I Watched All 8 'Halloween' Movies

And all I got was a super-bloody lesson in cultural history, media decline, and medical ethics.

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Compass International

Do kids still see Halloween? Film historian David Thompson says horror dates faster than any other genre, and the original 1978 film—the one John Carpenter directed, in which Jamie Lee Curtis gets trapped in the closet—was released 34 years ago this month. Back then, Hitchcock was alive and horror-standard-bearer Psycho had been out for 18 years (Carpenter gave Donald Pleasence's rogue analyst the same name as Janet Leigh's boyfriend, and genre-savvy audiences snapped up the reference). Since then, parody and familiarity have made Psycho harmless and respectable, a prized artifact in the Museum of Formerly Scary Things. Nobody sees it because everyone's already seen it.

So, do kids still see Halloween, Psycho's most influential offspring? I hope so. Watching it despite orders not to from parents or babysitters should be a rite of passage for anyone born after 1980. The original and parts of the ensuing seven sequels—not including two remakes by Rob Zombie—are good, streamlined, scary fun. The bad guy, Michael Myers, is just a nut who can't stop murdering people in his hometown, because he's crazy and unkillable and his movies make money. His Ahab is played by Donald Pleasence, who is also crazy and unkillable, in addition to being an ineffective psychiatrist. They do battle in and around the fictional southern Illinois town of Haddonfield. Their conflict is static—except for the in-name-only third sequel, which is about a crazy toy tycoon—but the films span 24 years of American history (there hasn't been a new addition to the original franchise since 2002.)

This is notable: The only other series of films to age with the landscape of America over anything approaching such a span is the Godfather trilogy. Those movies are about the mafia, but also efficiency, power, and splendid self-isolation. Could the Halloween movies also be about... things? Maybe! I recently sat down and watched all eight movies back-to-back in the hopes a subtext would emerge. It didn't, not exactly. But three basic premises were asserted over and over again: the media is in decline, medical professionals don't know what they're doing, and mental illness is something to be feared.

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Compass International

HALLOWEEN

How you can tell it was made in 1978: Kids walk home from school willy-nilly, even though there's a murderer on the loose. Teens have sex willy-nilly, even though there's a murderer on the loose. Future-victim Annie (Nancy Loomis) yells "speed kills!" at Myers when he's driving too fast in a neighborhood.

AWOL media types: It would have been nice of local TV to interrupt The Thing From Another World with occasional updates about how the search for the escaped murderer who killed his sister 15 years ago is going.

Bad doctors: Donald Pleasence (correctly) thinks somebody at the insane asylum taught Myers how to drive a car; Donald Pleasence is carjacked by his own patient.

Bad diagnosis: "I spent eight years trying to reach him and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized what was living behind that boy's eyes was purely and simply evil."

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Universal Pictures

HALLOWEEN II

How you can tell it was made in 1981: Stomach-churning violence: hypodermic needle through the eye, murder of an elderly couple, a guy slips on blood and hits his head and dies (in the TV cut of the movie).

AWOL media types: Still getting caught up on the first movie. When they do get around to reporting the news, it's either unhelpful (radio jerk reveals name of the hospital Jamie Lee Curtis is in) or wrong (other radio jerk says Myers got hit by a car and blew up, but it was a different guy in a William Shatner mask.)

Bad doctors: Hospital staffers sit in Jacuzzis, neck, and get killed. Dr. Loomis learns Jamie Lee Curtis is the younger sister of his only patient 15 years too late.

Presented by

Ray Gustini is the author of Lucky Town, a forthcoming book about sports in Washington, D.C. He is a former staff writer for The Atlantic Wire.

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