Halloween II: New Masks Please

Halloween Season of the Witch and the Return of Michael Myers

The second in Jokerside’s glimpse at the Halloween franchise. The first two Halloween films had not only established a franchise, but created the slasher monster. But the series turned out to lack the method and formula of Michael Myers’ MO as the films stretched to the mid-1990s. But then, he could never have returned on the 10th anniversary if Halloween 3 hadn’t written him off…

FOLLOWING THE SUCCESS AND FINITE CONCLUSION OF THAT SINGLE NIGHT STORY OF HALLOWEEN IN THE FILMS OF 1978 AND 1981, JOHN CARPENTER AND PRODUCTION PARTNER DEBRA HILL HAD THE ADMIRABLE INTENTION OF CARVING AN ANTHOLOGY SERIES FROM THAT AUTUMNAL GIFT OF A NAME. It seemed an inexplicable power was determined to keep Michael Myers alive off-screen as much as on. Latching on to an anniversary, as only this franchise can, the fourth film arrived on the tenth anniversary of the first, and started a new cycle of three films, helmed by different directors, each delving into Myers’ origins as much as they nodded their decapitated heads at different parts of the originals. In this spotlight:

Halloween 3: Season of the Witch (1982)

“The night no one came home”

Michael Myers was dead, so where next? The tradition of the ever-returning slasher boogeyman had not yet been set, although there was a fine precedent from gothic godfathers in the Frankenstein and Dracula mould. Still, when it came to this third film, the anthology approach that the producer’s chose was a mighty and noble aim.

And history records that it failed.

Season of the Witch generated far lower box office than its predecessors. But on the way, in its strange position as the only film of the franchise not to follow its defining main character or slasher horror template, the brilliance of the story and approach is clear among the clashing oddity of it all.

The main problem, especially from hindsight gifted by a full nine films featuring Michal Myers, is that Season of the Witch is always going to suffer in comparison. The odds are stacked against it. Instead of a slasher template, the definition of film repetition, comes a mystery packed with psychological shocks. To craft the tale, returning producer John Carpenter turned to legendary British scribe and Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale. Unfortunately, rumour has it that distributor Dino de Laurentiis wasn’t convinced by the sharp move away from gore, which resulted in the shoehorning of grizzly shocks and Kneale requesting the removal of his credit.

That’s a shame for many reasons, not least because Season of the Witch is Neale the core, mashing a somewhat intrinsically British Isles plot with a Californian setting. Yes, we’re not in Ohio anymore and as lead Dr Challis says, “In California… You never know”.

After the slow and strangely digital pumpkin titles, a classic set-up presents a mysterious man escaping pursuers, only to end up in a hospital where his condition and quick end at the hands of an assassin draw others into in a web of curiosity. The film’s definitive moment, the root of the question that irresistibly pushes Challis to join forces with the daughter of the victim, is set when the assassin calmly sets himself alight in a parked car, his mission complete. Director Tommy Lee Wallace makes a good and chilling stab of this – undoubtedly the iconic scene of the film.

The slight meta-lines of the first film are redrawn here, as a disturbed Dr Challis later sees an advert for a Halloween screening of the original Halloween film – perhaps indicative of the franchise’s lofty observation of itself – sponsored by the highly irritating jingle of the Silver Shamrock. That advert counts down to Halloween – with the world’s premier supplier of Halloween masks omnipresent. It’s the dead man’s erratic final journey that draws Challis and Ellie Grimbridge to the small Irish community in California dominated by the Silver Shamrock factory. An eclectic group duly descends on the town motel, to serve up the body count in a classic village of the damned way. The couple swiftly finds themselves in an alien community where somethings is clearly rotten. There’s a dark secret in that place, an old staple in horror and many other genres. Like Summer Isle in The Wicker Man or a softer version of the New England explored by Lovecraft and King.

Horror balance

“It’s the last Halloween for that factory of his”

Season of the Witch is not an unsuccessful film on screen. It provides a haunting force of opposition all the way up to its abrupt ending. It adds and builds on the strong science-fiction conceit that had fuelled many genre plots, such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the Autons serials of Doctor Who. And perhaps most surprisingly, it actually shares a link to the preceding Halloween film it was a deliberate departure from (and entries to come).  The villain’s plot is more than inspired by Samhain festival, the ancient Celtic ritual superseded by Halloween that was previously tacked on as a guiding force behind Myers in Halloween II. It’s a reference that would once again surface like Michael Myers later in the franchise. But first, there was this story that lent itself to creeping realisation, rather than the gore and effects that pushed Kneale away. But while that extreme isn’t necessary, it also isn’t to the detriment of the story. Although the characters remain rather hollow, even the hollow love plot that quickly develops between the two leads serves its purpose in one of the final acts multiple twists.

