Let’s start with the historical record. Halloween was mostly jeered in its initial run. It was considered tawdry, exploitative trash. A cheap knockoff of Psycho. A tasteless, offensive exercise in vicarious sadism with no redeeming qualities. And atop those perceived deficiencies, critics slathered it with scorn for unleashing Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and all the other stalwarts of trashy horror cinema on the world.
That was the real sin, you see. These days, Halloween is widely acknowledged as a classic. And yet any time it’s examined as a key piece of cinematic history, an inevitable phrase appears: “the movie [insert text here] inspiring the 1980s slasher movie explosion.” Why the bracketed section? Because, depending on your source, Halloween is either [credited with] or [blamed for] said explosion. And the critics of my childhood most definitely went with option two.
. . . Which didn’t stop those slasher flicks from dominating my youthful (and so often thwarted) movie-viewing ambitions.
For a preadolescent boy in the ‘80s, there were four main pillars of forbidden attraction: alcohol, cigarettes, porn, and horror movies. The first three were easy enough to acquire. You wanted to taste a beer? (And inevitably find it disgusting, wondering aloud why your friend’s dad ever drank this gross stuff, and swearing you never would again.) Someone had a fridge in their garage stuffed with Bud Light. And there was always a kid who started “smoking”—i.e., smuggling a cigarette into a high school football game, then choking it down under the bleachers as a way to establish bad-boy alpha male dominance over his peer group—by middle school, so tobacco was no great challenge. And porn? Every neighborhood had a kid whose dad ineffectually hid Playboys around the house. That, or you could press your face to the TV and watch scrambled late-night Cinemax; you didn’t really know what you were looking for, anyway, and if your mom walked in, you could plausibly claim you were just flipping through the channels looking for something to watch. Unless the screen inexplicably went crystal clear the moment she entered the room, she couldn’t prove you were trying to discern areolae in the psychedelic swirls onscreen.
But horror movies? Those took work.
The thing is, it’s easy to keep others away from something you yourself care nothing about, whereas it’s almost impossible to restrict access to something you enjoy. Booze, tobacco, tits—these were interests pursued as passionately by fortysomething parents as preteen losers. Horror, on the other hand? Horror wasn’t just around. Oh, there was always a kid with the cool dad who liked kooky old horror flicks. Someone who watched Rocky Horror. But that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about irredeemably trashy slasher movies. And rare was the middle-aged dad who was dying to watch Jason Lives. So walls went up. Adults actually took some pains to bar you from seeing these flicks.
You couldn’t get a ticket at a movie theater. If you tried to sneak into The Dream Warriors after buying a ticket to, I dunno, The Care Bears Movie, you risked being caught by an usher who himself wasn’t technically old enough to see an R-rated movie and reported to your parents. The jerk at the video store wouldn’t let you rent from the horror section. At home, there was no way to plausibly deny your true intentions if Mom walked in on a machete-ing. Everything had to be done in stealth. Lookouts had to be posted. Your best bet was to smuggle a tape to a sleepover, wait until your host’s parents went to bed, then fire up the movie in the middle of the night with the volume so low you had to crowd around the TV to hear anything. But first you had to get your hands on said tape. Really, unless someone you knew had a cool/negligent older sibling, you were screwed.
Looking back on it, I expended an astounding amount of mental energy pondering how to acquire, then view, these movies . . . none of which would have existed without Halloween.
I didn’t actually see the baby daddy of the slasher genre until I was a teenager. Halloween is, of course, measurably superior to its progeny in every way, which was probably why we didn’t hunt it down as kids: it’s not trashy, the body count is surprisingly low, there’s almost no nudity, and Michael Myers doesn’t get creative with his kills. It’s just knife this, strangle that–you know, the way real people get killed.
Also, if I had seen Halloween at ten or eleven, it would have scared the shit out of me.
It still creeps me out. But why? Why Halloween, of all horror movies?
The white Captain Kirk mask is a good starting point, as best evidenced by the one scene in the movie that gets to me more than any scene in any other horror film: Jamie Lee Curtis has just discovered the death shrine Michael has made with/of her friends. Screaming, she scrambles out the bedroom and backs into the hallway, next to an open door . . .
And that white mask just congeals out of the darkness, right over her shoulder, cuing the final confrontation. Damn, it’s spooky. Behold:
. . . But I think the real reason Halloween remains terrifying is because of the essential randomness of Michael Myer’s rampage. Unlike Jason or Freddy, we don’t have a real clue why Michael decides to stalk and murder Jamie Lee Curtis’ friends. (Other than the fact that she showed up at the door of his childhood home while he was inside, of course.) Or why he butchered his sister as a kid. The movie makes no attempt to explain his motives. Shit just happens. A few unlucky souls suffer for it. In this day and age, when it’s possible to be shot to hell in a movie theater or while waiting for coffee, Halloween feels incredibly timely.
I get a little fuel to this fire from John Carpenter himself. In a recent Hollywood Reporter interview celebrating the film, he states:
It’s evil out of nothing, evil from no background, which completely creeps me out as a human being, that evil could arrive at my doorstep without a purpose, without a past, without an origin.
One last bit:
There’s a little nugget of cinematic bliss I never noticed before watching it this year. It’s in the opening scene, after little Michael has killed his sister. He staggers out of the house just as his parents pull up and flank him on the sidewalk. “Michael!” his father exclaims, confused and horrified. Meanwhile, his mother . . .
Slips her hands in her coat pockets like she’s bored.
Here’s a pic of the scene I’m talking about, from a page devoted to the odd reactions of certain characters in the movie. Someone else noticed! I am not alone in the universe!
It’s unintentionally hilarious, like she just realized she’s going to have to wait in line for a ticket at the movie theater or something else totally benign instead of gazing down at her bloody-knife-wielding son. I have to imagine the actress just absentmindedly did that, and no one during editing noticed how it almost totally strips the tension from the scene. But if I ever meet John Carpenter, I’m going to ask him about it. (And I’m sure, judging by the tone of that Hollywood Reporter interview, I’ll get an awesomely cantankerous reply.)
. . . Aaaaand that wraps up our tour of horror cinema for 2015. I had a lot of fun writing these and hope you liked reading them. I plan to do this again in October ’16. I’ll take any suggestions you’ve got for the slate; you’ve got eleven months to think about it. ‘Till then, the happiest of nightmares to one and all.