When it was released in October of 1988, Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers reinvigorated a struggling franchise whose fanbase was clamoring for more of Haddonfield’s most infamous resident. It was up to director Dwight H. Little to resurrect the horror icon a decade after he first terrorized Laurie Strode, and this time, Michael Myers had his sights set on Laurie’s daughter, Jamie Lloyd, played by the precocious Danielle Harris.
When first approached to direct Halloween 4, Little was still an up-and-coming filmmaker with only a handful of feature film credits to his name. Dwight was excited by the prospect of getting to work on a Halloween movie, but had some initial reservations about the project after his first meeting with producer Moustapha Akkad.
“I think Moustapha had seen part of a recent film that I had done, so they called me to come in for an interview,” explained Little. “I can't remember if it was a very elaborate treatment, or maybe it was an actual screenplay that they showed me, but it was a rather long and thought-out piece on what they were initially thinking about doing with Halloween 4. When I read it, I didn't care for it, honestly. Not that I was in a great position of power or anything, because I was just a young filmmaker back then, but I thought maybe there was another way to do this.”
“So, I called up my writing partner, Alan [B.] McElroy, and we talked about it for a long time, and we came at this idea from a different place. I went back in and pitched everyone in the room a different story, and they all seemed to really light up at the thought of this new story. They asked if we could write an outline, and I said we could. So, Alan and I did an outline and then when they approved the outline, they said, 'Look, we've got to get this script done in 10 days,' because, famously, the writer’s strike was about to start.”
“Alan and I worked out all the beats and the structure and the acts and the scenes. We had worked on other spec scripts together before that hadn't been made, so we knew how to make it all work. But then once everything was hammered down, Alan went off and wrote out the scenes even more, and did all the dialogue and characters. So, I was pretty heavily involved from a story point of view.”
One returning character from the original Halloween that both Little and McElroy knew would be involved in Halloween 4 early on (beyond Myers, of course) was the ever-determined Dr. Loomis, played by the legendary Donald Pleasence.
“Moustapha must have already spoken with Donald’s agent at the point I got involved, because he said that we needed to find a way to [bring] Loomis into the script early on. I knew him from The Great Escape and some of those movies he did before his horror days. I was very excited to get to work with him on this.”
“He was so delightful to be around, but I noticed that he would get tired after about five hours, and he could get a little cranky. That was only because he wasn't a young man anymore, and he would get a little tired, which is understandable. So, I learned to get anything that Donald had to do that was either super challenging or a little more difficult first, and then schedule his day so it got easier on him the longer we had him there.”
One of the best showcases of Pleasence’s formidable and always engaging screen presence in Halloween 4 is when he’s picked up by a traveling preacher named Reverend Sawyer (Carmen Filpi, who was also a legendary talent in his own right) and they discuss their shared interest in hunting down evil, and even share a swig of whisky along the way.
Looking back, Dwight discussed how that scene came together, saying, “First of all, that's full on due to Alan McElroy. We talked about it, because we wanted to figure out a way to lay down some of the mythology of who Michael might be, but wanted to make sure it didn’t feel forced at all. But that brilliant dialogue, that's really because of Alan. That's his wheelhouse.”
“The scene was interesting, though, because we shot it on day one of production. It was very challenging for me because we were just getting to know the crew and just getting to know the cast, and none of us had really settled into a routine yet. I had this fairly difficult and complicated scene to do, so I was nervous. But both Donald and Carmen were spot-on. I didn't have a single problem, and they were both excellent. Looking back now, I definitely think it was a lot to take on for day one of a shoot. I'm not sure I would do that again [laughs],” Little added.
When it came time to cast the two actresses that would become the heart of Halloween 4, Dwight knew he needed a duo that could carry the emotional weight of the film’s story, and he found that in both Danielle Harris and Ellie Cornell, who play Jamie Lloyd and Rachel Carruthers, respectively.
“I adored Ellie, and she was definitely my choice,” explained Little. “There was one other candidate, though, so it was a split decision because we couldn't really come to terms. I respectfully asked Moustapha if we could do a screen test and then see how we all felt after we had a chance to see it on the big screen. He agreed to it and I directed both actresses in several scenes from the movie. We did a screen test on 35mm film and projected it in a theater, and then it was easier for them to see why I wanted Ellie to play Rachel. She’s so likeable—she has a very honest face and she was very genuine, and I think the movie really needed that.”
“With Danielle, we met her and read with her in New York. When we did the casting session and she came in, it was clear to everybody that she was the one, because she was very bright and smart and confident. I always felt that the best way to deal with Danielle was to not talk down to her and to not try and baby her. It was like, just be honest with her and constantly surround her with people that were taking care of her. She had a really good time despite how terrorizing and traumatizing it all seems.”
While both Harris and Cornell were put through the proverbial ringer on Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, one of the film’s most ambitious set pieces—the rooftop showdown between the actresses and the eponymous face of evil—was easily the hardest thing they had to endure throughout production on the sequel.
“It was terrifying. We built that roof in a field, and the gutters which ran at just the edge of the roof were only about two feet off the ground. That still put the peak of the roof way up over 20 feet in the air, so even though the roof was built on the ground, there were parts of it that were still quite high.”
