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. Read more…

Halloween I: Michael Myers’ First Blood

John Carpenter Halloween
“I’m not sold on the nose, but this mask is gonna have to do…”

This Halloween Jokerside turns to a true original, the definitive horror that to carved out the 1980s slasher genre as easily as dicing pumpkin. Halloween, one story, two films of two distinct halves…

IT WAS 1976’S HUMBLY PRODUCED AND KINETIC ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 THAT BROUGHT PRODUCERS TO JOHN CARPENTER’S SUBURBAN PORCH (MAYBE…) WITH THE AIM OF EMULATING WILLIAM FRIEDKIN’S THE EXORCIST. A SCRIPT FOR THE BABYSITTER MURDERS WOULD SOON TRANSFORM INTO THE FILM THAT’S CREDITED WITH CREATING THE HORROR SLASHER GENRE. Sure, producer Irwin Yablans suggested the name and setting it during that ready-made night, but the main spark came from his trust in a low budget and inexperienced director and a tight shooting schedule. The Shape had arrived in a very, very real world.

Psycho’s Norman Bates had shocked audiences in 1960, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Leatherface appeared four years before Halloween. But the Shape, Michael Myers, was something else. An unstoppable force that didn’t wait, but hunted. He came for you, unrelentingly, following a repeating formula and putting the homicidal figure of uncertain and damaged origins front and centre, rather than the victims. Jason and his mum would follow within two years, Freddy four years after that. Halloween, 1978. When the slasher horror film arrived.

Halloween (1978)

“The night HE came back”

It was a gift of a name, Halloween. And having impressed with thrilling actioner Assault on Precinct 13, John Carpenter and horror was to prove a genre match in ‘heaven’. Much of what makes Halloween the film it is comes from its limited resources. But many of those traits, from the long sequential tension, the apparently simple choice of shots, and use of point of view, soon became definitive marks of a resurgent horror genre. Looking back along a franchise now numbering 10 films, via one sort-of reboot, this first film is a glorious trip back to ponderous lingering shots of banal suburbia. One that shows a defiant lack of gore.

Carpenter has named the shot that brings us bang up to date (Haddonfield on Halloween 1978) as his favourite. A short title set against the wide shot of a suburban street cross-section, autumn leaves falling in the light wind, no one in sight. It’s the first of many hanging shots, and perhaps the one that reminds most of The Exorcist. A film that Halloween would seek to outgrow, just as that 1971 classic had bricked up the crypts of the gothic horror films that came before it.

Leaves aren’t the only things falling there. That shot drips with anticipation following confident sequences of a strikingly different character. First, the simple titles. The black backdrop, unveiling the credits as a carved Pumpkin looms ever closer, just like the unstoppable Shape to come. And all the way to that close-up on the pumpkin’s eye and the nose, that music. As Carpenter has said of his score that it was a luxury to have three days, after only having only one to soundtrack Assault on Precinct 13. Iconic, chilling, relentless, over-melodic, unreal. Long before we see the Myers’ house, Halloween is iconic. And in preparing us for the necessary and riveting monotony of athe original slasher, it’s the perfect primer.

Haddonfield USA, Halloween night 1963

“Don’t forget to drop off the key at the Myers place…”

Revelations may pop up later in the franchise, but Halloween has little regard for flashbacks. The central character and his 15 missing years, require only a few lines to bring us up to speed. In that decade and a half, nothing has happened to Myers bar convince one particular Doctor that he is pure evil. The creators would later frame that as simply as Doctor Loomis. The film hangs on the almost preternatural assumption that those 15 years allowed evil to consume and prepare him; whichever of the subsequent theories the series throws up you believe. But in 1978 we had no idea. And those later films that added rhyme, reason, and backstory to the Shape would show how precious that original lack of explanation was.

Open the door

The film opens with the extended POV shot that would become synonymous with the franchise. Looking back on this and its immediate sequel, it’s astonishing how little is revealed to the audience or the characters. The first lines we hear “We are alone aren’t we?” “Michael’s around someplace,” pretty much sum it up. If there was any doubt before, it’s suddenly clear that we’re seeing through the eyes of an unknown. And that position of privilege reveals nothing; the clinical movements that take in the victim, then the upstairs light going out, before on the first floor an arm picks up a mask and we see a clown’s sleeve.

Then the vicious attack, the climb down the stairs and the revelation that we’ve been Michael. A small emotionless boy of six carrying a huge knife. Descendant chords rub in the incipient horror, while Carpenter has the camera detach and distance itself – one of the few times it rises into the air to summon judgement on the act we’ve been implicit in. It’s a masterclass. And we’ve only just begun. Read more…

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