A Definitive Ranking of the Halloween Films

For many years, it was a tradition for October to have at least one sequel to a long running horror franchise in which people are sliced and diced by any number of monsters. The idea of long running horror sequels is not unique – Universal put their staple of monsters in endless sequels and re-imaginings. But most people seem to associate Halloween boogie men with creatures like Jason Voorhees and Freddy Kreuger. Saw kept the tradition alive until just a few years ago, but now the whole idea seems to have gone the way of the Cenobites’ victims.

There is a reason this died out – about 90% of the films were unremarkable. The creators seemed to take on the role of a car manufacturer rather than the role of a filmmaker. They started with the same basic body and just wanted to see what weird gimmicks and gruesome exercises they could add. All the films remained the same at their core – the monster would meet this year’s group of barely-clothed teenagers, sharpen his knives, and off we went. And when all else failed, the monster could always be sent into space to douse someone in liquid nitrogen.

Several people, including some filmmakers, have tried to look for some sort of artistic merit. They’ll either claim that the films were either a satire of Reagan era hatred for youth culture and its inability to completely replicate the social and sexual repression of the 1950s or revise them to be a feminist empowerment statement about how the women who refused to be treated solely as sexual party favors would overcome societal pressure to just join the herd – inevitably, that herd would be destroyed and only the pioneers and nonconformists would survive.

I do like that last theory, but that’s obviously a sack of lies. The filmmakers had no great intent as they were shooting Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Does Dallas or whatever. Usually, it would just be a launching pad with a series that everyone knew would be successful. At best, these are a nice distraction to remind audiences that another year has passed.

There was one exception to this – the Halloween franchise. Not that it didn’t fall prey to all the errors and cheap tricks of other major horror franchises, but the sequels at least tried to tell a longer story. It also had more artistic ambition than any of the Friday the 13ths and even tried to experiment between the different sequels.

So, in the spirit of the holiday, I finally finished watching all of them. And, because the Internet needs more list-based articles, I decided to rank them in order of their quality.  Some will be obvious, but in revisiting these films, I was frequently surprised. Maybe there is an artistic ambition I’ve been missing in other sequels. Or maybe Halloween is the one exception to sequelitis.

1) Halloween – Was there any other choice?

For a while, Halloween was the most successful independent film ever released. It made Jamie Lee Curtis a star and spawned the slasher craze of the ’80s. Next to probably The Exorcist and Night of the Living Dead, Halloween is probably the most influential horror film ever.

That’s usually a bad sign for a modern audience. A film that is heavily quoted will have no surprises left. People may also wonder why the film has none of the modern conventions they’re used to. There’s little gore in Halloween, a minimal body count, (only four people are shown dying), and a prolonged first act.

But Halloween, the story of a psychotic killer named Michael Myers who breaks out of an insane asylum to kill teenagers in his home town, remembers the most important thing about horror. It’s not the violence that’s scary – it’s the anticipation of violence that’s scary. That’s why there’s such a long first act and why Myers remains a cypher. It’s irrelevant why he’s doing what he’s doing and the longer he takes, the greater the anticipation is and the more urgent the teen protagonist’s actions become.

Laurie Strode (Curtis) remains among the best horror protagonists. She doesn’t just exist to scream and survive – we get scenes of her with her friends about the boys they’d like to date. It’s become a very troublesome tend now, but horror has always had a sexual subtext. Laurie is a very frustrated character, eager to join her friends on the same Halloween hanky-panky. But, of course, her friends are the ones who fall victim to Myers.

I’m not so sure that director John Carpenter was moralizing. He was acknowledging that horror is about exposing potential dangers in the real world by applying them to supernatural creatures. Myers exists as a creature to punish irresponsibility. The characters who die by his hand are negligent and narcissistic in their pursuits, caring little about the people around them. Laurie survived by being able to think about someone other than herself, in a way that the other teens never do.

There is one major flaw with the film No one ever mentions – Dr. Loomis. His character does not exist to accomplish anything. He stands around, talking about how Michael is “pure evil” and then pulls a deus ex machina out of his trench coat to save Laurie. He’s an unnecessary distraction from the main purpose of the film.

