With today’s release of David Gordon Green’s Halloween, I felt it was worth giving a rundown of one of the most influential horror franchises of all time. Until recently, the only Halloween installment I’d bothered to see was the first. It is, after all, one of the most celebrated horror films ever made, created by two of cinema’s most respected genre storytellers, John Carpenter and Debra Hill.
I’d never felt much desire to watch the rest of the franchise. The 1978 Halloween ends with a pretty irresistible twist, after all. Soon after Dr. Samuel Loomis (Donald Pleasance) rescues Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) from the hands of slasher icon Michael Myers, shooting six bullets into the killer’ chest and propelling him out a second-story window, it’s revealed Michael had gotten away when all heads were turned. I appreciated the open-ended nature of this conclusion. I love the idea of Michael as some eternal, inexplicable, unstoppable force whose presence lingered well after he’d left. I enjoyed living with that lingering dread, which seemed far scarier than the thrills any sequel could muster.
Upon rewatching all seven sequels, its 2007 remake, and the 2009 sequel to the remake, I dare say that instinct was correct. At the risk of spoiling the number one spot on the ranked list below, it’s clear not a single Halloween sequel comes close to matching its original’s craft or cunning.
David Gordon Green seems to agree. Though I have not yet seen his movie (I’ll post my review on Film Misery once I do), my understanding is he eschews from his personal canon every single installment made since the 1978 original, suggesting a four-decade gap between Michael’s last appearance and his first. His reset at least gives that original ending ample time to breathe. If nothing else, watching this wildly uneven series proffers a reference point for Green’s own sequel. How many pratfalls will he indulge in the 2018 Halloween? How many sequel-ish indulgences will he allow himself?
We will all see tonight. But for now, let’s take inventory of the full series to date, starting with the lowest of lows and ending with the highest of highs.
And of course, consider this your spoiler warning for the entire series.
The Halloween Movies Ranked
10) Halloween: Resurrection (2002)
There’s some ambiguity as to whether Jamie Lee Curtis participated in the sequel that would finally kill off Laurie Strode purely out of a contractual obligation, or whether she was so impressed with the script she’d asked to see her limited cameo expanded to cover the full prologue. Even if we’ll never know the truth, the evidence that is Halloween: Resurrection sure as hell seems to favor one scenario over the other.
Resurrection is horror franchise dreck at its purest. Bringing Halloween II director Rick Rosenthal back to the fold, its only mercy is relegating Laurie strictly to the opening ten minutes. The rest is a formulaic slog, bringing Michael to the 21st century to terrorize a new generation of hotties intent on finding fame on an online reality show set in the old, decrepit Myers house Michael loves returning to. That’s about all the thoughtfulness this movie cares to provide; Rosenthal mirthlessly flips through script pages, from one murder to the next, with little else worth mentioning. I guess the movie gifts Busta Rhymes the chance at a bad-ass catch-phrase: “Trick or Treat, motherfucker!” But even that one-liner grows tiresome halfway through Rhymes’ delivery of it.
There’s an early scene where a cameraman live-streams his walk-through of the Myers house, only for Michael to impale him by his own tripod. It’s not the kill itself that makes it great, though. As Michael commits his murder, Tyra Banks’ character—the only person monitoring his stream—steps away to make the sickest-looking frappuccino I’ve ever seen in a horror movie. Being distracted from a murder due to a desire for a caffeinated blended drink is easily the most psychologically recognizable thing in this entire franchise.
9) Halloween (2007)
As much as I dislike Rob Zombie’s reset of the Myers franchise, he deserves credit where few other Halloween director can claim it: his movies are the expression of a genuine, honest-to-goodness artist’s vision. Zombie’s grim, gruesome spin on Haddonfield is primarily interested in exploring the childhood origins of Michael Myers, proposing the more psychological explanation for his slashy inclinations that had long been purposefully avoided. Though this take is clearly a product of its times (how many franchise flicks of the aughts proffered origins to villains we never asked for?), and though Myers’ mystique historically depends on his stoplessness and inscrutability, I won’t begrudge Zombie for at least asking a new question in his own fashion.
