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Halloween: a complete guide to horror’s quirkiest, most erratic franchise

John Carpenter’s 1978 movie spawned a cat-and-mouse battle between Michael Myers and Laurie Strode that’s lasted four decades.

Michael Myers before the mask.
Universal Pictures

The tale of Halloween in Haddonfield, Illinois, has been told and retold: the night in 1963 that an angelic 6-year-old Michael Myers, dressed in a clown suit, brutally murdered his teenage sister, followed by the night 15 years later, again on Halloween, when he broke out of a mental institution in his famously mutilated William Shatner mask to terrorize the virginal babysitter Laurie Strode, a.k.a. Jamie Lee Curtis in the role that would make her the ultimate scream queen.

As Laurie, Curtis has battled the unkillable, silent but single-minded Michael Myers across five of the 11 films in John Carpenter’s Halloween franchise — including the newest entry, a sort-of sequel, sort-of remake directed by David Gordon Green that’s out this weekend.

Of all iconic horror franchises, none is quite as quirky and erratic as this one. Though the original film, Halloween (1978), is Carpenter’s signature film, it’s the only one in the series he directed. He then co-wrote and co-produced a sequel with his collaborator Debra Hill, but their subsequent attempt to keep the series from becoming formulaic would end up sending it meandering off in random, truncated directions.

As a result, where most horror franchises stick to their main story concept and expand it over time, the Halloween franchise keeps getting lost and restarting itself — hence the shaky continuity of the latest film. The only thing we can say for sure about the timeline is that the first two films are paired and occur in sequential order on the very same night. After that, the franchise goes haywire, spinning through one-offs, sequels, and remakes that perpetually overwrite each other.

Of course, this cyclical quality may also be why Halloween is so enduringly popular — you definitely don’t need to have seen every film in the franchise to understand what’s happening, or to enjoy the next one.

Of course, there’s another facet of the series’ enduring popularity that can’t be overlooked, and that’s the cat-and-mouse game between Laurie and horror’s most implacable killer. So if you’re a fan of Michael Myers, you came to the right place: Let us walk you through the movies and tell you which are indispensable for the casual Halloween fan and which are skippable (most of them).

The rules of Michael Myers

Before we get started: With a franchise this inconsistent, it’s good to establish which parts of the films are consistent. That way, when you brush up on your Halloween movies, it won’t matter if you skip a few. Here are the main rules of the franchise — all of which, unsurprisingly, involve its iconic villain.

1) Michael Myers always wears his mask — and he never, ever speaks.

You rarely see him without his mask in any of the films. The Shatner masks have become the stuff of horror film legend. As for his voice, you only hear him speak in one film in which his childhood is explored — before he became a monster. Beyond that? Nada.

2) Michael is usually credited as “The Shape” and is always referred to at some point as the Boogeyman.

A crediting tradition begun in the first two films and intermittently revived over the years, “The Shape” is back for the 2018 sequel. The Boogeyman has remained a constant.

3) Michael is always obsessed with Laurie Strode or her nearest relations.

The reason for this is revealed in the second film, and all the following films have retained this explanation for their connection.

4) Michael never runs. He always walks slowly after his victims, and he’s never in a hurry.

Part of the terrifying thing about Michael is that he’s surely the most casual serial killer in history. He never picks up the pace beyond a leisurely stroll, and he often seems to be nearly lackadaisical in his attempts to off his prey. Of course, he nearly always gets them in the end.

5) Michael can’t be killed.

This one is obvious, but it bears stating for the record. Throughout the franchise, he will survive multiple gunshots, stabbings, explosions, car crashes, electrocution, being run over, having his skull bashed in, being set on fire multiple times, and (sorta) being decapitated.

Got all that? Great. Let’s go trick-or-treating!

Halloween (1978): the one that kicked off an entire genre

The Shape having some fun.

Tagline: “The night HE came home!”

Is it a trick or a treat? Definitely a treat.

Halloween is famous for lots of reasons. It singlehandedly launched the era of the slasher film. It’s John Carpenter’s breakout film, a low-budget indie that made an astronomical profit and launched his career. It’s got one of the most famous film scores and horror themes in history, written by Carpenter himself. It remains an incredibly creepy film, full of lingering and now-iconic shots of its killer stalking through idyllic suburbia, biding his time or casually observing his kills. And, most crucially, it introduced us to one of horror’s most famous villains, destined to be eternally mentioned in the same breath as Freddy and Jason.

Halloween is often credited as being the first example of the slasher subgenre of horror, and for introducing the world to the concept of the Final Girl: the one girl, usually singled out for her virginal qualities, who gets to survive the cinematic massacre of all her counterparts.

