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One Good Scare – Halloween From 1978 To 2021, And The Meaning Of The Bogeyman

(this article contains spoilers for a bunch of old Halloween movies. Anything past the eighties though I’ll try to keep vague)

“Was that the bogeyman?” – Halloween, 1978

In writer-director-composer John Carpenter’s 1978 classic proto-slasher movie Halloween, on the night of the 31st of October a mysterious man wearing a dollar store Halloween mask, who killed his sister at the age of six and was thusly incarcerated in a mental hospital, stalks a group of teenagers in the town of Haddonfield, Illinois. He murders several of them, while playing pranks on them and making props out of their bodies, and then finally is himself shot and seemingly killed by his doctor from the mental hospital, Donald Pleasance’s heroic Dr. Samuel Loomis. In the final moments of the film the man, after being both stabbed and filled full of lead and toppling over a first-floor balcony, seems to have disappeared. Dr. Loomis and teenage survivor Laurie Strode, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, look on in horror. The iconic theme music kicks in over the sound of the masked man’s breathing and various shots of locations seen throughout the film, now empty. Is it a warning? Could this masked killer, with no known motive, who never speaks, emotes or indicates his own humanity, who unmasked is simply an unremarkable looking young white man – could he be coming to a neighbourhood near you? Maybe, as this madman stalked young Laurie Strode in broad daylight in the film’s first half without being noticed until the tragedy of Halloween night, he already is.

This is Halloween, a perfect encapsulation of the paranoia of the suburbs, of America post-civil rights movement, post-Vietnam and post-Charles Manson, a country where the post-war golden age of WASP prosperity and security was gone and society was fraying at the edges, where the suburb – the iconic WASP holdout, the enclave of the fifties dream – was becoming infected with the madness of violence that from a WASPish perspective was inexplicable, rooted in itself – in the shadowy figure of the white-faced William Shatner mask – and yet impossible for suburbia to comprehend as anything more than a ‘bogeyman’, as the masked killer is referred to. Halloween’s ‘bogeyman’ is the fear of a political project, the dream of white bourgeois freedom that the Unite States was founded upon, coming undone. Even in the suburban utopia that embodies America’s golden age there are monsters.

The monster in the Shatner mask is known by two names. Which one you prefer says a lot about how you look upon the events of the movie and their meaning. The first is his real name, Michael Myers. The second is the name he’s given in the credits of this and most subsequent movies, although it’s never spoken onscreen: The Shape. Halloween is a movie with two identities, epitomised by these names. Michael Myers is a human being who must somewhere – even if he doesn’t tell us it – have a reason for killing. Does he enjoy it? Why does he target women over men, why does he stalk people for hours first, what is his motive? Who taught this guy who’s been in a sanitarium since he was six how to drive, anyway? Who is he? Dr. Loomis, who is our hero but not our protagonist, uses the name Michael but it is made clear in the movie doesn’t think of him this way – his concept of the man is not of ‘he’ but of ‘it’. This quote best captures Loomis’ and the original movie’s perspective:

“I met him 15 years ago. I was told there was nothing left; no reason, no conscience, no understanding in even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, of good or evil, right or wrong. I met this… six-year-old child with this blank, pale, emotionless face, and… the blackest eyes – the Devil’s eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up, because I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply… evil.

There is no question of who Michael Myers is, or what he means. There is no man behind the mask but only the mask itself. The bogeyman doesn’t need a reason – he comes into our modern world, our perfect suburbia, and reminds us what violence is, the violence of our past, the fundamental truth of human existence covered up by the conveniences and successes of modern Anglo-Saxon capitalism: that all it would take is a man with a knife. Our dreams of Halloween and of the horror genre are of fantastic monsters, violence and terror that take us away from the mundane world – Halloween, building on the work of Hitchcock’s Psycho, where the identity of the mysterious killer is revealed to be disturbed loner Norman Bates, suggesting that true evil lives in the human mind and not in externalities, tells us that evil today has moved on from this. Evil in the 1978 world of Haddonfield is a faceless, boring thing, mundane and simple. We can’t escape from the bogeyman because he is sewn into the very fabric of society. This is the perspective of Loomis and of the movie he features in. Halloween, with its pre-Jason Voorhees slasher villain who seems to teleport, moving with superhuman speed off-camera, and takes countless injuries without flinching and who is super-strong and possesses abilities his backstory of ‘incarcerated mental patient’ doesn’t allow for, who seems to delight in human suffering from the perspective of the outsider, only makes sense in this way.

Michael Myers is just a name. The true form of the Haddonfield slasher is the bogeyman, The Shape. We don’t get the comfort of the clumsy exposition telling us why Norman Bates killed; we don’t get the resolution of the Gothic tragedy in which the monster dies off at the end, leaving us with a clear-cut human message in the overwrought drama of its demise. We only get The Shape’s breathing and the shots of empty Haddonfield. Like in Tobe Hooper’s similarly ground-breaking Texas Chainsaw Massacre, where the violence of America comes home to a group of travelling hippies and no resolution is offered in its wake except death, we are left scared not by what we saw happen but by what didn’t happen. There is no ending. He – it – is still out there. After Michael has been gunned down a traumatized Laurie asks Dr. Loomis “Was that the bogeyman?” and he replies, pensive, “As a matter of fact, it was.”. And that’s all there is to it.

