Thursday, November 11, 2021

Review: Halloween Film Series 1-5

'The Night He Came Home ...'

Thus ran the tagline for John Carpenter's Halloween, arguably the film which revitalised the slasher film. The film came out in 1978, and was, again arguably, potentially influenced by 1974's Black Christmas.

The beauty of Carpenter's film is its simplicity. Black Christmas is quite an involved affair, with several possibly culprits and red herrings thrown about to wrong foot the audience. Halloween just gets on with it and presents a single killer, we know who he is, and that he has escaped from an asylum and is heading back to Haddonfield to kill again ...

There follows a masterpiece of scene setting as we see the killer, now wearing a William Shatner Halloween mask, watching girls and generally being creepy, before Halloween night when he works his way through them, killing them systematically, and creating a shrine to his dead sister in the process ...

Carpenter's visuals are sublime and iconic, and the amazing Dean Cundey works wonders with the cinematography. The music too (also by Carpenter) is simple, effective, and utterly terrifying, defining the slasher film in the same way as Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells defined the possession film The Exorcist forever after.

There are two moments of absolute terror in the film, which, when I first saw it in the cinema, elicited screams from the audience. The first is when Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) pauses by a black doorway, and the Shape's face slowly looms out of the blackness beside her without her seeing it ... The second is when, exhausted, and thinking she has killed the Shape (Nick Castle), who is lying on the floor out of focus behind her, she slumps in the doorway. Again, unseen by her, but seen by the audience, the Shape sits up, gets up, and comes towards her as she also gets up and stumbles to the stairs, followed by the killer.

These are masterpieces of framing, lighting and performance and are perfectly judged in the film.

At the end of course, Donald Pleasance arrives and puts seven bullets into the Shape, sending him out of the window and down into the yard below ... of course when he looks back to check, the creature has vanished, leaving the audience, as Laurie, wondering if this thing was even human ...

Halloween was so successful, that a sequel followed in 1981 ...

Halloween II is not directed by John Carpenter, and although Carpenter wrote and directed and again did the music, and Cundey is again behind the camera, this sequel falls flat. It has none of the finesse of the first film, and the scare elements seem leaden and plodding by comparison. The director was Rick Rosenthal, and this was his first feature ... he had a lot to learn!

The action picks up right at the end of the first film, with Pleasance's Doctor Sam Loomis shooting the shape and sending him out into the yard. Laurie is taken to hospital, but the Shape is alive and well and continues his rampage through Haddenfield, killing more people before arriving at the hospital to try and again kill Laurie ... There's an odd element which suggests that Laurie's mother is not her real mother (which plays into the idea that she is actually Michael's, other sister, and that this is why he's stalking her, but it's not explained well at all.)

The gore is more overt here, in particular a couple of shots of injection syringe needles into eyes, and a charred and burned corpse, but this doesn't really help to sell the story, and perhaps misunderstands the appeal of the first film, where gore was for the most part sidelined ... In fact, Halloween II is more like the slasher film vein of Friday The Thirteenth, where the gore and effects are celebrated and the deaths of the teens are more like sacrifices on the altar of sensationalism, rather than playing any real part in whatever plot is unfolding ... 

Among the cast here is Dana Carvey as Barry McNichol. Carvey is perhaps better known as Mike Myers' character of Wayne's hapless sidekick Garth in the Wayne's World films. In a bizarre twist, Michael Myers is also the name of the killer in the Halloween films ... 

The film ends with the Shape apparently burned to a crisp in the hospital, and Laurie again in an ambulance, presumably heading for another hospital ... 

But viewers had to wait a while before catching up with Laurie and the Shape again, as 1982 brought Halloween III: Season of the Witch ... a somewhat strange entry to the series, which is basically a standalone film with no connection whatsoever to the previous two entries, other than that it is based around Halloween, and has mostly the same production team.

The film is written and directed by Tommy Lee Wallace - who had worked on all Carpenter's previous films as art director/editor/production designer (he also played Michael Myers in the closet scene in Halloween, and was a Ghost in The Fog). The original script was actually by veteran screenwriter Nigel Kneale, but he had his name removed when the final film diverged in places from what he intended (for a full explanation of all this, I recommend this blog:

Apparently John Carpenter wanted the Halloween film series to be a franchise of unconnected films, and so this entry is just that! And to be honest it's not at all bad. Tom Atkins from The Fog is back as Dr Dan Challis, who is trying to find out about the strange murder of a patient of his at the hospital, by a man in a suit ... he hooks up with Ellie (Stacey Nelkin), the patient's daughter who is also investigating and end up in bed together (of course). Behind it all is the owner of Silver Shamrock novelties, a Conal Cochran (Dan O'Herlihy), who has placed slivers of a rock stolen from Stonehenge into the brand mark on a range of Halloween masks sold to children. These are somehow activated through an advertisement on television, and make the child wearing the mask emit spiders and snakes from their head (no, I've no idea how or why either). It turns out that the suited men are all robots, and Cochran has also created a robot of Ellie who tries to kill Challis (we never find out what happened to the real Ellie).

