The title says it all. Ten years after John Carpenter redefined the horror film with his sensational slasher suspense film Halloween, series overseer Moustapha Akkad gained creative control of the franchise, and decided to return it back to its slice and dice roots. No more Stonehenge inspired child killing. No more robotic hitmen. And definitely no more of that ear-wormy commercial jingle that seemed to fill every moment of Halloween III: Season of the Witch with it's nursery rhyme redolence ("Three more days to Halloween, Halloween, Halloween…"). Instead, we'd return to Haddenfield, Illinois and Dr. Sam Loomis, and that fatal familial connection between unstoppable slayer Michael Myers and his kinfolk. Everything was in place for a back to basics blockbuster. Unfortunately, the result is one of the worst offerings in the entire Halloween oeuvre.
It's 1988, ten years since Michael Myers went on his infamous Haddenfield killing spree. During what appears to be an unnecessary transfer of the murderer to another mental hospital, he escapes and makes a beeline back to his Illinois home. When Dr. Loomis discovers the situation, he immediately heads in that direction as well. In the meantime, Michael's only living relative, a niece named Jamie, is living with a foster family. Mom and Dad dote on the child, but older "sister" Rachel would rather make time with her boyfriend Brady. Eventually, Michael makes it back to Haddenfield and starts slaughtering people left and right. His goal – destroy his last remaining family member. But Dr. Loomis and the local sheriff hope to save the girl before this rampaging maniac fulfills his foul destiny.
On an accompanying commentary track, and his Q&A during the Making-Of Production Featurette, listed screenwriter Alan B. McElroy (there are three others with story credit as well) proudly proclaims that, with only 11 days left before the WGA went on strike, he successfully pounded out the Halloween 4 script and barely beat the deadline. Perhaps it's the level of personal pride he shows in such an accomplishment that gives him a pass, but technically, one should not be glad that they took LESS time to create a movie. By inference, a quickie writing stint should result in an underdeveloped, scattered narrative that makes very little sense, uses shorthand to establish its situations, and relies on familiarity, not freshness, to entertain its audience. And wouldn't you know it, Halloween 4 fits neatly into all of these categories, and several more that are even more disconcerting. Instead of relaunching Michael Myers as a Jason/Freddy style icon, McElroy and equally ineffectual director Dwight H. Little (noted for such slop as Bloodstone and Steven Seagal's Marked for Death) turned the indestructible psycho in the Shatner mask into a shape shifting plot devices with the ability to freely teleport to wherever the action requires him to be. One moment Michael's killing yet another dog in a house across town, the next he is several miles away, tossing an electrical worker onto a pair of transformers.
While it's unfair to completely blame McElroy and Little for how horribly ineffective this film is, it's difficult to determine any other avenue of fault. Certainly, the casting is rote and routine. Aside from Donald Pleasance's presence, and a quick cameo return by a single character from the original Halloween – Lindsey, now 17 years old and still played by actress Leslie L. Rohland – the rest of the performers are perfunctory and interchangeable. Many champion little Danielle Harris as a right tyke scream queen, and she does have some capable lung capacity (not to mention a sensational level of shriek shrillness). But she's nothing more than a manipulatable pawn in an already problematic storyline. The same goes for Ellie Cornell. More or less taking over for Jamie Lee Curtis in the role of harried teen, Ms. Cornell has a strange blankness to her persona that barely allows a personality to register - not that she's given much to work with. The script has her hung up on a boy who, in her mind, is just moments away from a commitment, marriage, children and a time-share in Florida. Yet once that situation delivers its formulaic comeuppance (who does she see diddling around with the town slut while trick or treating?) Ms. Cornell is just a battering ram for Michael's many attempted murders. Add in Pleasance's pitch perfect scenery chewing and an interchangeable collection of ancillary imbeciles, and there's not a single individual to identify with, no one character to support or root for.
Still, the Friday the 13th franchise got along fine without such three dimensional devices. All they needed were some creative, over the top deaths with lots of gore and the demographic gladly followed those films anywhere. Well, leave it to Little (and the late '80s model of the MPAA) to strip every bit of sluice out of the random murders in this movie. Aside from a single surreal shot of a thumb penetrating a man's forehead (Michael's obviously been lifting while in the asylum – it takes a great deal of upper body strength to run a finger through someone's skull) and a gruesome bit of neck garroting, most of the murders occur offscreen, or at the very least, sans substantive bloodletting. Obviously trying to emulate the first film's limited grue/maximum dread ideal, McElroy and Little are just no match for John Carpenter's post-modern Hitchcock approach. The first film never forgot that somewhere inside Michael's hulking horror form was a confused little kid who used murder as a means of making sense of the world. Here, our blank bad guy is a sub par Shape. Where once we had a truly terrifying boogieman, seemingly incapable of dying, we now have some Biblical concept of "pure evil" that never once instills us with fear and/or loathing. Instead, we simply wait around, hoping someone will die to give the movie a sense of purpose.
