Monday, August 14, 2023

Halloween / ***1/2 (1978)

The key distinction between the original “Halloween” and “Psycho,” the movie it is most closely associated with, comes down to a need (or lack thereof) to understand the psychological motives of the villain. When it first caught audiences off guard in the fall of 1978, John Carpenter’s influential slasher was riding a new wave of reality-grounded horror films foreshadowed by the arrival of Norman Bates – ones that involved everyday people quietly evolving into the deviant madmen of old legends and bedtime stories. While it was always a given these individuals would become loathsome homicidal killers, now we were asking ourselves how we could not recognize the signs. Was there something in their genetic makeup that inspired the shift? A situation that destroyed their stability? Or gradual stressors no one else was seeing? Well before the era of criminal profiling made madmen of the flesh relatable, all we could do was study, ponder and then wait for the experts to assess the matter in pointed and revealing monologues. But the arrival of the Michael Meyers persona represented a startling shift away from the gray areas of movie villain psychology. When Dr. Loomis (Donald Sutherland), the man studying Meyers, is asked early on about what caused such a shy and quiet boy to murder his older sister in cold blood, his conclusion contradicts the very teachings of his profession. To him, there is nothing behind Michael’s eyes other than the dead and thoughtless conviction of a monster – a literal personification of evil, long detached from the human he once was.

His assertion is the overture in a horrific symphony that moves with all the cunning and strategy of a supernatural entity, to be metaphorically bookended in a final exchange where his lone survivor, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), ominously asks the mysterious Loomis if she has just confronted the boogeyman. Who can blame her? Like any practical teenager of the real world, our initial convictions hinge on a predisposed notion that there can be no such thing as literal monsters – only men who can sometime be programmed to undertake monstrous behaviors. After seeing and witnessing all that she experiences, the weight of the movie’s traumatic path forces us to reconsider the matter, much in the same way that Loomis and Laurie have done through the course of their encounters with the masked Michael. On its surface “Halloween” is a movie about a killer who haunts the shadows of young babysitters, but beneath the terror it is a challenge to the intellectual boundaries of the homicidal profile – including the belief that all violent maniacs must fit a certain box or operate with relatable compulsions.

Not many voices spoke of such matters while the movie was at the height of its popularity, but in the years since its impact has eased and the skill replicated by an unending host of imitators and successors, Carpenter’s deeply-rooted thesis has emerged at the forefront of the discussion. If horror movies work only as well as the antagonist that drives their destructive engine, then here remains one of the most fascinating and frightening of our time – indeed, a being so menacing that he has inspired countless remakes, reboots and sequels in the 40-plus years his name was added to the cultural zeitgeist. Moreso than many of his contemporaries, Myers is not easily trapped by the traditions of mainstream outlaws who must reveal their hand or expose their agendas via long diatribes or complicated setups. There is one mode to his instinct: to stay quiet, focus on a single target and pounce when they wander into a dark space – hopefully while all alone. The mask, one of the most familiar signatures of the genre, is an adequate summation of his mystery and danger.

The opening sequence sets the tone perfectly. During a seemingly insignificant Halloween night in the early 1960s, a point-of-view shot of a young boy shows him quietly meandering around the exteriors of a house in Haddonfield, Illinois. This is the place of his residence, although the absence of exposition doesn’t clarify so until after. He watches his sister through the window as she flirts with her teenage boyfriend, then wanders ominously into the kitchen after they have gone upstairs. A hand opens a drawer and extracts a large knife, held by a hand that continuously holds it in an offensive pose. The sister’s boyfriend leaves out the front door but does not notice the boy lingering beneath the stairs, and when he is out of sight, he ventures upwards, stopping long enough to put on a Halloween mask. The sister, not surprisingly, is still naked while seated in front of her mirror. She barely has time to react to little Michael’s presence before the knife comes down into her bare skin. One stab. Two stabs. They come again and again, until all that is left is a heap of blood and tissue lying lifelessly on the floor. Young Michael doesn’t merely begin his long career of terrible deeds with this single act but predicts the very movement that will inform nearly all the slashers of the coming decade: pleasures of the flesh must be punished with death, pain and sometimes prolonged suffering.

Some of that occurs during the latter half of “Halloween,” but Carpenter is more concerned with dread than mere terror. The movie builds up cautiously to its violence, starting with the slow and calculated intrigue of the early scenes involving Laurie and her friends coming and going from school to home on foot, all while an unseen figure watches them from behind trees or bushes. At one point, a car speeds past them and her best friend Annie (Nancy Kyes) taunts the driver, who reacts by simply stalling at a distance. Later, when night has fallen and the girls are babysitting two children on the same street, their murderous stalker doesn’t immediately pounce on them, either. He continues to stay back, sometimes only appearing long enough between movements to remind us he is still there. The soundtrack establishes a pattern here: a harsh synth plays over the speakers just as the shadow moves into frame, then drops as he moves away from the action of the foreground.

Meanwhile, Dr. Loomis pursues his escaped patient with the vigor of a desperate hunter closing in on rabid prey. Knowing where and how he will strike (perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence he escaped on Halloween), he haunts the outskirts of Haddonfield while looking for all the obligatory clues. Has he returned to the house he first murdered at? Has he visited the grave of his deceased sister? There is a moment early on where he comes across a maintenance worker’s abandoned truck but does not pick up on the camera’s discovery: a body in the nearby weeds that has been stripped of its uniform. Later, when the local undertaker stumbles upon the gravesite of the Meyers girl and discovers the headstone is missing, it establishes framework for a climax that promises to be more than just a loud chase sequence or violent ambush. Because the stakes seem so high, the cues so well-placed, the movie never fails to startle the cynic in us all when Laurie and Michael finally meet, during a moment when his white mask slowly emerges at the edge of the camera frame while she is hysterical with fright.

Another unconventional detail: the film’s body count is surprisingly low. Moreover, none of Michael’s victims is murdered in graphic detail, either. Little blood is present on screen, with some deaths occurring by less gory means and most of the open wounds usually occurring in the distance or through impenetrable darkness. For later slashers this approach became only a line to cross; for Carpenter, it was the artistic slackline that placed him among the company of Hitchcock and Murnau, who understood that genuine horror had to be parceled in gradual increments instead of unleashed to the extreme. Much of that changed as the 70s closed, and even the “Halloween” franchise abandoned its own value system for the new frontier of gruesome shock value. The original, however, sacrifices nothing and achieves everything. It is a riveting testament to the timeless value of method and technique, favoring the chance to taunt the audience instead of deadening them to the onslaught of unending chaos. It’s little wonder that Laurie Strode was forever haunted by the events of that night. Behind that mask lurked a vision of nightmares, a symbol for all that was wrong and perverse about the human experience. Dr. Loomis had always been right. She did more than just survive a murder: she had engaged with the boogeyman.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Horror (US); 1978; Rated R; Running Time: 91 Minutes

Donald Pleasance: Dr. Loomis
Jamie Lee Curtis: Laurie Strode
Nancy Kyes: Annie
P.J. Soles: Lynda
Kyle Richards: Lindsey
Brian Andrews: Tommy
John Michael Graham: Bob

Produced by Moutsapha Akkad, John Carpenter, Debra Hill, Kool Marder and Irwin Yablans; Directed by John Carpenter; Written by John Carpenter and Debra Hill

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