Posted on 31 October 2004
features: October: 31 Days of Horror
features: A Selective History of the Slasher Film
I am not all that fond of slasher or gore movies. I prefer my horror movies to be more atmospheric, more suggestive. I find what I can imagine to be much more terrifying than what is shown to me. If horror were porno, slasher films would be hardcore, with all the penetration and icky aftermath displayed in bright colors and extreme close-up.
Halloween, arguably, might have given birth to the slasher genre, but I have never felt it to be of that genre. John Carpenter’s role models in filmmaking were (and still are, for that matter) Howard Hawks, John Ford, Orson Welles, and other masters of old Hollywood. Carpenter put storytelling above style and composed his shots to be effective in the context of the story, not just to amplify the shocks. For being the Ur-film of the slasher genre, Halloween is surprisingly bloodless. Like those moviegoers who swore after seeing it that the shower scene in Psycho was in color (it wasn’t) or that Rosemary’s Baby had yellow eyes (it is never seen), viewers remembering Halloween often recall it as bloodier or more graphic than it really is. Because Carpenter uses the viewer’s imagination as part of his storytelling, his film stands tall above those imitators for which the gore shot (or the money shot, if you will) is all.
Now that October draws to a close, it is time that I came clean to the notcoming.com readership: I hate Halloween and I hate horror movies. Perhaps I take these things too seriously, but there is something about all this slicing and bleeding and dying that really spoils my appetite for popcorn and candied apples. Death always seemed to be a pretty big deal to me, so I’ve always thought the plastic skeletons, the 100 Grands, and the gory titillations of the slasher flick were all too typical of a culture that hides away its elderly in assisted care and in which the government disallows the photographing of the coffins of soldiers killed in action.
As the prototype of the teen slasher flick, John Carpenter’s Halloween would seem to be another symptom of our society’s sanitization of death. In fact, Halloween (the film) seems to have much the same attitude toward Halloween (the holiday). Carpenter’s Haddonfield, Illinois, is the archetypal suburban town, the brutal events of its history are relegated to the status of myth and legend, and its inhabitants remain blissfully unaware of the potential for violence. 6th-graders will tell each other that the “Boogeyman” is coming to get them and their babysitters will tell them that the “Boogeyman” doesn’t exist.
Well, as it turns out, he does. And the genius of Carpenter’s film is that the “Boogeyman” is not a radioactive Nazi ghost monster, but a little boy, a child of the suburbs, in a clown costume. Fifteen years after knifing his promiscuous sister, Michael Myers escapes from a mental institution and decides to ruin the fun of Halloween for everyone, especially naked babysitters. Significantly, Michael’s Halloween costume this year (and thereafter in the film’s eight sequels) is a plain, almost featureless, human mask. Thus, in spite of his superhuman ability to withstand gunshot wounds and knitting needles to the neck, Michael Myers is the personification of a very immediate, very human form of evil.
Though it has spawned whole franchises of cheesy, late-night cable rip-offs, Halloween has a number of very important lessons to impart. First, if Donald Pleasance tells you something is important, you should listen to him. Second, babysitting is a very hazardous occupation, and a babysitter should be very careful not to take her clothes off. But last, and most importantly, people die in horrible ways every day all over the world and it’s not really that much fun. Even in the suburbs.
Michael Myers. Doctor Loomis. Haddonfield.
For anyone who has watched Halloween, those words are enough to inspire a few chills. And even if you haven’t seen the movie, you more than likely know the story: Myers, an escaped mental patient, and the personification of evil, returns to his hometown on All Hallows Eve to kill. And Loomis tries to stop him. A simple tale that in the hands of director John Carpenter becomes one of the most frightening, successful, and enduring horror films of all time.
One of the main reasons the film works is Carpenter’s understanding that the less we see of a killer, the more frightening he is. Subsequently, the first two acts offer us little more than enticing glimpses of Michael looming in the background, and the occasional point of view shot showing us Haddonfield through the killer’s eyes. Otherwise, Michael is kept carefully out of sight, a tactic that plays on our fears that the masked antagonist could be around any corner.
By limiting the exposure of his killer, Carpenter forces us to define Michael through the terrifying words of Doctor Loomis, who repeatedly describes his former charge as “it,” a creature “purely and simply evil” possessed of “the devil’s eyes.” We thus develop a disturbing mental image of the man as the embodiment of all our darkest fears, a creature as much supernaturally horrific as physically terrifying. When the third act begins and Carpenter finally gives Michael center stage, our dread of the killer is such that we harbor little hope for the humans in his path.
This dread is enhanced both by Carpenter’s eerily memorable synthesizer score (the spare, repetitive notes of which are enough to make anyone who has watched this movie shudder), and the film’s noticeable lack of gore. By featuring deaths that are relatively bloodless and free from special effects, Halloween (correctly labeled as a slasher, not a splatter flick) does not allow the deaths themselves to divert attention from Michael and what he might do next.
A movie that has spawned countless imitations, and defined the slasher genre, Halloween is required viewing for all horror fans, and is certainly worth another look by anyone interested in the film’s lasting role in American culture.
In the 26 years since Halloween’s release there have been over two hundred slasher films. It is a gesture of concentrated derivation that surpasses the prolific (and comparatively varied) acting career of John Wayne in half the time.
It is unwarranted to criticize Halloween for this unfortunate influence, but its formula is now so familiar that the film’s innovations are probably unclear to contemporary audiences: we know the killer will illogically be absent from the frame the very instant the Next Victim turns in his direction; we know sex is the height of vulnerability; and we know the conclusion finalizes nothing.
Citing these actions as examples of clichés is not to draw insult, but to endear the film. Halloween is like an old man who tells the same joke over-and-over—the joke is never funny, but you come to admire the custom. It is only in retrospect that Halloween is entirely formulaic, and it is for this reason, I believe, that the film is reveled, for its predictability or familiarity, beloved for its customary frights, accompanied by an identical excited anticipation in each viewing.
Halloween’s capitalist title could be no more appropriate. It’s an eponym for a holiday characterized by the same sort of macabre customs and frights that are oxymoronically expected. The experience is not dreaded, but enjoyed. Because of its familiar, perhaps no longer frightening amenity, Halloween occupies a position of significance that no film can ever exceed.