Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Unnecessary Sequels: Halloween

Back again for another Halloween edition of this series, and this time, I attack the big fish......

Last year, I decided to do a Halloween entry into this "Unnecessary Sequels" series, because there certainly are a ton of horror/scary type movies that have gotten far too many shit-tacular sequels. But last time, I tackled something a bit more obscure, in the form of 80s cult hit Fright Night. This year, however, I thought I'd go for the jugular, and set myself up for some potential controversy, by attacking one of the biggest horror franchises in movie history, and one appropriately named to this time of year: Halloween. But what's that? How could I possibly say that the Halloween series is made up of a bunch of absolutely unnecessary sequels? Well....just wait and find out.

Still an iconic poster.

Film: Halloween
Year: 1978
Director: John Carpenter
Unnecessary Sequels: Halloween II (1981), Halloween 4 (1988), Halloween 5 (1989), Halloween 6 (1995), Halloween H20 (1998), Halloween: Resurrection (2002)

So I should start off by stating that I am not, as I may have mentioned in the past, a big fan of so-called "slasher" films. I like some modern horror, even (depending on the context) gorier films. A perfect example, is another film from this same director that I'll get around to talking about one day, in 1982's The Thing, which especially for it's time was super gory. However, the gore wasn't really the selling point of the film, and it was within a context that the monster of the movie was a gross, shape-shifting alien, so even though it easily could have been distracting and unnecessary, it fit the context of the story the movie was trying to tell, and the movie itself, was otherwise excellent, with an incredibly tangible sense of dread and tension that builds throughout the film. In point of fact, I would call John Carpenter's The Thing my favorite modern horror film (meaning not classic, circa 20s-60s era).

It also just so happens that John Carpenter himself is one of my top favorite directors of all time, as I like not ALL, but most of his films. A couple of his movies, such as Escape From New York, The Thing, and most especially Big Trouble in Little China, are some of my favorites, easily being in the Top 50 (Big Trouble itself making into my personal Top 5). But while I do not love "slasher" films, and it's most certainly not one of my favorite Carpenter works, his 1978 classic Halloween is a movie that I own, and appreciate. In fact, while there were many "killer on the loose with a knife" style films dating back decades in Hollywood, the argument can absolutely be made that Halloween was the movie that really kicked off (for better or for worse) the modern "slasher" genre, as almost all such films that followed it emulated it heavily.

An actress that Carpenter helped make a star, Jamie Lee Curtis.

Before his 1978 breakthrough, John Carpenter had only modest success with his first couple of films, still basically struggling and trying to make it in Hollywood. But with Halloween, which was independently produced on the paltry budget of around $300,000, not only did he accidentally help innovate an entire sub-genre of movies, but he also made both his own career, and the careers of several of the people involved in the movie, such as actress Jamie Lee Curtis, co-writer and producer Debra Hill, and the original man behind the mask, Nick Castle, who himself went on to have a successful career as a screenwriter and director. What Halloween accomplished, was managing to take that paltry budget, and limited promotion (though they did try to sell the fact that Jamie Lee Curtis was the daughter of Janet Leigh, who herself starred in Alfred Hitchcock's famous thriller Psycho), was nothing short of going on to be recognized for decades to come as the most financially successful independent film ever made.

How it accomplished such a feat, in part, is what also sets it apart from other "slasher" films that would follow in it's footsteps. That being, it was very minimalist, and light on gore. Granted, that certainly had at least something to do with the very limited budget of the film. But it was also a stylistic choice by Carpenter that he employed on most of his early films (until The Thing, in fact), where "less was more" and he typically pushed concepts and building tension over "showing too much". With Halloween, the antagonist, the deranged killer Michael Myers, who was originally only credited as "The Shape", is barely seen, and there are many POV (Point of View) shots that show the audience nothing more than the limited view from inside Michael's own creepy mask-holes. The film is built on a similar foundation to The Thing, in that the entire film succeeds in building this ever-mounting sense of dread and tension. Because you see the "monster" of the film only sparingly until the end, it adds to and enhances both the sense of terror, but also of mystery. In the original film, you not only see very little of Myers, but you also learn very little of him, giving him an incredible mystique.

