The concept for my 2011 Halloween Special came to me when I was still writing my 2010 Halloween Special, and I was a little depressed that I would have to sit on such a great idea for a whole year before I could implement it. But October has finally rolled around at last, and now that it’s time to complete what I had planned, I’ve realized that it’s much easier to conjure up these things that to actually do them.
But I’m committed, come hell or high water, to watch every movie in the original Halloween series in a single sitting. That’s eight feature films. None of them are of epic length, mind you, but it’s still a pretty decent chunk of time to have an ass parked on a couch. Luckily, my skill at sitting almost motionless for hours at a stretch is unparalleled, except by certain species of reptile and the more dedicated East Indian fakirs. So all it will really take out of me is time, and I’ve got that. If, last October I had decided that for my 2011 Halloween special I would run October’s Portland marathon in a Jason-style hockey mask you would most assuredly be reading a list of excuses right now.
This is at least somewhat uncharted territory for me. I’ve seen the first Halloween many times, and I actually saw Halloween 5 in 1989 on an ill-advised high school double-date. The rest will be all new to me, because I’m not really a horror aficionado. A well-made one can be great, but too many rely on the lazy technique of someone/thing suddenly lunging into frame accompanied by a loud sting of music. To make an audience jump as an involuntary physical response to a sudden change in volume or visual stimuli is not “horrifying” them, it’s triggering a simple reflex. And it’s poor filmmaking when used too often. From what I’ve heard, the Halloween sequels range in quality from dubious to wretched, so I’m expecting a lot of it-was-only-the-cat “ha ha made you jump” moments.
On with it, then. On Saturday, October 15, armed with only my notebook, a Snuggie, DVDs of Halloween 1 through 6 (and the remaining two streaming on Netflix Instant View), and a variety of nearby beverages, I settle in to complete the challenge I had set for myself the year before.
8:53 am. Halloween (1978). The sound of the coffee pot beginning to drip in my kitchen blends in with the classic Halloween theme. Not the first mainstream “slasher” movie (most people give that credit to 1974’s Black Christmas), it’s certainly the best. The opening credits are pretty iconic — a slightly battered, grinning jack o’lantern against a solid black screen with the credits in orange text. And of course, that music.
We start with a Prologue: Haddonfield, Illinois, 1963. Six-year-old Michael Myers is in the side yard of his house, observing his teenage sister and her jackass boyfriend necking on the couch. (All the teen girls in the Halloween franchise come packaged with horny, boorish Jackass Boyfriends as standard equipment.) We don’t see Michael yet, but we see what he sees, in what film geeks call a “POV shot.” (And for it being 1963, the Jackass Boyfriend is certainly rocking some post-Beatles hair. What is it with 70’s actors and their precious, precious hair? Beginning in about the mid-80’s, actors went ahead and committed to accurate period haircuts for TV shows and movies set in the past. But in the 70’s, it didn’t matter if the story was set in the Korean War or 1950’s Milwaukee, you were going to get guys with muttonchops and Jewfros and girls with feathered Farrah Fawcett ‘dos. Had someone with the hair length of a, say, Chachi Arcola actually shown up in 1950’s Milwaukee, he would have been beaten within an inch of his life as a suspected deviant. I’m not saying that’s right, I’m just saying it’s a likely scenario.)
Anyway, the couple head upstairs for obvious reasons, and I get my first laugh of the day: From Michael’s POV, we see them leave the living room. Michael leaves the window, goes around to the back door, enters, swipes a kitchen knife then hides from view. All in an unedited tracking shot. Elapsed time: maybe thirty seconds, tops. Right then, we see the Jackass Boyfriend coming down the stairs, pulling on his shirt, the deed evidently done. Once the audience picks its collective jaw up off the floor, it is left to imagine the incredible scene that must have occurred in the unseen bedroom: our lothario frenziedly jerking his pants down to his ankles, leaping atop his paramour, giving her three to five comically speedy, rabbit-like pelvic thrusts aimed God-knows-where, jumping back off as if she were on fire, and bolting for the door in time for Michael — who has just come around from the side of the house — to see him heading down the stairs. Clearly, the boyfriend is a monster on par with Michael Myers himself.
