Perusing the shadows of John Carpenter’s genre-defining masterwork
John Carpenter’s Halloween was guilty of a great many crimes. So successful was his low-budget revelation that it spawned an entire decade of sleazy, half-baked imitators, movies so devoid of technical competence that the genre had no other option than to descend into self-parody. Fortunately, for those of us with a taste for the unthinkably inept, lots 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.
Ironically, it was Bob Clark’s Black Christmas that proved the inspiration for Carpenter’s more widely recognised Halloween after the director approached Clark about the possibility of a sequel to a movie that would become the subject of much controversy due to a rather untimely real-life incident with serial killer Ted Bundy, who would mirror the movie’s plot by bludgeoning two sleeping Chi Omega sisters to death and attempting to murder two others. Clark, who wanted to expand his 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 would begin a seasonal trend that saw the slasher sub-genre explore every commercial avenue, from New Years Evil to April Fool’s Day to Christmas Evil, with the censor aggravating Silent Night, Deadly Night proving the straw that broke the reindeer’s back in a year when censorship reached for the festive guillotine, but the season of Halloween was the real breadwinner when it came to horror, a fact that Clark singularly understood and Carpenter was more than happy to capitalise on. Unlike those other cynical efforts, 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 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. Ironically, the same can be said of 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 in spite of the violence understood that Michael’s main power over an audience was his mystique and ellusiveness. Some characters operate better in the shadows. For a character like Myers, too much exposure is detrimental.
In this way, Halloween‘s influence would serve to weaken its own franchise, culminating in 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 clone 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 and is one of the few horror movies that can truly be labelled a masterpiece thanks to its careful handling and the kind of mocking wit popularised by Hitchcock and echoed in Carpenter’s very best work.
Halloween is a flawless exercise in horror filmmaking, incredible when you consider the fact 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 perhaps horror’s most famous score inside of 3 days, 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 the director that the crew were reduced to painting bags of spring leaves brown in order to make the movie seasonally accurate, while cast members were asked to provide their own wardrobe.
Hardly the glamorous experience our young cast were perhaps expecting, particularly Janet Leigh offspring Jamie Lee Curtis, but Carpenter had worked wonders on a budget previously, producing the incredibly slender and effective Assault On Precinct 13, 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 which makes the experience all the more terrifying. That’s not to say there isn’t an element of the supernatural about Myers, but that is 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 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, and Myers becomes an almost invisible entity, haunting every frame with his animal breath and inhuman patience. Like the youngster who murdered his sister all those years ago, there is a naive inquisitiveness to his pursuit, an eerie fascination with the acts he feels so strangely compelled to commit. As his mask dissolves in and out of darkness, he 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 subtle 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 his victims do.
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 Linda reaches for the phone as our killer finally makes his move, too detached from humanity to understand the irony of his ghostly disguise, 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.
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. – Dr. Sam Loomis
We may be very much in the know, but Michael remains something of an enigma, a sense of mystique that would never be emulated as the inevitable 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 imaginations. Unlike much of what Halloween would contrive to inspire, we care about the predestined characters of Haddonfield, particularly the studious and heedful Jamie Lee Curtis, whose slight and whimpering Laurie Strode would ultimately prove a match for our seemingly indestructible predator, possessing all the perquisites that would transform her into the genre’s first ever ‘scream queen’. This connection is essential to any horror movie worth its salt, because without affinity there is no empathy, and all else will crumble as a consequence.
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 imagine him breathing on the periphery of our own suburbia. This is no Frankenstein’s monster or shape-shifting Nosferatu; this is real, and though you can thrill and laugh and resign it all to fantasy, something tells you that this is perhaps more authentic than you will ever be comfortable with.