Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Census Bloodbath: For Christ's sake, spare me the speech! I've listened to it for a decade

The Eighth (oh God) Annual Great October Switcheroo!  Once again, we're crossing over with the wonderful Brennan Klein of Popcorn Culture and sometimes Alternate Ending, and I'm doing some of the 80s slashers he's catalogued as part of his Census Bloodbath project, while he's doing some of the old-timey sci-fi I've been hoarding as part of my own Cardboard Science archive.  This year, he finally gave me three pieces of the slasher genre's major arcana, such as I've been very subtly and surreptitiously hinting that I'd like to do this whole time; in return, I accidentally gave him three pieces of indecent crap.  Oops!  (But, seriously, apologies.)


Directed by Dwight H. Little
Written by Alan B. McElroy, Danny Lipsius, Larry Rattner, and Benhamin Ruffner

Spoiler alert: moderate

I always open these by mentioning, almost as a form of shameful disclosure, that I am possibly John Carpenter's Halloween's smallest fan.  That is, I am a fan, but love it only for confirming the slasher film as a niche to be viciously exploited over the next several years, a niche that produced a great many more interesting elaborations on the fairy tale blankness of Michael Myers.  Indeed, Halloween, the franchise, has been the source of some of the best of them.  So even without special reference to the ur-text of the 1978 film, the series as a whole has remained, to me, the gold standard by which all dead teenager movies must be judged.  Even when it wasn't about dead teenagers at all, but instead a horny old man solving the mystery of an evil version of Halloween Express.

Of course, that's Halloween III: The Season of the Witch, the weird one, and that weirdnesseven for 80s horror!cannot be overstated.  It was considered a failure, and though it made decent money (of course, without the name, it wouldn't have), it was roundly despised by the series faithful, who rejected John Carpenter and Debra Hill's new direction and commanded them to return to the saga of the Myers family, Halloween II having established a certain sibling rivalry as the heart of the Halloween mythos roughly ten or fifteen minutes before ending the franchise with a giant explosion that killed its two main characters besides Laurie Strode, Michael and Dr. Loomis.

It's hard to feel too bad for Carpenter in this regard, as it's not like it was the last time he ever got to write a horror movie about the world coming to an end from an unexpected place, and I'm sure I've mentioned before that Season of the Witch is absolutely better understood as an unsung addition to his informal Apocalypse Trilogy than a tangent to the Halloween seriesbut in any case, they spent several years at loggerheads with the moneyman, Moustapha Akkad, about the course-correction he'd demanded, till eventually they simply sold him the franchise, never to return till Carpenter offered his sonic support to what amounts to a third version of Halloween II.

After a significant lapse, this process finally led to Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers in 1988, right around the time the slasher movement and 80s horror in general was winding down, and evidently vindicating Akkad when it made a whole three million more nominal dollars than Season of the Witch.  The triviality I can't help but fix on is the switch from the series' now-traditional Roman numerals to a regular old Indo-Arabic "4."  Somehow that indicates to me the vastly reduced ambition of the whole exercise, the leveling of a franchise that had been capable of baroque nightmarescapes and absurd conspiracies to merely the warmest remaining porridge of its subgenre.  Confirmation comes swiftly when Halloween 4 abandons the franchise's custom of an opening credits sequence centered around a jack-o-lantern and Carpenter's all-time great Halloween theme.  (The score comes courtesy Carpenter's frequent collaborator, Alan Howarth, but it's disappointingly sparse, and when it is there it's almost entirely just throwing the Carpenter theme at the thrill sequences.)  Well, perhaps there are only so many interesting ways to portentously zoom in on a pumpkin, but still.

Instead we get a silent montage of Haddonfield, IL, tilted slightly toward an impression of rural decay, with a bunch of fairly well-shot, fairly creepy Halloween decorations; the onscreen credits are at least still the same aggressive shade of orange.  They're quick, however, and soon we find ourselves on a rainy October 30 evening, where a fistful of exposition apprises us that Michael Myers (George P. Wilbur plus Tom Morga) wasn't really killed, only badly burned and sent into a coma.  For reasons that I assume amount to "setting this in 1978 or 1979 would be more effort than we wished to expend upon this very easy film," Michael has been in this coma for the full decade, and, tonight, his lifeless body is to be moved from one sanitarium to another.  Yet some of that exposition penetrates Michael's head regardless.  Upon hearing that his secret sister Laurie died in car accident but, before that, bore a daughter, Michael awakes, determining that October 31 shall be the night he came home, again.  It is not, of course, really explained why if coming back to life was always possible, Michael allowed some random car to snuff Laurie for him, besides the basic but unsatisfying fact that they didn't make any Halloweens between 1982 and now and Jamie Lee Curtis clearly wasn't going to be in this one.