“It’s time, Michael.” – Halloween 2, 1981

Needless to say, I fucking love Halloween. And so did millions of others after its release – and so did producers, who saw none of this artsy-fartsy stuff about bogeymen and the nature of evil but only a horror flick made on a shoestring that made mad bank. So we got a sequel, 1981’s Halloween 2. This movie picks up immediately after the first, with Loomis pursuing Michael Myers across Haddonfield and Laurie Strode sent to the hospital. Needless to say it all comes down to a hospital showdown, as Michael continues to hunt Laurie and Loomis does his best to stop his former patient. In the end Loomis sacrifices himself to kill Michael, tying everything up neatly. Halloween 2 is darker, more brutal, with some of horror’s first ‘slasher kills’ versus the first movie’s simple strangling/stabbings, and sexier too, and to spice things up gives us a shocking last minute twist. We learn near the end that Laurie Strode is not some random girl Michael stalked for no reason but in fact his sister, given away by the Myers’ family and adopted, and the reason he hunts her is specifically because of this blood relation.

And so the sequel chooses to go down a path the first movie leaves closed, and creates a human being out of The Shape. He has a motive now. The revelation makes the first movie make sense – it creates a narrative of familial tragedy that ends with Loomis’ sacrifice and Laurie’s survival. It doesn’t destroy the whole of the first movie’s excellent work, but it does diminish it. A recurring theme in the original is to contrast the childishness of modern Halloween, a plaything of children set up by adults who don’t take it seriously, with the real fear of the anonymous and senseless violence wrought by the bogeyman. If the bogeyman is no longer anonymous and no longer senseless then much of the power of The Shape is removed. The classic ‘bogeyman’ exchange at the end of the movie loses its meaning. Laurie was correct when earlier in the movie she asserted to her babysitting charge Tommy that there was no such thing as the bogeyman – there was only a guy who wanted to kill her because they’re related. After the brilliant refusal to clarify of the first movie Halloween 2 sheepishly steps back into the Gothic world where the monster must always be comprehended and understood and defeated. It retreats from what made the first movie so good.

This tone of defeat defines Halloween 2, right down to its tagline – after the first movie’s “the night HE came home”, 2 goes with the tremendously blatant “more of the night HE came home”, and that’s literally all it is. It gives the audience what they want: there’s some great kills and some really creative scares, and a cool new soundtrack by John Carpenter, and it gives us closure as Dr. Loomis, increasingly frantic and ambiguously amoral and played with the same dignity and energy as Pleasance brought to the role in the first movie, perishes with his arch-enemy, Ahab being put to rest in a final struggle with his white whale. “It’s time, Michael.” he tells The Shape, who only watches, who never replies, who even with the truth about Laurie adding some rationality to his actions is still what he is – which is nothing at all. Except now he’s slightly more than that. While the 1978 movie is, technically speaking, the first ‘slasher movie’ in that it codifies all the things that slashers do, the sequel is probably closer to the mark. The Shape can be defeated; somewhere within his head are reasons for doing what he does. And we finish the movie scared but also comfortably relieved, probably as the cast and crew felt too. The story of Michael Myers had already been stretched too far just in two movies – now it was over.

But money kept on talking. After this came Halloween 3, an attempt to do the series without Michael Myers, and when that flopped there were three more movies, The Return of Michael Myers, Revenge of Michael Myers, and Curse of Michael Myers, in which Michael, uh, returns, now pursuing Laurie’s niece Jamie and with Dr. Loomis once again fated to try to stop him. I haven’t seen these, and I haven’t seen the first (of three!) reboot movies, the awfully titled Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later and its sequel Halloween Resurrection, where it’s a reality show set in the old Myers house and Busta Rhymes fights Michael with kung fu. Some of these films might be okay and some might not, but my interest in the original Halloween was in the enigmatic figure of The Shape, not Michael Myers. The 1978 Halloween is an electrifying classic of horror and most of these sequels seem to be, well, just horror movies, and there’s more things in life than watching an endless series of horror movies (although I have seen every Friday the 13th movie, so ponder that). But I did watch the 2018 movie Halloween, with its confusing title, and its recent sequel Halloween Kills, and then also in the spirit of things the 2007-2009 Rob Zombie series of Halloween reboots, maddeningly titled Halloween and Halloween 2. And I think they both have interesting things to say about the original and about its meaning, and about how the world and the horror genre have moved on since 1978. So here we go.

“These eyes will deceive you.” – Halloween, 2007

Rob Zombie’s Halloween is sort of a remake. It features Laurie Strode, Dr. Loomis, and Michael Myers in his Shatner mask, who killed his sister at the age of six and was thusly incarcerated in a mental hospital, stalking and killing a group of teenagers in the town of Haddonfield, Illinois. But it doesn’t begin with a short prologue of young Michael killing his sister and then straight to Laurie in Haddonfield and Loomis at the mental hospital witnessing Michael’s escape – the first half of the movie focuses on Michael as the protagonist, showing us his disturbed family life as a boy with clear mental health issues living amongst an unsupportive white trash family, with an abusive stepdad, indifferent older sister and a mother who loves him but also works as a stripper. We see Michael snap and beat a school bully to death and witness as the ambiguous opening scene of the original, where six year old Michael murders his sister Judith, is expanded into the bloody slaughter of both Michael’s stepdad and Judith’s boyfriend and then Judith herself, with only Michael’s baby sister Angel being left alone, and his mother finding him on the doorstep of their house much as in the original his parents do. Michael is then sent to Smith Grove sanatorium and put under the care of Dr. Loomis, here played very differently by Malcolm McDowell.

The original Dr. Loomis was a slightly unhinged but basically good man, a modern day crusader against evil in the Van Helsing style, haunted by the bogeyman as much as the bogeyman was indifferent to him. McDowell’s Loomis is a bitter, unfriendly and vain man, who does legitimately want to treat the young Michael but also comes across as very self-absorbed. Michael Myers, however, quickly seems to recede, taking up mask-making as a hobby and soon wearing his homemade masks at all times, refusing to speak if he isn’t wearing one. He stabs an orderly to death; his mother stops seeing him and then kills herself, her whole family gone. Loomis ages and tires and yet keeps on trying to treat Michael, who soon grows up himself into a nearly seven foot tall giant of a man, long-haired and bearded, living in a room filled with his masks, not having spoken a single word to anyone for years. Near Halloween he is freed from his room by two drunken orderlies who – this is a Rob Zombie flick, remember – rape a woman in front of him and mess with his masks, and stirred from his borderline-comatose existence he slaughters them and escapes, heading for Haddonfield to find his last surviving family member, Angel, who of course now has grown up adopted and lives under the name Laurie Strode. And so now halfway through its running time does Halloween get to do Halloween.

