Welcome back to the THUNDERDOME!!! This is a column where the TNC staff go head-to-head on a pop cultural topic they disagree on and argue their case. For this Halloween special, we’ve chosen the definitive film to mark the occasion – John Carpenter’s Halloween.
Despite arriving after four years after 1974’s Black Christmas, Halloween is often cited as the first American slasher film. It wasn’t. But it’s certainly the most influential and its success was directly responsible for the slasher boom of the 1980’s.
Haddonfield, Illinois: Halloween, 1963. Six-year-old Michael Myers stabs his sister to death after she has sex with her boyfriend. Fifteen years later, he escapes from the asylum and heads back to his old town to find his sister Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) and kill her friends. Pursuing him is psychiatrist Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence), who knows that Michael is the embodiment of pure evil, he enlists the help of Sheriff Leigh Brackett (Charles Cyphers) so they can put a stop to Myers’ rampage. But when Laurie becomes engulfed in a stalk-and-chase with her big brother, she must rely on her own survival instincts to escape his fury.
Halloween is a film about evil. Pure and simple. According to Carpenter, ‘evil never dies’ and Myers is the personification of this notion. But throughout the years film scholars have interpreted other themes contained within its subtext. It’s been analysed as a commentary about sexual repression and the dangers of pre-marital sex. It would also popularise the trend of promiscuous teens getting slaughtered by masked maniacs in much lesser films; but it also, arguably, defined the ‘final girl’ as a cinematic feminist icon. Then again, critics have dismissed it as one of many slasher films which are sexist and debase women. It’s a film which continues to be a great source of debate among film aficionados nearly 50 years later.
The film would go on to gross over $70 million worldwide on a $300.000 budget, but that’s nothing compared to its timelessness. Halloween continues to resonate with audiences to this day, and is without question one of the most influential horror films of all time. But not everyone is a fan; where do you stand?
What makes a movie scary? That’s a tough question to answer, one I can probably only do by paraphrasing United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart; “I know a scary movie when I see it” and John Carpenter’s 1978 masterpiece, Halloween, is one such movie. I will fully admit, however, that by today’s standards, the original Halloween is a pretty tame movie. Nobody is disembowelled and there are no arterial showers covering everyone in blood. In fact, the onscreen violence is actually pretty limited, but let’s be honest; if violence were the only defining characteristic of what made something scary we’d be pretty busy re-classifying a whole lot of movies. So what makes something scary? Like a well cooked dish, there’s a number of things that need to be included to make something scary. The only thing that needs to change might be the amount of each ingredient. So, let’s look at the ingredients of Halloween.
Fear of dying can be scary, so is there a fear of death associated with viewing the movie? Well, logically, no, of course not. We’re watching a movie and we know that. But sometimes just the thought of death is enough to affect some people. What about darkness? As children, the fear of the dark and what lurks in it can be paralyzing. Carpenter plays with the dark and shadows beautifully giving us one of the scariest moments of horror cinema when Michael Myers seems to take form from the shadows behind an already terrified Laurie Strode. What makes this even worse is that the mask that Michael wears is featureless with dark sockets for eyes with a moppy crop of hair. It’s been learned through studies involving infants and very young children that there is a fear of “disfigurement” and while not necessarily disfigured, the lack of details and “emptiness” of the mask certainly do not look like what one would consider normal, and it’s this almost-human looking being that triggers our inner fears. Taking one step beyond the physical “unknown” is perhaps the single most terrifying aspect of Halloween – Michael himself. By not defining him beyond the basics of what Carpenter tells us, we are faced with an almost “dark everyman”. We don’t know why he does what he does and, honestly, does it REALLY matter? That unknown “x-factor” makes it easy for us, the viewer, to see him as anyone; our neighbor, the guy we see jogging in the park every day. In short, it could be me or you behind that mask.
One of the biggest, and most important ingredient to this “scary souffle” is that of suspense. We see Michael stalking Laurie – standing at the end of a row of shrubs, standing outside, down in the yard and we know what he’s capable of. We KNOW he’s coming for her, but when? Laurie, however, is oblivious to it all. When she finally DOES become aware of Michael we’re on edge because it’s no longer a matter of IF, but WHEN. When will Michael’s methodical pace put him close enough to Laurie to strike? That almost palatable sense of dread consumes you. Finally, the icing on the cake, as it were, is the music. Carpenter’s minor-key music – from the iconic theme that ebbs and flows in intensity to the relentless “bum – ba-dum, bum – ba-dum” that plays as Michael stalks Laurie is damn near enough to cause your blood pressure and heart rate to rise all by itself.
