Perusing the shadows with John Carpenter’s genre-defining masterwork
John Carpenter’s Halloween was guilty of a great many crimes. So successful was his low-budget revelation it spawned an entire decade of sleazy, half-baked imitators, films so devoid of technical competence that the newly established slasher sub-genre would soon descend into self-parody. The burgeoning home video market proved something of a double-edged sword. It provided a platform for talented independent filmmakers, but also allowed for a lot of garbage, and for many horror traditionalists the notoriously uninventive slasher was representative of a severe decline in quality. For those of us with a taste for the unthinkably inept, some of those movies have found a special place in our hearts, and we can enjoy the likes of Jason Voorhees as self-aware garbage without having to resort to discussions about graphic violence and misogynistic representations.
Michael Myers was an entirely different entity. The most potent of a plethora of masked killers forged in the wake of Tobe Hooper’s seminal Leatherface, he too represented a generational shift in horror, was a reflection of mankind’s inner demons and personal turmoil, the kind revealed in the wake of the Vietnam War. Thanks to the growing ubiquity of television and the modern media, such atrocities had become more accessible, as had a spate of real-life serial killers who steered filmmakers away from the fantastical monsters of yore into the realms of modern suburban America. Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory and Dracula’s castle were very much a thing of the past. Now the bogeyman lingered in your own back yard. The monsters hiding in your cupboard were suddenly very real.
The fact that the film’s opening murder, shot with astonishing POV aplomb, is committed by a juvenile Michael, only adds to that sense of relatable unease. There is no motive, no justification or reasoning, just an innate compulsion to kill. A six-year-old Myers doesn’t reserve his act of brutality for a stranger, either. He instead kills his very own sister, hacking her to pieces in an unprovoked attack that still proves unsettling. There are few horror movie deaths as startling as the one committed by a preteen Myers. Not because of its savagery, but because of its premeditated, matter of fact execution, and the lack of empathy revealed in its wake. When Michael emerges from the Myers house wielding a 17-inch butcher’s knife, a vacant expression of shock/exultation overcoming his face, we know everything we need to know about the character. Michael is, and always will be, pure and simply evil.
Despite The Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s obvious influence, it was Bob Clark’s Black Christmas that proved a direct inspiration for Carpenter’s more widely recognised Halloween after he approached Clark about the possibility of a sequel. Black Christmas, which established many of the tropes that would refine the slasher sub-genre, became the subject of much controversy following an untimely, real-life incident involving serial killer Ted Bundy, who would mirror the movie’s plot by bludgeoning two sleeping Chi Omega sisters to death before attempting to murder two others, something which no doubt piqued Carpenter’s interest further. Clark, who wanted to expand his filmmaking horizons, wasn’t interested in making another horror movie, telling Carpenter, “If I was going to do one, I would do a movie a year later where the killer escapes from an asylum on Halloween, and I would call it ‘Halloween.'” The rest, as they say, is history.
Halloween sparked a holiday trend that explored every last commercial avenue, from Christmas Evil to New Years Evil to April Fool’s Day, but Halloween was the real breadwinner when it came to the horror genre, a fact that Clark singularly understood and Carpenter was more than happy to capitalise on. Unlike the countless knock-offs it ultimately inspired, Halloween is one of those rare movies that is able to use violence in its most positive and productive sense. This is art first and foremost, and the film’s graphic nature is never superfluous. In fact, by today’s standards it isn’t that violent at all, but it doesn’t need to be. Everything we see on screen serves a purpose, creating the kind of ceaseless tension that grabs you by the throat and never lets go.
Laurie – It was the boogeyman…
Dr. Sam Loomis – As a matter of fact, it was.
