Halloween: The Curse of Dr. Sam Loomis

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Consider the problems of Dr. Sam Loomis.  You are a resident psychiatrist at Smith’s Grove sanitarium. You have a patient, Michael Myers, who was institutionalized after he knifed his teenage sister to death on Halloween night as a mere 6-year-old boy. At the time, you were told he had no sense of the difference between life or death, right or wrong, but after treating him for seven years, you came to understand the real problem was not Michael’s lack of understanding, but a lack of anyone else understanding Michael’s true nature. In the intervening  years, he apparently fell into a sort of catatonia, which you believe, but cannot prove, is an act. You gave up really treating him once you realized what he was, and you believe that Michael, no longer a boy, is still incredibly dangerous, however harmless he may seem. You have argued for years that he would best be kept in a higher security facility. Your colleagues and superiors do not agree, citing Michael’s catatonia, as well as a glaring lack of diagnostic evidence to support your claims. You grimly refuse to give up Michael as a patient and wait. You both wait.

Now consider the problem of Dr. Sam Loomis. Besides, obviously, the original Halloween killing, there’s that pesky lack of diagnostic evidence that Michael is still dangerous. Dr. Loomis’ passionate claims cannot withstand scrutiny. Michael  came of age in an institutional setting, much of that time apparently catatonic. There’s no indication Michael ever did anything while at Smith’s Grove to further justify Loomis’ suspicions. And yet, here is the doctor, bitterly addressing a young Michael as he stares blankly at, rather than through, a window, “You’ve fooled them, haven’t you, Michael? Well, you haven’t fooled me.”* And there he is prescribing a heavy dose of Thorazine to keep a catatonic patient subdued during a routine transfer  and referring to him pointedly as “it.” Since Michael doesn’t move or speak, it’s hard to imagine what he could have done to arouse such hypervigilance. How does one convey malevolence without actually doing anything?

Loomis’ lack of compassion and monomania is tutted at again and again as his warnings are rebuffed. Most of the time, he does find himself more suspect than his patient,  and it’s not hard to understand why. It would be easy to infer Loomis abused Michael, or at the very least, had invented a groundless, unwholesome obsession.  Michael has a knack for playing dead, while it’s his psychiatrist that comes wildly unhinged, offering no clinical prescriptions, only that Michael is “evil on two legs” and ranting omens of imminent slaughter like a modern day Cassandra. But how does he know? He cannot tell you. There is no entry for Evil in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The more Loomis talks, the more he sounds like a medieval priest or one of the judges at the Salem witch trials. In Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, Loomis hitchhikes with a travelling preacher called Mr. Sayer. For once, Loomis is on the receiving end of an apocalyptic harangue.

Jack Sayer: You’re huntin’ it, ain’t ya? Yeah, you’re huntin’ it alright. Just like me.

Dr. Samuel Loomis: What are you hunting, Mr. Sayer?

Jack Sayer: Apocalypse, End of the World, Armageddon. It’s always got a face and a name. I’ve been huntin’ the bastard for 30 years, give or take. Come close a time or two. Too damn close! You can’t kill damnation, Mister. It don’t die like a man dies.

Dr. Samuel Loomis: I know that, Mr. Sayer.

It is a strange little scene, highlighting how much more Loomis has in common with a dirty, itinerant “hunter” than possibly anyone else in the world. Mr. Sayer offers him his bottle of liquid courage and Loomis gratefully accepts the mouth germs of his kindred spirit with rare beaming.

It’s also instructive that, after being turned down by Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, Carpenter cast Donald Pleasance as Dr. Loomis, an actor who was probably best known at that point as James Bond’s nemesis Blofeld, his filmography rife with villainy, and when Rob Zombie recast Loomis for his remake, he chose Malcolm McDowell, an actor with similar bad guy bonafides. The further into the series we go, the more battle-damage Loomis takes, too, lending him a definite air of red right hand.

The thing is, we know that for all his red flags and skimpy evidence and looking like the guy who played the Devil in The Greatest Story Ever Told, Loomis is right, and local officials and Loomis’ superiors will always refuse to confront Michael’s perennial threat until it is too late. It is like Michael is Jaws, and they do not want to close the beaches. But that is the curse of Dr. Sam Loomis.

John Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween is a legend of indie film success. By no means was Halloween the first slasher film, but its popularity and return on investment codified the genre and inspired the more prolific Friday the 13th series, among others. John Carpenter’s simple, elegantly paced shocker assembled all the elements that would become formula: the masked killer pursuing teenagers at a brisk walk, killing the libidinous ones and arranging their corpses to create an ersatz funhouse for the chaste one, then getting killed by the chaste one, eventually. Except in Halloween, it wasn’t all down to the Final Girl. Halloween was and is distinctive in that its undying serial killer came with his own nemesis in the person of Dr. Loomis. Part Ahab, part Amityville’s Father Delaney, but mostly Van Helsing, Loomis’ name was a sly reference to Psycho, but Halloween never made the pretensions to psychoanalysis Psycho tried on. Psychiatry was just a pretext to bring Loomis and Michael together, and like Van Helsing, Loomis doesn’t rely on his medical training so much as weapons handling and surprising scholarship in the arcane. Functionally, Loomis’ doomsaying was echoed in early slashers by crazy old hobos that would appear in the first reel,  a trope sent up by probably my favorite scene in The Cabin in the Woods. But he also was the huntsman to the Final Girl’s Little Red Riding Hood, always there in the end to cut down the wolf. Or empty a clip into him anyway.

While he’s clearly not much of a doctor, he really is a pretty good monster hunter. At the end of the original Halloween, Loomis finally finds Michael attacking Laurie Strode.  In their struggle, Laurie manages to pull off Michael’s mask for a moment, giving Loomis and the audience a brief, but clear look at Michael’s face, one eye damaged where Laurie had rammed a coat hanger into it. I’ve always wondered whether we’re supposed to think Loomis would have hesitated to fire if he couldn’t verify the attacking man was Michael. At that point, Loomis had never seen him wearing his signature Halloween mask, and it was Halloween – it could have been a prank, a drunken argument, some terrible mistake. But, of course, Loomis wouldn’t have hesitated. A huntsman knows a wolf culling lambs when he sees it.

Loomis always seemed to be Michael’s weak spot, too. It’s hard to imagine a superpowered, undying mass murderer who can put his thumb through a man’s forehead – something I wouldn’t have minded seeing Mythbusters address — having difficulty getting shed of a stout older gentleman who hobbles on a cane. You can put it down to the demands of the plot if you like, but there’s almost deference in Michael’s disposition to Loomis. Michael will stop and listen to him. Michael is arguably the only one who will. If one of them summons up actual lethal force in a confrontation, it’s usually the doctor, with a Loomis-Michael killing blow** ratio of 3 to 1 in the original movies, plus one indeterminate.

Speaking of the indeterminate one — Halloween: the Curse of Michael Myers was sadly Donald Pleasance’s last film on this mortal coil, and not just because it’s probably the most hated Halloween outside The One With Busta Rhymes. The Curse of Michael Myers offered up a mishmash of popular mid-90s horror ideas, mainly stuff about cursed bloodlines and secret cults, as a way to explain how Michael was so deathproof. It was at least a game attempt to invigorate a series that, to be fair, had basically tried to remake Halloween three times and milked that basic structure bone-white. But its original ending had the Mark of Thorn, an ancient Celtic rune based on a constellation that appeared at Halloween and allowed a cult to control Michael because…you know, they weren’t that clear on that, sacrifices or something, but anyway…the Mark of Thorn, what made Michael unstoppable Evil actually passed from the movie’s big bad to Dr. Loomis, making him the head of the cult. Loomis sees the mark appear on his wrist and begins screaming, while somewhere else, Michael walks away into an uncertain All Saints Day. This ending was hated by test audiences and reshot as offscreen ambiguous fates for both Loomis and Michael, but it persisted as a Producer’s Cut affectionately known as Halloween 666.  While this movie is tire fire noxious in many ways, I do like that it acknowledged the something weird with Loomis and his connection to Michael and brought it to the fore. And if you were going to pursue the series, examining that relationship and exposing Loomis to corruption would definitely be a legitimate avenue, especially since Michael was running out of Final Girl relatives. It also recalled Halloween III: Season of the Witch, which I honestly love, with its Michael and Loomis-less story about a coven’s plot to sacrifice children with clockwork robots and Halloween masks.

Rob Zombie’s Halloween is a more grounded and realistic film than Carpenter’s, which feels weird to say about a film where Michael grows into a gigantic muscleman and a facility for the criminally insane allows its inmates to have nice pointy silverware, but it’s generally true. Carpenter’s story has the clean lines of archetype and fable; Zombie’s version is the messy pulp of true crime, but it’s pulp with truthiness. Comparisons to Batman Begins are very apt, and it attempts to flesh out all of that missing time we’re supposed to take as read in Carpenter’s movie. Zombie spends a lot of time on that first Halloween, the one when Michael killed his first people, building up to it with days of secret animal torture and Michael being bullied at home and school. Once Michael puts on his mask for the first time, he doesn’t just kill his sister. He also kills his mom’s boyfriend and his sister’s boyfriend, and they add to the presumably undiscovered corpse of a school bully he beat to death earlier that day. It’s a much bloodier spree than in Carpenter’s film and much more in keeping with dark impulses being finally unharnessed than the purposeful, almost fabulist approach of Michael stabbing his sister to death, then going dormant. Michael is also a bit older here, 10 years old versus six, which makes all these horrible killings more credible.

