Wednesday, September 26, 2018

40 Years of Halloween - Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers

Halloween 6 had to answer questions that shouldn't have been asked.

The Halloween franchise reached its lowest point yet with its sixth entry, a film that was shot and edited, screened for a test audience to an unenthusiastic response, then substantially re-shot and re-edited... and yet neither version of the film, the theatrical cut or the original "producer's cut", is a good Halloween sequel.

To be fair, though, the filmmakers were playing a losing game from the beginning with this one. Halloween 5 had backed them into a corner; any follow-up to that movie would have had to deal with issues a Halloween movie shouldn't be dealing with. Any Halloween 6 would have to explain the tattoo that was seen on the wrists of both iconic slasher Michael Myers and the mysterious "Man in Black" who was roaming around the small town of Haddonfield, Illinois in Halloween 5. A part 6 would have to tell us who that Man in Black was, and why he massacred the Haddonfield police force to bust Myers out of jail at the end of 5. When you're dealing with those things, you're automatically not making a good Halloween, because you have drifted too far away from the simplicity of the original film.

In the six years between Halloween 5 and the film that would come to be known as Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, there were multiple scripts written for a part 6, one them by a fellow named Phil Rosenberg - and at one point his name was mistakenly reported in the pages of Fangoria as Scott Rosenberg, a flub that had me pondering what a Halloween scripted by the screenwriter of movies like Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead, High Fidelity, and Beautiful Girls would have been like... But no, it wasn't him.

Some very interesting directors were up for the Halloween 6 gig as it made its way through development. Scott Spiegel of the 1989 gore-slasher classic Intruder was among those in the running, and his friend Quentin Tarantino considered joining him on the project, with an idea that would have started with Myers and the Man in Black sitting in a diner. That would have been a strange sight. Also in the running were Hider in the House's Matthew Patrick and When a Stranger Calls' Fred Walton... All of them awesome choices for a Halloween movie, to one degree or another. I would have loved to have seen a new Michael Myers movie from any of them.

Instead, both the writing and directing duties went to a couple beginners. Joe Chappelle, whose only previous credit was the little-seen 1993 crime film Thieves Quartet, was hired to direct the film, working from a script by fledgling screenwriter Daniel Farrands. Farrands was a super-fan whose adoration of the earlier films is apparent in both versions of Curse, even if neither fully reflects his script, and even when the ideas were all wrong for Halloween and Michael Myers.

So how did Farrands find answers to the ridiculous questions Halloween 5 unnecessarily raised? He drew inspiration from scenes in the first Halloween and Halloween II. One was a scene in which Myers' psychiatrist and nemesis Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) has a heated conversation with Smith's Grove Sanitarium higher-up Dr. Wynn (played in 1978 by Robert Phalen) over the lax response to Myers' escape from the sanitarium. The other, the scene in Halloween II where Loomis discovers that Myers has inexplicably written the word "Samhain" at a crime scene. Further inspiration came from the first film's novelization, which delved into Halloween's Druid roots. Like Halloween III, Halloween 6 would have a stronger tie to the history of the holiday than the simple slasher story of the first film did.

Farrands' story brings back Dr. Wynn (now played by Mitchell Ryan), who is revealed to have been the Man in Black, head of a Druid cult that has been built up around Myers and operates out of Smith's Grove. Why he felt the need to interfere with the events of Halloween 5 isn't quite clear... but I have to imagine that he must have found the whole situation to be embarrassing. He's a doctor and the head of a cult, but he had to catch a bus to get to Haddonfield? Maybe his personal vehicle was in the shop that Halloween, but you'd think a cult leader could at least find one follower willing to give him a ride.

Although Myers' young niece Jamie Lloyd was free and unharmed at the end of 5, when 6 begins we find that she has been in captivity for the last six years, held prisoner by the cult... And when we first see her (now played by JC Brandy instead of 4 and 5's Danielle Harris), she's giving birth to a child that was conceived during her time in captivity, a child the producer's cut strongly implies was fathered by Michael Myers. Yes, he's so embedded in this cult nonsense that he apparently had sex with and impregnated his underage niece instead of trying to kill her like you'd expect him to do.

Baby clutched in her arms, Jamie escapes from the cult with the help of an ill-fated cultist. With Myers in pursuit, she heads out into the countryside, but doesn't make it far before her uncle catches up with her and kills her. But at least she manages to hide her (their?) baby boy before her death.

That baby is soon found by future Ant-Man Paul Rudd, here taking over the role of Tommy Doyle, a grown-up version of the kid Laurie Strode/Jamie Lee Curtis babysat in the first movie. Tommy has been obsessed with Myers ever since his childhood encounter with the killer seventeen years ago, and was listening to (and recording) a radio special on Myers when Jamie called in, desperately pleading for the help of Dr. Loomis... who, of course, was also listening at the time. Background noise during Jamie's call leads Tommy to the baby, and he instantly knows he's going to need to protect this infant from its great-uncle (/dad?).

While Tommy is dealing with that issue and Loomis is going through the "oh no, Michael's back" motions around Haddonfield, we're also introduced to a family that now lives in the old Myers house - and thankfully this house looks much closer to the original house than the one in Halloween 5 did. This family are the Strodes; abusive drunk John (Bradford English), who is the brother of Laurie Strode's adoptive father; John's odd wife Debra (Kim Darby); their college-aged son Tim (Keith Bogart); their also-college-aged daughter Kara (Marianne Hagan), who is the heroine of this movie but the black sheep of the Strode family because she has been forced to return home after having a child out of wedlock; and Kara's young son Danny (Devin Gardner).