Much of what follows is the first movie, sometimes even line for line. The Shape gets his iconic boilersuit/mask/knife and stalks Haddonfield, killing Laurie’s friends one by one, while Loomis races to the town to try to stop him. But it is recontextualised by what we’ve already seen. This is not the bogeyman of 1978 but someone dressed as him, a brutal, murderous and mentally broken man and yet still a man. The original Loomis, although affected by his years of working with Michael, was heroic and kindly and worked well with the Haddonfield police – this Loomis is angry and grumpy and rude, blames everyone but himself for Michael’s escape and is greeted with disdain in Haddonfield for having written what seems to be a sensationalised book about the murder of the Myers family fifteen years ago. One of my favourite scenes in the movie is when, after gently musing to a silent Michael that the killer might be his best friend, we next see him giving a lecture to hawk his book. He delivers a classic Pleasance-esque monologue about “pure evil”, basically a tradition in the Halloween movies, and here it is framed less as objective truth and more as just a pitch for himself. The OG Loomis was a brave man of science roped against his will into a battle to contain a force of pure evil which became a life-destroying obsession, while here he seems to revel in his association with Michael Myers until it turns south, making a career out of being the man with the keys to the bogeyman’s brain. His rush to Haddonfield comes across less as heroic and more as a desperate attempt to save his own ass from the backlash of his meal ticket Michael killing again.

And in the ending sequence where in the original Laurie fled from the bogeyman until Loomis caught up with them and saved her, here we witness something different: Michael, instead of trying to kill Laurie, takes his mask off and wordlessly shows her a picture of the two of them as children. Laurie, confused and scared, doesn’t understand; she feigns understanding until she stabs him and tries to flee. Michael, back to his psychotic habits, pursues. Loomis intervenes and is unable to save Laurie, himself almost getting killed for his trouble. The movie ends with a sobbing, hysterical Laurie taking Loomis’s gun and shooting Michael in the head. Smash cut to black.

Rob Zombie is of course more famous as a musician than as a director, the most metal of metalheads. And his Halloween feels metal: from Michael’s grungy unwashed look, his mask cracked and broken and his hair down over his face, to the violence and gore and sex all being turned up to eleven, this is a world away from the largely bloodless and elegantly simple world of 1978. And this goes deeper than just the feel of the film but to what it’s about. Zombie-Halloween is a movie that, like a metal superstar on stage smashing up his guitars, smashes the original to pieces by giving Michael a soul. It does not do this in the style of Halloween 2 (1981) by simply giving him a vague motive, thereby making him a less interesting baddy, but goes all in on this concept – “these eyes will deceive you”, Loomis claims of Michael in his lecture, but in reality it is Loomis, heroic heart of the original Halloween, who is the deceiver here. The Shape has gone from the hollow shell representative of WASP America’s anxiety regarding a world slipping away from it, fear incarnate, to an excuse made by others to dismiss a series of processes – familial, educational, institutional and personal – that created a monster.

One of the original sins of Halloween (1978) and other seventies films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Black Christmas is that their world of harsh violence inflicted meaninglessly upon innocents created a whole new type of horror movie, the slasher movie, in which the styles of those classics are aped with far less skill, by filmmakers less interested in creating authentically troubling horror than simply replicating the thrill of seeing Michael Myers pin a guy to the wall with a steak knife. From the inept-but-charming Friday the 13th movies, in which Michael-alike deformed redneck Jason Voorhees kills teenagers in the backwoods, to Wes Craven’s masterful A Nightmare On Elm Street, to the later Halloween sequels themselves, as well as hordes of lesser-known slashers, killers and cursed men in masks. Jason is probably the most iconic of these, indeed, Jason is the slasher villain, and he serves as an anti-Shape of a kind. While Michael Myers is a non-human force, Jason is a very human foe with a formative myth – his apparent drowning in Crystal Lake and the death of his mother in the first Friday movie – that drives him onward. He follows a logic that is clearly identifiable, insofar as any Friday movie follows logic, and punishes those who remind him of the negligent camp counselors who allowed him to drown by serving as a sort of hillbilly avenging angel, rewarding the deviant behaviour of the teens who break his laws with mass-scale slaughter of the guilty and innocent alike. His utilisation of The Shape’s methods – peekaboo stalking, creative kills, mutilation of bodies to mock the survivors and never walking at more than a slight stride – without the weird inhumanity of The Shape’s essence made him a star.

The Friday movies, despite basically all being kind of bad except for maybe the sixth entry, the bizarre self-aware Jason Lives, in which Jason is revived as a zombie by lightning and at one point kills a man by snapping him in half, were much more successful than the Halloween ones, because Jason could copy Michael Myers’ style without being weighed down by the baggage of any artistic integrity or meaning. They serve as an emblem of what Halloween’s legacy became: the slasher went from truly disturbing to a spectacle for bloodthirsty crowds, just as The Shape went from a troubling question to a reassuring answer.

