80s, Anti-Hero, Assault on Precinct 13, Boogeyman, Butcher Knife, Donald Pleasence, Dr. Sam Loomis, Escape from New York, Film, film review, Friday the 13th, Halloween, horror, Jamie Lee Curtis, John Carpenter, Michael Myers, Mundane Horror, Nancy Kyes, Nightmare on Elm Street, Sex in Horror Films, Slasher Film, Stephen King, Stranger Things, The Thing, Tony Moran, Virginity
I’m with Stephen King on this one. Part of my yearly tradition of Halloween is watching horror and monster movies with the family, but along with that most television stations pull out either some kind of monster movie marathon, or else they manage to scrape together some kind of “documentary” in which they get actors, comedians, directors, and pop-culture figures to offer up their opinions about the line-up the network has constructed. The usual set-up can manifest in multiple ways, whether it’s “40 Scariest Movies of all time” or “10 Best Horror Films of the 90s,” or “20 Scariest Horror Movie Characters” the point is the Network put out some kind of poll and then generated a list and then hired a bunch of people to react to it and whoever had the best reaction got on the air.
Stephen King isn’t a media whore in any way, but he’s proven he isn’t afraid to come onto shows like this and offer up his opinion. Given the fact that he’s written more books than god, and most of them are based in the horror genre, it makes sense that he appears on these shows, but what’s beautiful about the experience of sitting through these farces year after year is the fact that no matter what Stephen King always manages to produce some insightful or powerful observation that makes sitting through the three-hour crap-fest worth-while.
One of these events appeared on television some years ago, I really need to start carrying around a personal calendar notebook but that seems the kind of totem of seasoned age and I’m nowhere near that yet, yet, and in fact the entire program was about the horror genre with Stephen King offering up assessments about the movies made over the last few decades. He addressed old school monster movies, science fiction films, zombie movies, vampire movies, torture-porn, and at one point he addressed the 80s slasher films specifically the characters of Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and Michael Myers. Most of his comments about the original films were positive but he made the argument that the main problem with the films is that, over time and with every subsequent sequel, the aesthetic goal of the movie is to sympathize not so much with the victims but with the monsters performing the atrocities.
This is the distinction. When the teenagers in the first film who are about to have sex by the beach of the old lake are stabbed to death you feel sorry for them because Jason is a monster and they were just kids trying to have some fun. By the thirteenth movie those kids stop being people and instead become cattle because they’re yet another in a long line of innocent people who are too stupid to realize they’re in a Friday the 13th movie. This is important though because once you stop caring about people, and actually start enjoying watching them die a change has taken place, and not necessarily a good one.
It’s pathetic and embarrassing how much of a revelation that was to me. And looking over some of writing I realize that I experience quite a number of revelations. Still, up to that point I was still a fan of the horror genre, but the beginning of the end was happening to me, and after watching Hostel and The Devil’s Rejects this lesson became painfully clear. I couldn’t enjoy most horror films anymore because too many of them were about horrible people doing horrible things to other people, and most of the thrill was a morbid hero worship of terrible people. I noted recently when I wrote about The Shining that part of the original appeal was that Jack Torrance was some kind of anti-hero that I warmed to, but watching the film again I realize how much of a monster he is. Where before his darkness and psychosis appealed to my teenage sentiments, now he was just a madman who posed a threat to his family. And there is the problem that makes it difficult for me to warm back to the horror genre, because there are just a few truly great examples of movies where the impulse isn’t to root for the monster.
So like I said before, I’m with Stephen King on this one. Which makes writing a positive review of the 1980 film, and horror classic, Halloween, all the more puzzling.
Now before the reader interjects to ask, yes I enjoyed the Rob Zombie remake, because even if he took the character Michael Myers in a different direction, he did it in such a way that it was distinctively his vision and not just a pathetic re-make. I bring this up because there is actually a great debate on the internet as to whether or not Rob Zombie’s film is good, to which my argument is a resounding yes because it was different.
Halloween, the original now, was made for $300,000, and the script took about 10 days to write. The end result was an international success and over $70 million dollar revenues at the box office, not to mention jettisoning the career of John Carpenter who had at that time made only one other movie which was Assault on Precinct 13. The movie is about a young boy named Michael Myers who, when he is only six years old, stabs his sister to death with a knife after watching her have sex with her boyfriend. He walks out of the house where his parents find him wearing a clown mask and holding the knife. From there the movie jumps forward 15 years when Michael escapes a mental institution and returns to Haddonfield, Illinois where he finds Laurie Strode. Laurie is the original virgin heroine of the 80s who reeks of innocence and intelligence while her friends talk and even brag about their sexual escapades while often leaving Laurie in the ditch. One by one Michael kills the girls and their boyfriends until finally attacking Laurie. Dr. Sam Loomis, who has been Michael’s psychiatrist for the last 15 years, has been following him and trying to find him. He eventually finds Laurie being attacked by Michael and shoots him several times where he falls from the balcony of the house. The films ends with several shots of the house while Michael’s now iconic breathing is heard and the space where his body fell is empty.
