Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers Movie Review

by Chris McEneany
Movies & TV Shows Review
Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers Movie Review

“You’re talking about him as though he were a human being. That part of him died a long time ago.”

After the inventive and intelligent fantasy of Halloween III: Season of the Witch flopped due to irresponsible and unfair marketing, and an erroneous yet unavoidable association with the premier stalk ‘n’ slash franchise, it seemed as though Michael Myers had been consigned to murderous memory lane. But with his teen-carving rivals of Jason Vorhees and Freddy Krueger far exceeding him in the rampage charts, it was a no-brainer that Haddonfield’s nastiest native would return to the scene of his crimes and recommence the claret-spraying that had made his name.

But unlike the deluge of Friday 13th sequels that came on like a machete-wielding rhino, and those recurring Nightmares on Elm Street, the Myers kid had to wait until 1988 to don his William Shatner mask and pick up his favourite butcher-knife again.

So, a decade after John Carpenter broke new genre ground with his classic original seasonal suspenser, Dwight H. Little’s Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers finally arrived to get the franchise rebooted and its fervent and frustrated fans back on board. Series uber-producer Moustapha Akkad knew that there was cash and longevity in the indestructible force of supernature that was Myers, and that bringing back his arch-nemesis in Donald Pleasance’s doggedly heroic, and now slightly barbecued Dr. Sam Loomis was the perfect bloody carrot to dangle in audiences’ expectant faces. Pleasance was happy to return to the role that brought him the most recognition out of a truly incredible and richly varied career, even if concept-creator John Carpenter would not entertain thoughts of a return to the story that made his name a bonafide cult-property. With a screenplay written by Alan B. McElroy taken from a committee-led story treatment, the third night of terror that the Illinois hamlet of Haddonfield was about to endure had a very familiar ring to it.

Following on ten years after the events of Halloween II and that climactic inferno in the hospital, the new instalment allows both Myers and Loomis to survive, with The Shape then managing to escape from an ambulance transporting him from a Federal Sanatorium to his old asylum at Smith’s Grove on a routine patient transfer (these “routine” gigs never work out, do they?), and his scarred former psychiatrist continuing his determined crusade to finish the monster off once and for all. Naturally, both of them head back to Haddonfield, which must be twinned with Midsomer by now, and begin the same old game of cat and mouse all over those tree-lined streets again. But the hook, here, is that Michael now has a new target. Discovering that his sister Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), who has apparently died (yeah, right – we didn’t believe it back then either), actually had a daughter, fittingly named Jamie, the family-hating Michael carves a bloody path straight towards her.

With her valiant foster-sister Rachel (Ellie Cornell) assuming the protective Kyle Reese mode, and the dregs of the town police forming a rather inept last line of defence, Haddonfield is plunged into a murderous maelstrom of mistaken identity – with a lynch-mob of beer-swilling locals shooting at every shadow – and the real deal of Michael’s merciless onslaught.

When Halloween 4 arrived on UK screens the following year in 1989, I had just started going out with the girl who would become my wife, and this was one of the films that we went to see on a “date”. I was genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed it at the time, whilst my wife-to-be was bored to tears. It was only afterwards that she told me she couldn’t stand horror films. Or action films. Or Sci-Fi or Fantasy, for that matter. And I still married her! Trick? Or Treat? I still haven’t worked out which one it is.

Several more sequels and two reimaginings later, the Halloween franchise is as strong and as fondly thought of as ever. But the curse of the follow-on has certainly not skipped the series, and the films that came after Part II very definitely adhere to the law of diminishing returns. Watching Return now, it seems strange that I ever regarded so highly, when it really is nothing other than a standard rehash. There is a laziness to the script, and a straining for effect that rarely delivers any real shudders. Those hoping for a true return to the exquisite mood and pace of the first two films would be disappointed.

“We’re not talking about any ordinary prisoner, Hoffman! We’re talking about evil on two legs!”