Zombie’s Halloween was not only taking aim at the original but at these. His Michael Myers is a lumbering giant more Jason than the original’s normal guy in a mask, who kills in brutal glory far removed from the original’s poking people with a knife a bit. In many of the Friday movies we root for Jason to slaughter the unlikable victims wandering into the woods near Crystal Lake; Rob Zombie gives us a slasher who actually is the protagonist, in a world that has created him not through some elaborate mystical backstory but simply by not giving a shit about him. There might have been some inherent evil in Zombie-Michael, but by showing us in detail the process of his creation, where his parents, his school, and his doctor all failed to truly help him, that evil was allowed to grow into The Shape, and by then unleashing him on Haddonfield in a bloody recreation of the original the movie contrasts the reality of what makes killers out of men with both Halloween’s romantic notion of “pure evil” existing as something divorced from human society threatening it from outside, and the  anonymous figure of the slasher in general. Who is Michael Myers? He’s you, audience dipshit, in a slightly worse-off place than now. After 1978 the slasher grew into less an uncomfortable reminder of the cracks beneath society’s surface than an escape from them – Halloween (2007) does its best to make us uncomfortable again by destroying the genre on the most fundamental of levels.

And then they made a sequel.

“DIE!” – Halloween 2, 2009

Zombie-Halloween, despite its admirable intent, is not a movie that works very well in practice. While devoting half of your runtime to building up a realistic-ish spree killer as your protagonist and the other half to a slavish recreation of scenes from a movie from decades before in which said serial killer is a superhuman mass murderer is some kind of artistic statement, it doesn’t make for something very fun to watch. Caught between its impulse to celebrate Michael’s chaos and its attempts to create pathos out of him, it sometimes flounders. None of its slasher kill scenes are that remarkable, and actor/wrestler Tyler Mane seems almost uncomfortable in the mask and suit, his hulking giant unnaturally mimicking the slighter, subtler Michael of 1978. It is a movie chafing against its own structure, unwilling to become Halloween but determined to try – indeed, series dad John Carpenter didn’t like it or its Shape, feeling that it missed the point of the original (while I feel it completely understood the point and chose to ignore it, but that’s largely an academic distinction). With general audiences, however, it was a smash hit, a success in an era of pale imitative horror remakes cashing in old names. And so in a mirror of the first time they made a successful horror movie called Halloween a sequel was commissioned regardless of how good an idea that was. And what came out in 2009 as a result of this was something that was even more than the first movie in every way except success (everyone, it seems, hated it, including the people that made it).

Halloween 2 is a movie that did not need to happen, made by a reluctant Zombie only so that no one else could. And it shows. If its predecessor was a metal cover of an old classic, with some new riffs here and there, then this was an experimental noise metal piece borrowing the notes of the classic only to shred them apart in distortion. It begins similarly to the original Halloween 2, with Laurie off to the hospital immediately following the events of that fateful Halloween night. Michael is being transported to the morgue by a pair of orderlies, one of whom is a weird necrophiliac (this is still a Rob Zombie movie) when divine providence frees him and he is liberated to resume hunting Laurie – and he swiftly does, making his way to Haddonfield hospital and much like in 2 stalking an injured Laurie through its halls. Just as he’s about to get her, however – she wakes up. It is two years later, and Laurie and her fellow Shape-survivor Annie live with Annie’s father, Sheriff Brackett, and Laurie, played with hysterical brilliance by Scout Taylor-Compton working way harder than her somewhat forgettable role in the first movie, is a tattooed pill junkie deep in therapy and fucked up in all kinds of ways. Surprise! This whole dream sequence riffing on 1981, by the way, is over ten minutes long. What kind of movie would devote so much of its running time to an extended joke about the audiences’ expectations? The kind of movie that just doesn’t give a fuck. If Halloween (2007) was both a love letter to and attempted takedown of the franchise, its sequel is a sledgehammer to the face of “fuck you, stop enjoying this”.

We soon find out where our other two protagonists are in this brave new world. Loomis, in a barnstorming performance by Malcolm McDowell equal parts ham and self-loathing blackness, has gone from a well-meaning but vain and selfish man to an incredibly vain and selfish man who means nothing well at all, who is still coasting off of being Michael Myers’ doctor, alternating between spouting vapid psychobabble ‘analysis’ of the man he failed to help on lecture tours and posing as a victim following his survival of the attack on him in the last movie. A fire-breathing and foul-tempered alcoholic, heaping abuse on everyone and everything around him, he is touring the country to promote his new book, a sleazy true crime expose of Michael. Posing in front of the Myers’ house for a news report, telling his beleaguered assistant “If I want your opinion, I’ll beat it out of you”, and including deeply intimate and upsetting personal information about Michael’s victims in his book, this Loomis is not just a flawed reflection of the original but a cruel parody. Halloween’s hero is now definitely its villain, not in the sense of being some evil madman or killer but just by epitomising all of the worst qualities of humanity that were shown to have created Michael in the last movie, those of American liberal capitalism at its worst. When his assistant questions his decision re: the Myers house, calling it in bad taste, he flippantly replies that “bad taste is the petrol that fuels the American dream”.

How about Michael Myers himself? It is through Michael that the movie expresses the bile at its heart in its purest form, for here two years after Laurie rejected his insane but sincere attempt at reconciliation he has finally fully become The Shape, a borderline feral creature with even the faint vestiges of humanity he had in the last movie shorn from him, surviving by killing and eating dogs and killing without rhyme or reason, driven by hallucinations of his dead mother – played by Zombie’s wife – and a white horse that seem to carry a deeper meaning that the audience is left uninformed of. And yet he no longer resembles even vaguely the 1978 Shape. He has lost his boiler suit and knife, and his mask is rotting away as he wears it, being so old now that halfway through the movie it is ripped in half, barely covering his face, and he only seems to need to wear it anyway to assume some facsimile of human willpower when killing, otherwise walking around with his ragged hair and enormous beard – and the blank expression of his real face – on full display. Zombie gives us The Shape in the form of this mute anonymous corpse-man, this evil personified in the form of a thing that looks just like us, and yet doesn’t relent from showing us the ugly truth of just what a man who has become an empty shell would look and sound and act like.

