John Carpenter was a 30-year-old director with two minor hits under his belt when fellow USC alum Moustapha Akkad and producer Irwin Yablans came to him with an idea for the next big deal: a horror movie about a crazed psychopath hunting teenagers. Carpenter was directing a TV movie called Someone’s Watching Me! when Yablans called him up with a crucial plot development: Why not set it on Halloween? Carpenter and producer Debra Hill worked on the script for a few short weeks, and after extensive preparations and a 20-day shoot, a new classic was born. Yablans wanted a movie to rival The Exorcist. Carpenter and Hill gave him one better: perhaps the single most important American horror movie ever made.
Carpenter’s precedents have been well documented — Italian horror movies, especially those of Mario Bava; Bob Clark’s great Black Christmas (Clark was something of an unofficial consultant on Halloween); Alfred Hitchock’s Psycho, Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre — but his successes are uniquely his. Though he was not the first person to use the camera as the eyes of a killer, nor the first person to pit teens against a knife-wielding menace, no one had done it in such a brazenly and archly formalist style.
Fifty years and a dozen movies later, an interesting phenomenon has been made clear: Very few of the creatives who have been involved with the movies understand what made the original Halloween the enormous hit it was. Moving through the works chronologically reveals much about the way capital and art fumblingly flirt with one another before ultimately agreeing on the cheapest interaction possible. So why does Halloween endure? And who, if anyone, got the idea of Halloween right?
Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)
The original Halloween is a film defined by empty spaces. The streets of fictitious Haddonfield, Illinois (really Pasadena), where Michael Myers stalks all and sundry are curiously empty of people and drained of signifiers. For a movie set on the biggest night for mischievous kids, we only ever see about a dozen trick-or-treaters. Myers’ face is also blank. His disguise, a William Shatner-on-Star Trek mask painted and made more ghoulish by production designer Tommy Lee Wallace, mirrors the nothingness in Myers’ soul. Look for a reason, as his foil Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) does, and all you’ll find is a Nietzschean void. Before the action proper, Loomis has spent years trying to crack the code to Myers’ mind, and came away only with the idea that he was pure evil and needs to be stopped.
Jamie Lee Curtis (daughter of Psycho star Janet Leigh) plays Laurie Strode. Laurie is a babysitter who, unlike her friends, doesn’t go off to have sex and get wasted the night that Haddonfield’s favorite son comes home, freshly sprung from an asylum and looking to spend the season’s high holiday in his childhood bedroom. He digs up his sister’s tombstone and then starts racking up a body count around the neighborhood.
The film is indeed so empty that you start looking for clues and shadows in every widescreen composition, like the poster for a James Ensor exhibit in Laurie’s bedroom. Ensor’s paintings of mask-like faces and skulls seem to be guiding Carpenter’s conception of horror. Indeed, Myers looks much like Ensor’s 1892 painting of a skate fish. Hill’s script is filled with allusions to the horrors of the everyday and of myth. She was inspired by Samhain, a Celtic festival celebrating the end of the autumn harvest season, and coined a new kind of killer, someone who looked like a man but was unstoppable and unknowable. When he starts killing women who are indulging in pagan behavior, Laurie Strode fights him off with coat hangers and knitting needles, tools associated with home abortions. In essence, he represents the annihilation of the female: a featureless man punishing women for living their most flamboyant, pleasure-filled lives.
Verdict: A great example of low-budget ingenuity and burgeoning style, if only a preview of John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s greatness.
Halloween II (Rick Rosenthal, 1981)
The box office receipts had barely been tallied when it became clear a sequel was needed. Halloween was never supposed to be more than just a stepping stone for Hill and Carpenter, and so they wrote the sequel begrudgingly. It shows. Replacement director Rick Rosenthal does his best Carpenter impression and comes up with some eerie compositions, but the new expendables are refused the fullness of characterization afforded Strode and her friends in the first movie, and the action is comically motivation-free. Carpenter’s blank canvases are now just ordinary scenes of murder.
Verdict: More silly than scary; the lightning was let out of the bottle and it vanished immediately.
Halloween III: Season of the Witch (Tommy Lee Wallace, 1982)
Though Yablans and Akkad wanted more Halloween movies, Carpenter and Hill were understandably not interested in the continuing adventures of Michael Myers, having already created two new cult films in The Fog and Escape From New York. They wanted to look forward. When they agreed to take part in the third entry, it would be a new movie entirely, potentially starting an omnibus series where every Halloween, some fresh story was branded with the franchise’s name. Tommy Lee Wallace was promoted to director, and British sci-fi pioneer Nigel Kneale (The Quatermass Experiment) was brought in (though he quickly quit after clashing with bellicose distributor Dino De Laurentiis) to write a script about a Celtic toymaker who plans to ring in Samhain with the sacrifice of all of America’s children. The film is a stupefying oddity, a bizarre mix of pseudoscience and earthy grotesquery, and probably the most memorable of all of the original Halloween movies. Carpenter scores for the third time with an assist from Alan Howarth.
Verdict: A completely unique, and at times ludicrous, fusion of English folk horror and American gore.
Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (Dwight H. Little, 1988)
By 1988, Moustapha Akkad was the only remaining creative force from the original Halloween films, and he watched the slasher movie boom take off into the stratosphere until he could sit on his hands no longer. By the time he greenlit Halloween 4, rival series Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Howling, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Slumber Party Massacre, and Prom Night had become something like box-office fixtures. Screenwriter Alan McElroy had 11 days before a writer’s strike to come up with a concept for and then write the sequel in order for the movie to make it to theaters by Halloween night. Shockingly it’s a very effective movie, shot through with suburban melancholy and anchored by a performance by preternaturally gifted child actress Danielle Harris as Laurie Strode’s daughter. Michael Myers and Dr. Loomis both impossibly return after being blown up at the end of Halloween II, and a gang of vigilante yahoos are the engine of Michael’s destruction.
Verdict: An excellent lead performance and moody atmosphere lift this above the other early Michael Myers movies.
Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (Dominique Othenin-Girard, 1989)
Halloween 5 feels endless and is only intermittently suspenseful. The invention of a new character named Tina Williams (Wendy Kaplan) keeps the film’s emotional stakes high. She is the only friend Jamie Lloyd (a thankfully returning Danielle Harris) has in the world, and when Myers targets her, it allows Harris a chance to enliven this otherwise bland retread with high-caliber acting. Myers is given an ally, a man in black with a druidic tattoo tying the Samhain/Celtic references of the early movies together, and the movie promises answers to that particular riddle in the next outing.
Verdict: Danielle Harris saves this lackluster retread.
Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (Joe Chappelle, 1995)
A writer named Daniel Farrands met with Moustapha Akkad in the early ’90s to discuss possible directions for the future of the series. He had written a Halloween “index” and was interested in building on everything (Samhain, Jamie Lloyd, and even the kids Laurie Strode babysat for in the first movie) that had come before. Of course, building a coherent explanation for five movies that had little to do with each other wasn’t easy, and the resulting film got terrible test scores and was heavily reshot. The original ending is so absurdly anti-climactic it would have provoked riots if it had been allowed in front of audiences.
Director Joe Chappelle manages to once again find a core of sadness in the lives of the hapless suburbanites (including a young Paul Rudd doing some kind of Baltimore accent as Tommy Doyle, Laurie’s charge in the first movie) stalked by Michael Myers, but there’s also something undeniably depressing about this movie. Star Donald Pleasence would be dead before the reshoots could be completed, and his poor health during filming is apparent. The once-mighty Michael Myers is now a pawn in a tail-chasing scheme to tie up loose ends and keep the Halloween machine idling.
Verdict: Oddly poignant and extremely strange; a silly but engaging evening time waster.
Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (Steve Miner, 1998)
Poor reviews and box-office performances seemed like enough to finally put Michael Myers in his grave for good, but one thing happened that nobody could have accounted for: Scream. A Nightmare on Elm Street mastermind Wes Craven directed a script by up-and-comer Kevin Williamson, and just like that, slasher movies with an ironic sense of their own history were all the rage. So between Scream 2, Urban Legend, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and Final Destination came Halloween H20.
Directed by Friday the 13th sequel alum Steve Miner, this film brought back the heavy use of Steadicam from Carpenter’s original movie, as well as its star, Jamie Lee Curtis. Backed by a charismatic cast of young stars (including Michelle Williams and Josh Hartnett), this entry cannily and successfully mixed Halloween with Dawson’s Creek and reintroduced Laurie Strode as a functioning alcoholic still having nightmares about Michael Myers. It’s 90 minutes of tense, bloody fun.
Verdict: A marvelous contemporary shocker and a repudiation of the flagging legacy of the scourge of Haddonfield.
