John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987)

Jesus is a dead alien; Satan is a prehistoric sentient ooze; and “God” is the greatest supervillain of all time. This unique fictional theology helped me think outside the box, for sure!

 

It probably isn’t fair that so many of my favorite films are John Carpenter (or Carpenter-related) movies; but it happens to be true, and I’m sure no one is surprised by this. I’ve already discussed three of these flicks—Halloween (1978), The Thing (1982), and Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)—but one of Carpenter’s lesser known masterpieces is Prince of Darkness (1987), in which the creator of Michael Myers gives us his version of “the devil.” And it is the single most original and engaging take on the subject I have ever seen. If you’re expecting to see anything like Tim Curry with big ass goat horns, or even Al Pacino leading a law firm, think again. In Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, everything we think we know about “Satan” is thrown out the window, and what turns out to be true about him is far more terrible than anything conjured by biblical scholars or Christian theologians.

Professor Howard Birack (Victor Wong) is a world-renowned quantum physics lecturer at Kneale University, and his graduate students are some of the best and brightest young minds in his field. There’s Brian (Jameson Parker, who resembles a younger version of Tom Atkins in Halloween III); Catherine (Lisa Blount, a mathematician); and Walter (Dennis Dun, a total wisecracker), among others. These up-and-coming scientists are all bewildered by their instructor, who creeps them out with tales of how our human notions of “common sense” break down at the subatomic level, evaporating into “ghosts and shadows.” Perhaps it wouldn’t be so spooky to hear such things if there weren’t so many weird astronomical phenomena happening lately. Something about the lunar cycle seems different, and there’s also a newly discovered supernova being reported on TV. Some distant star died countless eons ago, and the particles from that explosion are only just now reaching our galaxy.

Then a Catholic priest (the magnificent Donald Pleasence) requests to meet with Professor Birack. The Priest claims he has made a terrible discovery, and he asks for Birack’s help in doing something about it. Birack accompanies the Priest to an abandoned derelict church called St. Goddard’s. As they descend into the church’s labyrinthine cellar, the Priest explains that he was on his way to visit another clergyman, who unfortunately died before the Priest could arrive. After reading his departed colleague’s diary, the Priest learned he had been living alone at St. Goddard’s, keeping something hidden in the basement. The clergyman was part of a sect so secret and powerful that even the Vatican doesn’t question its actions. Known only as “the Brotherhood of Sleep,” the sect has protected whatever the clergyman has been hiding at St. Goddard’s all this time. The clergyman was the last remaining member of the sect, and now that he has passed away, the Priest feels it is his duty to continue the Brotherhood’s work somehow.

When Birack and the Priest reach the center of the basement, they find a shrine decorated with countless crucifixes, all of which surround an object that stops Birack cold in his tracks. It’s a huge container filled with a swirling, glowing green ooze, and something about that ooze makes both men feel like they are being WATCHED. When Birack asks the Priest what this object might be, the Priest refers to it with masculine pronouns (“he/him”), as if it were a sentient entity. He also suggests it might have something to do with the moon and the supernova, and that some even crazier bullshit might be ahead. Is there anything Birack can do to help get rid of this fucking thing?

After coming to terms with this encounter, Birack approaches his students with a one-time offer: a unique opportunity to study this crazy discovery and write a whole bunch of academic papers from it. He also wrangles a few other professors and their students into this plan as well. The team assembles one Friday afternoon at St. Goddard’s, where everyone gets a good look at the strange container in the basement. Suddenly no one wants to be there anymore, but they stick around just the same, working and gathering data from the artifact into the wee hours of the night. As they do, some homeless people who have been hanging around the church start behaving like Michael Myers, standing unnaturally still and staring in hostile silence. (One of them is even played by Alice Cooper, who wrote “Prince of Darkness” [from his 1987 album, Raise Your Fist and Yell] for the soundtrack.)

