Friday, October 23, 2009

Film Friday: Halloween (1978)

I enjoy Halloween. I like Donald Pleasence and Jamie Lee Curtis, and I enjoy John Carpenter’s style. The story is good enough, if you switch your brain to “off” before starting the film. And it’s just creepy enough to enjoy. So why do I have so much ill will for this film? Because Halloween gave birth to the modern slasher flick, and it established every one of the genre’s stupidest conventions.

** spoiler alert **
The Plot
Halloween is the story of Michael Myers. He kills people. Why? Because they were there? The film doesn’t know why and doesn’t really care. As the film opens, Myers escapes from fifteen years of custody and returns to Haddonfield, Illinois, where he apparently intends to kill anyone who appears on film. His sister, Jamie Lee Curtis, appears on camera. So does Donald Pleasence, who is ostensibly hunting Michael Myers, though really he seems more interested in running around town proclaiming that he is "too late" to do whatever it was he was planning. For the next 91 minutes, Myers kills everyone except Curtis and Pleasence. Roll the credits.
So What’s The Problem?
My problem with Halloween stems from the total nonsense Carpenter uses to create his villain and the fact this nonsense became the template for slasher flicks. For example:
• We begin with Myers’ character. He has no personality or emotions and he does not speak. He is, for lack of a better word, functionally catatonic. Yet, he's also somehow a genius who can plot revenge, track people down, and do things he never learned to do (like drive) with little or no difficulty.

• Moreover, despite being effectively catatonic, Myers has the moves of a hyper-trained special forces operative. . . maybe even a Hollywood-style ninja. How?

• He's stronger than ten people, even though he’s never worked out in his life, and he cannot be brought down by mere physical injury. Indeed, no matter how much you wound him, he shows no signs of being wounded. Nor can he be killed because he’s crazy and crazy makes to invulnerable to bullets. Yeah, that makes sense.

• Strangely, Myers has the ability to know where characters will be in the next scene. Indeed, somehow he manages to place himself perfectly to surprise any character that separates from the others.

• He also has the ability to hide in plain sight, to hide behind objects that are too small to conceal his body, and to appear and disappear through closed doors and windows without making a sound. He's ultra swift and super silent.

• He also can move vast distances instantly, e.g. between houses on different blocks. Not to mention he can find the home of the person a character is talking to on the phone. . . as if he has callee id.
Does any of this make any sense? No. But for Carpenter it didn’t have to. Carpenter wasn’t making a movie with a complete story. He was making a series of murderous vignettes, which he then strung together to form a movie. We accept the lack of coherence between the vignettes because Carpenter has enough talent as a filmmaker to disguise those problems and because he gives us a strange enough villain that we spend more time pondering what he is doing rather than trying to determine how he's doing it.

The whole film is gibberish. But that wouldn't bother me if this has just been a one-off film. But it didn't stay a one-off. The formula escaped and became the template for every stupid slasher flick that followed over the next thirty years. Ug.
So What Does Halloween Mean?
Halloween has no meaning. Some have suggested Halloween is a social critique of the immorality of young people in the 1970s. They point out that Myers’ victims were all sexually active and abusing alcohol or pot when they were killed. By comparison, the lone survivor, Curtis, was chaste and innocent. . . except for that scene where she was smoking pot. So scratch that one.

More interestingly, the film may have been intended to include a feminist message. The producer, Debra Hill, was a feminist. And she and Carpenter often included “strong roles” for women in Carpenter’s horror movies. The role of Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is cited as being one of these roles because Curtis survives and she does so with her own wits. But if that’s true, then the fact that Halloween became the template for the ensuing wave of slasher flicks should come as a special disappointment to feminists. Indeed, modern slasher flicks are often about as misogynistic as rap videos -- using heavy doses of T&A to put a lot male A's in the seats.