Still, Halloween executes everything else so well that it’s easy to overlook the flaws. It’s one of the few times a cinematic slasher character was ever believable. Halloween remains one of the greatest horror thrill rides ever put on celluloid.

2) Halloween H20 – After years of increasingly weaker sequels and diminishing audience interest, the filmmakers finally realized what made Halloween work.

Scream is ultimately responsible for giving us a new Halloween sequel. The franchise was creatively dead, but after the first film was placed on a pedestal in Scream. That film’s success created a nostalgia for the first film. That nostalgia may have gotten to Jamie Lee Curtis, who signed on to reprise her role. And, in the wave of horror revival, all we needed now was a tongue-in-cheek sequel where the characters are fully aware of Myers and how they can outsmart him.

But Halloween H20 ignored that late ’90s horror approach and is stronger for it. Instead, it focused on what the film needed to focus on to be scary.

First, for the first time in a long time, we care about the potential victims of Myers.  Most slasher films treated the inevitable deaths as exercise of style. It was a way for makeup artists to show off their trade. Most of these artists were highly talented individuals and it’s amazing on a technical standpoint to watch them. But there was no emotional connection with any of the characters.

The film cheats a bit by reintroducing Laurie Strode (Curtis), now the headmistress of an elite private school in California. She’s a functional alcoholic who still has nightmares about her experience from the first two films. She also keeps her teenage son John (Josh Hartnett – remember that guy?) on a short leash while she tries to form a relationship with a new beau named Will (Adam Arkin).

What’s great is we spend a majority of the film’s run time on these characters and little on Myers as he makes his way to the prep school. We get to know Laurie, Will, and her son. There was no opportunity for them to sarcastically comment on the situation. They were scarred of Myers.

But, and this is the second reason that the film works, the experience means something. Laurie is forced to confront her demons in Myers and finally grow up. Most of the scenes with her have her acting like a teenager, where she makes out with Will on a couch and sarcastically talks to her son. She is still the same person that she was at the start of the first Halloween. The climax changes that, as she’s able to let go of her past – more dramatically and with a fire axe, but the point remains.

Horror films are a way for people to confront their own fears. Not too many people have a knife wielding maniac in their past – I hope – but everyone has something in their past they wish they could avoid. It’s a horror film that meant something, which makes it effective.

3) Halloween 4 – Whats great about Halloween 4 is that it’s the film in the series that feels the most like a sequel to the first Halloween. 

The film is less about Myers mayhem and more about the effect the events of the first film had on the people of Haddonfield. They treat him as a legend and are still afraid of him long before he actually shows up. Of course, like all legends, they don’t really believe he could ever return. Of course he does, but that attitude creates a similar suspense that existed in the first film.

It was also wise to bring in a new protagonist in the guise of Jamie Lloyd (Danielle Harris). She is Myer’s niece, who is coping with the death of her mother Laurie Strode and is haunted by nightmares of Michael. These dreams are as scary s the stabbings because they actually have a prolonged effect on a character. It’s also very easy to sympathize with Jamie and then grow concerned as she chooses to wear the same clown costume that Michael wore when he stabbed his sister to death.

What also works about the film is how it manages to respond to people who claimed violent horror films of the 80s were degrading to society. Some people in Haddonfield start a mob to kill Myers, only to kill an innocent person. So, to, does irrational fear against something vague and unknown.

Even the ending manages to leave audiences wanting more. It’s a great idea about how Myers’ influence on others is far more important than the actual bodies he’s left in his wake. That’s a far scarier message to leave people with, and a confident one. Halloween already realized that had introduced characters that had transcended beyond the screen, and Halloween 4 works because it embraces that new status.

4) Halloween 2 – I remember being profoundly disappointed by this sequel when I first saw it. It was unnecessarily violent compared to the first one, the plot twists were terrible, and the whole idea of a direct sequel taking place on the same night seemed wrong.

Halloween 2 picks up right where the first  Halloween left off, and even includes the final scene of the previous film as the opening. Laurie then goes to the hospital and Michael follows her. Audiences also find out that Laurie is Michael’s sister and he broke out of the mental asylum to finish what he started.

