the role of producer allured him when, along with fellow producer Irwin Yablans, a little known director by the name of John Carpenter earned modest notoriety with his 1976 thriller, Assault on Precinct 13.  Akkad and Yablins had Carpenter and his then girlfriend Debra Hill concoct a horror film in which babysitters would be stalked by a vicious killer, originally titled The Babysitter Murders. The rest, as they say, is history.

In honour of the Halloween season, and with almost exactly 1 year to go before David Gordon Green’s Halloween film opens theatrically in October 2018, the time is ripe to explore one of horror cinema’s most lauded series, the one that influenced (and at times has been influenced by) countless others. Let us follow the trials and tribulation of the Strode family, Dr. Sam Loomis, and of course the unstoppable, unflappable Michael Myers.

Halloween (1978)

Given a budget of $300,000.00, which was considered modest even by late 1970s standards, Carpenter and company made use of all the tools of the trade in order to make one of the most iconic horror films ever. For starters, although the story is set in the sleepy town of Haddonfield, Illinois, the shooting took place in South Pasadena, California, with clever, budget saving decisions made to make a sweltering Californian location look like chilly Illinois in late October. Tommy Lee Wallace, a friend of Carpenter’s, filled several shoes, such as editor, production manager and art director, even having a major hand in the crafting of Michael Myers’ legendary mask. What’s more, the shooting schedule lasted a mere 20 days.  For all intents and purposes, Carpenter and his crew squeezed as much as they could with what little money and time awarded to them.

The original film relates the nightmarish Halloween evening of one babysitting Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) as she and her friends Annie (Nancy Kyes) and Lynda (P.J. Soles) must evade the mysteriously masked killer Michael Myers (Nick Castle, who was invited by the director to play the part of ‘The Shape’ when he asked Carpenter to simply be an observer on set). Michael, a patient of psychiatrist Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence), is an escapee from a mental institute, returning home to Haddonfield on Halloween for the first after having murdered his older sister on the same night 15 years prior. Dr. Loomis has tried cracking through Michael’s psychological barrier for years, but is now convinced the man is consumed by nothing but pure evil!

Few can doubt the quality of the filmmakers’ resulting efforts. Today, in 2017, slasher films are a dime a dozen and have been for the better part of 30 years. In 1978, such a sub category of the horror genre was not commonplace, making Halloween’s impact on the cinema landscape all the more important. In many ways, Carpenter’s picture is akin to Mad Max, also from the late 1970s, insofar as it gave life to a relatively new subgenre (in Max’s case, the grungy, dirty, near-future action film), as well as pulling off a wonderfully entertaining, engrossing piece of cinema with very few resources on which to relyh. One of its more awe-inspiring qualities is how professional it looks, which is in large part thanks to the film’s cinematographer Dean Cundey, popularly nicknamed the Dean of Darkness. Frankly, Halloween looks as though it was made for a few million, not a few hundred thousand. The camerawork alone, featuring a heavy dose of the steadicam, sublimely depicts Haddonfield and Michael’s tip toeing around with palpable eeriness. Some of the most skin crawling images are of Michael Myers in broad daylight staring at someone from afar either from behind a car or shrubs.

Among Halloween’s greatest strengths is just how economic it is, both from a character development and plot structure standpoint. The more Loomis attempts to describe who or what Michael is, the audience is no closer to the truth than at the start of the picture, further enhancing the antagonist’s strange, otherworldly aura despite never revealing any concrete evidence of anything beyond human. Laurie Strode is the ‘good girl’ of the bunch, the girl scout so to speak. Her qualities are demonstrated through actions more so than through words. She is decent and courageous when the time comes to protect she children she’s babysitting. Jamie Lee Curtis herself delivers a fantastic performance, finding a keen balance between a somewhat dorky, good natured person as well a heroine with real guts in the picture’s latter stages. Pleasence, as Dr. Loomis, lives and breaths a character that knows he must try to defeat an unimaginable evil yet feels half-defeated himself because there is seemingly no solution to stopping Michael. He has seen too much in Michael to believe redemption is even possible, but is fully aware that he is the only one who come to the aid of the killer’s potential victims.

Halloween is one of the purest, horror-centric depictions of good versus evil in film. What Michael Myers is is barely important, although the mystery surrounding his presence goes great lengths to setting the mood. Carried by strong lead performances, a terrific mask for the villain (which has since been described as the William Shatner mask. Take a closer look and compare with pictures of the famous actor), an iconic, synth score from Carpenter himself, a beautiful look, a brilliantly economic script, and favouring atmosphere over abundant gore, the movie is fully deserving of its place in horror lore.

Laurie: “Was it the boogeyman?”

Loomis: “As a matter of fact it was.”

Shot six times and falling off a 2nd floor balcony, Dr. Loomis and the audience are shocked when Michael’s corpse is nowhere to be found mere minutes after landing with a decisive thud. Pure evil cannot die.

Halloween II (1981)

When a film made for the comparably paltry budget of $300,000.00 earns over $70 million at the box office, the producers behind the project begin licking their chops, knowing full well that they have something very special on their hands. Irwin Yablins and Moustapha Akkad promised a more sizable budget of $2.5 million for the sequel, and even entertained the thought of shooting the film in 3-D, but, ironically, it was deemed too expensive. What began as a story idea about Michael Myers hunting down Laurie Strode a few years later after she’s moved into a condominium turned into a sequel that could not have been more directly related to the original.

Director Rick Rosenthal’s took the helm after Carpenter refused to sit in the director’s chair for a second go around, although the latter and Debra Hill contributed the script, so the project obviously earned their stamp of approval in some respects. The film opens as the original ends, with Michael Myers (Dick Warlock) falling from the second-story balcony after being shot six times by Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence), arriving at the last minute to rescue Laurie Strode (Curtis). Michael quickly vanishes, much to Loomis’ dismay. Laurie is taken straight to Haddonfield Hospital to recovery from her wounds and rest after an evening of considerable psychological duress to put it mildly. It isn’t long before Michael discovers his target’s whereabouts, thus setting him on course for the hospital for some unfinished business. Many of the institution’s night owl employees, such as Jimmy Lloyd (Lance Guest), Nurse Karen (Pamela Susan Shoop), Nurse Janet Marshall (Ana Alicia), and Nurse Jill Franco (Tawney Moyer), are in for a long night.

Halloween II is a special beast. The decision to launch the story right from the first film’s conclusion, which itself featured bone chilling final frames, grants it a genuine feeling of continuity. What’s more, although Carpenter is not operating from behind the camera, cinematographer Dean Cundey is, thus the sequel looks very much like its immediate predecessor. On the flip side, various other storytelling decisions, some beyond the filmmakers’ control, lend Rosenthal’s film a slightly different edge, although not necessarily a superior one.

The most obvious change from the first film is that Laurie is no longer the main protagonist. While her role grows in prominence during the final 30 minutes or so because everyone else is dead or injured, Laurie is predominantly bedridden for the first two thirds. Curtis was trying to distance herself from her ‘Scream Queen’ status after starring in Halloween, Prom Night, and Terror Train in rapid succession. As such, her role is greatly reduced, making Halloween II more of an ensemble piece than solely a continuation of Laurie’s miserable October 31st.  Director Rosenthal gets good performances out of his cast, some of which play mildly sympathetic characters, most notably Lance Guest as Jimmy, who sort of plays a romantic interest but always from afar given Laurie’s condition. Even so, a hint of disappointment surfaces the more it becomes obvious that the viewer is not going to see much of Laurie Strode this time around. She was such a pleasant, high-spirited character in the original movie, making it incredibly easy and enjoyable to cheer her on and hope for her survival. Having her relegated to what amounts to a glorified supporting role is not as interesting, to say nothing of the fact that most of the hospital employees make the most dumfounding decisions that lead straight to their deaths. It’s difficult to muster enthusiasm for stupid people.

Another aspect that distances the sequel is the sudden reliance on more graphic violence. ‘Sudden’ is a delicate term in this case, as Rosenthal’s film arrived 3 years after the original. In the interim, horror films had begun laying on the red syrup, quite heavily in some cases (1980’s Friday the 13th being a prime example). There is little doubt the producers felt the pressure to ape the intensity of the murders that transpired in a wave of competing slasher flicks. ‘Sudden’ still applies because, after all, the film occurs on the same night as the 1978 originator, yet here is Michael concocting the most grotesque ways of offing victims, such as draining all their blood via I.V. tubes, or plugging an injection needle into someone through their eye. For those like take pleasure in the frisson of a gruesome kill, Halloween II delivers.

One can tell the filmmakers have made a conceited effort to up the ante. It is nevertheless bizarre to witness this second chapter, so fresh off the first, commit overwhelmingly more stomach churning murders than the first. Finally, in a story decision that would go on to have major ramifications on the rest of the franchise, it is revealed that Michael Myers and Laurie Strode are in fact brother and sister.

Despite some questionable and unfortunate decisions (the remixed main theme doesn’t sound nearly as impressive as the original version), Halloween II is a difficult film to outright dislike. Dean Cundey certainly lends the project class and, as previously stated, the cast is really quite good. Michael Myers is more of a towering, imposing presence this time around as opposed to an oddly shaped figure that lurks in the shadows and from behind shrubs. He’s still scary, only in a different manner. The odds of the second movie living up to the stature of the first were always slim, but the end result is respectable, if not as good.

