Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995)

How one of the goofier Halloween movies taught me to think beyond Hollywood depictions of Paganism, with a brief tribute to Donald Pleasence.

 

While Halloween 4 succeeded in breathing fresh life into the Halloween franchise, the series was almost killed off again with Halloween 5 (1989), which was rushed into production as soon as Halloween 4 proved successful. The production didn’t even have a completed script when filming began, and boy does it show. Halloween 5 is a sordid mess, with characters behaving in contemptible ways that make absolutely no sense, and with several aimless plot threads that were clearly only included to build up hype for the next movie. The most obvious of these missteps is the Man in Black, a mysterious asshole who wears cowboy boots and who keeps walking in and out of the movie, showing up at the very end to bust the Shape out of jail and kidnap his niece, Jamie Lloyd. And though Halloween 5 implied that the next installment would be released ASAP, we were not given Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (otherwise known affectionately as Halloween 6) until about half a decade later. 

When Halloween 6 opens, we learn the Man in Black leads a cult that appears to worship Michael Myers, and which has forced Jamie to bear a child (more on this in just a moment). One of the cultists seems to have a change of heart and helps Jamie escape with her newborn baby; but the Shape pursues them back to the town of Haddonfield, and yet another holiday murder spree begins.

There are actually two versions of Halloween 6—the 1995 Theatrical Cut, and the original Producer’s Cut (which wouldn’t see an official release until the 2010s). Both cuts are radically different from each other. The Producer’s Cut is what was originally put together before Donald Pleasence passed away shortly after filming wrapped in 1995. The director, Joe Chappelle, then re-filmed the entire ending and re-edited the rest of the movie for no apparent reason. We are thus left with two very unique films that tell completely asynchronous stories. Both versions are about Michael Myers stalking his niece, her baby, and a family that has moved into the Myers House (relatives of Laurie Strode, in fact). But the Producer’s Cut explains that Myers is merely a puppet for the Man in Black, who appears to be driven by (fanatical) Pagan beliefs. In the Theatrical Cut, the Man in Black’s motives are revealed to be more pseudoscientific than occult, and it turns out he does not actually have the Shape under his control at all.

Both versions of Halloween 6 feature a cult of so-called “druids” who worship a theoretical demon called “Thorn.” Both versions also posit that Michael Myers is possessed by this demon, thereby explaining his immortality and his drive to kill. The symbol for Thorn is actually the Norse rune Thurisaz (the third letter of the Elder Futhark), and it has nothing to do with the druids or with Celtic polytheism. It represents Mjollnir, the hammer of the thunder god Thor, and it is used to magically harness destructive and chaotic energies for protective ends. It is similar in principle to Khepesh, the starry Iron of Set, and and to the use of gargoyles in Christian church decor; it’s not about glorifying evil, but repelling it. So when certain characters claim that “Thorn” demands one family in Haddonfield be ritually murdered every now and again—and that Michael is simply the current bearer of this curse—I can confirm this is complete bullshit. This stuff is not based on any authentic Paganism; the writer, Daniel Farrands, simply pulled it out of his butt to fill all the gaping plot holes left over from Halloween 5.

While the Producer’s Cut still follows the tried and true slasher formula (“spooky killer stalks protagonists one-by-one”), it also follows the Satanic Panic formula (“community is besieged by murderous, rapey witches”). Here is where we return to the subject of Jamie Lloyd’s baby, who is eventually named Stephen. The parentage of this child is extremely controversial. In the original script, Stephen is the result of Jamie’s rape by the Man in Black, who impregnates her so that yet another member of the Myers family can be offered to Thorn. While the film was being shot, the script was rewritten on an almost daily basis, and for some unholy reason, someone thought it was a good idea to have Stephen be Michael’s kid instead. There is actually a flashback which implies the Thorn Cult tied Jamie to an altar and forced the Shape to rape her. There are so many things wrong with this idea, I’m not even sure where to begin. First of all, the Halloween movies generally aren’t known for using rape as a convenient plot device. The Shape is a brutal killing machine, and murder has always been its sole biological imperative; it’s never shown any kind of sexual interest in its victims whatsoever. And the idea that anyone could “force” the Shape to rape someone—given that this motherfucker can rip people’s skulls apart with its bare hands—is just ridiculous.

