Friday, November 02, 2007

'Halloween' lessons learned

I really couldn't turn down the opportunity to see a double feature of Halloween 4 and Halloween 5 on the big screen. Showings like this don't come around very often in Boise -- the only other such offering this month was a 25th anniversary screening of Heavy Metal at the so-beautiful-they-really-should-show-better-movies-than-Heavy Metal Egyptian Theatre. And while I wasn't expecting to see two good movies, I did come away with some good lessons about the original Halloween, and the new one.

I really had no knowledge of the Halloween sequels past II. I've seen almost all the Friday the 13th sequels and a few Nightmare on Elm Streets, but didn't really know what I was in for with these two Halloweens. Actually, that's not true. A friend of mine in grade school, who saw every new horror movie that came out, told me once that Part 5 was his favorite movie of all time

The double feature was part of a national event put on by Monsters HD, I think it was broadcast by satellite or something, and the movies were prefaced by a new documentary on the two sequels. Since it consisted of 20 minutes of interviews of cast and crew trying to make the movies out to be masterpieces, there were a few highlights. Notably, Danielle Harris talking about how she and Donald Pleasence had fun "taking pictures" of each other on the set (when Harris was about 11) and how Part 4 director Dwight Little was qualified to make a Halloween movie because he celebrated Halloween in the Midwest. My experience with the other two 1980s slasher franchise sequels convinced me that I was in for a few solid entertaining hours in Haddonfield ... but as Crissy Hines once sang: "My city was gone."

4 and 5 are simply horrible movies. To say they were made "by the numbers" would be an insult to first grade arithmetic. On my way out of the theater, I kept siting examples to my viewing companion that the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street sequels, while hardly "good," at least found ways to spice things up with each successive movie -- giving you a reason to not walk out on it. While Jason continually carved up campers as the years dragged on, we at least got to meet Corey Feldman's character, the psychic girl, and even experienced him in 3-D. Freddie Krueger had a built-in sequel mechanism, with more bad puns and nightmare imagery added to each movie -- however tiresome that became. With the Halloween sequels, all we're given is the mask, a crazy Donald Pleasence and a Haddonfield sign placed in a Salt Lake City neighborhood.

And it's one thing for a slasher movie to be bad, but does it have to be boring? When both movies arrive open their third acts, the action grinds to a screeching halt: In 4 we have all the characters sitting in a dark house waiting for suspense that never arrives, and in 5 there's literally a 10 minute scene of characters chasing stray kittens through a barn before being killed (the people, not the kittens). Worse yet, there's absolutely zero scares in either of them, not that they don't try. It seems like both directors felt Michael Myers was the reason Halloween was scary, giving us many shots of him: Michael standing in the mist, Michael on a roof, Michael floating down a creek, Michael driving a car, Michael ordering an iced Chai latte (sadly, only this last one is a lie). Of course, Michael by himself is not scary, and certainly not when he's wearing a cheap imitation of John Carpenter's mask -- it makes him look like an action figure being used for a miniature shoot. Carpenter went the Jaws route with Michael -- just giving us glimpses of him, usually in between shadows. A glimpse of Michael's face in perfect lighting can be scary, seeing Michael poorly hiding behind branches in broad daylight on a busy street is not.

After being disappointed with 4, I felt for sure 5 would be an improvement -- especially after David McReynolds' hearty 5th grade endorsement of it. Just as The Wild Bunch closed the Western era in 1969, Halloween 5 must have really slammed the door on slasher movies 20 years later. The movie is so ridiculously flawed and uninteresting that the only redeeming quality of it is that it was shot and distributed in a span of only 5 months -- beginning production in May 1989 and getting to screens that October. In that sense, it's a little understandable why it feels only half completed: why the opening 5 minutes are recycled from the previous movie, why we see Michael taken in by a hobo and his parrot who let the masked monster apparently sleep for a year until the next Halloween, why Ellie Cornell's 4 character is reduced to a few scenes of excitedly taking off her clothes and grinning at the large sweater she's going to wear like it's a birthday cake, why we're made to watch teens leave a rockin' Halloween party so they can chase kittens in a barn, and why there is an infuriatingly anonymous character who apparently plays a huge role in the film's plot.

That last part still rankles me. Who is this Man in Black who wears steel-tipped boots and a cowboy hat? What are his motives? Does he have anything to do with Michael's unexplained tattoo we see at the beginning? We'll never know for sure, especially not after the Man in Black guns down the police station and allows Michael to escape from jail (yes, Michael is dramatically arrested in 5 -- justice is finally served). Couldn't this character have been used to provide us something interesting in the movie?

And that brings me to Rob Zombie's Halloween, which I've been holding off writing a review for. I honestly really enjoyed the movie, even more so after seeing these awful sequels. Remake or sequel, it's a high quality addition to a franchise that was repeatedly dug up and buried through the 80s and even 90s. There are actual interesting elements of the movie, and its momentum peaks where it should -- in the final act. I don't mind that Zombie tried to explain Michael's past, especially because it draws no conclusions. No matter who raised Michael, there was something behind those black eyes that would eventually become pure evil, and Dr. Loomis couldn't find the answer after decades of research. I think it works perfectly as a remake, riffing on a few of Carpenter's scenes, while adding original ones, without being too obvious. Best of all, Zombie was smart enough to know how to shoot that mask.


pacheco said...

Man, I was THIS CLOSE to seeing that double feature, now I'm glad I didn't. I've only seen the first Halloween, H20, and the remake (which I've been putting off a review of as well).

Chris Stangl said...

HALLOWEEN is the only franchise I can think of that tries to reinvent its entire "mythology" with every movie. Every writer seems to be making a partial reboot, simultaneously picking chunks of story to retain and jettison to turn the series into something coherent and sustainable. That's not to try to make the sequels sound ambitious, because the result is somehow nonsensical and profoundly dullsville. If they weren't so boring as they went about their saga-reworking, they might be fascinating disasters.

Adam Ross said...

Pacheco -- I liked your "Halloween" review, looking forward to your take on Rob Zombie's version.

Chris -- "fascinating disasters" is how you could describe a lot of the "Friday the 13th" and "Nightmare on Elm Street" sequels, somehow they managed to never be boring. And even when "Friday" attempted to reinvent its mythology a couple times, it was never with a straight face.

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