Nobody ever listens to Sam Loomis. It is not just because he has what looks like a pretzel welded to the side of his face – they never listened to him in the first two films either. By now Donald Pleasance was genuinely old and doddery, but this more weathered and worn appearance really aids the characterisation of a man who has been through hell and then been haunted by it for a decade. Loomis is supposed to be someone who has aged way more than his years would have you believe. This time around, the officials don’t want to believe him when he says that Michael has survived the ambulance crash and is probably headed back to Haddonfield. But then again, Loomis is now a semi-deranged old crock whose dialogue has become a monstrous mantra about EEEE-VILLLLL! He’s an unlikely hero, of course, but this has always been one of the saving graces of the main entries in the series. The cold, immutably antagonistic relationship that exists between the obsessed doctor and his maniacal patient is almost religious in its fervour, with Michael as the Fallen Angel and Loomis as some devout Van Helsing.

It is telling that the only person who takes Loomis seriously straightaway is the irreverent Reverend Jackson P. Sayer, an evangelical travelling Bible-basher with the Devil in his sights, who picks up the hobbling shrink from a backwaters road on the way to Haddonfield. This is a neat little sequence that threatens to probe some hidden layers in the doctor’s troubled psyche, but sadly goes nowhere and fumbles the interesting potential it promised. Carmen Filpi, who plays the God-fearing preacher, was also the bum who admired Snake Plissken’s boots in Escape From New York. He’s played a few other bums, too. Here, he has seen the light … and, evidently, the darkness behind it, and recognises a kindred spirit in Loomis. Even if this intriguing idea just peters out, this odd little scene still adds a creepy frisson of the unusual and the preordained, bestowing the unholy quest with a fresh dimension that the writers either discarded, or simply didn’t realise that they’d tapped.

But the script does make an effort to give Michael more of an agenda this time out, and to reveal him as being something of a schemer. His rampage is clearly instigated when he overhears the fact that he has a niece, but his campaign is much better thought-out than last time, when he just lurked about, making opportunist kills in the shadows and taunting Laurie like a cat toying with a mouse. Now he thinks more laterally. He takes out the power to the town, causing a blackout with a particularly “shocking” murder. He also destroys the phone-lines. We see the explosion he causes during a gas station confrontation with Loomis sizzle and fry the overhead cables, but I doubt that this is actually the root-cause of the downed phone-lines. He finds a photograph of Jamie, seemingly making certain of his new target, like some renegade Treadstone asset. And he is cunning enough to hide out in a police cruiser because he knows that it will unwittingly transport him directly to where she has been hidden-away. This makes for an altogether more meticulous Michael, and one that is somewhat less frightening as a result. These are the actions of a cold-blooded, but much more human killer. The Michael of old was hugely surreal, and acted with a preternatural cunning that was instinctive and mysterious. He wasn’t the IMF operative that we have here. I miss the little head-on-an-angle moments when he appeared to be “bemused” and “amused” at his latest trophy-mounted kill, or when a victim called him by his name. This Michael may move about Haddonfield with a Flash-like propensity to be wherever his prey seemed to hole-up, but he is not exactly supernatural in his attributes. Okay, he gets shot up like the police station in Assault on Precinct 13, and smacked about by a pick-up truck, but the supernatural element does seem to have been shunted to one side this time around. He could just be any escaped convict – I mean they all seem able to take a few solid blows to the head, and to get up again and again, don’t they? And you have to admit that we have the original Michael Myers to thank for that, of course.

“I catch you groping my daughter again … I’ll use that shotgun on you!”

The revamped mask that our boy adopts is nowhere near as effective as the old one. In fact, it looks terrible. All the personality of the painted and reversed William Shatner face is absent. Stuntman George P. Wilbur donned the boiler-suit this time, and he has a much more robust physique than either Nick Castle or Dick Warlock, who had previously acted as The Shape. Yet this doesn’t make him any more terrifying – quite the opposite is true, in fact. Seen standing in the middle of the road, or slowly advancing upon a victim, or even negotiating a sloping roof, where his stature is magnified even more, he looks quite chunky and immobile. Part of the fear that Michael Myers generates is gained because he isn’t a lumbering brute of Jason-like or Leatherface-like proportions. When he hauled Bob up by the throat and pinned him to the wall like a butterfly in Halloween and then rammed a scalpel into the spine of a nurse and raised her up over his head in Halloween II, we were justly horrified because this was surely a diabolical force that was operating from within his body. With a brawler’s build like Wilbur’s, it would seem surprising if he couldn’t heft a scrawny teen off his feet and snap his neck like a twiglet. And he makes no attempt to move with that incredible poise that either Castle or Warlock had – that awesome slow pursuit, each foot hovering for a second just before touching the ground. This said, I like the way that he matter-of-factly rises from a chair to go on the attack with a really ominous and deadly business-like calmness during one nasty ruse.

