Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema examined the history of the Halloween film series. The franchise has spanned forty years and been subject to numerous sequels, reboots, and remakes as well as countless imitators. What follows is a look back at the phases of this series and its many ups and downs.
Directed by John Carpenter and co-written by Carpenter with producer Debra Hill, Halloween has a simple story. On Halloween night in 1963, six-year-old Michael Myers murders his sister. Fifteen years later he escapes from a mental hospital and returns to his hometown, stalking a babysitter and the children in her care.
There are different kinds of horror films. Some, like Cannibal Holocaust and Antichrist, plumb the depths of evil and depravity. Others, like the works of Lucio Fulci and Herschell Gordon Lewis, go for the gross out. These sorts of movies are endurance tests that put us through gastric and emotional ringers and oftentimes leave the viewer with an unclean feeling. Those movies are distinct from a third category of horror film, those pursuing the scare. These movies are frightening but also fun and they release the viewer’s anxieties instead of exacerbating them. 1978’s Halloween is a prime example of the clean scare. The movie is frightening but it is a pleasing sort of scare that creates tension through masterful execution.
Everything in Halloween is synchronized to set up and pay off a scare and its success is rooted in its craftsmanship. Dean Cundey’s cinematography is an excellent example of using framing to create a scary mood. Potential victims wander in the darkness or they do mundane things in the foreground while danger creeps in from the edges of the screen. The film also has adroit use of sound. The filmmakers place sounds effectively and the music of Halloween is one of the great film scores.
Halloween introduced one of American cinema’s great villains with Michael Myers. However, Michael doesn’t actually appear much in the movie. Like the shark of Jaws, the killer of Halloween is shown just enough to be effective and the camerawork and the music fill in his presence as do the terrifically melodramatic speeches by Donald Pleasence as Dr. Sam Loomis. Pleasence is another key to the movie’s success. He’s cast as Michael Myers’ psychiatrist and he sells the gravity of the situation and fills in what we don’t see. Another critical casting success of Halloween is Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode, the lead babysitter. In her debut feature film role, Curtis balances intelligence and fortitude with vulnerability. Laurie Strode isn’t an action hero but she does defend herself and the children in her charge. The focus of this movie remains on Laurie and her friends and they feel authentic and accessible. That emphasis makes Halloween more engaging than many of the slasher films that followed.
Halloween’s influence on the horror genre and on American culture can hardly be overstated and for that reason alone it is an important piece of work. But Halloween is also one of those rare films that achieves cinematic perfection. Every aspect of the filmmaking is executed with such intelligence and craftsmanship that it transcends its exploitative foundation to become a work of art.
When Halloween was released in 1978 it was a box office sensation. The picture made an estimated $47 million against a production budget of $325 thousand and Halloween is frequently cited as one of the most successful independent movies ever made. But Halloween’s success was unique because its success was both commercial and critical. Unlike a lot of its imitators, Halloween earned many positive reviews. Roger Ebert compared it to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
After Halloween did so well, other filmmakers set about making imitators. Friday the 13th, Prom Night, Terror Train, Motel Hell, and New Year’s Evil were just some of the slasher titles released in 1980. Of them, Friday the 13th was particularly important. Halloween had been distributed by Compass International, a small company, and it opened regionally. That means Halloween opened in one theatrical market, played for a while, and then the prints were shipped to another market. By contrast, Friday the 13th was acquired by Paramount, one of Hollywood’s major studios, and the movie opened nationally on over one thousand screens following an aggressive marketing campaign. This had never happened before and Friday the 13th reaped enormous financial rewards. Following that, other studios began acquiring and distributing slasher films. And so it came to pass that Universal distributed 1981’s Halloween II. Unlike its predecessor, Halloween II had a wide release and it opened at the top of the box office chart.
Halloween II was a continuation of the original story, starting where the first film ended. Michael Myers continued to stalk the teenagers of Haddonfield, Illinois and eventually tracked Laurie Strode to the local hospital. Jamie Lee Curtis returned for the sequel although she spent most of the movie in a hospital bed. Laurie comes to discover that she is in fact Michael Myers’ long lost sister. Meanwhile, Donald Pleasence continued to chew the scenery as Dr. Loomis. Unlike the open ending of the original picture, the climax of Halloween II implied that Michael Myers’ story was complete.
