Thursday, October 3, 2013
Movies I Love: Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers
Ok, here goes: I like the 1988 sequel Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers more than I like John Carpenter's original Halloween.
Please note the distinction in terms. I am not arguing that Halloween 4 is a BETTER movie than Halloween. That would be impossible. Halloween 4 wouldn't even exist without Carpenter's movie, to which it owes a great deal not just in its plot mechanics but also in its tone and execution. It is, after all, the third sequel to one of the all-time great horror movies -- the classic that launched a thousand slasher imitations. Some might argue that Halloween 4 is another of those imitations.
So why do I like it more?
But I give a shit about little Jamie Lloyd (- Patrick Bromley, F This Movie!), the niece of masked murderer Michael Myers played by an 11-year old Danielle Harris. And I give a shit about her foster sister, Rachel (Ellie Cornell), one of my favorite Final Girls in slasher movie history. As archetypal as Laurie Strode is, I've never felt like I knew anything about her except what she is not: she is NOT sleeping with a boyfriend and she is NOT irresponsible and she is NOT interested in drinking or doing drugs. Halloween 4's Rachel, on the other hand, is a fully realized teenage girl. You can tell she's a good student, but not overly bookish. She's torn between her family responsibility and wanting to go out with her friends. She likes a boy but can't get away to hang out with him, which means that the sluttier girl (Kathleen Kinmont) will get a chance to get her hooks in him. They're real concerns, and the film allows the time to take them seriously without making it seem like it's the MOST IMPORTANT THING IN THE WORLD. Rachel would lose our sympathy if she was whining or overly dramatic about her social life (Final Girl Problems), but she retains it with her humanity. It's something that director Tom Holland talked about on our podcast -- we respond to characters who aren't just thinly written movie characters, but in whom we recognize ourselves. Rachel is full of humanity.
And then there is Jamie Lloyd, the character who would bridge the next three Halloween sequels and whose run is generally associated with the series on its decline, though not through any fault of Harris's performance (she has rightfully become a fan favorite). Incorporating kids into movies -- particularly sequels -- is usually the kiss of death, but in the case of Halloween 4 it actually revitalizes the series. Jamie has been dealt a difficult hand by life: orphaned at a young age, Jamie feels like an outcast at school (where the other kids mock her mercilessly, because kids are dicks) and even in her own family. But she wants to fit in. She wants normalcy. She wants to go trick-or-treating. We horror fans will cut any character who wants to go trick-or-treating a lot of slack. Harris's performance is one of the best kid performances in all of horror (it helps that she was 11 playing 7 or 8) because it's free of preciousness or self-aware cuteness. She's natural, and evokes the character's innate sadness without turning Jamie into a mope. Most importantly, Harris believes in the material she's selling. When she reacts in terror to Michael Myers, it's not as one actor reacting to another -- it's a kid reacting to the boogeyman.
Part of the reason I'm drawn in is because director Dwight H. Little's approach is designed to do specifically that. Rather than shoot the movie in the widescreen-framed, distant Steadicam of Carpenter's original -- which is fantastic for creating suspense (he could be ANYWHERE IN THE FRAME BUT PROBABLY RIGHT OUTSIDE OF IT WAITING TO JUMP OUT) but which keeps the viewer at a literal distance -- Little shoots Halloween 4 in close ups. It's a movie that loves the actors' faces, which brings us in to their emotional states. We feel closer to them because we are, quite literally, closer to them. It doesn't feel made-for-TV, though; Little makes sure to keep things plenty cinematic, with several iconic shots, neat camera tricks and one terrific chase across some rooftops to give the movie polish and scale without succumbing to the show off-y nuttiness of Domenique Othenin-Girard's follow-up one year later.
The return of Michael Myers also means the return of Donald Pleasence as Dr. Loomis, the Ahab to Myers' Great White Whale. Last seen trapped in a hospital explosion at the end of Halloween II, Loomis returns here burn-scarred and more obsessed than ever with tracking down Michael and ending his reign of Shatner-masked terror. Aside from his performance in the first Halloween (when he was a genuinely concerned doctor), the Loomis of Halloween 4 is my favorite iteration of the character. His concern isn't so much for Michael's sanity anymore; it's barely even for the safety of Haddonfield's residents. Halloween 4 is where Loomis really gives in to obsession, and it's interesting to see the character slide closer and closer to the brink of crazy. Plus, the movie was made early enough that it avoids the depressing, exploitative near-dead quality of Pleasence's turns in later sequels.
The movie has its problems. Those moments in which it does indulge in violent '80s excess stand out in a bad way, mostly because the rest of the movie feels classier than that -- it's somehow "above" a guy getting a thumb jammed right through his skull. And, yet, there it is: Skull Thumbing. There's another sequence in which a bunch of would-be rednecks form a posse and go after Michael in a pickup truck, which seemingly exists to ratchet up the body count. Still, I kind of like the idea of a bunch of townspeople going after Michael Myers. Not only does it recall the angry villagers going after Frankenstein's Monster is those old Universal movies, but it also makes sense in the way that a lot of the characters' actions throughout the movie make sense -- these are not, for the most part, the typically moronic slasher movie victims.
Consider Sasha Jenson's Eyebrows, who play Grady, the boy Rachel is kind of dating. He succumbs to the seduction of the sluttier girl and loses our sympathy, but the way he tries to save the people he cares about and stand up to Michael Myers instantly wins it back. He's basically a good person trying to do the right thing. The movie is full of those. These characters are so much more likable than almost anyone in any Friday the 13th movie (or any other Halloween sequel, or countless other slasher movies) that it's amazing to me how little respect it seems to get.
Man, Dwight H. Little does not get the respect he deserves as a genre filmmaker. He nails the warm, Midwestern autumn aspects of Haddonfield in Halloween 4 -- it's one of the few Halloween movies that actually feels like it's set at Halloween -- and generates the best suspense since the first movie, not through formalism or jump scares but through getting us to care about the characters and invest in their survival. Besides making Halloween 4, Little also directed Marked for Death -- one of Steven Seagal's best -- and the great Rapid Fire, an underrated classic and one of my favorite action movies of the 1990s. He's one of these filmmakers that has made a bunch of movies people have seen, but few have committed the director's name to memory. He deserves better.
So no, this essay probably isn't going to make The Return of Michael Myers anyone's favorite Halloween movie. That's not my intention. I just hope to explain why it's my favorite. Obviously, it just comes down to personal preference. I would never argue that Carpenter's Halloween isn't one of the best and most influential horror movies ever made. But it remains a movie I can only respect and admire. Halloween 4 is a movie I love.