Part of the problem with Halloween II is just how much more violent it is compared to the first. One scene that always stuck with me involves a nurse having her head shoved into boiling water. It’s not any more graphic than any other ’80s horror film, but it just felt more unnecessarily brutal compared to the first film. Again, the first does not contain a lot of graphic violence and certainly nothing in the way of gore. So why was it turned up?

As I pondered this, I realized that Halloween II was a victim of the first film’s success. The first one had already been imitated by all other horror films in such a short time frame that everything seemed like an imitation. This meant that the filmmakers had to change their approach, and they figured that more gimmicky kills would hopefully solve the need to remain groundbreaking.

What’s left doesn’t feel as urgent or necessary as the first film. It feels so committee designed and generic that it loses a lot of thrills. The idea that we needed to find out what happened “the rest of the night” only invited comparisons to the first film, which made the tonal shift more obvious. Still, compared to the others, it still feels more like a Halloween film. Jamie Lee Curtis still does a great Laurie Strode – we even get to see her finally “get the guy,” resolving her frustration in the first film. The ending is great and did a good job of closing Myer’s story before the producers decided they needed to bring him back.

But it also shows that, far too early in the series, Halloween wanted to emulate the lesser films in the genre it helped create.

5) Halloween 3 – The third entry in the Halloween entry is, depending on who you ask, the most misunderstood or the most inept in the franchise.

When it was originally released, the complaints boiled down to one central idea – “Where was Michael Myers?” Yes, this is a film that ignored what was already established as the main plot line for the series. In fact, there is a scene of someone watching the original Halloween on TV, implying we had all been duped and that Myers was just a fictional boogeyman to distract us.

But if you listen to John Carpenter (who produced this film) the whole idea was that Halloween was always meant to be an anthology series, each delving into different aspects of terror. Halloween as a holiday was to be the only connecting theme.

It was a bold move, one that still hasn’t been tried outside of random anthology pieces. Plus, Halloween 3 wasn’t just going to be a horror film. No sir, it was going to be a horror film with a message. Predating They Live by six years, Halloween III is an indictment of American consumerism and how mass communication is turning us into dimwitted monsters.

Does that sound a little too ambitious? It is. The film’s basic plot involves a factory run by witches mass producing Halloween masks that will be triggered by a spell on Halloween night. The kids wearing them will die. How is the spell triggered? Through a TV commercial.

The social commentary is obvious, but then so is a lot of successful commentary. Plus, it is scary. I do like the ending, as a man is screaming into a phone trying to get the evil signal yanked off the air. Additionally, children rather than teenagers are the targets of the homicidal maniacs. That’s far worse, as children are more innocent characters than the horny teens Myers had been killing.

But the more you look at it, the more it falls apart. First, I don’t think anyone’s particularly concerned about ruining the “spirit of Halloween” through commercialism. Halloween is and always has been a commercial holiday. Second, why are kids all dressed in the same costume? Again, costumes and masks have never been a particular fad, and even when kids dress up as the same character, it’s not done in quite the same way. Also, I know that the whole thing is based on Celtic folklore, but the film depends far too much on Irish stereotypes in its villains.  Finally, the protagonists are not particularly memorable. I could describe Laurie Strode’s sexual frustration, her clique at high school, who she wanted to ask to the dance, everything. I could not tell you the first thing about Daniel Challis or Ellie Gimbridge. This may not have been a death-blow, but the first film had all of these elements and did them well. Maybe the solution was to not release it as a Halloween film. It still wouldn’t have much of an impact, but there would have been something.

So that’s why I put Halloween 3 right in the middle – it was the last time anyone tried to make a point in a mainstream horror film during the ’80s. Sure, it doesn’t work, but that’s what happens in experiments sometimes. And the fact that it bombed is a little tragic, because no studio really tried the same thing again until Scream was released. I can understand why people like it and I do share their sympathy. Still, it’s not a film I’m really enthusiastic about. Right at the halfway point is a good spot for this entry.

6) Halloween (Rob Zombie Remake)– What’s the scariest thing? The unknown. The feeling that the seemingly normal situation can go far out of hand. And the feeling that there may be no savior coming to help you.

