Tracing the Roots of John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s Failed Horror Anthology Experiment
By 1982, the unstoppable killing machine at the center of the emerging Halloween film franchise, Michael Myers, had more than just scarred the American psyche. The character, whose only backstory consists of the night he murdered his sister and the years he spent in a mental hospital as result, slashed and stabbed his way right through the hearts of moviegoers. Not only that, but the masked killer, created by cinematic Renaissance Man, John Carpenter (he wrote, scored and directed several of his early films), also ignited a trend in the movies that had never really caught hold with audiences: the slasher flick.
Although the slasher sub-genre can trace its roots through the 1950s and earlier with films like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and André De Toth’s House of Wax — and certainly through jarring, 1974 horror masterpiece, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (shot in Texas, what what) — it was Carpenter’s 1978 monumental work of bloody suspense that sent Hollywood into slasher frenzy.
Starring a young Jamie Lee Curtis and a veteran Donald Pleasance, Halloween would do more to define the template that all future slashers would follow than almost any other film. Tropes like the sanctity of the virgin and the doomed fate of the promiscuous; the rambling but relentless masked killer; down to graphic violence that intends to shock and provoke — these all became permanently attached to the slasher genre thanks to Carpenter and Michael Myers.
Then, three years later, Carpenter struck gold again with the franchise’s first sequel, Halloween II (he only wrote and scored that one, while Rick Rosenthal directed). Picking up immediately after the first film ended, Halloween II continued to inspire imitator franchises like Friday the 13th with its unwritten rules and healthy dosage of gruesome kills. But after Halloween II’s success, and after the slasher genre had become the latest hot trend in horror, John Carpenter and his producing partner, Debra Hill, were ready to move out of the house that Mike built. They wanted to take the franchise in a different direction, away from the slasher mold, and their plan was to begin that transition with their second sequel, Halloween III: Season of the Witch.
Carpenter and Hill had the idea to drop Michael Myers from the new story, turning their already profitable franchise into something of an anthologized horror series — a way for them to tell different scary stories without wearing out audiences with the same tired characters and plots. It’s a formula that worked well for early, pulpy comic book publisher, EC Comics with titles like Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror, and the pair figured it would translate well to the screen. They hired writer/director Tommy Lee Wallace and got to work on a story. They threw around several spooky ideas, planning to use some that were tossed aside in future installments of their new moneymaking machine. What they ultimately settled on was something of a sci-fi, paranoid thriller involving an evil corporation, haunting Halloween masks and a mind-melting (literally) television special. In other words, it was a way cooler concept than part three of the Michael-Myers-kills-people-while-hunting-down-Jamie-Lee-Curtis show.
Alas, the great anthology coup would not succeed. Unfortunately, the central idea that fueled Halloween III — removing franchise-starter Michael Myers from the proceedings — failed to click with audiences in a big way. The film still made a large profit, but it had shrunken substantially from the previous film, a big no-no from the studio’s perspective. Carpenter, Hill and Wallace underestimated how much the Halloween fan base loved Myers and the unrelenting terror the character represented. They didn’t want a fresh story or new characters; they just wanted more of the same shit — a trap that has come to haunt many horror franchises over the decades.
That’s a real shame, because an anthology of Halloween horror films, some featuring Michael Myers and some not, likely would have been a lot more interesting than the hit-or-miss landfill the franchise became (either way, those awful Rob Zombie prequels were probably unavoidable). But the franchise’s financiers heard the message loud and clear: Do not fuck with Michael Myers. But, dammit, Halloween III is a great movie, and easily the most underappreciated entry in the franchise (at the time at least, the film has achieved the acclaim it always deserved in more recent years). It’s scary, innovative and even features a bit of social commentary — the three hallmarks of all great horror films.
The plot of the film centers on malevolent corporation, Silver Shamrock, which has a real dastardly evil plan: sell spooky Halloween masks to hapless citizens which contain a hidden microchip, that when triggered, instantly melts the wearer’s brain, while releasing swarms of venomous insects to kill anyone in the surrounding area. The trigger would be a specially programmed TV broadcast that kids would force their parents to sit with them and watch. It’s a social messaging two-for-one: condemn the advent of corporate culture and the proliferation of television parenting (i.e. just planting a child in front of a TV instead of taking care of them) in one fell swoop.
How cool is that?! I’ll tell ya, it’s a heck of a lot cooler than what followed Halloween III: serious alarm from the studio. Universal refused to make another Halloween film, fearing that the franchise had run its course with audiences. That’s when another longtime Halloween producer stepped in, Moustapha Akkad. Akkad had been there since the franchise’s inception, and there wasn’t any real concern initially over him taking the driver’s seat away from Carpenter and Hill. That is, until his ideas began to gain traction with the studio. Akkad wanted to bring back Michael Myers, and he didn’t want to fuss around with any creative ideas, either. He had great influence over the direction of the franchise’s next film, and he exerted it by ignoring all of Carpenter, Hill and Wallace’s ideas.
John Carpenter and Debra Hill were frustrated that their horror anthology idea didn’t take off, but they still thought they could save the franchise. Carpenter enlisted Dennis Etchison, who had written novelizations of the previous Halloween films, to write a script for Halloween 4. They finally settled on a treatment and were ready to sell the rights and script to Cannon films, a studio that was beginning to make its name in the gritty genre scene. That was not to be the case, however, as Akkad rejected Etchison’s script on account of it being “too cerebral”. That turned out to be a real bonehead move, because Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers is regarded as one of the worst Halloween films ever made. It’s laughably bad, and outside of the Rob Zombie prequels and the even worse sixth entry into the franchise, The Return of Michael Myers is by far my least favorite Halloween film.
And so, the dream of a Carpenter/Hill horror anthology franchise was officially dashed. Before the fourth Halloween film was made, the producing duo completely sold the rights to the franchise they created, refusing to take part in the bastardization they could see coming. No Michael Myers film since has lived up to the work those two did on Halloween and Halloween II, and it’s frustrating to daydream of what cool ideas Carpenter, Hill and Wallace could have executed had their original vision been allowed to continue on.
That vision may not exist in reality, but the dream of what Halloween III: Season of the Witch represents will live on in my heart and in my imagination for years to come. Plan to watch that movie this Halloween weekend, and help give it the respect it deserves.