I’ll begrudge him for nearly everything else. Operating on the faulty notion that “dark and gritty reboot” rhymes with artfulness and depth, Zombie’s idea of plumbing Michael’s psyche involves reactionary, sub-Freudian observances (Mommy was a stripper! Daddy was a pervert! Sis was promiscuous!) and facile invocations of serial killer tropes (dead animals? bullied at school? …okay). Zombie doesn’t so much stack the blocks for his character as stockpile them; failing in the first half to imbue his Michael with the desired accessibility. This results in a second half in no way bolstered by what the preceding hour gave us; a weirdly straightforward reimagining of the 1978 original’s fateful Halloween night in Haddonfield. Much as is seems Zombie wants our knowledge of Michael’s origins to imbue his eventual mayhem with an air of pathos, little of it is felt. His germ of a good idea gets moored by a wave of unimaginitive, gory schlock.
None of the kills really work for me, as I tend to find fetishistically brutal blood gushing pretty dull. I guess I found myself rooting for Michael when he tapes down his dad to slit his wrist, since characters who openly crave their daughters and call their sons f****ts tend not to garner my sympathy.
6) Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1991)
Here’s what I imagine is my hot take on the Halloween franchise: I kind of hate Dr. Loomis. I understand and even appreciate his function in the Carpenter original—a doctor whose deep and fervent disillusionment with Michael Myers as a psychological subject hints at the monster’s dangerous capacities well before the rest of Haddonfield catches up with him. And to Donald Pleasance credit, he initially toes that line separating fervency from madness rather well. His dependability as an authority on Michael is always meant to be shaky. By the time we get to Revenge, with Pleasance involved mostly as human continuity for movies that swap out Strode family protagonists like Rockefellers, Loomis has bounded across the line of madness and has planted his ass comfortably into cartoonish hysterics. It might have been interesting had the series interrogated the ways Loomis’ obsession with Michael has broken him. And frankly, it would have given this purely forgettable entry of the Halloween a means of explaining the good doctor’s horrifying mistreatment of young Jamie (on multiple occasions he shakes her and impatiently screams at her for information on Michael’s whereabouts).
Instead the movie is content to characterize Loomis as a braying madmen who just sort of hangs around, dutifully screaming “Evil!” like Ernest Borgnine’s senile superhero in Spongebob Squarepants. Revenge backs away from other compelling plot points as well, including Halloween 4’s nifty reveal of the murderous link bonding Michael and Jamie. Instead the movie retcons its predecessor’s twist as a magical bond linking their minds, incorporating an ill-defined and unnecessary occult element. Part 5 of this already-tired franchise commits one of the more obvious sins of ongoing series: instead of reflecting on pre-existing story elements worth digging into, it branches out to more convoluted, less interesting territory. Though the “Jamie years” aren’t without their charms, it’s little wonder why future installments would find it necessary to write them out of canon. And for a character like Dr. Loomis, it’s probably for the better.
Gory teen deaths is the bread and butter for the Halloween series, so it’s no surprise Michael goes around cutting up plenty of young, pretty, mostly nude folks. My favorite death involves another character weirdly also named Michael (well, “Mikey”), an imitation-Fonz greaser who feels like he belongs in a movie from thirty years earlier. He’s a jerk to his girlfriend, so i was happy to see him go. Better still, before killing him with a pitchfork, Michael precedes injury with insult, scratching up Mikey’s new car just to antagonize him.
7) Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995)
I’m sure Paul Rudd would greatly prefer his debut be remembered as his other 1995 breakthrough performance, Amy Heckerling’s masterpiece Clueless. But sadly this one gets the “and introducing Paul Rudd” bragging rights. Playing Tommy, whom everybody (by which I mean probably nobody) remembers as the boy Laurie babysat in the 1978 Halloween, Rudd’s grown-up character has since fostered an obsession with Michael Myers, and finds himself in a pivotal role to save the infant grandson of Laurie Strode now that Michael has finally killed his mother, Jamie Lloyd. Somehow a new batch from the Strode family finds themselves living in the old Myers house, with everybody eventually finding themselves brought together once “The Shape” comes back to town. Dr. Loomis “comes out of retirement” to help out. Because of course he does.