The iconic visage.

The original film's ending is one of the most memorable and creepy in horror film history, as Dr. Loomis (portrayed by veteran actor Donald Pleasance), Michael's psychiatrist from the asylum, shows up in the nick of time to stop him. He shoots him six times, and Michael falls out of the second story balcony, presumably to his death. But when the audience gets to see over the balcony to the street below, there is no sign of Michael anywhere, he's just gone. And that is how the movie ends. If you ask me, it was one of the single most chilling and effective horror endings of all time, BECAUSE of how mysterious and open-ended it was. And if you ask me, it should have remained that way...

Far less cool looking.

So, I'm going to go in a slightly different direction with this than I do in all of my other "Unnecessary Sequel" entries. The main concept of this series has always been movies that were great stand-alone films, that got sequels that were unneeded and unwarranted, only done as Hollywood cash-ins, and are generally terrible and would have been better off never having happened. In some cases the needless sequels are so bad that they actually manage to somewhat tarnish or taint the original films. With Halloween, on the other hand, while the argument can totally be made that the original film was effective as it was, and shouldn't have had any sequels at all, I'm here this time to make a different argument.

When the first film was a run-away smash hit, Hollywood does what it often does in such cases. They like money, they see something that made a lot of money, and they want more of that to happen, because they want more money. So Hollywood pushed for there to be a sequel to Halloween, and though John Carpenter refused to direct it himself, because he didn't want to do the same thing over again, he did unfortunately agree to co-write and produce it once again with Debra Hill. I say unfortunately, because they made what I consider to be the key mistake of deciding to continue the same story of the first film.

Donald Pleasance was a badass as Dr. Loomis.

Not wanting to direct, Carpenter picked Rick Rosenthal to take the reigns, and he ambitiously set about to try and set the film as taking place in the very same night, directly after the events of the first movie. While a novel and ambitious concept, one that they pulled off decently well from a filmmaking standpoint, especially when you stop to consider that the sequel was made three years after the original, I still think that it was a mistake to make a second film focusing on Michael Myers, for multiple reasons.

For one thing, it somewhat helps destroy the mystique of the first film and it's ending. In Halloween II, you literally see the events that directly follow that vague and creepy ending, instead of leaving it entirely up to the viewer's imagination, effectively robbing that ending, in some respects, of it's power. On the one hand, we get to see more of Donald's Pleasance in his awesome performance as Dr. Loomis, a role in which he shined (you can honestly argue that he stole the show in every one of these movies that he was in). You also get the big reveal that Laurie Strode (Curtis) is actually Michael Myers' younger sister (him having been said to murder his older sister as a child in the first film). The thing is, while it does help make a bit more sense as to why he would come back to his hometown after escaping the asylum in the first movie, and why he would specifically be stalking and eventually trying to kill Laurie, it also caused them to have to ret-con a bit from the first movie. And ultimately, while it's a "neat" reveal, it also didn't really enhance or add that much to the original, as again, part of that film's power, IS it's vagueness and mystery. This sequel helps de-mystify a lot of that.

The bastard child of the series...

The other reason that making the first sequel about Michael Myers again was a mistake, is because it caused fans to come to expect Myers to be the villain again and again in any future installments, just the same as other similar 80s "slasher" series such as A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th. The fact is, when Carpenter and Hill agreed to do a sequel in the first place, their original concept for it going forward, was that it should be an anthology series, akin to television shows like The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery. The only tying factor to the series, would be that while each movie would have a totally different setting, cast of characters and story to tell, they would always occur on Halloween, hence the series title. Not only would that have made more sense, but it would have, at least in my opinion, made the series far more interesting, and given it far more potential longevity.

HEY! That's not Michael Myers!!

This problem proved itself true when it surfaced with the third film. In 1982, Carpenter and Hill produced a third sequel, subtitled "Season of the Witch", and it wound up being a very very different film. It was, as they had originally envisioned, a completely different story, in a completely different setting, with the only tying theme being that the events occurred on Halloween night. This film instead, focused on a very esoteric plot having to do with corporate corruption and science fiction and Celtic mythology elements. It all centers around these creepy novelty Halloween costume masks, typically worn by children, and an evil corporation that makes them.