The original Halloween was not intended to inspire sequels and John Carpenter was not really interested in making it. But Carpenter and co-writer and producer Debra Hill realized that the sequel would get made with or without them and so they joined the production. Several other key crew members returned for Halloween II, namely cinematographer Dean Cundy, but directorial duties went to Rick Rosenthal. Carpenter’s directorial touch is noticeably absent. Halloween II did an admirable job of matching the look of the 1978 film but it wasn’t nearly as polished. Halloween II is a sloppier and sleazier movie than its predecessor. It followed the trends in the horror market at that time by including gore and nudity and a lot of the kills are staged clumsily. Michael Myers moves so slowly and is so overexposed that he comes across like a monster from a 1950s drive-in movie. Some cast and crew members reported tension on the set between Rick Rosenthal and John Carpenter and Carpenter stepped in to direct some second unit work.
Despite its flaws, Halloween II was a box office success in 1981 and the movie has proven to be one of the most popular entries in the series among Halloween’s most ardent fans.
After the success of 1981’s Halloween II, plans were made for a third installment. However, the next film would be a very different project. The decision was made to pivot away from the slasher subgenre with the hope of reimagining Halloween as an anthology series. Each film would tell a new spooky yarn centered around the holiday. Halloween III: Season of the Witch told the story of an evil corporation whose Halloween masks contained a deadly secret. The film had more in common with The Twilight Zone than it did with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Released less than a year after the second film, Halloween III was not a financial success and the fans hated it. There’s endless speculation as to why that might be. At the time, the slasher film dominated the horror genre and the box office charts. The genre tends to go through phases and the audience wasn’t necessarily receptive to the kind of horror offered by Season of the Witch. Also, coming off the second film, the audience had been conditioned to associate Halloween with Michael Myers and the new approach probably caused confusion among the viewers. It’s also worth pointing out that Season of the Witch was released in 1982, a year that also saw the release of Blade Runner, Star Trek II, TRON, Conan the Barbarian, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Creepshow, Friday the 13th Part 3, Poltergeist and John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, among others, and the sci-fi/fantasy/horror market was flooded with competition.
Halloween III was written and directed by Tommy Lee Wallace, who had previously been the production designer on the original film and would go on to direct the 1990 television adaptation of Stephen King’s It. Wallace proved a competent filmmaker and the movie had some ambitious ideas. Season of the Witch is a smart and sardonic take on corporatization, especially the way in which our lives are shaped by products and slogans. It’s also about the ubiquity of television and the way the media has penetrated our homes.
Although it disappointed at the time of its release, Halloween III has enjoyed a reevaluation in recent years. In some respects, Season of the Witch was ahead of its time and horror audiences have begun to catch up with it. Had this movie been a success it might have led to a very interesting series of films.
Halloween 4 & 5
After the box office failure of 1982’s Halloween III, the series took a respite. John Carpenter and Debra Hill left the franchise to work on other projects and control of Halloween consolidated in producer Moustapha Akkad. A filmmaker in his own right, Akkad had financed the original Halloween and remained involved in the second and third installments. Akkad was interested in giving the audience what they wanted and he rightly recognized that viewers wanted to see Michael Myers. The fourth Halloween film, subtitled The Return of Michael Myers, was released to theaters in 1988 and its financial success vindicated Akkad’s instincts.
While returning the series to its roots, Halloween 4 also shifted the focus. It brought back the infamous killer as well as Dr. Loomis, played again by Donald Pleasence. It also introduced a new character, Jamie Lloyd, played by child actor Danielle Harris. Jamie was the daughter of Laurie Strode, who had died in an off-screen car crash. Halloween 4 and the sequels that followed this line of continuity were about the relationship between Michael Myers, Jamie Lloyd and Dr. Loomis. Danielle Harris proved to be an impressive young actress and Donald Pleasence turned up the drama, with Loomis developing a Captain Ahab-like obsession with Michael.
Halloween 4’s success is partly due to the way it played to the audience but it is also a well-made film. In fact, The Return of Michael Myers is one of the best slasher pictures to come out of the 1980s. It provides everything that the audience is looking for in a movie like this and does it with style. The movie also has a terrific twist ending that could have sent this franchise in new and compelling directions.
Following the financial success of the fourth movie, Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers was rushed into production and was in theaters less than a year after its predecessor. Halloween 5 continued the story of Michael Myers, Jamie Lloyd and Dr. Loomis but it didn’t follow the implications of The Return of Michael Myers and wasted a terrific setup. Instead, Halloween 5 mostly reiterated a lot of Halloween 4 but without that film’s style or execution and it often fell back on gore and slasher movie clichés. The filmmakers attempted to expand the Halloween mythos with the introduction of the Cult of Thorn but this was underwritten, almost an afterthought, and was handled clumsily.
Halloween 5 was not a success. The movie remains the lowest grossing title in the entire series. The Revenge of Michael Myers primarily suffered from simply being a mediocre slasher movie that was indistinguishable from any other low rent Halloween knock off. But there was something else happening in the cinema market at that time. Halloween 5 opened in 1989, the same year as A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child and Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan. All of them disappointed at the box office. The reign of the slasher film, which had been one of the most popular and profitable trends throughout the 1980s, had come to an end.
The Curse of Michael Myers
The horror genre goes through cycles in which certain kinds of films are popular to the exclusion of others. The genre also experiences lean periods in which audiences don’t show up to the box office and Hollywood studios aren’t making these films. Such was the case in the early 1990s. The heyday of the slasher film was over. It had been replaced by more realistic kinds of stories like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and The Silence of the Lambs.
After Halloween 5 failed at the box office the series languished for a few years as the producers struggled to figure out what to do with it. The 1989 film had ended on a cliffhanger that no one seemed very interested in resolving. Closure would finally be attempted with 1995’s Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers. The film attempted to make something out of Halloween 5’s messy ending but the result was itself a disaster and, among the fans, probably the most contentious entry in the series.
The sixth Halloween originally went into production with the subtitle The Origin of Michael Myers. The film intended to explain the source of Michael’s evil and his invincibility. The answer to that was a convoluted backstory involving an ancient Celtic cult. The movie mixed the familiar stalking scenarios with supernatural evil reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby. Among the problems with The Curse of Michael Myers is that it was so far afield from the original movie that it no longer resembled the original idea. Michael Myers was introduced in the 1978 film as a violent psychopath in its purest form. He had no empathy or personality. By the end of that film he’s come to represent something more sinister. Like his trademark facemask, Michael Myers is empty on the inside. He’s evil in the theological sense—which is to say the absence of good—poured into the body of a man. That’s why Michael Myers is often referred to as The Shape, because he is just the silhouette of a human being. Giving Michael Myers a motive or making him the tool of a cult completely misses the point.
The Curse of Michael Myers had a difficult production. The completed movie was shown to a test audience who did not like it. The picture went through a significant reshoot and reedit that reduced the length of the movie, inserted gore and removed exposition, and completely reworked the ending. However, actor Donald Pleasence died between principal photography and the reshoot. The filmmakers had to piece together the new climax and the result didn’t make any sense.
The eighty-eight minute theatrical cut of The Curse of Michael Myers opened in cinemas in the fall of 1995. Although it was profitable the movie was regarded as a disappointment. However, the original version, dubbed “The Producer’s Cut,” began circulating on bootlegged VHS tapes and fans clamored for an official release. They finally got their wish in 2014 when Shout! Factory issued the Producer’s Cut on Blu-Ray. The Producer’s Cut contains about forty-minutes of alternate or additional footage and has a different tone than the theatrical cut. It also makes more sense, in and of itself, but the climax lacks intensity and the Cult of Thorn storyline is stupid. Ultimately, neither version of The Curse of Michael Myers can be seen as the definitive cut. They are different takes on a fundamentally bad idea.
Halloween H20 & Resurrection
Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers was released during a slow period in the horror genre. That lull would be broken the next year with the release of Scream. Written by Kevin Williamson and featuring the original Halloween within the diegesis of the story, Scream reinvigorated the horror genre with a self-aware and sardonic style. The movie was a huge hit and one of the defining titles of the 1990s. Horror was back.
Starting with The Curse of Michael Myers, the Halloween franchise was now owned by Dimension Films, at that time a subsidiary of Miramax (which was owned by Disney), and Halloween went from an independent series to a corporate product. Dimension had also released Scream and they set about trying to reimagine Halloween in a way that would play for the 1990s audience. Realizing that the Thorn storyline wasn’t going anywhere and wasn’t doing anything for anybody, Dimension made a bold choice. The new film discarded with all of the continuity following 1981’s Halloween II and caught up with Laurie Strode, again played by Jamie Lee Curtis. Laurie was now a divorced mother raising her son in an isolated private school when Michael Myers shows up to finish what he started in 1978.
Released to coincide with the twentieth anniversary of the original movie, 1998’s Halloween H2O was one of the better sequels in this series. Kevin Williamson was hired as a producer and the film has a post-Scream feel but not in a way that was obnoxious. H2O was directed by Steve Miner, who had previously helmed Friday the 13th Part 2 and 3 and Miner knew how to tell this kind of story and make it scary. Jamie Lee Curtis also brought a lot of credibility to the film as her character struggles with post-traumatic stress. H2O wasn’t without its flaws. The Michael Myers mask did not look anything like the original and in fact it changes throughout the film. The film included an original score written by John Ottman. However, cues were moved around and parts of Ottman’s score were omitted in favor reusing excerpts from the score to Scream. H2O also forced a stupid ending onto the finale that painted subsequent filmmakers into a corner.
The success of Halloween H2O led to another installment and Dimension Films followed one of the best sequels in the franchise with one of the worst. 2002’s Halloween: Resurrection had an interesting core idea. Channeling The House on Haunted Hill, a web-based reality show hires contestants to spend the night in Michael Myers’ house. Naturally, Michael shows up and starts picking them off.
Resurrection was ahead of its time but in a way that has caused it to age terribly. The movie is a parade of stupid and nonsensical choices but none more so than the pre-title sequence in which Laurie Strode was killed. The relationship between Laurie and Michael was the heart of that continuity of films and to summarily kill the character with no payoff or resolution was a cheap gimmick to allow Dimension to put Jamie Lee Curtis on the poster. The cast also featured rapper Busta Rhymes as the show host and the Halloween series’ lowest moment is probably Rhymes climactic kung-fu fight with Michael. Resurrection saw the return of director Rick Rosenthal, who had previously helmed Halloween II, and the ineptness of this film clarified the extent to which John Carpenter’s interventions probably salvaged the 1981 film.
Rob Zombie’s Halloween
In the early 2000s, musician turned filmmaker Rob Zombie found success writing and directing House of 1000 Corpses and its sequel The Devil’s Rejects. House of 1000 Corpses was a mess. Zombie had tremendous technical acumen but too often the movie was a disconnected cacophony of images. The Devil’s Rejects, however, was a masterwork and one of the best horror films of the 2000s. This caught the attention of Dimension Films and the producers of Halloween. At this time, horror remakes were all the rage following the box office success of new versions of Dawn of the Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the decision was made to give Rob Zombie the job of rebooting Halloween.
Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween was very much his own film. It reused some of the key elements of the 1978 picture, namely the mask and the musical themes, but it was stylistically distinguished and deliberately vulgar. The major innovations were packed into its first half which dramatized Michael Myers’ transformation from a troubled ten-year-old boy and into a psychopath. This portion of the movie is masterfully unsettling as Michael’s personality disintegrates and he becomes a mute killer. In the second half of the film, Michael Myers escapes and returns to Haddonfield and the remake mostly adheres to the structure and plot of the 1978 film. The latter half of 2007’s Halloween is certainly weaker than the first half, in part because Rob Zombie is much more interested in Michael than in his victims who are not interesting and frequently obnoxious.