But sister Judith Myers didn’t have much time to wallow in disappointment. The psychotic young Michael slays her with a butcher knife and gets tossed into an insane asylum across the state from Haddonfield. He is under the care of a psychiatrist, Dr. Sam Loomis, played by the (once) distinguished British character actor Donald Pleasence, slumming here in service of a $20,000 paycheck for five days’ work and star billing for eighteen minutes’ screen time. Fifteen years after Myers’ incarceration, he has succeeded only in scaring the bejesus out of the doctor that’s supposed to be treating him. “I spent eight years trying to reach him and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized that what was lying behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply evil,” explains Loomis. Naturally, Myers escapes, acquires a big pair of coveralls and a re-purposed Captain Kirk mask, and heads back to Haddonfield to perk up the neighborhood’s Halloween ’78 festivities.
He zeroes in on Laurie Strode, a shy, bookish high school senior, and her more outgoing friends, the airhead blond played by P.J. Soles (film cultists will remember her as Riff Randell from Rock ‘N’ Roll High School the following year) and the acerbic brunette sheriff’s daughter played by Nancy Loomis, one of those movie high-schoolers that’s thirty if she’s a day. (We call this the “Rizzo Syndrome.” ) Jamie Lee Curtis, in her first major role, plays Laurie with the perfect combination of intelligence and vulnerability.
9:49 am. Muffin break.
Carpenter’s directorial work is what sets this low-budget masterpiece above and beyond its sequels. Hitchcockian touches abound, especially the floating camera work and the see-him-then-you-don’t appearances of Myers, building tension through mundane, everyday actions and locations, and repeated use of POV. Myers is often spotted fleetingly by people as they look out their window, from a place they feel secure. Which makes the moment he actually falls upon a victim all the more shocking and unsettling. The film begins with wide, panoramic shots, and gradually closes in, until the climax when he’s finally got Laurie cornered in the very back of a tiny closet (after already eliminating her two pals and a random Jackass Boyfriend.) She survives, barely, and Loomis arrives to fire six shots into Myers’ chest, blasting him off a second-floor balcony. Loomis peers over the edge of the balcony. The body is gone. Then the classic closing lines from Curtis and Pleasence: “It was the boogeyman.” “As a matter of fact, it was.” Cue the music. A true classic.
At this point in the saga, Michael is still a motiveless maniac who returns to his hometown to kill semi-randomly (he doesn’t confine his stalking to just Laurie). If you count the 1963 killing of Judith Myers, the body count ends up at a paltry five (plus a dog), and there is little to no blood or gore. In fact, if you eliminated the brief nudity, it could play on network TV. (70’s filmmakers loved nudity, and shoehorned it in any chance they got. I’ll bet my dog and lot that there were more acres of flesh on display in mainstream films of 1978 alone than all the post-Internet years combined. In Halloween, it was just pointless titillation and kind of stupid, but what the hell. I’m not going to look away from P.J. Soles’ chest.)
10:31 am. Halloween II (1981). Similar opening credits. Pleasence and Curtis get co-starring credit this time. The theme music is synthesizer’d up a little. Hey, it’s the 80’s, right? Not in the world of the film: a caption after the credits informs us that this sequel is taking place on the exact same night as the previous film (Halloween, 1978.) Laurie Strode has been transported to the hospital after her earlier ordeal, but Myers is still on the loose, despite carrying six of Dr. Loomis’ bullets in his chest. As Loomis continues his pursuit, he finds out why Myers seems to be targeting Laurie Strode: she’s his younger sister, only two years old when the 1963 killing took place, and adopted by the Strode family when both the Myers parents died in the wake of the tragedy. His murderous rage against his siblings is still not explained. Nor does it need to be, I guess. He’s just a psycho.
Carpenter is no longer in the director’s chair, and it shows. It looks cheaper (even though it cost a lot more), and feels clumsy and clunky. Any time they make a sequel several years after the original, but set it close to the same time period, they can never quite re-create the hair. By ’81, Jamie Lee Curtis was already sporting her trademark boyish pixie cut that she still wears to this day in those yogurt commercials, so she’s given a wig that looks like it’s made of orangutan fur to recreate Laurie’s flowing locks.
11:02 am. Muffin break II. Now out of muffins.
