Exploring the creative difficulties of a flawed franchise
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 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 that would emerge in his wake.
And therein lies the problem for all future Halloween instalments. A successful sequel adds something fresh, 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 just that, but when a character relies so heavily on mystery there’s not a lot of wiggle room to expand their 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 continued from where Halloween left off with a direct continuation that would prolong Carpenter’s original narrative. Apart from an upgrade in gore to compete with the booming slasher genre and the inevitable cheapening of characters forced into making the same mistakes, 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 genre of such 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 superbly and immaculately realised.
Dr. Loomis: I prayed that he would burn in hell. But in my heart, I knew that hell would not have him.
Carpenter was not happy 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 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, 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 starred in a record 4 instalments, his inimitable brand of cynical trash transforming him into a kitsch pop culture icon along with MTV juggernaut Fred Krueger, and in many ways Halloween‘s third sequel would steal from the characters who had borrowed rather generously from Michael. With the franchise well and truly in the grip of commercialism, the original trendsetter had become just another derivative.
This was partly due to the kind of censorship that had rendered the genre tepid by the late ’80s, and a shift towards the self-aware was necessary in the current climate. 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.
Myers had already survived a revolver full of bullets back in 1978, but his 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 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 unlikely, but we would never be given the opportunity to find that out for ourselves as the fifth instalment took a rather abrupt turn.
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 with them. 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!
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 an even higher degree than before, 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 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 in spite of the director’s purported defiance the Voorhees template is just as evident, 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 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 [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’, 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 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.
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 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 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 prove to be the 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 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. 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, 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.
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 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 character who thrived on the output of senseless trash. We expected nothing less.
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 elusive 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, but the longer his rampage continued the harder it was to care. In the end, some characters are simply too precious for a long-running franchise, and for me, Michael Myers is certainly one of them.