And all I got was a super-bloody lesson in cultural history, media decline, and medical ethics.
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.
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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.
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."
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.
Bad diagnosis: "He's gone from here! The evil is gone!"
HALLOWEEN III: THE SEASON OF THE WITCH
More concerned with Halloween masks that turn kids evil than failures of the press and medical ethics.
HALLOWEEN 4: THE RETURN OF MICHAEL MYERS
How you can tell it was made in 1988: Michael is after his precocious niece, who enjoys cracking wise with her teenage foster sister. Both are very empowered-seeming.
AWOL media types: The media actually comes off pretty well! They don't give the killer information about location of any victims and accurately report things said by the sheriff.
Bad doctors: EMTs let comatose Myers hear he has a niece and he ambulance-jacks them. Careerist Dr. Hoffman doesn't let Donald Pleasence play by his own rules/implies his colleague is a powerless figurehead/assumes Michael is dead following every setback.
Bad diagnosis: "We're not talking about an ordinary prisoner, Hoffman!"
HALLOWEEN 5: THE REVENGE OF MICHAEL MYERS
How you can tell it was made in 1989: Empowered foster siblings return. Therapy briefly seems to help Michael, until his niece touches his face and he turns crazy again.
AWOL media types: None, though Myers kills a hermit who could have been a hyperlocal Haddonfield blogger in 20 years.
Bad doctors: Donald Pleasence gives Michael an ultimatum and says he'll meet him at his old house, if he's serious about therapy. He also thinks his niece can save Myers and make him good, for some reason.
Bad diagnosis: "I prayed that he would burn in hell. But in my heart I knew hell would not have him."
HALLOWEEN 6: THE CURSE OF MICHAEL MYERS
How you can tell it was made in 1996: Paul Rudd is billed as Paul Stephen Rudd. Haddonfield's economy is lousy. Heavy use of blue-filtered lenses.
AWOL media: "Shock-jock Barry Sims" is only visiting Haddonfield to make fun of/exploit Halloween murders. (He's two-parts Imus, one part Geraldo.) Sims gets killed while performing stupid ratings stunt in a quest to get Haddonfield to unban Halloween.
Bad doctors: Loomis retired and wrote a self-serving memoir. The other doctor who treated Myers in the original (and may have taught him how to drive) is a Druid cult leader who forces him to kill and might be harvesting his DNA for future Druid projects.
Bad diagnosis: "I knew what he was but I never knew why."
How you can tell it was made in 1998: 1978-plus-20 years = H20
AWOL media: The media swallowed the cover story about how Jamie Lee Curtis died in a car wreck after the second movie without asking, "Could this be an attempt to set her up in a new life teaching at an isolated prep school where her unkillable brother won't be able to find her?"
Bad doctors: Donald Pleasence's old nurse kept Jamie Lee's new identity information in her home office. Jamie Lee tells Adam Arkin years of therapy did nothing and she's still a wreck from almost getting killed by her brother and having to fake her own death. As a result, she smothers her son, even though he's Josh Hartnett and can take care of himself.
Bad diagnosis: "You're not allowed to have little off-campus lunches, John. You know that."
HALLOWEEN RESURRECTION How you can tell it was made in 2002: Michael's killing people on the set of a streaming reality show that's taken over his old house. And he kills a CSI tech.
AWOL media: The easily manipulated online community assumes the carnage and chaos is scripted. In their defense, program is billed as "dangertainment."
Bad doctors: Michael breaks into an insane asylum to kill Jamie Lee Curtis in a contractually obligated cameo. The coroner forgets to check if the invincible mass murderer he's about to examine is dead or faking.
Bad diagnosis: "Michael Myers is a killer shark in baggy overalls who gets his kicks from killing everyone and everything he comes across." *
* Diagnosis by Busta Rhymes.