Does the “original” slasher defend its reputation for unrelenting style and menace, or is it little more than a schlocky B-movie?
Intro by Phil
In his 1978 review of Halloween, Roger Ebert called John Carpenter’s now-iconic film “an absolutely merciless thriller, a movie so violent and scary that, yes, I would compare it to Psycho.”
At first glance, this lofty praise is odd coming from a guy whose list of best horror films has no entries less than 60 years old – let alone any slashers. Like many critics and audiences, Ebert now harbors a grudge against the genre. For his last review of the ever-expanding Halloween franchise, 1998’s Halloween: H20, he went full-on irreverent, writing, “How does Michael Myers support himself in the long years between his slashing outbreaks? I picture him working in a fast-food joint. ‘He never spoke much, but boy, could he dice those onions!’” The critic generously gave it two stars, the same as a resigned “meh” and two stars fewer than the original. What a difference 30 years and countless knock-offs can make.
But Ebert saw something in Carpenter’s brooding, unrelenting original that so many sequels have failed to replicate. It’s the same gut-wrenching affinity shared by the generations of horror lovers who have turned it into a midnight-movie staple on basic cable.
Like Myers himself, Halloween isn’t remembered for robust characterization or complex storytelling. The film is more like the horror equivalent of Hemingway fiction: a work of tense and technical craftsmanship, with the ability to create an entire world from almost nothing. One sage character calls Myers “Evil Personified,” and for better or worse, Halloween attempts to be horror in its purest, most distilled form.
Just look at the plot, or what little of one there is: On Halloween 1963, a young boy in suburban Illinois brutally murders his older sister. Nearly 15 years later to the day, he escapes the mental institution where he had been under the care of a wary psychiatrist, Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence). Now grown, masked and bloodthirsty, Michael Myers – credited only as “The Shape” – returns home to slay sex-starved teenagers and terrorize Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis in her star-making role), a babysitter watching over kids with a boogeyman obsession.
That’s it. Carpenter’s script has few hidden twists and little subtext – just unadulterated menace, punctuated by plentiful shadows and a signature electronic score. Of course, we film geeks love to find meaning where there may not be any, and in the context of film history, Halloween was a watershed event. It’s credited by many (including Ebert and Pauline Kael, who said Carpenter “has a visual sense of menace” in her review) for almost single-handedly creating the modern slasher genre. The stereotypes are all there: randy teens, knifes a-plenty, a lone female heroine, the masked killer who just won’t die. And why wouldn’t they be present? The film turned them into stereotypes.
For all its unbridled violence, though, Halloween wasn’t the first low-budget film to visually assault audiences with blood and gore. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) was a hyper-realistic descent into the horrifying realities of senseless violence. Released near the end of the Vietnam War, it was a queasy reflection of the atrocities Americans saw on the nightly news, where uncensored death and destruction stripped away any pretense of a peaceful world. It was raw, unnerving and exploitative, a disturbing wake-up call filmed four years before Myers stabbed his way through teens just barely too young for military service.
With Halloween, Carpenter pushed that discomfort one step further, taking the blood-soaked insanity of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and moving it from the backwoods to the living room. Violence in Halloween isn’t confined to some far-off land – it’s in your kitchen, your bedroom, your hallway, just like the aftermath of Vietnam. The director used this boldly truthful and deceptively simple approach numerous times in his ‘80s heyday: Escape from New York (1981), The Thing (1982), They Live (1988).
But, again, was greater meaning ever the point? A potentially key difference between Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (or even Carpenter’s later films) is intent: Halloween rarely has the pretense of political or social allegory. Over the course of a four-decade career, Carpenter shifted comfortably between subtle commentary and pulpy fun. His style stayed the same throughout – visceral camerawork, throbbing scores, deliberate pacing, bare-bones characterization – but to audiences in 2012, his films can seem painfully straightforward and antiquated, possibly bordering on boring. The gore could squeak by as PG-13, and Myers had even become a punchline until Rob Zombie’s brutal, hard-R remake in 2007.
Which brings us back to Ebert’s enthusiastic claim. Is the original Halloween a “masterpiece” on par with Psycho? Is Michael Myers’ first appearance as bone-chilling as Hitchcock’s shower scene? Do stripped-down scares deliver like they did 35 years ago? Can horror be powerful without meaningful subtext? Let’s go back to the night he came home and find out.
Wanna watch? Halloween is available on Amazon for $5… it’s probably at Walmart or something also.
Chris: In true Macabre Brothers fashion, only those who know us personally will get this quip (all others now know us a bit better): I am beginning this post with “Time Warp” playing in the background. Rather fitting, don’t you say, Phil? Speaking of time warp… Jamie Lee Curtis. Wow. This is, as you mentioned in your beautiful intro, her career-launching film, and for good reason I might add. Yeah, even for the ‘70s she was dressed super conservative – I think prude might suffice to describe. But she did a brilliant job of keeping her character basic, which is no small feat when you compare some of her reactions to her fellow cast members, who were full of overacting and blatantly fake screams and faces. She also has, and I think this everytime I see it, a somewhat sexual nature to her character. I kinda feel like she was like Ripley from Alien: strong, weak, feeble and sexy. I thoroughly enjoyed her character and know why this was her career-launching role. What do you think, Phil? Talk to me about your feelings, sexual or otherwise, about Ms. Laurie Strode.
