At Halloween, one such as myself cannot help but feel moved by the the evil specter of The Shape, AKA Michael Myers. Everyone has their favorite films in the legendary HALLOWEEN series and mine is, without a doubt, the infamous fourth entry, released in 1988, as an answer to all the angry, disenfranchised fanboys and girls who had no idea what the fuck to do with HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH. Part 3 is actually my second-favorite, to be brutally frank, because of it’s daring idea to do something new and different with the Halloween movie concept—plus it’s just a batshit CRAZY horror/science fiction movie—but who could forget the pitch-black “return to form” that was HALLOWEEN: THE FACE OF MICHAEL MYERS? An astonishing creative triumph from John Carpenter and Company, the film single-handedly re-invented the idea of the slasher formula, shadowed in real life death and controversy at a time when Stalker/Final Girl films were virtually lost to the public. The film ultimately managed to come forward with the most malevolent incarnation of “the boogeyman” ever put on celluloid. When I first paid real money to see this in a theater at the end of the 1980s, I wept openly, for there were no more worlds to conquer. It was one of the best horror films ever made, correcting many mistakes thus far in the series of sequels and offering a slick, violent, and even intellectual take on “what makes us afraid,” suggesting that the essence of evil lives in one and all. Better yet, the actual presence of Michael Myers himself became truly mythical and terrifying—an authentic Halloween monster, born from the fire of his final stand in HALLOWEEN II and re-born as something more than a single-minded psycho killer. In fact, he becomes something more than human, invading our most private spaces, both real and unreal.
The behind-the-scenes story of the film’s production and release is dark and legendary among genre fans. For the sake of history (and the millennials), I’ll recap some of it.
So it was 1983 and the producers of the series were licking their wounds from the critical and box office disappointment of HALLOWEEN III. Though the film had actually made a profit the previous year, the fans were unhappy, and it was unlikely that Carpenter’s annual “serial-movie HALLOWEEN” idea, in which a new story would be explored every year, would be embraced for a fourth film. Moustapha Akkad, the lock-stock-and-barrel commander of the series, dictated that the next film would feature the return of its most beloved character, the original indestructible serial slasher. In addition, Akkad would be financing and even distributing the film himself, bypassing the elaborate deals that had scattered the profits of the ongoing series to the four winds. Both Universal Pictures and mega-producer Dino DeLaurentiis had a big stake on HALLOWEENs II and III and they all had to be bought off, as the rights reverted back to Camp Akkad. These deals were afforded unprecedented scrutiny and public revelation when a senior Universal executive hanged himself in his own office, leaving a note behind explaining “Michael Myers hates us all.” A blizzard of lawsuits followed, touching off a blaze that nearly destroyed the series. It wasn’t until 1985 that it was (mostly) resolved. Universal would ultimately retain distribution rights to the fourth HALLOWEEN film, with future installments to be distributed by Akkad’s Trancas films. Dino De Laurentiis would remain in the credits, in name only.
Though Carpenter himself had sworn “never again” with this gang of filmmaking cutthroats, he was lured back by the siren song of cold hard cash, and the promise of trying something darker and more complex with the character of Michael Myers. Tommy Lee Wallace, an early series contributor, who had defected from the team during the production of HALLOWEEN II—and had only agreed to direct III because of its highly-original approach—returned to the director’s chair, on condition that it not be a “knife movie.” Akkad strenuously objected to this condition. But when both Carpenter and Wallace threatened to defect along with series producer Debra Hill—a compromise was agreed upon. Thus was invented the infamous “one knife per sequel” rule, which mandated that any future film featuring the Michael Myers character must contain at least one kill sequence featuring a bladed instrument of some kind.
