Monday, November 2, 2015

BOP Revisits: Halloween (1978)

Or, "The Shape Of Horror: What John Carpenter's Halloween Still Has To Teach The Genre"


I thought we outgrew superstition. True, stating that is mostly a riff on a line spoken by Jamie Lee Curtis in one of the most iconic horror films of all time, John Carpenter's 1978 "Halloween", but there's a quality about the film that actively works towards keeping the idea of what superstition can be fully and vibrantly alive - and it's fascinating that, all these years later, there's still a natural element to be found in what basically amounts to a story about an asylum escapee randomly targeting a bunch of teenagers against the backdrop of a holiday. On paper, it sounds relatively dull and overly simplistic. Definitely not what you'd consider "horrific" or even intrinsically scary. And when you learn more about the movie, you find all of these elements that really shouldn't work. It was made for just over 300 thousand dollars by a studio that didn't really believe in it. It was written by a couple of twenty-somethings who only had one film to their credentials. It was made in the late 1970's, well beyond the point of becoming outdated and losing it's impact. The point is that when you think about it on a basic conceptual level, nothing about Halloween should be considered worthy of the praise that's still heaped upon it very nearly 40 years since it's release.

And yet, Halloween stands above a myriad of successors, imitators, ripoffs, and pretenders to the throne it never intended to build for itself. Much like Steven Spielberg's Jaws or James Cameron's The Terminator, Carpenter's Halloween is among a select few of horror movies - or hell, movies in general - that transcend their own limitations built on by time and the advancements of how to make movies, how artistic interpretations and tastes change, and ultimately what makes a horror film scary according to modern sensibilities. Halloween is a slow burn build to a night of realistic horror that can't be achieved with ghosts or demons, yet it's got a subtle infusion of the supernatural that keeps it from playing like a docudrama. It features believable protagonists that aren't stereotypes, aren't played to be unlikeable and worth killing off, and really develop naturally over the course of the film. In most cases, the characters don't even feel like characters. You feel like you're watching people go about their day only to have this nightmare scenario unfold and entrap them before they can even be made aware of it. You don't get the "sting" that's been played out a hundred times of every character reacting to a scare, you just get it once, maybe twice in total.

But... why is that so effective?
By all accounts, it shouldn't be. For one thing, horror is such an insanely subjective genre of movies. What scares one person isn't likely to scare the other or even several other people. People still consider the clown in Stephen King's IT to be one of the creepiest figures in fiction, and yet I never really got into it. On the flipside, one of the films that still terrifies me to this day is William Friedken's The Exorcist, and yet I know plenty of people that either don't find it that scary or outright think it's laughable to even consider it as such. And even as someone who is still affected by it on a primal level, it's not hard for me to see why they would feel that way. That film ultimately amounts to an 11 year old girl spouting blasphemes at a couple of elderly priests. There's no killer and not alot of deaths, just a demonic force that strikes on a spiritual level. Halloween shares the similar trait of being something rather easy to explain rather flatly, and something you could write off as ineffectual by those merits. It's just a guy in a rubber mask, stabbing a couple of people and moving through the shadows. We see much worse on the news, these days, with regularity. We're a society perpetually going down the drain in that way, where morality being broken in favor of madness isn't nearly as shocking as it would have been in the 1970's. We're also a society that humanizes our killers more often than not, because ultimately, we understand that insanity is a much more complex subject and not something completely untreatable. At least, not anymore.

So what does Halloween do differently from a movie like, say, SAW? What does it do right that films like Hostel and the Final Destination series probably don't do for nearly as many people? Why is it so uniformly considered to be a staple of horror and the grandfather of all slasher movies? Well, to answer that, you have to look at what that film did differently than the rest, and what elements that thousands upon thousands of horror films directly inspired by it actually never took away from the original. Even it's own remake actively avoided doing some key things that made Halloween such a pure cinematic experience, whether by intention or not. That was the kind of mentality I went in with whenever I sat down last night, for what feels like at least the tenth or eleventh Halloween night in a row, to watch the film again with an intention to understand why I kept coming back.