Myers tracks Laurie to the hospital. For someone who’s supposedly in single-minded pursuit of a target, he spends an awful lot of time killing everyone else in the hospital in creative ways before bothering with Laurie, who’s laying semi-conscious in a perfectly accessible hospital room. The full-sized hospital in a mid-sized town appears to have a staff of about eight, and turns off all its lights at night. (One of the staff members is an EMT played by a pre–Last Starfighter Lance Guest.), As soon as people start disappearing then re-appearing as corpses, the (dwindling) staff hang around and wonder what’s going on, rather that bolt out of any one of a hundred unlocked doors. Another bit that made me laugh: a naughty nurse, after a coital bounce with her Jackass Boyfriend, gets parboiled by Myers in a hospital whirlpool until the flesh melts off her face. (That’s not the part that made me laugh. Wait for it.) Even if a hospital whirlpool could get face-meltingly hot, there probably wouldn’t be a big, helpful Looney Tunes-style dial ending in SCALDING in ominous red letters nearby. This is why horror movies aren’t for me. They’re flat-out dumb, for the most part.
To wrap up: Myers has Laurie cornered in an operating room, Loomis arrives, fires a few more shots into him (because it worked so well a few hours ago), and ignites the tanks of anasthesia gas as Laurie escapes, turning the O.R. into a fireball and burning himself and Myers to the proverbial crisp. Cue music, roll credits.
12:08 pm. Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982). This is going to take some explaining. No Laurie Strode. No Michael Myers. No Dr. Loomis. It’s an entirely different story. (Commercials for the first Halloween movie run on TV in the background of this movie.) After Halloween II, the production company did envision more sequels, but wanted to do them anthology-style, with a different Halloween-themed story for each film. This is as far as that idea got. Halloween III doesn’t seem like a “horror” movie. It doesn’t seem like a “good” movie either, and in fact it would have to improve in several areas to even qualify as a “bad” movie. In fact, Halloween III is one of the most rancid pieces of badger dung to which I have ever subjected myself. (“How many pieces of rancid badger dung have you subjected yourself to?” I hear you smarty-pantses asking. Let’s just say more than one and less than a baker’s dozen, and leave it at that.) Halloween III looks and feels more like a fourth-rate sci-fi/mystery made for Canadian TV, one of those criminally inept films that become fodder for Mystery Scient Theater 3000. ( “Rowsdower!” ). Plot: Alcoholic surgeon and nubile hottie search for nubile hottie’s missing dad, a toy shop owner. Glacially-paced sleuthing leads them to a Halloween mask factory (!) whose owner is a Crazy Irish Toymaker (played by a pre-Last Starfighter Dan O’Herlihy) intent on using his masks as weapons to sacrifice millions of innocent children to the gods of the pre-Halloween Celtic holiday of Samhain. You see, each mask contains a microchip containing a sliver of a magic Stonehenge stone that when triggered by a pre-arranged…look, it’s not important. I didn’t care, nor will you care if you take total leave of your senses and decide to watch this. (The way the masks snuff out the kids is pretty unique: it causes their heads to sizzle and smoke, then turn into a writhing pile of snakes and crickets. Very Wiccan.) Oh, and there’s assassin androids mixed in there too, if that’s any help.
Lumpy, fifty-ish Tom Atkins is the lead and, despite looking like a sentient pile of mashed potatoes with a Brawny lumberjack mustache, is apparently completely irresistible to at least two female characters half his age (surgeons have all the luck!). The nudity quotient has already dropped (thanks, Reagan’s America), but we’re at least treated to Dr. Lumpy’s flabby naked ass as he gets out of bed. (I didn’t look away there either, so don’t call me a sexist hypocrite. Take a good long look at the mug in the picture and ask yourself if you really want a lingering peek at this fellow’s business end. Straight, gay, or transgendered, I’ll wager you’d convince yourself it was some kind of horrific mid-movie fever dream, and it never really happened.)
So the movie does not frighten, nor does it really repulse (except as noted above.) It mostly leaves you feeling vaguely unpleasant, as if you’ve just eaten an under-ripe banana. And it has a conclusion that’s supposed to be “nihilistic*,” but is really proof positive that writer-director (and John Carpenter protege) Tommy Lee Wallace had painted himself into a corner and had no idea how to end his movie. It’s like he stopped typing the script when he ran out of paper. (Wallace would go on to further flops, with his turgid, laughable mini-series adaptation of Stephen King’s It that failed to frighten anyone beyond diaper age.)
The best thing about Halloween III was the poster art. Very Halloweenish.
Part II of the Holy Bee’s Halloween 2011 Halloween Special, covering the next five films and the rest of my long, long Saturday, is coming soon…
(* description from a Halloween fan website attempting to limply defend the third installment.)