To pull this off takes not only great artistry, but impeccable judgement and an understanding of what makes an audience tick. Some, like Carpenter, are bright and resourceful enough to expand on those elements, are able to create the kind of seminal experience that becomes woven into the very fabric of our culture. Exactly how many times have you been scared of Myers clone, Voorhees? We have marvelled at him, laughed at him, and he too has become a cultural icon in his own right, but scared? I don’t think so. With every Friday the 13th outing, creatives dreamt up new ways to make the violence more extreme, and each time it became just a little sillier. The more they threw at us, the less impactful it was from a horror perspective, leading the franchise along an increasingly self-aware path.
Ironically, the same can be said of those later Halloween instalments. The series would up the violence for 1981’s Halloween II at the behest of Carpenter in order to meet audience expectation as the sub-genre was plunged ever deeper into the realms of grue, a move from which the Myers character would never fully recover. The movie would also retain some of Halloween‘s more admirable elements, thanks in no small part to the input of Carpenter and the return of cinematographer Dean Cundey, who despite the violence understood that Michael’s real draw was his sense of mystique and air of elusiveness. Jason Voorhees may have thrived on silliness, but for a character like Myers, too much exposure would prove detrimental. Some monsters work best in the shadows.
In order to stay commercially relevant, the Halloween series would continue along a path of destruction, leading to a series of Friday the 13th clones which cheapened the legendary ‘shape’. Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers would set the severed head rolling, and 1989‘s Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers would provide us with more of the same on the insistence of producers, a fact that went against director Dominique Othenin-Girard’s desire to return to the basics of Carpenter and long-time collaborator Debra Hill’s Hitchcockian template. In the late 90s, the series would further jeopardise its sense of identity with Scream derivative Halloween: H20, a film that returning star Jamie Lee Curtis would cynically refer to as “a money gig”, but the original instalment will always be remembered as a seminal classic; one of the few horror movies that can truly be labelled a masterpiece thanks to its innovative use of space and shadows and the kind of mocking wit redolent of Hitchcock.
Halloween is a flawless exercise in horror filmmaking, incredible when you consider that Carpenter was barely thirty when he shot the movie in twenty days on a budget of approximately $320,000 dollars, $20,000 of which going to hard-up thespian Donald Pleasence, who only agreed to lend his considerable talent for 5 days due to alimony payments (talk about silver linings!). But Carpenter is nothing if not resourceful, and after composing one of horror’s most memorable and effective scores inside of 3 days, a hypnotic amalgamation of Goblin’s Suspiria and Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells from The Exorcist, he would cut the eyes out of a William Shatner mask and spray it white, giving us one of film’s most iconic killers. So strapped for cash was Carpenter that the crew were reduced to painting bags of spring leaves brown in order to make the movie seasonally accurate, cast members even chipping in with the transportation of equipment.
Hardly the glamorous experience our young cast were perhaps expecting, particularly Janet Leigh offspring Jamie Lee Curtis, but Carpenter had worked wonders on a small budget previously, producing the incredibly slender and effective Assault On Precinct 13, a humble urban western in the Night of the Living Dead mode, and when it comes to Halloween, simplicity is once again key. Asides from having to depend on the more basic and therefore creative elements, this is a bare bones tale that doesn’t seem beyond the realms of plausibility, a fact that makes the experience all the more terrifying. That’s not to say there isn’t an element of the supernatural about Myers, but it’s largely implied, and what we get is a man of Haddonfield origin let loose on the kind of suburban neighbourhood that should be immune to such horrors. Nobody expects the likes of Myers to show up for a murderous rampage, and the community’s innocence only adds to our killer’s sense of elusiveness.
Thanks to Carpenter’s panic-infused synths and concurrent pacing, Halloween maintains a mounting sense of dread that is as potent in the drab of daytime as it is in the dead of night. It is because of this that Myers becomes an almost invisible entity, haunting every frame with his animal breath and inhuman patience, a scourge that somehow roams freely without detection. Like the youngster who murdered his sister all those years ago, there is a naïve inquisitiveness to Michael’s pursuit, an eerie fascination with the acts he feels so strangely compelled to commit. This was a conscious effort on the part of Carpenter, who instructed Myers portrayer Nick Castle to tilt his head and examine one victim’s corpse as if it “were a butterfly collection.”
