When it comes to franchise-spawning characters Michael Myers is a very precarious entity. VHS Revival investigates the reasons why.
Making a Halloween sequel is a tricky task indeed.
Back in 1978, John Carpenter gave birth to the low-budget slasher craze with his bare bones tale of an escaped mental patient beset on revisiting the scene of a childhood crime. So cash-strapped were Carpenter and his crew that they cut the eyes out of a William Shatner mask and sprayed it white, fortuitously giving birth to a horror icon.
Before settling on the blank-looking creation that would offer us ‘the blackest eyes’, Carpenter had contemplated all kinds of garish substitutes in his pursuit of a genuinely scary figurehead, most notably a clown. In hindsight, such a colourful embellishment seems like madness for a character of Michael‘s ominous mystique. We would learn very early that Myers was more attuned to subtlety than the garishly brutal killers that would emerge in his wake.
And therein lies the problem for all future sequels. A successful sequel will invariably expand on its antecedent while maintaining just enough of what made the original so great, and for the most part Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers attempts to do just that. But when when a character relies so heavily on mystery, there’s not a lot of wiggle room to expand his or her legacy in a way that is respectful. In many ways, you can’t help but overstep the line, and overstep the line this movie does.
In 1981, Halloween II wisely continued where the original left off with a like-for-like formula that would prolong Carpenter’s original narrative. Whether that was necessary at all outside of the financial aspect is up for debate, but the movie hardly put a foot wrong technically, and the only crime it can be accused of is drawing out a story that had already been superbly and immaculately realised.
And so Halloween III: Season of the Witch was born. Originally planned as the first in a series of annual tales attached to the Halloween name, each instalment would have a different theme and cast of characters as Universal looked to establish an annual event that would become tradition for moviegoers. But money talks and evil walks, and without a marquee attraction the studio would struggle against a plethora of Myers clones who had taken Carpenter’s cue and run with it. Ultimately, Michael was essential to the prosperity of the Halloween name.
In 1988, Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers brought our hulking brute back into the commercial fold. During the intervening six years, Myers imitator Jason Voorhees had already starred in a record 4 instalments, his inimitable brand of cynical trash transforming him into a kitsch pop culture icon along with Fred Krueger, and in many ways Halloween‘s third sequel would steal from the characters who had borrowed rather generously from Michael.
This was partly due to censorship hysteria, which had for the most part rendered the slasher sub-genre tepid, and a shift towards the self-aware was necessary in the current climate. The original Halloween had got by on less-is-more, which was mostly out of necessity too, but matching a seminal piece of work like-for-like was nigh-on impossible, and so Michael would take the Voorhees road as the franchise returned to its slasher roots, giving us a villain of cartoon indestructibility.
Myers had already survived a revolver full of bullets back in 1978, but the 1988 incarnation had taken the fury of a whole arsenal by the end of the fourth instalment, which leads us nicely to where Halloween 5 picks up. Halloween 4 also gave us the interesting promise of having Michael’s young niece, Jamie (Danielle Harris), take the evil reigns with the shock ending murder of her foster sister, a cool twist to cap of a reasonable, by-the-numbers effort. Whether this concept would have been strong enough to carry all future sequels is unlikely, but we would never be given the opportunity to find that out for ourselves.
Any movie which opens by presenting the end of the previous instalment as a dream and/or psychotic delusion is not doing itself any favours. Fans of any franchise take the narrative of their favourite character very seriously, and when those fans realise they have had their time wasted by such a cheap and underhanded development, they’re not going to be best pleased. Not only that, but the explanation for Michael’s survival is shown so explicitly that the character is immediately humanised, a strange and intentional decision that tasked the practical effects team at KNB SFX team with creating a mask that stressed as much.
Director Dominique Othenin-Girard had been so intent on making a suspenseful movie that he had thrown the original script, which followed the highly marketable Voorhees template to a tee, straight in the trash. Instead of aping that particular franchise to a higher degree than Halloween 4, he instead wanted to use Carpenter’s original as a template, utilising the kind of Hitchcockian suspense that made it such a critical and commercial success. In an interview with Halloweenmovies.com, Dominique claimed, “Slowly, after the offence for their work had eased up a bit, I started to tell them the story I came up with, following the structure of the original Halloween from Carpenter/Hill; a structure following the Hitchcock rules of suspense, not mixing the genres like the script they had given me. It had a body count of death like Friday the 13th, and many deaths in nightmarish situations like the other competing series… I concentrated on the work and let go of the outside perception of how should such a sequel look like in order to accumulate more money than the precedent sequel. I simply had to remain within the genre and mostly make the film work.”