These are our characters. What’s the story of this movie? Honestly it’s hard to say. Laurie and Michael and Loomis don’t even become aware of one another until right near the end, and so really we’re given three separate narratives as each of them struggles to deal with the legacy of two years before. Laurie tries and fails to overcome what seems to be an impending psychotic break triggered by PTSD and withdrawal from her medication and a terrible truth delivered to her by Loomis’ new book, Michael wanders the earth killing while making his way vaguely back to Haddonfield directed by his dead mother, and Loomis just kind of goes around being a dick and gets clowned on by Weird Al (yes really). There is a lot of anger and shouting and swearing and trauma interspersed with Michael’s rampages and hallucinations (and sometimes Laurie’s as well). In the end all three of them come together in a terrible moment of violence, and the story ends with a whole lot of death – not a satisfying closing off of a saga of evil coming to a small town and being defeated, as in the original Halloween 2, but a Frankenstein-esque tragedy wherein a monster made by human actions comes back to enact an unhappy, meaningless doom upon its creators. A shift from Carpenter’s post-Gothic refusal to elaborate with the grand, ornate ambition of Shelly or Stoker – a shift that uses the language of the Gothic to criticise what came after it, to blow to pieces the 1978 notion of formless evil stalking the suburbs. And over the end credits, as what has to be kind of a mean-spirited joke, the classic Halloween theme that so expertly closed the 1978 original plays, the only piece of John Carpenter music in the whole of the movie’s torturous, cruel two hours.

Needless to say this bombed hard. The franchise was put on ice until 2018’s Halloween (fuck I hate these titles). And yet it seems to me that this was in a way the point of the Zombie duology all along. The first takes on Halloween’s mythos and legacy and twists them all up, and the second furiously tears apart what’s left. When Michael and Loomis meet again at the end of the film, Michael immediately goes to him, this epitome of the rotten American dream and in prior entries the embodiment of the franchise’s belief that pure evil exists and must be fought against, and slams him through a wall. Loomis stammers in reply; Michael rips off his ruined mask and in the only time in any Halloween movie he ever speaks, screams “DIE!” into Loomis’ face. That’s the message of the whole movie, hammered home with the brutality of Michael literally kicking a man’s face into a crater with his boot (which he does at one point). Halloween 2 boiled down to its essence is about what happens after a slasher movie, and it’s a slow, painful epilogue to a story that was already finished. In every way does it twist what we know about the genre; Laurie, the original ‘final girl’, doesn’t go on to be a badass like Ellen Ripley or a hardened survivor like the original Jamie Lee Curtis character but is mentally broken by what she’s experienced and doesn’t get better, and her friend Annie, who died in the original as a predecessor to the disposable side characters of every grotesque Friday the 13th movie, here has survived and undergoes her own trauma alongside Laurie. Michael’s kills here aren’t the minimalist violence of the original or the slapstick of Jason dumping a guy in acid or punching a man’s head off but grim, horrible business filmed in a way that doesn’t shy away from what a superman tearing through human flesh like tissue might actually look like. When Michael tells Loomis to die he is speaking to the whole slasher genre, to the notion of inherent evil that comes from the woods or escapes the asylum or lives in our dreams, to the idea of the impending social collapse epitomised in the slasher villain himself – this collapse, this atomisation, this slow demise, Halloween 2 says, will be of our own creation. We will learn nothing from creating it and nothing from its death, because that is who we are.

The original Halloween was a movie of the Cold War and the faltering of post-war Americanism, the fraying of the societal fabric of what was supposed to be a more perfect union. Halloween supposed that America, the shining city on a hill, was not immune to the ancient festival of Samhain, and was not immune to madness, and that there would be no way to create a world without these things. Like much of post-Vietnam American cinema it was a repudiation of American utopianism, by reminding us of what lurks beneath the surface of even the most beautiful, peaceful environments. You cannot stop The Shape. Zombie’s Halloween movies came out in a very different world – the world of the War on Terror, of the totalitarian evil of the Cold War having morphed into something much more uncertain. The roots of the War On Terror were in America’s own actions from decades prior – much soul-searching about the nature of the enemy, the invisible threat of capital-t Terrorism, was going on at this time, trying to find out where these guys had come from. This atmosphere is visible in the Zombie duology, where no longer are we satisfied with The Shape; we’re even doubting whether we’re even any better than him. Ragged, insane, death-worshipping hobo Michael Myers, less a terrifying icon of slaughter than a pathetic thing unable to tell fiction from reality and unable to stop his march towards his own demise – this is the true form of the enemy. Halloween 2 (2009) attempted to have The Shape die at Michael Myers’ hands and succeeded. A kind of tragic victory.

But just as after he burned to death way back in 1981, fate – and the money-hungry, idea-starved movie business – still had a place for the bogeyman in its plans.

“Say something!” – Halloween, 2018

Halloween as a franchise has always been caught between two impulses. One is artistic – the slasher villain is the modern American mythology, as emblematic of American fears as the onryo is of Japan’s or jiangshi of China’s, and The Shape, despite his eclipse as a pop culture icon by his bootleg clone Jason Voorhees, remains fundamental to the slasher mythos. The other is commercial, because slashers are cheap to film and make shitloads of fucking cash and everyone likes to see a guy in a mask stab a teenager to death. Other slashers have lacked this tension because by and large they existed to make money, but Halloween is burdened by the weight of the original and its immensely high quality and major cultural impact. A bad Jason movie is fine – a bad Freddy movie is fine. A bad Halloween movie is like a bad Godzilla movie, in that it hurts so much more because of how much the imagery and iconography of that first entry mean to us. So how to follow up Rob Zombie’s divisive and grimdark attempted franchise immolation?