Zombie delves a lot into Michael’s transformation while in Dr. Loomis’ care, and it’s an interesting model of how this relationship might have worked in a more complicated world.  McDowell’s Loomis is far gentler than Pleasance’s. He actually meets Michael before the murders, as he tries to intervene when a dead cat is discovered in Michael’s school bag. This Loomis shows Michael real warmth and an honest attempt to help, and that’s more remarkable when Michael does attack a nurse with a fork in this film, before withdrawing entirely into an obsession with creepy papier-mâché masks. You get to see a lot more interaction here that might justify Loomis fixating on Michael as evil incarnate, but this is slow burn antagonism that never reaches the heights the original started with. When Loomis gives up Michael’s case after 15 years, it’s not because he’s convinced Michael is evil so much as he thinks the humongous, silent, masked man Michael grew into is beyond help. But he does play up that fiery classic Loomis rhetoric to sell his book about Michael, The Devil’s Eyes, and that’s where his perceived untrustworthiness comes in. Sheriff Brackett doesn’t think he’s a hysterical civilian so much as a exploitative bastard making a living off his town’s tragedy; either way, an unreliable witness.

That exploitative aspect of this Loomis is really highlighted in Zombie’s Halloween II, which recalls elements from Halloween II, 4, 5, and The Curse of Michael Myers within Zombie’s own story that focuses on the lingering effects of Michael’s killing spree on  everyone who survived it. I know many people responded negatively to Loomis in this film in particular, because his shallow, petty quest for celebrity as Michael’s doctor was his apparent raison d’etre, not protecting the world from Michael. I get that. But I still like what happens with Loomis in this story, because his essential heroic nature is intact; we just have to watch him hit bottom first, and I think the crass quest for fame is actually his way of acting out against the trauma of that Halloween night and his failure to help/stop Michael. When he goes after Laurie Strode in the film’s final minutes, defying Sheriff Brackett and putting himself directly in Michael’s way, it’s incredibly brave.

I think all Halloween fans harbor a lot of love for Dr. Loomis, even late in the series when his tirades become a bit old hat. Those harangues are still some of the most entertaining stuff in those movies. After Donald Pleasance died, Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998) acknowledged the doctor with a small tribute. H20 dealt with the problem of the sequels past Halloween II mucking up its story by pretending they never happened; in this universe, Loomis went into his retirement and died peacefully, but still made his walls a Michael Myers scrapbook and kept vigilant until the very end. When the opening credits rolled, the camera toured Loomis’ wall of Michael Myers-based obsession, and voice actor Tom Kane recreated Donald Pleasance’s best speechifying from the first film. And so Dr. Loomis warned about Michael even from the grave. I can’t think of anything more fitting. The sinister doctor probably should have been an extra variable in the Masked Killer versus Final Girl equation Halloween helped establish, but it didn’t work that way. Instead, Loomis ended up being a lynchpin for the series, bound to Michael by a very strange duty of care. In Zombie’s universe, there’s some tragic, blighted affection at the bottom of Loomis’ responsibility; in Carpenter’s, Loomis is a grim, self-appointed soldier standing between his patient and a whole lot of innocent blood. There’s another reboot in the offing, as there always is somewhere, and I’m sure he’ll be back with his infamous patient, in one form or another, because that, too, is the Curse of Dr. Sam Loomis.

* This is from the added scenes to the TV version of Halloween,  included mainly to pad the running time after murders were edited for broadcast audiences. The scene where Loomis pleads his case for Michael to be committed to a high-security facility to an empty auditorium and a pair of skeptical doctors, one of whom is strikingly young, seems embarrassingly thrown together, but I bet is probably very true-to-life in a lot of these cases.

** Killing blow here, obviously, is more like temporarily-incapacitating-until-next-sequel blow.

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Death has come to your little town, reader. You can either ignore it, or you can help Angela to stop it.

 

 

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4 Comments

  1. This whole article is fantastic, but “Michael will stop and listen to him. Michael is arguably the only one who will” is my favorite part.

  2. Sorry, second thought — Dr. Loomis’ “pure eee-vil” speeches about Michael always remind me of Colonel Troutman in Rambo giving his, “you think you can beat Rambo?” speeches.

  3. This is a fantastic article, and I love that it does not give short shrift to Zombie’s films — particularly his Halloween II, which I think might be the most thoughtful, interesting, and sad sequel/reboot/whatever that any of the big horror franchises have ever spawned.

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