Schlock & Awe 02: Dr. Sam LoomisA column article, Schlock & Awe by: Paul Brian McCoy
In an apocalyptic film landscape littered with cash-bloated blockbusters and soul-curdling cynicism, sometimes the only films worth praising are those with the guts and the heart to risk everything. These are the films that tap primal energies and deliver the goods in ways that make manifest the magic of moviemaking. These are the films and performances that fill us with Schlock and Awe!
Movie serial killers (and let's be honest, real serial killers) have rabid fans all around the world. Jason, Chucky, Freddie, Leatherface, and others support franchise after franchise through reboot after reboot, carrying the weight of their fandom fully on their shoulders. Halloween's Michael Myers, on the other hand, built his following not only by being the biggest, baddest, unstoppable killer in the movies, but by having the greatest adversary of them all.
Hell, none of the others even have a real antagonist worthy of returning film after film.
None of the others have a Dr. Samuel Loomis.
And as far as I'm concerned, if Donald Pleasence isn't in your film playing the good, mad doctor, it's not really a Halloween film. Yeah. I said it. Sure, Curtis is iconic, but in the end, it wasn't against her that Michael defined himself. It was against the Doctor who tried to treat him for the first eight years of his imprisonment, and then spent the next seven trying to keep him locked up forever.
As any fan of Batman or Spider-Man will tell you, your hero is only as good as the villains they inspire. Well it goes the other way, too. There's not another movie monster with an opponent as amazing as Dr. Sam Loomis (although Van Helsing may be his only rival). But it wasn't always that way.
Loomis was a psychiatrist at the Smith's Grove sanitarium when six-year old Michael Myers was placed in his care after murdering his sixteen-year-old sister on Halloween night, 1963. Determined to discover what could trigger such an act, Dr. Loomis spent four hours a day for six straight months trying to reach Michael, but to no avail.
Instead of getting inside of Michael's head, the child slipped inside Loomis'.
He became convinced that Michael wasn't insane.
He became convinced the boy was evil.
Donald Pleasence was born on October 5, 1919 in Worksop, Nottinghamshire, England, and made his London stage debut in 1942 as Valentine in Twelfth Night. During the Second World War, he was initially a conscientious objector but changed his stance and was commissioned into the Royal Air Force. On August 31, 1944 he was shot down during a raid on Agenville, taken prisoner by the Nazis, and held in a German prisoner-or-war camp. Always one to take any opportunity to perform, he produced and acted in plays while a POW.
In 1954 he received critical acclaim as Syme in Nigel Kneale's (the Quatermass series) adaptation of 1984 for the BBC alongside Peter Cushing. This was followed by roles as Prince John in the ITV Adventures of Robin Hood (1956-58) and two appearances alongside Patrick McGoohan (The Prisoner) in Danger Man in 1960 and 61. His first appearance on American Television was as the suicidal Professor Ellis Fowler in the 1962 Twilight Zone episode, "The Changing of the Guard" where he read the quote "Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity" and then discovered that he had inspired and enriched the lives of his students over the years.
On Monday, October 30, 1978, the now 21 year-old Michael Myers was to be transported back to his home county for trial to determine whether he would be freed or confined indefinitely. Dr. Loomis, determined not to let Michael out into society plans to drug him with Thorazine, crossing the line of ethical behavior for what he believes will be the betterment of all.
Loomis is by this point, a laughing stock. His beliefs about Michael's inherent evil are met with ridicule or, at best, mild amusement. He's lost his mind obsessing over this man-child who has barely even moved for the past fifteen years. As they prepare a hospital car to move Michael, Dr. Loomis' worst nightmares come true.
Michael takes action, hijacking the car and escaping for his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois.
Just in time for Halloween.
Over the course of the following 24 hours (1978's Halloween and 1981's Halloween II, both of which took place over the same night), Michael Myers is responsible for the deaths of fourteen people and nearly murders his other sister (surprise!) Laurie, before Dr. Loomis sacrifices his own life to stop the unstoppable killer.
Or did he?