The plot itself is somewhat silly, but that's beyond the point. It's different, it's fairly interesting, and it's not just Mike running around stabbing people again. The problem they encountered, is that while it certainly wasn't a bad film, it bombed in theaters specifically because fans had come to expect Myers to be in the film, and when he wasn't anywhere to be found, many were disappointed or even angered. And as I said before, the filmmakers set themselves up for this failure when they made the second film about Myers in the first place. If they had gone with the "Season of the Witch" plot for the second film, and perhaps made a point to have a big media campaign that EXPLAINED that what they were going for with this series, was to establish a Twilight Zone type of anthology series in movie form, I'm willing to bet that may well have done a lot better, and been better received by audiences. And who knows, perhaps with success they could have come up with better and more interesting stories for future films.

Those goddamn masks.

Now Halloween III: Season of the Witch was not a great movie by any means, but it was unique, and at the very least interesting. Plus it starred Tom Adkins (who also starred in Fred Dekker's Night of the Creeps) in a solid role as Dr. Challis. It's biggest problem, I truly believe, is not that it was a bad movie, because it isn't. But that it lacked Michael Myers, and that's what fans had come to expect and want out of the series. If Carpenter and Co. had pushed for the anthology format immediately with Halloween II, I think it could have accomplished two positives. For one, it would have left the first film, and the story of Michael Myers and Laurie Strode, as a much more mysterious and powerfully chilling tale. And of course secondly, if the second film had featured a new "monster" and a whole new story, it would have established the series right off the bat as being an anthology, and fans would have expected each new film to tell a totally different story. Thus, it could have potentially been the catalyst for what may well have been a long running and really cool horror movie series, that actually had a lot more value and substance, placing it above and beyond the other "same old shit every film" horror series that spawned from it.

As it is, Halloween III sadly bombed, and the series was dropped as Carpenter and Hill were busy with other projects. The franchise would be resurrected (literally) in 1988, without John Carpenter's involvement at all, and of course they brought back Myers in multiple sequels, that did financially well and fans ate up, because that is what they had been trained to want by then: "the same old shit, in every single film". These sequels had such sterling titles as "The Return of Michael Myers", "The Revenge of Michael Myers", "The Curse of Michael Myers", "The Dance Recital of Michael Myers", and of course everyone's favorite "Michael Myers Stops by Subway to Grab a Footlong". Those last couple of titles were jokes, of course...but they might as well have literally been movies that had gotten made.

Great actors, but also status quo.

The only positive thing about any of these sequels, is that Donald Pleasance got to reprise his role as Dr. Samuel Loomis. In fact Halloween VI was his last major film role, as he died months before its release in 1995. Everything else just kind of goes the same way all of these over-long horror series go: increasingly ridiculous and crappy plots, acting, etc. They even make up that Laurie Strode had a daughter, but then dies in a car crash, so when Mike inevitably comes back from the dead again, he goes after a little kid. Yup. Later still, in 1998 they made the amazing Halloween H20, and later a 2002 sequel Halloween: Resurrection, in which they completely ret-con (retroactive continuity) those previous three films, and make it so that Laurie was in fact alive, and instead has a son. And just like most of those drawn out franchises, it just got dumber and more pointless.

Now I am well aware that there happen to be some folks out there who are huge fans of the Halloween series as a whole, and even like those later films (or at least some of them). Hence my stating that I was courting "controversy" with this article. But just the same, I will stick to my guns in my claim that this series would have been far better, and far better off, if it had been an anthology. If the first film had been the only one to feature Michael Myers, the series could have had a decent run as a theatrical take on that Twilight Zone type of concept. It wouldn't have lasted forever, nor should it have. But at the least, they would have had the potential to never really run out of story ideas, and NOT just feature the "same old shit every single film".

As my final comment, I suppose I would say that any fan of horror should, of course, see the original Carpenter-directed classic, if they haven't already, as it is very well done for it's time and budget, and it's influence on the genre is undeniable. I would also say to check out Halloween III, because if nothing else it is a very odd and unique curiosity, and also a glimpse at what possibly could have been.

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