When John Carpenter’s Halloween was released, it was the most successful independent film of all time. It held that record for many years. The success didn’t happen right away, though. It made no money in its initial release and John Carpenter moved on to his next directing project believing that it was a failure. For some time, the director didn’t even know it had become a hit, let alone one of the biggest hits of all time.
It was so successful that producers Moustapha Akkad and Irwin Yablans decided to produced a sequel. Halloween II was a moderate hit. It didn’t approach the success of the original, but it did well enough on its own to warrant a third installment. Given that everyone involved with the second felt that they were completely rehashing the first, they decided to make Halloween III: Season of the Witch a completely different movie than the previous installments. While it was a solid film on its own, audiences were not prepared for it and it was an absolute bomb at the box office.
There was very little discussion of another movie after that. In fact, after the performance of Halloween III, nobody even wanted to make another except Akkad. He believed in the franchise more than anyone ever had and probably ever will.
He wanted to take it back to its roots. So Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers was created with this mindset. It brought back everything that made the first movie work, with the notable exception of Jamie Lee Curtis, who had stopped doing horror by that time.
While her absence is felt, the film does not suffer terribly for it. Halloween 4 presents a new type of lead, the eight-year-old niece of Michael Myers, Jamie Lloyd—played by Danielle Harris, who would go on to be a major talent in the genre. Jamie’s foster sister, Rachel, is the new teenage lead.
She has an interesting character arc over the course of the movie. Where Laurie was protective of the kids from the onset, Rachel isn’t as much. She likes and cares for Jamie, but she still puts her own needs first. It’s only as the danger mounts throughout the night that she is able to come into her own and take charge.
Another thing Akkad has to be credited with is understanding the importance of Donald Pleasance to not only the original Halloween, but the franchise as a whole. Doctor Loomis is in many ways as important a part of the series as Michael Myers himself. It would have been almost expected for Pleasance to not have even been asked back, but thankfully he was. After almost a decade he steps into the role as though he never left.
The gore factor in Halloween 4 is admittedly heightened over its predecessors but it’s nonetheless restrained. The landscape of the genre had changed considerably in the years since Halloween III. The slasher craze had died down dramatically. By the late 1980’s, the more outlandish and gory a death scene was, the better.
Reality wasn’t so much a concern anymore and horror films with a supernaturally charged killer–like A Nightmare on Elm Street–were proving to be a recipe for box office success. This, more than anything else, is the reason Michael Myers became a much more supernatural presence in the later entries. Myers’ supernatural side was explored largely to keep up with the likes of Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees. But none of his character is sacrificed.
The onscreen deaths are outlandish, but stop just short of excess. The same goes for nudity in the film. There’s sex, but like the best horror movies you feel that you’re seeing more than you actually are. Halloween 4 is heavily reliant on character and atmosphere. While this might have had something to do with the MPAA, it’s nonetheless an impressive direction for the fourth entry in a horror franchise to take.
The most impressive thing about the decision to exercise a modicum of restraint is how well it worked. Halloween 4 was a big hit at the box office and proved the franchise still had life left in it. This was the movie that cemented Michael Myers as a cinematic icon. Without it there would be no franchise as we know it today. Whether or not that is a good thing, I’ll leave up to you to decide.