Full disclosure that might explain a lot of the below: Halloween 4 was the first of the series I ever saw, when I was nine years old. Due to a real world tragedy (the San Francisco Earthquake) and a personal mishap (falling and breaking my arm – pretty much exactly when the earthquake hit 3000 miles away – freaky!), I can even remember the date: October 17, 1989. My mother had rented it for me despite the fact that it was a school night (most of her rentals for me were strictly weekend endeavors), and rushing down to watch it, I slipped about halfway down the staircase and fell hard onto our stone foyer. I have a high pain tolerance so I figured I was fine, but after watching the first twenty minutes or so I finally listened to my mother and agreed to be taken to the hospital to make sure it was OK. Alas, it wasn't, and I had to wait until the next day to finish seeing the movie. Stupid arm!
Anyway, even then I recognized that it was different from the other slasher movies (and particular, the sequels) I had watched as a kid – the Friday the 13ths and Nightmare on Elm Sts, mostly. Like Jason, Michael Myers didn’t talk, and like Freddy, he stalked a suburban town much like my own. So it was the best of both worlds, and so much more. For starters, our main hero was a little girl about my age (and she was cute, something that did not escape the attention of my nine year old “just starting to notice girls” eyes), and I wasn’t yet jaded enough to “know” that little kids never die in horror movies. So the scenes of Michael chasing poor Jamie Lloyd (Danielle Harris, who would go on to appear in three more Halloween films spread across two universes) scared the shit out of me at the time. This was a kid like me, and this guy’s already killed a dog and a whole police force! There’s no way she can escape!!!
As I grew older, I started noticing more technically-oriented aspects of the film and how they too differed from the average Jason adventure. There were a lot of scenes where Michael would appear near someone but not kill them, something you didn’t get in too many Jason films. He played with his victims, and he had a PLAN. He cuts the power, kills the cops, hitches a ride with a deputy… he even waits around at a gas station for his old pal Dr. Loomis to show up so he can set off an explosion that will kill the phone lines. And he actually stalked his prey; there’s a terrific scene with Jamie’ s sister, Rachel (Ellie Cornell), looking around the suddenly isolated town, only to discover Michael standing there watching. It’s such a subtle scare that you can actually miss him entirely on the first viewing if you’re not looking in the right spot.
Later, there’s an eerie bit where Rachel is talking to a cop and his face appears down the hall. It’s a bit of a callback to the famous moment in the original, but to me it’ s actually a bit scarier – to this day I don’t know if he is inside or outside. Later, he will kill the deputy and take his place, using the dark to his advantage to pull a surprise on his next victim. And I LOVE that about him! He’ s not just mindlessly killing people; he’s doing it methodically, and retaining the playful “trick” spirit of the holiday in the process. And yes, there’s some of this sort of thing in H20 as well, but the kids there are such an annoying bunch, it wasn’t worth the effort.
That’s the other thing – the people here are likable and real (again, this is something that I came to appreciate in later years). Nowadays, slasher movies always have hot cast members from whatever CW shows are on at the time. The star of a Halloween movie is usually a social-security collecting bald British guy. But even the teens, while certainly not ugly, have a very natural and believable look to them. H20 had Josh Hartnett and LL Cool J – hardly the types of folks you expect to see at the local drugstore. Speaking of the drugstore, I do have to give the film’s detractors one thing – it makes absolutely no sense that this town would stock a Michael Myers (or whatever it’s called in their world) mask in their store. I like that they didn’t inexplicably let him keep the mask at the hospital (as they did for Jason in Final Chapter), but come on! And why does he like that particular mask so much? He’ d probably be able to get around a lot easier with one of those weird alien or monster masks Jamie looks at while he finishes collecting the materials for his classic look (he also kills another mechanic for his clothes – the guy just likes how he looks I guess). However I will defend the mask itself, which is often derided by fans. The slicked back hair is silly, yes, but I think the face sculpting itself is one of the best in the series. Many of the sequels tried to put too much personality into the mask (Resurrection’s looks like it has makeup on), but this one retains the featureless (read: creepy) look of the original. It’s just the hair that kills it.
Otherwise, it does a good job of satisfying fans. For example, the little kids from the original are represented here (by different actors, obviously) - Rachel has a friend named Lindsay and there’s a guy named Tommy at the drugstore. Loomis asks for Sheriff Brackett, and the entire climax of the film mirrors the opening scene of the original. Curiously missing, however, is a strong explanation for what happened to Laurie and whoever Jamie’s father is. Jamie alludes to them being in heaven, but the film never actually says what occurred. An older draft of the script offers up an explanation, however - when Loomis arrives in Haddonfield he asks for Laurie, and Meeker tells him that her and her husband died in a car accident nearly a year before (way to stay on top of things, Sam). Why this never made it into the movie is unknown to me, but I assume it made it into the novelization for casual fans to have been aware of it for so long.
Let's talk about Loomis, aka Donald Pleasence. It would have been very easy for them to just say he died in the fire at the end of II, but they bring him back (with a nasty burn scar). Why? Because Alan McElroy and Dwight Little (and, likely, series producer Moustapha Akkad) understood that the Loomis character was part of what separated (and IMO, elevated) their series above the others – a strong Ahab or Van Helsing type. Freddy had a habit of killing any potential arch-rivals in their 2nd appearance (Nancy, Kristen), and Jason never really had one besides Tommy Jarvis, who was played by different actors each time, actors who never bothered trying to follow the lead of their predecessors. But Loomis/Pleasence was a constant in the five original Myers films (Pleasence died after completing work on the 6th film), giving it a center that other franchises lacked. And he’s at his best here, crazy as ever but still acting rationally. He even sees the error of his ways and asks the police to warn the media, something he advised against ten years prior (resulting in 16 deaths). In fact, another thing about this movie that it’s not given enough credit for is that the characters mostly act intelligently. I don’t really buy the “trapped in this house” thing (can’ t they go out a window?) but people run from danger instead of approaching it, call the cops, radio for help, etc. And even the standard “run up the stairs” moment at least has some plot motivation built into it – Rachel was looking for Jamie, and then Michael blocked the stairs down. For me, the police presence actually elevates the tension – you think everyone’s safe because they have cops and guns, and then Myers shows up and manages to get the drop on them.
And in retrospect, it’s the last time the series got just about everything right. The following film introduced a corny “Man in Black” that was protecting Michael, a storyline that played front and center for the 6th film, where we learned that Michael was part of a druid cult that favored incest (oh, and that Michael only appeared when the stars aligned in a certain pattern). Then H20 ignored 4-6 and brought back Jamie Lee, a decent enough entry that unfortunately hasn’t dated very well due to the Scream-ified approach and some “hip” casting (though it’ s sort of novel to see critical/indie darlings Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Michelle Williams in a slasher movie), which also sorely lacked in Halloween atmosphere. And the less said about Resurrection, with Busta Rhymes kung fu and Tyra Banks dance sequences, the better.
Honestly, if the credits read “Written by John Carpenter” but the film played out exactly the same, I bet it would be given more credit (having his name on Halloween II certainly helps that one get somewhat unjustified high praise, even though Carpenter himself dismisses it). More than any other sequel in the series, Halloween 4 stayed true to the original film’s emphasis on suspense over bloodshed (though, being the late '80s, it offered some of that too) and embraced the spirit of the holiday. In fact at times it perhaps copies the original’s structure a bit too closely, but I’ ll take that over something that doesn’t even resemble a Halloween movie any day of the week.
...I do wish he had killed those hateful little bastards in Jamie's class though. Seriously, who mocks a little girl’s mother passing (“Jamie’s mommy’s A MUMMY!” ) or her current home situation (“JAMIE’S AN ORPHAN!”)? Christ.