No Sleep October: The Halloween Franchise

Note: I covered the first Halloween movie back in 2013 as part of the first No Sleep October.

 
“Was that the boogeyman?”

 

Laurie Strode asks the definitive question at the end of John Carpenter’s classic, Halloween. She and Dr. Sam Loomis have just experienced the first of many bloody assaults in the small Illinois town of Haddonfield by Michael Myers — “the Shape,” the silent stalker of suburban America.

The Halloween series has spanned 40 years, from 1978 to 2018. Three of the films have been simply titled Halloween. Michael is a cross-generational horror icon — kin to and progenitor of Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger and countless other knockoffs. (Some argue that Michael, Jason and Freddy — along with Pinhead and Chucky — belong alongside the classic Universal monsters as icons of American horror. Sure.)

The franchise has taken on a number of different forms, establishing five separate continuities with ongoing storylines that re-contextualize Michael and his relationship to Laurie.

One aspect stays the same: Kill, kill, kill.

And like its trademark killer, the Halloween series marches on … and on … and on, never stopping, rarely offering more than the most basic jump scares, gore spills and convoluted familial drama. But it’s been around for such a long time — with such an odd assortment of storylines and ideas — that making my way through the series felt like the best way to honor this year’s No Sleep October celebration. Here are my assorted thoughts about the slasher series that has both the highest highs — and lowest lows — in the genre to which it gave birth.

 

The Series

 

The franchise consists of 11 movies:

  • Halloween (1978)
  • Halloween II (1981)
  • Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)
  • Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)
  • Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989)
  • Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995)
  • Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998)
  • Halloween: Resurrection (2002)
  • Halloween (2007)
  • Halloween II (2009)
  • Halloween (2018)

lAURIE

 

As played by Jamie Lee Curtis, Laurie Strode is the oft-absent heart of the Halloween series, physically present in only five of the 11 films. (She’s got a couple of vocal cameos in the Michael-free Season of the Witch.) Laurie is the original slasher scream queen — the “average girl” who hangs out with her friends, flirts with boys, smokes weed, makes money babysitting.

Her Halloween night is ruined by the murderous rampage of a mindless madman. She’s our identifier, our capable lead who feels the nervousness and fear we feel while watching these movies but who makes it to the end anyway. It’s not coincidence that Laurie owns most of the few truly great moments in this series.

In Halloween (1978), Laurie is the girl who lives. In Halloween II (1981), she’s … well … mostly tied to a hospital bed before finding out a terrible secret from her past — that Michael is her biological brother. Curtis returned after a 17-year absence in Halloween H20 to celebrate the franchise’s longevity and — through cheeky meta-conversation with Janet Leigh (Curtis’s mother and star of Psycho) — reflect on what the original Halloween meant to a genre it revived. In Halloween: Resurrection, Curtis was unceremoniously killed off before a story in which one of few notable moments involves Busta Rhymes karate-kicking Michael Myers.

But with the opportunity to erase the content of all prior sequels and reboots — including the severance of Halloween II‘s family ties — Curtis once again returned to play a very different kind of Laurie Strode in Halloween (2018), more of an unhinged survival prepper a la Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Each of Curtis’ performances as Laurie have grounded the movies in the emotions of a woman being hunted and fighting back. The newest film most brazenly literalizes this idea.

After Curtis left the franchise for the first time, several subsequent Michael movies had trouble moving on. Halloween 4 introduces Laurie’s daughter, Jamie (Danielle Harris), and writes Laurie off as the victim of a car crash. Halloween 5 and The Curse of Michael Myers then continue and conclude Jamie’s role in the franchise. Unlike many other slasher series, Halloween is a family affair — often to its detriment. None of the Jamie stuff ever works — except for the lone scene at the end of Halloween 4 when it is implied that Michael’s evil has passed on to Jamie upon his apparent death. It’s a great moment immediately retconned by the boring-as-piss Halloween 5. (A similar idea – that Michael’s evil is hereditary – is picked up on in Rob Zombie’s Halloween II (2009), in which Scout Taylor-Compton plays Laurie Strode.)

A villain is only as good as the hero(es) who faces them, which is why Michael is only particularly interesting when opposed by Laurie, the unassuming everyday victim. Their convoluted brother-sister backstory is never really used in a meaningful way during the original Halloween series; the only movie in that timeline where it truly comes into play between the two is Halloween H20 (and, in a way, the early moments of Halloween: Resurrection). Even in H20, the fact that Michael is Laurie’s brother feels less important than the rest of the 1990s-era slasher drama contained in its short running time (aside, of course, from the plot contrivances it allows).

And yet H20 re-established how integral Laurie is to these movies. It ignores the events of Halloween 4, Halloween 5 and The Curse of Michael Myers (I told you: extensive continuities) and picks up as Laurie has relocated to run a private school in California — where she tries to move past her trauma alongside her son (Josh Hartnett) and with the aid of a new identity, having faked her death to escape the specter of her murderous brother. You root for her to exact her revenge on Michael and you root for him to have his comeuppance. All things considered, H20 might be the tamest entry in the franchise with only three gory death sequences; the rest is character tension and in-jokes, and it works. It also feels the most like the original.