This is evident throughout the movie, but in spite of his purported defiance, there is much of the Voorhees template evident too, which makes for a pretty muddled affair that is technically effective, but which strays a little too heavily from Carpenter and then-girlfriend Debra Hill’s original conception. In the original, the ever-beleaguered Dr Loomis had described Micheal as being ‘purely and simply evil,’ a monster lacking even the smallest semblance of humanity. Carpenter himself, in a rather candid discussion with the New York film academy in 2016, had challenged Rob Zombie’s similarly humanising incarnation of the long-running franchise, saying, “‘I thought that he took away the mystique of the story by explaining too much about (Michael Myers). I don’t care about that. He’s supposed to be a force of nature. He’s supposed to be almost supernatural.”
Halloween 5 paints Michael as distinctly human. It also sets up the notorious druid angle, giving us the mysterious and unexplained ‘Man in Black’, an elusive silhouette who looks like he’s wandered off the set of Dick Tracy. Then there’s the question of the old man who nurtures our masked killed back to health for a year before succumbing to the inevitable. What was the purpose of this otherwise inconsequential character, and how did it make Michael more human? For the most part, this is a movie mired in contradiction.
As was Dominique’s intention, the movie follows the suspenseful blueprint of Carpenter, giving us a series of over the shoulder shots and an omnipotent killer who stalks his prey undetected in broad daylight, but in spite of the director’s protests to the contrary, it also follows the Friday the 13th template, with a series of brutal kills reminiscent of a pre-censorship Jason. An implement to the skull, a human pitchfork kebab and a Terminator job on Haddonfield’s finest are just a few examples of overblown violence that result in the highest body count in the entire series save for 1982’s quasi-sequel Season of the Witch, a movie which didn’t feature Michael at all. You can throw as many scripts as you want in the trash, but it will only get you so far. When it comes to mainstream horror vehicles, the marketing machine will invariably prove to be the true hegemonic force.
As human as the movie attempts to make the notoriously dead-eyed ‘shape’, there is also a supernatural element at work. Instead of inheriting the presumed-dead Michael’s murderous disposition, niece Jamie, now confined to a psychiatric clinic, has the ability to see each of Michael’s potential acts in her mind’s eye, leading Loomis almost to the brink of physical abuse as he attempts to decipher her senseless ramblings and stop her uncle getting his brutal mitts on a whole new cast of vacuous party dwellers. The director does an admirable job of creating suspense with a series of careful builds that do the original character justice but ultimately lack the keen eye of Carpenter, although scenes in which a heavily-breathing Michael imitates a victim’s boyfriend for an excruciating period is particularly inspired.
Another supernatural element comes in the form of Michael’s driving skills. Myers is a young boy when he commits his first murder. Fifteen years later, he is a more than confident driver having never before sat behind a wheel. By the fifth instalment, Michael is a veritable stuntman, careening with the controlled abandon of a champion NASCAR racer. Where on Earth did he find the time and location to become such an accomplished wheelman? The movie also gives us a Myers house that is completely different to the one featured previously, which is due to the fact that filming was undertaken in Salt Late City instead of the original location of South Pasedena. Why producers felt it necessary to alienate the Halloween fan base for a minimal cost is anyone’s guess. In the Carpenter vein, some things truly are better left to the imagination.
Joking aside, Halloween 5 is a decent effort from a technical perspective, but if the purpose of a sequel is to expand on the original movie’s narrative, you are always going to struggle with an elusive character like Myers. In the end, producers wanted a picture in the Jason/Freddy vein, their self-reflexive antics having turned them into the cinematic equivalent of MTV rock stars, a formula that had drained as much from the public purse as it had from the integrity of the characters. For Jason, a lack of integrity had never been a problem because Paramount had created a marquee character who thrived on the output of senseless trash. Krueger, he had the dream world to fall back on, creating an almost limited canvas free of rules and convention.
As for Michael, Carpenter’s coldblooded conception had been forged on subtlety. We were in awe of the original character, we respected him, but that respect was based on an ethereal presence who turned the drab palettes of day into a perpetual dread. That formula can be repeated, but never with the same grainy panache. The character thrived on being both real and unreal, but the longer his rampage continued the less we seemed to care about him. In the end, some characters are simply too precious for a long-running franchise, and for me, Michael Myers is certainly one of them.