Except neither of those things is true. The slash-happy Giallo genre of Italian noir thrillers predates Halloween by about a decade, and two earlier slasher movies gave us the prototypical Final Girls: Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the Canadian cult classic Black Christmas, which were released a few months apart from each other in 1974.

However, Carpenter’s tale did serve to mainstream both the slasher film and the Final Girl, thanks largely to the magnetism of Jamie Lee Curtis as the canny, if mostly helpless, Laurie Strode.

Laurie typified the Final Girl trope from the start: She was “too smart” for boys and dressed like a dowdy homemaker, in contrast to the other girls with their trendy fashion and sexual exploration; in other words, she embodied the kind of chaste virtue that ensured her survival. But Curtis managed to pull off this role with a kind of fierce, gleaming shrewdness beneath the passive exterior — and two decades later, in her return to the franchise after a long hiatus, she would really throw off the helpless act once and for all.

The other main character of Halloween is an unlikely one, but nonetheless a fan favorite: Michael’s zealous therapist Dr. Loomis, played by the ever-zany Donald Pleasence, who would remain the heart of the franchise until his death.

Then there’s the specter of Michael himself, who’s played mainly by the actor (and later established director) Nick Castle. As horror villains go, Michael is ranked very high on the “too unbelievable to be effective” meter, but there’s something truly and indelibly terrifying about him, from the moment he shows up for his first killing spree as a kid, dressed in a Harlequin costume, to the time he returns to skulk silently around Laurie’s suburban neighborhood, dangling a knife and wearing a mask that’s dirty, mottled, and still creepy as hell.

Halloween II (1981): the one that sealed the formula

It’s a little-known fact that the Halloween franchise is actually sponsored by jack-o’-lanterns.

Tagline: “More of the night HE came home.” (I guess modern horror was still working out how to really market this franchise thing, huh.)

Is it a direct sequel? Yes.

Is it a trick or a treat? For true Halloween fans, it’s a treat, albeit a plodding one.

Halloween 2, also written by Carpenter and Hill, picks up immediately after the first film, still on the same Halloween night. With Loomis leading police all over town looking for Michael, our killer naturally hightails it to the hospital where Laurie is recuperating from her injuries and proceeds to kill everyone on staff in order to get to her. The movie concludes with the shocking revelation that Laurie is Michael’s other sister, born too young to know him and sheltered from the truth all her life — until, of course, her past literally catches up with her on Halloween.

What makes this film notable among the franchise is that it establishes the central conflict of Michael versus the town of Haddonfield itself. Haddonfield is the only “character” that consistently appears throughout the Halloween series (minus the outlier that is the third film), and its relationship to Michael changes in interesting ways over the decades.

As films go, however, Halloween 2 isn’t very good. Laurie is relegated to an even more useless role than in the first film, spending the movie disabled due to her injuries. And even though we’re only on the second film, the murders already feel formulaic and perfunctory; gone are the creatively displayed bodies and carefully arranged murder tableaus, staged to increase the horror for everyone who finds them.

Perhaps because it’s the same night and he’s been on his feet all day running from the law, and, oh, yeah, at some point he apparently absorbed six bullets to the chest and head, in Halloween II Michael’s pretty “whatever” about how the bodies fall. He does get to fake out a really dumb cop by pretending to be dead, though, and he clearly enjoys that bit, so you do you, Mikey.

Halloween 3: Season of the Witch: the one that’s a completely different story

I’m angry that this still shot makes this film look so much cooler than it is.

Tagline: “The night no one comes home.”

Is it a direct sequel? No, it has nothing to do with any other Halloween movie.

Is it a trick or a treat? This movie is a dirty trick on all Halloween fans, but worth checking out just for the weirdness — especially for John Carpenter completists.

After Halloween 2, Carpenter and Hill had a combined vision for the future of Halloween: turn it into a series of anthology films rather than continuing the story of Michael Myers. As such, Season of the Witch, directed and written by Halloween’s production designer Tommy Lee Wallace, has nothing to do with the prior two films apart from recalling a single vague line in the second film about how Samhain, October 31, was a Druidic holiday often accompanied by ritual sacrifice.

Today, we’re used to horror franchises that expand out from their original storylines and go in different directions, thanks to more recent series like Paranormal Activity and The Conjuring. But Season of the Witch lacked any connective tissue with its predecessors and strayed too far from the formula fans had come to expect. In fact, Season of the Witch actually made the original Halloween a movie that exists within its storyline, which totally destroyed any semblance of continuity.

Season of the Witch instead treads a line between Lovecraftian horror and a corporate sci-fi dystopia, planting itself in California instead of Illinois and insinuating a terrifying global Halloween night conspiracy, all originating in a tiny rural company town. Frequent Carpenter collaborator Tom Atkins stars as a middle-aged doctor drawn into the madness after a patient dies at the hands of mysterious suit-wearing shills for a corporation that sells Halloween masks. Yes, that is a real sentence I just wrote.

The film meanders between Atkins’s frequently far-fetched sleuthing and sinister happenings around the factory and its town, while the company owner, a cross between an evil Willy Wonka and Lord Summerisle, oversees all. The whole ridiculous plot comes to a head with about as much incoherence as you’d expect based on everything I’ve just written.

Predictably, Season of the Witch was a box office flop and ended Carpenter and Hill’s hopes of turning the franchise into an anthology series. But then it gradually became a cult classic among horror fans; you can see its influence on modern horror films like Cabin in the Woods, and its fans argue that if it had been a standalone film called Season of the Witch, its reception would have been much different.

Also, the soundtrack to Season of the Witch, again scored by Carpenter, contains a theme titled “Chariots of Pumpkins,” and it is fantastic.

Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers, and Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers: the ones that ditched Laurie for cute kids and evil Druids

Donald Pleasence reacts to the news that he has to keep making these films.

Taglines: “Tonight, HE’S BACK!”; “Michael lives. AND THIS TIME THEY’RE READY!”; “Terror never rests in peace.”

Are they direct sequels? Yes, very loosely.

Are they tricks or treats? TRICKS, don’t be fooled — we watched these films so you won’t have to.

I need to state for the record that Donald Pleasence is a truly great actor. His performance in the Outback horror Wake in Fright is unforgettable. He was a perfect Bond villain. He was nominated for four Tony Awards! But he also loved to chew the scenery, and the middle period of the Halloween franchise gave him plenty to sink his teeth into.

The fourth and fifth films, churned out in 1988 and ’89, attempt to carry on the saga of the Strodes and Michael Myers without Jamie Lee Curtis. A slew of new writers and directors dropped into the franchise, and the fourth film replaced Laurie Strode after killing her off in a car accident, sight unseen, by inventing her 8-year-old daughter, an annoyingly cherubic little girl named Jamie.

Nothing that happens in Halloween 4, 5, or 6 ultimately matters because they’re all generic teen slashers with Spielbergian little kids and a raving Pleasence at their centers, and because the sixth film promptly kills Jamie to make way for a new set of victims (including Clueless-era Paul Rudd) and a whole lot of wacky new plot: Michael apparently fathered a son by his niece Jamie (wtf) while she was being held hostage for, like, a decade (wtf!) in a full-on goth cult(!!!) as part of yet another vast Druidic conspiracy orchestrated by the head of Michael’s sanitarium to mystically implant Michael with superhuman sociopathy, because HALLOWEEN.

But none of that matters either, because Halloween 6 was widely hated, it flopped at the box office, and then its dumb plot was also totally ignored by every other film to follow.

However, one thing that is interesting in these films is the development of Haddonfield as a self-aware character in the tale of Michael Myers. The police force evolves into an overeager, hapless army pitting itself against Michael’s eventual return, while the townspeople, believing he’s finally gone, turn him into a proper urban legend.

The main draw of this misbegotten middle part of the Halloween saga is Pleasance’s Dr. Loomis. Armed only with a pathetic and paltry pistol, Loomis seems to be the only character capable of facing down Michael again and again and surviving to tell the tale. And Pleasence always manages to walk a line between stone-cold sanity and madness that keeps Loomis vulnerable and endearing even at his campiest.

Unfortunately, Pleasence died after filming but before the release of the sixth film, which is dedicated to his memory. And without him, there really was only one other person who could keep the Halloween flame burning.

Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998): the one where Laurie’s back

We stan a scream queen with a kickass haircut and a survivor’s outlook on life.

Taglines: “The night SHE fought back!”; “This summer, terror won’t be taking a vacation.” (This one makes sense when you realize the film was released in August.)

Is it a direct sequel? Yes, as the title implies.

Is it a trick or a treat? Honestly, this one’s a treat.

Director Steve Miner wisely brought Jamie Lee Curtis back to the franchise for H20 by completely ignoring anything that happened in films 3 through 6 aside from the barely mentioned car accident used to kill off Laurie Strode to begin with. Here we learn she faked her own death, moved out to California, and became a prep school head under an assumed identity. Michael tracks her down anyway, just in time for her son’s 17th birthday, and the madness begins again.

Two things are apparent when you watch H20. The first is how much the ’90s did to advance the treatment of women in horror films, and how markedly different adult Laurie is from her tepid, terrified younger self. Though she’s still clearly traumatized from what happened to her, she’s also built an amazing life for herself as an academic and a mother — and now she’s prepared to do battle to keep that life. H20 is the first film where any of the women targeted by Michael, or indeed any of the victims at all, really attempt to fight back instead of just running around in terror for most of the movie. And the film goes a step further by having Laurie choose to stay and confront Michael even when given the opportunity to escape.

The second is how much of an immediate impact Scream had on horror films of the late ’90s. (At one point, the film shows its group of teenagers watching Scream 2 on Halloween night.) H20 is far more character-driven than any of its predecessors, and it pivots around Laurie and her relationship with her son (Josh Hartnett). This is the moment you can see the Halloween producers finally figuring out that horror franchises can be about more than just horror.

Halloween: Resurrection (2001): the one where Michael kills Laurie

Please, let the white dude cosplaying as Samuel L. Jackson tell you everything you need to know about this movie.

Tagline: “Evil finds its way home.”

Is it a direct sequel? Supposedly it’s a loose sequel to H20, but we reject this premise.

Is it a trick or a treat? The WORST TRICK, stay away unless you like kitschy early internet nostalgia and lots of blurry found-footage trickery.

Halloween: Resurrection is so on-trend for summer 2001 that it’s almost worth watching for the cheesy time capsule aspects: the impact of early reality television, the advent of online relationships, and, of course, the way both Scream and Blair Witch Project had led to a trend of so-meta-it-hurts horror films experimenting with found footage and shaky cams. This one sees a bunch of college students watching and cheering on a bunch of other college students — and Busta Rhymes, for some reason — as they invade the old Myers house for a live televised reality show that of course turns into a house of horrors when Michael shows up for some slice-and-dice.

Where is Laurie during all this, you ask? Gone is the assertive survivor Laurie from H20. The film strips her of her new life and plants her in an institution as a result of the ending of that previous film. Then it kills her off within the first 10 minutes, giving the series its low point when she kisses Michael on the mouth and promises to “see you in hell.”

What Resurrection misses completely is that Halloween just isn’t Halloween without Michael battling a specific set of characters. To the extent that Halloween 4-6 worked, they worked because Michael was still pursuing the Strode family and still combating Dr. Loomis. Take away that connection and you’re left with a formulaic slasher movie that no amount of clever stylization can cover.

Halloween (2007) and Halloween II (2009): the Rob Zombie ones

Taglines: “Evil has a destiny”; “Family is forever.”

Are they direct sequels? No, these are spiritually faithful remakes of both.

Are they tricks or treats? Very sharp treats.

From the emotionally violent opening scene, in which we gradually realize we’re seeing a picture of Michael Myers’s deeply dysfunctional home life before he snapped and went on his childhood killing spree, Rob Zombie’s take on Halloween announces itself as something different, a cut above all the other films in the franchise, bar the first one.

By giving Michael a backstory similar to the ones that often breed real-life serial killers, the film humanizes him and belies the idyllic “terror comes to suburbia” aspect of all the previous films. The film also delves into an aspect of his story that to this point had only been described after the fact: his psychotherapy sessions with Dr. Loomis, here played by Malcolm McDowell. The second film, Halloween II, also extends this interest in psychology to Laurie Strode (played this time by Scout Taylor-Compton), plumbing the emotional and psychological connection between her and Michael.

Like all Rob Zombie films, these are steeped in violence and obscenity, but the deranged atmosphere does more to make Michael feel interesting than all the previous films — he’s both a superhuman killer and a boy plainly driven by the sociological factors that turn people into sociopaths. As horror films go, these are among the better offerings of the aughts’ crop of gritty slashers, à la Wolf Creek. And because it’s still about Michael Myers, it all feels epic and larger than life in a way few of those other films do.

Halloween (2018): the new one

Of course, we can’t tell you too much about the new film, except to say that it will feel very familiar to Halloween fans. Curtis’s Laurie is back in full-on survivor (and survivalist) mode. And this time, her whole family has to face down Michael with her — whether they’re ready or not.

This version of Halloween pays direct homage to the original Halloween in numerous ways. It expects its viewers to know and love the original film, and to react to its echoes years later. Above all, this Halloween is fully aware of what Halloween films do best: let Michael Myers terrify viewers as he conducts his regularly scheduled eerie rampage through Haddonfield. So prepare to meet the face of pure evil — for the 10th time in four decades.