Setting the Villain

“It’ll be morning soon, Halloween morning, It’ll be a very busy day for me.”

In a franchise that set such a high bar for the slasher genre, in fact pushed the slasher genre into being, Season of the Witch’s main difficulty comes in crafting another iconic villain. Conal Cochran makes for a strangely compelling foe, moving from smarm to sinister with ease and gifted with some extraordinary lines.  But he has to carry a lot of the menace and bridge the jump between drawn out mystery and fulfilment of his evil plot. By the end, Cochran’s secret, and underwhelming, warehouse lair, bizarre demonstration of his weapon in Test Room A and then Challis’ need to escape a rather ridiculous death-trap is nothing short of a strange step into the impenetrable and unbelievable realm of a pseudo-Bond plot. Sadly, everything from the motivation to the production design lets that aspiration down. But taking a neo-gothic route to reach this end plot, attention is held. The film bristles with the random misfire of the Shamrock badge to the all too quick appearance of white coats and the disconcerting Willy Wonkerish tour of the Silver Shamrock toy and mask factory.

“You don’t really know much about Halloween.”

Come the third act, Cochran exposits his aim to achieve the largest Samhain sacrifice for 3,000 years, feeding the old gods children and their families through the Silver Shamrock masks. It’s an interesting obsession, notably not one shared by his ancestors: a desperate measure to address years of commercialisation while Samhain faded to obscurity while using that as the very route to fulfil it. It’s an irony he relishes. Cochran’s intention is more believable than his method. The chip that incorporate part of Stonehenge into each mask (don’t ask him how he flew that ancient stone over, he doesn’t like to talk about it) not only kills the child wearer but unleash snakes and insects through arcane witchcraft to kill their families.

If anything, Season of the Witch joins Dawn of the Dead as one of the premier horror satires on consumerism, taking time to poke a stick at the media on the way, just as the first film turned the metaphor on to the lost generation of 70s America through the mantles of Grand Guignol and silent film. When Challis makes his escape, there’s a neat justice in Cochran’s investigation being delayed by the need to keep up his mercantile pretence. The irony’s his undoing.

The mechanics

“In the end, it’s just another form of mask making”

The answer to the opening mystery, the reveal that the workers are automatons and Cochran is quite alone in his madness apart from those creations (not all his, if at all), comes with the strange old lady, knitting in the factory after curfew. It’s all the more bizarre when Cochran tells Challis that the automaton was “a rare piece. German. Made in Munich, 1785”. This wonderfully dismissive villain’s plots are based on a vast, ancient and secret technology he barely wants to talk about. Inexplicable tokens like this serve to unsettle. Like the first film, Season of the Witch takes its time to bring us to Halloween around the hour mark, similarly with everything in the villain’s hands.

“And of course…A couple of trade secrets”

And for all the oddity, that’s not to say that slashers don’t get a look in along the way, just as there’s a token doctor. Challis’ home ally, who sadly struggles to leave her desk, is dispatched by a driller killing automaton. The cutting of the phone lines is similarly continued from the earlier films putting the emphasis on just two important calls – one where Challis fails to warn his estranged family and another adding the chilling final touch to the surprising conclusion.

A bold finish

“I do like a big joke and this is the best ever”

Season of the Witch certainly lets the credits roll on a memorable note. After leveraging the villains power back at him, and losing any connection this likeable though never particularly warm lead has ever had, the film, albeit mildly ambiguously, settles on futility. We’d already seen that the villain’s weaponry is effective and that the Shamrock reach has covered America, from New York to Ohio, Nebraska, Louisiana, California and Washington.

The judgement and the outcome remains a mystery. Cochran earlier described 3,000 years before, when the “hills ran red with the blood of animals and children”. He’s not joking, despite his joy at the method. “It’s time again” he simply reasons, although Season of the Witch’s content to suggest that like Michael Myers before him, Cochran’s little more than a puppet.

“We don’t decide these things you know, the planets do” he says.

Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)

“Ten Years Ago HE changed the face of Halloween. Tonight HE’S BACK!”

Never has a sub-title been more accurate. It’s October 30 1988, Myers is now 31… And a franchise already obsessed with anniversaries couldn’t very well resist a 10th anniversary return.

Producer Moustapha Akkad was buoyed, having gathered back rights to a franchise that had fallen fallow after the poor returns of Season of the Witch. The concept of a ghost film was shelved and all eyes fell back on a familiar mask. A masterstroke came from drafting in two Ohio natives, Alan B. McElroy on script and Dwight H Little behind the camera – not something that would add realism, but certainly added real desire to display their home state as vibrantly as possible. And as much they couldn’t have grown up in fictional Haddonfield (almost entirely posed by Salt Lake City, Utah this time round as prohibitive costs forced production away from filming in Pasadena, California), the film introduced someone who practically did. Young Jamie Lloyd, played by 10 year old Danielle Harris, daughter of the sadly deceased Laurie, and the object of Myers’ bloodline elimination provided the new focus.

