11 August 2008

SUMMER OF BLOOD: THE BLAH OF MICHAEL MYERS

Back we go to 1989! That magical year, when each of the four major slasher franchises released the entry that basically killed the series (okay, so Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III came out in early 1990: it was targeted for 1989, before censorship issues bogged down its premiere). The most notorious example is of course the lavishly-budged failure Friday the 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, a film so infamous that Paramount sold the franchise lock, stock and barrel to New Line, who never after even used the "Friday the 13th" title; A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child grossed less than any other Freddy Krueger film before or since, leading Bob Shaye to announce the series' imminent demise.

Compared to the tooth-shattering badness of Jason Takes Manhattan and The Dream Child, Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers is practically a respectable movie, practically. Following hard upon the solid Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (it should be noted both films contain roughly equal amounts of returning and revenging) by just a year - the shortest gap between Halloween films ever - H5 continues that film's story in a reasonably convincing way, bringing back the single element that most contributed to its immediate predecessor's success, namely eleven-year-old Danielle Harris as Jamie Lloyd, Michael Myers's strange little niece. (Michael himself, in this entry, is played by Donald L. Shanks, yet another stuntman who's just not capable of the elemental menace Nick Castle brought to the role in Halloween, 11 years prior. Despite this, it's by far the worst Halloween film yet, completing the transition to full-fledged brainless slasherdom begun in Halloween 4 at at time when the brainless slasher film was at its very worst, hitting at all the expected notes: ill-defined, poorly-acted characters who don't get names until halfway through the film, a tremendously unimaginative sex scene, toothless gore, a full twenty minutes of unabashed padding right in the middle, and worst of all it looks lousy.

That had always been the saving grace of the Halloween films, for my money. The first three were shot by Dean Cundey, one of the most gifted cinematographers who ever set foot on a slasher set; the fourth was shot by Peter Lyons Collister in the very best mock-Cundey he could manage. This episode was shot by Robert Draper, whose subsequent career is littered with made-for-TV movies, and while his work on Halloween 5 could scarcely be called incompetent, it's undeniably slick and empty, lit to make sure we see everything rather than to add anything like "mood" to the proceedings. It's the same exact look that the Friday the 13th series had been trafficking in since at least the fourth entry, and thus it's one of the chief reasons that one can never quite shake the feeling that Halloween 5 owes a lot more to that franchise than to the reasonably tolerable films that it followed.

First impressions being lasting impressions, it's telling that the movie opens with a tremendously bland credits sequence (where, incidentally, no subtitle is given), jumping back and forth from title cards to quick images of a knife cutting through something moist with comically overdone slashing noises - you know, that whooshing metallic noise that blades make in bad movies. Eventually, it's clear that we're watching somebody hacking the shit out of a pumpkin. This only underscores the degree to which this sequence is everything that the opening credits in Halloween are not.

The film opens with some footage from Halloween 4 (see? Shades of F13...), of Jamie and Rachel (Ellie Cornell) escaping from Haddonfield, finding Michael has hitched a ride, ending in a secluded field where he gets shot and falls into a well of some kind. Except, now we learn that it was no well at all, but the boarded-up entrance to a mine, and Michael is able to crawl out to find a storm drain leading into a rushing river in a canyon or ravine of some sort. This is all still happening in Illinois. He eventually stumbles to a rickety cabin where an old hermit (Harper Roisman, credited as "Mountain Man" - this is all still happening in Illinois) takes him in and nurses him to health.

One year later, on October 30, 1989, we rejoin Jamie at the Haddonfield Children's Clinic, where she wakes up from a Michael-themed nightmare, screaming mutely. Apparently, she hasn't spoken ever since that fateful night when she stabbed her adopted mother under the influence of her Myers blood. The film goes out of its way to piss me off by making it very clear that Mrs. Lloyd is alive and well, invalidating everything that made the end of the preceding film so unnerving and effective, although I guess the old Incredulity Alarm would be going off is we were supposed to think that Jamie was a killer who wasn't being kept in a secure facility. Relucantly, I'll let this slide - we never saw her dead mom in the last one, anyway.

Hardly have we taken this all in when Michael wakes up in that shack, and kills the mountain man by bringing some kind of large object down upon his head. Jamie witnesses this though a psychic link that was vaguely hinted at last time, and starts flipping out, going into some kind of attack that needs to be fixed surgically (your guess is as good as mine, but just as her doctors are about to put her under...

...Dr. Sam Loomis appears from absolutely nowhere and puts a stop to it. Still played by Donald Pleasence, who seems far more than just one year wheezier and more tired than he did last time, Loomis does his Crazy Prophet shtick, indicating that if only Jamie is left alone for a moment, she'll be fine, and she can help him find out what Michael is up to. Astoundingly, this works.