Firstly, there's a big misconception that's become more of a normality these days in slasher movies that Halloween never abided by: that the protagonist of the movie is the subject of the movie's horror. The killer is the star. You watch the SAW films not out of any love for the cast of characters, which rotate from installment to installment, but because they're all following a formula perpetrated by one familiar face - that is, of course, Jigsaw. You go to see a Friday The 13th film to watch Jason wreak bloody havoc, and in most cases, the same applies to Freddy Krueger and the Nightmare On Elm Street series - particularly given the charm of Robert Englund in that role. Hellraiser is a brilliant piece of fiction by Clive Barker, but it's really nothing without the ghoulish undead form of Frank, the iconic Pinhead, and the other demonic figures that come climbing out of the puzzle box. Even Texas Chainsaw Massacre, internally, is more about the insanity of Leatherface's family than the victims of their demented schemes.

But what's shocking about Halloween is that, ultimately, very little of it actually focuses on Michael Myers. At least, not in the way you'd expect. Sure, he supplies the backdrop of what makes the film scary and he is the one carrying out the murders, but Myers' primary trait isn't the familiar mask and knife he brandishes. They're just what make him identifiable. But rather, it's the idea of Myers that carries us through his actions. The idea that this killer child turned adult psychopath may actually not be all that he appears. And most importantly and frighteningly at all, the idea that swapping Myers out for virtually any real life serial killer may very well generate the same effect. Because he as a man isn't the focus - and as Dr. Loomis even states in his belief, "This isn't a man.". What really delivers that message home are the real stars of the film: some great performances by key members of the cast that get to deliver lines and expressions the masked and mute Michael never could.

Take Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode. Another big staple of horror movies and the one that is, perhaps, the most often mishandled is the idea of the lead girl. Most women thrust into the lead of a slasher film tend to be used as titillating eye candy at best, and screaming idiots who make all the wrong decisions at worst. They can be either the annoying girlfriend or the bland, boring "normal" girl whose only real attribute is acting considerably less profoundly and cartoonishly stupid as her contemporaries. Few of these movies escape these tropes and ultimately doom themselves in the process of running the gauntlet of scene after scene on repeat from one film to the next. And yet there are exceptions to the rule. Heather Langenkamp's turn in both A Nightmare On Elm Street and Wes Craven's New Nightmare are written with careful emphasis on the fact that her character, Nancy, is the first of Freddy's victims capable of turning the tables on the dream killer. Neve Campbell's Sydney of the Scream franchise, ironically the other most iconic of the late Wes Craven's movie heroines, almost immediately sees through the bullshit of the entire slasher movie sendup that the two antagonists use to chart out who gets to die next. Even in The Exorcist, which isn't a slasher film by any means, Ellen Burstyn delivers a great performance as Chris MacNeil, a character who's not at the mercy of some unseen figure in the shadows, but simply a mother who's nearly gone insane trying to figure out why her well behaved daughter is suddenly causing tantrums and speaking in backwards Latin.


Laurie Strode's role in Halloween is a subtle one, but perhaps the most crucial. She's a character who defies two stereotypes: one that says her character must be weak, and one that says her character absolutely must be strong. Laurie Strode is simply... a person. She has moments of frailty and she has genuine fears that go beyond the idea of this white-faced stalker suddenly appearing outside her bedroom window, but she also knows when to buck down and leave the fits of screaming behind in order to take action before Michael can get to her. She frets about having an unrequited crush on a boy we never see, she worries about doing her schoolwork, and she gets frustrated by having the responsibility of babysitting two kids thrust on her by her more irresponsible friends. And then she has to fight off a serial killer who's just murdered said friends and is coming directly for her on a seemingly unstoppable path. It all happens with a build of time and development that aren't really in your face, because the film doesn't put any particular dramatic emphasis on it. The film isn't interested in presenting why Laurie deserves to be the survivor of this onslaught, she just ends up being the one who gets lucky. Even her triumphs over Michael aren't particularly spectacular. In total, she gets to stab him in the neck with a large sewing needle, stab him again in the eye with an untangled clothes hanger, and stab him a third time with the very knife the killer wields. She's not really heroic. She's... just trying to survive a very perilous and unusual situation the best that she can. And that's really what makes her unique and what really makes her the most believable. There's no agenda on John Carpenter's part or Curtis' to make Laurie out to be something she's not. What she is, ultimately, is a teenage girl who has to adapt to survive and do it very quickly.