Those of us who grew up watching her in Halloween 4 and 5 really look up to Jamie Lloyd’s character; so when Halloween 6 was still in the works, we were all anxious to see how this mighty young warrior would outwit the Shape once again. And we were all promptly heartbroken. It’s bad enough that they didn’t want to pay Danielle Harris the salary she deserved and cast an older woman (J.C. Brandy) in the role instead. (Jamie should have been about 15 or so in 1995; but J.C. Brandy was clearly in her late twenties or early thirties when Halloween 6 was made.) It’s even worse, however, that they decided to write Jamie out of any future sequels by having her be raped and killed. Yes, these are horror movies, it’s understood that upsetting things are going to happen. But this was an awful, thoughtless, and totally mean-spirited thing to do to a beloved, cherished character. The truth is, I’m glad Danielle Harris wasn’t in this one, because I wouldn’t be able to sit through it at all if I had to watch the real Jamie Lloyd suffer such a cruel fate.

In the Theatrical Cut, baby Stephen is strongly hinted to be a product of artificial insemination. Both versions end at Smith’s Grove Sanitarium, which is the Thorn Cult’s base of operations; and both versions reveal the Man in Black to be Dr. Terence Wynn (played by Mitch Ryan, otherwise known as Will Riker’s dad), who is the head of the hospital. But here is where the similarities end. The Producer’s Cut concludes with Dr. Loomis and company disrupting a sacrificial ceremony and binding the Shape with “the power of the runes.” The Theatrical Cut climaxes with our heroes learning that the Thorn Cult is not really a cult at all, but a bunch of mad scientists conducting some ghoulish lab experiment. The sanitarium is filled with human fetuses in test tubes, and Dr. Wynn mentions something about Stephen being “a very special baby” who represents “the dawn of a new age.” We also learn the Shape has been murdering pregnant women in the hospital who seem to be related to the test tube babies somehow. The Thorn scientists don’t seem to be aware of Michael’s activities at present, perhaps thinking they have safely locked him away. That’s when the Shape busts in on their operation and butchers every scientist in sight. It then comes down to Paul Rudd bludgeoning Myers with a big lead pipe in a room full of fetuses (and trust me, it’s every bit as spectacular as it sounds!).

None of these events are ever explained in any coherent way, and one fan’s interpretation of events is as good as another’s. But for what it’s worth, here’s what I think the Halloween 6 Theatrical Cut is trying to say with all this craziness. Dr. Wynn and his cronies never believed in Thorn at all; they simply pretended to worship the force possessing Michael so he would allow them to get close to him. They don’t really believe in the Boogeyman, but they do acknowledge Michael’s superhuman strength. Their true goal is to clone the Shape’s DNA; perhaps they work for the military, or maybe they just want an army of Shapes they can control. They artificially inseminated all of their female “patients,” including Jamie, with little Myers clones, and Stephen has proven to be some kind of breakthrough. More than anything, they want Stephen back so they can continue their experiments on him; so they release Michael to track him down, with plans to recapture the Shape before it can actually murder its prey. After succeeding at this, Dr. Wynn dispenses with all pretense at being a “druid,” thinking he has fooled the Shape. But Michael Myers has actually been in control of the entire situation all along, keeping the “Thorn Cult” close to himself for his own purposes. And that’s when these other villains who think they’re oh so bad find out the Boogeyman is VERY fucking real, indeed!

Given this interpretation of events, I much prefer the Halloween 6 Theatrical Cut to the Producer’s Cut. The former is essentially an X-Files episode that just happens to feature Michael Myers, with tons of bizarre shit happening and none of it being explained (saving material for future installments). While it is still a ridiculous film with many flaws, this leaves a much better taste in my mouth than the alternative. The Producer’s Cut is more like a gothic Hammer film, which I would normally find appealing, save for this: it reduces the Shape to being little more than Kharis the Mummy, with Dr. Wynn as his Mehemet Bey. I also really resent the addition of all that Satanic Panic baloney, which is just unnecessary. The idea of people being raped for witchcraft might be essential to a story like Rosemary’s Baby, but it has never been a part of John Carpenter’s Halloween. With all due respect to Ira Levin, I just do not want to see any of that shit when I put on a Halloween movie. The idea of genetically engineering a race of Michael Myers clones is equally crazy when you compare it to the original 1978 film; but at least it’s my kind of crazy, dammit!

There are certain things about the Producer’s Cut that I happen to prefer, however. For one thing, there’s a whole lot more Donald Pleasence in that version, which is always a good thing (especially since this was his final appearance before he died). For whatever blasphemous reason, most of his scenes are either heavily trimmed or completely removed from the Theatrical Cut, and that’s just insulting. My number one reason for seeing Halloween 6 in the first place was to see how Dr. Loomis is doing, and to see what he does to stop the Shape this time. Removing most of his presence from the film leaves it feeling very hollow, like part of the movie’s soul has been lost. It helps that Dr. Loomis passes the torch to Tommy Doyle (played by Paul Rudd), who witnessed Michael’s first killing spree as one of the child characters in 1978. But the very last scene with Donald Pleasence in the Theatrical Cut (“I have a little business to attend to here…”) never fails to make me tear up a little.