In the end, I think that it’s impossible to get any meaning out of Halloween because the movie makes no sense when you break it down. The truth is this film is nothing but exploitation. Carpenter set out to create a film based entirely on shock rather than horror, a film with no intellectual pretenses, a film that would scare you simply by shouting “boo” over and over again, and he succeeded beyond measure. Indeed, the $320,000 they spent on this film turned into $55,000,000 in gross revenue. But that's about all the depth you'll really find.
The Nature of Evil -- The Anti-Liberal Evil
So what does this film tell us about the nature of evil? Not a whole heck of a lot, with one exception. I would argue Myers’ character is a response to the prior two decades of liberalism. How’s that for unexpected!

In the 1960s and 1970s, liberals constantly whined about root causes "making" people into criminals. Everyone had to have a reason, something that pushed them to become evil. Liberals just would not admit that some people were simply rotten. Myers is one of the first human character in many years (probably since In Cold Blood (1967)) who was evil because that was his nature. He wasn’t rebelling. He wasn’t backed into a corner or exploited. He wasn’t abused as a child. He wasn’t drugged or programmed by the government. He was just evil. In fact, the biggest disappointment of the remake in 2007, directed by Rob Zombie, other than the dreadful quality of the film, was that Zombie explained Myers’ evil as being the result of his coming from a broken home and being bullied in school. Boo hoo.

So in the end, Halloween was an ok movie that should have slowly faded into movie history. Sadly, it didn’t. Instead, it became a template for slasher flicks. And slowly, but surely, this template has come to dominate the horror genre because it takes no talent to write or direct a knock-off of this film. And that’s Michael Myers’ greatest evil.


Writer X said...

I enjoy Halloween too, especially the mini-Snicker chocolate bars, but not this film. At all. We have Carpenter to thank for all the movies that went as follows:

Hot teenagers go camping/hiking/boating and suddenly get lost in the forest/island/lake. The girls act like twits and are always falling and spraining their ankles while the guys jockey for the alpha-male spot while playing with knives and guns. Meanwhile, a giant mutant/monster/spider picks them off one by one, starting with the least hot, least likeable teens first. The least obnoxious/hottest couple escapes and through it all falls in love. The End. What's not to like?

Debra Hill was a feminist?? Interesting. I did not know that. There is nothing to like about HALLOWEEN. I never understood why people flocked to it.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, You've absolutely tagged the slasher genre! LOL! I think they use a computer program to fill in the dialog these days.

What really bugs me about these types of films is that they are totally sloppy film making. There is nothing to these -- no acting skill, no direction skill, no writing skill, not even consistency. BUT because they're so easy and cheap to make, and because even the bad ones bring in $20 million dollars, that's all you see today out of the horror movie industry. It's destroyed an otherwise creative genre.

I was surprised too when I first heard about Hill (many years ago). But I see some of the influence in some of his movies -- particularly the later ones. I don't buy it in Halloween though.

(P.S. Love mini-Snickers!)

Writer X said...

Andrew, and yet these movies make money! Lots of it. Maybe the appeal is that they're so brainless and require no thinking. That could be appealing from time to time. But, jeez, change the storyline every now and again!

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, I think the appeal is that they are brainless and they are sufficiently shocking (not frightening, but shocking) to get a consistent rise out of the audience. They are the action movie equivalent of horror movies -- pure emotion, no thought.

StanH said...

Great movie, a lot of fun. John Carpenters music is awesome.

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, I think that his music is his strong suit. He's always got strong music.

StanH said...

His music for The Thing was awesome as well, always a strong suit with that guy. It has a Mike Oldfield, Tubular Bells vibe, very cool.

MegaTroll said...

I don't like slashers either. I kind of like Halloween, but I think you're right about it not making sense. Nice review.

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, I think what's really interesting about his music is that it sits in the background easily, but you hear it the whole time -- in that you're feeling the beat even though you're listening to the rest of the movie. Too often music in films takes over the action, but his never does -- works very well to supplement the action.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Mega. If you check out other slashers, you'll find the same thing -- they're basically done as a series of vignettes with only a hint of a plot to keep them together.

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