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One Good Scare: A ‘Halloween’ Retrospective Part II

Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)

Following the tepid reception of Season of the Witch, the Moustapha Akkad and company went into damage control. The fans gave the third film the cold shoulder and demanded more of Michael Myers, and Akkad felt compelled to deliver. The road to Halloween 4 was not as simple as one might assume however. For one, it came out 6 years after Witch, with a few bumps along the way. The most widely known of those hurdles was the rejection of a script written by Dennis Etchison, who was invited by Carpenter and Hill to pen the fourth film withJoe Dante of all people to direct! Sadly, Akkad deemed the script to cerebral, what with Haddonfield having banned Halloween and the youth pushing back with rebellious attempts to celebrate what was taken from them. Michael Myers re-emerges almost because teens are trying to have some Halloween fun, as if they inadvertently willed him back to life.

When Carpenter and Hill sold off their rights to Akkad, Etchison’s script went down the toilet. In came writer Alan B. McElroy and collaborator director Dwight H. Little. Together they made a more streamlined Halloween entry, one that harkened back to what made the original film so memorable and frightening.

Set ten years after Halloween, The Return of Michael Myers introduces audiences to Jamie Lloyd (horror icon Danielle Harris in one of her first screen roles), Laurie Strode’s daughter. Laurie is presumed dead. Jamie, adopted by the Carruthers family, has formed a strong attachment with her adoptive sister Rachel (Ellie Cornell). Despite their fondness for each other, Rachel is somewhat peeved that she’ll have to take care of her sister on Halloween night rather than fondle with nice guy Brady (Sasha Jenson). He, given Rachel’s indisposition, has opted to spend the evening with the sheriff’s daughter Kelly (Kathleen Kinmont). None of their petty problems can compare with what is to come. A former resident of Haddonfield, one Michael Myers (George P. Wilbur), has escaped captivity once again and, privy to the existence of a niece, needs to do some killing again, unless Dr. Loomis (Pleasence) can stop him first!

For those coming to the franchise for the first time, the simplest, modern cinema equivalent to Return of Michael Myers is The Force Awakens. The 2015 epic was the first Star Wars in some time and, in order to reacclimatize audiences to a familiar galaxy, the filmmakers chose to introduce new characters that would embark on an adventure that closely mirrored the original film.  Much of the same can be said of Halloween 4’s plot and structure: the story is set in Haddonfield, the protagonist is a babysitter, Michael Myers escapes his doctors, the film takes place over the course of the entire day of October 31st, the sheriff has a promiscuous daughter, etc. The biggest difference is that a case can be made that Force Awakens actually improves upon certain elements from the original Star Wars, whereas Return of Michael Myers doesn’t improve upon anything found in Carpenter’s 1978 classic.

That in of itself does not entail that director Little’s film is poor. Nay, Return of Michael Myers is a perfectly serviceable slice of Michael Myers mayhem. For one, its two female protagonists, Rachel and Jamie, are very easy to like and cheer for. Danielle Harris in particular is a revelation (quite literally. She went on to star in tons of horror movies for years to come), providing the role of Jamie with a level of depth and believability rarely found in child actors. She was a natural from the very start, to say the least. Ellie Cornell is sweet, intelligent and resourceful as Rachel, who possesses an attractive, ‘girl next door’ quality about her. She’s not as dorky as Laurie Strode was, but she is just as virtuous. For that matter, most of the cast is putting in pretty good work, with Beau Starr given some choice lines as Sheriff Ben Meeker.

The film understandably functions as comfort food for the franchise’s fanbase. Michael is back, Loomis is back, there’s a bunch of killing happening on October 31st in good old Haddonfield, there are some compelling character dynamics at play that colour the dialogue scenes while Michael lurks somewhere, never too far away. The biggest problem when making a film like Return of Michael Myers is that, by honing the plot so close to the original’s, one cannot avoid contrasting and comparing, which is where this fourth entry suffers slightly. It doesn’t look nearly as good as its predecessors, but then again, when Dean Cundey leaves your franchise, it’s practically assured that the films suddenly won’t carry the same sparkle. Additionally, part 4 is where the franchise’s plots explaining why Michael is so obsessed with returning to Haddonfield start losing coherence. Why must he kill his family members? When did Laurie have Jamie? She was only 17 ten years in the first film and Jamie looks to be about 8 or 9 years of age. Why does Michael wait so long before making his moves each time? Those are some of the less head scratching questions the sequels produce. We’ll get to films 5 and 6 in just a bit.

Dwight’s picture is an adequate entry. Nowhere approaching the quality of the 1978 film, Return of Michael Myers is akin to a soft reboot: keep the same plot outline whilst the main characters get a new skin even though they aren’t especially different from the ones that came before. Even in the instances where it tries to distance itself, such as having a posse of gun toting, beer belly dudes spending the night hunting down Michael Myers, it doesn’t fully deliver. Once the posse is formed, they barely feature until the final few minutes when Michael is gunned down mercilessly at a graveyard.