The film has shades of Dead and Buried, a 1981 film in which a doctor brings people back from the dead and keeps them 'alive' and 'perfect'. It also feels like a sequel to The Fog as Atkins' character seems identical to the character of Nick Castle (yes, the same name as the actor who played the Shape in Halloween!) he played in that earlier film. 

Unfortunately it has too many loose ends to really satisfy - why does Ellie have a sexy negligĂ©e in her luggage with which to seduce Dan? She didn't know she would meet anyone ... or was it just in case! I mentioned the snakes and spiders, but overall I'm not sure we know why Cochran wants to kill all the children wearing his masks ... what does that achieve? 

On to the next in the franchise, Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers ... and now the quality really starts to slide. Set ten years after the original Halloween, and Michael (George P Wilbur) is back to stalk the streets of Haddonfield. Quite why is the mystery here. Directed by Dwight H Little and written by Alan B McElroy, this attempts to pick up where number 2 ended, but ten years on. Apparently the explosion at the end of number 2 put Michael in a coma from which he has just recovered. He heads to Haddonfield to kill Laurie's daughter, Jamie (Danielle Harris) (yes, Laurie's daughter is confusingly called Jamie, perhaps after Jamie Lee Curtis, the actress who played Laurie ... but also there's no explanation of why Laurie is not present) who is living with foster parents and their daughter Rachel (Ellie Cornell). Jamie's surname is Lloyd, which suggests that Laurie got married ... but also, as hinted in number 2, as Laurie is apparently Michael's sister, this makes Michael young Jamie's uncle 

Anyway, Michael starts killing people randomly again, and Loomis is also around, valiantly played by Donald Pleasence, with facial scarring that varies from scene to scene. There's an awful lot of running about with Michael seemingly able to traverse distance with no issue, and appearing all over the place with ease (it doesn't help that some of the townskids are also dressing up as Michael, complete with masks, and confusing the heck out of the police!)

At the end of the film, Michael falls down a mineshaft having been shot multiple times by the Police, while little Laurie picks up a pair of scissors, and, dressed as a clown, kills her foster mother Darleen (Karen Alston) in the same way as Michael killed his older sister in the first film. 

It's generally something of a confused mess of a film, with not much logic in the progression. Michael seems to pop up everywhere and can get into a locked school with ease, and of course nothing touches him - he seems somehow immortal! The Carpenter music is great when it kicks in, but the rest is somewhat unmemorable, and the whole thing passes in a confused bundle of chases, killings, and escapes. There's a nice sequence set on a house roof as Rachel and Jamie try to escape from the killer, but one second he's on the roof, and next he's on the ground, chasing them again ...

Not a great film.

On to Halloween V: The Revenge of Michael Myers and it starts all Bride of Frankenstein with Michael (Don Shanks) surviving the fall into the mine, and crawling out as the Police blow it all up. He makes it to the river and floats downstream before emerging and seeking refuge in the house of some hermit (Harper Roisman - I think) who takes him in ... a year later he wakes from a coma and kills the hermit before heading back into Haddonfield looking for Jamie (Danielle Harris), who is now mute from her ordeal and staying in a children's home. Michael stabs Rachel (Ellie Cornell) to death and starts going after her friend Tina (Wendy Kaplan).

The story, such as it is, continues with Michael killing more teens while trying to find Jamie ... Jamie regains her voice and is chased by Michael through the abandoned Myers house before Loomis (Donald Pleasence) traps Michael before shooting him with tranquilliser darts and beating him with a board ...

The Police arrive and take Michael to the cells ... but a mysterious man in black who has popped up a couple of times in the film, blows the police station up and releases Michael ... much to Jamie's horror!

Like the fourth entry, this is all action over substance. You don't really care about anyone in the film, and Michael's only motivation seems to be to kill Jamie (why?) but he also diverts and starts killing everyone else as well (why?). There's a great traumatised performance from Harris playing Jamie, but the other cast seem to be walking through it all. At least the trope of 'if you have sex you die' is fulfilled with several cast suffering that fate ... but overall you're left somewhat unsatisfied. There's a lot packed in though and after about an hour I thought it must be nearly over, only to find another thirty minutes on the clock!

It's somewhat apparent that they didn't really know what to do with the franchise, and in common with many of this ilk, the films were popular for reasons unknown, despite the apparent law of diminishing returns in the plot, acting and character departments.

That's where this part of the marathon ends ... the next few films in the series are not apparently available as free to view, and given the massive slide in quality so far, I'm not moved to pay to watch them at this point ... so maybe there will be a Part 2 to these reviews ... maybe Laurie will be back to battle the Shape again ... Only time will tell!

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