Phil: If there’s one thing the ‘70s gave us, it’s binders full of strong, capable women being terrorized by unstoppable forces, and I definitely see shades of Jamie Lee Curtis in Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. Halloween and Alien have a shitload in common, but more on that in a minute. (I doubt either film directly impacted the other – they were released only a year apart – but it’s interesting to see how they’ve endured.) As you mention, Chris, Curtis stands out precisely because she doesn’t stand out. For the first hour of the film, she plays Laurie as a very low-key character, and in the end, she’s more believable than the somewhat overblown and over-sexed teens around her. Curtis wears out her pipes in the film’s unbearably long finale – seriously, how many times does she have to kill the fucker? – but at that point, I was invested enough in her character that all the screaming meant something. I cared. It’s a novel concept for a slasher, and just one of the many ways Halloween proves why the genre became so ridiculously popular. More importantly, though, it shows how seemingly simple and trite material can be elevated in the right hands. Like many old-school horror flicks, Halloween has an almost “slice-of-life” feel about it, subtly highlighted by verite camerawork and a muted color palette. Even the stereotypes feel fresh – Curtis plays the “virginal lone female” like a person, not a trope, even if she helped spawn several generations of scream queens. You can’t blame her for shitty imitators.
Now, back to the Alien connection. Halloween and Alien have a lot in common – female leads, imaginative filming, unrelenting baddies, similar pacing and structure – but I want to peel back the layers (or mask, or egg thing, whatever) and look at two cornerstones: subject matter and directors. Both films are pulpy as all hell – I mean, serial killers and aliens? They’re the stuff of comic books and fanfic, not beloved franchises spanning more than three decades. Somehow, though, the films are respected by critics and audiences alike. I credit much of that to fledgling directors making their mark on the cinema world. Carpenter and Ridley Scott (who took on Alien as his first major studio picture) have wildly different styles, but they share a level of imagination and vision that surpasses their subject matter. Chris, what do you think about A-list directors taking a crack at B-movie material early in their careers? Obviously Carpenter has stuck with pulpier films, but he built a legacy with Halloween – why quit when you’re good at what you know? But does he deserve our praise?
Also, I’m listening to the Rocky Horror soundtrack now. Thanks bra.
Chris: I think that a lot of A-list directors take that route. Very few directors are like Spielberg, where their first is an A-movie and all the rest are as well. But it does speak to the talent of certain directors that they can start with movies like Halloween and Alien, make a name off of a campy film, then become an A-lister. That’s awesome, and honestly where I see a few of the people I went to Film school with ending up. Sorry that was a short answer, but I really can’t think of many directors in Hollywood right now who are as… perfect… as someone like Tarantino is. As a quick side note, I’d like to point out that although Tarantino didn’t quite use a B-movie to launch his career, he did delve into deliberately pulpy movies on purpose with Robert Rodriguez. Tarantino is probably one of only two human beings on the planet with extensive knowledge of film history, so he has seen his fair share of B-movies. However, all his films are still golden.
Alright, so the neighborhood… Halloween is in your backyard, as compared to its predecessor Chainsaw. I believe that is the key point in what makes this film a cult classic. The first four will always be considered cult classics, but Halloween in particular was the first one to bring it home and will always be remembered for that, and feared for it. This particular Halloween – of the Curtis era, that is – is the only one to show Myers’ face. Did you know that, Phil?
Another thing: Carpenter’s budget of $300,000 is relatively low. I’d like to hear your thoughts on whether this is immediately apparent and whether it is easily recognized today as a low-budget film.
Phil: It had been a while since I watched this Halloween, and I was pretty shocked when Laurie yanks off Myers’ mask. I don’t know why I expected him to stay permanently faceless – all slasher villains get exposed at some point, right? – but it was done in such a quick, unceremonious way that it didn’t factor into my memory of the film like, say, Jason Vorhees’ nasty mug. To be honest, it’s another way Halloween sets itself aside from all the imitators: Seeing the villain’s face becomes so important, it’s distracting. Showing a brief, relatively normal glimpse of Myers aligns perfectly with the film’s low-key sensibilities.
Anyway, the budget for this film is very small, and that DIY mentality is one of the many things I love about horror. With the right script, mood, director and cast, there’s no need for millions of dollars, and in most cases, less money forces filmmakers to take more risks. Think of other stellar examples where small budgets resulted in high-profile films: The Blair Witch Project, Evil Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, countless more… Hell, I’m even leaving out great indie fare like our most recent pleasant surprise, Absentia.
