Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Celebrating 30 Years of Bloodshed:The Best of the Halloween Series

In 1978, the first unstoppable mad slasher of cinema drenched the movie screens with blood. Michael Myers, the silent, white-masked killer who butchered his parents one Halloween night when he was still a small child, and then escaped from an asylum many years later to finish the job on another Halloween night--because he missed his sister the first time around--still stands tallest among his imitators, from Jason Vorhees on down the line.

The original “Halloween” not only opened the floodgates for slasher flicks in the 1980s (and a few of the genre continue to trickle out to this very day), it started the career of suspense film director/writer/musical score composer John Carpenter, the late and very-much-missed producer/writer Deborah Hill, and actress Jamie Lee Curtis.

It's now 30 years since "Halloween" was unleashed upon the public, and that film still stands as one of the best-made and smartest of all slasher flicks, and it still deserves a place on any Top 25 Horror Movies list.

This post offers reviews of the the best films that has Michael Myers slashing his way through the plot. In fact, it covers the only films with the character that are worth seeing. (And, yes, I feel comfortable making an absolute pronouncement, because I fear the god-awful Rob Zombie remake in 2007 killed the franchise once and for all... one year short of this auspicious 30th anniversary. Although, maybe not. The graphic novel "Night Dance" was a spectacular read, so maybe Michael will be back to splash the screen with blood again.)

Halloween (1978)
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasance
Director: John Carpenter
Rating: 8/10

Michael Myer, who has been confined to a mental institution since committing several brutal murders as a young child, escapes and returns to his hometown to kill his last remaining relative, his sister. While his psychiatrist Dr. Loomis (Pleasance) tries to get the local sheriff to clear the streets of Halloween trick-or-treaters to protect them from a killer who the doctor believes to literally be possessed by evil spirits, Michael is cutting his way through the population of Haddonfield, getting ever closer to his actual goal, his sister, Laurie (Curtis).

"Halloween" was the first of this type of movie--an unspeakably violent, hands-on killer butchers his way through hapless victims until one girl faces him alone--and it still remains the best. The gore may be mild compared to the countless slasher flicks that follow, but the tension and terror flowing from the screen remains unmatched.

All actors featured in “Halloween” turn in great performances, with Curtis’ portrayal of the terror-stricken, yet scrappy, Laurie being particularly impressive. Horror movie veteran Pleasance also turns in a great performance as the stressed-beyond-stressed-out, gun-toting mental health professional bent on stopping a man who is “pure evil” before he murders again. Even the actor playing the masked, silent Michael Myer is wonderful—he has an animal-like way of cocking his head that is very creepy.

Other strong aspects that really make “Halloween” stand out is the camera-work, lighting, and set-dressing. All of these combine to turn typical small-town America into a creepy and threatening environment that is as much a character in the film as the principle actors. Much of the tension that is built in the early parts of the film grows from the curiously unsettling aura throughout the town of Haddonfield.

Finally, the soundtrack score of "Halloween" needs to be singled out for praise. Performed completely on synthesizers by director Carpenter, it stands as not only one of the creepiest horror movie scores but also as one of the best works of electronica ever composed. Plus, no other horror movie has a theme as memorable as "Halloween." (Only "The Exorcist" comes close, and the theme from it wasn't originally composed for the movie.)

Halloween II (1981)
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasance
Director: Rick Rosenthal
Rating: 7/10

'Halloween II" is a direct sequel to the original movie, picking up pretty much exactly where it left off. After narrowly escaping death at the knife-wielding hands of her insane brother, Laurie is taken to the local hospital while an apparently dead Michael Myers is taken to the morgue in its basement. It quickly becomes apparent that someone was a bit hasty in declaring Myers dead—a natural mistake since Dr. Loomis had shot him six times in the chest--and soon he is stalking through the darkened hospital and sending everyone on the graveyard shift to the graveyard. Maybe Laurie won’t live to see the sun come up on November 1st after all.

The film takes place almost entirely within the Haddonfield hospital. Director Rick Rosenthal. Rosenthal successfully uses the empty, darkened hallways to evoke suspense and horror, and to eventually emphasize the isolation of Laurie as she for the second time in one night is the object of her brother’s murderous intentions.

On the acting front, we’ve got Curtis and Pleasance reprising their roles from the original “Halloween”, and they are just as good as they were before. Curtis once again strikes a perfect balance between strength and terror, and Pleasance once again excels as a man obsessed with putting an end to what he views as evil given form on Earth.

The only weakness that prevents this film from being as good as the original “Halloween” is, curiously, the script. Although Carpenter and Hill wrote both, the story for “Halloween II” never really seems to build up quite the same momentum as the original movie. The middle is actually downright dull at times.

“Halloween II” is still worth watching, but a tighter script would have made it so much better.

Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)
Starring: Donald Pleasance, Ellie Cornell, Danielle Harris, and Michael Pataki
Director: Dwight H. Little
Rating: 6/10

Ten years after Michael Myers brought real terror and bloodshed toa Halloween night in the small town of Haddonfield, he escapes while being transferred between two asylums. He returns to his old stalking grounds, but finds that his sister, Laurie is now out of his reach. However, his young niece Jamie (Harris) is not so lucky. Soon, the bodies start to pile up, and Jamie and her teenaged protector (Cornell) may not survive the night, even though Dr. Loomis (Pleasance) is once again stalk Michael as he stalks them.

