Exploring the creative difficulties of a flawed franchise
Making a Halloween sequel is a tricky task indeed. 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 who is still busy sharpening his butcher’s knife well into the 21st century. Before settling on the blank-looking creation that would give us ‘the blackest eyes’, Carpenter had contemplated all kinds of gaudy 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 on that Myers was more attuned to subtlety than the garishly brutal killers who would emerge in his wake.
And therein lies the problem for all future Halloween instalments. A successful sequel generally brings something fresh to the dance, fleshing out the story 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 that, but when a character relies so heavily on mystique there’s not a lot of wiggle room to expand on their legacy in a way that is respectful. The original Halloween was carefully judged, economical and just supernatural enough to keep things suitably ambiguous, but going forward you can’t help but overstep the line beyond what is pretty much a perfect narrative, and overstep the line Halloween 5 does.
In 1981, Halloween II continued from where Halloween left off with a direct continuation that would prolong Carpenter’s original narrative. Asides from an upgrade in gore designed to compete with the booming slasher genre and the inevitable cheapening of characters forced into making the same mistakes all over again, the movie wisely stuck to a like-for-like formula. With cinematographer Dean Cundey back on board to capture the Myers aura, director Rick Rosenthal did an admirable job of recreating the drab aesthetics of the original, and though a three-hour narrative is far too long for a sub-genre of such paper-thin simplicity, it could have been a whole lot worse. Whether the film was necessary beyond the financial aspect is up for debate, but it hardly put a foot wrong technically, and the only crime it can be accused of is drawing out a story that had already been sparsely and immaculately realised. But for many that is an unforgivable crime in itself, one that Carpenter himself would be guilty of committing.
Dr. Loomis: I prayed that he would burn in hell. But in my heart, I knew that hell would not have him.
Not that the filmmaker didn’t feel regret for his hand in such an apparent misdeed. After stepping in to help re-shoot certain scenes, Carpenter was deeply unhappy with a sequel that he hadn’t wanted in the first place, and it was with this that Halloween III: Season of the Witch came to fruition, mostly as a way to insulate Myers from a beyond-the-grave return. 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 an ongoing 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 it into the graveyard. Ultimately, Michael was essential to the prosperity of the Halloween name, and agents are nothing if not convincing.
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 clocked-up a record 4 instalments, his inimitable brand of cynical trash transforming him into a kitsch pop culture icon along with MTV juggernaut Fred Krueger, who had taken slasher-led profitability to a whole new stratosphere. In many ways, Halloween‘s third sequel would steal from the characters who had borrowed rather generously from Michael, turning the sub-genre’s catalyst into a standardised villain who became just another face in the crowd. With the franchise well and truly in the grip of commercialism, the original trendsetter had become one more derivative dead horse flogging its way to stalk-and-slash mediocrity.
Halloween 4 also gave us the interesting premise of having Michael’s niece Jamie (Danielle Harris) take the evil reigns with the shocking murder of her foster-mother, a cool twist to cap of a reasonable, by-the-numbers effort. Whether this concept would have been strong enough to carry the franchise is again debatable, but it was all academic as the fifth instalment would take a rather abrupt turn. The original screenplay for Halloween 5 happily picked up where its predecessor left off, exploring different avenues at a time when the faltering slasher was on the verge of extinction, but producer Moustapha Akkad felt that another Myers-led story was the key to commercial success — something Season of the Witch had gone some way to confirming — and what we got instead was yet another variation of a character who had once made simplicity an art form.
The original Halloween had got by on less-is-more, but times had changed, audiences had become desensitised, and the slow-building sparsity of something like Halloween no longer fit the bill. The likes of Jason Voorhees had altered audience expectation irrevocably, and when the Halloween franchise finally returned to its slasher roots it immediately followed suit, giving us a villain of cartoon indestructibility whose main purpose was to set up yet another money-spinning sequel. The difference between the original Michael and the one stalking the cast of Halloween 4 was jarring. Myers had survived a revolver full of bullets back in 1978, a believable if fortuitous brush with death that punctuated the character’s almost superhuman capacities. By 1988, it had taken the fury of an entire hillbilly arsenal to banish him to commercial purgatory, a moment that did little more than guarantee us yet another unnecessary sequel.
This leads us nicely to where Halloween 5 picks up. 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 take the handling of their favourite characters very seriously, and getting duped by such a cheap and underhanded development is not something that is likely to sit well. 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 with creating a mask that stressed as much, and boy did it ever! Still, certain developments seem to counter such intentions. Take the old man who nurtures our masked killed back to health for an entire year before succumbing to the inevitable slaughter. 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.
