This series of reviews counts down some of the best Halloween films of all time – not just scary movies, but ones that feature Halloween as a central theme. The entries will be counted down each day, with the number one pick published on October 31st. No star ratings, just consider all these films highly recommended.
HALLOWEEN is a classic. Very few films can claim to have such an everlasting impact on their genre. Even if it isn’t the first slasher film, it is nonetheless the one that has served as the model for every slasher film to come after it.
To offer a synopsis of the film seems foolish. The plot has become so familiar to all of this. Young Judith Myers is murdered in her house by a masked killer. The killer is revealed to be none other than her young brother, Michael.. Fifteen years later, Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) is on the way to the mental hospital to transfer Michael Myers to a hearing. He warns the nurse of the unspeakable evil that is to await them. When they arrive at the hospital, they discover the inmates wandering the grounds. Michael Myers escapes, as Loomis’ true nightmare begins.
Switch over to Haddonfield, Illinois, Myers’ hometown. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends don’t have elaborate plans for Halloween. Not much happens in Haddonfield. Laurie will be babysitting the neighbor kid, while her friends (Nancy Loomis and P.J. Soles) fumble around with their boyfriends. But Michael Myers has come home, fixating on the friends in general and Laurie in particular. It’s only a matter of time before they meet up with the killer.
As I alluded to earlier, HALLOWEEN plays on themes that were brought up in film before. The idea of young girls tormented by a killer on a holiday was expertly done in Bob Clark’s BLACK CHRISTMAS for instance. But it is the way John Carpenter brought all of these materials together that is so brilliant. The film is deceptively simple – killer stalks teenagers, what could be simpler? But closer scrutiny shows just how masterfully HALLOWEEN is crafted. Each shot is beautifully composed. There is such a startling attention to detail that I was still picking out new elements I had never noticed before, even after well over a dozen viewings. Everything Carpenter does seems to inform the theme, one way or another.
Carpenter uses every weapon in his arsenal in order to create the most effective horror film possible. For instance, his classic score isn’t just catchy, it’s used at just the right spots, ingeniously creating suspense either with well-placed stingers or deliberate brooding rhythms.
No wonder Carpenter was initially hesitant to do a sequel. With HALLOWEEN, he seems to have already brought out every trick in the book in order to keep the audience riveted.
The cast is also the stuff of legend. Curtis made her bones here. She would be crowned the first of a new generation of screen queens, a tradition that continues with various independent horror films to this day. The great thing about Curtis, Loomis and Soles is that although they seem to be up to the same things kids are up to in all the horror films we’ve seen since, they still seem like kids. Listen to the very specific way each of the young girls speaks both with each other and with adults. They sound exactly as we imagine teenage girls existing in 1970s suburbia.
Pleasance is amazing, of course. The role could have easily been a quick payday. After all, this was an independent film budgeted at $350,000. The fact that they snagged an actor of his stature was in itself a major coup. But Pleasance becomes Loomis. He is so perfect in the role that it would become the role Pleasance is most identified with, despite already having a truly amazing filmography up to this point.
HALLOWEEN is a masterpiece. The film is always brought out this time of year for a reason. It’s not just the title that makes it so appropriate to the occasion. It’s the way the film skillfully plays with our nerves throughout it’s running time. HALLOWEEN is Halloween, and vice versa.
– Rated R for violence and nudity
– Running Time: 1hr 31mins.
And now, I would like to say a few words about the films that followed in the series and address briefly why this will be the only Michael Myers-themed film on my list of the Top Five Best Halloween-Themed Movies. One could easily see a top 5, or at least a top 10 being dominated by films in this series. I did include the Myers-free HALLOWEEN III at number five after all. But I wanted to keep this list from just being a series of slashers, and also emphasize why the original is still the best, existing on a higher plateau than others in the series. Hence, this will be the only Michael Myers-themed HALLOWEEN film on the list, and it is by far the best.
Which is not to suggest that the other films aren’t worth something. I happen to enjoy most of the HALLOWEEN films. I have purchased them on VHS, DVD and now Blu-ray. But it’s a different kind of enjoyment.
The trend started with HALLOWEEN II, which was written and produced by Carpenter and directed by Rick Rosenthal. By this time, the slasher had already been firmly established thanks in part to HALLOWEEN and also dozens of others like HE KNOWS YOU’RE ALONE, PROM NIGHT, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME, TERROR TRAIN and FRIDAY THE 13TH. In order to go above and beyond that, HALLOWEEN II would have to be twice as masterful as the original. Instead, what it delivers is bigger, more over-the-top slasher film than what we had seen before. An EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, not necessarily in quality but in upping the ante while continuing the story. It’s not a masterpiece, but it is fun.
As are the first two films of the post-Carpenter era. HALLOWEEN 4: THE RETURN OF MICHAEL MYERS could have been a total bust, but both that and its immediate sequel HALLOWEEN 5: THE REVENGE OF MICHAEL MYERS are good fun for the holiday. Neither one is Shakespeare, but they’re good-looking, fast-paced and enjoyable films that bring a lot of the fun back into the slasher film – a genre which by that time was wearing thin. It also helps to have great new faces like Danielle Harris and Ellie Cornell to keep things alive.
I was not enamored of the direction the series took after it was acquired by Dimension Films, the genre wing of Miramax. HALLOWEEN: THE CURSE OF MICHAEL MYERS (which I admit I have not seen in several years) took an intriguing cliffhanger from HALLOWEEN 5 and threw in some crazy story about Druids that would have been a new, crazy slant in more competent hands. Unfortunately, competent hands were not to be had this time out. A “Producer’s Cut,” widely available through various bootleg sources, improves matters but only marginally.
They tried to bring back a little class with HALLOWEEN H20: TWENTY YEARS LATER (or HALLOWEEN: WATER, as I like to call it). They re-introduce Curtis’ character of Laurie Strode but it always seemed like a great performance in the middle of another standard slasher film. Curtis brought quality to her part, but the rest of the film didn’t follow suit. The less said about HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION the better. It is the absolute nadir of the series. I have nothing positive to say about it. It trades in scares of trends like webcams and Tyra Banks product placements. Somehow, Curtis came back for the prologue in a cynical and unforgivable way to close her character’s story.
By far, the most controversial move the series ever made was in Rob Zombie’s remake back in 2008. As skeptical as I was about any attempt to mount a remake, I left the theatre absolutely stunned at what Zombie had accomplished. His film is brilliant – yes, that is my official stance. It is not a successor to Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN but a wonderful companion piece to it. He took the basic storyline, expanded upon it and told it from the opposite point of view. The main conceit of the Carpenter Myers is the chilling idea that there is no explanation for his evil, it just is. The Zombie Myers (for lack of a better term) is however conditioned by a perfect storm of factors that have informed some of our worst serial killers.
As great as his HALLOWEEN was, I was disappointed by Zombie’s follow-up. His brutal style is still there in the 2010 HALLOWEEN II. But the film is without any levity whatsoever. Characters seemed to be less fully realized this time out. I have found more to like in it with repeat viewings, particularly in the actors. But the film is still needlessly nihilistic and depressing.
There have already been various stops and starts in the few years since Zombie’s last film. The idea seems to be that a new director will take yet another stab at the series. History shows that this is not necessarily a bad thing. But despite nine other films that carry the title, there is still only one HALLOWEEN.