20 August 2008

SUMMER OF BLOOD: A CURSE UPON YE

The lack of cultural memory about some things amazes me. When Halloween H20 was released in 1998, it was treated to a marketing campaign that focused on the triumphant return of the Halloween series - a series that had been dormant only three years. By that point, there had twice been six-year gaps between films in the franchise, making H20 less of a return than merely the latest example of the films' compulsively irregular release schedule. There are at least a couple of reasons why the "triumphant return" angle was valid, though: H20 represented a major shift in series continuity, for one; and it was the first Halloween film after the horror genre died and was reborn in 1996. Not to mention the fact that hardly anybody saw 1995's Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (adjusting for inflation, it had the second-worst box-office take of the series, after only Halloween 5), for the sensible reason that The Curse of Michael Myers is a tremendously awful motion picture.

This should be no surprise. In the six long years since Michael was taken from prison in a blaze of fire, the horror film, a genre already tottering on its last legs in 1989, finally dropped dead. Accordingly, the small number of slashers to come out in the first half of the 1990s were all tremendously rank little things, lacking even a flash of imagination or wit (the grand exception being Wes Craven's New Nightmare). This was probably inevitable; after all, even during the heyday of the slasher film, they were made by people who were driven much more by the paycheck they were going to get than by artistic urgency, and few hacks in the modern era of filmmaking ever made a truly worthwhile movie. But hackwork where you know that nobody is even going to want to see the film? That must be an utterly demoralising experience. Thus do we get the sour joylessness of things like the Leprechaun and Witchcraft series.

As far as the Halloween series goes, we've already had one sour film made by people who clearly wished they were elsewhere (Halloween II) and one film that could only possibly be described as a tossed-off late slasher film (Halloween 5), and I'd love dearly to say that for this, the series' nadir (I hope and pray - at any rate, it's the nadir of the first phase of the series), the creators did something crazy and outrageous; but that would have required some amount of energy and engagement. Instead, TCOMM is just another slasher, not quite as typical as its immediate predecessor, but still best regarded as nothing but a delivery system for murder and half-glimpses of naked women. More than that, though, it has a truly insane collection of plot holes and random story developments, but that's me getting ahead of myself, isn't it?

To start with, we open with the first truly frightening moment in any Halloween sequel yet. No, not the breathy woman crying "Michael, please don't hurt me" over black that begins the film. Nor the whooshing flash, for a fraction of a second, of something dire-looking. In fact, it now occurs to me that we don't "open" with it at all - the first scene is a screaming woman strapped to a gurney being wheeled through some sort of industrial space, apparently in labor. After she gives birth, the Man in Black that we never quite saw properly in the last movie takes her baby, and the credits spool up as he takes the baby to some portentous Somewhere, where there are men in robes. And what should the first credit read? I mean, besides the de rigeur "Donald Pleasence in HALLOWEEN: THE CURSE OF MICHAEL MYERS" (which is, incidentally, given in the most generic font the series has used ever since the "Every '80s Action Movie" titles in Season of the Witch)? "Starring and introducing: Paul Stephen Rudd."

I've been disappointed about the relative dearth of top-notch skeletons in the closet compared to last year's Summer of Blood, but that one name made up for all of it I swear up, down and sideways that I did not know he was in this movie - in fact, for the briefest instant, I wondered if it was actually the same actor, but then he actually starts narrating the history of Michael Myers, ending with a Pleasence-level rant about Michael's Pure Ee-vilness ("You can lock it up, burn it, and bury it, and pray that it dies, but it never will. It just rests awhile"). And sure enough, it is absolutely unmistakably the voice of Paul Rudd, the indie-comedy fixture, stalwart member of both the Judd Apatow and David Wain Stock Companies. I decided right at this moment that in order to retain my sanity, I was going to pretend that Paul Rudd and Paul Stephen Rudd were actually two different people. It worked right up until the first moment we see his face.

So anyway, we find out fairly soon that Paul Stephen Rudd is playing Tommy Doyle, the little boy that Laurie was babysitting all the way back in the first Halloween; apparently his run-in with Michael left him a touch unhinged, and he's spent most of his life trying to unlock the mysteries of the unstoppable killer. But those mysteries aren't quite unlocked yet - first we have to get back to that poor trapped woman. It turns out to be Jamie Lloyd, Michael's little niece (now played by J.C. Brandy, allegedly because Danielle Harris's $5000 asking price was too high), and how she came to be pregnant will forever remain unanswered. What happens while we're fruitlessly pondering that question is that a nursemaid, played by a howlingly incompetent actress (I can't figure out which of the anonymous figures from the cast list she is, sadly) brings the baby to Jamie, urging her to flee. Jamie does, and Michael pursues, killing the nurse in a shockingly bloody impalement; moments later, he'll kill a drifter who looks kind of like Nick Nolte (stuntman Tom Proctor) by crushing his skull with a shocking amount of blood. "That's right!" I found myself thinking, "There was that whole thing were blood became okay again after Tarantino in the mid-1990s!" Tremendous amounts of added gore do not serve Halloween well, as it turns out. Wasn't that a lesson we already learned back in Halloween II?

