Poor, but with good bits. It's a masterpiece compared with 3, but a good-sized step down from 2. Nevertheless some of those good bits are very good indeed.
Donald Pleasence is back and he's fantastic. This is my favourite performance of his that I've yet seen in anything... he's built on everything he brought to the first two films and created this crippled, shambling creature who's in his own way as single-minded and driven as Michael Myers himself. This is a man carrying a burden of horror that's almost unbearable. It's a shame that the film around him is so middling, because this deserved wider recognition. The horror genre is full of wonderful actors doing sterling work in films that don't deserve them, and here Pleasence joins their ranks with a vengeance. At times the disparity between the quality of his performance and the film around him is jarring. He gets lots of apocalyptic dialogue that could have been cringeworthy and turns it into gold. ("We are not talking about any ordinary prisoner; we are talking about Evil on two legs!" "You're talking about him as if he were a human being. That part of him died years ago.")
The continuity of the Halloween series is complicated. You have the cornerstone of the mythos, 1 & 2. The third film is off in its own universe that has nothing to do with the rest. 4, 5 and 6 are the Donald Pleasence sequels, then there's a reset as the producers realise that things were getting a bit silly. In my madness I even wanted to see the famous Producer's Cut of 6, but then I saw the theatrical version and came to my senses. 7 (H20) and 8 (Resurrection) are the Jamie Lee Curtis sequels, ignoring everything from 3 onwards and branching off in their own separate timeline. Then most recent is the Rob Zombie 2007 remake. I've heard that Halloweens 4-6 go downhill so fast your ears will pop, but I suspect they'll always be my favourites simply for Donald Pleasence. (The lack of American rappers in the cast should be an upside too.)
4-6 also have something else in common... Michael Myers's cute niece, Jamie, played in 4 and 5 by Danielle Harris and in 6 by J.C. Brandy. (Wow, porn star name or what?) She's the daughter of the Jamie Lee Curtis character, Laurie Strode, who'd died between films in this branch of the continuity. Oh, and she also has psychic powers. About her I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I like the character and the actress. Danielle Harris has one nasty glitch early on, but that line was always going to be a cliche and I'd blame the director as much as anyone for how the scene turned out. That aside, she's good. She's capable of line delivery and I buy her in the role. She was already an established child actress at that point, incidentally, and since went on to have a proper career, including a role in Rob Zombie's Halloween remake despite the fact that she was 30 years old at the time and her character was only 17. (She went topless too.) Well, back here she's 11 although her character's 7. Some people just look young.
My question mark concerns the wisdom of her being in this film in the first place. Halloween 4's main problem is that it doesn't do enough to convince you that they'd kill the kid. John Carpenter, yes. We've all seen Assault on Precinct 13. However Halloween 4 breaks the rules early on with a "you must be kidding" moment that may be in a psychic dream sequence but still feels like Cute Kid Logic. Michael Myers has reached out from under the bed and has grabbed the leg of this seven-year-old. She's already been pulled halfway underneath when suddenly she's broken free and is heading for the door! Huh? We're talking about "bullets can't stop him" Michael Myers here. A man who's indestructible and unstoppable when facing an adult, a man who can crush skulls with his bare hands. "Bah, and he'd have got away with it if it weren't for those meddling kids."
In its favour this is the last film in the series to play it straight down the middle, with all the subsequent sequels monkeying around with the formula in one way or another, but as horror it's a bit pallid. There aren't enough characters on whose behalf you can feel scared. Donald Pleasence has script immunity, being Donald Pleasence. Michael's main target is a Cute Little Girl (TM). The annoying teens are annoying even by slasher movie standards. The most important of them, Jamie's foster sister Rachel Carruthers, is so nondescript that the film was almost over by the time I realised that her role in the film wasn't just cannon fodder. It's always hard to make a good stalker sequence when one of the victims is a Movie Kid and the other a teenager with negative screen presence. What's worse, Michael Myers takes a geological age to finish escaping from hospital and getting to Haddonfield. Things perk up once he's back in business, but by then we're more than halfway through. The film has its moments, but too often it's surprisingly inept at creating suspense.
However there's good stuff too. I've already sung the praises of Pleasence, but you should also watch out for the loony old coot who gives him a lift. Now that's what I call a cameo. ("You can't kill damnation, mister! It don't die like a man dies!") Other good points:
1. Now that's a classy way to turn off the lights.
2. Low comedy with shotguns, of which there's enough to qualify as a motif. The beer bellied vigilantes are just stupid, but I had to laugh at the fate of Dumb Boyfriend.
3. John Carpenter's theme music remains awesome. It's up there with the Jaws or Superman themes for instant iconic status, which you can't say for any other horror franchise. Carpenter himself had walked away by this point, after the producers rejected his idea for a film examining the psychology of a damaged town and what Michael's atrocities had done to them. That sounds as if it could have been interesting, but the producers decided to resurrect their monster instead for another routine slasher flick. Carpenter bailed, but he left them his music.
4. Some great non-nudity at the 50-minute mark. I know, I know, but I've started doing this so I'll keep it up for the series. You don't actually see nipples, but you won't care.
Then there's the ending. I love that ending. I don't want to talk about it too much because I'll just kill the moment for those of you who've yet to see it, but it raised the entire film a few notches for me. Note that I'm not talking about the slasher climax, which is weak and pretty much stops the film from being a proper Halloween movie again after it had belatedly got its arse in gear. I'm talking about the final punchline. They could have taken the later sequels in some amazing directions with that ending, although unfortunately they didn't.
In an odd way, I'd recommend this. Taken as a whole, it's poor. However it's distinctive enough with some outstanding elements to stand out from the pack of generic slasher sequels and is at least an honest attempt to build a proper horror movie around its iconic monster. Compare with the Jason or Freddy franchises, for instance. The Halloween series may have gone up a few dead ends in its time, but at least it never descended into comedic self-parody. More enjoyable in hindsight than it is when you're actually watching it, if that's not a backhanded compliment.