Halloween 6 might be goofier than shit (no matter which of the two versions you prefer to watch), but seeing it was a major step in my coming to Paganism as a teenager. Donald Pleasence is also my all-time favorite actor, and it was very sad for me when his passing was first announced back in February 1995. I have always thought the Thurisaz rune would be much better suited to representing Dr. Loomis as a protector against the Shape, rather than the Shape itself; so I decided to include a song on my new 2020 album, Summer’s End, that honors the concept of Thurisaz, and which is also dedicated to the memory of Donald Pleasence. I pray you will enjoy this offering, good sir! 

TO BE CONTINUED…

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Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)

Why Halloween 4 (1988) is one of my favorite flicks to watch for the Samhain season.

 

John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) made a shit-ton more money than anyone was betting it would, and that ending just screamed for a follow-up. Carpenter never intended to make any sequels, but was legally forced into making one for contractual reasons. The mixed result was Halloween II (1981), which takes place on the same night as the original. The Shape is still on the loose in Haddonfield in 1978, with Dr. Loomis and the fuzz in hot pursuit. Laurie Strode is taken to the local hospital for her injuries, and the Shape follows her there, stalking and slashing through the entire graveyard shift. Meanwhile, Loomis comes to suspect that Michael Myers is driven to kill by some kind of “druidic curse.” The final act begins when it’s revealed that Laurie is actually Michael’s younger sister, whom he apparently meant to kill in 1963 along with his elder sibling Judith. All hell breaks loose when Dr. Loomis shows up at the hospital to save Laurie and blow himself and the Shape to smithereens.

Halloween II broke some big box office records of its own, so it was only a matter of time before another sequel would be greenlit. Carpenter insisted on taking the series in a new direction, turning it into an anthology like The Twilight Zone. Hence why Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) has nothing at all to do with the Michael Myers storyline. I will save my analysis of Halloween III for later, but suffice it to say for now that the film was not very well received by audiences at the time, making the Shape’s resurrection inevitable.

Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger were making big bank in the mid- to late 1980s, and executive producer Moustapha Akkad was determined that Michael Myers should do the same. He approached John Carpenter for his input on a potential Halloween 4, but the two of them just couldn’t see eye to eye. Carpenter pitched a really weird script by horror novelist Dennis Etchinson that has the Shape returning from the dead as some kind of reality-bending ghost. It’s actually pretty neat, but Akkad just wanted to “go back to the basics” (or “Xerox the original” according to Carpenter), and Carpenter sold his interest in the franchise. Akkad then assembled his own creative team, headed by director Dwight H. Little, and produced Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers in 1988. The end product is not quite as interesting as what Dennis Etchinson cooked up for us, but it still turned out pretty awesome in my book.

Halloween 4 ignores its immediate predecessor and picks up 10 years after the events of the first two movies, which technically makes it Michael Myers’ second killing spree. It also rewrites the ending of Halloween II so the Shape and Dr. Loomis weren’t immolated in that hospital explosion after all; they were burned and disfigured, but survived. Myers has been in a coma at a maximum security prison ever since, and Dr. Loomis has never left his side. Presumably the prison staff are tired of Loomis always demanding they take his patient off life support, for they arrange to have Myers transferred to some other facility across the state without the doctor’s knowledge. This might not have turned out so bad, except they decide to do this on the night of October 30. To make shit worse, the paramedics transporting the prisoner stupidly discuss the fact that Laurie Strode, while now deceased from a car accident, had a daughter named Jamie Lloyd (nice touch), who is currently living with a foster family back in Haddonfield. That’s when the “comatose” Michael Myers snaps into action and butchers every motherfucker in the ambulance; then he returns to Haddonfield and relentlessly stalks his niece the following Halloween night.

While it is extremely derivative of the 1978 original, Halloween 4 is actually a pretty fantastic movie, and there are two primary reasons for this. First, Donald Pleasence really shines as Dr. Loomis in this one. In fact, he is practically an action movie hero here, doing all kinds of crazy stunts (the exploding gas station sequence being one of my favorite scenes in the entire franchise). This shit could not have been easy for a 69-year-old WWII veteran to do, but Donald Pleasence did it anyway, and I love him for it. I can’t stress enough how his character is really what kept me coming back for more of these movies when I was a young’un. Seeing Dr. Loomis stick it to the authorities and risk his life and reputation to rescue a scared and defenseless 9-year-old girl always makes my heart glow! Plus, virtually everything he says throughout Halloween 4 is a classic one-liner. I think of Dr. Loomis as being an avatar of Set in these movies: the grim, doomy outcast who hunts down the evil regardless of whether he is ever thanked or recognized for doing so, and who is every bit as relentless in this pursuit as Michael Myers is in stalking his niece.