But if you look at the moment when he suddenly comes at Loomis in Jamie’s school, he even seems to be sporting a shock of billowing blonde hair … almost as if Javier Bardem’s new Skyfall Bond-villain, Silva, has popped-in for a crack at the role!

Wilbur would return to play Michael once more, for Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, but I still believe that he is too stocky for the part.

With Ellie Cornell assuming the menaced babysitter role of Rachel Carruthers, and Danielle Harris as her horribly harassed charge, the film treads that familiar path of the virginal do-gooder finding the courage and the fortitude to thwart the killer and save her innocent ward that the great Jamie Lee Curtis bravely forged a decade earlier. Whilst no great shakes as either a character or as an actress, Cornell’s Rachel manages to raise a few screams and competently goes through the motions of finding mutilated bodies, making hair’s breadth escapes in true cliff-hanging tradition and attempting to kill what can’t be killed. She’s not that bad at portraying what is nothing more than a genre cliché, but she is remarkably unmemorable in the annals of the Scream Queen. The real discovery, of course, was young Harris, whose dire predicament as Jamie can’t help but tug at the parental emotions. Harris’ frightened face and innocent expression works wonders for viewer-empathy, and she does well with the action and the horrible situations that she finds herself in. The whole child-in-jeopardy angle is pretty well exploited with the young waif, dressed in a Halloween harlequin costume, getting dragged under beds by flame-ravaged arms, falling down flights of stairs and hanging off roofs, though it is possibly the quieter moments when we see her being bullied by other kids, sitting dejectedly in her room with her dolls, or when she happily falls-in with a group of fellow trick-or-treaters in a rare moment of camaraderie, that are the most effective.

“Let it be, Earl. Let the police handle it.”

“Like the last time? How many people got killed then? How many kids?”

Beau Starr’s Sheriff Meeker is not as nuanced or as credible as the previous Sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers), but he is just as useless. No sooner has Loomis roared at him that Michael Myers is back in town, than he’s ordering an ineffective curfew and patrolling the streets, pretty much on his own. We saw lots of those snazzy green jackets in the second story, but apart from one other dopy deputy, Haddonfield is easy pickings for those with annihilation on their unhinged minds. A police station massacre is only hinted at, though it is clearly influenced by The Hitcher’s cop-shop destruction, and it is something that would be revisited in the next film with more of a Terminator-style approach. With the pioneer spirit, he swiftly deduces that the best course of action is to barricade the house and sit tight with Jamie until the State Troopers arrive … though both he and Loomis find a reason to scamper off into the night and leave the house virtually in the lurch.

He would join Harris, Cornell and, obviously, Pleasance, for the next instalment. Harris, herself, would go on to become a cult-favourite within the genre, even appearing in the mishandled, but still aggravatingly interesting remakes as the fateful Annie Bracket, and then adding the splat-tastic Hatchet films to her resume.

Hugely noteworthy is Kathleen Kinmont, who has a couple of big plus points as the Sheriff’s promiscuous daughter, Kelly, but she is a poor inversion of P.J. Soles’ amorous Linda from ’78, although, ironically enough, a more fleshed-out evolution of the hot-tub-boiled nurse from ’81. So, even if you can’t help but groan at the inclusion of such an obviously destined-to-die babe, there has been some effort made to address both the right and wrong of her personality and to put a little more, ahem, meat on her bones. As Rachel’s girl-hopping would-be boyfriend, Brady, Sasha Jenson tries to inveigle some semblance of a conscience into the role. But, again, this seems utterly squandered when you know that he’s just being groomed for doom. Like Kevin Dillon in the 1988 remake of The Blob, or Craig Sheffer in Clive Barker’s Nightbreed, Brady is simply a walking hairdo.