What fire?

“Welcome to hell”

But before getting to Jamie, how could the film get around the finite conclusion of the second instalment? Well it helped the story, if not the sense, that this time there was no involvement from John Carpenter or Debra Hill. They had sold their stakes to Akkad after a 1986 reboot at Cannon failed to take off and Akkad’s continuation producer favoured a return to slash horror over a study of Myers’ effect on the people of Haddonfield.

Halloween 4 kicks off on a classically stormy night, where a medical transporter arrives to belatedly take Myers back to Smith’s Grove – that’s an opportunity the calculating Dr Hoffman takes in Dr Sam Loomis’s absence. Yes, quite astoundingly both survived the fire, Myers unconscious and scarred, Loomis facially disfigured, walking with a cane and increasingly disturbed. It’s short-hand, as a planned explosive recap was never filmed, but it certainly gets things underway with a faster pelt than any other Halloween film. Indecently fast, as a heavier, pounding version of the Carpenter theme kicks in during the transfer only for Myers to take out the ambulance when news of his niece breaks through the coma.

This new Halloween dynamic puts family front and centre. While Jamie is aware of her real parents, something the twists of the first two films didn’t allow her mother, she struggles to adjust to her kind foster family, the Carruthers. The idea of generational repetition and genealogy would form an increasing part in the loose Jamie Lloyd trilogy that starts right here.

Diminishing returns

“I don’t want anyone to have to live through that night again”

Appearing in his niece’s bedroom, hiding under her bed, later appearing in a mirror. Now trailing after The Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, Jamie’s ambiguous nightmares and day visions take Halloween nearer that concept in an increasingly littered slasher genre. While Myers’ journey is shortened, and these diversions broaden the pallet of scares while tying into the twists of the final act, it also depreciates Myers as an efficient and simple killer. He’s expanded his MO to match. A final reshoot day, joyfully called ‘blood filming’, saw extra gore added in the form of the bizarre opening thumb kill and then neck twist.

Speeding up

“We are talking about evil on two legs”

Within 10 minutes, the film brings us Halloween in Haddonfield, a far cry from the first film’s slow and simmering build-up. Strangely enough, even 10 years on, the inhabitants of Haddonfield are bracing themselves to go trick or treating. It would untenable by the sixth instalment, but this time round major scenes play out on the streets of Haddonfield. The major change comes with Jamie. Myers has less far to travel, a younger quarry and less need to creep while fast on his tail is the older, haunted Loomis. Pleasance gainfully strolls out a restrained and broken performance, splattered with standard flashes of anger. By now in this rejuvenated franchise Pleasance is the main man and would continue to be so until his final film.

“You’re talking about him as if he’s a human being, that part of him died a long time ago”

The two competing psychologists, Hoffman who wanted Myers away from his hospital and Loomis who still lives in fear of him, quickly confront the idea that the inert Myers should have wasted away by now. But as Loomis constantly observes, he is something other than human. In one of a number of solid sequences that follow, the two icons of the franchise are pitted against each other in a gas station western stand-off. It’s a rare chance for a one-sided chat, and the film’s first return to cut phone lines. Loomis offers himself as victim for Myers to save young Jamie before he’s even met her, as director Little makes none too shabby use of the Hitchcock reverse zoom. Michael doesn’t accept Loomis’ kind offer of course, and tears away in the destruction of the gas station that also wipes out the doctor’s car.

“Your uncle’s the boogeyman”

In Haddonfield, young Jamie’s taunted by fellow kids just as Tommy was in the first, although this time it’s surprisingly pointed. How strange that Laurie’s adoption could remain a secret while all of Haddonfield know about Jamie’s familial circumstances. Fortunately it’s a distraction for the film’s great sleight of hand. It’s not overblown, but when Jamie inadvertently picks up the clown costume in the costume shop and is once again haunted by Myers, the film-makers have found themselves a niche primed for giving the franchise a new lease of life.

Shoe-horning

 “No way, Halloween’s great, can we stay out all night”

It wouldn’t be a Halloween film, without some shoe-horning. And true enough it’s Jamie’s older foster sister Rachel who takes the Laurie role and brings the teen relationship angle. Her beau is caught out during her and Jamie’s effectively extended trick or treating mission around town that pits Rachel against the new Sheriff’s daughter – and gives Myers his second favourite type of victim. In a soft throwaway, that’s just after Jamie earns the respect and friendship of her school tormentors thanks to her choice of costume. It was all going so well. Later, her new friends would suddenly abandon her. As the teen dynamics return, they are remain the weakest part. Love rivals and cheaters are dispatched, this time in the final act’s siege where unlike much of the first two films there’s no doubt to anybody on screen that Myers is on the loose.