Which brings us to the second reason why Halloween 4 is so awesome: Danielle Harris, the talented young lady who plays Jamie Lloyd. There was simply no better child actor in the 1980s than Harris. If I didn’t know any better (and I do), I’d think the filmmakers were actually trying to kill her. This was definitely not the case, as every effort was made to make Harris feel totally comfortable with George P. Wilbur, the stuntman who plays the Shape. She also got to hang out with Donald Pleasence between shoots, and he would tell her all kinds of crazy stories (which must have been fuckin’ awesome). But when Harris screams or runs away from the Shape on film, she really SELLS it, making me want to leap through my TV screen and save her myself!

There is something to be said for the fact that Myers stalks a child for this venture. Other popular horror sequels at the time were becoming self-parodies, with slashers like Jason and Freddy getting up to all kinds of goofy hijinks (like going to Manhattan, or appearing in music videos by the hair metal band, Dokken). Having the Shape target a little girl really heightens the stakes in comparison, especially when we remember that Laurie Strode was a teenager in 1978 and could actually fight back against Michael. But Jamie depends on the adults around her to do all the fighting for her, and when most of those adults AREN’T Dr. Loomis, the situation is made even more suspenseful.

Halloween 4 is superior to Halloween II for several important reasons. While certain aspects of the latter film are classic and iconic in their own right (such as the hospital setting and the idea of having it take place on the same night as the first movie), the film is dreadfully paced (that entire second act is a total snoozefest), there is too much absurdist gore, and the bits about Celtic religion are especially distracting (given they are pure gibberish). The “family vendetta” premise nullifies the idea from the first movie that Myers is completely arbitrary in his actions (which is a much scarier idea to me personally). And while his newfound motive would seem to give Laurie a role of central importance, Halloween II puts her character to little use, rendering her drugged, silent, and powerless until the conclusion. But here in Halloween 4, the pacing is just right, the amount of gore is significantly reduced, and we don’t have to sit through any of that anti-druidic bullshit. Also, Danielle Harris’ performance as Jamie is so fucking intense, it makes me forget how stupid the “family vendetta” storyline from Halloween II really is.

Halloween 4 takes a big risk by not only presumably killing Michael Myers once and for all, but by passing his curse on to Jamie, driving her to re-enact her uncle’s original murder in 1963 by stabbing her foster-mother to death. The film ends with Dr. Loomis discovering what Jamie has done and screaming hysterically, understanding immediately that the Shape has now taken a new incarnation. Given this set-up, Halloween 5 seemed ready to begin in 2003 (15 years later), with a full-grown female Shape terrorizing everybody on Halloween that year. Something like that might have been pretty damn cool; but we ended up with a lot of bullshit instead. 

TO BE CONTINUED…

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John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978)

How a simple “slasher movie” deplores the patriarchy and evokes Celtic folklore.

 

Merry Samhain! Happy Hallowtide! To mark this blessed holiday occasion, the next several episodes of this series will feature my analyses of the Halloween horror film franchise, with a particular focus on my five favorite installments thereof.

If I had to rank my top 5 Halloween movies as things currently stand here in 2020, the countdown (from fifth to first favorite) would run as follows:

I find it difficult to discuss these films in a countdown, and would prefer to discuss them chronologically instead. But unlike most other popular movie franchises, the Halloween series does not follow a single coherent timeline. It instead includes several alternate continuities, and even a completely different cinematic universe in the case of Halloween III (which diverges thematically from all the other films). That being said, I think it would make the most sense if I discussed my favorite entries from the “A-plot” storyline of the series (the Michael Myers saga) first, then concluded with an analysis of the “B-plot” story. So the first four episodes in this little mini-series will feature my four favorite Myers films in their chronological order of release; then I will end by discussing Halloween III.