Halloween: Resurrection (Rick Rosenthal, 2002)
The box-office returns were too good to not make another Halloween movie, even after Laurie Strode cut off Michael Myers’ head in H20. She comes back for a nifty prologue before Myers kills her and moves on. He goes back to Haddonfield to find his house, now the site of a found-footage reality show hosted by Tyra Banks and produced by Busta Rhymes. Horror writer El Santo compares this to both The Blair Witch Project and Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, which gets at the weird self-loathing place horror films found themselves in before torture porn took over.
The cute self-referential nature of movies like Scream, Urban Legend, and indeed H20 had curdled by this time, and the attempt to shoehorn found footage into a series that had already tried just about every other tactic felt desperate and gimmicky. In Book of Shadows, the mania surrounding The Blair Witch Project proves the undoing of its hardcore fans. In Halloween: Resurrection, Michael Myers has been reduced to wallpaper, and not even his return in the flesh changes that; he can’t be treated like a theme at a frat party and also still seem scary. Rosenthal had matured as a director since Halloween II, but being very good at killing interchangeably obnoxious teens is sort of a zero-sum game. Even if you’re very good, you don’t tend to stand out, especially as a growing crusade against horror movies deliberately lumped them all together.
Verdict: An uncreative and plodding end to the Michael Myers saga… except it wasn’t over.
Halloween (Rob Zombie, 2007)
Moustapha Akkad was in Jordan looking to finance a movie that would rehumanize people of the Muslim faith in Western eyes after 9/11 and imperialist crusades in Iraq and Afghanistan when he was killed in a terrorist attack. This left the rights to the Halloween movies in the hands of his son Malek and Dimension Films, who’d come aboard the franchise in the early ’90s. They wanted Rob Zombie to be the one to recast Halloween in the torture-porn mold fashioned by Zombie, Eli Roth, Alexandre Aja, and Greg McLean. Zombie’s is the most blistering Halloween movie of all time, following a young Michael Myers through a rough childhood that ends in murder, and his later-in-life killing spree when he breaks out of an asylum and goes back to Haddonfield. The standout achievement is the naturalistic social dynamic between our new Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) and her friends and family (who include Danielle Harris, this time playing Laurie’s friend Annie Brackett).
Verdict: A weighty and deliberately painful hot-wiring of the series in the hands of an artist who was just starting to become great.
Halloween 2 (Rob Zombie, 2009)
This is the only film in the series that can unequivocally be called a great work of art. Zombie was as wary about returning to the world of Halloween as Carpenter and Hill were, so he returned knowing he was going to make something no one in their right mind would follow.
Laurie Strode is now hobbled by grief, and every day is a struggle to not completely collapse under the mental strain of having survived the night that killed or maimed everyone she’s ever known. Myers’ return and subsequent massacre destroys what little peace of mind the residents of Haddonfield had left. Scenes like Brad Dourif’s Sheriff Brackett mourning Danielle Harris’ Annie stain the viewer’s consciousness like blood. If you’ve seen this movie praised before, it’s likely the version being discussed is the unrated director’s cut that made its way to home video after a disappointing theatrical run. In the new cut, Zombie indulges much more freely in violent fantasy, building up both the twisted world in Michael Myers’ head and the pain of Laurie’s recovery so that when they collide, it hurts even worse. The director’s cut is the one to watch, the finest movie through which Michael Myers ever stalked.
Verdict: The best Halloween movie and a shockingly powerful work about the horror of being a survivor.
Halloween (David Gordon Green, 2018)
In time for the first movie’s 40th anniversary, David Gordon Green and Danny McBride (Eastbound & Down, The Righteous Gemstones) bring Jamie Lee Curtis (and original Michael Myers Nick Castle) back for one last go-round. Once more, the only real god in the universe of the Halloween movies is money, and so two sequels were hastily commissioned and completed.
Green’s scene construction is frequently marvelous — an opening visit to the asylum where Myers rots away, the introduction of Will Patton’s Deputy Hawkins as he plays pinball in a convenience store, several Steadicam shots of Myers stalking and killing nameless victims — they all have an abrasive gratefulness about them. In these moments, you can feel Green sinking into the material and into his typically lovely Haddonfield setting. Green’s talent has always been for the texture of small-town America, and showing the lived-in social intricacies of the local gas station allows him to make the kind of movie he’s known for while allowing his actors a chance to just exist in their environment rather than deliver exposition.
