Thursday, October 3, 2013

Movies I Love: Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers

by Patrick Bromley
I'm probably not going to make any friends with this one.

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?
It comes down to an emotional connection. The Return of Michael Myers obviously can't compete on a technical level, because Halloween is basically a perfect movie -- expertly constructed, flawlessly executed. It also leaves me kind of cold. I'm unable to watch the movie in a way that connects me to any of what happens. I view it in awe and admiration of Carpenter's technique, but I can never get invested in Laurie Strode or her doomed babysitter friends. Halloween 4, on the other hand, pulls me in right away. And it's NOT just because it features a child in the lead, or because that child is put in danger. I've seen plenty of movies with kids in danger that I couldn't give a shit about.

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.
Cornell is great in the part, imbuing Rachel with resourcefulness and intelligence without making her tough as nails. She's not a survivor so much as she is a protector -- she wants to keep her sister safe -- and that's a big difference. The script (by Alan B. McElroy) makes a point of mentioning that they're not sisters by blood, but that doesn't make them any less family. It adds a dimension to their relationship we don't often see in horror films, and Halloween 4 is smart in the way that it makes us care about the characters before the killing starts (another trick picked up from Carpenter). It presents some of the best, most believable horror movie teenagers since the original Nightmare on Elm Street, so I guess it makes sense that Cornell has the same kind of wholesome, girl-next-door charm as Heather Langenkamp. That's the best possible company in which a Final Girl could be.

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.
Halloween 4 is, first and foremost, an attempt to get the series back on track and return it to its roots after that oddball detour of Halloween III: Season of the Witch (a movie that, 30 years later, people will finally admit to liking). It's right there in the title: The Return of Michael Myers. The star of the franchise would be making his comeback, and director Little takes the smart approach in not treating him as the supernatural zombie he would eventually become. In 4, Michael Myers is still just an escaped mental patient. Yes, he's pretty unkillable and is capable of feats he should not be, but the movie mostly treats him as a man in a mask.

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.
Though made in the late '80s when the slasher craze had already peaked, Halloween 4 is practically a model of restraint. It's not the bloodless affair that the original film is -- concessions have to be made the '80s audience, after all -- but few of the kills in the movie indulge in the kind of gore that most slasher movies of the period fetishized. Even the deaths that are pretty brutal, like a girl getting a shotgun rammed through her stomach and hoisted in the air, is handled without any graphic bloodshed. Little leans on Carpenter in the way he implies violence more than lingers on the wet, messy details.

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.
And then there is the controversial ending, which returns us to the opening scenes of Carpenter's original and suggests some sort of supernatural evil that is passed from Michael down to Jamie. Taken on its face, it's pretty stupid. It introduces magical powers into a series that has previously held close to reality (and would eventually give way to evil Druids) and feels like a twist for its own sake. When you read it as a metaphor for mental illness, though, it manages to carry some weight and makes Jamie's arc in the movie almost tragic -- all of her sadness and fears are ultimately for nothing, as she is doomed to share the fate of her uncle. It is the Myers family curse. That this plot development is totally fucking ignored in the lackluster follow-up cripples its presence in Halloween 4. Instead of being a scene in which the series really went into a new direction, it has now just become one of those "Oh, shit, remember that crazy ending?" footnotes, not unlike Tommy Jarvis's crazy look to the camera at the end of Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter.

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.


  1. I haven't seen this movie in years - probably not since it was played constantly on cable - but I remember liking it a lot, and this really makes me want to revisit it. What I remember most is the (to me at the time, anyway) really tense climax with Michael and the girl in the old house, and her going up and down the laundry chute - that used to drive me nuts. I also remember an overwhelming sense of relief when Loomis showed up with the cops at the end to save her and pump Michael full of lead. It's notable that in addition to having believeable characters, the movie is unlike lots of other slasher flicks in that there are actual police officers who will show up eventually, and the killer can't just walk around killing people with impunity until someone finally kills him. Anyway, great column, thanks!

    1. Thank you, Sausage King of Chicago.

    2. Thought Jamie in the laundry chute was #5?

  2. I haven't watched any of the Halloween's besides the first two in about 15 years and have been meaning to pick this up since you turned me on to all things Adam Green (who turned me on to Danielle Harris) in your "Why Holliston Matters" (Spoiler Alert: It really does!) article a few months back.

    So unfortunately I have nothing to add to the Halloween 4 discussion specifically, but I will say that I definitely understand where you're coming from re the original Halloween. I also respect it immensely and it's a movie I'll continue to enjoy re-watching at least once a year but, like you, it just doesn't grab me by the heart the way a lot of other movies do (e.g. I just realized last night that I LOVE Carrie), so I can totally see how Halloween 4 could do for you what the original doesn't. It certainly isn't as crazy as saying Event Horizon is better than Alien (I'm looking at you Riske!).

    You're enthusiasm for Halloween 4 has definitely re-piqued my interest and I WILL watch it soon - great article!

  3. I like Halloween 4 for much the same reason. The little character touches. Michael Pataki's character. The preacher who picks up Loomis...

    Only thing, you talk about the film going into "magical powers" in causing Jamie to repeat her Uncle's scissor work.

