Reflections in a Flickering Eye
The horror genre has always reflected social anxieties. Mary Shelley’s novel about a re-animated corpse summarized unease about the monsters science and technology might unleash; electricity was just starting to be understood and used, and it’s no coincidence that the mystical life-bestowing element in Shelley’s tale was lightning.
Or how about Bram Stoker’s "Dracula?" The original novel pre-dates hunky teens with fangs and the image of vampire as immortal, forever young and sexy, the rock star of darkness-dwelling creatures. In Stoker’s novel, the aristocratic Count Dracula stood in for all his social class: The entitled and soulless beast that literally sucked the lifeblood out of the peasantry in order to maintain his own fruitless existence.
In 1978, filmmaker John Carpenter put his finger squarely on the pulse of our modern fears when he directed a film called "Halloween." The movie’s script, by Carpenter and producer Debra Hill, sketched out a new kind of monster: The wordless, relentless, unkillable maniac with a knife whose main demographic, both as a killer and as a movie icon, was hormone-addled teens.
In a way, Michael Meyers prefigured the current zombie craze. Like a zombie, he’s driven by insane hunger, even if it is a hunger that centers on inflicting death. (That said, there’s a nice touch in the original movie in which Michael’s psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis [Donald Pleasance], together with a local sheriff, stumbles across a half-devoured dog -- the remains of a recent meal.) Also like a zombie, Michael Meyers doesn’t run; his approach is steady, inexorable, and expressionless.
And he wears a mask. This is the coup de grace, the brilliant finishing touch that boosts Michael Meyers from grinder film baddie to bona fide boogeyman. Who is underneath that blank white mask (reportedly cast from William Shatner’s face)? Michael could be anybody.
Horror films are fun because they are a cinematically bloody, but harmless, means of confronting half-buried fears. Much of the horror genre is, in fact, quite funny; I’ve long regarded the original "Halloween" to be something of a comic gem, given its over-the-top absurdities. These days -- and the Rob Zombie remakes are as guilty of this as the original movie’s sequels, to say nothing of the raft of imitators like Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees that came in Michael’s wake -- the trope of the unkillable murdering maniac belongs squarely in the splatter film category, with buckets of blood being the main attraction.
But a good horror film tickles the funny bone with excess and a healthy dose of the ridiculous, all while engineering genuine shocks and jolts. Indeed, if a jolt can also be an absurdity, so much the better... as when, in "Halloween," Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, in her first film role) stumbles upon a grisly tableau that presents its terrors in a tidy sequence. First there’s the body of slutty friend Annie (Nancy Kyes) laid out on a queen-sized bed, the site of recent carnal frolics now neatly made up and turned down. A headstone, stolen from a local graveyard, sits upright at the head of the bed, and a jack o’ lantern flickers cheerfully nearby. What the hell?
It’s not until the dead body of a young man suddenly and inexplicably comes swinging down that the puzzled Laurie grasps what’s going on. This isn’t a prank; there really is a psychopathic murderer on the loose! To underscore her realization, a cabinet door opens itself at her elbow, revealing the corpse of Laurie’s other slutty friend, Linda (P.J. Soles).
All this time, Michael Meyers has been waiting in the hall for Laurie to come screaming out of the bedroom... so why are corpses flopping down from above and cabinet doors swinging open of their own accord? To give us our scares, of course. It makes no sense at all, and you can almost sense Hill and Carpenter laughing about how this series of gruesome twists stacked like flapjacks and drizzled with Karo syrup-based fake blood, freaked audiences out.
The buildup to this scene has been a steady and incremental accumulation of jibes and japes. At the movie’s very beginning, set 15 years before Laurie’s night of terror, six-year-old Michael spies on his sister and her boyfriend as they make out in the living room and then rush upstairs for a quickie. And I do mean a quickie: It’s all over and done in the space of time it takes young Michael to let himself in the back door and fish a knife out of the kitchen door. Michael shies away from the departing boyfriend, who is already coming down the stairs while pulling on his shirt; his look of boredom is the capstone to this little joke about rutting teens, and sets things up for the tonal counterbalance: The comeuppance that Michael has in store for his sister, evidently as punishment for having sex.
Another joke quickly follows: After knifing his sister to death (she simply sits there writhing and moaning as the kid -- remember, he’s six -- plunges the knife into her time and again), Michael staggers outside, just as his parents drive up. They yank the mask off of his face as he stands there blankly, holding the bloody knife; Mom and Dad are equally blank, with Mom even putting her hands into her sweater pockets casually as the camera slowly pulls way, way back.
It’s all right here: the trifecta of ingredients for what has become the standard slasher flick. The slutty teens! The soulless, almost anonymous, killer! The clueless absentee parents! Jokes, like horror movies, draw their charge from our anxieties, and this is basically a chiding tract telling us that our social values have collapsed. Moreover, we can’t just retreat to the suburbs and the exurbs and gated communities to escape; the boogeyman is forever with us, because he’s an extension and an aspect of us.
Sex and violence are deeply linked in our commercial expressions, be they movies or TV shows or books. It’s no surprise that horror incorporated those same elements, and assigned a Puritanical cause-and-effect between sex and a violent death as its punishment. George A. Romero’s 1968 film "Night of the Living Dead" injected a stiff dose of satire into the horror genre, and subsequent horror films picked up on this until, a decade later, we arrived at "Halloween," which arguably is simultaneously the crowning moment in the genre as it had existed until that point, and the point of origin for a distinctive new genre, the slasher flick.
But try to find the original "Halloween" at the video store or Amazon’s streaming movies. What you come up with is the Rob Zombie remakes and the original movie’s later sequels (there were seven follow-up installments in all, including "Halloween: H20," the 20th anniversary feature that brought Curtis back into the fold, and "Halloween: Resurrection," which finally dispatched Laurie at the point of Michael’s knife; evidently that finally satisfied the creep, because the sequels ended, and the reboot started, there).
I finally scrounged up a single copy of the film at a neighborhood video shop teetering on the verge of closure, and even then it wasn’t, strictly speaking, the original "Halloween." It was an extended edition, incorporating 12 additional minutes that Carpenter shot to fill out the movie’s running time for its television premiere after the network demanded extensive cuts. Those 12 minutes were spliced into the unexpurgated theatrical version, but they added little -- other than a revisionist clue about why Michael Meyers was so intent on killing Laurie. ("Halloween II" came up with the notion that Laurie was Michael’s baby sister, farmed out to an adoptive family; a scene in which Dr. Loomis discovers the word "SISTER" scrawled in Michael’s trashed room at the insane asylum was added to the original movie after the fact.)
Thankfully, the original film is set for its own timely resurrection: "Halloween" has made a return to the big screen (locales and ticketing info here), together with a new documentary short, "You Can’t Kill the Boogeyman: 35 Years of Halloween." For horror buffs and cineastes, it’s Christmas in October.