The scientists take turns napping through the night, and whenever they sleep, they each have the exact same dream: a vision of a TV recording someone has made. The footage shows a hideous figure lurking in front of the church in which they are now sleeping. There is also a distorted voice in the nightmare that says:

“We are using your brain’s electrical system as a receiver. We are unable to transmit through conscious neural interference. You are receiving this broadcast as a dream. We are transmitting from the year 1-9-9-9. You are receiving this broadcast to alter the events you are seeing. Our technology has not developed a transmitter strong enough to reach your conscious state of awareness. But this is not a dream. You are seeing what is actually occurring. This is not a dream.”

When the scientists carbon date the container downstairs, they learn that its mineral content is over seven million years old, and that it came from outer space a well. There is an opening mechanism at the top, but strangely the lid can only be opened FROM THE INSIDE. No analysis of the glowing green ooze can be made, but everyone starts to feel it is ALIVE and WATCHING them somehow.

The team also finds an ancient Brotherhood of Sleep manuscript that appears to contain differential equations—several centuries before such mathematics were previously thought to have been invented! According to this text (which also appears to pre-date the New Testament), Jesus Christ was not a supernatural being, but an extraterrestrial from another planet in some distant galaxy. Jesus escaped from his homeworld when the sun of his solar system went supernova, and he reached our earth thousands of years later, landing in Roman-occupied Judea. There, Christ went around using his advanced alien medical science to heal people. He also tried to warn everyone about what destroyed his home planet. The aliens from Jesus’ homeworld discovered there is indeed a Universal Mind that can control the behavior of subatomic particles across all of time and space. But rather than a loving Creator, this Supreme Being is a wrathful Destroyer, seeking not to sustain but to annihilate all things.

This all-powerful Anti-God was somehow “banished” to the realm of anti-matter by Jesus and his people with their incredible technology; but this process required destroying their own sun for some reason (hence the supernova). Unfortunately, the Anti-God knew what was going to happen and created a “son”—Satan—which it buried in suspended animation on our planet, somewhere in the Middle East. Christ came to Earth specifically to find Satan and help the human race get rid of him; for when the devil wakes up, he will cause reality to unravel, allowing the Anti-God to slither back into our universe. But then Jesus was crucified, and the responsibility for all of this fell to the Brotherhood of Sleep. They found Satan and kept him hidden for all these centuries, hoping he would stay asleep until humans could develop a science sophisticated enough to destroy him. They eventually transported him here to St. Goddard’s, where the devil has been buried ever since.

No one really wants to come out and say it; but after hearing all of this, everyone knows exactly what—and more importantly, WHO—it is that’s watching them from inside that container down in the basement.

Then the scientists realize they have each been having the same nightmare. The Priest explains that historically, everyone who encounters the Brotherhood of Sleep starts to have this dream every night for the rest of their life. Brian and Catherine theorize that the dream might actually be a real message from the future, sent backward in time by scientists via “tachyon beam” signals that our brains can only receive as dreams. The message makes it clear that if something isn’t done about the entity trapped downstairs, the world will somehow end in 1999.

And it’s at this point in the movie when the glowing green ooze OPENS ITS OWN CONTAINER and starts spraying itself at people, right into their mouths. After they choke on the slime for a while, it takes complete control of their bodies, effectively “possessing” them. This explains what happened to all the zombified homeless people lurking outside the church, and why they butcher anyone who tries to leave. Being dead does not prohibit the slime from possessing its hosts either, for several of the scientists’ mangled corpses are converted into zombies as well. Most of the ooze absorbs itself into one scientist in particular, sending the poor lady into a coma. The remaining survivors are trapped inside the church for the entire following day, unable to call or send anyone out for help.

As night falls on the second day at St. Goddard’s, Satan’s primary host—who is now horribly disfigured and equipped with fierce telekinetic powers—awakens from her coma. The Prince of Darkness then transforms every mirror in the building into some kind of interdimensional gateway. On the other side of each gateway lurks the Anti-God, which is anxious to step back into this world and start the apocalypse. Just what the hell can Brian, Catherine, Walter, Birack, or the Priest do to stop any of this insanity? I ain’t gonna tell you; go watch the movie to see!