Unfortunately, the film is timely in all the wrong ways, cheaply reflecting “elevated horror” movies by trying to make Strode’s standoff with Myers the answer to her years of self-abuse. On his best days, McBride is our greatest chronicler of runaway American ego. In Halloween, he seems afraid of going deeper than a blanket statement that basically everyone in America is bad now, even if the lingo has changed since 1978. The idea of a returning Laurie Strode should have more resonance, and despite a fierce turn by Curtis, this really is just another Halloween sequel cruelly offing nice kids and bad men alike.
Verdict: A frequently fun movie undone by a disproportionate sense of its own importance.
Halloween Kills (David Gordon Green, 2021)
Resurrecting the angry mob from Halloween 4, Halloween Kills picks up seconds after 2018’s reboot ended. Laurie Strode’s in the hospital with her grieving daughter (Judy Greer), and Patton’s mangled Hawkins watches as a crowd of vigilantes’ bloodlust grows until they’re pushing innocent people out of windows. Real Housewife Kyle Richards, the first girl Laurie Strode ever babysat, returns to reprise her role; Anthony Michael Hall plays Tommy Doyle (taking over for Paul Rudd in Curse of Michael Myers), and Jim Cummings shows up for a few excruciating minutes of schtick. Considering the talent on and off screen, it’s enormously disheartening how little is in this movie’s head. Vague notions of mob rule never go anywhere productive, and what precisely is meant to be implied by the idea of townspeople overreacting to a killer (who at this point is their unofficial mascot) never becomes clear.
Verdict: A confused admission of defeat from writers and a director who clearly had no greater plan for Michael Myers.
Halloween Ends (David Gordon Green, 2022)
As the offensive opening narration tells us, Laurie Strode and her granddaughter Allyson (Andy Matichak) are now in recovery, taking it one day at a time. Mostly this means awkwardly flirting with local bad boys. Strode half-heartedly tries to charm Hawkins, and her granddaughter Allyson leaves her cop boyfriend for local psychopath Corey (Rohan Campbell), who’s keeping Michael Myers stocked with victims in a sewer on the edge of Haddonfield. Scene to scene, nothing makes sense, and you have to ignore 11 movies worth of Michael Myers’ behavior to accept that he’s finally allowing himself an accomplice.
It’d be easy to complain about inconsistencies in Strode and Allyson’s characterizations but frankly, we don’t actually know anything about them in Green and McBride’s hands, so sure, why wouldn’t Allyson turn to dating a child murderer with the charisma of a beached goblin shark? Why wouldn’t Laurie become a dizzy, pie-baking homemaker after 40 years of full metal survivalism? Why wouldn’t Haddonfield, having learned nothing from their collective murder of a harmless old man a few years ago, immediately decide to condemn some new kid for a crime they didn’t see? Furthermore, what does this movie mean to imply by saying Corey is the psycho people assume he is? Green populates this one with the usual raft of obnoxious sides of meat to butcher, whose stories extend the length to an unsupportable two hours. All of this is shame because Green is still a good image maker. His Haddonfield is a memorable and beautifully sad place. Shame about everyone in it.
Verdict: Perhaps the most misguided and bizarre of all of the Halloween movies, but watchable and fleetingly beautiful
Ultimately, the Halloween movies are about the search for meaning: staring into the blank face of Michael Myers and demanding he speak and account for himself. It’s a cry from the aggrieved for clarity that never materializes. Producers and directors have tried to squeeze Myers into a dozen templates, genres, and times, and therein lies the problem. By approaching Myers as a moldable idea, a boogeyman for all seasons, he becomes too abstract, instead of something happening actively to real people. It should mean something to us by now to see the mask, but only Rob Zombie seemed interested in what was underneath it, and only then because Myers’ crimes had left their own scars on characters he did care about.
Halloween has become something greater than John Carpenter and Debra Hill ever imagined when they sat down to write their proto-slasher entry in the late ’70s, but the trouble is no satisfying answer has ever reared its head as to what that something actually is. After all these years, Green points his camera at Michael Myers and he’s just an old man in a mask. That seems both depressingly accurate and an undeniable letdown. America’s undoing, the phantom of Haddonfield, the killer to whom we can’t say goodbye, is just some guy. He’ll be gone at the end of Halloween Ends, but we all know the truth. He’ll come back again as soon as we’ve had a chance to forget him.