Akkad also insisted on the return of both Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasance to the series. Which also became a bone of contention. Curtis, now a major American movie idol, was uninterested in coming back—even when Carpenter proposed that her character could be “knifed out early” in a proposed opening scene that would mirror the start of HALLOWEEN I. (This also would have fulfilled his contractual obligation to Akkad within the first five minutes of the film.) As it turned out, Curtis made it easy for Akkad to order her character stricken from the series. She simply asked them for the impossible. A whopping 5 million dollar paycheck. Fuck that, said the team. Three months after cutting her loose, Curtis was, of course, found stabbed to death in her Hollywood home. The murder, of course, shook Hollywood to its core and remains unsolved to this day. But enough has been written about that.
Stricken by Curtis’s death to abandon the project, Carpenter was sued back into action by Akkad in 1986 and reluctantly pressed forward, battling with the powers-the-be every step of the way while simultaneously filming PRINCE OF DARKNESS for Universal. The first battle he won was on the matter of Donald Pleasance’s character returning. Carpenter reasoned that there was simply no way the man could have survived HALLOWEEN II. He’d been standing one inch away from an oxygen tank right when it blew up, in a fiery blast that would have not only erased Sam Loomis from the earth, but was also powerful enough to bring down Michael himself in the final moments of HALLOWEEN II. (“We killed everybody so we wouldn’t have to keep doing this shit,” Carpenter famously told Starlog Magazine.) In fact, Tommy Lee Wallace insisted that Michael had not survived at all—technically. The screenplay commissioned by horror scribe Dennis Etchison, who had previously authored the novelizations of HALLOWEEN II and HALLOWEEN III, took major risks in suggesting that the charred and burned body of Myers had been “pronounced dead at the scene” and was secreted away to a shady government-run research facility, where twelve men and women were sequestered in order to study a “phantom heartbeat” that emanated from the corpse, effectively making Michael one of the living dead.
Opening six years after the finale of HALLOWEEN II, the sly script that was finally filmed in the summer of 1987 quickly establishes the pecking order of the Ridgemont research facility, with the evil doctor Joanna “Jo” Darr taking orders from company-man Robert Fay, both of whom are obsessed with the “living dead” Myers and determined to find the secret of the phantom heartbeat, but for radically different reasons. Darr wants to explore the nature of evil. Fay is in it for the money. The rest are, of course, cannon fodder when the inevitable occurs—and Michael rises from the slab as a bizarre ghoulish, half–ghost who stalks the hallways of the research facility, and even invades the dreams of the team members, causing them to expire in spectacular style, each death more bizarre and horrifying than the last. While one unfortunate team member is skinned alive by invisible talons, another is transformed into a scarecrow and burned in a cornfield, all the while watched over by the “eyes of Myers.”
Indeed, the gross-out quotient of the film reaches truly epic and depraved proportions, along the lines of Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento. Somewhere along the line of the film’s development, Carpenter and director Wallace realized that Akkad’s “one knife kill” rule was a blessing rather than a curse, allowing them to free their mind and develop kill scenes unlike anything in the history of slasher cinema. In essence, the people who had literally invented the post-modern slasher film formula had returned to re-invent it with gusto, creating a film that was in equal parts, a zombie movie, a Frankenstein movie, a weirdie monster movie and a grand Guginol horror fest that caught audiences almost completely off-guard when finally released in October of 1988. The film had been lucky to even pass muster with the ratings board after being trimmed 12 times in order to receive an “R.” Even in its truncated release form, HALLOWEEN: THE FACE OF MICHAEL MYERS is a film that must be seen to be believed. A film of true Halloween horror that goes one step beyond the obvious and delivers the goods, plumbing the depths of what really scares us and twisting the proverbial knife until it hurts like hell.