Without a doubt, Prince of Darkness is the most inventive and thought-provoking “devil movie” I have ever seen. Carpenter wrote the script under the pen name “Martin Quatermass,” which is an obvious homage to Nigel Kneale. (He even named the fictional college after his hero, calling it Kneale University.) The premise is very similar to Quatermass and the Pit (1967), in which another team of scientists battles a similar alien force that is likewise revealed to be “the scientific reality” behind a supernatural force. I think the concept for Prince of Darkness might have originated from when Carpenter was still involved with Halloween 4 (1988) during its pre-production phase. He had pitched a script by Dennis Etchinson in which Michael Myers returns as some kind of reality-bending ghost. When this premise for Halloween 4 was rejected, Carpenter reworked it into the script that later became Prince of Darkness. (He even wrote in a character named “Etchinson,” who is clearly named after the horror novelist.) Carpenter was also reading tons of shit about quantum mechanics at the time, and all of this stuff collided together in his brain to form the idea of a cosmic supervillain: the all-powerful Anti-God. 

If it seems unlikely that Prince of Darkness came from a rejected pitch for a Halloween sequel, just look at the Priest. He is functionally similar to Dr. Loomis from Halloween (1978) in almost every way; the Wise Elder who knows about the Evil, and who tries to do something about it. He even refers to Satan as his “prisoner” at various points, as if he were Dr. Loomis referring to Michael Myers. It also seems relevant that Carpenter chose not to give this character a name. When you watch Prince of Darkness with subtitles, the captions identify the Priest as “Father Loomis” for some reason (even though he is never addressed by name, not even in the end credits). Based on Pleasence’s performance here, I almost think Prince of Darkness is actually a direct sequel to Halloween from some alternate timeline. Perhaps in this cinematic universe, Dr. Loomis gave up on psychiatry after shooting the Shape at the end of Halloween, then launched a new career for himself in the Catholic Church. But now he is tasked with handling yet another unstoppable prisoner, and this one is even worse than the last!

Pleasence gives one of his very best performances here. When the truth about Satan is revealed, the Priest quickly accepts that the Catholic Church and its teachings are all a sham. But we can also see the terrible strain this knowledge puts on him. When the Priest hides from one of Satan’s hosts, he stands there quietly, whispering desperate prayers to his god. You can see on his face that he doesn’t really believe in who he’s praying to anymore. Something about Pleasence’s voice during that scene always makes me want to reach through the TV and tell him, “It’s gonna be all right, Father; let’s invoke SET into ourselves and BLUDGEON these slimy zombie fuckers SIX WAYS FROM SUNDAY!” Yet the Priest never becomes a problem or a liability for the other characters; he is nothing like Blair from The Thing (1982), who just totally loses his shit and tries to kill everybody. The Priest clearly isn’t having an easy time with any of this “Space Jesus” stuff; but his heart is still in the right place, and he does his best to stay useful and sane.

Another actor who is truly fantastic in this film is Victor Wong. You’ve probably seen this guy in tons of movies, but he also appears in John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China (1986) as the benevolent kung-fu wizard, Egg Shen. Wong is another character actor who was generally cast to play the exact same role in everything he did, usually appearing as a monk, seer, or martial arts master (as seen in films like The Golden Child from 1986 and Three Ninjas from 1992). But Prince of Darkness is one of the few films I’ve ever seen in which Wong is not typecast in this way at all. Here he gets to be a goddamn quantum physicist, a role that would have normally been reserved for a white male back in 1987. Professor Birack is also one of the main characters, which is especially meaningful since Wong was typically cast only for supporting roles. As a matter of fact, Prince of Darkness features not one but two Wise Elders who know about the Evil and are trying to stop it: Birack and the Priest. 