The secret ingredient that brings it all together is imagination. There is no fertile ground for ideas better than our own imaginations. We know what we like, what we dislike, what we love and what we hate. We also know what scares us better than any writer or director. With Halloween, Carpenter masterfully leads us by the hand to a closed door, turns off the lights and whispers in our ear “Your greatest fear is beyond this door” before swinging the door open and ushering us inside. We SEE Michael attack with a knife but, like Hitchcock did in Psycho, we’re never really shown what damage is done, so we ASSUME and we picture it as sanitized or horrific as our brains decide to show us. When you take that element of the imagination and unknown away and instead present, in bright crimson gore, precisely what happens, you take away the “scare” of the situation and replace it with “shock”.
Like any good recipe that’s been handed down from generation to generation, Halloween’s ingredients make for the ultimate scary movie. Sure, you can tweak it a little here or there but once you do you’ve deviated from what made the original so perfect and you’re left with a result that is derivative and oftentimes bland.
All this talk of food has got me hungry, so if you’ll excuse me I’ve got a hunger that only Carpenter’s Halloween can satisfy.
Carpenter’s Halloween is a revolutionary horror film and the very definition of ‘seminal.’ Nobody can deny its importance. It’s one of the most influential genre films of all time and nothing will ever change that, especially not my opinion.
Now let me start this off by stressing how much I love John Carpenter. There’s only two movies in his canon I don’t adore with all my heart, body and soul. One is The Ward, and the other is the topic of this discussion. I’m not denying that Halloween is a good film, but it is a film that fails to evoke any substantial feelings from me; fear, excitement, joy… nada.
The appeal of the original Michael Myers is his mystery. He’s The Boogeyman: an unstoppable, malevolent force of nature driven solely by the compulsion to take human lives. He’s an inhumane embodiment of pure evil. I respect that and I can see why people find it effective. But he’s just so dull – and so is every other character in the film.
Dullness is my main issue with Halloween. It does nothing for me, and while I admire it for its technical achievements and immortal legacy, I just can’t get into a film I don’t find particularly interesting. The tension and suspense it strives to achieve is null and void and, therefore, ineffective. When I couldn’t care less about the fates of the characters their peril means absolutely nothing. This isn’t uncommon in horror films; in fact, I’m the type of guy who usually roots for a cool bad guy to off some obnoxious teens – and good ones. For me, Halloween failed to build suspense, tension and that sense of dread we need to evoke a fearful response; nor did it give me the visceral thrills to make it at least entertaining. Fans of the film will counter my statement by saying it has all of these things, and who am I to argue? It certainly aims to accomplish them, but for me it came out feeling flat. For others, it’s the exact opposite.
Now let’s talk about the superior remake…
Zombie’s also fails to capture the aforementioned characteristics. He uses brutal violence as a substitute for suspense and creating a foreboding sense of doom. Does this make it an effective horror film? I don’t think it does; horror needs more than blood and gore to pack a punch. However, I don’t for one second consider the remake to be an effective horror film. It’s not even a great film. The violence is just one aspect that makes it entertaining, whereas the original has absolutely nothing happening and the results are somewhat tedious. Give me entertainment over boredom any day.
If your film isn’t going to scare us, at least make it engaging in other ways. Zombie has enough respect for the original and its fans to approach it from a new perspective; his perspective just so happens to be an improvement on the original, where he takes its template and adds elements it was severely lacking – a story, interesting characters and entertainment. Granted, it does contain quite a bit of schlock, but I can appreciate that.
Rob Zombie’s Halloween isn’t a masterpiece of cinema. It’s an interesting violent slasher with some layers the original lacked. The back story is a white trash soap opera, but it’s handled in such a way you can see why it would turn Michael into a psychopathic killer. In summary: the remake is a passable piece of entertainment while the original is an underwhelming experience that Panaglide’s all the way to Snoozeville.
Again, I’m not hating on Halloween. It’s just a film that doesn’t hit the spot for me, and that’s a shame. I respect the hell out of it, and its success made Carpenter a household name – and for that reason alone I’m grateful that it exists. The only movies I enjoy from the entire original franchise are Season of the Witch, The Curse of Michael Myers and H20, so what do I know? All I do know is that I don’t enjoy Halloween.