Now, does this mean Halloween doesn’t show its limits on occasion? Not at all. Carpenter was the original one-man production machine, like Louis C.K. with a serial killer fetish. But directing, writing, editing and scoring his film from start to finish occasionally feels weary, especially in the early sections when chatter between Laurie and her friends gets a bit stilted (don’t even start on the shoehorned boogeyman references). I’m not asking for Shakespeare, but portions of dialogue are painful. It’s one of the few issues I have with all of Carpenter’s films – his complete control can result in a cheesy or unpolished final product, and it would be interesting to see the impact of outside creative input. Luckily, Halloween doesn’t often suffer from too much cheese, and a lack of Hollywood sheen gives it character that the immaculate films of today don’t have. How about you, Chris? Could you tell this film had a miniscule budget, and even if you could, was it a problem?
Chris: I don’t remember thinking, “Wow, this is cheap,” when I first saw the film. But in the two times I’ve revisited it since I started upper-level film classes, it is glaringly obvious that this is a low-budget film: No big-name stars (sans Pleasence as Dr. Loomis, of course); all one location; the aforementioned score; a springtime shoot made to look like fall with some leaves scattered to hide blindingly green grass; a cheap mask that was powdered white and had widened eye holes (If you don’t know the story, stop reading right now and Google it. Seriously. Figure it out, because it’s a funny story!)… The list continues, but you get the point. To me it is really obvious that this is low budget. But I love it! I love it when I see good movies that were made on the cheap. Ink, District 9 and Monsters are a few contemporary films that really do this well, and I love seeing them. There is something beautiful about a low-budget movie making it big that I can’t describe.
Speaking of Absentia… One location, one town, a few characters, simple score. Some of the best movies around follow this same template, especially horror films, and it is so refreshing to not have to remember where we are. We are here and now, not in a human or avatar or far side of the planet. There’s no languages, creatures, sexes, pets, or cross-species to figure out. I’m surprised we haven’t touched on this before, but isn’t that the beauty of most horror films? The fact that they are simple, easy-to-grasp creations? Although they’re set in our world, they still whisk us away to a slightly foreign world for 90 minutes and show us another life, but one that is simple and terrifying. Phil, do you get what I am saying? And why the fuck have we not talked about this yet?!
Phil: I’m definitely like you and welcome simplicity in horror. As I mentioned in the intro, Halloween is essentially the genre personified – no bells or whistles, no meandering plot lines, no distracting mythologies, just ill-fated characters trying to bone and avoid a stab-happy killer. Of course, there’s always a time and place for spectacle, and I’d be kidding myself if I claimed to dislike effects-driven romps. But Halloween isn’t made for spectacle. True, it could use a bit more blood by modern standards, but for whatever reason, Carpenter’s choice to supplant geek-show visuals with a grisly mood works better in the end. It’s interesting – this film is responsible for creating the bloodlust that turns slashers into drinking games, but it’s relatively mild, even by ‘70s standards. However, we do get one of the coolest images in all of horror history: Bob, the ill-fated boyfriend with dorky glasses, skewered with a massive butcher knife and left to hang while Myers toys with his girlfriend. The best part: A nearly imperceptible nod of Myers’ head, almost like an artist admiring his work. Sick stuff, man. What scene gives you the heebie-jeebies?
Chris: The first one that comes to mind is after Laurie kills Myers the second time, she ends up upstairs and Dr. Loomis is coming for her. Then Michael slithers out of the shadow right behind her before the last few gunshots. Seeing him as just a white mask floating in the air… I almost jump every time I see it. So… Good film. Good scares. Simple plot. Thrilling final minutes. Low budget. Trendsetter. Jamie Lee Curtis. Leaves in the spring. What did we forget, Phil?
Phil: Boobs… There are some boobs in there, plus plenty of blink-and-you-miss-it references to other classics, including the original The Thing (which Carpenter went on to remake superbly four years later). And a fun fact about the climactic scene you describe: The film crew created that effect with a simple light bulb attached to a dimmer switch. As Myers comes behind Laurie, the light slowly illuminates just the white of his mask. That’s ingenuity on a budget. There’s so much to like in this film, and unlike its dubious imitators, it continues to frighten while staying approachable. I didn’t enjoy it academically or treat it as some artifact – it’s genuinely worthy of the classic title, no asterisk. Is it Psycho level? Not in form, but definitely in spirit and lasting legacy. A must-see for any babysitter, mental patient or human being. 3.
Chris: The last thing I would like to add about Psycho… Although it is a great movie, the only thing that is ever talked about is that damn shower scene. What about the greatest* reveal of all time, when we find Norman Bates’ skull-n-bones mother in the basement and realize he was the killer the entire time? Nobody mentions that when they talk about Psycho. (Phil: Granted, that scene is a giant spoiler, but by now everyone knows…) And in that way, I feel like Halloween is perfectly on par with Psycho. You remember the fear that Myers is, and the fact that he was never found. He’s still out there. I agree with a 3. A must-see midnight movie, then watch it again at 1:30 a.m. and drink every time someone says boogeyman just to double your pleasure!
*Not actually the greatest reveal of all time, but it deserves to be recognized just as much as that damn shower scene.
Phil: Oh man… good scene from Psycho, but not even my favorite. Sounds like we’ll have to review it pretty soon. Keep your eyes peeled, folks.
Chris: 3 – A must-see midnight movie.
Phil: 3 – For any babysitter, mental patient or human being.