Before I go further, a moment's pause. Compared to all the other A-list slasher franchises, Halloween has enjoyed, if that is the word, a tremendously robust continuity, with every film adding more and more (frivolous) details about the Myers, Strodes, Lloyds, and Haddonfield. I don't know that I care for it; it makes the films more about plot than about slashing, and since none of them do plot very well, it might have been better to let it dangle. The point being, the five main films all clearly take place in a defined, consistent world, and I bring this up now because something is about to happen that would hardly bear mentioning in a Friday the 13th, but is indescribably stupid given the very different context here.

The very first shot back in Haddonfield is of a sign for Strode Realty, and we see that the old Myers place finally sold (recall that in Halloween, Laurie's father was trying to show it, and that is how she first crossed paths with the psycho who was not yet also her brother). In short order, we learn that the house is now occupied by John (Bradford English) and Debra (Kim Darby!) - named for John Carpenter and Debra Hill, of course - their son Tim (Keith Bogart), enrolled at the local community college, and their daughter Kara (Marianne Hagan), newly returned from parts unknown with her fatherless son Danny (Devin Gardner). So far, so good, but there's a little detail that the film won't provide for a couple of scenes yet, and I think the delay is the only reason this conceit comes even a tiny bit close to working: these are the Strodes, and John is Laurie's uncle. The reason he bought the house is because nobody else could stand to live with its history...and he never told his wife or children about that history. It's been 32 years since Michael killed his older sister, 17 since he came back to try and kill his younger sister, and somehow, Debra Strode never knew that her brother-in-law was trying to sell the old Myers place, nor did any of her friends and new neighbors clue her in on that fact. Much later in the film, Tim's apparently long-term girlfriend Beth (Mariah O'Brien) makes a joke about how he lives in Michael's house, and she is stunned to learn that he didn't know. And this is the absolutely intolerable contrivance that underpins the whole fucking plot.

So back to October 30, 1995. Everywhere in Haddonfield seems to be tuned to the same station, upon which the obnoxious shock jock Barry Simms (Leo Gater) holds forth on the legend of Michael Myers. Exposition will be ladled out via this radio program in the most undramatic way imaginable (here is where we learn that Paul Stephen Rudd is actually playing that Tommy Doyle), and it's charm as a mood-setting, plot-furthering device will be long since dead before it finally stops. In the meantime, we get some business involving Danny and the "Voice Man" who tells him horrible things about murdering people or some such.

As Exposition Radio - Northeast Illinois's home for plot hooks! - rolls over to a caller wondering if Dr. Sam Loomis died, the film answers in what I think might be my least-favorite scene in a highly-contested battle: the tremendously agéd Donald Pleasence (who would die very soon after shooting wrapped) looks and sounds like he's about to break, and he's asked to embarrass himself immediately by turning directly into the camera and wheezing, "Not dead. Just very much retired." Shortly thereafter, Dr. Wynn (Mitchell Ryan), of Smith's Grove Sanitarium drops in to offer Loomis his old job back, for some reason that I can't quite figure out. This weird interlude is interrupted when Loomis realises that Jamie has called into the radio show, at the same time that Tommy does, and he dashes away to Haddonfield, realising with his finely-tuned Loomissense that this means Michael is back afoot. Unfortunately, it's not fast enough to save Jamie from being chopped apart by some sort of threshing machine.

I should pause again; in the barn where Michael kills Jamie, there's a shot in which the whole inside is lit up by lightning, and she thinks for a moment that she can see him, but the next flash reveals that he's not there. It's a beautiful shot, and a well-executed idea, and very lonely in this film.

With everything basically set up at this point, all that the film has to do is spin its wheels for about an hour and then kill a whole bunch of people. Okay, that's not fair. They start dying at the half-way point. But there is quite a lot of wheel-spinning, involving Kara's indescribably awful family, especially the vile and wretched John, whose death doesn't come soon enough and is nearly so painful-looking as we'd all like. Also involving the much-too-protracted efforts of Tommy, Loomis and Kara to come together. Somewhere in there, there's also a subplot about how Haddonfield's youths are trying to bring back Halloween, which the city council apparently abolished back in 1989. Which, by all appearances, was in fact a great idea.