Lately Danny has been seeing visions of the Man in Black and hearing a deep, demonic voice telling him to kill people. A voice we're told Michael Myers also heard when he was a child. As it turns out, Wynn's grand plan is to pass the duties of cult leader over to Loomis, while the evil that inhabits Myers will be passed on to Danny when the baby son of Jamie is sacrificed. Or something like that. That's the plan in the producer's cut, anyway. The theatrical cut completely loses track of what the hell's going on and adds in vague references to genetic engineering, mixed with shots of fetuses in aquariums.

As if this weren't already too busy and convoluted, there's also a subplot about Tim's girlfriend Beth (Marian O'Brien) spearheading a movement to allow Halloween to be celebrated in Haddonfield again after a six year ban. Part of her endeavor involves inviting radio shock jock Barry Simms (Leo Geter), host of the show heard earlier in the film, to the festivities. These people are just around to fill up time and get murdered. In a better, more simple Halloween movie, the fact that the Halloween ban was being listed could have been the explanation for why Michael Myers has chosen to return to town this year. Other slashers have done that sort of thing, like My Bloody Valentine.

The producer's cut of The Curse of Michael Myers isn't great, but at least it feels like a proper, respectable movie. When the test audience rejected it, Chappelle and the franchise's new overseers at Dimension Pictures pulled a hack-job on it, giving the film a music video edge - and not a cool, '80s music video edge like A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 had, but a cheesy, "the '90s suck" music video edge, with flashy editing, weird sound effects, and a guitar version of the Halloween theme replacing sections of the score by returning composer Alan Howarth. The death scenes were also punched up in reshoots, with inserts of gore added in. The same thing happened with Halloween II, but this time the extra gore goes way over-the-top, especially in a moment when a person is electrocuted until their head literally explodes.

The biggest differences between the producer's cut and the theatrical cut come in the third act. As in Farrands' script, the climax takes place at Smith's Grove, where Tommy and Loomis have to work to save Kara, Danny, and baby Steven from the clutches of Wynn, Myers, and the cult. But while Farrands had Tommy disrupting a cult ceremony with weapons he found in an armory, leading into a sequence where Myers chases our heroes while fully engulfed in flames (reminiscent of the final moments in Halloween II), the producer's cut leans even further into the Druid cult aspect than Farrands intended. There, Myers is (laughably) brought to a stand-still when Tommy pulls off some sort of magic trick involving a circle of stones, some spilled blood, and the word "Samhain." The producer's cut truly, completely buys into the whole cult aspect and the idea that Myers suffers from the curse of Thorn, an ancient and evil rune.

The theatrical cut, on the other hand, does its best to ditch the whole cult thing, introducing those confusing elements of genetic engineering, implying that Wynn doesn't take the cult all that seriously himself, having Myers wipe out a good number of cult members, and then having Tommy beat the hell out of him with a lead pipe... And while Tommy is bashing Myers' face in with that pipe, green liquid starts to leak through his mask instead of blood. 'Cause why not? We're just throwing in any kind of random insanity we can think of at this point.

The end of the theatrical cut even has a different person playing Michael Myers. For the majority of the film, the slasher is played by George P. Wilbur, returning from Halloween 4. While filming 4, Wilbur wore hockey pads to bulk himself up for the role, but by the time 6 rolled around he had attained a natural bulk that doesn't look quite right on Myers. When the theatrical version reaches Smith's Grove, the leaner A. Michael Lerner puts on the (mediocre version of) the mask to rack up some kills and chase the characters around the hallways of the sanitarium.

Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers is not good, but after the mistakes made during the production of Halloween 5, we're kind of lucky it wasn't even worse. And it could have been much worse. That Phil Rosenberg script would have made for a worse movie, for example. 5 put 6 in an impossible situation.

Curse was poorly received at the time of its release, but even though I have a strong dislike for the movie at this point, I have to admit that I enjoyed it when it came out in 1995. This was the first Halloween I got to see on the big screen (I somehow missed the '89 release of Halloween 5, even though I saw Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan and A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child that year), and it really sparked my imagination. I wrote a ton of Halloween fan fiction after seeing this movie, including several drafts of a Halloween 7 that would continue on from the events of this film while also downplaying the cult aspect as much as possible.

Two of my favorite things about the film were the performances delivered by Rudd and Hagan. The movie around them falls apart, but they both did well with the material they were given. It's been fun to watch Rudd go on to so much success after making his screen debut with this movie (actually, Clueless beat Curse to theatres by a couple months, but Curse was shot first). Of course, it's always great to watch Pleasence as Loomis, as well. Sadly, this was the last time we got to see him play the character, as he passed away before the film was released.

I also have this movie to thank for teaching me the word "origin". When the first trailer was released, it had the title Halloween 666: The Origin of Michael Myers on it. That was a trailer I watched over and over, after consulting my mom and the dictionary for definitions of the word "origin", which I had never seen before. Now I would see that and think, "A Michael Myers origin story is the last thing we need." But I would only know that because that trailer introduced me to the word so I could figure out its meaning.

The makers of Halloween 7 would have been in a tough spot if they had to try to follow up the ideas of Halloween 6 in a sensible way. I did my best to shrug off the Druid cult and the curse of Thorn in my fan fiction, so it might have been possible for the filmmakers to do the same... Instead, they avoided the issue completely, because when Halloween 7 came along a few years later, it did something that seemed unthinkable at the time: it ignored some of its predecessors.

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