To be fair, if you enjoyed the by the numbers nastiness of Halloween II, which took the original's Midwestern mythologizing and ran it through the Camp Crystal Lake cliché machine (single setting, several potential victims), you'll probably like this rather routine relaunch. But for movie macabre purists, there is nothing here to recommend. For a relatively short film (around 88 minutes) the kill sequences seem to go on forever, and director Little just loves the false scare/dopey dream sequence. Add in the random leaps in logic from McElroy's screenplay and the lack of any real linear coherence (time stands still, and fast forwards, as the situations require) and you've got a less than successful installment of what is perhaps the weakest of the '70s/'80s/'90s fright franchises. Frankly, the Halloween films should have followed Carpenter's original series designs. He had hoped to use the name as a label, like The Twilight Zone, to cover a wide range of concepts, from Season of the Witch's Gaelic goofiness to any number of October 31st based badness. Instead, seeing the success of the slasher film, the powers that be went the knife-wielding psychopath route. If done properly, such a scarefest can work, and work well. Here, it's just a device for more derivative, dull disappointment.
Released as part of Anchor Bay's Divimax series, Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers looks decent, if not definitive. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is clean and crisp, but director Little obviously believed in a dark, dense atmosphere which doesn't translate well to the home theater experience. Several scenes are way too shadowy, burying elements that are necessary to getting the full feel of a situation. For example, when Michael's white face appears in the background, the lack of light renders it flat, instead of a focal point. Still, for a low budget sequel made at the height of the direct to video revolution, the transfer here is professional and pleasing.
Anchor Bay ups the tech spec ante by giving the aural elements a Dolby Digital 5.1 polish. There are some interesting directional facets (especially during a last act truck chase) and a nice level of spatial ambiance. We really believe we are on the deserted streets of Haddenfield late at night during the movie's more quiet moments. While the 2.0 Stereo mix is perfectly acceptable, go with the multi-channel offering. It really adds to the limited mood of this movie.
Adding a kind of metaphysical insult to some obvious cinematic injury, one of the worst efforts in the Halloween franchise gets a nice selection of bonus features, beginning with a pair of audio commentaries. First up is a discussion with actors Ellie Cornell and Danielle Harris. Both are relatively happy with their work in the film, and provide nostalgic anecdotes about the long nights, and odd situations they were often placed in. This is followed by another alternate narrative with writer Alan B. McElroy. Explaining his geekdom for the series (he loves Halloween II), the scribe does a decent job of convincing us that he only had the noblest of intentions when he jumpstarted the Michael Myers myth. Yet even with the occasional prodding of Halloweenmovies.com's Anthony Massey, there is still a little too much dead air during this discussion.
In addition, there is the 17 minute Making-Of featurette from the previous Special Edition release. Entitled Halloween 4: Final Cut, it offers Akkad, Little and several others speaking about the behind the scenes aspects of the production. We are also treated to a surreal cast panel from the 25th Anniversary Halloween Convention. Made up of 4's Danielle Harris, Kathleen Kinmot and Sasha Jenson and 5's Jeffrey Landman, this fan-based Q&A is a dorky delight. Reminiscent of those sketch show spoofs where overly obsessive followers ask all kind of uber-detailed inquiries, it's fun to watch Harris interact with the audience. As for the rest of the panel members…well, let's just say they seem less than enthusiastic about this trip down monster movie memory lane. Add in some trailers, and you've got a wonderful selection of supplements.
Though it's ineffectual scares and lack of a cohesive narrative would easily warrant a Skip It, the new Divimax version of Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers will receive a Rent It recommendation. It's more of a nod to the overall series than a clear indication of this film's particular entertainment value. There will be some who latch onto young Danielle Harris, turning her into an unlikely horror icon (considering how little she does) and there will be others who like the blood free (not to mention suspense free, logic free, characterization free, etc.) conceits of the filmmaking. Yet the sad fact is that, outside of the occasionally clever premise (Halloween H20's return of Laurie Strode, Halloween 6's Thorn cult), there was no real reason to continue on with this film franchise. While it may be macabre heresy to say it, Michael Myers is just not that effective as a scare symbol. In fact, more people remember Carpenter's masterful musical theme and the acting of Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasance than they do the importance of The Shape as a continuing character. As Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers bears out, this was one killing machine that should have been dismantled and mothballed long ago.
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