It’s easy enough to review Halloween. Just prattle on about how scary and haunting adjectival it all is given that twenty years of increasingly-mechanical slasher films have done absolutely nothing to diminish Halloween‘s overall effectiveness. Nothing at all. Do you hear? Rather like I attempted to do in my original review of the film, which appeared somewhere very much like this space way back in the dark, dial-up days of 1999. Don’t look for it: I’ve not touched the thing since I originally put it up, and I’d just as soon it ceased to exist. Bloody Wayback Machine.
On the other hand, it’s difficult to review Halloween given its lofty position at the event horizon of the American Slasher Film, a cinematic object so dense its sucked down the entire horror genre into an ever-redshifted morass of misogyny, masochism, and mordant self-referencing. Halloween is the film most directly responsible for this ongoing Judgment Day, making it the cinematic equivalent of a supernova. Unknown, it flashed onto the American scene at the decrepit end of the 70s only to collapse in on itself, creating an omnivorous black void from which nothing good can escape.
Which is funny, considering Halloween’s is one of the oldest stories in the book: Escaped Mental Patient Terrorizes Small Town America. What child of the 1950s didn’t have a roadside make-out session ruined by radio reports of a maniac on the prowl? Similarly, America’s teenage babysitter population seems plagued by wandering monsters. Not really, but that’s how Urban Legends grow: inexorably, completely, with no consideration for reality. Rather like psychopaths.
Speaking of which, it’s time to meet Michael Myers, who brought terror to the small town of Haddonfield, “Illinois” by murdering his older sister in 1963. He was five years old at the time. Better critics than I’ve commented on how and Halloween starts off right with a six minute tour of the Myer’s household, as seen through the Eyes of Michael. This semi-continuous tracking shot all but guarantees the film’s place in cinematic New Wave Valhalla. We’re chained to the viewpoint of a child sociopath. This sequence is the American Slasher film, condensed to its bare essentials. An Evil POV camera (1) creeps along the house before spying two horny teenagers (2) making out (3). The teenagers go upstairs to have, not just sex (4) but the quickest quickie in the entire history of film, concluding their (off-screen) coupling in the time it takes our Evil POV camera to circle the house and select a knife from the kitchen. The male saves his own life by putting his shirt back on and getting the fuck on out, but Michael’s sister Judith Myers (Sandy Johnson) makes the sorry mistake of brushing her hair topless. She must therefore die.
Fifteen years later, on a literally dark and stormy night, Michael Meyers escapes the Smith’s Grove boobyhatch, much to the chagrin of his doctor, Loomis (the irreplaceable Donald Pleasense). Jacking a nurse’s car, Michael makes a b-line back to what’s become known as “the Meyer’s house,” a neighborhood legend, supposedly haunted…and now haunted-in-fact.
The next day, Michael observes the realtor’s seventeen year-old daughter Laurie (Jamie Lee Curits) drop the keys under the doormat on her way to school. He spends the rest of the film stalking her for no discernible reason at all. The droning of Laurie’s English teacher suggests we should chalk it up to Fate, which I’m going to talk a little bit about later.
Thankfully for the film’s running time, Michael also elects to stalk Laurie’s annoying friends, Annie (Nancy Kyes) and Lynda (P.J. Soles). The more time we spend with these characters, the more shreds of my sympathy they destroy, allowing Michael to continue on with my blessing. And encouragement, since for most of the film Michael seems more inclined to get his voyeuristic peek on.
Lynda I’ve got no real gripe with; she’s just a cheerleader (that is, a cheerleader cliche). Annie, despite her constant rocking of the ganj, comes across as a passive-aggressive dick who thinks she’s aloof when really she’s dead inside, her capacity for joy having long since shriveled up into a dusty turd. Bad stoner, in other words. Laurie and her Designated Friend’s conversations are, for the most part, so blisteringly innocuous I’ll believe they’re drawn from producer/co-writer Debera Hill’s high school experience. But as Laurie and her posse walk home from school, Annie yells a PSA tagline at a passing motorist (Michael), prompting Laurie to chide her: “You know, Annie, some day you’re gonna get us all into deep trouble.”
Sledgehammers of foreshadowing such as this could only have come from John Carpenter.
Later, we (along with Michael, unfortunately) will “enjoy” Annie’s eagerness to strip to her skivvies and Lynda’s eagerness to screw her Budwiser-chugging boyfriend, Bob (John Michael Graham), may he rest in peace, blah-de-blah. If you’re anything like the kind of person I think you are, you’ve already seen Halloween, and you’d probably chuck puppies into an industrial fan for the chance to read something fresh about the damn thing. No promises of original or creative thought, but…here we go.