Halloween (2018) is sort of like H20 made by people who had only seen the original but who never took the trouble to avoid merely retracing the steps of H20 in a more contemporary, gore-friendly marketplace. It presents a more extreme-survivor version of Laurie but creates a convoluted reason for Michael to specifically continue pursuing her. They are no longer brother and sister, but the relationship they share is nonetheless intimately close. Laurie is, once again, the highlight of the movie; classic scenes from the first film are reimagined here with Laurie in predator mode trying to hunt Michael. It’s mostly window dressing. The thematic punch of the newest Halloween is lacking, and it never earns its place as anything but a stripped-down retread of H20.

Laurie is, above all things, the character who faces down Michael for us, who makes his evil so deeply felt. As the series has continuously proven, Halloween movies without Laurie are the lesser for it. Thanks to the franchise’s longevity, writer-director Zombie’s entries reimagine the Michael / Laurie relationship into something different — odder, but nonetheless valid.

In Zombie’s 2007 remake and 2009 sequel, Laurie’s role is radically different than the one originated by Curtis. In Zombie’s vision, Laurie appears halfway through the first movie after a long first-act psychological profile of Michael’s motivations. Under Zombie’s hand, Laurie is a back-talking bad girl (nonetheless explicitly a virgin). As Aly remarked with frustration: “Has (Rob Zombie) ever heard how teenage girls talk?” In this first Zombie film, Laurie is mostly a wash — there out of Zombie’s obligation to turn at least half of his Michael lovefest into a remake of the original (complete with Michael’s house, Dr. Loomis turning up in Haddonfield as a nut, etc).

It’s Zombie’s Halloween II (2009) that turns Laurie on her head and enhances her sibling relationship with Michael. Zombie embraces the hereditary elements of Laurie’s relationship with Michael and creates a psychic link between them — represented by mutual visions of their dead mother, Deborah Myers, with a white horse (symbolizing violent urges, or something).

Their bond grows closer and closer, with Laurie experiencing an increased willingness to commit violence. Zombie’s Halloween II ends with Laurie in a sanitarium, eyes empty, presumably continuing along her genetically predisposed path to horrendous acts of violence. In 2009, Zombie felt that the best way to modernize the last girl standing is to say she won’t just defeat the horror, she’ll become the horror.

Points to Zombie for remixing the better elements of past sequels (particularly those final moments of Halloween 4) to make arguably one of the best entries in the entire series. Not only is his vision of Laurie fun, it underscores what makes Curtis’ version so interesting and special. It’s the Man of Steel of this series, the odd counter-take on an idea that proves the original’s value while establishing its own legitimacy. Curtis will always be Laurie and the heart of the series — the foundation of its best entries — and that point is only made clearer with the existence of 2009’s Halloween II.

 

The Shape

 

If Laurie is the franchise’s heart, it’s indisputable that Michael Myers — “the Shape” — is its face. The big, lumbering body clad in gray coveralls and a bleached-white Shatner mask is as iconic as the flat head of Frankenstein’s monster or Jason’s hockey mask.

Unlike other monsters, which tend to change their appearance over time to keep up with the era, Michael has more or less maintained a consistent “look” from the start. But his character is far more difficult to to detach from his most prominent pray. Without Laurie, he’s nothing.

In 1978’s Halloween, Michael is a madman who, as a boy, killed his teenage sister. Years later, he escapes from prison and goes on another rampage, killing teenage girls in his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois. In 1981’s Halloween II, Michael becomes more relentless — undying and related to Laurie, revealed as his secret younger sister who was fostered as a child. For the remainder of his original appearances — in Halloween 4, Halloween 5, The Curse of Michael Myers, H20 and Resurrection  Myers continues hunting down his family while killing anyone in his way.

Relative to other horror monsters, Michael is a tad boring. He has no character beyond “faceless brute out for his family’s blood.” The outings celebrating him as the center rather than Laurie — Halloween 4, Halloween 5 and The Curse of Michael Myers — are all truly risible, without much to recommend. Michael has no humor, motivation or, truthfully, flair. Most of his murders are committed with a butcher’s knife and little artistry.

In truth, Myers is the reason the fourth, fifth and sixth films are so goddamn boring. He rarely shows up to do anything but kill. In the original Halloween, he’s a silent stalker, breathing heavily, always in the background. He’s terrifying for reasons beyond his violence. And yet in the middle series, he doesn’t do much stalking or much killing.

Only in Zombie’s Halloween II does Michael really get the spotlight, and only then by perverting the character’s “masked stalker” element. Zombie’s first Halloween spends about half the running time setting up the “reason why Myers kills,” following him as a problematic, pet-killing kid from an abusive home. (Hello, William Forsythe. How great you are as a nasty father. Yawn.)

