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Happy "Halloween": The Horror Series from Worst to Best

Posted by Scott Kearnan  October 29, 2013 10:44 AM

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Nightmare on Elm Street had more dramatic highs and lows. Friday the 13th is occasionally interesting cinematic wallpaper. The Saw movies are, mostly, abysmal.

Among the longer running horror film franchises, Halloween has been the most consistent. The excellent original, which introduced us to pasty faced masked killer Michael Myers, has yet to spawn a perfect sequel. On the other hand, there isn't an outright loser in the lot. With the holiday nearly here, here's my ranking of the series' installments from worst to best. Sharpen your knives, critics, and tell me if I'm wrong.

#10. Halloween: Resurrection (2002)

It's not exactly the least entertaining installment of the franchise; Resurrection is stupid, tacky and moves at a clip, and none of these things are necessarily liabilities for horror flicks. And this eighth outing is not the least creative, either; the "plot," in which college-aged reality show contestants are outfitted with webcams and locked inside Michael Myers' spooky childhood home, could have been a good setup for social commentary about These Fame Whoring And Exploitative Times We Are A-Livin' In. (Something Scream 4 successfully tackled ten years later.) But Resurrection is almost certainly the least scary of the Halloween series, and that is its mortal sin. The cringe-worthy deployment of new technologies as plot devices (ooh, fancy texting saves the day!) made the movie feel dated on release. So over a decade hence, watching Bustah Rhymes ham it up as a "Dangertainment" TV producer (screaming "trick or treat, mother-[expletive]" while he spin-kicks Michael Myers like a ninja) is like being waterboarded with Abercrombie cologne while listening to "Sandstorm," so mired is it in early-Aughties awfulness.

#9. Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1983)

Season of the Witch is a failed experiment. Here producers toyed with the idea of abandoning serial baddie Michael Myers and turning Halloween into a horror anthology series linked solely by All Hallows Eve-related plots. Creatively, it wasn't a bad idea. Financially - well, that was another story. So they revived the iconic arch-villain for subsequent installments, leaving behind a cinematic curiosity that would probably be better regarded if it had been released without associations. Season of the Witch even makes a game go at an ambitious, anti-consumerist subtext: a modern warlock, disguised as a toy company CEO, is creating cursed Halloween masks that will kill kids when they tune in to watch an endlessly hyped TV special on October 31. The boob tube will literally rot their brains, a salient statement to make in the early-'80s, amid rising concerns over the amount of mass marketing that Ronald McDonald & Co. was aiming at kids. Evaluated on its own merit, Season of the Witch still isn't great. But it does become good, in a Videodrome: Junior Edition sort of way.

#8. Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (1998)

It's a solid anniversary bookend to the original. H20 is ranked so low only because the distance between "original potential" and "end product" is so vast. On paper, it's all in place: "It" scribe Kevin Williamson, fresh off the smart, sly and scary Scream series, helped produce; veteran horror director Steve Miner helmed; and Jamie Lee Curtis returned as original Halloween heroine Laurie Strode, who has been living in semi-seclusion and self-medicating with vodka since the traumatic events of her teenage years. (Scars from bad proms fade. Scars from bloodbaths that decimate your high school clique are forever.) But H20 is sort of a snoozer aside from Curtis' legitimately bravura performance, one that honors the series that launched her career and recognizes that contemporary horror, when done right, taps into mythic meditations on fear and fate. The biggest goosebumps come when Laurie makes a command decision to stop running and finally, in a fight to the death, face her doggedly pursuant demon. Yet for all its heart, H20 is anemic when it comes to visceral thrills. It's a good movie but, and I Was A '90s Teenage Horror Fan so this pains me to admit, it's also a somewhat disappointing one.