All that being said, the film certainly ends on a brilliantly shocking note. With Michael seemingly dead and buried, Rachel and Jamie go back home, only for the young girl to brutally stab her mother in the bathroom! Dr. Loomis yells in frustration and horror at the site, fearing Jamie has become the new Michael Myers. Jamie, breathing heavily, wields a pair of scissors while donning a clown costume similar to the one Michael wore on the night he killed his sister all those years ago.

Cut to the end credits.

Whoa..

Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989)

Even though Return of Michael Myers did not perform especially well at the box office ($17.5 million versus a budget of $5 million), Moustapha Akkad nevertheless ploughed ahead with a fifth Halloween film. ‘Fast tracked’ is a more accurate term, as The Revenge of Michael Myers entered theatres just a year after Return. More surprisingly, the movie opened barely five months after shooting even begun. That alone, in some ways, is deserving of plaudits. The most important thing to consider is always the finished product however, which is sadly where Revenge loses most of its points.

The conclusion to Return proved a bone of contention, which is unsurprising when so many creative talents are involved in a major franchise. Danielle Harris, although still very young, actually expected to be the killer in the next film. Donald Pleasence, returning once again as Dr. Loomis, agreed with the concept. How could she not have become evil after what transpired in the final moments of Return? Akkad disagreed, believing that Michael Myers needed to return to satisfy the fan base, and since he was paying the bills, he won the argument. In his defence, they did try something different once already (Season of the Witch) and it blew up in their face. A very, very rough script was what French director Dominque Othening-Girard had to work with when the film went into production in May of 1989.

Revenge opens with Return’s climax in which the police and an angry mob shoot Michael to oblivion. We see that his body tumbles down into a hole in the ground and into a river leading him to some sort of desolate, handmade shack where a lonely hermit dwells. A year passes and, on October 31st, Michael (Don Shanks) awakens from hibernation (it’s not clear what the heck happens during those 365 days in the hermit’s home), murders his benefactor, and trots back to Haddonfield to, once again, attempt to close the curtain on his family since Jamie survived the previous Halloween (Danielle Harris returning). Speaking of Jamie, the girl is now a patient at a local rehabilitation clinic, suffering from traumatic nightmares. She’s also… mute. Anyways, Rachel (Ellie Cornell) and new friend Tina (Wendy Kaplan) visit, but they have Halloween plans of their own, until Michael shows up again, wreaking havoc, meaning Dr. Loomis is also back in business.

The streak of providing the Halloween sequels the benefit of the doubt ends with Revenge of Michael Myers. The very set-up is utterly ridiculous, laughable even. A tunnel in the ground that leads Michael to a hermit that heals him for an entire year, only for Michael to magically awaken next October 31st? Jamie as a mute, afflicted by some kind of telekinetic connection with her murderous uncle? A mysterious man dressed all in black (with steel toe boots, no less) wandering around, checking out the action from afar with no explanation as to what he wants or where he comes from. What in carnations is going on?!?

Then again, when a movie is big as Halloween is fast tracked, the risk incurred is a lack of time for quality control on a script, resulting in the filmmakers basically winging it on the fly. Revenge reeks of haphazard spontaneity and desperate, aimless decision making. While the blu-ray supplements for the good entries are always of interest, those for the poor ones can be quite a delight. Spoilers for Halloween 5 bonus features: nobody really knew why the Man in Black was in the movie. They just included the character mid-shoot to give the film a spark. A fool’s errand, ultimately.

Certain faults can be aimed at the lack of a coherent script, while others at the director. Some of the more amusing interviews on the blu-ray supplements involve cast members recalling how Dominique Othenin-Girard would describe what he wanted out of certain scenes and performances. His eccentricity as a filmmaker and lack of understanding of pacing are glaring. Amidst all the chaos, two local cops show up (Frank Como and David Ursin) with old time, slapstick musical cues playing in the background as a theme. Why would that be in a movie like this? Two completely disposal lovers (Matthew Walker and Tamara Glynn) start having sex in a barn. It goes on for several minutes until Michael finally decides to slice the two horny adolescents. The scene holds no purpose other than the imitate rival series Friday the 13th. However, the greatest sin the film commits involves killing off Rachel too early (and in very unflattering manner given how smart she was in Return), only to be replaced by Tina. Wendy Kaplan is probably doing just what the director asked her for, but Tina is a stunningly annoying, unlikeable role. On the topic of unlikeable characters, Dr. Loomis is a creep in Revenge, yelling at Jamie like a desperate maniac. He’s become the verbose version of insane to Michael’s silent, maniacal predator.

Embarrassingly misguided, poorly paced, poorly written, the film goes for broke with another surprise ending in which, after Michael is taken into custody, the Man in Black re-emerges with a machine gun and mows everyone down, freeing the famed killer. For what purpose? The answer would only come 6 years later.

Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995)

Executive producer Moustapha Akkad thought it best to contemplate where the series could go following the fifth film’s disappointing box office performance. There would be no fast tracking this time, but other protracted legal entanglements reared their ugly heads, pushing off any attempt at a  screenplay. When the dust settled, Miramax (Dimension Films) had purchased the franchise’s rights, although Akkad still called most of the shots.

