Halloween III: Season of the Witch didn't set the world on fire, but it wasn't a flop by any stretch of that word: taking in a bit less than $14.5 million, it more than earned back Universal's $2.5 million investment. Yet for some reason, this was enough to send the studio panicking, because for all intents and purposes the franchise was put to pasture; for six long years the world went without a Halloween picture, during which time Jason Voorhees was killed and revived, the world met Freddy Krueger, who quickly descended into self-parody, and the slasher film continued its decade-long arc from popularity to ubiquity to irrelevance. At long last, after much wrangling over the film's direction which ultimately caused producer John Carpenter to walk off, never again to have anything to do with the franchise, Universal finally released the long-awaited fourth entry in late October of 1988 - and no longer an anthology experiment like the doomed Season of the Witch, nor the moody psychological piece that Carpenter had hoped for, this was a straight-up slasher film and, as I once said of Friday the 13th, Part VI: Jason Lives, you can just sense the desperation in the title: Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers.

For Michael Myers to return would certainly take a bit of doing, given that he sort of inconveniently died at the end of Halloween II. Certainly not an insurmountable difficulty - Jason Voorhees's whole career was built on being not quite dead yet. But for first-time screenwriter Alan B. McElroy (later of Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever and Left Behind), and the three gents who co-wrote the story with him, Friday the 13th-style logic leaps were a bit too much in the big leagues. Instead, we're given a flimsy bit of exposition that informs us that Halloween II didn't end with Myers and Dr. Loomis dying in a fire; it ended with them almost dying in a fire. It is never a well thing for a sequel to begin on the note "ah, you see, we lied in the last one," but at least Halloween 4 does so in a minor way, unlike the cascading insults of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre series, where every film opened by proudly crowing that nothing in the last film "took".

The first ten minutes of the film are really all about exposition, in a curiously comforting way. It happens so deliberately, without being especially forced, it's a little bit like the film has taken the viewer to side, hands shaking a bit, and said, "look, I know this is all a bit contrived, okay? But we gotta do something, so I hope you'll just stick with this. It's ten years after the night of the first two films, and Michael Myers (George P. Wilbur) is being transferred from one mental hospital to another, and Loomis (Donald Pleasence, sporting some nifty facial scar makeup that keeps hopping around) is his doctor still, only now Loomis is a pariah after all these years of dooming and glooming about how Myers is pure evil, and not a man. Right now, Myers has a niece back in Haddonfield, and her parents are dead, so when Myers kills everybody in the ambulance and escapes, Loomis expects that he's going back there to finish slaughtering his family. Got all that? So we can move on? Cool." And then the killings start.

I should absolutely not enjoy how much the film seems to constantly look up for confirmation that it's being okay, but somehow it makes Halloween 4 all the more endearing. There's a moment between two people at the hospital where Myers is being transferred from, where we are told he murdered 16 people, maybe more. It's that "maybe more" that absolutely wows me. Recall that Halloween II is exceptionally unclear, even by slasher standards, about exactly who dies in the course of the film. That "maybe more" is McElroy's way of saying, "look, I had to write a sequel in the continuity of the first two films. You want to explain that damn continuity? I'm all ears. Meanwhile, let me just try to get through this." It's not so much an in-joke as it is a shrug of acceptance. He killed 16 people. Maybe more. Who the fuck knows?

The other thing in the exposition that gives me a similar feeling is the creation of Michael's niece, Laurie Strode's daughter Jamie Lloyd (Danielle Harris, whose still-vital career included a slot in Rob Zombie's Halloween remake). There are the fannish details that she was obviously named for Jamie Lee Curtis, and that she shares the same last name as Laurie's romantic interest Jimmy from Halloween II, indicating that maybe he didn't die so much, but got married, had a moppet, and died horribly in a car accident. But the fun part is that she exists at all: with the second film having established the horrible fact that Michael was just trying to get Laurie because they were related, and everyone else was collateral damage, and with Curtis no longer in the slasher genre's budgetary constraints, something has to motivate the plot. How 'bout Laurie's kid? Sure, Michael would have no way of knowing she existed, but we've gotta get him back in action somehow. It's a pragmatic decision enforced by the terrible missteps of its forebear, and for this I must salute the writers: they have been given a sow's ear, and made from it the closest thing to a purse that they conceivably might.

Jamie being seven years old, and therefore too young to be a satisfactory slasher heroine, the writers continue their pragmatism into giving her a teenage foster sister, Rachel (Ellie Cornell, who managed to stumble her way into Uwe Boll's House of the Dead), formerly one of Laurie's babysittees. Rachel and Jamie have a relationship pretty much unseen in the slasher franchise, outside of Trish and Tommy in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, although there Tommy was played by Corey Feldman, and was therefore terrifying & hateful beyond words. I mean that Jamie gives Rachel someone to protect; to act as mother to, in essence. This means that when the shit goes down and the Final Girl sequence kicks in (I spoil nothing: Rachel is a perfectly obvious Final Girl if ever there was one), there's an added edge, where Rachel isn't only fighting for her own life, she's fighting for her sister. Despite some other structural flaws that make Halloween 4's Final Girl sequence problematic and unsatisfying, the fact that she spends most of it looking out for Jamie ups the danger level considerably.

For a slasher film - particularly a slasher film with as astronomical a body count as this one has - Halloween 4 has an unusually dense and satisfying narrative structure. While Carpenter's original Halloween was direct and simple (and that is exactly what it was required to be), its third sequel is a bit...dare I say sprawling? At any rate, the story isn't strictly a matter of "teens and a killer here, cops over here," but chases through a few branches along its way. Amazingly, most of those branches aren't just filler (though there's definitely a 20 minute patch of movie that just seems to be adding time for the sake of it), but serve to deepen the story a bit, make the characters a bit rounder, make the tension a bit heartier. Okay, so there's no real tension in the film, but it comes a damn sight closer than Halloween II did, and it does it without stealing all of Carpenter's classic imagery.

The threads in Halloween 4 are basically these: Rachel's maybe sorta boyfriend Brody (Sasha Jenson) is starting to get a bit impatient with her dithering and chastity, so he hooks up with a coworker, Kelly Meeker (Kathleen Kinmont), daughter of the new sheriff (Beau Star). I missed Kelly's name the one and only time it was spoken out loud, so in my notes I keep referring to her as "Brody's Whore", which should give you a good idea of how the movie treats her. The sheriff has more to worry about than some punk putting the moves on his little girl; Loomis has just triggered a whole damn posse of colorful local yahoos to be his new lynch mob, after Michael butchers everyone in the Haddonfield police department. Lastly, Rachel loses track of Jamie during trick-or-treating, and has to chase her across half the town, while Jamie herself seems to be developing some sort of messed-up psychic link with Michael. Within that are a lot of small moments that are pleasing in that they serve only to add depth, and not to mindlessly advance the wave of blood: Jamie makes up with the asshole kids who made fun of her for having a psycho uncle, Loomis confronts a bunch of jackass teens wearing replicas of Michael's mask. All of this comes to a head once everyone arrives at Sheriff Meeker's house for the final showdown - that, as it turns out, isn't even final; once mostly everyone dies, Rachel and Jamie get shuttled out of town by the colorful mob, leading to the inevitable "real" confrontation with Michael, and the final flowering of Jamie's strange attachment to her uncle.

Though it is a slasher movie at all points - and while Halloween might have proven that slasher movies can be high art, this film's director Dwight H. Little ain't no John Carpenter - Halloween 4 is an atypically intelligent example of the form. Characters don't behave irrationally just to add to the body count - not even Michael, whose killings are all motivated in some way by the plot (much as they were in the first film and pointedly not in the second); I'd never have believed that a film with this kind of body count could justify each and every one of them, but there you have it. It's hardly realistic, but at least it isn't idiotic - it considers what might actually happen if something as unlikely as the Halloween franchise happened to a real small town in the Midwest. The transition of Sheriff Meeker's house into a base is a particularly swell example: besides Kelly, who is a sexually active woman in a slasher picture & hence beneath contempt, nobody ever once behaves foolishly or rashly. Michael is just smarter than they are, and that's the only reason he wins (in fact, I wonder if he's too smart - other than two nights in 1978, he's spent every day of his life since he was five in various high-security asylums).