But then Zombie’s Halloween II does something different with Michael, remixing his familial obsession as something driven by the visions mentioned a few paragraphs ago. His kills are more disturbing and relentless. He’s a primal monster. Every slash is strong, every cruel beating visceral. Unlike the original film, he doesn’t stalk, he just keeps coming. Punching, slashing, choking, disemboweling, stomping. The original Michael lost purpose and function. This Michael isn’t “the Shape” from Carpenter’s initial vision, but it’s wholly different and, at the least, interesting to watch.

Michael Myers: Movie Monster is at his best in Zombie’s Halloween II. He is a force of nature. What that film lacks in moral core or emotional weight, it makes up for with sheer brutality and dreamlike insanity. It sometimes feels like Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me made by a man with no empathy or taste … and who knows it. As one character remarks, “Bad taste: the petrol that drives the American dream.”

 

the Outlier

 

Halloween III: Season of the Witch is a cult favorite that actually sucks. It’s notable for attempting to redefine the franchise outside of Laurie and Michael. The 1981 Halloween II relatively wrapped up the immediacy of their story, as far as such things can be wrapped up.

It’s about a boring man-slut named Dr. Daniel Challis (Tom Atkins), who more or less tries to fuck anything with two legs and a pulse while attempting to solve a mystery involving a dead patient (with a hot daughter). His investigation leads to a coven of witches using androids to further their goal of killing a bunch of people on Halloween by using cursed masks.

In theory, it sounds great. In execution, it’s a lifeless thriller punctuated by a deeply catchy jingle counting down to Halloween. I think it persists as a black-sheep favorite due to that jingle, the aesthetic of the haunted masks and its outlier status in a franchise that otherwise buries itself under contrivance after contrivance to continue resurrecting Michael. It doesn’t suffer for a lack of Michael; as a series, perhaps Halloween would’ve really flourished as an anthology. It suffers because it’s basically terrible.

 

The Slasher Experience

 

I started watching the Halloween movies in mid-August. By the end of October, I had finished watching not only the entirety of this franchise, but also Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. The latter two are the Halloween series’ closest relatives, starting within six years of Halloween’s success and later influencing it as the three franchises each spawned endless sequels, reboots and remakes over the past four decades. Halloween has 11 movies, Friday has 12, Nightmare has nine; there is even a crossover with Freddy vs. Jason. This is to say nothing of franchises like Sleepaway Camp or Slumber Party Massacre or any other in the expansive world of cross-generational, low-budget slasher series.

But Michael, Jason and Freddy — the big three — are almost all ongoing stories that either continue the ongoing narrative or find ways to excuse themselves from doing so. The fidelity is bizarre and extreme.

Of them, though, Halloween has some of the best films — the original, of course, and Zombie’s Halloween II. It also has a few of the worst, in particular Halloween 5 and The Curse of Michael Myers. They’re still worth watching once to observe the depths to which Halloween once descended.

As I watched so … many … slashers, it became clear that the most exciting thing about them is not the violence or the nudity (relatively scant in the Halloween series), but the rhythms that these stories follow. Their predictability, but also their small variations that become memorable and pleasing. Halloween, with is obsession with Haddonfield and Strodes and that tremendous Carpenter score, is the most comfortable of all the series.

It’s a state of mind, a feeling of relaxed viewing that, given the subject matter, seems kind of perverse.

I’m not sure it was worth watching all of them.

I will probably do it again next year.

Happy Halloween.

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For most of his life, Evan Dossey has generally avoided horror films. The genre makes him profoundly uncomfortable. This means he has enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Each year, he asks friends and family which essential horror movies he needs to see in order to fill those gaps and spends the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. This year, he shared the month with those friends and family — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This has been everyone’s No Sleep October.

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NO SLEEP OCTOBER 2018

 

Blue Sunshine — James Ledesma

Spoorloos (The Vanishing) — Andrew Kimmel

The Devil’s Candy — Joshua Hull

FYFF Horror Marathon 2018 — Evan Dossey

Cat People (1942) — Aly Caviness

The Child’s Play Series — Salem

The Shining (1980) — Dave Gutierrez

Hellroller — Richard Propes

Poltergeist III — Greg Lindberg

Scream — Heather Knight

The Witch — Rick Dossey

The Frankenstein Cycle — Lou Harry

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors — Sam Watermeier

The Fog (1980) — Joe Shearer

Eastern Horrors — Alex Holmes

Unfriended — Austin Lugar

Freaks (1932) — Alys Caviness-Gober

As Above, So Below — Jonathan Curole

The Beyond — Nick Rogers

The Dentist — Mitch Ringenberg



Administrator of Midwest Film Journal. Previously a staff writer for TheFilmYap.com, Evan has been writing film criticism in the Indianapolis area for over half a decade. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. He also reviews Oreos.


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