The answer was to play it safe. John Carpenter returned to score 2018’s Halloween, with capable director David Gordon Green at the helm and Danny McBride – Kenny fuckin’ Powers! – on co-scriptwriting duties. Jamie Lee Curtis, the original Laurie, was back. And we got a movie that was very, very good – and flawed in ways that didn’t really become apparent until the sequel. Halloween (2018) undoes the “Laurie is Michael’s sister” twist from Halloween 2 (1981), and in fact takes the original and only the original as canon to its own story, not only repudiating that movie but also every other mediocre sequel and continuation – and assuredly in spirit the Zombie movies. It follows Laurie as an embittered survivalist grandmother, who ruined her own life and abused her daughter with rigorous survival training just in case the man from forty years before ever got out, which she has believed wholeheartedly will happen, and focuses not only on her but on her daughter Karen and granddaughter Allyson, both of whom get in deep trouble when – inevitably – Michael Myers does get out, retrieving his mask thanks to a pair of hapless true crime podcasters who took it from the cops, and as well by being helped on his way by a meddler – spoilers so I won’t say who, this movie isn’t that old – who wants to know, exactly, just what it is that makes The Shape tick.

Much of what follows is expertly done fan-pandering. The opening is a direct riff on Halloween 1-2’s “pumpkin against a black background” opening titles, complete with a new version of the iconic theme, and OG Shape Nick Castle returns for several cameos, as do other characters from the original, with even the sadly-deceased Donald Pleasance’s Loomis, the non-asshole version, getting to appear via a soundalike in an audio recording. Shots are referenced from the original in fun little ways, like Laurie waiting for her granddaughter outside of school being a direct lift of a shot from the original of The Shape stalking her in the same location. James Jude Courtney plays a Shape – referred to as that for the first time in actual dialogue, your mileage may vary on whether that’s too much or not – which borrows some of the Zombie movies’ ultraviolence and anger but in the main remains truer to the spirit of the original film, a short and unremarkable guy who goes around stalking and picking off and playing with his food. And the movie too wants to say something, or rather it wants to talk about Michael, and why Michael never speaks at all.

No longer, by 2018, was it the era of taking down and raging against, the iconoclastic mockery of old franchises even as studios relied on them for cash that is best captured by Bryan Singer’s X-Men and its self-aware joke about yellow spandex – an era that, despite opting for contempt instead of smarm, the Rob Zombie Halloweens had been very much a part of, being gory slasher movies disdainful of gory slasher movies much as X-Men had been a superhero movie ashamed of itself. The self-conscious anti-authority mood of Bush era America, in which America’s own awfulness almost gave way to a questioning of itself not seen since, well, the seventies, had given way to a kind of psychological retreat. The pop culture movie business came onto comfort food, giving superhero fans their real superhero movies with comic-accurate costumes and codenames and bringing back the Ghostbusters and the Terminator and Star Wars, and in horror turning back time to create a whole trend of movies harking back to an imagined 1980s neon-and-synth paradise that had never really existed. From Ready Player One to the MCU to Shin Godzilla over in Japan to James Bond’s throwback Thursday with Skyfall, old was in and reverential was the style. So it was with Halloween – The Shape was the star of Halloween (2018), and this movie wanted to ‘go back to basics’ and as well, as with Skyfall and its attempt at questioning Bond’s purpose in the modern age or with Ready Player One’s sort of faltering questioning of its own nostalgic pandering, also to play a little bit with them.

A major theme in Halloween (2018) is a simple request made to Michael by various people, from “new Loomis” Dr. Sartain to the podcasters trying to get a rise out of him in the opening by waving his mask at him: “Say something”. Forty years after The Shape terrorised Haddonfield the world is curious as to why he did, and who he is, the same unanswered questions from 1978 that 1981 immediately and unwisely answered. Here, in this continuity, they were not – and so people throughout the movie speculate over it for him, and indeed several characters are driven mostly by this urge, to find out the mysteries of The Shape. It’s the kind of approach that good old Dr. Loomis clearly would have hated, as seen in his audio cameo where he tells us (in case for some reason this is your first Halloween rodeo) “there’s nothing to be gained from keeping evil alive”. And here it’s Laurie who takes up that mantel, her own life ruined by The Shape and her obsession with him, who dismisses any and all theorizing over who or what Michael Myers is with Loomis’ cold, blunt verdict. But Laurie and Loomis knew The Shape; those people who never did, so long after the fact, are desperately trying to find meaning in him. They demand for him to say something, for Halloween of 1978 (the event, not the movie) to have a point, to become a narrative. And in the end – not a major spoiler here – he does not. It’s revealed that even Laurie invested too much in him, that he barely even seems to remember her and displays no interest in trying to hunt her down until circumstances literally drop him outside her house. Her life-ruining forty-year obsession, played with heart-breaking seriousness by the much-older Jamie Lee Curtis, mirrors that of the breakdown of Rob Zombie’s Laurie two years after her own encounter with death. But while the Zombie movies depicted The Shape – never referenced once as such, unlike here – as an identity manifested by society’s inability to accept responsibility for the monster known as Michael Myers, one which swallows Michael himself whole as well as Laurie and Loomis, Halloween (2018) depicts The Shape as the real identity, one which came from nowhere and nothing to inflict heartless death upon Haddonfield for no reason at all. It attempts to rebuild the mystique of the original movie and of the original Michael Myers. “Say something!” a character screams at Michael Myers. The only reply he gets is a skull-crushing boot to the face.

And yet this movie, with its brilliant soundtrack and well-acted and written characters and compelling story and just amazing climax in which Laurie takes on Michael in a battle of monster versus monster that Halloween has never really tried before, suffers from a problem here. In 1978 we knew what The Shape was. In 2018…well, Laurie has spent her whole life trying to prepare for the return of his inhuman evil, and her daughter hates her for it and she lives alone in her crazy survival mansion, a life of misery and loneliness. Was she wrong to do so? In real life we would say of course. But in this movie The Shape is coming back, and so Laurie was utterly right to spend decades alone training to kill a guy in a mask who traumatised her for one night forty years ago. The muddled nature of this message is lost in just how good Halloween (2018) is, and the buck is passed to the sequel, this year’s Halloween Kills (finally I can stop using fucking dates in brackets for a bit).