Who could forget the film’s first startling kill moment, a true horror movie fakeout in which the body of Myers secretly possesses the sexy lab technician Monica Hiles—played by the legendary Kathleen Kinmont, future Bride of Reanimator—and transforms her into a shadow creature of teeth and tentacles, which invades the body of her lover through every orifice. It’s one of horror’s classic scenes, combining the weird monster antics of Carpenters’ own THE THING and the supernatural overtones of HALLOWEEN III with a darker slant, as the scene builds to a stylish climax, finally revealing the face of Myers himself in the center of the horrific hallucination. His victim lies dead of fright, and when the body is discovered by the other members of the team, a mad paranoid game of cat and mouse begins . . . until finally the lurking, shambling living dead corpse of Michael Myers escapes the research facility, into the nearby town of Haddonfield . . . where the massacre really begins. Myers moves from door to door, invading homes as a shadowy figure of undefined evil, praying on each new victim’s deepest fears and making them die in madness. With doctor Darr emerging as the film’s hero by default (“we wanted a story were everyone was the bad guy,” claimed Wallace in a Cinefantastique interview) and Robert Fay finally emerging possessed by the living dead sprit of Myers in a final showdown, the limits were truly tested, with plot twists piling on top of plot twists, and a body count higher and more horrifically executed than any other horror film of the 80s—maybe even of all time. The final face of Michael Myers is seen in the last moment of the film—the familiar “half Kirk” mask of The Shape burned into a semi-human death-head skull—when the specter of the killer returns one final time—ALA John Carpenter’s THE FOG—to wreak his last-minute vengeance on the surviving Darr. It was Carpenter’s final flip-off to the money-headed producers of the HALLOWEEN ‘franchise.’ The “one knife kill” literally happens in the final second of the film.
Taken as a whole, HALLOWEEN: THE FACE OF MICHAEL MYERS is a brainy, ultra-violent and ultimately exhausting journey through hell. Etchison claims his original draft screenplay was more “literate” and that he was re-written by both Carpenter and Wallace, but one cannot deny the power the film possesses, in its berserk abandon to distinguish itself in the horror canon. With the slickest production values yet seen in the series—Dean Cundey returned one final time as cameraman and Rob Bottin provided the shocking effects sequences depicting the monstrous murders—it was the final gasp of Carpenter and company in Halloweenland. Appalled at the film’s “meandering fetishistic gore” and unhappy with the initial box office receipts and a slew of confused and punishing reviews, Universal Pictures were also haunted by a series of bizarre ritual suicides that took place in the theaters they booked the film into. In twenty-seven different locations during the film’s run, dead people were found in the front row, with notes attached to their bodies reading “Michael has abandoned us.” Public outage and the inevitable lawsuits against Universal and Akkad overshadowed the film’s release, causing it to crash and burn, with certain theaters refusing even to complete their contracted run of the picture. It would be almost two decades before Akkad was able to buy the film back from Universal and exhibit it publicly again. In the interim, prints of HALLOWEEN 4 became rare “holy grail” items, with pirate screenings held for years and several illegal VHS bootlegs circulating. During those years, Akkad flexed his contractual muscle to make more sequels and attempted to deflect attention away from the “Curse of Part 4” by continuing the series in a more traditional slasher formula starting with a “rebooted” 5, and even bringing back Donald Pleasance from the dead in 6, ironically just before the actor’s own real-life death. The series peaked, of course, with rocker Ozzy Osborne directing the 7th and 8th films from screenplays by Stephen King. Part 8 sealed the fate of Michael Myers, hemorrhaging cash and blasted off the earth by critics as “among the worst movies ever made by human hands.” (Roger Ebert.) Carpenter sat it all out, of course. Who wouldn’t have?
Recently freed from legal bondage and restored from the original “director’s cut” negative, it is rumored that HALLOWEEN 4 will be released soon it its original, uncensored Director’s Cut form by a “major Blu-ray label.” This has been much to the delight of the many rabid underground fans of the film, who believe it to be the most progressive and original sequel of all time—ranking with the likes of THE ROAD WARRIOR for sheer audacity and departure from the tone and feel of its predecessors. You may, of course, count me among those fans. Perhaps this is for the dark alchemy it created, both on and off camera . . . but all the same, it has gone down in history as a weird and brutal love letter to that which scares us most, and a malevolent end to an age long gone in horror cinema. And guess what? You’ve probably never even seen it.
Dedicated to the men and lady of Movie Chat. Four more years!