Everybody knows fall is the time to turn the lights down and watch macabre movies. This October, we take a look back at four autumnal classics that are celebrating major anniversaries this year, starting with the progenitor of the teen slasher flick, John Carpenter’s Halloween.
The particulars of the slasher genre are so well-known now that an entire subgenre has sprung up to lampoon or deconstruct them: Cabin in the Woods, Final Girl, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, to say nothing of the wink-and-nudge fest that was Scream. You know the tropes: Horny kids, negligent parents, an implacable psychotic brick sh*thouse of a murderer with specious or zero motivations, and plenty of ironic, gory deaths for anybody who dares to have a little bit of fun.
So many of the imitators and descendants of the ’70s and ’80s era of slasher films approach their stories with tongue planted firmly in cheek, and it’s easy to forget that in 1978, before the whole craze had really properly taken off, Halloween did not come to play.
Scream is not scary, not really. It might be surprising in parts, but you’d need to ask somebody else, because I honestly couldn’t tell you. Halloween is frightening—starting with the minimalist piano score composed by the director himself, John Carpenter, you can tell this is a movie where the sighing wind and inky shadows are going to be constant threats. More than that, it is dreadful. It is a movie that lurks in plain view and stalks the people who should know better. It puts you behind the eyes of the killer and dares you not to look away. My girlfriend spent almost as much time covering her eyes during it as she did during It.
Halloween wastes no time getting started, and spares nothing in telling us precisely what kind of movie this will be in its opening minutes. The camera adopts the perspective of a voyeur watching a couple of teens getting up to some fun, and then stays with him as he invades the house, waits for the boyfriend to leave, and kills the girl with a knife. It’s only when he’s unmasked that the camera finally exits the killer’s perspective and we see it was a little boy, Michael Myers, in a little clown costume.
This is what your teens are doing, Halloween is saying. This is what your children are doing.
That’s ridiculous and regressive, like a lot of Halloween and like every slasher before the genre started to become a parody of itself. You’d better behave, slasher films of the ’70s and ’80s say, wagging their fingers darkly at us like old maids. You’d better listen to authority figures and not stay out late, and you’d better be a perfect little angel like Laurie Strode, not really the very first final girl, but the one who taught all the others after her their dance steps.
Jamie Lee Curtis’ 40-year career has had ups and downs, but I struggle to think of any misstep that’s ever tarnished the general public’s admiration for her. (Consider that the trailer for the new sequel to Halloween, confusingly just titled Halloween again, put her gray-haired Laurie Strode front and center with a shotgun, to breathless reception.) I really wonder how much of that comes from this very movie, where her naturalistic acting conveys Laurie Strode’s vulnerability and resolve. Feeling fear in our own homes is something so visceral in America that it apparently justifies any level of violence in response, and Curtis’ wide-eyed Final Girl shoulders the gravity of that weighty subtext with as much aplomb as you can ask of someone being stalked by a hulking murderer.
Equally iconic is Donald Pleasence’s turn as Dr. Loomis. Perhaps best known prior to this for portraying perennial Bond baddie Ernst Stavro Blofeld (itself a role so iconic it essentially created a whole parody franchise), the veteran actor invests his every doom-saying line with deep portent and zealous conviction. Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon memorably featured an “Ahab” for the eponymous killer-in-training, and is worth watching just for Robert Englund’s turn as a dedicated hunter in clear homage of Pleasence’s Loomis.
Pleasence was a true soldier for the franchise, appearing in almost every single Halloween, including 1995’s The Curse of Michael Myers, which hit theaters the year he died. (He missed the largely ignored Halloween III: Season of the Witch, which did not feature any appearance from Michael Myers or any other franchise characters and had basically nothing to do with anything.)
The killer himself, Michael Myers, is credited only as “The Shape,” and this more than anything else shows exactly what Carpenter was going for with his tale of the bogeyman on the loose—and with the camera work that draws boundless shadows from which that shape implacably emerges.
The plot is so simple as to require very little synopsis: Years after the random killing he committed as a boy, Myers has become a man and escaped on a rainy night from the facility where he was being held, stealing Loomis’ car, killing a trucker for the innocuous one-piece worker overalls disguise that make him one solid outline, and then returning to Haddonfield, Illinois, where he begins to kill again. The killings themselves are in my opinion the least scary part of Halloween. Haddonfield looks pretty much exactly like the town where I grew up—which was the point—and the broad daylight scenes of leaves scattering in the crisp autumn wind as The Shape stalks Laurie and her friends in plain view while the camera lingers from his perspective or catches a glimpse of him only at a distance that obscures his face are unquestionably the creepiest part of the film.
When he does finally start bumping off horny teens, it’s kind of funny. There are no compelling reasons for why these kids deserve to get got. It’s weird, coming from Carpenter, who took pretty much the exact opposite tack toward humorless square-ism and thoughtless conformity in his Escape From New York and They Live movies. He must have really wanted the kids off his lawn here, though, because Laurie suddenly finds herself alone against the killer, who slaughters a whole houseful of her promiscuous friends before she goes over to discover them arranged in gruesome tableau around the stolen gravestone of Michael Myers’ mother. It’s the closest thing the killer ever gets to a motive, and it’s delightfully open-ended.
Halloween met with mixed reviews from critics, but evidently touched off something in the collective subconscious of moviegoers. The late ’70s were a time of cynicism, of high crime rates, white flight to the suburbs, and an increasing sense that community was breaking down. At one point, Laurie is fleeing The Shape, banging on doors crying for help, only for the lights to go out and the door to remain closed. The allusion to the murder of Kitty Genovese is clear. It’s important to remember, then, that the narrative around the murder of Kitty Genovese is largely made-up bullshit, and so, for the most part, is any fear of a shape lurching out of the blackness at you when you live in the cushy white suburbs of post-war America.
Playing on that fear is endlessly powerful, though, and it was powerful enough to launch an entire genre of movies into theaters right at the time that sentiment was at its most manipulable. Forty years on, we still can’t look away.
Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste Movies. Check back later this month for more Autumn Classics and read more of his writing at his blog.