#7. Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)

Michael Myers is back and in strong, lumbering form for this ten-year sequel to the original. You have to give the filmmakers credit. They kept it classy, focusing more on mood and atmospherics than on the splashy blood and guts that defined that other iconic '80s horror franchise, Friday the 13th, which was always sort of the trashy, low-rent cousin to Halloween: a fun, rollicking roll in the midnight movie hay, but not something you really respect in the morning. In Return, Myers is back to his old suburban stomping grounds to hunt down little Jamie Lloyd, his grade school-aged niece and the daughter of Jamie Lee Curtis' character. (Mom died in a car crash, in a world in which H20 would not one day exist.) Most scary movie fans could easier stomach watching a disembowelment by chainsaw than 90 minutes of a hysterically screaming child actor, but as Jamie, future scream queen Danielle Harris (who returned in a different role for Rob Zombie's recent remakes) impressively performs circles around nearly everyone. There's a little bit of clock-watching in the long second act, but by the time a motley cast of characters is barricaded in a dark house, peering around shadowy corners and double-locking all doors, the claustrophobia is palpable. Return is a slow burn that, directed with a bit more style and flair, could have been incendiary.

#6. Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995)

Series purists tend to revile this entry. I get it. Curse mucks with Michael Myers by giving him a motive: according to some mumbo-jumbo exposition delivered by a pre-Clueless Paul Rudd, Myers is controlled by an ancient Druid cult that basically employs him as its mercenary henchman for the periodic bloodletting of sacrificial lambs. (Also, DUN-DUN-DUN.) Redefining Michael Myers as a trained attack dog with a mask and a butcher knife sort of neuters him, and though a much-celebrated "director's cut" is shared among fan circles like contraband, the flick as released is a victim of unnecessary script rewrites and botched reshoots. (Note the abandoned alternate title that made it as far as this trailer.) Still, if you relax and check your movie nerd neuroses at the door, it's hard to deny that Curse contains some genuinely scary scenes, is frequently visually striking (if a little heavy-handed on the strobe effects and lightning crashes), and at face value offers at least as much treat as trick.

#5. Halloween II (2009)

In theaters, I thought director Rob Zombie's second Halloween outing was unremittingly violent, grisly exploitation with a bleak, nihilistic worldview and no value. With its DVD director's cut, beefed up by a significant amount of footage where characters actually talk to one another, it is revealed as something slightly different: unremittingly violent, grisly exploitation with a bleak, nihilistic worldview but legitimate value. In his Halloween II, Zombie turns once-jovial, fresh-faced protagonist Laurie Strode into a splintered psychological wreck, a slowly maddening shell of herself. That basic setup, whereby the traumatized Lead Girl struggles to steady her quivering lower lip and put back the pieces, is the same trope used for every 90s slasher sequel I was raised on: good (Scream 2) and OK (I Still Know What You Did Last Summer). Maybe it was the sunnier Clinton-era economy or the blissful ignorance that prevailed in movies aimed at pre-9/11 adolescents, but those flicks generally struck a hopeful tone: ultimately, It Gets Better. Zombie's divisive post-millennium response is: no, it doesn't. Sometimes it gets worse. From its assault of hallucinogenic imagery to its brutal suspense scenes (including an extended opening chase through a hospital, among the most terrifying in any Halloween installment), Halloween II is mean and despondent. It's hard to watch, but that's its point: often, so is life. The movie is quite good. It's not bad, it's just sad.

#4. Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989)

Full disclosure: I have a soft spot for kitsch, and I firmly believe in evaluating movies by the standards they set for themselves. In other words, 'tis better to strive for schlock and hit a homerun than to aspire to cinematic greatness but prove merely competent. It is that perspective which endears me to this entry, which also happens to be the series' least successful. (What can I say? I like an underdog.) In Revenge, released just one year after the previous installment, Myers continues to stalk his niece Jamie, who is now miming about wordlessly in some pseudo-catatonic state and inexplicably granted with telepathy that tells her when and where her evil uncle will strike next. The word "inexplicably" could be used a lot here. Myers' house, the reappearing boogeyman abode of the series, has inexplicably transformed from a formerly average, Main Street, Anywhere-looking home to the kind of rambling manse Edward Gorey might turn into a bed and breakfast. Myers' mask inexplicably looks like some humanoid anteater. (I will never understand how James Cameron could build a to-scale replica of the Titanic and get the details down to the doily lace patterns, yet no one can seem to make the same Halloween mask twice. SAVE AN EXTRA.) Jamie's teenage ward Tina, a teased hair-rocking hot mess, is what happens when you hand a movie script to the bubbliest Orange Julius staffer from the Glendale Mall, circa 1989, and yell "ACTION!" The results are predictably magical: blood and cheese. I make no apologies for eating it up.

#3. Halloween (2007)

Aside from Scream, which benefits from my sentimental attachment to a contemporary horror classic that was Talkin' 'Bout My Generation (insert: head bang), Halloween is my favorite horror movie. So when I found out Rob Zombie was remaking it I was (appropriately, I guess) horrified, since my only prior exposure to the White Zombie rocker-slash-filmmaker's movie work was House of 1000 Corpses, a psychobilly-grindhouse wannabe that might have offended me if it hadn't bored me. But his love-it-or-hate-it Halloween surprised me, and eventually delighted me. Thematically, it's a counterpoint to director John Carpenter's 1978 original, which portrayed Michael Myers (referenced only obliquely as The Shape in its script) as a murderous force without motive. Carpenter's Jimmy Carter Years classic suggested a world in which evil is elemental, making Myers a grim reaper-like figure of mortality that marches toward us without apology or explanation: scary because, as our primitive unconscious knows but tries to forget, the slowly encroaching specter of actual death is simply part of the Natural Order. But Zombie, responding to a real world in which crazy, headline-grabbing, heretofore unconscionable horrors seem to happen on a daily basis, grapples for an explanation. He offers that evil doesn't exist by accident; it is created, in Myers' case by a white trash upbringing of constant callousness that is very different from the enviable Norman Rockwell utopia that produced his peppy, pristine teenage target Laurie. Myers is as scary here as anywhere in the series, but Zombie's ultimate message - that humans are not innocent bystanders to inhumanity, but create it - is the most frightening part of it all.

#2. Halloween II (1981)

Halloween II , which picks up precisely where the original left off, could not be declared - hands-down, no buts about it - the "best" sequel. It doesn't date especially well, and as Myers creeps around abandoned hospital corridors in his continued hunt for Jamie Lee Curtis' character, he's a lot less scary brandishing a wee surgical scalpel than a big kitchen knife. But if Halloween was the prototype for the teen slasher film, then Halloween II is the beta version of the teen slasher sequel. Sure, Friday the 13th Part 2 beat it to theaters by a few months. But Halloween II had the greater departure from its roots, trading drawn-out suspense for a punctuating series of increasingly inventive deaths that afflict larger and larger quantities of interchangeable stock characters. Was that a good precedent to set? Ehh. Maybe not, but you can't hold it against Halloween II which, lowered bar-setting aside, is still exciting and eerie enough to justify its existence.

#1. Halloween (1978)

Well, duh. I hate to be predictable, but there's really no way around this. Halloween isn't just the best of its series, it's one of the most important movies of all time. (It was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." I could never disagree.) The indie film about a suburban stalker of teenage babysitters was a guerilla-style labor of love by a young crew of future Hollywood doers: including writer/director/super scary music composer John Carpenter. It became a blockbuster and established an entire filmic sub-genre, the teen-in-peril thriller, that is nowadays maligned only because so few imitators have failed to live up to the promise of Halloween. (Which is sort of unfair. A lot of crappy period dramas are released too, but no one summarily dismisses the notion of "period dramas.") But Halloween isn't a teenage horror movie; it's a horror movie that happens to involve teenagers. It also involves perfectly calibrated dread, organically cultivated tension, and then-inventive approaches to plot points and cinematography that only seem cliche today, when they are so easily taken for granted. Some modern audiences complain that Halloween now seems slow and boring. (Fools! Blasphemers!) I suppose it would be, if you're expecting a bloody nightmare. It's not. Halloween is a bad dream that quietly haunts you into the next night, like the flickering face of a Jack-o'-Lantern that sneers from the distant shadows.

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Scott Kearnan (@thewritestuffSK) is a Boston-based writer, editor, and communications consultant focusing on lifestyle and Arts & Entertainment. He's also a part-time smart aleck and buffalo wing connoisseur. "Media Remix" is where couch potatoes meet pop culture criticism. More »

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