On the morning of the 31st, Jamie and Rachel share a little moment that is absolutely the only indication that the new writers - Michael Jacobs, Shem Bitterman and director Dominique Othenin-Girard) - even noticed how important the relationship between those two was to the success of the preceding film. It's interrupted by the arrival of the Lloyd's dog and Rachel's friend Tina (Wendy Kaplan), who has a personality somewhere between a frat boy and a rodeo clown. It takes all of ten seconds for us to decide that we absolutely fucking hate Tina; we don't learn her name for about five minutes. Loomis comes in and censures the girls for not being sufficiently glum, when a threatening note is thrown through the window, tied to a stone.

Back at the Lloyd's place (the first act hops about horribly, without giving us any real sense of time passing), Rachel is getting ready to go away for a couple days with her parents, who sensibly decided to get out of Haddonfield for Halloween, and decided - idiotically or very sensibly indeed, depending on your view - to leave Jamie. Michael stalks her a bit, doing that vanishing/appearing thing he did so well in the first movie, only her it seems clumsy and moronic, much like the "teleporting Jason" scene in Jason Takes Manhattan. Long story short, she's in the shower when Loomis calls to warn her that Jamie's agitated crayon drawing indicate (allegedly) that Michael is in the house, and she runs out to the front yard in one of those horror movie towels that never budges an inch. As she gets outside, Deputy Nick (Frank Como) and Deputy Tom (David Ursin) arrive; though in all my notes, I only ever referred to them as the Goofy Cops, replete with a Goofy Cop Theme Song, which I swear to God includes a calliope sting.

Back at the clinic - see what I mean about hopping? - Loomis and Jamie's crazy time is interrupted by Billy (Jeffery Landman, who is unspeakably bad - this was his single film credit in a career spent mostly onstage, where he is active even to this day), her little boyfriend at the clinic who suffers from an unspecified ailment. Billy is present basically just so that somebody can react to Loomis's shtick and Jamie's spasms when she sees Michael kill Rachel (series producer Moustapha Akkad allegedly regretted this killing later, but at the time justified it by showing how nobody is safe).

Tina pokes her head into the Lloyd house, looking for Rachel; she instead finds Sammy (Tamara Glynn), who despite having the requisite androgynous name will not be our Final Girl; that role is plainly allocated to Tina already, despite the subsequent conversation which finds Tina and Sammy joking at stealing Rachel's sheets to have sex on them. If I had to encapsulate all that is awful about Halloween 5, I think I might nominate this scene: a girl we presumably like from the preceding film, and whose death theoretically bothers us, has just been killed in the same house where two other girls are wandering around without any thought of danger, and they make jokes about fucking on the dead girl's linens. I hate Sammy almost as much as I hate Tina.

Outside, Tina and Sammy get a ride with Tina's boyfriend Mikey (Jonathan Chapin) to pick up supplies for that night's party at The Tower Farm, which is extraordinarily less cool when we see it than it sounds right now. Mikey and Tina joke about all the sex they have in that car, giving us a rare sight indeed: a non-virginal Final Girl! Although the degree to which she isn't punished for having sex is a bit hard to parse out - I've no idea if she's alive or dead when the movie finally stalls to a close. This is the point in my notes, by the by, where I wrote "IT"S SO FUCKING GREEN." in reference to the film's bold continuation of the series' tradition of making autumnal Illinois look exactly like a California summer (which I hadn't noticed in Halloween 4), although at least this time the cars all have Illinois plates.

Back at the theoretical A-plot - though God knows, the film's myopic focus on randy teen makes it hard to tell - Jamie is chased through the clinic by a janitor dressed just like Michael. Loomis, meanwhile, makes his seemingly annual pilgrimage to the Myers house to wait for Michael to not show up, although he does just miss the mysterious man in black wandering around town freaking people out. While at the house, Loomis is treated to one of the shittiest fake scares I've ever seen: a spring-loaded dead opossum.

Whew! That was too much time spent with the series mythology, don't you think? Back to the kids, then, where Sammy's boyfriend Spitz (Matthew Walker) is stealing some beer from the convenience store where he works, all for the party at The Tower Farm. The girls wander off to get ready, while Spitz goes back to work and Mikey notices the tall guy in a white mask (that looks nothing like it dead in the previous movies. Other than being all white) scratching his car with a garden fork. A couple of second later, he does the same to Mikey. I might point out, Michael Myers was always a knife guy, and the giant psycho killer who favored gardening tools was in fact Jason Voorhees; again, we are confronted with the unavoidable fact that Halloween 5 has an unsightly desire to be a Friday the 13th movie, as though such a desire could be anything other than unsightly.

So, this is where the padding that I mentioned kicks in. No, all that part I just recapped was not the padding. It was the exposition. I told you this was the worst Halloween film. The padding consists of the Halloween party at the clinic, where Jame is a sad little ballerina princess and Billy is a pirate trying to make it with the ballerina princess. It also consists of a tortured sequence in which Tina (dressed as some kind of harlequin dominatrix vampire) gets in the car with Michael - whose name is the same as her boyfriend! And if you think that means that hijinks ensue, well, pat yourself on the back, friend! Tina is saved because of Jamie's visions, and Jamie finally can talk again, and then Jamie won't fucking stop talking, and Loomis wanders around the clinic talking about how Michael can only be stopped if Jamie helps him (at this point, bear in mind, there is no reason, other than Jamie's attacks, for the characters to believe that Michael isn't rotting in a mine shaft). Eventually, we get to The Tower Farm, which is a suburban house with straw all over the floor, and a barn out back roughly the size of the Pentagon. After some unspeakably horrible comic relief involving the Goofy Cops, Sammy and Spitz (my word, they sound like a middleweight vaudeville team), head off into the barn to have sex. And very vigorous sex it is, though preceded by several minutes of fake stalking, and apparently it hurts Spitz a great deal to put on a condom, given his giant wince, but at least he wears a condom. Practice safe sex, kids.

