The first Halloween film is also known as John Carpenter’s Halloween. It was the work of a singular artist. Despite being a gun for hire, Carpenter wrote, directed, and scored the 1978 film. It jump-started Carpenter’s career, as well as Jamie Lee Curtis’s, and was, at the time, the most successful low-budget film ever made.
Because of that success, a sequel was a foregone conclusion, even though what made the original so special was the specific vision of its director. This has always made the idea of Halloween, as a franchise, at once mercenary and admirable. Like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street — franchises it inspired — Halloween follows a natural lifespan. Since the first film, the franchise has seen cookie-cutter remakes, pre-Scream weirdness, post-Scream teen movie cash-ins, and gotten in on the reboot/remake craze.
The idea that you could turn slashers into ATMs comes from Halloween. Because of its success, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Psycho became franchises years after their initial releases. The expansion of the Halloween franchise is, in many ways, the story of modern horror films.
In honor of its namesake holiday, here’s a closer look at the strange, scary, and wonderful world of Halloween, starting with the sequel.
Halloween II was released in 1981, the same year as Friday the 13th Part 2. Written and produced by the original’s creative team of Carpenter and Debra Hill, Halloween II was a financial success but an ethical disaster for Carpenter. When first-time director Rick Rosenthal turned in the finished film, it featured very little violence or scares. Carpenter had to reshoot and recut much of it. This was soon after similarly needing to reshoot and rescore much of his previous film The Fog. In Gilles Boulenger’s book-length interview with Carpenter, Prince of Darkness, he described the experience:
The movie was a hit, even though it wasn’t any good. I didn’t make it better, but I made it scarier, faster. If you’d seen the two versions, mine is a bit more heightened. It was not fun to do. It was not my proudest moment. I did something I don’t believe in. I did something I would hate for anybody to do to me.
Of the sequels, Halloween II is the most tonally consistent with the original, although it neuters the triumph of survival that ends the first film. Curtis’s Laurie isn’t the well-rounded character she was — none of the characters are. There is the reveal (to the audience) that Laurie is Michael’s sister, but she never learns this. It’s paced languorously, punctuated with murders. The story still has a little of Carpenter’s voice, but it ultimately feels like a financial obligation.
The last 20 minutes, however, are fantastic — escalating in tension past any point of sanity. Carpenter and Alan Howarth’s score becomes a piercing squeal, inducing panic in the audience, highlighting the onscreen action, and giving the characters nowhere to go. The film ends with Myers and Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) dying in an explosion, the camera lingering on the iconic mask burning away. Right before, Laurie asks Dr. Loomis, “Why won’t he die?”
It’s like the filmmakers feel disgusted with even the idea of franchising these characters.
Halloween III: Season of the Witch
Here Carpenter and Hill attempt to transform Halloween into a Twilight Zone–esque anthology series. The story is about the commercialization of Halloween, the franchise — a company is producing deadly Halloween masks, made ubiquitous through advertising, turning children into weapons. Featuring a town of robots, Celtic black magic, and mass sacrifice, Season of the Witch has larger ideas than the previous films, but it’s successful only some of the time.
Dean Cundey shot the first three films in the series (and worked extensively with Carpenter and, later, Steven Spielberg), and Season is his best showcase. Cundey’s lush, anamorphic approach became the visual identity of the Halloween films. His departure from the franchise was perhaps more significant than Carpenter’s or Hill’s.
Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers and Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers
Producer Moustapha Akkad pushed for another sequel, and Carpenter and Hill nearly returned to work on the fourth, with Carpenter planning to direct. But when Akkad demanded a Michael Myers film, the duo walked. Halloween 4 was released for the 10-year anniversary of the original film, and it sings from the first film’s demented songbook: Michael Myers, comatose burn victim, breaks out of a mental institution to stab some teenagers.
The fourth and fifth films dispense with Laurie Strode entirely, replacing her with her daughter, Jamie Lloyd (Danielle Harris). Pleasance runs around, yelling at cops and townies. Halloween 4 explores the idea of evil as an inherited trait, or a contagious psychosis. It never really goes beyond that thought into anything, though. It does have the series’ nastiest ending, with Myers dead again and Jamie killing her foster mother. The cycle continues.
Halloween 5 was rushed into production off of 4’s huge success. It is the most like an ’80s slasher movie — promiscuous teens getting murdered, none of them smart enough to understand that they’re in danger until it’s too late. There are some proto–Death Proof/Myers-in-a-car scenes, but both of the films are less like Halloween than the sub–Friday the 13th slashers that proliferated in the ’80s. By 1989, when 5 was released, the series is running on fumes. The thought (and talent) that made the first three films isn’t there.
Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers
1995’s The Curse of Michael Myers manages to out-weird Season of the Witch. It’s about a cult that is not only controlling Michael Myers (according to ancient pagan constellation rites), but also using him and his now-adult niece Jamie to breed a child avatar for some reason. The Curse is not very good (in either the theatrical release of the heavily bootlegged Halloween 666: The Origin of Michael Myers cut, which was officially released just this year). But it is, somehow, engrossing.
Paul Rudd plays Tommy Doyle, the kid Laurie Strode was babysitting in the first film. He’s grown into a stilted-speaking conspiracy creep who Rear Windows his neighbor and her son. It is Pleasance’s last turn as Dr. Loomis. Curse is a loud, kind of gross movie, but it’s the one that you seek out in these storied franchises. Sometimes the decisions that get made while cranking these films out produces some odd shit. The Curse of Michael Myers is the most uncomfortably violent of all the sequels, and it’s the only movie in which Rudd steals a baby while doing a Donald Pleasance impression.
H20 and Halloween Resurrection
H20 and Halloween Resurrection are unwatchable, each in different ways. These represent the post-Scream, pre–Final Destination era of American horror — the nadir. Jamie Lee Curtis returns as Laurie Strode in both films. At the beginning of H20, her character has faked her own death, and is now hiding out as a teacher in a California boarding school. H20 is supposed to be a post-Scream movie about smart teens, but these kids just come off like mouthy idiots. Michael gets killed yet again in H20, this time with Laurie beheading him with an ax. Of course it’s retconned as someone else in the mask in the first minute of the following film.
Rick Rosenthal returned for 2002’s Resurrection. It features Laurie only in an extended opening-scene cameo, where she kisses Michael and then dies in an unceremonious fashion. Resurrection has Busta Rhymes and Tyra Banks as Internet reality TV producers shooting in the old Myers house. It’s hot garbage.
Rob Zombie’s Halloween and Halloween II
The Rob Zombie reboot/prequel version of Halloween is divisive, but when watched in sequence, it feels like a prestige version of the source material.
This is a director who loves older character actors, with the likes of Malcolm McDowell, Brad Dourif, Dee Wallace, William Forsythe, Danielle Harris (in a different role), Ken Foree, Danny Trejo, Lew Temple, Udo Kier, Richard Lynch, and Clint Howard making appearances. Because these players are more mature, the films have an interesting, different focus. The babysitter-and-the-man-with-knife narrative is here, but there is a whole world of people around it full of totally realized characters.
The style is handheld, humanist brutality. Where Carpenter treated Michael Myers as an inscrutable evil and an unkillable bogeyman, Zombie approaches him as a realistic psychopath. Myers is a kid who kills animals, has trouble at home, and grows up to be a human mountain.
Zombie’s films were reboots, released when that kind of thing — think the Platinum Dunes Texas Chainsaw Massacre — were all the rage. Maybe this is what lowered expectations feel like, but he seems to take a marquee approach to something that demands little.
Halloween 2 is the better of the pair. It’s more of a character piece, with Laurie Strode, Sheriff Brackett, Dr. Loomis, and Michael Myers all flowering into completely different people from the ones we know. The film returns to a shot over and over — a low and wide angle of a figure against a massive landscape. It’s a meaner film than the first, and more expressive (it’s also one of the few director’s cut DVD releases that is better than its theatrical version).
Zombie deals with some of the ideas that are touched on in 4 and 5, only he takes the ideas seriously — this concept of evil as an atavistic force, an inherited psychosis running through families, never spotted due to circumstance. It is also the only film since the first that treats teenagers as people, and it does a great job at having teenagers actually talk to one another, the rarest of rare things in a horror film.
The opening sequence at the hospital is Zombie at his best — extreme violence up against human desperation. And the scene in which Laurie, barely able to walk, gets away from Michael Myers, set to a looping, hallucinatory live version of “Nights in White Satin,” is amazing.
It’s the only film in the series since Carpenter and Hill’s that has any aspirations toward art. Even if that means it doesn’t do everything the previous nine installments did, even if that means it has odd notes, there are moments of grace and striking images and powerhouse performances. It’s a great movie. The only way franchises get to stumble back to interesting spaces is through multiple detours.