One of the more prominent names that features in stories of Curse’s pre-production phase is David Farrands. A screenwriter and self-proclaimed fan of the series, he worked closely with Akkad on script ideas that had rather lofty expectations, namely to continue the story of Michael Myers whilst making heads or tails of the mess that was Revenge, such as the Man in Black and a bizarre symbol tattooed on his wrist.  Attempts were also made to tie everything into the first film as well. A bold, if foolhardy attempt at righting some previous wrongs that were probably best left dead. Casting was another major issue. Danielle Harris, now a 17-year old teenager, made conceited efforts to star in the film, going so far as to get emancipated. The folks at Miramax balked at her salary demands (which were reportedly not that astronomical to begin with), arguing that Jamie is killed early on, so why should she earn a handsome pay? Crushed, Harris left the project. Halloween 6 was shaping up to be a challenging project to say the least, even after it found its director in Joe Chappelle.

A plot synopsis and review of The Curse of Michael Myers is impossible without acknowledging the two versions in existence. The theatrical cut, released in 1995 and subsequently on multiple home video formats, is obviously the one most people have seen. However, that version was a result of several re-writes and re-shoots following negative test screening reactions. The other version, baptized the Producer’s Cut, finally saw the light of day at a special screening in 2013, then on blu-ray in 2014 in a special box set. While most of the mundane plot points that carry the story are identical, a handful of key sequences stand in stark contrast from one another.

In essence, Curse of Michael Myers sees Jamie Lloyd (J. C. Brandy) held in captivity by a secretive clan apparently operated by Revenge’s Man in Black. They are named the Thorn, inspired by an ancient Runic symbol, and their objective is to control Michael Myers (George P. Wilbur) through some sort of ritualistic curse. Furthermore, Jamie gives birth whilst a prisoner, but is quickly helped by a kindly nurse and escapes her captors. Her freedom is short lived, as Michael stalks her through the rainy night and, finally, at long last, dispatches his niece… but not her child. The baby is found by conspiracy theorist Tommy Doyle (newcomer Paul Rudd!), the same boy Laurie Strode babysat in the original film. He lives across the street from the Strodes, where young adult and student Kara (Marianne Hagan) lives with her parents and her own young son Danny (Devin Gardner), who may or may not be under the influence of the Thorn. Knowing another family member is still alive, Michael returns to Haddonfield to take care of some business as Tommy, Kara, and Dr. Loomis (Pleasence) attempt to defeat evil once and for all.

Oh, The Curse of Michael Myers. How it strives for greatness, for quality thrills, for a bold expansion on the franchise’s mythology, for thematic complexity…only to end up being needlessly complex, period. The main argument the filmmakers and the film’s supporters can make is that by presenting a the Thorn is a new antagonist, the protagonists are forced to reckon with an evil even greater than Michael Myers. In other words, the stakes have been raised, thus creating even greater peril for Loomis and company. That may be so, but as a result of adding so much plot and new mythology to Halloween, the series has strayed further and further away from its beautiful, haunting simplicity. When Michael Myers isn’t the focal point of a Halloween film (Season of the Witch notwithstanding), there’s a problem. The series begins to lose its identity. It’s the same problem whenever a movie or series tries to explain a mystery surrounding a villain or whatever malevolent force; it rarely satisfies what our own imagination conjured up.

Curse isn’t all bad. It’s certainly interesting to see a young, deadly serious Paul Rudd. While he’s not giving the sort of performance his fans are accustomed to, he’s pretty solid as a twitchy, paranoid if nevertheless good-natured loner. Marianne Hagan admirably fills the role of the new Laurie/Jamie, continuing the franchise’s tradition of interesting, strong female leads. Even Pleasence looks a bit more engaged this time around. More reassuring, his Loomis comes off as a bit more even keeled than the freakazoid from Revenge. The kills are deliciously brutal for the most part, and Michael himself looks better than in the previous film.

Is one version better than the other? The answer depends greatly on one’s mileage for the entire Thorn business and how one wants that mythology to actually lay out exactly why Michael has been making his murderous rounds for close to 20 years. If one doesn’t particularly care for complex myth building, then neither will be one’s cup of tea, really. The Producer’s Cut arguably has the slight edge for its heavier reliance on an orchestral soundtrack (the theatrical cut features more 1990s bland rock music) and a more audacious, if unsurprisingly open ending (the theatrical cut’s ending is just confusing). Both, sadly, boast atrocious 1990s music video aesthetic like the image being blown up and stretched across the screen, or those annoying flashes of white when something shocking occurs.

Curse of Michael Myers theatrical cut (which is considered the official one for all intents and purposes) pads on too much mythology and ends on an abrupt, puzzling note. After having helped Tommy, Kara, and Danny escape to freedom and the Thorn seemingly smashed, Loomis decides to go back into the their hideout to face Michael, battered and bruised, one more time. A cry of great suffering booms through the soundtrack as the picture cuts to an evil jack-o’-lantern looking at the audience.

Where in the world could the franchise go from here?

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