It’s Halloween night, 1963, in the sleepy little town of Haddonfield, Illinois. Dressed as a clown, a six-year old boy named Michael Myers stabs his teenage sister, Judith, to death—and for no apparent reason at all. He neither moves nor speaks afterwards, and he is admitted to a state mental hospital, where he is treated by Dr. Samuel Loomis (Donald Pleasence). After a while, Loomis claims Myers is the single most dangerous patient he has ever observed, and he does everything he can to have the boy transferred to a maximum security prison—despite the fact that Michael just sits there motionless, never reacting to any external stimuli. The doctor’s colleagues think Loomis has gone crackers, but he seems to understand something about Michael that modern psychiatry just isn’t equipped to explain. Much to everyone’s horror, Loomis is proven 100% correct about his patient 15 years later, when a full-grown Myers gets a hair up his ass and makes a jailbreak on Halloween Eve. The authorities continue to gaslight Dr. Loomis and ignore what’s happening, thinking they will probably find Michael just sitting in a park somewhere in his hospital clothes. But Loomis knows his patient is really up to something terrible, so he follows his only lead: the possibility that Myers might return to the scene of his childhood crime, the old Myers House back in Haddonfield.

Here is where we meet Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), a meek and lonely teenager who happens to live in Haddonfield. She’s good-natured and smart as a whip; but her closest “friends,” Annie and Lynda (Nancy Loomis and P.J. Soles), constantly treat her like shit, making fun of her good grades and her shyness around dudes. Yet Laurie does, in fact, attract a “man” when she passes by the Myers House on her way to school that Halloween morning in 1978. For a mysterious Shape inside the abandoned property notices her and fixates on her, following her wherever she goes from that point on. Laurie keeps catching glimpses of the Shape as she sits in class, walks home from school, and goes to babysit her pre-adolescent friend Tommy Doyle (Brian Andrews) for the evening. But the Shape keeps appearing and vanishing like a phantom, and Laurie doesn’t really believe what she sees as first, thinking it’s probably just some holiday prankster, or perhaps her eyes playing tricks. Tommy refers to the Shape as “the Boogeyman” whenever he sees it lurking outside the windows, and Dr. Loomis insists this thing is really the devil himself. By the time Laurie is forced to defend herself and Loomis arrives to shoot the Shape six times in the chest at close range, the viewer is unable to dispute with Tommy or Loomis on either of these theories. There really is no “Michael Myers” at all, or at least not in any human sense; there is only the deathless Shape, which has now dropped all pretense at being a mortal man.

This story might not seem to have anything to do with magic or the occult, but there is a curious parallel to Celtic mythology and folklore that is seldom noticed. Celtic lore tells of changelings, or faery children who are swapped for human babies (without the human parents’ knowledge or consent). A changeling will look and behave just like a human baby at first, but eventually it starts exhibiting weird superhuman powers, and misfortune follows it wherever it goes. It seems to me that Michael Myers fits this motif perfectly; his parents appear to have had no idea of what they were really raising, and much like the evil spirits in Celtic folk religion, he only roams free during the festival of Samhain. Additionally, the apotropaic Halloween traditions that once kept us safe from entities like the Shape—wearing costumes, carving pumpkins, trick-or-treating, etc.—have been completely secularized, rendering them powerless. The evil can stalk and slash as much as it wants to now, since the people of Haddonfield aren’t even willing to acknowledge its existence in the first place.

The fact that Myers wears a pale white mask and stalks defenseless young women is also significant. Myers is the ultimate Angry White Male, and he is just as difficult to kill as the horrific patriarchy in which we all live. The authorities’ insistence on minimizing his evil is paralleled by how our society continues to trivialize issues like systemic misogyny and toxic masculinity today. I think most people would agree with me that even when these evils are exposed in broad daylight for all to see, the common reaction is to ignore the problem and pretend nothing bad is really happening. Here in 2020, the entire United States is still responding to evil men the same way Haddonfield responded to the Shape in 1978: by ignoring them and letting them do whatever the fuck they want.

John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) is amazing and beautiful on many different levels. It is, in fact, my all-time favorite film. It might be a “slasher” film (and the template for many slashers to come, at that), but it feels much more like an old-fashioned ghost story to me. The point is not to build a body count or gross out the audience with gore, but to build relentless suspense, to make us yell at the characters in the movie, and to leave us all wondering, “What happens next?” when the credits roll. The fact that this film was made on a nonexistent budget by mostly unknown talent (many of whom worked multiple jobs on set for free, including Curtis) only enhances the impression it leaves on the viewer. The most expensive part of the entire production was probably just hiring Donald Pleasence to play Dr. Loomis for a few key scenes, and even he (being the fantastic professional that he was) admired all the heart that was put into the project. This was also Jamie Lee Curtis’ first big break, and she truly shines as Laurie Strode, the timid girl who never goes looking for trouble, but who turns out to be much tougher and cooler than she or her peers think she is. And lest I forget, the eerie electronic music by director John Carpenter is truly a work of art unto itself. The soundtrack is my #1 favorite album to listen to, which I suppose is probably obvious to anyone who’s heard my music.

TO BE CONTINUED…

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