Another horror trope that seems to have originated with Halloween, but ultimately isn't taken from it as well as you would think, is the "voice of reason" character who knows exactly what we're dealing with from the beginning, but can't seem to get anyone else to listen. That character is very clearly Donald Pleasence's Dr. Loomis, a character who might seem like a cartoon on the outset but could very well be hiding some genuine pathos whenever you take a closer look. Think about it this way: Imagine you've just graduated from whatever school you would need to in order to become a criminal psychiatrist, or a profiler, or any position that requires reaching in and understanding the mind of someone who could take another human life without remorse. Now, imagine you do it and eventually become very good at it. Imagine you're revered in your field for your expertise and imagine that you've eventually reached the end of a very long string of clients that, in your mind, have given you reference for all that the human psyche could possibly have to offer. You grow older and wiser, and it becomes like second nature to you.

And then you're assigned to treat a 6 year old boy who murdered his sister for seemingly no reason. You think nothing of it when taking on the case, other than it's inherent unusualness. Then you meet the boy. He says nothing to you. Makes no discernable expression. He stares at you, but he stares right through you and never acknowledges you. You do everything you can to incite a reaction, but nothing happens. You resort to every trick you know, every means of breaking through to the boy just to get him to say one word or make some hint of a face that isn't void of emotion in a desperate attempt to understand what the root of his problem is and how to nurture him back to normalcy. Years pass, and he's still your patient. He's becoming an adult, but never becoming human. Not only that, but now he's become your fixation, necessitated by the fact that he's the living embodiment of a cold case that you just can't solve. You've spent years trying to reach him, and suddenly one day you have a realization: it can't be done. You haven't given up, you've simply seen the pointlessness of continuing to try. And like that, everything you've known and taken for granted ever since you set out to try and fulfill your life's path is torn asunder. What would you do?


Dr. Loomis tries to rationalize Michael's behavior in his mind, but he can't reach for something he understands, because he very clearly can't understand. It defies comprehension, and all he has to go on is the darkness he associates with Myers. The darkness in what Michael did and the darkness of how Michael's humanity regresses as the years pass him by. Imagine, then, that Loomis starts to become paranoid. If he isn't catatonic, is he planning something? People treat him like a vegetable. Is that what he wants? What if Michael were inexplicably let out for whatever legal loophole that the state provides? He's killed once, and it shaped the entire way he behaves. What would happen, then, if he gets the chance to prove that a killer is all that he was ever meant to be? Loomis understandably comes to only one logical conclusion: that this person, not behaving like a person, is no longer a person but instead this thing Loomis can't ever hope to understand. By definition alone, it's evil and must be stopped by whatever means necessary.

Of course, the film doesn't chronicle any of this, but it isn't that much of a stretch to think about how Loomis got to the point that he's reached by the time the film begins, and even less of one when you think about how long Loomis himself states he's been working on this case. But the most telling element of Halloween is the fact that when this ultimate worst case scenario actually transpires, Loomis' behavior and actions dictate a man tortured by the idea of this night coming to fruition and driven only by the desire to prevent it.  He's bitter that no one listened, but he wastes no time in taking action. He doesn't really dwell on what could have been or might have been, and isn't spiteful towards anyone that doesn't take him seriously. He's clearly been through all of this before, but now he has to contend with facing an escaped Michael. Pleasence brilliantly plays with this by having Loomis appear as if he's always thinking about where Michael's headspace could be, where he could potentially hiding. And every minute in Haddonfield is agony because he just doesn't have the answer to that.

But even when you get past the brilliantly executed characters, of which there are many - from the calm and collective small town Sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers) to his witty and often cynical daughter Annie (Nancy Loomis), the overtly girly cheerleader Lynda (PJ Soles) and even little Lyndsey and Tommy Doyle - there's another key feature of Halloween that really, really subverts the tropes that would develop in horror movies only after it's release. And that's the damn near absolute lack of gore. Apart from sparingly used bits of blood seen on one handful of Michael's victims, notably his doomed sister, Carpenter really does alot with very little. You don't get to see someone's throat slashed all the way open and see a grotesque display of their trachea or the muscle tissue beneath the skin. No blades go through anyone's chest in a visible manner and explode through their heart or a laughably fake looking dummy. But even more blasphemous by today's standards, Michael as we know him (complete with mask, jumpsuit, and all) doesn't actually kill anyone until the 53 minute mark of a movie that clocks in at an hour and 29 minutes. He kills his sister in the opening montage, but as a child and through an unusual POV. He kills a mechanic to steal his uniform, but off camera and several hours before the body is ever discovered. And then he kills a dog, again without very graphic detail. But the idea that's placed in your head by the sheer myth of Michael Myers is that he's killed scores of people, dozens of victims and is a rabid psychopath whose only practical language is savage murder. But in total, his bodycount is around the five or six person mark.

And that's attributed to another big, crucial detail to what makes Halloween stand out. Again, Michael isn't the focus - and it's because he's too smart to be. He's a clever killer who plans every single one of his onscreen attacks almost meticulously, and it never once feels forced. They never go over the top with how much smarter he is than everyone else, and that's far more terrifying than an evil mastermind of the highest order who's spent a fortune on deathtraps and spooky locations to lure his victims in to be slaughtered. The closest the film comes is in the last act, and it's definitely intentional, as it provides the film with a very earned sense of terror - Laurie Strode investigating the seemingly empty Brackett house only to discover the lifeless corpses of her two friends and one of their boyfriends, set to spring out upon discovery. It's a little convenient, but it works entirely on the principle that this was what the film was building to... and Jesus Christ, does it build.

That's really the main thing that I took away from watching the film this year, and what got the idea for this piece going in my mind. Halloween is a movie that completely invests you from minute one because it's a film that, much like it's killer, has an unbelievable amount of patience. It isn't slow in the way that a lesser film would bore you with, as it provides constant and fresh elements to keep the audience entertained, but it doesn't rely on any jump scares or moments of genuine terror to keep it scary. It establishes that with a clear tone of what it wants to be, and grabs hold of that concept without letting go. It takes you on a ride and rewards you for sticking with it, even if it's not necessarily hard to. Most horror films, when done poorly, either don't trust it's audience to do that or doesn't trust itself to deliver that kind of experience, so it tries to make up for it with cheap scares and gory effects that shoot it's load far too early and nix any sense of suspense. That being the state of horror movies today isn't exactly a lost concept on alot of people, but when seen next to something like Halloween, it becomes slightly more unforgivable and sparks a determination to demand more simply out of the fact that it's approach to horror is so unfortunately infrequent. And it's all the more telling when you consider that the films that do it right, like a Jaws or an Exorcist or any other film memorable for it's lasting effect on generation after generation, do it with the same level of patience and trust that Halloween does.

Of course, like any franchise, the brand of Halloween eventually went onto become a tired cliche in and of itself, with sequel after sequel diminishing Michael Myers' name and image with every installment. As of this writing, there have been eight films in the original series and two in an attempt to reboot, and current plans to keep the series going are on hold, with time only telling if it ever goes back to being something that even attempts matching some of the best qualities of the first. Only through a throwback does that seem even remotely possible, but who knows. Maybe, and this is a radical notion, but maybe there just doesn't need to be another one on the same level as the first. Maybe all the series needed was that initial spark to remain relevant. After all, as Sheriff Brackett famously states, "Everyone's entitled to one good scare." Maybe one is all that's necessary to keep the idea of Michael Myers, of Haddonfield - of Halloween alive.

After all, the boogeyman only has to strike once to be effective.


- MB