Pleasence made his feature film debut in The Beachcomer (1954) and went on to work consistently throughout the 50s, 60s, and 70s. His intense voice and penetrating gaze made him a natural for film work, and also gave him a penchant for portraying madmen or villains. However one of his most fondly remembered roles was that of the POW forger Colin Blythe in The Great Escape (1963).
But it was 1967's You Only Live Twice that made him easily recognizable in the US, where he played James Bond's arch-nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofield -- the first time the character's face was seen in the film series. The performance was so iconic that it permeated pop culture, eventually providing the inspiration for Dr. Evil in Mike (not the unstoppable serial killer) Myers' Austin Powers film series.
While he worked in a wide range of genres, there was something about the man that made him perfect for science fiction and horror. He made memorable appearances in Fantastic Voyage (1966), THX 1138 (1971), and Raw Meat (1973), as well as appearing on television in both the US and the UK.
But it was in 1978 that Pleasence embodied one of the most iconic characters in horror cinema -- who wasn't a monster or a killer, anyway -- Dr. Samuel Loomis in Halloween. The John Carpenter connection continued through the 80s as the director cast Pleasence again as the President of the United States in Escape From New York (1981) and then as a priest standing against the ultimate evil in Prince of Darkness (1987).
Clearly, Carpenter saw a way to cast Pleasence against type and helped to cement the actor's place center stage in genre film history.
Ten years after nearly dying in the explosion that also nearly killed Michael Myers, Dr. Loomis is still wary of the comatose mass murderer. Not only was Loomis justified in his fears about Michael, but now the two are even connected physically as they both bear the heavy burns that come with nearly being roasted alive. There's an eerie psychological parallel between the two, also, as Loomis' obsession with detaining or killing Michael is just as passionate and driving as Michael's urge to kill his family.
And when the comatose Michael overhears that his sister Laurie is dead, but her daughter Jamie (Danielle Harris) is still alive in Haddonfield, he awakens and the slaughter begins again. This time, while those who never experienced Michael's rampage are doubtful, Haddonfield's Sheriff Meeker (Beau Starr), remembering the violence from a decade earlier is easily enlisted to Loomis' cause.
At least sixteen more people lose their lives to Michael as he stalks and threatens his niece -- it may be more, but we never really find out how many police officers died in the Police Station Massacre. Let's just say ALL OF THEM and move on from there. But Loomis did everything he could this time, and even with the cooperation of everyone in Haddonfield, from the police to a friendly roving lynch mob, there was just no stopping Michael.
And then, after it looks like Michael is finally stopped for good -- in a volley of gunfire that could have been lifted entirely from the finale of The Wild Bunch -- Loomis believes the torture is finally ended. Until little Jamie, who touched Michael's hand as he lay "dying," stabs her mother with a pair of scissors and stands at the head of the stairs mimicking Michael's empty stare.
Being a man of science and medicine, Dr. Loomis responds accordingly...
After Halloween II, Donald Pleasence had assumed that Dr. Loomis was dead and he was done with the character, but the good Doctor proved to be nearly as indestructible as the killer he hunted.
Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers had a great idea, a solid script, and a director who understood the difference between the Halloween franchise and other serial murder series. It provided a nice balance between the Michael/Loomis hostilities and Michael's hunt for little Jamie (named in homage to Curtis). What helped to make this film work as well as it did was a bravura performance from 11 year-old Danielle Harris that helped to make her as essential to the Michael Myers Mythos as Jamie Lee Curtis was a decade earlier.
The film was a welcome return to the marketplace also, spending two weeks in the Number One spot and garnering the best reviews since Carpenter's original. Because of this, a sequel was rushed into production and a short year later, Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers hit the big screen and quickly sank. It was the least successful Halloween film to date, being beaten at the box office even by the Michael-less third installment.
There were conflicts over the script -- Pleasence and others thought that with the way 4 ended, Jamie should have been the new killer, the familial bloodlust passed on to a new generation. However, producer Moustapha Akkad disagreed, insisting that Michael return, and the film began by recapping the ending of 4, but this time we see Michael escape the rain of bullets, ending up comatose in the cabin of a hermit until the following Halloween eve, when he woke up and went on another killing spree.