The real fun of watching the movie, now that I’ve aged and “seen some shit,” is the exact reason King warned me about. Michael becomes the anti-hero, and by the time you’ve seen Halloween every Halloween for close to a decade you start to turn the movie into a drinking game, or else you get a nice little contact high from the fear of the person watching with you who’s never seen it and doesn’t realize Myers is totally gonna leave that dude literally hanging off the ground with the butcher knife.
But let me channel the young teenager in me who was still learning and acquiring experience, and who also had to watch the movie in spurts because that damn breathing near broke me.
The most horrific fucking thing about Michael Myers is the fact that the film is almost always shot through his eyes. His victims appear in our line of sight, going about their lives oblivious to the fact that they’re being watched or followed. The girls in the movie being the first victims because they each are “corrupted” by the filthy act of sex. The girl’s in the movie, except for sweet, loveable, and chaste Laurie, effectively established the working archetype of the ditsy, sex obsessed teenager.
One early exchange is enough to see this presentation:
Lynda: [concerning Annie] The only reason she baby sits is to have a place for…
Laurie: [realizing she had forgot something] Shit.
Annie Brackett: I have a place for *that*!
Laurie: I forgot my chemistry book.
Lynda: So who cares? I always forget my chemistry book and my math book, and my English book, and my, let’s see, my French book, and… well who needs books anyway, I don’t need books, I always forget all my books, I mean, it doesn’t really matter if you have your books or not… hey isn’t that Devon Graham?
If that isn’t enough perhaps a later scene will demonstrate what I’m talking about:
Lynda: [exposing her breasts] See anything you like?
And there it is. Now this is tame by todays horror standards because Carpenter as a director was working with a different audience. The 1980s established the “rule” in most horror films that if you had sex then you had to die. Wes Craven would rely on this trope and actually parody it, and at the same time replicate it, in his movie Scream. It’s easy though to look back at horror movies and make fun of this direction, but if I can defend Carpenter for a moment, in terms of a narrative structure this actually makes a fair amount of sense, especially given what Michael Myers becomes.
Before Rob Zombie added a psychological dimension to the character, Michael Myers was one of the big slasher-movie anti-heroes because he possessed a kind of supernatural power. Jason Vorhees was immortal and couldn’t die, Freddy Krueger attacked teenagers through their dreams, and Chucky was a Doll possessed by the spirit of a serial killer. These descriptions aren’t an effort to demonstrate that I have no life, but simply to establish the fact that the monsters that haunted these movies all had some kind of connection to the supernatural. It could just be because it was the 80s and the threat of nuclear annihilation made people eager to surrender their fear to an unreal, or super-real, antagonist that could strike at any time, but that still leaves Myers seemingly at first the oddball.
Myers doesn’t have super powers, he’s just a dude in a William Shatner mask stabbing people. He’s just a kid who stabbed his sister to death, my reader argues, how does that make him a threat in the same caliber as these other guys?
This is a fair objection, but a closer inspection reveals Michael Myers in fact follows the same supernatural, super-powerful persona, it’s just that he works on a more mundane level. Dr. Sam Loomis gives a powerful speech in the film which, though a bit theatrical, creates the impression of Myers as something more than a human being:
Dr. Sam Loomis: I met him, fifteen years ago; I was told there was nothing left; no reason, no conscience, no understanding; and even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, of good or evil, right or wrong. I met this six-year-old child, with this blank, pale, emotionless face, and the blackest eyes… the devil’s eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply… evil.
He more or less gives the same speech later much to the same effect:
Sheriff Leigh Brackett: I have a feeling that you’re way off on this.
Dr. Sam Loomis: You have the wrong feeling.
Sheriff Leigh Brackett: You’re not doing very much to prove me wrong!
Dr. Sam Loomis: What more do you need?
Sheriff Leigh Brackett: Well, it’s going to take a lot more than fancy talk to keep me up all night crawling around these bushes.
Dr. Sam Loomis: I- I- I watched him for fifteen years, sitting in a room, staring at a wall, not seeing the wall, looking past the wall – looking at this night, inhumanly patient, waiting for some secret, silent alarm to trigger him off. Death has come to your little town, Sheriff. Now you can either ignore it, or you can help me to stop it.
Again, this passage is easy to ignore once you’ve watched the movie around twenty times and are sick on your son’s candy. You promised yourself that you would only eat one or two pieces but then you saw they had Reese’s Pieces and it’s all a blur after that. It’s through these speeches though Dr. Loomis paints a portrait of a monster that is almost completely devoid of any humanity. But it’s not enough that a few speeches suggest the man is nothing but pure evil. