by Jason R. Latham
Every fan holds a certain film or franchise close to the heart, and it’s not always easy to articulate the reasons why. Beloved films don’t have to be box office hits or critical darlings, and it’s okay to overlook a movie’s flaws because of the way it makes you feel.
My Halloween fandom goes back to the early 90s, after Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street had both played themselves out. But even earlier, I remember elements of the Halloween franchise showing up in my life. I remember a television broadcast of John Carpenter’s Halloween, which I didn’t watch because the opening credits got me so scared I turned it off. I remember seeing endless previews and clips from Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers on the “Viewer’s Choice” on-demand channel that was part of our cable package. Halloween III: Season of the Witch was always on television as I was growing up; Halloween II(1981) was the first film in the franchise that I saw from start to finish; Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myerswas the first film in the franchise that I saw in theaters; Halloween H20: 20 Years Later arrived as I was at the peak of my Scream fandom, writing papers about the slasher renaissance of the late 90s; and many times I’ve told the story about playing a slot machine to win money for a ticket to Halloween: Resurrection.
So I present this ranking of the Halloween film franchise as a convergence of critical examination and personal adoration – the latter more than the former. For the critical consensus from my Now Playing Podcast colleagues, I encourage you to check out the Halloween Retrospective Series.
Halloween II (1981)
Halloween II doesn’t match the suspense level of John Carpenter’s Halloween, but as a slasher, it’s far better than the majority of Friday the 13th films, or any of its early 80s contemporaries. The larger budget allowed director Rick Rosenthal and returning cinematographer Dean Cundey to explore more of Haddonfield – a populated Haddonfield, one might add – and cast the film with better actors to support returning stars Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasance. Halloween II has the best ensemble of victims, easily, staffing Haddonfield Memorial Hospital; and the methods by which they are dispatched by Michael Myers serves as a template that many films would emulate, to varying degrees of success. Though Carpenter did not return to direct the sequel, he and Debra Hill wrote the screenplay, expanding the world of Haddonfield and the Michael Myers mythos – notably the sibling connection between the killer and Curtis. Carpenter has said he conceived the revelation simply after running out of ideas, but the rivalry would guide Halloween stories for the next 37 years, from films to comic books to short stories to fan fiction; and would serve as a focal point for critics and columnists seeking to understand Michael Myers’ motivation. Carpenter also contributed the synth-infused score with longtime collaborator Alan Howarth, and The Chordettes’ classic “Mr. Sandman” – used ironically in the opening sequence – has become an unofficial theme for the franchise. Halloween II has as much influence over the franchise as Carpenter’s 1978 film, possibly more, and though comparisons between the two always seem to favor the original, the sequel holds up just as well.
We’ve entered an era in which a new generation of film fans have grown up to become directors, screenwriters, and producers; and they’re now reviving stalled or dormant franchises to great success. Bad Boys for Life is a recent example, it’s also happening with Scream 5, and it already happened with 2018’s Halloween. With the backing of Blumhouse, director David Gordon Green was able to reunite Jamie Lee Curtis and John Carpenter for the best Halloween sequel since 1981 – a 40th anniversary bloodbath in which Michael Myers escapes custody and tracks down a still traumatized but locked-and-loaded Laurie Strode. Curtis is magnificent as the former babysitter who’s not going to take it anymore, and the themes of empowerment, victimization, and trauma not only elevate Halloween above its sequels but also place it alongside acclaimed contemporary horror entries that tap into the cultural conversation – think Get Out and It Follows. As I wrote in my 2018 review, unlike the slow build that Carpenter sought in his film, the sequel is relentless, with Green “taking his foot off the gas only for Easter egg references to sequels past” and the always watchable banter between babysitter victim Vicky and young Julian. That the filmmakers were able to bring Carpenter back for something more than just an endorsement is remarkable, as he’d stayed at arm’s length of the franchise for decades. Like Curtis, Carpenter has evolved, and, accompanied by son Cody Carpenter and godson Daniel Davies, he contributes the best score the franchise has had since Halloween III. By eliminating the sibling dynamic established in the 1981 sequel, Halloween is able to free itself from canon and forge its own legacy, one that will continue in Halloween Kills and Halloween Ends. This is a franchise that reboots itself every 10 years, and after three tries – 1988, 1998, and 2007 – it can be said that the filmmakers finally nailed it. Long live Laurie Strode.
Halloween H20: 20 Years Later
The Halloween franchise was at its lowest point (coming off Curse of Michael Myers) when Scream writer Kevin Williamson conceived a sequel/reboot that would see Jamie Lee Curtis return as Laurie Strode. Though Williamson doesn’t share screenwriting credit for Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, putting his name alongside Curtis’ and stacking the film with up-and-coming, talented young actors lent a legitimacy to the franchise that hadn’t been felt in years. H20 owes everything to Scream, borrowing the best elements – stunt casting (hi LL Cool J!), self-awareness, in jokes, and even parts of the score – to create (at the time) the most satisfying sequel since Halloween II. It’s not perfect; the Michael Myers mask alternates between scenes and the slender story doesn’t even reach 90 minutes, but it’s definitely one of the best in the franchise and a worthy entry in the post-Scream slasher era.
Modern audiences might quibble with the pacing of John Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween, but it’s evidence of an era in which films took their time to build suspense, sucking the audience in before reaching for the knife. Despite the simplicity of the story and minimalist approach to moviemaking, Halloween – like its inspiration, Psycho – is regarded as a “prestige” slasher film; driven by the ingenuity of its creative team and the charisma of its lead actress. Who knows how this film would have been remembered if not for the mask, the music, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Donald Pleasance? Halloween hasn’t lost its luster in 40-plus years, and restored versions that can be seen at drive-ins or on disc allow fans a chance to see more than ever before.
Halloween III: Season of the Witch
The franchise’s first (and only) attempt to get away from Michael Myers pushed Halloween into the realm of supernatural science fiction, with conspiracy elements of Invasion of the Body Snatchers weaved into a plot involving Stonehenge, androids, and masks that murder the people wearing them. It’s easy to embrace Halloween III for its “so bad it’s good” elements, but many fans have legitimate love for leads Tom Atkins and Stacey Nelkin; and, especially, villain Dan O’Herlihy. Directed by John Carpenter protégé Tommy Lee Wallace, with Carpenter and Debra Hill as producers, and Dean Cundey behind the lens; it's has the same "getting the band back together" feel as the first sequel. Halloween III’s northern California setting is idyllic and suspicious at the same time; bolstered by an incredible Carpenter/Alan Howarth synth score and the iconic Silver Shamrock jingle that’s been burned into the brains of fans since childhood. Like Halloween II, Season of the Witch exists as a time capsule of the early 80s, one that’s worth revisiting every October.
Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers
Had the creators of the sixth Halloween waited until Scream arrived one year later, they surely would have abandoned the film’s script for a more contemporary, and clever, H20-style story. Instead, Curse treats audiences to a last glimpse of early 90s horror, leaning into the supernatural and conspiratorial “Curse of Thorn” elements introduced in Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers, but with very little imagination, or cohesiveness. The film famously underwent a series of reshoots, resulting in a Producer’s Cut that has long intrigued hardcore Halloween fans, but neither version makes the Thorn plot worth following to another sequel. Like Silver Shamrock novelties (Halloween III) and Dangertainment (Halloween: Resurrection), the Druid cult of Curse dragged the series to such a low place that it had nowhere to go but up. To its credit, Curse gets there quickly, and its cold, dark setting feels appropriate for a film set on Halloween. The presence of Paul Rudd (in his first film role) is enough to elevate Curse above its immediate predecessors, and its “stuck in the mid-90s” look is not necessarily a bad thing.
Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers
Halloween 4 arrived in 1988, the first “sequel/reboot” of the series at the tail end of a decade dominated by slashers – the majority of them inspired by John Carpenter’s Halloween. By this time, however, the genre was running out of steam, and its two biggest stars – Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger – had long ago traded their menace for celebrity. Michael Myers was not a celebrity slasher in 1988, and the 10th anniversary film failed to make him one. Return benefits from its lead actress, Danielle Harris, some credible scare sequences, and an inventive opening credits sequence; but is ultimately dragged down by hammy and unconvincing performances, inexplicable character and plot decisions, the limitations of its budget, and a laughable Michael Myers mask – the worst in the series.
Halloween II (2009)
There’s a simple explanation to placing Rob Zombie’s Halloween II ahead of his Halloween remake: it’s Zombie being Zombie. No longer working within the restraints of John Carpenter’s 1978 film, Zombie goes full bore, immersing the audience in a rural Haddonfield populated by rednecks, degenerates, sadists, strippers, and Margot Kidder. The genre and stunt casting, not to mention the obscenity and violence, is on par with Zombie’s acclaimed The Devil’s Rejects and House of 1,000 Corpses; yet unlike those films, in which the pervasive perversity of the Firefly clan and the brutality bestowed on their victims keeps viewers engaged while simultaneously repulsed, the now-bearded Myers and his on-the-verge-of-psychotic sister are far less interesting and wholly unsympathetic. Zombie can’t even resist turning Malcom McDowell’s Sam Loomis into a reprehensible character just like the rest of Haddonfield’s inhabitants. Many times the film devolves into a version of Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning, in which characters are introduced and murdered in the same scene. Zombie’s film is ugly and revolting, but he made it his own, and that’s at least slightly better than building his castle in someone else’s sandbox.
Part origin story, part remake, Rob Zombie’s first turn at the helm of the Halloween franchise splits the story in such a way that the two never quite come together, leaving you to draw the conclusion that the director was more interested in the former than the latter (a theory easily confirmed when watching Halloween II). In attempting to explain the motive behind Michael Myers’ madness, Zombie falls back into a familiar tale of an abusive upbringing, bludgeoning the audience with profanity and depravity without offering a deeper understanding of the character. Zombie’s vision is never fully realized as the remake switches gears in the second half, attempting to squeeze Carpenter’s original film into 40-plus minutes. With the focus on Myers, Laurie Strode becomes a passive character, and Zombie makes her far less likeable. Malcolm McDowell is perfect as Loomis, but he suffers the same fate as Donald Pleasance – left with nearly nothing to do in an overly long second half. The final sequence, which sees Myers chasing Strode through his dilapidated former home, is eternal.
Busta Rhymes convinces a group of young actors from more popular (and profitable) turn-of-the-millennium films to pass the Courvoisier around a Vancouver sound stage for an Internet reality show about Michael Myers. The eighth Halloween film is easily the most outdated of the bunch, and that wouldn’t be a knock if it were entertaining in its day. Resurrection is now mostly known for a finale in which Rhymes’ character says, “Trick or treat, mother***er” before fighting Myers with martial arts, and the fact that it was meant to be taken seriously makes it all the more ridiculous.
Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers
Short on time and ideas, the creators of the fifth Halloween conjured a mysterious “Man In Black” and the rune of Thorn in their attempt to keep the series on life support during the waning days of the 80s slasher era. The mystery involving these fantastical plot threads is neither resolved nor embraced by the filmmakers, resulting in a disjointed slasher sequel that literally mutes its best asset – Danielle Harris – while devoting too much screen time to an obnoxious collection of secondary characters and an over the top Donald Pleasance. Halloween 5 is further weighed down by a late 80s look and fashion sense – save for greaser boyfriend Mike – that's cringeworthy even for the decade. It’s a plod just getting to the end, as the film feels so much longer than its 97-minute run time.