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Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)

Shaping Up

I was twelve years old when I first watched Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers.  I couldn’t put my finger on what made the movie so much fun, but I knew that it was special—or at least different enough from the other slasher films that looped on sleepover weekends.

Twenty-one years later, I have an answer to that mystery; and while the movie has lost some of its luster, it still stands as one of the classier sequels in a franchise that runs the gamut from inspired to tired.  Following the critical and box office failure of 1982’s part 3, Season of the Witch (in which Michael Myers was relegated to a cameo on a bar television), Part 4 rightly places the Shatner-masked killer back in the spotlight.

Myers (George Wilbur) has been locked up in the sub-basement of the Smith’s Grove psychiatric hospital all these years—strapped to a bed and practically mummified from the severe burns and dual gunshots to the face he suffered at the end of part 2.  During a routine patient transfer, a pair of doctors mention that Myers’s sister, Laurie, had given birth to a daughter before she and her husband died; this snaps Myers out of dormancy and sets him on a murderous path back to Haddonfield, Illinois (The opening scene is a classic “dark and stormy night” scenario, with the doctors being led through security checkpoints and down, down, down into the hospital’s bowels by perhaps the talkiest, most morbidly enthusiastic security guard in film history [Raymond O’Connor]).

News of Myers’s escape reaches Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence), who was also badly burned during their last encounter.  Armed with his trusty pistol and a phrasebook’s-worth of ways to describe the personification of evil, Loomis follows the trail of carnage back to the town the killer calls home.  As he’s done before—and will do again in further copycat sequels—he heads to the local police station to warn the authorities about Myers; movie cops being movie cops, no one believes him until the bodies start piling up (including the entire police force, in a scene reminiscent of The Hitcher).

Meanwhile, Myers’s eleven-year-old niece Jamie (Danielle Harris) struggles with her new life with the Carruthers family.  Rachel (Ellie Cornell) resents having to watch Jamie on Halloween while her parents attend a business dinner—especially since her boyfriend Brady (Sasha Jenson) is supposed to propose to her on a big date.  The girls make the best of the situation, though, buying a clown costume for Jamie at the local drug store (a costume similar to the one Myers wore when hacking up his sister twenty years earlier), and trick-or-treating in the neighborhood.

This story runs parallel to all the carnage unfolding in Haddonfield, which expands to include a rifle-toting vigilante mob and a town-wide power-outage.  It isn’t until the film’s climax, when the forces of good barricade themselves in the sheriff’s house, that the movie gains momentum.  It’s here that Halloween 4 blurs the lines of the slasher movie and becomes more like Alien; the cast is whittled down by a shadowy, unstoppable force inside a place from which they can’t escape.  Myers makes quick work of the deputy, Brady, and the sheriff’s daughter Kelly (Kathleen Kinmont), who Brady has been screwing on the side.  He forces Rachel and Jamie further up into the house until their only way out is through the roof—in a scene that is tense and imaginative, if only for the bizarre, anxious angles cut by cinematographer Peter Lyons Collister.

The story loses its way in the last act, when Michael Myers sneaks up on and murders a pack of rednecks—while speeding in the back of a pickup truck—but fortunately this part isn’t too drawn out.  In the end, Myers is shotgunned to ribbons and he falls down an old well to his “death”.  What keeps the end of Halloween 4 from being completely “meh” is an eerie little coda involving Jamie and her not-so-cute-anymore clown costume.

Director Dwight Little caught lightning in a bottle with Halloween 4, creating a unique tone that balances the gory-body-count movie with an old-fashioned bogeyman story.  Whereas the Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street franchises were deep into disembowelments and pushing the boundaries of MPAA standards in 1988, The Return of Michael Myers feels almost like a throwback to more tasteful times (whenever those were).  Myers does awful things to people in this movie, but the camera doesn’t dwell on them; Little and his team of screenwriters (too many to list here) are focused on the killer’s pursuit of his niece, and allowing the sub-conscious horror of an obsessed man wanting to wipe out every member of his own family to substitute for explicit violence.  I dare say that the numerous thumbs-through-foreheads and impaling of a teenage girl are handled tastefully.

Sadly, this would be the last high point in the series until Rob Zombie’s Halloween remake almost twenty years later (which is debatable as a high point, but Zombie at least brought something new to the table—sort of).  The next couple of entries, The Revenge of Michael Myers and The Curse of Michael Myers, got confused in their intent and execution, resulting in movies that were too boring to be suspenseful and not graphic enough to be remembered as anything more than the death throes of a weary genre.

In contrast, Halloween 4 is spooky and charming (my most polite way of saying “look past the niblets of 80s cheese), and is a great overcast-Fall-day movie.

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