So let’s talk about that sequel.

“EVIL DIES TONIGHT!” – Halloween Kills, 2021

In the grand tradition of Halloween movies set after movies just called Halloween, Kills begins where we left off – almost. It starts with a short flashback to 1978 in which minor character Deputy Hawkins helps to apprehend Michael straight after the original movie’s ending in which he escapes Loomis, in the process accidentally shooting his partner in the neck and blaming it on Michael (“DID MICHAEL KILL AGAIN?” Loomis demands, this time resurrected via the same voice impersonator from 2018 and with Donald Pleasance facial prosthetics, which is just a wonderful thing to exist). Then we’re back with the Strode family, with Laurie gravely wounded and her daughter and granddaughter with her as they flee the aftermath of the last movie – a burning house with Michael Myers trapped inside. And wouldn’t you know it, there’s a crew of firefighters on their way to go fight the fire…and The Shape is there to meet them. He murders them to a man like something from The Raid, and sets off a-killing once more. Meanwhile the adult Tommy, Laurie’s charge from the first movie now old and also kind of traumatised, in response to the gory events of Halloween (2018 god-fucking-dammit), organises a sort of militia to hunt down Michael before he can do any more damage. And with Laurie hospitalised for most of the movie, that’s all the plot you’re getting.

Halloween Kills has not been received kindly. It has been charged with being incoherent, with making no sense, and with not advancing the story of this apparent trilogy – Halloween Ends comes next – beyond a few key moments. But I will defend it somewhat, because its incoherence and its lack of thematic cohesion aren’t all its own fault but are inherited from its predecessor. The last movie portrayed The Shape close to his depiction in 1978, and in doing so exposed a detail about this venerable franchise that prior sequels and reboots and etc. missed out – that the basic emptiness of Michael Myers, as well as being the fundamental point, also really limits what you can actually do with a continuation. The 2018 movie understood this, and settled instead on a narrative in which the real power of The Shape is less his skill with kitchen utensils and more the rotting effect he has on the lives of those he leaves behind, a theme utilised heavily in Zombie’s Halloween 2 and present in some form all the way back in the original, with Loomis’ obvious obsession with his patient beyond what is healthy for a medical professional leading into his one-man crusade to rid the world of evil. But this idea is undercut by the fairly obvious point that while Michael’s toxic influence on the people he touches is dangerous, being stabbed to death is probably more dangerous, so of course characters who propose popping his skull open with a rifle come across as inherently reasonable.

The Zombie movie gets around this with its focus on the tragedy of both his victims and of he himself, but this new 2018-2021 timeline has, paradoxically, made its own job much more difficult by jettisoning all those decades of baggage. Halloween Kills struggles muchly with the issue that while an angry mob formed to kill Michael might make mistakes, even hounding an innocent man to his death in a reflection of the scene in Halloween 2 (1981) where Loomis’ zeal for hunting Michael leads to an innocent teenager being killed, when a man who seems to be some kind of supernatural murder force has butchered literally dozens of people in a single night and is still wandering your sweet little suburban town with knife in hand looking for fresh prey, then the logical answer is to say ‘hell yes angry mob’.  In the last movie he didn’t say anything but with his actions spelt out who he was, and we know now who that is – not the slightly tamer proto-generic slasher of 1981 or the tragic villain of 2007-9, but a force that is everything Loomis and Laurie said he was, pure evil incarnate. Hand-wringing about the mob, with their repetitive chant of “EVIL DIES TONIGHT!” as a thudding sort of political analogy to certain other populist movements in the last few years of America, and their stupid quest to find Michael by just kind of driving about Haddonfield chanting and being mad in case he turns up, falls by the wayside in the face of this ultimate fanwank version of The Shape.

So the movie doesn’t really come together as a whole, and so leans hard into 2018’s nostalgia trip, bringing back actors from the original movie you probably don’t even remember, and then leans harder into what might be the only legacy remaining of the Rob Zombie duology – in this movie Michael doesn’t just kill but fucking slaughters. 2018 had this problem too, where a 63 year old man was somehow capable of decapitating a guy and making his head into a Jack-o-lantern in a matter of minutes, but Halloween Kills as with everything else goes nuts with it, and in a weird echo of Zombie-Halloween 2’s lack of plot mostly seems to consist of scenes of characters talking about stuff and then scenes where Michael kills some dudes with a fluorescent light/with their own gun and a car door/by crushing a dude’s fucking eyeballs, weird offbeat characters like Black Lady With Drone and Kids Oddly Calm About Guy With Mask Stalking Them and – probably the worst part of the whole movie – Big John and Little John The Gay Couple Who Exclusively Call Each Other Big John And Little John I’m Not Fucking Joking. Watching it for the first time I remarked it felt like a Friday the 13th movie, which is probably the most insulting thing you can say about a Halloween movie. The Shape tears his way through these cardboard cut-outs in increasingly creative, deranged ways, and from that perspective the movie is a delightful romp. But that’s not what we should get from Halloween.