Curse is a movie besotted with convenience and overly complicated family dynamics (After watching all these movies, I will never again complain about the Skywalker clan). Absolutely everybody is linked to Laurie Strode and Jamie Lloyd, no matter how badly the movie must contort itself to get there. Most of the kills feel perfunctory or are so unrealistic—one person gets electrocuted so badly his head explodes—it’s almost tedious. This was the final performance of Donald Pleasance as Dr. Loomis. And though there’s not much love lost between me and the good doctor, I do regret how little the movie’s abrupt ending speaks in any way about a character who just can’t seem to quit Michael Myers. Pleasance deserved better for what he gave this series.
Slasher flicks by nature tend to be reactionary and moralistic, and in turn invite moralism from the viewer as they watch fornicators and sinners get butchered. The best kill in Curse is an inversion of that moralism, as the uncomplicatedly sympathetic Debra Strode finds herself chased to the backyard, white laundry sheets drying, meeting Michael on the other side. It’s one of the rare moments in the logic of these movies where a character doesn’t “deserve” to die. And even if it wasn’t intended, there’s a sadness to seeing the end of a minor character whose only sin was meaning too well.
6) Halloween II (2009)
Like its immediate predecessor, this sequel to the Rob Zombie remake is not without its ambitions. Had Zombie trusted his own sense of theme not to feel the need to explain his “White Horse” metaphor up front, his more fantastical elements might have worked a little better as personifications of Michael Myers’ abstract need to indulge his darkest, most violent urges, as he might indulge a sneeze. Instead, those hallucinations mostly serve as opportunity to bring back Sheri Moon Zombie, who gave the 2007 Halloween its best performance by far as Michael’s mother, as an anti-conscience of sorts for Michael. I appreciate how Zombie seems to have tempered his technique as well. His vision’s still not to my taste, but there’s more thematic control this time.
But also like its predecessor, I continue to find myself repelled by that vision, even when Zombie’s departures from Halloween canon feel comparatively more refreshing. His singular yet unrelentingly grimy visual template grows too oppressive, too quickly. And his characters are drawn far too thin to make any of his thematic work churn. Malcolm McDowell’s take on Dr. Loomis—a fame-obsessed charlatan—may be more recognizable than what Pleasance gave us in the sequels. But this Loomis is too caustic, too unpleasant, too far removed from the main action to be entirely worth rooting for. And though Zombie’s direction and incompetence with writing women probably get in her way, Scout Taylor-Compton’s Laurie Strode is a serious step down from Jamie Lee Curtis; a fairly rote clone of the “Scream Queen” archetype that the original actress popularized. This is a movie that shows ambition helps, but it can’t get you too far if you only have stock characters to hang your ambitions on.
Zombie’s annoying conflation with gritty brutality and intensity means Michael gets some of his least interesting kills in these two movies. I guess I’m happy Loomis gets cut to pieces in the end of this installment, even if his stab at redemption feels pretty darn hollow. At least a character I hate gets some comeuppance.
5) Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)
Jamie Lloyd, the orphaned daughter of Laurie Strode, is an anomaly in cinema’s disreputable history of adding little tykes to a long-running franchise: by and large, she works. While it’s true Michael Myers is never as compelling with somebody other than Laurie as his target, Jamie introduces a new terror as she comes to learn her exact family origins. It helps that Danielle Harris is such an exceptional actor in this movie. Her face expressively fearful, her line delivery sincere yet seldom stilted, eked from her performance is a pretty real sense of the terror she’s inherited. She learns of Michael Myers as if he’s some awful genetic disease. Harris bolsters an otherwise rote horror sequel, enough so that it’s unexpectedly easy to just accept how brazenly it reverses Halloween II’s rather decisive-looking deaths of Michael and Dr. Loomis.
Director Dwight Little, who’s since found fairly consistent work on Fox television series, makes solid use of his sets as well. Not since the first Halloween has one of these movies been able to make a darkened house feel so haunted. And a tense, climactic chase through the Haddonfield school is filmed with surprising tautness. I may be overselling just how good Return is. But compared to what follows, it’s refreshing how inoffensively solid a slasher it is.
Easily the movie’s final kill, which also happens to be one of the best kills in the entire franchise. Shot from a first-person point of view, in a deliberate mirror of the original Halloween’s first shot, a clown-masked killer is seen stabbing Laurie’s adoptive mother Darlene. It’s quickly revealed the killer is Jamie, following in her uncle’s murderous footsteps. Dr. Loomis is heard sobbing uncontrollably as he beholds the bloodied youngster, conveying genuine tragedy in seeing history repeat itself. The moment is so good that it’s much harder to forgive how brazenly the scene gets reinterpreted in Halloween 5.
4) Halloween II (1981)
Like so many lesser sequels to smash-hits, Halloween II feels less the extension of its predecessor’s story than another product of its mega-success. Picking up immediately after the original’s startlingly open-ended climax, Michael Myers survives those six gunshot wounds and follows Laurie to the Haddonfield hospital where she is receiving treatment for her injuries. With a considerably larger number of future cadavers to mow through, Michael recommences the bloodshed with a Friday the 13th-style goriness. Occasionally the graphic nature of the kills works (c.f. this entry’s Best Kill), but it otherwise grows a bit monotonous, saving the more compelling stuff for the latter half as Michael chases Laurie around the hospital.
It’s worth noting (not unlike, say, another certain 80’s sequel to a 70’s blockbuster) Halloween 2 marks the point where the franchise’s family dynamics start getting a bit screwy. It’s also worth noting (unlike that same 80’s sequel to a 70’s blockbuster) just how unsatisfyingly the link between Michael and Laurie gets revealed. I actually had to revisit the scene online to refresh myself on how exactly that twist gets doled out. Perhaps its a product of Debra Hill and John Carpenter’s reportedly swift script turnaround that the reveal feels so expositional, so devoid of writerly craft. There’s little in Halloween II that’s less than utterly serviceable. But it does set an early, inauspicious standard for the cacophony of sequels to follow.
The kills in this installment are bloodier, angrier, crueler; none more so than when Michael kills a recently-fornicated couple by strangling him with a cord, and drowning her in a pool of scalding hot water. I actually feel a little dirty choosing this kill, but it is easily the most representative and memorable (if regrettable) moment of this movie’s take on murder. Its nasty grodiness overshadows most of the other deaths.
3) Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998)
Aesthetically, H20 feels like an unmistakable product of its time. By no mistake does it pilfer the sleek production values and the ironically detached nineties meta-horror popularized in Wes Craven’s Scream series mere years before. (It’s even based on an original treatment from Scream writer Kevin Williamson.) Mercifully, though, it’s also one of the few Halloween sequels to take the original’s lesson that pared-down, back-to-basics horror does a better Michael Myers movie make. Running at a shorn 86 minutes, H20 boasts a slick, clean efficiency, eager to jump in for some kills and jump right out again. I can’t say I love every choice. A sub-plot involving LL Cool J as an aspiring erotic fiction writer is goofy, but it’s honestly more charming than bad. And Director Steve Miner is annoyingly flip with Laurie’s decades-held trauma and dread. She is depicted, in the script’s own words, as a “functional alcoholic.” Yet her moments of alcoholism—like guzzling one wine glass after another—have a one-note comic air about them, tonally at-one with the kind of alcoholic jokes you might see on Cheers or Will and Grace. I hope the new Halloween handles that element more elegantly.
But even if the script asks little of her, the return of Jamie Lee Curtis couldn’t possibly be more welcome. Her climactic showdown with Michael feels gloriously well-earned. And if some of the supporting performances are uneven (Josh Hartnett as Laurie’s teenage son), other performances (a baby Michelle Williams) hint with a simple actorly glance at the unmistakable promise in store for future movies.
Without a doubt, it’s the decapitation of Michael Myers. Laurie’s arc for H20 introduces her as a passive agent, avoiding the inevitable return of her brother for as long as possible. But like a spur to the sides, she makes an active choice to reclaim her future for her self. It’s also the one time a character in this series seems to have taken my advice and killed Michael in a manner other than a knife or gun. If the series ended there, I’d have been satisfied. (Alas, see #10 on my list.)
2) Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)
What initially feels like Season of the Witch’s gravest misstep turns out to be its saving grace. Following its villain’s decisive (if temporary) death by immolation in Halloween II, producers Debra Hill and John Carpenter looked beyond Michael Myers and Laurie Strode to make its thriving horror franchise endure. The gamble proved financially calamitous, with Witch performing so poorly the series effectively Black Knight-ed Michael and Dr. Loomis for the next installment, bringing things back to a hackneyed if stable status quo. The disappointment of Witch is twofold. First, because it’s it’s tempting to imagine how much brighter this series might have looked had it kept to that anthological, proto-Black Mirror formula, rebooting to a new universe and a new subgenre of horror with each new, standalone flick. It’s the rare self-correction of Halloween that makes the franchise’s future brighter.
Second, because the movie itself is rather decent. It’s only about as perfect as the other sequels—which is to say not remotely. But the overarching narrative of a corporate-fronted cabal of sorcerers selling cursed Halloween masks to children has some true thematic meat on its bones. The deaths are grotesque and yucky in all the right ways, invoking supernatural elements that induce genuine squirms. My main issue with the movie is Tom Atkins’ Tom Challis. Though he stars in the strongest of the movie’s sequels, he is also the series’ blandest protagonist. Unlike the consumer-savvy witches depicted in the movie, Carpenter and company fail to sell Challis’ sympathetic nature or sexual appeal nearly as effectively as needed. It’s hard to fault the movie too harshly, though, when much else seems to work.
While I do love the visually suggestive “taking head” kill earlier in the movie, I’m partial to the moment when a character stumbles across one of Silver Shamrock’s deadly chips and, completely without warning, gets a hole blasted through her face with a laser. It’s a kill I sincerely did not see coming.
1) Halloween (1978)
It’s easy just to say the Halloween series peaked immediately, as so many hit horror franchises are wont to do. But that doesn’t remotely speak to just how perfectly John Carpenter’s horror masterpiece hums as a piece of filmmaking. Under a minimal budget, and with practically no expectation to be something other than garden-variety grindhouse schlock, the success of Halloween‘s thrills are rooted in the primal. No vermiculite family dynasties, no tedious stabs at psychoanalysis, and not even that much blood. To paraphrase Godard, all that’s needed is a girl and a knife. That’s what makes Halloween succeed where its imitators (sequels included) decisively fail.
But what makes Halloween possibly the greatest slasher film of all time, beyond primalism, is its patience. It never registered until recently that Laurie doesn’t even set eyes on Michael until the last twenty minutes. The first of Laurie’s friends to die by Michael’s hand does not happen until the latter half. Director John Carpenter, along with his co-writer and future lifetime collaborator Debra Hill, convey a patience and deliberation to match their villain’s. Before carnage may commence, we must understand Michael’s leery gaze. Though the sequels would needlessly contort his obsession with Laurie Strode into something more elaborate, the first-person camera establishes the killer’s desire-ridden violence. We must understand Michael’s patience as he stalks Laurie and her friends during the day, waiting patiently for night. We must understand Michael’s queasy, incorrigible conflation with sexual maturity and violence. We must understand, more than just being some heavy-breathing monolith in a goofy Bill Shatner mask, that Michael Myers is the embodiment of the primal forces Carpenter and Hill portray in their movie. Before we learn that Michael cannot die, we must first know it in our bones.
Most importantly, Halloween means for us to understand that most primal of desires: the fear of death, grafted to the desire for life. To make that life matter, Carpenter and Hill do the hard work to ensure that we, as viewers, feel wholly invested in the survival of Michael’s victims. Enter this franchise’s greatest asset: Jamie Lee Curtis. While Halloween’s performances aren’t universally excellent (or, withregard to the movie’s teenage actors, universally good), Curtis in her first scenes makes the case for her character’s intelligence, her likeability and, most crucially, our desire to see her make it past the end credits. Like Fay Wray and Janet Leigh before her, Curtis’ breakthrough rightfully cements her as one of cinema’s great horror icons. Her greatness runs concurrently with the movie around her, one of cinema’s great horror texts.
Each kill if the six kills in Halloween (five if you just count onscreen deaths) is great. Each one brings a specific visceral shock, and demonstrates prudent, suspenseful staging. So I might as well highlight the first kill, the one that started it all; the brilliant first-person (sorta) single-take that opens Halloween, resulting in Michael’s fateful murder of his sister Judith. It warns the viewer not to keep its guard down when Michael is around, and to panic each time the next victim does.