It’s amazing to see how slow the damn thing is…even if you’re not pressing Pause every five minutes so you can scribble notes. Turn away from the screen and Halloween becomes quite the little radio play…as it’s producer, Moustapha Akkad, intended. Despite all the horrible things I’ve said about it’s characters, Carpenter and Hill’s script has that defining strength…aided and abetted by one hell of a sound department.
Turn back to the film and Carpenter’s deftly manipulative camera work draws you back in. This is the key to a great deal of Halloween‘s effectiveness, the one genuinely captivating thing about what would otherwise be a tepid monster piece…like the Halloween Night Horror Movie Marathon Tommy and Lindsey enjoy…as we watch them…in the film more likely to turn up in Halloween Night Horror Movie Marathon than anything else…with the possible exception of Friday the 13th, its bastard offspring.
Despite haughtier-than-thou film critic’s concerns that Halloween asks the audience to identify with its killer, Carpenter only employs the Evil POV shot once. For most of the film, the camera floats somewhere behind Michael’s shoulder as he peeping-toms about, allowing Offscreen Teleportation free reign. It’s as if Carpenter hired Tinkerbelle’s evil cousin and after that intense opening it keeps you guessing. We think we’re in Michael’s head, but as the camera pulls back on a couchload Lynda and Bob we discover Michael was actually behind us the whole time. Like all good monster, we see him only when we need to and Nick Castle adds a special air of otherworldly, robotic menace to Michael, acting almost exclusively through the use of ramrod stiff posture.
Not that the film’s perfect. An uncharitable man might say it’s middle third drags to such an astonishing degree that one ends up screaming for the death’s of Laurie’s friends…but I’m feeling charitable. So I’ll say some of Carpenter’s longer shots cross the border between suspenseful and downright dull as we wait for the score to tell us when to be startled. There’s a bit where Laurie crosses the street, captured for us in its entirety, a textbook example of bad visual storytelling. Why wouldn‘t you cut from shot of her leaving one house to a shot of her arriving at the next when you’ve spent the entire movie establishing the fact these two houses are right next to each other?
But these are the bitchy complaints film critics everywhere toss out at movies they love to stave off being labeled a “fan.” If anyone in this film could be said to have a fandom, it’s Michael. Here we find Halloween‘s true contribution to the breakdown of good taste: the mute, humanoid monster archetype updated by a rising generation who’d just lived through a decade that began with Manson and ended with Bundy and Sam. In a world no longer frightened of telepathic gherkins from Venus (with crab claws), Michael Myers continues to unnerve through purposefully ordinariness. It’s all there in the mask. After all, why does Michael need it in the first place?
Say you’re a deranged spree killer (not a “serial” killer, thank you). You escape the nuthouse and find your first victim in fifteen years. Do you knock over a store in broad daylight, stealing only tools and a rubber mask, attracting unwanted attention from small town cops who should already be on High Alert…it being Halloween Night…and you being an escaped mental patient and all…? Well, Michael Myers does. Say he’s just too deranged to give a shit about recapture and we’re back to square one: why the mask?
There’s no in-universe answer. He needs it because with it Michael becomes the Bogeyman, an anthropomorphic embodiment of Evil, just as Loomis says. Another popular opinion of this film holds that Halloween‘s a social criticism of the teenage immorality in its time (and ours), but that would make Michael more like the angels who gave Sodom and Gomorrah their hot sulfur bath than the arbitrary, anonymous thing that kills Laurie’s friends. “Death has come to your town, Sheriff.” Dr. Loomis means this literally, and anyone who says different is grafting their own cultural agenda onto a self-conscious (but not self-referential) Fright Film in the great tradition of…say, Howard Hawkes The Thing. Or Forbidden Planet.
Kind of like I’m about to now. Because Halloween is also a refreshingly-nihilistic indictment of every cherished American institution under the sun, and as such, never ceases to cheer me up. Law enforcement, medical science, the nuclear, middle-class family…all fail to protect Laurie and her friends from “death” because, of course, what can…right?
(There’s also the little matter that casting too many parents might’ve bankrupted the production. And ruined the story.)
