Thursday, October 20, 2011

Moammar Gadhafi, Moustapha Akkad, and the Halloween Franchise

Poster for 'Halloween III: Season of the Witch' (1982)Today’s news regarding the killing of the Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi reminded me of a kind of unusual and somewhat personal story having to do with movies and my interest in them. Actually the story has to do with Gadhafi’s interest in movies, too.

In 1982, I went to see the movie Halloween III: Season of the Witch. Too young to go to the R-rated feature on my own, I got the 17-year-old girl who lived next door to take me.

I’m pretty sure we both knew going in that this one didn’t continue the whole Michael Myers boogeyman-in-a-mask storyline. I remember liking the movie all right, the new story about the crazed toymaker and the killer Halloween masks being plenty gripping to my adolescent self. But by the time the fourth Halloween came out six years later, I was in college and no longer that interested in seeing how they’d managed to revive Myers and the series, so I didn’t bother.

Fast-forward a couple of decades. Along the way I’d pick up graduate degrees in English and write a dissertation on 17th- and 18th-century British literature that focused largely on the category of sequels. Looking at novels, plays, and poems, I built an argument that this was an era during which the whole idea of pumping out a sequel to your commercially-successful cultural product began to emerge.

I also argued that a lot of writers used these sequels to offer their own commentaries on their earlier works. For example, Samuel Richardson wrote a very popular novel -- a “blockbuster,” really -- called Pamela in 1740. The book was huge hit, and also a bit controversial for some lewd scenes involving the teenaged maid and her older master “Mr. B” who lusts after her. Copyright laws not being what they are today, lots of other writers quickly jumped in and published spurious sequels to cash in on the original’s success. And some of those continuations were even racier than the original! But Richardson had intended to write a morally instructive work -- a warning of sorts to young people. So he wrote his own very preachy (and -- spoiler! -- boring as hell) sequel in which he has Pamela delivering all sorts of life lessons to readers.

While working on the dissertation I read a lot about film sequels as part of my research. Once I finished that, I ended up writing some academic articles all of which happened to focus on horror films. One of those articles compared Pamela to The Blair Witch Project, drawing connections between both “blockbusters” and the way they captured huge audiences. Another was about the 1987 film The Stepfather (I mentioned that one here before).

Journal of Film & Television, Fall 2004 issueI also ended up writing and publishing an article about Halloween III. It appeared in the Journal of Popular Film and Television in 2004. It was the fall issue, and so since Halloween was coming up they actually featured my article on the cover.

The gist of my article was to respond to what some theory-minded writers had been saying about horror sequels and postmodernism. Some of those writers wanted to cram these sequels into larger arguments about the postmodern breaking down of categories and ideas of “truth” and whatnot. But I felt like most of those movies were really mostly about making lots and lots of cash. That was one point I tried to make, anyway.

Halloween III presented kind of a problem, though, insofar as it seemed to go against the idea that horror sequels were mostly just blatant money grabs. And in fact, the more I studied the movie, the more I realized it was making a pretty interesting and original commentary on commercialism, generally speaking. Not to mention providing a kind of curious response to the first two films (à la the 18th-century guys and their sequels). So I wrote all about that, too, but I won’t bore you with all of the specifics of my outrageously earnest analysis of the film and the Halloween franchise.

So what does any of this have to do with Gadhafi?

The connection involves a Syrian film producer named Moustapha Akkad, the fellow who kind of fell into becoming the chief financeer of the first Halloween and then ultimately the caretaker of the entire series.

Akkad was himself a filmmaker, having directed a sprawling epic called Mohammed, Messenger of God starring Anthony Quinn in 1976 that takes about three hours to tell the story of Islam. Akkad wanted to break into the American market, however. Akkad knew the producer Irwin Yablans (who had distributed John Carpenter’s 1976 film Assault on Precinct 13), and it was through Yablans that Akkad ended up fronting the $320,000 to Carpenter to make a movie about killer who stalked babysitters.

As we know, the low-budgeted Halloween was an enormous box office hit, earning something like $60 million and helping spawn an entire subgenre of horror, the slasher. It would take awhile for the group to put out a second part (in 1981), but that one, too, was a financial boon for Akkad and others involved. They’d spend $2.5 million to make that one, but it would earn about $25 million from its theatrical release.

Back when Akkad was intially approached about backing the first Halloween, he was in the midst of directing a film of his own, another big-budgeted epic titled Lion of the Desert that told the story of Libya’s resistance to Italian incursions between the world wars. Anthony Quinn was in that one, too, along with Oliver Reed, John Gielgud, and Rod Steiger. That film lasts more than three hours and features lavish Lawrence of Arabia-like settings (all filmed in Libya) as well as lots of elaborate battle scenes.

'Lion of the Desert' (1981)The production was a lengthy and costly, with a reported budget of $35 million. In fact, Akkad once told an interviewer how he was spending more in a single day on Lion of the Desert than the entire budget of Halloween. He also told that interviewer that Halloween was “funded... with pocket change from Lion of the Desert.”

Thing was, cost wasn’t really an issue for Akkad. Why? Because he had a backer with deep, deep pockets.

That’s right. Moammar Gadhafi.

When Lion of the Desert was finally released 1981, critical response was favorable, but the film had a hard time getting distributed thanks to the Gadhafi connection. Thus, from a commercial standpoint the film became one of the biggest box office flops in history, earning just $1.5 million total from its initial release. In the space of just a couple of years Akkad found himself associated with one of the most profitable films in history (in terms of budget-vs.-box office) and one of the most costly.

When writing my article about Halloween III I became fascinated with the whole Gadhafi connection and how the dictator had kind of indirectly helped start the whole franchise. I ended up including a lengthy digression in the original draft regarding it all, but my editor wisely suggested cutting it out as it wasn’t that pertinent to my main argument.

So that’s why Gadhafi’s death here at the end of October made me think of Halloween movies.

There are a couple of postscripts to add here, too, regarding Akkad.

In my article I did address how they ended up going back to the Michael Myers storyline in the subsequent sequels. I have since seen them, and find them all mostly tedious (although that H20 reboot with Jamie Lee Curtis is a bit inspired). By the time that issue of the Journal of Popular Film and Television came out there had been eight films altogether, with Akkad involved as an executive producer for each.

I mentioned in the article how Akkad was saying he intended to keep on making the films. In interviews Akkad liked to allude to a line that Donald Pleasance (who starred the first two, then the fourth, fifth, and sixth before he died in 1995) had once said: “I’m going to stop at 22.”

Akkad also frequently said he was going to make sure they never made the mistake of III again -- a film that did turn a reasonable profit at the theaters but enjoyed nothing like the commercial success of all the others. In my article I wrote how in interviews “Akkad characterizes his relationship to the homicidal central character as parental in nature, suggesting that the survival of Myers is directly linked to his own: ‘I keep protecting him on and on and on until [laugh] I die!’”

As it happened, about a year later Akkad did die a most tragic death.

Akkad was killed on November 11, 2005 along with his daughter in a terrorist attack in Amman, Jordan. Suicide bombers had been sent by Al-Qaeda to three different hotels, including the Grand Hyatt where the 75-year-old Akkad and his daughter were staying. Those bombings killed 60 people total.

Moustapha Akkad presentsFinally, about a month ago Universal pictures issued a new Blu-Ray edition of Halloween II in which the “Moustapha Akkad presents” credit had been mysteriously removed, crudely replaced with a “Universal, an MCA Company, presents” card.

Fans of the film, franchise, and Akkad were outraged by the change. Some suspected it had to something to do with Akkad’s Muslim background and current “War on Terror”-fueled prejudices. (Not a little ironic, given how he died.) Others speculated it might have had something to do with the Gadhafi connection from long ago.

More likely, however, was just an unfortunate goof on Universal’s part, a possibility supported by the inclusion of Akkad’s name on the DVD box. One theory is that the change had been made on a print way back in the ’80s at some point when rights were being moved around and it was from that print that the Blu-Ray transfer was made.

In any case, Universal has apologized and says it intends to correct the error.

Meanwhile, Akkad’s passing did not spell the end for the Myers character. There have been a couple Rob Zombie-directed remakes with which the numbering started over. And I hear there is another Halloween 3 coming in 2012 (in 3D, natch), although it, too, will be featuring still more Myers mayhem.

Which means (as far as I’m concerned) that Halloween III: Season of the Witch will probably remain the most interesting sequel of the series.

1 comment:

Danno said...

Re the Blu-ray "gaffe": I don't think it was from some print altered in the 1980's. I have the Universal DVD of H2 (circa early 2000's) which contains the original "Moustapha Akkad presents" text. Personally, I think Universal changed it because they didn't want his name on it. Sad.