There is a scene in Halloween that sums up the character exquisitely. After offing John Michael Graham’s Bob in a moment of devastating brutality, Michael returns in his place to a post-sex Lynda. In an inspired moment of gallows humour that provides a sense of levity while cranking up the tension, Michael stands in the doorway under a bedsheet, Bob’s glasses resting ironically on his face. In doing so he is portraying a ghost, a fitting prank for the time of year, but his real aim is concealment as he prepares for the kill. This is Michael echoing humour but not understanding it. It is an impression of something human, a symbol of an almost ethereal monster lacking any kind of moral substance. It is utterly disquieting.
As his mask dissolves in and out of darkness, Myers orchestrates proceedings with an almost infantile sense of torment. He revels in his ability to manipulate proceedings, exploding into sudden acts of brutality and analysing his work like an artist mulling over the finer details. It is Michael’s quiet hegemony that keeps us glued to the edge of our seats. With him, you feel it is not a matter of If, but When, and as his victims are drawn ever closer to their indomitable fates, we feel our own control slipping out of reach. We wander hopelessly as they do.
Dr. Samuel Loomis: I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply… evil.
Essential to Halloween‘s knife-edge tension is our participation in proceedings. Thanks to Carpenter’s teasing direction, we see what probably isn’t there. We hear what nobody else hears and we know what is coming, just maybe. Take the scene where an oblivious Lynda reaches for the phone as our sheeted killer finally makes his move, or the close-up of a sobbing Laurie Strode as a relentless Michael sits up in the background, triggering the first urgent notes of Carpenter’s blood-curdling score. We may be very much in the know, but Michael remains something of an enigma, possessing an aura of mystique that was rarely emulated as the sequels rolled on. We witness the act that had him committed, we soak up the vague damnations of the beleaguered Dr. Loomis, but all else is contained behind that mask, existing only in our imagination.
Making her silver screen debut, Curtis is a revelation as the timid bookworm who ultimately outwits Castle’s relentless purveyor of death, following in her mother’s footsteps by becoming one of horror’s most iconic leads (Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane would famously succumb to the swift hands of Norman Bates in Psycho’s iconic shower scene). Though The Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s Marilyn Burns is recognised as the progenitor on US shores, it was Curtis who established the death-by-sex trope, which determined that a slasher’s final girl would remain pure by steering clear of the usual hormone-fuelled high jinks. By 1980, the actress had become so synonymous with the genre she would acquire the moniker ‘scream queen’, a term that would become an established part of the horror lexicon. Myers may be one of the genre’s most emblematic figures, but Curtis breathes the same air.
Contrary to Black Christmas, Halloween was also a critical smash, earning almost universal plaudits. Roger Ebert, a known detractor of violent horror, had nothing but praise for Carpenter’s breakthrough movie, writing, “Credit must be paid to filmmakers who make the effort to really frighten us, to make a good thriller when quite possibly a bad one might have made as much money. Hitchcock is acknowledged as a master of suspense; it’s hypocrisy to disapprove of other directors in the same genre who want to scare us too. It’s easy to create violence on the screen, but it’s hard to do it well. Carpenter is uncannily skilled, for example, at the use of foregrounds in his compositions, and everyone who likes thrillers knows that foregrounds are crucial.”
Unlike much of what Halloween would inspire, we care about the residents of Haddonfield. Carpenter sketches a familiar town with familiar characters, an essence blighted by a singular, unsettling entity, and as we peek from our own windows while the film plays out, we imagine these events as a very plausible reality. We see Myers standing unchallenged beneath a streetlamp. We hear him breathing on the periphery of our own suburbia. This is no Frankenstein’s monster or shape-shifting Nosferatu, and though you can thrill and laugh and resign it all to fantasy, something tells you that this is far more authentic than you will ever be comfortable with.