The failure of Halloween 5 put the franchise on hold for six years.
A year after nearly murdering his niece, Michael returns to try again, and a traumatized Jamie tries to deal with the nightmarish flashes of psychic connection that she shares with her uncle -- the connection that pushed her to stab her own mother at the end of the previous film.
Halloween 5 stumbles all over itself trying to figure out what worked in the previous films and desperately tries to grab all that former glory for itself, but to no avail. The direction is sloppy, the script is a jumbled mess, new characters are introduced for the sole purpose of becoming victims, and Pleasence was at odds with the director from the very first day about how Dr. Loomis should be played.
But with that said, there are still interesting things going on here.
Things that are almost good enough to salvage the positively stagnant middle section of the film.
Loomis' relationship with Jamie is wonderful. He treats her harshly, but with respect and a desperate need to save her. Jamie, when she's not slipping into frightening trances and experiencing Michael's violence as though she were murdering people herself, is remarkably mature. When the time comes to lure Michael to his old house, she is up for the challenge, and together she and Loomis set a trap that captures Michael for real this time.
But not before Loomis fills him full of tranquilizers and beats the living hell out of him with a 2x4.
But this is not the end.
Earlier in the film, a mysterious stranger arrived in Haddonfield wearing a long black coat, a black hat, and carrying a black bag. On his wrist is a strange runic tattoo. The same tattoo we eventually see on Michael Myers' wrist as well! This is a new twist. And one that I like.
The Man in Black appears here and there throughout the film, but really makes an impact on the story in the final moments, when he enters the Haddonfield Police Station -- apparently newly manned after the slaughter a mere year earlier -- and proceeds to MURDER EVERYONE IN THE BUILDING, LIBERATING MICHAEL.
I can remember sitting in the theater watching this film when it was released and being fairly bored with most of it. But when Jamie gets out of the police car and wanders into the police station -- a police station that is on fire, filled with dead police officers, and quite possibly TWO unstoppable killers -- I was immediately ready for more. I had forgiven the missteps and inanities of everything that had come before. I wanted to find out who this guy was with the tattoo and the awesome fashion sense.
Then I waited for six years.
I may have been the only one waiting. Well, me and Moustapha Akkad. Well, me, Moustapha, and screenwriter Daniel Farrands.
Farrands had set out to write the next chapter in the Michael Myers saga and impressed Akkad with the amount of research he had done compiling a timeline, biographies of characters, and interesting historical info about the rune tattoo. It was the Celtic rune "Thorn" and Farrands was able to pull elements that had been fairly dormant since the original Halloween -- particularly a bit of Celtic mythology that only appeared in the Halloween novelization.
Farrands is kind of my hero at this point.
However, once hired, the script went through several (eleven) drafts, morphing from one type of film to another, and ultimately suffering under the direction of Joe Chappelle -- a director who ultimately put Halloween 6 behind him and became a very successful television director. Chappelle did on-set rewrites, mismanaged the crew, deleted scenes indiscriminately, and generally mishandled the entire shoot according to the Halloween: 25 Years Later documentary from Anchor Bay Entertainment.
Ultimately a cut was put together and approved by the producers of the film, but when it was test-screened, the audience hated the ending, which centered on a Celtic druidic ceremony, magical runes, and a surprising twist for Dr. Loomis' character.
Jamie Lloyd Carruthers (played by J.C. Brandy after the producers refused to pay Danielle Harris more than she was paid years earlier for Halloween 4) was kidnapped by the mysterious Man in Black who rescued Michael from the Haddonfield Police Station, and now, six years later, she gives birth to a baby boy in a strange underground facility surrounded by weird Druids. When a doomed nurse helps her to escape with her baby, the chase is on and Michael is hot on her trail.
Meanwhile, Dr. Loomis has found peace. He lives alone out in the woods, away from civilization, working on his memoirs, when the chief administrator of Smith's Grove Sanitarium, Dr. Terrence Wynn (Mitch Ryan) arrives on his doorstep, offering him the position when he retires. Loomis declines, finally happy with his life and free of the curse of Michael Myers.