In any event, Michael fakes his death by crashing the ambulance, leaving every credulous local authority more annoyed with the killer's long-suffering, badly-scarred, but equally-not-dead enemy, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance), than they are with the escaped mass-murderer.  The former keeps shrilly insisting that Michael's NOT DEAD and NOT A MAN and PURE EVIL, in his mannerthese may not be verbatim quotes, but probably areand if he does so in a much more hushed and weary register than he did as a somewhat younger man, when his constant vigil had only taken twenty years of his life, and not thirty, then certainly Loomis's protestations are not so hushed or weary that I would feel I've conveyed them accurately in anything less strident than full capslock.

In Haddonfield, we catch up with Laurie's daughter, Jamie Doyle (Danielle Harris), presently fostered by the Carruthers family.  Her presence has somewhat cramped the style of the Carruthers' daughter, Rachel (Ellie Cornell), but Rachel has an obvious soft spot for her foster sibling, which would be easy enough because Jamie is pitiable in many respects even beyond a dead mom, from the way her peers have taken their 80s kid bullying to an unprecedented level of psychological cruelty, to the way that she's tormented by visions of her uncle.  Rachel has her own problems, attempting to navigate her horny teenaged world, but she's assigned, nonetheless, to take care of Jamie this Halloween night.  Thus she becomes the only thing between Michael's quest to annihilate the Myers family and the sister that, beneath her annoyance, she's grown to love.

More than in any other respect, this is where Halloween 4 manages to mix up its formula, something Akkad was allergic to in general at this stage of the franchise (when Carpenter and Hill were still around, he'd rejected a screenplay from Dennis Etchison that purported to explore the psychic toll on Haddonfield as a town that had outlawed Halloween, and frankly I expect he was right to do so), and clearly the inspiration was "it's ten years later, so what now?"  But the substitution of a small child and her older sister as a composite Final Girl is a dynamic not frequently seen in slashers, and it's where nearly all of the more honorable points of recommendation for the film lie.

Not least that's because Harris is somehow far and away the film's best non-Pleasance actor, imbuing the role with a certain strange precocityI'm particularly struck by her read of "you're okay, you're okay" to herself in the aftermath of a particular nasty bullying incident, done with the self-awareness and emotional nuance of a much older child, and I'm not sure how the little girl quite managed itand she's also, in a walk, the actor most convincingly portraying "unreasoning fright" and "animal terror" in this movie about a Terminator in a William Shatner mask unstoppably murdering virtually every person he sees.  Cornell, by contrast, is merely fineshe has a lot of business with her peersbut Harris even helps elevate her adult co-star's performance by giving her such a specific and sympathetic relationship to focus on.  The upshot is that basically any scene with Jamie in it is good, and any scene with Jamie and Michael in iteither the real Michael, or her visions of himis legitimately scary.  And that's testament to Harris's strong performance, because there is no way in hell even an 80s slasher would have the sheer guts required to have actually killed Jamie and reorient this story as Rachel's revenge thriller, though we might be dealing with something truly unique if it had.

This leaves the... I will not say the "dishonorable" pleasures, but instead the "traditional comforts" of a Halloween film.  Foremost, there's Pleasance, perhaps not too terribly keen on returning to his signature role, though if he'd gotten bored with Loomis, that feeds into the good doctor's general sense of exhaustion and malaise that affords, for example, his oddball throwaway scenes of hitchhiking back to Haddonfield, involving getting punked by shitty teens and helped by an apocalyptic Bible-thumper who mirrors his own worldview, a certain poignancy, even letting them rise to the level of "texture" when truthfully they were almost certainly intended as "filler."  (I also very much love the scene where he almost gets Michael, and Michael blows up a gas station on him, because it is totally rad.)  Mostly, of course, it's just that it's still just a blast to listen to Pleasance shriek at people who, at this point, are being willfully naive, and the final line of the film ("NO NO NO NO NOAWWW") is maybe my single favorite Loomis moment.

In between that, there's Michael killing folks and arranging corpses in colorful waysthough, in point of fact, this time he's not too interested in the "outsider art" aspect of the franchise, and certainly less than the opening credits attending to those Halloween decorations foretellbut Halloween 4 takes most of its cues from Halloween II, and accepts that Michael is a full-fledged movie monster now, affording him a faint but unmistakable supernatural bent, manifesting in this slasher's most fascinating and technically-impressive gore, when Michael starts the festivities by literally tearing people's faces apart with his bare hands.  Halloween 4 may also showcase the series's smartest Michael, in that he executes a strategy worthy of a military operation, isolating Haddonfield by cutting the power and phones, then pulling off a preemptive strike against the police themselves before they even really know he's there.  (Offscreen, which is a good choice, but this is where Halloween 4's corpse decoration budget really lets us down.)  I like this "thoughtful" Michael and I like "NOT HUMAN" Michael, and Halloween 4 manages both, with Michael devolving into pure unstoppable force during an outstanding multi-part chase across a rooftop, a school, and a truck, prompted by an attempt by the good guys to fortify themselves that winds up just trapping a bunch of people in a single house where Michael can butcher the larger part of the supporting cast all at once.

The actual acting underneath the mask is a step down from Nick Castle's eerie, watching, waiting stillness, but serviceably menacing.  The mask itself, however, is new, smooth, oddly ill-fitting, and devoid of personalityit's also prone to sometimes becoming blond all of a sudden, thanks to a production fuck-upbut I still like the scene where he visits the costume shop to pick up his new mask and runs into Jamie, and it's so thoroughly mixed up with Jamie's hallucinations that we only comprehend the Shape really was there after it's already over.  Director Dwight H. Little, of little account before or after, does his best Carpenter (or Rosenthal) impression, but there's something so much more prosaic about this Halloween, starting with the absence of the usual opening titles and continuing in the absence of the first three films' 'Scope aspect ratio that had done much to afford this franchise its slightly more epic feel.  There's very little of the really great work with shadow, artificial moonlight, and focal depth that the series had made its name with: cinematographer Peter Lyons Collister is no Dean Cundey, and he and Little try to make up for that by swathing things with fog and, if fog's not available, big old sheets of black.  To their credit, sometimes you get a solid Halloween thrill out of Myers's white mask popping out of the dark, sitting there in the background and freaking you out.

Plus, and maybe this genuinely is dishonorable, there's the loosey-goosiness that JC's Halloween had made such an inextricable (but hard-to-replicate) part of the 80s slasher.  Hallowen 4 has that in spades, from the laugh-out-loud over-the-top form that Jamie's interpersonal problems take (she's bullied for being an orphan!) to the out-of-nowhere denouement of the film that, obviously, doesn't actually "work"it makes Harris's heretofore-great performance worse, insofar as Little clearly never even tried to get the child actor to foreshadow this aspect of her character, and because it's simply goofybut it does feel like a spooky campfire tale from a storyteller who suddenly remembers at the last possible instant that scary stories ought to have a twist, and, as far as that goes, Halloween 4's is a memorable one.  I like Halloween 4 rather than love it: it could be bloodier, and arguably should be, since despite a heavy body count, it doesn't even feel unusually violent; and it could be better-made.  But it has a remarkably good pair of Final Girls, and brings back its icon of icons.  If it's never quite the return to form Akkad had sought, it confirmed his slasher franchise as one of the good ones.  No, I haven't seen 6 or Resurrection.

Killer: Michael Myers (and also Jamie Doyle, and also some Haddonfield rednecks who shoot a wandering coot in one of the less useful subplots)
Final Girl: Rachel and Jamie
Best Kill: Rachel's quasi-boyfriend Brady (Sasha Jenson) has his face smooshed as a reward for his turn towards ill-advised, testosterone-fueled heroism
Sign of the Times: The state has kept paying a psychologist to "treat" a patient who's been comatose for ten years, maybe Reagan was right
Scariest Moment: When Michael's huge frame clambers over a roof suspended in an infinite field of darkness towards his prey
Weirdest Moment: Brady's other gal, Kelly (Kathleen Kinmont), greets trick-or-treaters at her door in a shirt and panties; the shirt says "COPS DO IT BY THE BOOK," apparently a gift from her dad, the sheriff (Beau Starr)
Champion Dialogue: "Jamie's mommy's a mummy!" as part of Jamie's bullying episode, which concludes with a repeated chant of "Jamie's an orphan! Jamie's an orphan!"; I cannot overemphasize how funny this scene is
Body Count: At least 13
1. Ambulance driver no. 1 has his skull caved in with just Michael's thumb
2. Ambulance driver no. 2 is killed after the cut
3. A mechanic at the service station is impaled with a rod he left carelessly lying around where spree-killers could get ahold of it
4. A waitress at the service station is killed offscreen
5. Ted Hollister, a wandering coot, is shot by rednecks
6. Deputy Logan is killed offscreen, as are, I think, other cops
7. Kelly gets a shotgun driven through her belly (and out a wall!), reminding us how much Batman and slasher villains have in common
8. Brady, smooshed
9. Orrin, a redneck, is stabbed and thrown off a moving truck
10. Alan, another redneck, is likewise stabbed and thrown off a moving truck.
11. Unger, a third redneck, is merely thrown off the truck, not really sure if he counts
12. Earl, a fourth redneck, gets exsanguinated, neckwise
13. Mrs. Carruthers is stabbed by Jamie in the bath
13a. Somewhere in this mess, Michael kills Jamie's dog, neat
TL;DR: The highs of the series would not be recaptured for a while, but Halloween 4 is better than you'd expect from a facially-desperate attempt to re-solidify a waning franchise six years after it had stopped.
Score: 7/10

Cardboard Science on Popcorn Culture
2014: Invaders from Mars (1953) The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) Them! (1954)
2015: The Giant Claw (1957) It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) The Brain from Planet Arous (1957)
2016: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) Godzilla (1954) The Beginning of the End (1957)
2017: It Conquered the World (1958) I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) Forbidden Planet (1956)
2018: The Fly (1958) Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman (1958) Fiend without a Face (1958)
2019: Mysterious Island (1961) Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)
2021: Robot Monster (1953) Queen of Outer Space (1958) The Cyclops (1957)

Census Bloodbath on Kinemalogue
2014: My Bloody Valentine (1981) Pieces (1982) The Burning (1981)
2015: Terror Train (1980) The House on Sorority Row (1983) Killer Party (1986)
2016: The Initiation (1984) Chopping Mall (1986) I, Madman  (1989)
2017: Slumber Party Massacre (1982) Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987) Happy Birthday to Me (1981)
2018: The Prowler (1981) Slumber Party Massacre II (1987) Death Spa (1989)
2019: Phantom of the Mall: Eric's Revenge (1989) Psycho III (1986) StageFright: Aquarius (1987)
2020: Night School (1981) The Fan (1981) Madhouse (1981)


  1. I think that beyond the first three films, "better than you'd expect" is the absolute height of praise. Also Michael does blow up a gas station and it is indeed rad as fuck.

    Also, how rude you are to Dwight H. Little when Anacondas: Hunt for the Blood Orchid is just sitting right there.

    1. "Little account" does seem mean and value-judgmental. "Low attestation," "rarely cited"? Though Anacondas: Hunt For the Blood Orchid probably does generate more discussion than the movies I like. Oh well.

      As for the franchise, I like the redneck energy of Rob Zombie's and think they achieve something in that, though iirc you kinda hate them and I can't really argue with that, as they're certainly not to decent tastes.

      I need to rewatch H20 sometime, I remember digging it but it's been literally over two decades.

      By the way, I did catch up with the movies I gave you and, uh, they're cultural artifacts, I guess. I'm genuinely consider offering an opt-out for a new slate. They're real real short though!

    2. You very much rc about my feelings toward Rob Zombie's Halloween movies. H20 I just rewatched, and while I really used to like it, I have seen Bride of Chucky for the first time between this watch and the last, and that really is just the superior 1998 post-Scream franchise slasher in every conceivable way.

      I'm staying strong and sticking with the slate you gave me! I do appreciate shortness as a quality above all else. Queen of Outer Space was a slooooog though, I just watched it last night. I appreciate the olive branch though.

  2. I thought the ending was a bit more coherent than you did, and I really dug it. (I'm not going to bother with spoiler tags...) I felt the whole time like Jamie's hallucinations and paranoia are building to some sort of instability or erratic behavior. Before the very last scene, I figured the movie had forgotten about that thread, only for it very much not have forgotten.

    Overall, I'm a hair lower on the movie than you. It's decent enough, but a step towards the self-seriousness that would make the next two outings an utter slog. (I am learning about myself that I prefer my slashers Scream-ier and sillier, so the quasi-reboot of H20/Resurrection worked better for me, though I seem to be the only one other than Brennan who enjoyed the latter.)