“It was a very challenging scene in different ways, because it was at night, so that was number one. Also, it was very slippery. We had to be extra careful from every conceivable safety point, so everyone was rigged on a wire, and there were stunt people everywhere. If someone had slipped or skidded on those wet tiles, they would've been caught within just a second because there were people just out of frame all the time.”
“It was pretty nerve-racking anyway, but then we’re also shooting this with children, so that amplifies everything even more. I wasn't aware of it at the time, but Ellie has said that she did get herself pretty badly cut during that scene. They were all troopers, but the key to that whole scene was that it combined a lot of fears. There's the fear of Michael, but it's also a fear of heights and losing someone you love, so it's terrifying on a lot of different levels.”
There are so many reasons why Little’s Halloween 4 works as well as it does, but one of the film’s biggest assets is the way the filmmaker leaned into this idea of capturing the spirit of Halloween on a visual level, delivering one of the best opening title credits for the entire franchise, and also crafting a breathtaking sequence involving Jamie and Rachel getting separated from each other while trick-or-treating on the streets of Haddonfield.
“I love those credits, too, because they feel like autumn. They have a chill to them, no doubt. But that all came from this thought I had when I was working with Alan and we were trying to come up with this story. I thought to myself, ‘What is Halloween? I don't even freaking know.' And because this is pre-Google, I went to the library and just pulled out books about Halloween.”
“As I was studying the origin of Halloween itself, I started to see the pumpkins and the scarecrows and the abandoned farm equipment, and I realized that was what this was really about. Halloween is this ancient Agrarian end of autumn ritual. That’s what we should be seeing. And so, with the production designer and the cinematographer, we went out and created those shots. There's a shot of a scarecrow, which is one of my favorites, where he's got little gloves on his hands, and that came right out of the picture from the turn of the century. I just thought it was so eerie.”
“When I started thinking about the trick-or-treating scene in Halloween 4, because I had of course done a fair amount of trick-or-treating myself when I was a kid, I tried to bring very specific memories and very specific ideas from my experiences into those scenes. There's a lot of very tricky camerawork, too. It doesn't look tricky; it looks easy enough, but there is quite a lot of inventive camerawork to give it that feeling of how one moment, you are in a group of people and then suddenly, you are completely alone, isolated and scared. That's a terrifying feeling, and we wanted to explore that feeling with both Jamie and Rachel, because it’s a universal fear. It’s not just unique to Jamie because she’s a small child,” Dwight added.
While everyone working on Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers was happy about their involvement in the sequel (“We all had a great time together,” Dwight remarked), no one could have foreseen just how quickly the film would take off—first, when it hit theaters that fall, and then time and time again on various home media formats.
“Nobody knew what this movie would end up doing,” Little admitted. “We were flying way, way under the radar because Moustapha had decided to release it himself, so there was no big studio involved. The risk was all on him, and he put it out under his own Galaxy Releasing distribution company. Season of the Witch had not performed well, so there wasn't a huge appetite for another Halloween movie, or that’s what we thought.”
“I went over to Westwood on opening weekend and I think it was The Accused and some other movie playing at The Crest Theater. There was this huge line going down the block, and it didn't even occur to me that that would've been there for Halloween 4. I figured that it was for one of the other movies. So, I checked which theater we were playing in and it turned out that we were in the one that had the line that went around the block. I was just stunned, honestly.”
“The way that this film has hung on over the years has been quite surprising, too. They had a 30th anniversary screening recently; I was out of town for it, but they told me it sold out. I do think we have AMC to thank for some of this, because AMC has been religiously playing Return every year at Halloween, and I think that's kept the title alive.”
“It's been very rewarding,” Little continued. “I didn't realize when we were making this movie that it would resonate the way that it has. I do feel that it captures an emotion, not just of fear—although that's part of it—but this feeling of being young in a small town on Halloween. That can be highly nostalgic, even if I can't explain exactly why. I know that because we brought Michael back for Halloween 4, that was part of why fans embraced it, but I think because it was really about this one night in a Midwestern town, that’s the reason it resonates as much as it does.”
Not only did Halloween 4 successfully resurrect one of the horror genre’s greatest walking terrors, but it also made a huge impact on Dwight’s burgeoning career at the time.
“A few months after doing Halloween 4, I got a call from what used to be Cannon Films, because they wanted to do a Robert Englund version of The Phantom of the Opera. They had seen and enjoyed Halloween 4, so that opportunity for me came right on the heels of Return, and I was just super excited to work with Robert.”
“I was asked to come back for Halloween 5, though. They asked me quite a few times. My feeling was this: the ending to our film was almost perfect in such a way that I didn't really know what to do after that. And I knew they had to make a sequel because Part 4 had made them money, so obviously they should go and make a sequel. But I thought, ‘Okay, I took my best shot and I'm really happy with it,’ and I was afraid of making a mistake. I was so happy with what Alan and I were able to bring to the series," Little added, "and the fact that it was moving forward meant we must have done something right.”
Be sure to check here all month long for more special features celebrating the Class of 1988!