Fans of horror cinema love to debate the genre’s high water marks. Few though, will disagree that John Carpenter’s Halloween is among the greatest horror pictures ever produced. Released at the tail-end of the tumultuous 70s, the movie scared audiences (who spent upwards of $70 million to see it), while spawning an unceasing rise in independent cinema and a saturation of movies involving knife-toting psychopaths stalking promiscuous teenagers.
The counterculture movement was in full swing by the middle of the 70s. College students across America were voicing their opinions about war, poverty, and racism loud and clear. The controlling influence was waning on issues dealing with social conduct. (It was only 1964 when Lenny Bruce was arrested and convicted on obscenity charges following a performance on a New York stage.) Young people challenged traditional rules of behavior regarding sex and personal relationships. The sale of contraceptives was normalized, women were granted the right to seek abortions, drug abuse reached an all-time high. Genre filmmakers like John Carpenter took advantage of these new-found liberties by stretching established limits of violence in their movies.
Many Americans (mostly middle class white guys), fed up with what they interpreted as bratty tree huggers and whiny protestors, pushed for a return to traditional social values. Around the same time, director John Carpenter created a low-budget fright flick in which immoral teenagers were killed for their transgressions.
Young Michael Myers inexplicably stabs his sister to death with a butcher knife after witnessing her frolicking with her boyfriend on Halloween night. Fifteen years later, he escapes from a mental institution and returns home where a trio of high schoolers catch his gaze. Among their plans for the evening: babysitting, drinking booze, smoking weed and having premarital sex.
The liberal-thinking Carpenter will claim it wasn’t his intention to champion the conservative battle cry of the time, however Halloween resulted in a slew of teens vs. psycho killer movies that presented viewers titillating images of nude bodies moments before they were hacked to bits in grotesque fashion. Ironically, most right-wingers were too blinded by the film’s violence to notice the cautionary message.
American women at the time continued to fight for political and economic equality despite the mainstream media’s varied attempts to denounce them as misandrous kooks. As Myers’s murderous rampage reaches a fever pitch in Halloween, his killing spree is brought to an abrupt halt by the strong and resourceful Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). Although she is aided in the end by a male doctor (Donald Pleasence), Laurie’s successful attempts to ward off the killer marked a progressive step for horror heroines.
Meanwhile, the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s impeachment resulted in America losing faith in administrative agencies. Myers escapes rather easily from Smith’s Grove Sanitarium in a government vehicle. His doctor of fifteen years is unable to diagnose him. “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.” No medicine can fix him. Once back in Haddonfield, the police aren’t able to do a thing to stop him. In fact, he kills the sheriff’s daughter.
I saw Halloween for the first time as a young child. It was a Halloween night like most before it. Dressed up to trick-or-treat, my friends and I stepped out onto the cold street thinking of nothing but chocolatey confections. Upon returning with a haul big enough to feed the cast of Tarantino’s next opus, everyone passed out leaving me alone to watch whatever horror delights basic cable was offering. I stumbled upon John Carpenter’s now revered masterpiece. For the next ninety-minutes I sat entranced in a sea of candy wrappers, a gormless expression on my face. Halloween instantly became my favorite movie of all time. By virtue of the innumerable number of commentaries offered about the movie over the years, I hesitated to write about it. The more I thought about it however, the more I realized how significantly the movie bears upon our current situation in America.
The concerns of conservatives in the 1960s and 1970s that swirled around the counterculture movement ape anxieties that exist today regarding internet pornography. Teenagers can surf the web for free while downing a milkshake at a fast-food joint, they can connect with peers on the other side of the world, they can also download the latest kartrashian sex tape. Idealized images of men and women are thrust at them daily. They snap revealing photos of themselves and trade them like baseball cards.
Politicians communicate with their constituency via twitter and athletes wear jeans and t-shirts to post-game press conferences. The president gets caught telling lies on a daily basis and women are speaking out in droves against sexual harassment and assault. It seems the fears and anxieties of the American people have not changed a whole lot in the past forty years.