That’s what worked for the original Halloween movie and what has worked for Rob Zombie’s better films. I’ve defended him when I felt he deserved it. Zombie has made some very scary films like House of 1000 Corpses. But he was dismissed because people felt he was too reliant on old horror techniques and gore.

Well, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was far scarier than The Exorcist. The reason is simple – demonic possession is not real, while weird serial killers are real. There is also the knowledge that the victims probably waited for a savior to come and that it’s impossible to every know what goes on in the mind of a serial killer.

Rob Zombie could have made a great Halloween film. But he ignored what he knew worked and spent about half the movie explaining exactly where Michael Myers came from and what made him kill. Spoiler: He had an unhappy home life. That’s it.

So of course we have to spend the first half of the film completely immersed in that home life, with Michael killing bullies while his stripper mom (Sheri Moon Zombie, who looks like she aged 20 years between House of 1000 Corpses and this) performs her trade. These scenes are boring and ruin the rest of the film. Yes, the back half does have some good moments, but they’re already familiar and the film doesn’t build to them. Myers isn’t so scary once we realize he’s not driven by “pure evil” so much as “I hated my mom’s boyfriend.”

There was one element of this film that improved on the first – its characterization of Dr. Loomis. As played by Malcolm McDowell, Loomis is a much more sympathetic character who wants to help his patients. He’s not the mad Greek chorus screaming at the residents of Haddonfiled, but someone traumatized by his personal failure. When he tries to take the blame and seemingly suffers his fate at the hands of Myers, it worked for the same way the Frankenstein monster’s proclamation that “we belong dead” worked.

I’ll give the film credit for fixing the biggest problem the original had. Too bad it ruins everything else by taking away the mystery of Myers.

7) Halloween 6 (Producer’s Cut) – I’m cheating with this one in that I’ve never seen the original theatrical version. I can imagine that’s for the best.

Halloween 6 was a production disaster that nearly killed the franchise. There were endless rewrites and reshoots while the director, original writers, and stars all disowned the work. It’s the sort of battle that was usually reserved for a Michael Cimino film or a Star Wars prequel. How pathetic is it when the producers turn Halloween 6 into a cautionary tale?

Despite the theatrical cut bombing and earning the series’ lowest score on Rotten Tomatoes, the film refused to die. This was because of the rumored superior cut, which was finally released after almost 20 years on the bootleg circuit.

It’s still not a highlight of the Halloween franchise. It features some of the worst acting in any of the films, courtesy of Paul Rudd. And the plot is nonsensical. Once again, it tries to explain what motivates Myers. In this case, it’s due to some sort of Druid curse that forces Myers to kill his family because of crops or something.

I actually did like that but because it does embrace the cheese that exists on Halloween night. The holiday is not about being disturbing, but rather offering a little thrill without creating any lasting damage. But it comes across as a comic parody of a satanic ceremony. As Spinal Tap can attest, adding the Druids to anything will often go wrong.

At least the ending is OK and Donald Pleasance gives a fine farewell performance as Loomis, who is for once the protagonist of the film rather than a useless side character. (The film is dedicated to Pleasance’s memory. He died before it was released.) But the film still suffers trying to balance too many ideas and no clear goal. No one knew what to do with Michael or even what makes Halloween movies work. For once, I wanted a slasher movie to stop trying so hard.

8) Halloween 5- I’m placing Halloween 5 below Halloween 6 because many of the problems with 6 were set up in this film. All of the supernatural ideas and the whole “curse of thorn” bit were introduced here. It also doesn’t feel so much like a film than white noise. It’s something to play in the background of a Halloween party. There’s no tension, no real plot, and nothing particularly shocking or scary.

After the successful Halloween 4, Halloween 5 should have been a fantastic entry to the series. But the end result is too short on ideas to have an appropriate impact. The filmmakers tried to do what Halloween 2 did – make a direct sequel to the previous entry without looking at what that previous entry worked. Gone is the discussion of the impact Myers’ story had on Haddonfield. Gone is all the more believable terror, replaced with psychic bonds and mysterious men in black boots. Gone is even the protagonist, who is rendered a mute after her traumatic experience with Myers in the previous film.