This was no doubt due to a series of re-writes, concept variations and narrative diversions that underpinned a troubled production, as well as the involvement of a screenwriter who refused to buy into the mindless commercial aspirations of producers beset on a slasher clone at a time when the sub-genre had become well and truly passé. 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 while those in charge watched on uneasily. Instead of aping that particular franchise to an even higher degree as the screenplay demanded, his desire was to use Carpenter’s original as a template, utilising the kind of Hitchcockian suspense and mocking wit that made Halloween 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 such a sequel should look 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 philosophy is noticeable throughout, but despite the director’s purported defiance the Voorhees template is just as evident, which makes for a pretty muddled affair that is technically effective but strays a little too heavily from Carpenter and then-girlfriend Debra Hill’s 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-suffering franchise, saying, “‘I thought that [Zombie] 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’ character, an cloak-and-dagger silhouette who looks like he’s wandered off the set of Dick Tracy. What is the purpose of the ‘Man in Black’ other than to throw us a tacked-on and ultimately unanswered element of mystery? All he does is linger on the periphery before helping Michael to break out of jail for a fifth rampage, an evasiveness that makes him a more effective Myers than the legend himself. In reality, nobody involved with the movie knew who the ‘Man in Black’ was either. Essentially, he was a makeshift band aid for the obvious deficiencies of a film that had been rushed into production in time for Halloween, the idea being that the sequel would make sense of it all. Those of you who have had the dubious pleasure of seeing Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers — a movie that would take a will-sapping 6 years to deliver on that set-up — are probably chuckling to yourself as I write. Either that or taking a long, well deserved breath at the very notion of it all.
As was Dominique’s intention, Halloween 5 follows Carpenter’s suspenseful blueprint, 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 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 newest batch of fodder are just a few examples of overblown violence that resulted in the highest body count in the 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 when it comes to mainstream horror the marketing machine is the hegemonic force and will invariably veer towards the tried-and-tested.
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 to the brink of physical abuse as he attempts to decipher the youngster’s 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, though a scene in which a heavily-breathing Michael imitates a victim’s boyfriend for an excruciating period is particularly inspired.
Dr. Loomis: I know why you’ve come back, Michael. Because the little girl…the little girl can stop the rage inside. She knows how to do it, Michael. If you let her, she can stop the rage…the rage inside.
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 as he runs roughshod over his former haunt. I mean, where on Earth did he find the time to become such an accomplished wheel man? Did the oddball institution of Smith’s Grove Sanitarium go to the trouble of providing a Driver’s Ed course for unbridled maniacs who would never see the light of day? Try explaining that budget decision to the penny-pinching board. The movie also gives us a Myers house that is completely different to the one featured previously, a move forced by the fact that filming was undertaken in Salt Lake City instead of the original location of South Pasedena. Why producers felt it necessary to alienate the Halloween fan base for minimal cost is anyone’s guess, an attitude that is indicative of the overall product.
Another element of Halloween 5 that would displease a large section of fans was its decision to kill off Halloween 4‘s final girl Rachel Carruthers (Ellie Cornell), the closest character to Laurie Strode the series had given us to that point. Six years earlier, Friday the 13th‘s beloved final girl Alice Hardy had been ruthlessly disposed of in Friday the 13th Part 2‘s swiftly executed prologue, a fact that had displeased actress Adrienne King, who had expected to carry the ball for Jason’s inaugural outing before being ousted by another franchise favourite in Amy Steel’s Ginny Field. In the case of Halloween 5, it was actually at the behest of the actress that Rachel was dispatched with so unceremoniously. Miss Cornell never intended to return to the franchise and only agreed to if her character was written out of the script early on. She even had the gall to have the manner of her death altered, robbing us of a scissors down the throat end to a character that she ultimately had no time for. Though the fact that Rachel had been reduced to just another idiot victim following the screenplay’s history-altering re-write justifies not only her decision to bow out but also to demand more money for giving them the satisfaction. Good for you, Ellie.
For all of its flaws (and there are many) 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. Essentially, producers wanted a picture in the Voorhees vein, a formula that had drained as much from the public purse as it had from the integrity of the character. For Jason, a lack of integrity had never been a problem because Paramount had created a marquee attraction who thrived on the output of senseless trash. The cheaper they made him, the more nonsense we craved, and by the latter part of the ’80s we expected nothing less from a character who had become a self-aware parody by the time he almost took Manhattan.
As for Michael, Carpenter’s cold-blooded conception had been forged on subtlety. We were in awe of the original character, we respected him, but that respect was based on an almost 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 and sense of authenticity. The Myers character thrived on being both real and unreal — mysterious enough to fall into the realms of the supernatural, with just enough backstory to qualify as a believable, everyday threat — but the longer his rampage continued the harder it was to care. Some characters are too bathed in mystique to thrive in a long-running franchise that puts them so crudely front-and-centre, and for me Michael Myers is certainly one of them.