The big deal in all this, though, is when Tommy explains what he's learned about Michael, in a hellzapoppin' speech that finally pays off the druid hints dropped in Pleasence's infamous Samhain speech all the way back in Halloween II. Apparently, Michael suffers from something called the Curse of Thorn - Thorn being a Celtic rune that somehow turns you into a killing machine. I think I'm almost happier not getting it. For some reason, Danny is also under the Curse of Thorn, which is why he keeps seeing flashes of the Man in Black.

After what feels like a whole lot of time watching people die who committed no sin other than to dwell in the old Myers place - and some of them, not even that - the endgame begins (the film has no Final Girl sequence as such), and the whole rest of the movie goes to hell for a 20 minute climax in a hospital where apparently Dr. Wynn is trying to extract pure evil from Danny. Tommy and Kara run around, Loomis isn't even in the hospital - and why, if Wynn is part of the Thorn cult, did he bring Loomis back into all of this? Plus, if you're going to strain like to get a character back in the film, why not use him more than the 20-odd minutes that Pleasence appears in? - and Michael, for no reason, kills all the cultists. Then Tommy uses his knowledge of Michael's druidic origins to bash the killer's head in with a pipe. Which doesn't kill him, naturally, but Tommy and Kara never find that out. The questions of what connection Danny has to Michael, what Jamie's baby had to do with the plot, who fathered Jamie's baby, and whether the cult in the first scene is the same as the later cult, are all left unanswered and ignored.

The really goddamn frustrating thing? I am told that every single one of those giant goddamn plot-holes was addressed in Daniel Farrands's original screenplay; there exists a thing called the Producer's Cut, which runs about 40 minutes longer, has the numbered title Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers, and features a great deal more Loomis, whose role was cut drastically because director Joe Chappelle found him "boring". I would love beyond measure to see this cut, as it could only possibly help the tattered rags of this wretched story. I even thought about tracking down a copy (this is the internet, it's not hard), but this review is quite long enough, n'est-ce pas?

But could it really fix all the problems? There's still a whole boatload of stiff, awkward performances, with the single exception of Pleasence, who appears ready to drop at any second. There would still be a laughable number of industrial-looking sets that appear to have been heavily influenced by the then-new The X-Files, which also appears to have set the tone for Billy Dickson's cinematography, which copies all of the show's murk and none of its atmosphere. Editing being what it is, I can hope that the godawful motif of cutting between scenes with a quick shot of something chaotic as the soundtrack bursts with noise (something I called in my notes a "screaming flash cut") would be gone, but would whoever prepared that cut really have the balls to remove all of the gooey gore that more than anything proves that Halloween had finally given up trying to be anything else than a run-of-the-mill slasher film, in a time when such films were at their very worst?

I mean TCOMM isn't just a bad screenplay - it's a bad movie in every single way that I can think of. It's a fitting capstone to the series John Carpenter began 17 years earlier, in a twisted, sick way: where Halloween had a smart, well-structured screenplay, great lead performances, glorious cinematography, detailed production design, and an inescapable sense that the filmmakers loved their work, The Curse of Michael Myers has the exact opposite of every one of those things. It's Halloween's dark twin.

But hey, at least it knows that Illinois in late October would be covered in orange and brown leaves. It's the first film in the series to get that right. So it must not totally absolutely suck, or something.

Body Count: 10 people die without any hint of ambiguity . There is a late scene in which Michael kills all the people in the hospital room with the baby, and I think I counted 3 deaths, but it could really be anything from one to four. Then, the very end has that dreadful implication that Loomis dies the lamest-ass death in the Halloween franchise, which I do not countenance, but we should allow it as a possibility. So basically, anywhere from 11 to 15 deaths.

If I didn't make it clear enough, this is by a giant fucking margin the bloodiest film in the series yet. Not a compliment.

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)

2 comments:

Jonathan said...

The producer's cut is not worth seeking out. I saw it a few years ago and have blocked most of it from my memory. However, I do remember the ending was different and worse if that's possible. Something along the lines of Paul Rudd throwing rocks at Michael and then saying something to Loomis like "The Runes stopped him." Then Loomis wanders off with the thorn tatoo transferred to him. I think it made even less sense. Terrible movie; great review.

Malte Ringer said...

Sounds like the filmmakers did some research, and then ignored it: Thorn (þ) is a real rune, but a Germanic one (the Celts didn't write in runes). I guess someone told them to fit it in with Samhain...