Sadly, the cast fumbles what might be one of the best American horror screenplays written in the last half of the 1980s. They're not as combustively bad as their counterparts in a Friday the 13th entry, but nobody here is much to write home about - certainly not Cornell, who makes for a particularly bland heroine in comparison to Jamie Lee Curtis's genre-defining performance as Laurie. Not that Cornell is terrible, she just has a very limited range, and she's very stiff besides; literally, physically stiff, like she has to consciously think about moving her limbs. Pleasence, seven years older than the last time he'd essayed the role, is virtually unrecognisable: his extravagant hamming that made him just about the only tolerable part of Halloween II hs been replaced by mumbling and nervous understatement. Maybe he was trying to suggest how Loomis has been damaged by his history, I don't know. All I know is that I like me some Pleasence when he's eating the dialogue raw, and I only got it a few times in Halloween 4 - he's too low energy for a character defined by his extravagance. As Michael, stuntman Wilbur isn't even worth talking about, really. He actively fights against what little physical presence he has by slumping his head into his shoulders all of the time, making it seem like the killer is trying to hide inside himself.

The only standout performance, amazingly is ten-year-old Harris, in her first movie after a couple of TV appearances. Obviously, we grade child actors on a curve, but even so she's the only person in the film who makes her character any deeper than the role was written: combining terror (she's the only actor who seems legitimately frightened) with some kind of weird attraction to Michael, she makes Jamie more than just a plot element, and it's due entirely to her performance - okay, and to Pleasence, in the only completely great moment he has in the movie - that the ending is compelling at all, instead of completely hokey.

As for the film's craftsmanship: of course Halloween 4 isn't scary, but at least I think it comes close, compared to the dreadfully tossed-off second and third films. Director Little - who would later directed episodes of both The X-Files and Millennium for what that's worth - doesn't just try to copy John Carpenter, like Rick Rosenthal did in Halloween II. No flowing tracking shots, no European surrealism! This is shot just like a slasher film but it's a slasher film that the director cared about, and he sets up all of the expected "shock" scenes with an unusual amount of care; rarely does a slasher film lay this much emphasis on offscreen space (or on space at all), and while his efforts are mostly wasted at making the film moody and intense, at least he puts in the effort.

He's helped out a whole lot by cinematographer Peter Lyons Collister, who is perfectly content to rip-off Dean Cundey's work in the first three films without shame; although generally speaking, while his exteriors look exactly like a Cundey carbon copy, draped in excessive blues, his interiors are at least a touch more original, relying on black much more than Cundey ever did. I think it's worth pointing out, that with three films directed by the minor genius Cundey (who later worked with Spielberg, twice; not the sign of a hack), and one directed "in the style of" Cundey, the Halloween series, up to its fourth entry, is beyond question the loveliest horror franchise ever produced in America. I might also add a fun fact: years later, Cundey shot Garfield, while it fell to Collister to shoot Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties. I desperately hope that isn't a coincidence.

So anyway, Halloween 4: a quantum leap better than its two immediate predecessors, even if it's not the first film - for nothing is the first film. It never flirts with the greatness of its predecessor, like A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors did, but it is firmly good enough, and "good enough" is something that conspicuously and continuously evaded almost all of the slasher films of the 1980s. We're grading on a curve here, remember, and while Halloween 4 isn't a bit imaginative, at least it's competent. Thank God for small favors, I say; I didn't hurt after I watched it, and for a 1988 slasher, that's something like praise.

Body Count: Some trickiness: 16 deaths (Jesus Christ on a crutch!), one of which occurs off-camera; there are two more deaths that we learn about without ever seeing the bodies, alive or dead. Making 18, kind of?

Addendum: And Halloween 5 indicates that one of those deaths didn't actually happen, after all. So 15 or 17, depending upon your generosity.

Reviews in this series
Halloween (Carpenter, 1978)
Halloween II (Rosenthal, 1981)
Halloween III: Season of the Witch (Wallace, 1982)
Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (Little, 1988)
Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (Othenin-Girard, 1989)
Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (Chapelle, 1995)
Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (Miner, 1998)
Halloween: Resurrection (Rosenthal, 2002)
Halloween (Zombie, 2007)
Halloween II (Zombie, 2009)
Halloween (Green, 2018)
Halloween Kills (Green, 2021)