Early on, we see a portrait of the Belgian expressionist painter James Ensor prominently displayed on Laurie Strode’s wall. Among other things, Ensor is famous for painting a picture so shocking it got him kicked out of the avant garde group he helped found. The Entry of Christ Into Brussles (1888) was apparently meant as a social critique of hypocrisy, casting most of the leading figures of Belgium as grotesque carnival clowns in a meaningless-but-colorful parade that takes up most of the frame…completely overwhelming the forlorn, halo-headed donkey rider waaaay back in the back.
Death, on the other hand, strides out of the foreground, cut off below the shoulder by the bottom of the frame. A mere part of life, one more face in the crowd, he’s all the more unsettling for his prominence. I don’t know about you, but that skull always jumps out at me from the black of Death’s hat and the green of his shirt. The same way Michael’s “blank, pale, emotionless face” floats out of the shadows behind Laurie’s back…
Yes, Laurie’s the overlooked Christ-figure in this overthought metaphor. Everyone who reviews Halloween talks about Jamie Lee and how good she is, so you already know. In light of revelations presented (i.e. “retconned”) in Halloween II, fewer discuss Laurie as she’s presented here: a victim of inescapable “fate” who’s powers of virgin purity allow her to do battle with the Forces of Evil and “win”…in so much as anyone can. Her successful defense of herself and her charges is, to my complete lack of surprise, an implicit criticism of her friend’s materialistic, shortsighted pleasure-seeking. Because Laurie has, by her own admission, “nothing to do,” she alone can see danger coming (only putting herself down for this because her friends did). Like Loomis, the film drags her down Cassandra Road, and since everyone who ignores her dies horribly I’m beginning to doubt that whole “fate” thing Laurie’s English teacher mentioned.
Frankly, a small budget and tight schedule could take more blame than incarnate Destiny. Yet Heroic representations liter Laurie’s story. Her charge, Tommy, interrupts her reading of King Arthur to pull out his comic book stash. The Thing and Forbidden Planet, unlike Halloween, feature manly men overcoming alien threats largely through the force of their 50s manliness. Annie tells Laurie “I always said you make a great Girl Scout.” And she does. She slays the dragon…repeatedly…it’s not her fault “you can’t kill the Bogeyman.”
And here’s what I mean when I say no Slasher film gets going until the Final Confrontation: Laurie Strode’s battle is nothing less than a thirty minute speedrun of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. First, Laurie receives her
– Call to Adventure from Lynda, right as Michael strangles Lynda with the phone cord. Laurie initially
– Refuses the Call, believing Lynda’s dying gasps to be Anne playing some Halloween prank. And since she’s a woman in a horror film, they’ll be no
– Supernatural Aid to the rescue for quite some time. Unaware of this, Laurie peeks in on the kids, packs up her knitting, and
– Crosses the First Threshold – out of the Doyle Residence – proceeding across the street into
– The Belly of the Beast – originally Anne’s charge, now home to Michael Myer’s latest art installation. A special one, seemingly constructed for Laurie alone from the bodies of her friends and Judith Myer’s grave marker. Surprised by Mr. Stab-happy Chalk Face, Laurie falls down the stairs and onto her
– Road of Trials. This is, after all, a battle with middle America’s then-newest Dragon: strange killers, not of our Earth. Pure Evil, they could look like anyone. Be anywhere. No one seemed capable of stopping their next monstrous rampage. It was enough for thirty years of cop shows to milk to the hilt, but Halloween did it first. The trick of having Michael “wake up” from his own death three times is little little more than a way to pad out carnage, though it could also function as Laurie’s
– Nadir/Crucifixion. Imagine how she must feel, seeing him shrug off a knitting needle to the neck? I’d be pretty low, myself. So the only good reason I can think of for Laurie to
lock herself in a closet is a Freudian reason, something I don’t like any more than you do. She’s Meeting with the Goddess, you see. In a symbolic sense. I know, it’s a stretch, but so’s psychoanalysis as a whole. You’ve gotta admit, though, Loomis’ surprise arrival is one hell of a
– Recognition by the Father. Emptying his pistol into his former patient, Loomis bestows The Ultimate Boon upon Laurie, telling her she was right all along: “As a matter of fact” (emphasis added) “it was” the Bogeyman. She owes Tommy Doyle one hell of an apology.
In the end, though, it’s Michael who gets a Magic Flight, Rescue, and Freedom To Live…but never in this guise. Never again would he be the immaculate embodiment of Evil, the natural force. It’s the high water mark of American Horror Film, even all these years later, often imitated, never equaled. I only hope to God you didn’t need me to tell you that.