I have viewed Halloween well over fifty times (according to my letterboxd account I’ve looked at it eight times in the last year-and-a-half). Its power never wanes. It’s rooted in the movie’s commendable simplicity, its prize fighter sense of timing, the exquisitie tension of every sequence involving Myers surveilling Laurie from the dark recesses of the frame.
The control of space is impeccable. Characters occupy the foreground as terror looms in the background. They move about without worry as a dark and brooding force observes from the distance. Carpenter was not as concerned with bloodshed with Halloween as were his successors. He understands that true terror lies in the stalk.
Horror provides a visceral experience. The best ones allow audiences to yell and vent with the characters on screen. Spectators substitutionally experience the suffering protagonists face. Halloween develops credible characters audiences can get behind. It displays courage in its willingness to allow relations to build among its protagonists before they are tossed into extemporaneous survival mode. Gothic locales of horror’s past are replaced by sleepy Midwestern neighborhoods and the ordinary characters capture our attention fully.
Movies end. Typically, viewers exit the theater purged of pent-up emotion and secure from real harm. But the horror of Halloween somehow lingers long after hitting stop on the blu ray player. I have heard Michael Myers compared to the shark in Jaws many times. We don’t, however, typically swim deep in the ocean. It’s understood that sharks “swim and eat and make little sharks.” We don’t expect psychopaths to be sitting across from us at the theater or standing in line next to us at the Wendy’s. The fact that Myers kills without motivation or provocation is a difficult concept for us to grasp. Following the shooting at Columbine, the country was clamoring to for an explanation. Religious folk and censor groups pointed the finger at Marilyn Manson and The Matrix. Chris Rock begged the question, “Whatever happened to crazy.” He went on to explain that when he was young his mother would point out certain kids he was not to hang with on the basis that they were “crazy.” Nobody can just be crazy anymore. In Rob Zombie’s ill-advised remake, Myers is a victim of an abusive stepfather, a stripper mother and school bullies. The term serial killer was coined by FBI agent Robert Ressler in 1974 around the time a number of real-life crazies (a la Ted Bundy and the Zodiac Killer) were carrying out their crimes and Carpenter succeeds wholeheartedly in capturing the unease they imbued in the bellies of the American people.
We go to horror movies to be scared. Halloween manages to generate unease in viewers for the entirety of its running time. From the moment Laurie walks past Myers’s door until her inevitable showdown with the masked killer, Carpenter tightens the noose. “I wish I had you all alone, just the two of us,” sings Laurie as she moves away from the Myers house, the hulking Michael looking on in the background. Dread creeps up the spine of viewers and settles right around their shoulders until they’re frozen to the spot. Like a nightmare, it doesn’t matter where one turns because the terror keeps coming. In school, Laurie’s teacher drones on about a fictitious writer named Samuels and his personification of fate. “You see, fate caught up with several lives here. No matter what course of action Collins took, he was destined to his own fate.” Meanwhile, Michael looms just outside the window, his white, featureless mask echoing the audience’s inability to mentally comprehend the happenings of the picture.
Hypnotically frightening, the movie remains effective forty years after its initial release. While establishing a blueprint for subsequent slasher flicks to follow, it established itself as one of the finest movies the genre has to offer. Now a landmark of horror cinema, Halloween continues to incite and inspire fans and filmmakers today. As long as fear and anxiety exist in the world, Michael will continue to get under the skin of viewers.
SINCE ITS RELEASE:
John Carpenter quickly established himself as a strong voice in cinema. The master of horror is often named alongside the likes of Howard Hawks, Joel Coen and Martin Scorsese as one of the greatest American directors of all time. He established a repertoire group of buddies on Halloween that worked with him on The Fog, Escape From New York, The Thing and other genre masterworks. Halloween was the most influential horror flick of the 1970s, laying the foundation for future slasher movies the likes of Friday the 13th, Prom Night, The Burning, My Bloody Valentine and so many more. The film received seven sequels and a remake. A new, direct sequel to the original is in the works and set to be distributed by Universal Pictures. Halloween is available on special edition blu ray from Scream Factory with an HD transfer supervised by cinematographer Dean Cundey.