“You can’t kill Damnation, Mister. It don’t die like a man does.”

Admittedly, there never really could be all that much scope or variety to a Michael Myers movie, without doing something really radical with the material like Rob Zombie attempted to do. As the brilliant but poorly received Halloween III proved – people just wanted to see The Shape cutting people up. And as a thousand variations on the maniac theme have made abundantly clear, this means a steady bodycount and a stealthy killer who can’t, himself, be killed. It certainly isn’t rocket science. But it bothers me that naysayers like to detract from a series of films that have been made specifically to pander to what their target market craves, citing them as fearfully unoriginal. Now, given such limited parameters, this fourth instalment is certainly the best of the bunch that followed in the wake of Carpenter’s early departure. It strives to recapture the mood of the original and it doesn’t actually wallow in the gore, preferring suspense and tension over the graphic mutilation that was, ironically, routinely cut from Michael’s carnage-cousin’s career over at Camp Crystal Lake. The deaths are inventive if nothing else, with kudos going to a shotgun-impalement through the chest and a man hoisted onto power cables. But you can’t help thinking that Little felt hamstrung by the potential wrath of the MPAA, who were extremely active during this period, and that his words in Fangoria magazine about wanting to pull back on the gore in order to effect a more Hitchcockian aura of chilling suspense were actually masking a reluctant compromise.

Despite his notoriety, the catch-22 about Menacing Mike was that he was the horror icon who appealed to the mainstream audience of both kids and adults. His brothers-in-blood of Jason and Freddy were far more attuned to a teen fanbase, with Scream’s Ghostface taking this angle to its pop-cultural extreme, whilst the Halloween hacker was surrounded by the authorities and an entire neighbourhood. This was a series that addressed not only the plight of the babysitters illicitly making-out or smoking dope, but the rage and anger and torment of grieving parents and families. Elm Street was Terror’s suburban idyll. Crystal Lake was its summer sojourn. Haddonfield, since the first film’s elaborate prologue, has always been a more real and a more studied enclave of condensed death and despair. Wes Craven attempted to make Westboro live and breathe as much in the Scream series, but this place always came across as too cool and hip, too smooth and too altogether self-conscious to live and breath and weep. It was comic-book. Haddonfield, even in much lesser hands than Carpenter’s, has always felt like a genuine town teetering on the brink of the abyss. The poor man’s Amity.

It feels haunted.

And, in many ways, it needs Michael Myers like forests need a purifying fire. He is the retaliatory sword slashing down upon its staunch middle-class ethics, reminding a complacent society that there is always a wolf at the door. It’s hardly Gotham City, I know, but the seed of this seething underbelly was exposed in Carpenter’s original, with The Shape acting as a veritable Conservative Executioner for what middle class moral guardians deemed an evil lapse in social standards. Like most of the blade-thrusting maniacs that have plagued the cinema since the 60’s, Michael is enforcing strong parental and Catholic values upon a world that just won’t obey the rules.

But in Little’s film, this subtext is happily muddied in favour of simple set-piece mayhem. Again, Michael’s mission seems more clinical, like that of an assigned assassin.

“You dumb sonofabitch. You said you saw Myers.”

Two scenes really stick in the mind with this outing. The famous “multi-Michael” moment when Dr. Loomis and the gaggle of fugitives are suddenly confronted by what appears to be a quartet of killer-clones was a genuine shocker at the time. For a film that was basically just treading the boards, this was a device that, even if for only a brief instance, properly took the breath away and stunned you. It is a real “What the f…?” moment. More than that, it is the physical and literal embodiment of the familiar trope of the horror sequel – that more is better. Playing like an evolution of the nasty mistaken identity scene in Halloween II when poor Ben Tramer gets a char-grilled date with destiny, rather than with Laurie Strode, this a fine little invention that epitomises, in blackly comic fashion, what the modus operandi of many a horror movie cash-in was all about. Pleasance’s face is terrific – he may believe that he has finally flipped, but you can see that he is still trying to work out how Michael has managed this new trick.