The Curse of Loomis

“Folks round here aren’t likely to forget your face”

Come the end, the family dynamic falls to the memorable roof top chase, Jamie clinging from her foster sister as her uncle closes in. It swiftly moves on to a car chase in a film that defiantly tries to pull some difference from the set standard. Cars have a different role to play here. An earlier highlight is Loomis and the Sheriff surrounded by pranksters dressed as Myers, an effective, dreamy and unexpected piece that also recalls Loomis’ mistakes in the last film. There, as their car speeds away the real Myers is left behind. It’s unclear if he notices or cares about the anonymity his fame has brought him. That kind of subversion and intention is all the more impressive considering that considering that McElroy only had 11 days to script the film before a Writers’ Guild strike kicked in.

The Loomis factor

“You just created a lynch mob”

Once again, Halloween 4 reminds us that unfortunate, well intentioned Sam Loomis, is very often wrong. This time he’s less mistrusted than the first Halloween night thanks to the scars he carries, but he’s still capable of making some mighty mistakes. First, his insistence on trying to reason with Myers costs him his car. The result of that futile action is Loomis ending up hitching with an extreme preacher, a deliberately blunt reinforcement of Myers’ nature and Loomis’ impossible struggle. However, Loomis’ greatest mis-step comes in Haddonfield. Obviously taking the hint from Halloween II Loomis immediately calls for media involvement and a town-wide curfew.

Designed to leave Myers exposed, it instead serves to leave Rachel and Jamie alone and defenceless in the middle of the abandoned town when the curfew is called and their Halloween stopped in its tracks. Later, Loomis deliberate incites a lynch much to the sheriff’s exasperation. His logic stands to reason considering Myers had massacred the police force. But then those replacements both fail to stop the killer and protect his victims at the conclusion and the film even takes a moment to show them claim an innocent life, just as Loomis had in the second.

The Myers undead

“He isn’t a man…”

The threat posed by Myers is tighter here, but the opposing force more diverse. And a slasher must be judged by his opposition. Myers is famous by now, and the curfew sees the whole town take steps to abandon the streets to him. Myers is forced to strategize, another weakening step. But having taken out the whole police station, he was never going to be phased by the vigilante townsfolk.

The film strolls from Jamie and Rachel’s abandonment to house siege to car chase with ease. In response, Myers’ pattern is all over the place. It’s not so much the fame, but the fact that he refuses to prowl the area and unsettle his victims as much as he did before.

The house siege starts 50 minutes in, a new concept for the franchise. But as soon as everyone is concentrated in the one place, the film then dispatches Loomis and the Sheriff to other locations for little reason other than to protect them. The siege does bring some satisfying moments. The misdirection of the dead deputy, where Myers plays one of his occasional pranks and then his most ‘endearing trait’… Having impaled Rachel’s love rival, of course also the Sheriff’s daughter, with a shotgun, he takes the time to survey his work hanging from the wall.

The school house distraction, another poor choice from Loomis, poses an interesting balance to the second film’s hospital but little else – except the reshoot anomaly that lets the killer appear with blond hair – before we’re on the road. As the fog descends, it feels right to pull in a road movie element, although if there’s much wrong with the car chase it’s that it takes the action away from its natural home in Haddonfield.

“Die you son of a bitch”.

Little wanted a conclusive end to the film. When it comes, Halloween 4 seeks to have everything. There’s the symbolic running over of Myers by the girls, followed by the Sheriff-led shooting range and mine-shaft collapse that surely means Myers is done for. It’s just short of being humorously prolonged.  “Yes, Michael Myers is in Hell, buried” comes Loomis’ ill thought out evaluation. It’s a contradictory conclusion where the definitive death would ensure that Myers would be making a comeback soon… Were it not for possibly the franchise’s most effective twist.

The best twist?

“They’ve survived this ordeal, they’ll survive its memory”

The clown costume, the affinity Jamie felt for her uncle when she saw him unconscious after the road chase… It all had a sinister purpose. The idea of the curse filters through children related and unrelated to Myers would stick with the series. But not as well as this fourth film manages. An ending that really pulls out the family curse, while setting the franchise off in a new direction and leaving Loomis more broken than ever.

It’s not quite the return to roots that the producer insists it was, but The Revenge of Michael Myers certainly does a fine job of rejuvenating the franchise for the next decade. The shape was back one way or another.

Yes, he was back. Next time, the Halloween retrospective will delve into the root of the Shape’s evil… From Revenge to Curse.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: