Halloween is one of the few modern horror franchises to bring back its protagonist almost as many times as its antagonist. For a long time, all the way up until Donald Pleasance’s passing, Dr. Sam Loomis was just as much of an integral part of the franchise as Michael Myers. You could not have one without the other. Seeing the earlier entries as a kid, I latched onto Loomis as the hero of the series. Having already been intimately familiar with Dracula, I immediately got that he was a sort of modern Van Helsing. Even now, he remains one of my favorite characters in horror.
But I’ve noticed that a lot of people don’t get him, don’t really understand his purpose in the series or what he represents. Rob Zombie championed this mindset quite a bit, as much as I respect his work and encourage his unique take on his own Halloween movies. He was nonetheless one of the most outspoken people to insist that Loomis was an unrealistic character, that his obsession made him cartoonish, over-the-top and impossible to take seriously.
I hear a lot of that from fans all the time. I’ve had questions sent to me asking why, if Loomis knew Michael was evil, he didn’t simply kill him in the sanitarium. Or why he was so obsessed to begin with when Michael wasn’t technically his problem. I understand that. There’s a need in our current climate for heroes to, ultimately, be somewhat decent or outright bad people who are trying to do good things. That’s why it’s so hard to make Superman work on the screen right now, he’s not what people are interested in.
That’s not to say Loomis is a superhero, either. He’s simply a guy trying to do the right thing. And I think, honestly, he’s an incredibly tragic character. I know that he’s not really thought of as such, but I can’t see him in any other light. Sam Loomis is not, when you break the character down and really study him, the Van Helsing of the Halloween series because Van Helsing was brought into the middle of a story he had no personal stake in.
The reason why Loomis didn’t simply kill Michael in the sanitarium is laid out in the original film, plain as day. “I spent eight years trying to reach him,” the doctor states in his iconic monologue. The most important thing about Loomis, the reason I love the character so much, is because he tries to do everything by the book. He tries to go through all the proper channels to make sure Michael never gets out. He spends fifteen years trying to do exactly what you should do as a doctor and it just doesn’t work.
By the time we actually see him arrive in Haddonfield brandishing a gun, that’s the last resort. That’s the last thing he wants to be doing and that’s what makes him so interesting. He tried to help this kid and it didn’t work. He tried to warn all the right authorities about how dangerous he was and it didn’t work. He knows Michael better than anyone because he’s spent more time with him than anyone.
Yes, you could look back on those traits and say that Loomis is obsessive and anxious, but that’s only if Michael never actually breaks out. When he does, all Loomis is is right. He feels responsible because Michael was in his care, but the escape literally falls on everyone else’s shoulders.
The fifteen years prior to the events of the original Halloween are incredibly important to this character, even if we never see them. He tells us enough and Pleasance sells absolutely every word of it. Loomis’s story is ultimately that of a man trying his best to work within a broken system. All he’s trying to do is convince them that there is an actual, serious threat within the sanitarium. But dealing with that costs money, so if they can’t have definitive proof, they won’t even entertain the thought.
Loomis is so exhausted, tired and beaten down in that original film—and its sequels—because the night Michael breaks out, that’s Loomis losing a battle that he’s been fighting for years. That’s everything he fought for crumbling down in front of his eyes. That’s where the obsession comes from, that’s where the perceived craziness comes from. The moment we are introduced to this character, he is already at the end of his rope.
The best direction Carpenter gave to Pleasance on the original film was at the very end, when he suggested that he could play that last reaction shot one of two ways. He could be surprised, or resign himself to say “I knew this was going to happen,” and play the shot with a total lack of surprise. According to Carpenter, it was clear in the performance that Pleasance knew immediately that the second option was the right choice.
That’s the perfect ending not only to the movie, but to Loomis’s arc up to that point. He tried to warn the bureaucracy, they didn’t listen. Now Michael is out and it’s a whole new game, and he’s trying to warn the police and they’re not really listening either. He knows Michael is evil and suspects just how evil, but never truly comprehends until he sees it with his own two eyes and gives a hollow, broken look that just says “I knew it.”
Pleasance was on set for less than a week and created one of the most legendary characters in the last forty years of horror cinema. He’s not often thought of as a complex character. In fact, he’s all too often described as being pretty one note.
But I think that just sells the character short. There are layers to Loomis, absolutely. And each time you peel one back, you reveal new depths to an exhausted human being on a singular path that, from the beginning, he knows is only going to ever end in his own death.