With Michael Myers and Dr. Loomis seemingly burned to death in a fiery explosion within the hospital’s confines, the Michael-Strode story had come to an end.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

It didn’t take long for discussion about a possible third Halloween film to spark. Naturally, given the circumstances under which the second feature concluded, it was time to think outside the box, which Akkad and Yablins agreed to upon John Carpenter’s insistence. The latter would not return to write a screenplay, preferring to limit his role to that of producer. Friend and frequent collaborator Tommy Lee Wallace happily acquiesced to writing and directing the project, especially given Carpenter’s desire to take the brand name in a different direction. Wallace, who was integral in much of the first film’s success, had passed on directorial duties for the second feature out of an intense disliking for the script. What the filmmakers came up with was to make a series of new Halloween films, each independent from one another, all thematically tying in to the famous holiday. Their first kick of the can was 1982’s Season of the Witch.

Replacing stalking killers with mysticism and mystery, Season of the Witch begins with failed family man and drinker Dr. Daniel Challis (Tom Akins) witnessing the arrival of a truly strange patient one night in the emergency wing. The man, visibly shocked and wide eyed in panic, is wielding a jack-o’-lantern mask, mumbling something about people coming to kill everybody. Shortly after, the patient is murdered in his hospital bed by a mysterious figure, the latter whom commits suicide by setting himself on fire in his automobile. Dr. Challis has not idea what to make of the horrific events, but maybe Ellie Grimbridge (Stacey Nelkin) does. As the daughter of the man brought in the previous night, she will not rest until the truth about her father’s death is brought to light. Together, their amateur investigation leads them to the sleepy town of Santa Mira, California, also the headquarters of Silver Shamrock Novelties, makers of the year’s latest and hottest trio of Halloween masks: a witch, a skull, and the jack-o’-lantern mask. The company’s CEO, Conal Cochrane (Dan O’Herlily), is all smiles, but beneath the Irish charm is a stupendous plot involving Stonehenge, ancient witchcraft, robots, Halloween masks, and a very special giveaway at 9pm Halloween night. Remember to wear your masks and watch the tv screen!

There is no beating around the bush; Halloween III: Season of the Witch has strictly nothing to do with its two predecessors, save for one cute reference during a television break announcing that the movie before the big 9pm giveaway will in fact be the ‘undisputed classic’ Halloween. The film’s place within the franchise’s history is fret with ups and downs. Whether due to misinterpreted marketing, falsely instilled audience expectations, lack of proper communication on the part of the marketers, Season of the Witch was an absolute dud upon release. It still made more than its budget ($14 million versus $2.5) but the decline in contrast with the first two films was stark.

It is difficult to blame audiences for not showing up to the film upon learning through word of mouth that Michael Myers and Laurie Strode were nowhere to be found in III. Why is it even called Halloween in the first place? A lack of desire to seek the film out is one thing. A lack of appreciation for the finished product is another, and this is where Witch’s initial fate feels unjustified. To be honest, Wallace’s film is quite fun and handsomely crafted. Better still, it has some brains to accompany its thrills. Modern society regularly bemoans the state of mass consumption culture and how easily people are swayed into buying into the latest trends, both figuratively and literally. That is in large part what drives Witch, what with the Silver Shamrock company preying on the gullibility and excitement in children to execute its mission of mass distribution of the masks that will help unleash an ancient evil on Halloween night. Constant advertisements on the television, scored to an asinine yet inescapably catchy tune, Silver Shamrock and its cultish leader Conal Cochrane know their business as wellas their targeted demographic. Talk of evil corporations in our real world and how they suck the money and attention spans of consumers, here’s a horror film that plays up that very problem!

Adding to the film’s odd charm is its cast. Tom Akins does not scream romantic leading man, yet here he is charming the pants off of Stacey Nelkin’s Ellie, who herself is convincing as a strong-willed amateur sleuth. Few would pick those two to form a leading dynamic duo that shares steamy sex scenes, but it works to varying degrees. Lest he be overlooked, Dan O’Herlily, who would go on to play another iconic role a few years later in Robocop, is excellent as the puppet master pulling the strings. There is a constant sense that something is amiss about his jovial demeanour, and when he shows his true colours and the intricacies of his insane plot, he sells evil very, very well.

Part mystery, part adventure, part suspense, Season of the Witch is delightful. It mocks consumerist culture, the ease with which children get their parents to buy them whatever they want, has a curious yet capable cast, a collection of awesome Halloween masks and the grisly effects they have on the unfortunate souls that don them. Those that have avoided the film for the obvious reasons should give it a chance. Just make sure that when you see the Silver Shamrock advert at 9: “TURN IT OOOOOOOOFFFFFFFF!”


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