As a Pagan, one of my biggest pet peeves in science fiction is the conflation of Pagan deities with “ancient astronauts.” We see this trope again and again in things like Doctor WhoStargate, and any number of other media fandoms. This notion stems from the white colonialist belief that other cultures simply “couldn’t” have accomplished their own achievements by themselves. To claim the pyramids were built by aliens rather than the ancient Egyptians, for example, is to claim the Egyptians were not as smart or resourceful as the Greeks or Romans (who are almost never accused of having anything “provided” for them by aliens, likely because they were white). The Egyptians were a highly advanced people and they did not need any help from extraterrestrials to develop their religion, their art, their fantastic monuments, or anything else. 

Almost no one EVER writes this kind of bullshit about Jesus Christ, and we know exactly why that is, don’t we? Because if anyone did, Christians would get all butt-hurt about people dehumanizing their beliefs and traditions. For some reason, this never seems to apply to other deities and religions; writers dehumanize Pagan beliefs and traditions ALL THE FUCKING TIME. But John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness gets revenge for this by unabashedly “alienizing” Christianity, giving Jesus and Yahweh the exact same treatment that things like Doctor Who give to Set!

(Incidentally, there are at least two other films I know of that “alienize” Jesus like this. One is Giulio Paradisi’s The Visitor [1980], which is just awful, and another is Larry Cohen’s God Told Me To [1976], which is actually pretty terrific. But neither of these films holds a candle to Prince of Darkness.)

I enjoy the fact that Carpenter completely deconstructs Christian mythology here. Compare Prince of Darkness to End of Days (1999), for example. The latter is an A-list, big budget exploitation movie that only exists to satisfy the demand for sex and violence. There’s nothing wrong with this in principle, but End of Days also tries to pass itself off as a “religious” movie that wants to “scare you back into church.” In Prince of Darkness, no sanctimonious lip service is paid to Christianity whatsoever; the entire religion is written off as simply being false. Absolutely none of the traditional Christian weapons against Satan (crucifixes, exorcisms, etc.) will work. The message I take from this film is, “God is EVIL, and the only way to stop him is with SCIENCE!” If End of Days wants you to get your ass to church, Prince of Darkness wants you to get your ass to a quantum physics classroom. 

As a Setian, this film speaks to me very deeply, and in at least two different ways. It’s intriguing to think that Satan himself is not the true source of evil here, but just a facilitator for an even greater and more powerful villain. The Anti-God might as well be Apep from Kemetic mythology: an unstoppable disintegrator of reality that can be repelled, but which can never be completely defeated. It’s very easy for me to imagine the Brotherhood of Sleep and its new recruits (the Priest and the scientists) as a constellation of souls chosen by Set to try and cast this monster back into the void. On the other hand, the film also speaks to me in terms of my own religious conversion, in which I realized:

  • There is this thing in my life that I would call a God.
  • This God I experience defies everything I was told about “God” as a child.
  • Conventional religion just can’t seem to handle this God, because He scares most religious people too much.

So watching Prince of Darkness, in which the characters make these exact same discoveries about the Anti-God, really made an impression on me. The movie seemed to tell me, “Yes, G.B., it’s totally okay for you to THINK BEYOND CHRISTIAN IDEOLOGY!” When people around me learned of my love for Set, many of them insisted I was “worshiping the devil” and would “burn in hell.” (Some people still tell me this today.) Prince of Darkness helped me break out of this mental trap by reinforcing the idea that there CAN be higher cosmic realities that defy conventional religious expectations. This helped me come to terms with Set’s true identity as a Kemetic Netjer and understand that He is not, in fact, “the devil.” It also helped me understand that I am a Setian and a Kemetic polytheist, not a Satanist or a devil worshiper.

As a final note, John Carpenter typically scores most of his own films, and Prince of Darkness is no exception. The movie features 50 minutes or so of eerie electronic music by Carpenter and his frequent collaborator at the time, Alan Howarth. This score is haunting and beautiful, perfectly capturing the threat of total cosmic decay. Before I started composing my own tunes, this was one of my favorite albums to play during my rituals to Set. It has definitely been a major influence on my latest release, His Nocturnal Majesty, and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys my work.

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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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