It seems absurd to say it, but in that sense the Zombie movies were actually better at staying true to the spirit of these movies, in their determination to unsettle and disturb even beyond what we see on the screen. Halloween Kills, with its cute little Ghost credits song and its once-more delightful Carpenter soundtrack and that awesome fucking bit where Michael takes on the mob single-handedly and of course wins, is not the worst thing the franchise has ever done. But it is, in a way, the most damning. Whether Halloween Ends can fix its missteps and salvage an interesting conclusion to this trilogy is technically up in the air – but as far as I’m concerned already we’ve reached the limit of what is possible with this particular incarnation of Michael Myers, which really is all that was ever possible with Michael Myers. If you take Michael the human being as your bad guy then the thing that has to be believed is what Zombie says, that to some extent he’s our fault. If you take The Shape as your bad guy then…well, there’s a movie about that and it already says everything you can about him. What is the message of not just Halloween Kills but this entire trilogy? What is it trying to say? Fundamentally, except for “go see this Halloween movie”, I don’t think they’re even sure. As a vibing, gory celebration of The Shape, a victory lap for America’s second favourite man with William Shatner’s face, so far the 2018-Kills series has proven to be a whole heap of fun – as an attempt to say something (hah) meaningful that justifies itself beyond that, it hasn’t proven to be able to find the magic formula just yet. Perhaps, just as with the quixotic search for Michael’s motives from 2018, that’s because there isn’t one.

“It’s Halloween. Everyone’s entitled to one good scare.” – Halloween, tomorrow?

We’ve seen how Halloween has gone from a trailblazing, precise summation of the fears of WASP America at the tail-end of the seventies to yet another endless franchise in the eighties, and then seen in the questioning two-thousands it engage in the kind of vicious self-introspection that usually involves several bottles of whiskey and a few teary phone calls to old flames; and then another retreat, from Zombie’s dangerous self-hatred to what might be called the franchise’s medicated phase, as now it strives to simply remind you of good things about before, to stay calm and deliver what you came here for. Just as Superman or Captain America, Michael Myers has served as an icon of America, capturing something fundamental in his classist paranoia of the Other invading the peaceful suburbs, the corrupting influence of an evil older than our notions of God and Jesus that will always be here, tied into the American dream at its pre-Christian point of origin somewhere in the far-off European past. As America came to doubt itself so did he – and now, when America is more polarised, flailing and basically unhappy than even in 1978, Michael has apparently returned to being The Shape. But as asshole-Loomis said in 2007, these eyes will deceive you – the murder machine of modern Halloween is not really the creepy stalker of 1978, the corrupter, the bogeyman. He kills too much and doesn’t enjoy the hunt so much as the violence, and is no longer a man in a mask but a demon in human form, an exaggerated, nostalgia-distorted vision of such. The true curse of Michael Myers is simply that you can’t make a good sequel with him, not the way he’s supposed to be. This pure evil, The Shape, everything that could be said about him was said in one movie – he has only ever really been killed once, by Rob Zombie, whose movies understood the mindset that created Michael Myers and every masked scumbag inspired by him and vehemently opposed it, taking the implications of the first two movies to their logical conclusions and producing a hateable, grim vision which even today is repellent and leaves you feeling dirty after you watch it.

The retreat from that into the objectively speaking better-made 2018 trilogy is indicative of how even now, America is still not ready for The Shape. It is the era of things that comfort us, even things that are supposed to be scary. The new Halloween movies share a little bit of DNA with Netflix’s recently released Fear Street trilogy, a series of ostensible homages to the old slashers even set around different time periods that show off their influences proudly – 1992 for the first, Scream-infused movie, 1979 for the second Friday-style innawoods slasher, I didn’t watch the third because I was so mad but it was going for a The Witch kind of vibe? These movies looked like horror and sounded like horror, and had masked killers and deaths and curses and all that good stuff, but lacked anything in them that was more disturbing than a creative kill or two. The monsters had no meaning, and no pacing in their reveal and deployment, and everything that was supposed to be disturbing seemed to be floating, detached from anything – until midway through the risible second entry it occurred to me that none of this was supposed to be disturbing. This was horror as cosplay, the comfort food slasher. Even your average eighties B-movie would have tried here and there to actually unnerve you, but Fear Street at no point managed anything more than a “oh, that’s neat”. John Carpenter and Rob Zombie, despite their competing visions of what The Shape meant, did not create movies that were neat. David Gordon Green’s Halloween, despite I will add being probably my second favourite movie in the franchise and still miles above Fear Street or most other modern horror-alikes, is perhaps too neat. It is the fun of watching Jason stick a weed-whacker onto someone’s face and sand it clean off, and there’s nothing wrong with fun like that – but it isn’t really what Halloween is about. Halloween will always for me be about Loomis looking out over the balcony and seeing Michael has disappeared, with no hint of explanation, or Michael standing in plain sight watching Laurie and her friends walk home from school – or most fundamentally the scene where Laurie, struggling with him, manages to unmask him, and we see finally that the monster known as The Shape is…just a guy, who we’ve never seen before and who has no greater meaning. No other movie in the franchise I’ve seen has managed to capture this atmosphere.

But I like my comfort food. I’ll watch Halloween Ends. I’ll probably enjoy it. Just as I can enjoy a Godzilla movie that isn’t the horror movie nightmare noir original, I can enjoy a Halloween movie that’s just about killing people in interesting ways. But let’s look at Halloween as a cautionary tale of how media can evolve into something that’s merely signs and signifiers of what we want, instead of what we actually want. When a franchise goes “back to basics”, it might not actually be going back to basics but inventing new ones that imitate the form of the old. And this is why I have such respect for Rob Zombie’s Halloween movies, even as they’re less enjoyable than the new ones and obviously and immediately inferior to the original. Creators should be willing to kill their darlings, instead of fawningly “paying homage” to them. By hating Halloween so much that it leaves it dead in a ditch, the Rob Zombie movies seem to love it so much more than the recent ones, which treat it as a thing to be worshipped and not something to be picked apart and played with. Worshipping media only leads to stagnation. Let’s fuck things up a little more in the future. Be a little metal. Avoid easy answers and satisfying conclusions. After all, as Sheriff Bracket says to Laurie in the original movie, before all the killing starts: “It’s Halloween. Everyone’s entitled to one good scare…”


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