The 1978 film Halloween became an unexpected hit that made director John Carpenter’s career and kickstarted the slasher sub-genre that would pretty much define horror movies well into the 1980s. It also, even more unexpectedly, launched a film series that would span four decades and encompass, with this week’s release of Halloween Kills, 12 films. (A 13th, Halloween Ends, is due next year.)
In the process, the Halloween franchise has created a continuity so knotty it’s sometimes hard to figure out how one film connects to another, or if they connect at all. It’s a series with three films called simply Halloween (and two called Halloween II) that’s united by little more than the presence of a masked killer named Michael Myers — except for the one movie that doesn’t feature Michael at all.
The original Halloween’s basic premise doesn’t stretch much further than the title Carpenter and co-writer Debra Hill gave the first draft of their screenplay: The Babysitter Murders. Yet that simple idea has spawned a sometimes baffling horror multiverse that’s home to several parallel realities. Call it the Halloweenverse. Here’s a guide to understanding where each film falls within it.
Halloween II (1981)
It’s worth noting right away that you can watch the original Halloween and stop there. There’s a reason it’s proven so enduring and influential: it’s great. Carpenter applies a Hitchcockian technical mastery to the story of a jumpsuit-clad mental hospital escapee who returns to his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois on Halloween night, 15 years after murdering his sister. Everything works, from Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey’s fluid, spooky camera work to Jamie Lee Curtis’s performance as Laurie Strode, the last babysitter standing, to Carpenter’s stripped down synth score. Halloween didn’t invent the slasher film but it cemented most of its conventions.
It also proved a tough film to top, both by its imitators and its own sequels. Carpenter and Hill returned to write and produce 1981’s Halloween II but outsourced directorial duties to Rick Rosenthal, who delivered a murkier follow-up that, in keeping with the changes that had overtaken the slasher film in the years after the original’s release, substitutes gore and sadism for suggestiveness.
Picking up mere moments after Halloween’s final scene, II makes two major additions to Halloween lore: 1) Laurie learns she’s Michael’s sister, adopted by another family after Michael’s institutionalization. 2) Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance), Michael’s doctor-turned-relentless-pursuer uncovers a vague connection between Michael and the Gaelic festival of Samhain, suggesting he might have some kind of supernatural powers.
Some, but not all, sequels would run with some, but not all, of these new twists. Michael seems to die a definitive death at the film’s end and these two movies combine to tell a self-contained story that could easily have been the end of Michael Myers.
THE SILVER SHAMROCK SPLINTER UNIVERSE
Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)
Carpenter thought he was done with Myers after Halloween II. His plan: turn Halloween into a kind of anthology series in which each new film told a different story. Halloween III: Season of the Witch became the first and only entry in this reinvention. Working from a plot by British science fiction great Nigel Kneale (who had his name removed from the film) it tells the story of the sinister Silver Shamrock Novelties company whose president (Dan O’Herlihy), in an attempt to create a Celtic-inspired pagan sacrifice on a massive scale, uses computer technology to create Halloween masks designed to kill children. Roundly dismissed at the time, Halloween III has since rightly picked up a cult following. It’s unconnected, however, to the other Halloween films. How unconnected? A television can be seen advertising the original Halloween.
THE DRUIDIC BOOGEYMAN OFFSHOOT
Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)
Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989)
Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995)
Turns out Michael Myers wasn’t dead after all. In this trilogy, which picks up where Halloween II leaves off, Michael spends the next few years in a coma. In the meantime, Laurie marries, has a kid named Jamie (Danielle Harris), then dies in a car accident, leaving Jamie in the care of her unsuspecting adopted parents. By far the most convoluted corner of the Halloweenverse, these films feature a Druid cult, a mysterious man in black, psychic powers, and, in the long-delayed Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, Paul Rudd playing the grown-up version of the little kid Laurie was babysitting in the 1978 original. Pleasance returns as Dr. Loomis in each, lending some gravity to an increasingly silly and convoluted story. The last entry was released posthumously. This corner of the Halloweenverse seems to have died with him.
THE SELF-AWARE REVIVAL
Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998)
Halloween: Resurrection (2002)
Here’s where it starts to get confusing. Take out Halloween III: Season of the Witch and you can follow a straight line from Halloween through Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers. Halloween H20 changes that by choosing to pretend anything made after Halloween II didn’t count. Here Laurie, played by a returning Jamie Lee Curtis, is still alive, living under an assumed name, and working as headmistress at a boarding school. This does not thwart Michael from tracking down his sister (yeah, that detail counts again) and killing anyone who gets in his way.
The popularity of Scream and the late-’90s slasher revival it heralded all but assured that Halloween would make a comeback. Scream writer Kevin Williamson made some uncredited contributions to Halloween H20, which helps explain the film’s knowing tone. (Its meta touches extend to casting Curtis’s mom, Psycho star Janet Leigh, in a small role.) After a while, however, it just becomes a pretty standard ’90s slasher movie, though Curtis’s presence helps. That’s briefly true of the mostly dreadful Halloween: Resurrection, too, at least until Michael finally kills Laurie early in the film. R.I.P. Laurie Strode. (Don’t worry. She’ll be back.)
Halloween II (2009)
Want to start an argument among a group of horror fans? Ask them what they think about Rob Zombie’s Halloween. Few horror movies have inflamed passions so intensely. Since expanding from music into filmmaking with House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects, Zombie had established himself as a director of stylish, uncompromising horror films filled with dark humor and homages to ’70s grindhouse films when he got the call to revive Halloween.
Zombie opted to explore all the questions that seemingly didn’t interest Carpenter. Where Carpenter presented Michael Myers as a figure of pure, relentless evil, Zombie wondered what might produce such a monster. What trauma led him to kill as a child? What in his broken psyche inspired him to return to the place he became a killer to kill again as an adult? It’s a daring approach at odds with the many cut-and-paste horror remakes of the ’00s. And while Zombie’s choices are sometimes easier to respect than enjoy, it’s an undeniably new, disturbing take on familiar material.
Zombie’s two Halloween films are also part of an entirely different Halloween continuity featuring a new Laurie (Scout Taylor-Compton) and a new Loomis (Malcolm McDowell). It produced a similarly eccentric sequel, Halloween II, then drew to a close. Zombie stepped away and a planned Halloween 3D never got off the ground, presumably shuttering this corner of the Halloween-o-verse for good.
THE ORIGINAL FLAVOR REINTRODUCTION
Halloween Kills (2021)
Halloween Ends (2022)
The rights to the Halloween franchise have changed hands several times over its existence and in 2016 they landed at Blumhouse Productions, a company known for its inventive (and often frugally made) horror films. Seeking to get back to the series’ roots, the company brought in Carpenter as an advisor (and later, composer), lured Curtis back to play Laurie, hired the team of David Gordon Green and Danny McBride (with Jeff Fradley) as writers, and handed the directorial reins to Green. Green had never made a horror film but had talked about it for years. He directs the third film to be called simply Halloween as if he’d been working out its set pieces in his head long before he got the opportunity.
So where do these films fit into the series? Mostly by shaving off all the other Halloween sequels. Halloween (2018) is, somewhat confusingly, a direct sequel to Carpenter’s original Halloween (1978). It’s an attempt to get back to Halloween basics. The events of 1981’s Halloween II including the revelation that Laurie’s actually Michael’s sister? Never happened. All that business with Druids and Laurie’s daughter Jamie? Forget about it. The last time Curtis returned to play a grown-up Laurie in Halloween H20 and its sequel? Gone. The Zombie films? You can forget those too.
Instead, Halloween returns to modern-day Haddonfield, where Laurie lives in fear of Michael Myers’s return inside a heavily armored house. Judy Greer and Andi Matichak play, respectively, the daughter and granddaughter who’ve grown up watching that fear ruin Laurie’s life, only to see her swing into action when it proves to be prescient.
Conceived as a trilogy, everything about the project, including the title of next year’s Halloween Ends, suggests Green’s films will draw the story to a definite close. Or as definite as anything gets in the Halloween-o-verse. There’s probably a filmmaker somewhere waiting to pick up on some stray strand from, say, Halloween 5 and spin from it a whole new Haddonfield and different sort of Michael Myers ready to terrorize its residents.