The squadron of redneck trigger-fingers who go off on a Myers-hunt brings a touch of both the old and the new. On the one hand it is refreshing to see people in a slasher-flick actually going out on the offensive. Old school vigilantism is always great in the movies …even if it doesn’t actually translate so well to real-life. We ain’t gonna take this no more! We’re gonna sort this out once and for all! It is also very profoundly the “American Way”. If John Wayne had a ranch in Haddonfield, you can bet your ass, pilgrim, that he’d be gunnin’ for that murderous Myers kid. But on the other hand, this also evokes memories of the torch-bearing, pitchfork-wielding mobs that swarmed all over the gothic misty sets during the finales of those classic Universal horrors of yesteryear. A couple of years before, Daniel Attias’ adaptation of Stephen King’s novella, The Cycle of the Werewolf, filmed as Silver Bullet, saw a bunch of like-minded yokels take the law into their own hands … and under Little’s direction, this crew meet with similarly disastrous results. In fact, Little sees to it that such desperate tactics, no matter how justified they may be, can even result in tragic mistakes. It is probably done for flippant shock-value, but it is still a valid point that is being made, just the same.

Plus , you get a decently handled finale that sees Michael taking road-rage to a new extreme with a stunt-happy frenzy of vehicular violence.

However, with Carpenter out of the frame, so was ace cinematographer Dean Cundey, whose luxurious 2.35:1 lensing is sorely missed. It is not that DOP Peter Lyons Collister’s work is lacking in any way, and he does try to imbue the film with a distinctive visual fluidity that emulates the sweeping style of Cundey’s gliding camera, but the 1.85:1 frame does not match the signature imagery of Haddonfield that we have grown accustomed to. This would also be his undoing when it came to filming the gory Robert Englund version of The Phantom of the Opera in 1989, also for Dwight Little, with the opulent sets and sumptuous visuals feeling quite hemmed-in and unexplored. Less time is spent prowling the environs and, as a result, less of that splendid, skin-crawling atmosphere is developed.

“Maybe nobody knows how to stop him. But I’ve got to try.”

One element that the film really gets right is the soundtrack. Long-time Carpenter collaborator and fellow synth-wrangler Alan Howarth was the man who provided the musical pulse for Michael’s return, and he stuck with the gleaming electronic vogue and sinister rhythms that the series creator had first fashioned back in 1978. The main Halloween theme makes several reappearances throughout the movie, shimmering with a newer, fresher and more glistening sound, courtesy of Howarth’s modifications. But the composer’s own arrangements should not be overlooked. Working within a moody and demonic soundscape of ominous textures and dark, foreboding tones, he creates some terrific set-pieces that build to a series of thunderously jangling stingers and a couple of spine-lurching freak-outs. Jamie’s nightmares and hallucinations are given far more weight and impact with Howarth’s aid. He would score the next two films in the series as well.

Even the most die-hard fans of the Myers canon know that this was the last good(ish) Halloween film before things began to get really silly (the Man in Black), blandly repetitive and tediously dry, despite the critically lauded, but really rather lame H20 and the bizarre reinterpretations from Rob Zombie. I will stick my neck out and say that part 6, The Curse of Michael Myers, actually delved into interesting new ground and harkened back to the original Druidic premise that had been the evocative backbone of the novelisation built out of Carpenter’s early screenplay treatment. It still wasn’t very good … but it did, at least, attempt to bring something different to the formula. This isn’t what was wanted from The Return, however. All that was required from this film was that Michael Myers came back and did what he does best.

The film was pretty well-received at the box office and garnered mostly favourable reviews … and this meant that Haddonfield was definitely back on the map. But … it certainly isn’t that good. The plot, what little there is of it, is riddled with contrivances and merely acts as a thin connecting tissue for a string of set-piece vignettes. The film was also intended as a standalone finale to the saga, although the twist ending, which seemed quite decent at the time, though considerably less so with hindsight, seemed to herald an entirely new (and decidedly unwanted) direction. It wouldn’t be long before Jamie’s slicin’-dicin’ Uncle Michael was stalking its sleepy suburbia again in Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers. And we’ll be taking a look at Anchor Bay’s UK Blu-ray release of that as well.

Where to watch Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers

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