Despite the complete lack of motive for Michael to be anywhere near this, he is of course, and he stabs Spitz in the back during the Act Itself, in an effect that Friday the 13th, Part 2 stole from Twitch of the Death Nerve, done at its lamest. Sam follows after a noble but feeble fight, and thus begins the Final Girl sequence, with a generous 34 minutes left in the film.

Except, it doesn't. After some eight minutes of the expected running-around, during which time Jamie and Billy and Loomis all end up at The Tower Farm, and during which time there's a tremendously stupid chase with Tina running through the woods with Michael driving after her in a car, hitting stuff and blowing up the car (it's one bossa-nova track away from being the finale to a British sex farce from the '60s), Tina gets stabbed in the shoulder, the kids hide, Loomis finds them, and Michael disappears. Ye gods, it was a false Final Girl sequence! That, I have truly never seen, and it sets up the one truly effective part of the whole movie: Loomis browbeats Jamie into helping him catch Michael, and after a little bit of dithering and some pointless time-wasting scenes involving the local cops, Jamie ends up as the film's second Final Girl, by far the youngest I'm aware of, and she gets a chase sequence that's genuinely thrilling for a few minutes, as she hides in a laundry chute that Michael is trying to cut apart.

In a film of such tremendous idiocy, such quality cannot last, and the resolution of the sequence feels a bit redolent of Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. That's peanuts compared to the last scene of the film, a bizarre twist that brings back the man in black we'd all forgotten about to blow up the police station where Michael is being kept before he can be transferred to a maximum security facility. The film ends with Jamie standing in the ruined wreck of the station, crying "no!" and giving us a thousand-yard stare into the inevitable sequel...

Which, thanks to this film's tremendously lame box office - it remains the lowest-grossing of the series, the only one that couldn't even double its production costs - wouldn't show up for six years, the same gap of time separating Season of the Witch from The Return of Michael Myers, and believe it or not, longer than the gap between any of the films that have come out since. And when Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers finally found its way to theatres, the slasher subgenre was in the midst of its all-time lowest ebb - but that is a story for another time.

Body Count: So, there are Body Count Deaths and there are body count deaths, and the eight cops that die in one swoop at the end oughtn't count. There are nine proper deaths, and it's not at all clear if Tina is dead or not, so let's leave her alive and go with a very misleading 17 killings, plus a dog.

Reviews in this series
Halloween (Carpenter, 1978)
Halloween II (Rosenthal, 1981)
Halloween III: Season of the Witch (Wallace, 1982)
Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (Little, 1988)
Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (Othenin-Girard, 1989)
Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (Chapelle, 1995)
Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (Miner, 1998)
Halloween: Resurrection (Rosenthal, 2002)
Halloween (Zombie, 2007)
Halloween II (Zombie, 2009)

4 comments:

goatdog said...

I'm really insanely happy that you devote some of your considerable gifts to films that many snobbish film bloggers wouldn't even bother mentioning. Your Summer of Blood series is my favorite thing on the net right now.

Tim said...

Thanks much for the compliment, and if I can be totally arrogant for a moment, the whole project started because I once thought to myself "Why don't any smart critics actually engage with the incredibly huge slasher genre. Hey, I'm a smart critic!"

I do honestly think it's disgraceful, that the subgenre which utterly defined the 1980s should be completely ignored by Respectable Scholars.

a famous historian said...

Thanks, great review. This, I think, is the first Halloween film that doesn't even pretend its teenage cast are anything other than expendable meat. But I do think it is a little less green - like its immediate predecessor, it was filmed in Utah.

Damian Oakes said...

I hold this film dear in my heart for this reason: it's bad film with a lot of great moments. The final scene at the police station is one of my favorite scenes in any movie ever; it is seriously up there with the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West for me (credibility, where're you going?).

Danielle Harris' chilling delivery of the line, "He'll never die," as well as her hopeless cries of "No!" at the end (I love the reverb on it as the scene cuts to black, by the way); the slow, methodical camera movement as Jamie walks in and through the police station; the gruesome scene at said police station, which is somewhat reminiscent of the scene of Lecter's escape in The Silence of the Lambs; the minimal editing; the low-key lighting; and the ambient score by Alan Howarth - who does not get enough credit for why Halloween 4 and bits of Halloween 5 work so well: all of this adds up to a scene that just does wonders for me.

Now, I will admit that this scene, in or out of context, makes fuck-all sense. But it's Halloween 5, does it really have to?