With “Halloween 4,” Myers joins the ranks (whether he is elevated or if he falls depends on your point of view) of all the other indestructible psycho-killers, since he was burned to a crisp on camera at the end of “Halloween II.” However, Dr. Loomis, is also back (and he didn’t fare much better than Myers in that fire), so he is probably the only slasher-flick hero who is as indestructible as killer himself!

Like “Halloween II” was an inferior film when compared to the original, so is “Halloween 4” weaker than both its predecessors. The greatest flaw is the setting of Haddonfield. Where Carpenter and his crew managed to infuse the town itself with a sense of dreadful anticipation, the director of this film just conveys that it is like any other little town. Because of this, the movie doesn’t seem quite as suspenseful as those that came before. Yes, there are plenty of shocks, and Myers is now conducting himself as we have come to expect from a man in his like of work (like Jason, and Freddy, and dozens and dozens of other cinema maniacs that appeared in the decade since Myer first cocked his head at Laurie Strode), but the same level of tension is never quite reached.

Acting-wise, however, the performances are as good as they were in the first pair of movies. Curtis isn’t in the film—her character reportedly died in a car accident shortly after she gave birth to a daughter—but instead we have Danielle Harris, a very talented child actress playing Jamie, Myers new target. Cornell also puts on a good show as the stubborn teenaged girl trying to keep herself and Jamie alive as Myers is killing people all around them. At first blush, Pleasance’s performance seems to be a bit much, but if one considers that Dr. Loomis has shot Myers in the chest six times, in the face twice, and burned him alive, and still the human monster fails to die, then it would make sense that the character has gone completely nuts. In that light, his performance is perfect.

Like “Halloween II”, this installment suffers from script problems. In this case, the script isn’t ponderous, but instead is burdened with some useless and annoying subplots (such as one involving brave rednecks hopping in their truck to go kick Michael-ass). I suppose the filmmakers sensed the other problem with the film’s storyline—that Myers was starting to no longer be scary. We saw all his tricks in the first two films, and all we had now was the same as before, except he was so monstrous that he would go after a very young child.

This problem with Michael Myers is what let to some truly stupid missteps in the three movies that followed. Someone, somewhere, decided to take Dr. Loomis at his word. Soon, the series was burdened with bizarre Satanic cultists. It's almost a shame that "Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers" marks the point at which the series tips over the edge of the abyss and plummets into the Bottomless Depths of Truly Crappy, because it has what I've always thought to be the most striking poster/home-video cover image of the entire series--Michael holding his trademarked butcher knife with the blade fading into an image of a young girl in a harlequin costume. Harris and Cornell are also both back with excellent performances. It’s a shame the overall movie isn’t have been better. (That's the illo at the tip of this post, by the way.)

The final word on “Halloween 4” is that it’s worth seeing if you like your slasher-flicks with some good acting. But you should avoid everything that follows it... with the exception of "Halloween: H20"

Halloween: H20 (1998)
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Josh Hartnett, Adam Arkin, Michelle Williams, and LL Cool J
Director: Steve Miner
Rating: 7/10

Keri Tate (Curtis) has spent the past twenty years trying to put a single night horror behind her. Her successful career as an educator has helped, as has the love of her now-teenaged son (Hartnett) and the fact that she faked her death and changed her name when she became pregnant with him. But now, the past is coming back with a vengeance... Keri will no longer be able to deny that she is Laurie Strode. Michael Myers is back, and he still wants her.

"Halloween: H20" is the only entry in the series since "The Return of Michael Myers" that is worth your time. In fact, it's one of the best slasher movies to emerge from the late 1990s when the genre enjoyed a bit of a revival, because it doesn't engage in self-mockery and remains true to the tone and mood of the original "Halloween" films while presenting a slasher story with a slightly different structure than what we're used to.

Like the original "Halloween", the film is a bit slow in its wind-up, but during this first part of the movie, we get to know the characters--the still-emotionally tortured Laurie/Keri, her son, her would-be suitor (Arkin), and likable innocents who are soon to run into the human killing machine that is Michael Myers.

Also like the original "Halloween", this film does not rely on body count and gory, creative butchering of characters. Instead, it relies on the fact that teh audience actually cares about what happens to the characters in the film. With its well-written script, solid cast--Curtis in particular is fabulous as a broken Laurie Strode who suddenly finds the strength to fight not only for herself but for the life of her son--and a highly underrated director at the helm, the audience is drawn into the action and terror as it builds and unfolds.

(I feel Miner is underrated, because this and other horror films he's done shows that he understands that there needs to be a pay-off to any build-up of suspense, and that the key to making a horror movie truly scary is that the characters in the film need to be human and sympathetic. Both of these facts seem to be lost on many modern horror film directors who believe that one fake scare after another and flat characters surrounded by CGI monsters is all that's needed.)

"Halloween: H20" was a great way to celebrate twenty years of Michael Myers striking fear into the hearts of audiences around the world--it almost managed to reach the great heights acheived by Carpenter and Company in the original film. It remains the last worthwhile entry in the series.