Until, that is, they hear Jamie call in to a radio talk show covering Haddonfield's banning of Halloween celebrations, desperate for help from Dr. Loomis. And just like that, Loomis is back in the shit. He rushes to Haddonfield with Wynn and crosses paths with Tommy Doyle (played by a young and very hard to take seriously Paul Rudd in one of his first feature film appearances) -- the little boy Laurie was babysitting that night all those years ago when Michael first came home.
And here's where things get weird.
Depending on whether you watch the theatrical release of the fabled bootleg Producer's Cut, you get a very different story in the last act of this film.
What we saw in the theaters was Dr. Wynn revealed to be the Man in Black and the leader of a Celtic Druid Cult, who tried to recruit Loomis, but when rejected, ends up being slaughtered by Michael, along with his entire staff of doctors and nurses doing genetic experiments -- maybe to breed a new Michael? Who knows? After that, Paul Rudd, in what can only be described as the greatest answer to Clue ever, beats the shit out of Michael with an iron bar in the laboratory. And then they escape with Michael's nephew in tow.
And our hero, Dr. Loomis? He says there's unfinished business to attend to and goes back inside only to find Michael's mask on the ground. Then as we cut to the young heroes driving away, we hear Loomis scream. Supposedly, this is meant to imply that Michael kills Loomis.
With no actual footage.
What. The. Fuck?
No, really. What the fuck?
Even if there was some merit to this bizarre hijacking of the Michael and Sam show, you simply cannot allow the central antagonist of a series five films long to disappear, never to be seen again.
The Halloween films after this one, H2O and Resurrection, rebooted the series, going back and pretending that nothing after Halloween II existed. And we won't even mention those Rob Zombie abortions, except to say, no. Just, no. There are a couple of reasons for this, but the popular one is that that an audience who accepts that Jason Voorhees returned from Hell and may have been spawned by the Necronomicon, an audience who accepts that a serial killer performed a magical ritual and found his soul trapped in a murderous doll, and an audience who accepts that a child murderer stalks people in their dreams killing them in surreal ways, could not deal with Michael Myers being powered by Druidic magic and the killing of his family being part of a Celtic ritual.
But the real reason is that on February 2, 1995, in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France, Donald Pleasence died from heart failure after complications following heart valve replacement surgery.
Because Pleasence was dead when the fateful test screening occurred, triggered the clusterfuck of a reshoot that became the theatrical release, there was no way to salvage Loomis' character arc. There just wasn't any other footage that could be used. Years later, the Producer's Cut began making the rounds on the bootleg circuit, and with it we finally got to see what was originally intended as the end of the Michael/Loomis relationship. Or rather than the end, the new beginning.
And it was just as weird and almost as sloppy.
In it, Wynn is still the leader of the cult, but Michael is the father of his own nephew (ew!), the baby is to be sacrificed and the "curse of Thorn" will be passed on to another boy, Michael is defeated not by an iron pipe beatdown but by magic runes that freeze him in his path (um...), and Loomis doesn't die off-screen. Instead, he is made the new leader of the cult against his will, the Thorn tattoo magically appears on his wrist, and he is now responsible for controlling Michael -- or the new boy killer, since Michael skips town having ditched his trademark costume and now sporting the Man in Black outfit.
Loomis ends the film screaming in anguish all right, but he's not dead by any means. He's just fucked and knows it. It's not the greatest ending, but it shoved the Michael/Loomis relationship into a very different territory; one that could have played out nicely in future films. Pleasence's death, however, threw the potential sequel and all of it's bizarre new story elements, into a tailspin. Thus, the reshoot. Thus, the travesty.
Thus, the end of the Halloween series, as far as I'm concerned.
Overall, the arc that Dr. Samuel Loomis goes on is one of the greatest in horror film history. The character has no real rival and the performances by Donald Pleasence were always nuanced, playful, tragic, and real, elevating whatever miserable excuse for a script he was handed into something magical.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor/editor for Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is available at Amazon US & UK, along with his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation (US & UK). He recently contributed the 1989 chapter to The American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1980s (US & UK) and has kicked off Comics Bulletin Books with Mondo Marvel Volumes One (US & UK) and Two (US & UK). Paul is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy.