Tuesday, October 24, 2006

'You can't kill the bogeyman!'

During the final, frantic minutes of Halloween, John Carpenter's seminal slasher thriller, baby-sitter Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) tells the grade-schoolers in her care that they shouldn't worry, that she has slain the masked murderer who has been slicing and stabbing his way through the neighborhood.

But one of her young charges isn't easily convinced. As he puts it: "You can't kill the bogeyman." No kidding.

Sure enough, Michael Myers, the menace in the mask, quickly reappears. Laurie runs, but she cannot hide. Michael is impeded, but never quite defeated. It takes a few gunshots from Dr. Samuel Loomis (Donald Pleasence), a psychiatrist who diagnoses Michael as "pure evil," for Laurie to avoid seemingly certain death. But in the very last moments before the closing credits, the movie once again illustrates the elemental doctrine of the Halloween mythos: You can't keep a bad man down.

Throughout six of seven subsequent sequels -- Halloween III: Season of the Witch doesn't really count -- Michael Myers periodically resurrected himself to make the world unsafe for oversexed teens and innocent bystanders. Unfortunately, even the best of these sequels (except, arguably, 1998’s Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later) have been formulaic fright fests. And the worst -- did I hear someone say Halloween 5? -- have been scarcely better than the repetitive rampages of Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger.

The good news is, director Carpenter's 1978 original has lost none of its power to fascinate and frighten, even after two decades of imitations, follow-ups and blatant rip-offs. You can see for yourself next week, Oct. 30 and 31, when a digitally remastered, high-definition version of Halloween plays in 150 theaters across North America.

So what’s the bad news? Well, there are all those sequels…

The first Halloween relies heavily on the power of suggestion, the logic of a wide-awake nightmare, and the engagingly androgynous charisma of then-19-year-old Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie. Unlike most other examples of slasher cinema, Halloween actually devotes some time to character development, so that the brainy and tomboyish Laurie comes across a resourceful and sympathetic individual, rather than just another bosomy co-ed on the business end of a sharp object. Indeed, Halloween is all the more unsettling because it seems so unfair, so absurd, that such a nice person would be threatened with the same fate that befalls her sexually precocious and vaguely unpleasant friends. The audience can't help wondering: Why her? What did she ever do to deserve this?

Unfortunately, Carpenter and co-screenwriter Debra Hill felt compelled to answer those questions in Halloween II (1981), a more graphically violent sequel that diminishes the mystery of the original by trying to "explain" Michael Myers.

Directed by Rick Rosenthal, Halloween II begins just a few minutes after the first Halloween ends, with Laurie (once again played by Curtis) whisked away to nearby hospital for trauma treatment. Judging from the size of the staff and the scarcity of other patients, the hospital is seriously under-financed. That likely explains why there are so few functioning electric lights in the place, making it easy for the revived Mad Mikey to pop into and out of shadows while annihilating employees on the graveyard shift.

In the first movie, we learned Mad Mikey killed his older sister when he was just a sinister 6-year-old. In Halloween II, we're told he is stalking Laurie because -- are you ready for this? are you sitting down? -- Laurie is his long-lost younger sister. Fortunately, the redoubtable Dr. Loomis returns to save Laurie, this time by setting off an explosion that appears to incinerate both the psychiatrist and the psychopath.

Yeah, right.

After the totally unrelated Halloween III (1983), a foolish flop starring Dan O'Herlihy as an evil industrialist who boobytraps Halloween masks, the franchise faded for a few years. In 1988, however, director Dwight H. Little (Rapid Fire) (but, on the other hand, Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid) unleashed the aptly titled Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers.

An even more apt title might have been Halloween: The Next Generation, since this sequel focuses on Laurie Strode's nine-year-old daughter, Jamie (an in-jokey homage to you know who), played by Danielle Harris. Once again, the indestructible Mad Mikey (who, naturally, survived the Halloween II inferno) cuts a bloody swath through the supporting cast, while Dr. Loomis (who, just as naturally, also survived) tries to warn everyone that evil on the hoof is back in town.

(Where's Laurie? According to Halloween 4, she died years earlier in an auto mishap. But don't worry: This minor detail is neatly finessed in Halloween H20.)

Halloween 4 is a thoroughly second-rate piece of work, and it seems a great deal worse than that each time we're treated to the sick spectacle of Mad Mikey stalking a screaming little girl. (Let's face it: There are some things even horror movies shouldn't show us.) There's an even sicker twist at the every end, where it looks like little Jamie has been infected by Michael's madness, to the point of fatally stabbing her own adoptive mother. The producers obviously had second thoughts about this development, however, because Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989) makes it very clear that the infection wasn't permanent, little Laurie is back to normal -- except for the trauma-induced loss of her voice -- and, hey, mom wasn't really killed, just seriously wounded.

Halloween 5 marks the nadir of the franchise, and often resembles nothing so much as a bad imitation of a Friday the 13th gore fest. Even Donald Pleasence, a thoroughgoing professional who adds a touch of class to the picture, gives the impression that he is getting very tired of repeating himself. Near the end, when he's unable to fully subdue Mad Mikey with tranquilizer darts, he simply picks up a large piece of lumber and repeatedly batters the bad guy, as if to say: "Enough is enough! Why don’t you just freakin’ die, already?"

Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995) doesn't have a number in its title. But it does have a stunningly absurd explanation for Mad Mikey's long-running resilience: The masked bogeyman has been supernaturally-enhanced by modern-day Druids. (This is not a complete surprise -- there is a brief hint of a Druid connection as far back as Halloween II -- but that doesn't make the plot twist any less ridiculous.) In return for granting him immortality, the Druids expect Michael to sacrificially murder every member of his family. At this point, the audience is supposed to respond: "Oh, so that is why Michael has been stalking his relatives...." Or something like that. Whatever.

Early in Curse, Michael finally does kill the grown-up Jamie (J.C. Brandy). But he's not through with his bloody work: He must also find and destroy Jamie's newborn baby. Fortuitously, the infant falls into the hands of an eccentric young man with an encyclopedic knowledge of Michael's life and crimes. Paul Stephen Rudd, who would later shorten his name (Paul Rudd) and select better roles (The Cider House Rules, The 40-Year-Old Virgin), plays Tommy Doyle -- an older and wiser version of the grade-schooler who, way back in the first Halloween, warned Laurie Strode about the bogeyman. Like Dr. Loomis, Tommy is tired of having to deal with such an indestructible monster. And, again like Dr. Loomis, he takes a brutally direct approach to his Mikey bashing. Instead of a wooden board, however, he uses a metal pipe.

Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers has some moments of visual pizzazz, but it is fairly close to completely incoherent. Once can't help suspecting that Donald Pleasence, who looks exceedingly frail throughout the film, died before director Joe Chappelle was able to film a few key scenes. On the other hand, it should be noted that Chappelle was the uncredited director of Hellraiser: Bloodline (1997), another horror sequel that makes little or no sense.

The series enjoyed a brief renaissance with Halloween H20 -- not so much a sequel as a respectful homage to John Carpenter's 1978 trend-setter. The film's creators -- including director Steve Miner (Lake Placid) and co-executive producer (and Scream screenwriter) Kevin Williamson -- wisely returned to the original roots, ignoring almost everything revealed in the sequels following Halloween II. Better still, they found a way to bring back Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode, to stage a final rematch between the one-time baby-sitter and the full-time psycho killer. Indeed, most franchise fans were immensely pleased by the overdue just deserts served at the film’s end. At long last, Laurie Strode went medieval on her older brother, bringing a hugely satisfying sense of finality to the long-running slasher series.

All of which, alas, made Halloween: Resurrection (2002) seem even more uselessly redundant and shamelessly money-grubbing than most other third-rate horror sequels. The first 15 minutes were especially painful for fans who had come to know and love Laurie Strode, and who were tempted to shout rude things at the screen when the poor woman met a grisly demise. Of course, it’s hard to be sure that anyone ever will remain dead in this franchise, but still…

Once Laurie is out of the picture, the focus shifts back to Michael's hometown of Haddonfield, Ill. A couple of "reality television" entrepreneurs are plotting a live remote from the now-decrepit Myers family home, where Mad Mikey began his bloody career many years ago. Not surprisingly, nothing good comes of this.

The producers of Dangertainment (catchy name for a TV show, eh?) select six slices of fresh meat… er, I mean, six attractive college students to spend the night in the Myers home. Each is equipped with a digital video headset and Internet uplinks. And several video cameras have been placed in strategic places throughout the house. This way, Internet viewers will be able to see all the action from multiple perspectives, or choose to focus entirely on one or two subjects. Or, better still, they'll be able to zoom in for a close-up when Mikey -- who, wouldn't you know it, just happens to be living in the basement -- begins to exterminate the intruders.

The multiple-camera video gimmick, which suggests a cross between The Real World and The Blair Witch Project, is a reasonably clever idea. Trouble is, director Rick Rosenthal (who, you may remember, also did Halloween II) does next to nothing with it. Very quickly, Resurrection devolves into the kind of bloody mess critic Roger Ebert was thinking about when he coined the term "dead teenager movie."

It remains to be seen whether rocker-turned-auteur Rob Zombie can pump fresh blood (so to speak) into the franchise as director of the next Halloween flick, which is set for a 2007 release, has been described variously as a remake of Carpenter’s original -- Dear God, please let it not be so! – or, more likely, yet another sequel. In any event, the bogeyman remains, as always, incredibly, if not impossibly, hard to kill. Even when the sequels are hard to watch.


ThinMe said...

"Each is equipped with a digital video headset....And several video cameras have been placed in strategic places throughout the house....The multiple-camera video gimmick, which suggests a cross between The Real World and The Blair Witch Project, is a reasonably clever idea."

~~~And it's either a direct ripoff of MTV's Fear which first aired in 2000. (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MTV's_Fear )

ThinMe said...

Er, I meant to say it's either a direct ripoff of MTV's Fear which first aired in 2000, OR directly ripped off by that show.