    Up to the point where this film begins, Michael Myers has been stabbed twice by Laurie (one in the neck and one in the gut), got a wire hanger to the eye, been shot by Loomis six times and fell off of a second floor balcony, then in the hospital Laurie shoots him in each eye and then Loomis blows up the operating room - and even though Michael is still walking for a bit - he falls down and burns like a yule log doused in gasoline. And then he's not only alive in #4 but still has skin on his hands AND a functioning brain despite those two shots to the head among all those other injuries.

    I think they were kind of counting on us accepting "magic" from the start.

  4. I saw this for Junesploitation and really liked it, mainly because I really like Final Girl. I made a point of not seeing part 5, because I happen to know what happens in part 5. Also, f__k part 5.

  5. I havent seen any of the Halloween movies except the fist few minutes of the one with Busta Rhymes in it (and fuck Busta Rhymes...WooHaa!).
    But this write up makes me interested in seeing number 4. In part due to what Sol said above, in that Ive become a bit of a fan of Adam Green (despite his PD traits) and the Movie Crypt (always second to F) since the Holliston matters piece so im interested to see where the Danielle Harris love comes from, but also the point you make of Halloween 4 being character before slashes is right up my ally.

    If I check this out would you recommend seeing the first two beforehand? or is the established knowledge simply of; "He's a psycho and her uncle and the doctor was his shrink" enough?

    1. If you've seen the original, you'll be fine. Halloween 4 is basically a reset, so you don't need to see 2 or 3.

      What are "PD traits?"

    2. I havent even seen the first one...I really should rectify that at some stage.

      PD Traits: Personality Disorder Traits. Basically he comes across as a bit of a narcissist and/or histrionic. (emphasis on "bit" and "traits", not full criteria or anything).

      Not a bad thing in his line of work I'm sure. just grates on me at times.

    3. Ah. Got it.

      If you've never seen ANY of the Halloween movies, I would watch the first four. They all have something to offer in varying degrees.

    4. Very cool. I was planning on seeing Rob Zombie's two entries for #SMM based on your praise of his number 2 (tee hee), so it makes sense to see the originals as well.
      Hopefully Netflix will be kind soon, or I can head on down to "The Greatest Shop In The World!"

  6. It’s really an apples and oranges thing with part one and part four, isn’t it? The first movie is the slow burn, gradually building suspense over time, and then paying it off in a big way. The fourth movie, conversely, is the roller coaster ride. It’s got a fast, rollicking pace, full of crazy ups and downs, never giving the audience a chance to catch its breath. Each movie is exactly what it needs to be.

    My big complaint about Halloween – other than how part six and part eight SUCK SO MUCH – is that I’ve never been able to sort out the continuity between Laurie Strode and little Jamie. Halloween 4 tells us the Laurie died in a car accident a year before the movie begins, and Jamie is being raised by friends of Laurie’s. Then, in H20, Laurie is living under a fake name with a son at some rinky-dink private school. Unless my math is off, Jamie is actually a year older than the son from H20. So did Laurie just abandon Jamie, or what? (Let me guess: The answer is, “Druids did it.”)

    1. I can't even try to wrap my head around the Jamie/Laurie stuff. I tend to try putting it out of my mind when watching. And the answer for everything Halloween-related is "Druids."

    2. Halloween H20 is a sequel to Halloween 2. Jamie Lee Curtis wanted that entry to ignore parts 3-6 and pretend they didn't happen.

  7. It's okay Patrick, you're still cool. You're allowed to enjoy the things that bring you joy. Heck, I've said I like Maximum Overdrive and you guys still let me comment on the site.

    Oddly, I've seen Halloween 2-5 but I've never seen the first one. Can't explain why, but I've just never gotten around to seeing it.

    Speaking of H4 though, I remember it being sort of interesting at the time because I was getting the impression that Freddy and Jason were running out of steam. I had sort of forgotten about Halloween all together when 4 came along so I remember it being sort of good.

    I haven't seen any of them in years and years, but the franchise leaves me a little cold.

  8. I totally get it. In fact I used to actually like Halloween 5 the most when I was younger but I think the strong performance of Danielle Harris in that film blinded me to all the numerous problems with that movie.

    I kind of like a little bit of H20 but I think thats just cause its the only Halloween movie I saw in theatres (and its definitely better than 6 or 8)

  9. Really great column. One other element of the film that I think deserves a mention, though it might seem a bit trivial, is the opening credits scene.

    Given that they're returning to the Myers storyline after the critical and financial failure of III, there must have been a tremendous temptation to announce it right up front with a title sequence harkening back to the first two films. Instead, we get a quiet mood piece that touches on all the visual iconography of the holiday and sets up the small town environment and the ominous atmosphere beautifully.

    Even Alan Howarth's opening music shows restraint, building gradually and including only a subtle strain of the classic Halloween theme, saving the first big statement of it for Myer's transfer in the next scene.

    This opening always gets me in the right headspace for everything to follow and shows a lot more class than the gratuitous pumpkin mutilation that opens the next film.

  10. I loved Halloween 4! I really like the Halloween movies but number four does what a great sequel should do. I plays out with the knowledge that you have already seen the first one and you don't want it repeated again, you want it re-imagined from another perspective.

    I thought the imagery in Halloween 4 was fantastic! The scene of multiple Mike Myers and the moment when he is in the rocking chair are particularly memorable.

    I found your website looking for reviews on The Exterminator and some of the reviews on here are really engaging.

    Keep up the good work.

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