Friday 2 December 2011

Haddonfield, ten years later

After the disappointing box office returns of Halloween III: Season of the Witch scuppered the planned horror anthology, the Myers Murders lay fallow for six long years. When Moustapha Akkad finally decided on another Halloween film - it was the eleventh hour of the slasher, in truth, but that wasn't obvious then - John Carpenter was no longer interested; and thus henceforth we no longer face the embarrassment of having to blame a great man. From here on out, it's hacks all the way.

It's perhaps surprising, then, that Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988) is significantly better than the mercenary second and the baffling third film, both of which were made with Carpenter's involvement. It's not as good as Halloween, of course, and it isn't scary; but it's not aggressively stupid, it doesn't grate, and it doesn't promote hate crimes against the Irish. In fact, it suggests - in the teeth of evidence otherwise - that the slasher had still not totally burnt itself out creatively.

Halloween 4's title sequence is the best since the first film's. No more the tired attempts to pay homage to the original while outdoing it. Halloween 4 uses a series of shots of the Illinois countryside in late October - and it stretches credulity less than ever before that this might actually be the Midwest, rather than, say, southern California - to create a haunting, deserted atmosphere: barns, leaves blowing in the wind, scarecrows and the like, although the focus on sharp farming implements in the latter part of the sequence is perhaps more appropriate to a Jason Voorhees vehicle. I rather want this to be the inspiration for Michael's countryside wanderings in Rob Zombie's Halloween II, but the artistic similarities are limited. Anyway, the title sequence isn't high art, but it's undeniably striking: cinematographer Peter Lyons Collister's capturing of autumn light alone is worth writing home about.

Then the plot kicks in. Of course, even having another Michael Myers film required some contortions on the part of the writers: after all, both Michael Myers and his psychiatrist Dr Loomis had perished in a fire at the end of Halloween II. Exposition clumsily establishes that Michael (portrayed this time by George P. Wilbur, a stuntman) is still alive, and as the film starts, ten years after the events of that fateful night, he escapes while being transported back to Smith's Grove. Loomis (a visibly aged Donald Pleasence), scarred both physically and mentally by his last encounter with Michael, immediately pursues him, realising Michael must be headed back to Haddonfield to murder...

... Michael's niece Jamie Lloyd (ten-year-old Danielle Harris, who would later portray Annie in the 2007 remake), the daughter of Laurie Strode, who had to be written out because the filmmakers could no longer afford Jamie Lee Curtis. Jamie's teenage foster sister Rachel Carruthers (Ellie Cornell) is planning to spend Halloween night (for it is, of course, All Hallows Eve) with her boyfriend Brady (Sasha Jenson), but is asked by her parents to babysit Jamie instead. As Rachel goes to relay these news to Brady, we encounter something I've never seen in a slasher film before: a false Meet the Meat scene. We're introduced to Lindsey Wallace, babysat by Annie back in Halloween (Leslie L. Rohland), who has outrageous eighties hair, and several of Brady's friends, some of whom have names: and after this scene none of these people are ever referred to again & are therefore not spectacularly slaughtered.

Rachel and Jamie go trick-or-treating, Jamie having ominously picked the same Halloween costume in which Michael Myers murdered his sister all the way back in 1963. Rachel, distressed at the discovery that Brady is cheating on her with Kelly (Kathleen Kinmont), loses sight of Jamie. Meanwhile, Loomis discovers that there's a new sheriff in town: Ben Meeker (Beau Starr), who takes the threat of Myers extremely seriously. While they search for Jamie, Michael kills Jamie's dog in another display of his by now notorious fierce hatred/culinary appreciation of canines, and massacres the Haddonfield police department, prompting a lynch mob to roam the town looking for him. The meat eventually barricade themselves in Meeker's house, but if the previous films have taught us anything, it's that keeping Michael Myers out is pretty much impossible.

It's a bit all over the place. Even the final girl sequence - involving a terrific chase across a slippery roof - really isn't: it starts, is interrupted, and starts again. Not to mention that Rachel isn't a traditional Final Girl, since she's protecting little Jamie, and thus the dynamic of the chase is entirely different and much more urgent than what we're used too. The meat, too, are thoroughly nontraditional, with only two of a healthy number of victims teenagers. Yes sir, Halloween 4 is a good ol' rebel, flouting the rigid conventions of the slasher with an air of criminal ruthlessness.

Our villain's had a bit of a makeover. After the human-sized stuntmen who'd slipped on the Shatner mask before, George Wilbur's titanic stature should theoretically give him more presence, but Wilbur's indifferent acting foils all that (good thing, too: if I want Jason, I'll watch a Friday the 13th film, thank you very much). The mask looks nothing like its ancestors, either. It's all change in Haddonfield, and our favourite psychiatrist is no exception. I, for one, like the new Loomis very much. The scar makeup, the limp and the cane are a visual reminder of the terrors of Halloween '78, and Pleasence's more nuanced performance - there's despair in it - counteracts the fact that the character is, if anything, even crazier than before: a terrific scene suggests that Loomis's zeal is similar to that of the mad preacher (Carmen Filpi) who gives him a lift.

Mostly, Halloween 4 is just solid filmmaking: not inspired by any means but, unlike its predecessors, not actively incompetent either. Director Dwight H. Little, latterly of various television series, creates perhaps the most stylised if not stylish installment since Halloween: it's pretty full of striking images, anyway, even if there's no sense of an overall aesthetic. Only the killings are thoroughly unsatisfying: they're not scary, vicious or creative, they're just... a little tedious. For a slasher, that's a problem; but I'll take Little's solid craftsmanship over the creatively murderous incompetence of Halloween II any day.

In this series: Halloween (1978) | Halloween II (1981) | Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1988) | 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: Twenty Years Later (1998) | Halloween: Resurrection (2002) | Halloween (2007) | Halloween II (2009)

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