2007’s Halloween was successful enough to warrant a sequel. Rob Zombie returned but made a very different film. 2009’s Halloween II focused on Laurie Strode, played by Scout Taylor Compton, as she copes with the aftermath of the first film. Where 2007’s Halloween was split between new material and retelling the original story, 2009’s Halloween II was in all new territory. Zombie turned everything up to eleven and the movie is unrelentingly grim with extremely brutal violence and explicit sexuality but it also has some extraordinary visuals. Halloween II took the audience into the mind of Michael Myers and discovered his motivation and in the process it blurred the line between reality and fantasy.
Rob Zombie’s Halloween couplet is a flawed but unique set of movies. Unlike a lot of horror remakes from the 2000s, which either lazily reiterated the original movie or cashed in on a title with no regard for the source material, Zombie’s Halloween films were germane to the core idea but stood on their own and were ambitious and even thoughtful. But like a lot of Zombie’s other work, they were overproduced and excessive. The films were also disconnected from the concept of The Shape. Unlike the force of nature in the 1978 film, Rob Zombie’s Michael Myers is a man-child who has lost connection with reality and just wants his family back. The Freudian psychology, and the films’ ultraviolent white trash aesthetic, might have been better suited to a remake of Friday the 13th.
Horror in the 2000s had been defined by ultraviolent gore pictures like Saw and Hostel as well as remakes of nearly every major property in the genre including Dawn of the Dead, The Amityville Horror, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. As is often the case, what the horror genre started the rest of Hollywood imitated and remakes of all sorts were released. In the 2010s this took another turn with the soft reboot or nostalgia sequel. Movies like Creed, Jurassic World, and Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens found major success reinvigorating dormant franchises by making new movies that appended onto the continuity of the existing series.
Concurrent with the advent of the nostalgia sequel, horror found renewed currency. In fact the genre may be in the middle of a new golden era of horror with movies like The Witch, The Babadook, Hereditary, and A Quiet Place, among others. Interesting, the patron saint for many of these filmmakers was John Carpenter. His influence, and especially the legacy of Halloween, can be found in many recent films including It Follows, The Purge series, The Hateful Eight, and the television show Stranger Things.
One of the major architects of this horror renaissance was Blumhouse. The studio specialized in horror and has had a string of successes including Get Out, Insidious, and Sinister. In 2015, Dimension Films lost control of the Halloween franchise and Blumhouse stepped in. A new Halloween film, directed by David Gordon Green and co-written by Green and Danny McBride, went into production with John Carpenter producing and providing the score alongside Cody Carpenter and Daniel A. Davies. Jamie Lee Curtis agreed to reprise her role as Laurie Strode. The resulting film, simply titled Halloween, was a direct follow-up to the 1978 film and ignored the continuity of the other sequels.
2018’s Halloween reset the series and thereby did away with the concept that Laurie Strode is actually Michael Myers’ sister. This returned Michael to his origins as a random predator and the new movie makes him scary in a specific way that hasn’t been seen since the original movie. The film largely focused on Laurie, who has been coping with post-traumatic stress for the past forty years, and Jamie Lee Curtis did an impressive job in the role. We can see a hint of the teenager from the original film but decades of anxiety weigh on the character and Curtis brings that out vividly in her performance.
Halloween (2018) also succeeds as a nostalgia sequel. Like Creed and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the new film found a way to reinvigorate the series while playing to audience expectations. It matched the look and tone of the 1978 film and it is an example of fan service done right. References to the older movies are there but are never obnoxious. The movie suffers from some out of place humor and the premise undoes the ending of the 1978 film. But 2018’s Halloween was the best sequel in the series and the box office results have been impressive.
Where Halloween goes from here is unclear. The success of the latest installment makes future Halloween films a near certainty. The 2018 picture appears to bring Laurie Strode’s story to a close and any future films are probably going to have to strike out in new areas. But surveying this series, it is clear that the Halloween concept is pliable enough to adapt to new generations and durable enough to survive creative mistakes.