Gone also is any sympathy we had with the series’ other de facto mascot, Dr. Loomis. Loomis has never been a bigger boor, frequently screaming at a mute child in his dogged pursuit of Michael Myers. With this film, Loomis officially went away from Captain Ahab and closer to demented lunatic.

This film does have one good scene, in which Loomis tries to talk to Michael and get him to give up his weapon. It’s very late in the film, but it works. But the film ultimately cannot escape its feeling of redundancy. It doesn’t seek to do anything else but repeat 4. At least 6 tried to justify its existence with the new plot points.

I’ve completely forgotten what film I was talking about. Let’s move on.

9) Halloween 2 (Rob Zombie sequel) – When the best part of a Halloween movie is the part where Weird Al Yankovic shows up for a cameo, it’s not going to rank high on this list.

Rob Zombie’s sequel to Rob Zombie’s remake adds something to the franchise I would have never guessed – confusion. More than once I had to ask myself, “what in God’s name is going on?” The film presents several cheats and horror clichés, like when the protagonist is about to be murdered only to wake up in a hospital bed – and, in the case of this movie, waking up from the only scene with any legitimate tension.

What’s strange about this sequel is that there is some attempt to add something new and there are many scenes that are skillfully made. I liked the setup of Laurie and her friends going out (dressed as Rocky Horror characters) to some rock show on Halloween night. That could be the first act of a much better movie. I don’t necessarily even hate Sheri Moon Zombie reprising her role as “Mother Myers,” in this case as a hallucination Michael has about the need to “bring the family back together.”

So it’s at least trying something new, but nothing works because it’s the completely wrong tone. Nothing about the chase is thrilling and the psychological elements that are added make the film less scary. The less we know about Myers, the greater a presence he is. Somehow, it’s hard to be scared of a mama’s boy who keeps hallucinating white horses.

Even the improvements that Zombie managed to make are ruined. Dr. Loom is becomes a misogynistic jerk who is worried about his book deal. He treats his agent with contempt and can barely stand the people who are buying his book. It’s completely unnecessary for him to go back to Haddonfield and Loomis could have ended up on the cutting room floor.

Halloween II was an unnecessary follow-up to the remake. Perhaps it would have been better if the reigns were handed over to another filmmaker. Zombie presents some interesting ideas, but they would have been a lot better had they not been applied to these existing characters.

10) Halloween Resurrection – It has Busta Rhymes and Tyra Banks in it. That should be all anyone needs to say.

What was also bizarre was the fact that the entire story of the Halloween films is concluded in the first ten minutes. Jamie Lee Curtis is killed by Myers, and then there’s another 80 minutes of movie.

That’s right – Michael’s motivation is removed at the start of the film and the only protagonist that was consistently interesting is gone.

What we have left is just…odd. The whole “webcam show in Myers’ house” thing (Webcam shows were what kids had to use before YouTube came along) is meant to be a gimmick to attract the youth back to Halloween. This makes sense – the Gen Xers who made slasher films so popular were aging out of the youth culture. Additionally, The Blair Witch Project had become the sort of huge hit the original Halloween had been in the 70s. Finally, the idea that Internet houses all sorts of bizarre horrors has been proven to be all too true.

But nothing works because the film never goes anywhere with those ideas. It’s the same sort of standard slasher film that felt dated the week after it was released. Nothing was thrilling, the set up led nowhere, and that knowing meta commentary fell flat. It could pass for a sequel to I Know What You Did Last Summer if not for the William Shatner mask.

And thus, Halloween, the film that spawned a thousand imitators, limped to its conclusion by imitating those films. Part of the fact this was the last real Halloween film had to do with the tragic death of long time series producer Moustapha Akkad, who fell victim to a suicide bomber in Jordan. But from an artistic standpoint, Halloween could not adjust to new horror trends and its attempts to incorporate new media trends came across as insultingly stupid. There was no way to effectively turn a Halloween movie into The Blair Witch Project and there was no reason to try.

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1 Response to A Definitive Ranking of the Halloween Films

  1. Yep says:

    You say not seeing the theatrical version of Halloween 6 is for the best which is beyond dumb considering it’s VASTLY better than the godawful, borefest Producer’s Cut.

    Also, Zombie’s Halloween 2 and Season of the Bitch are definitively the tied worst films in the series…..by far.

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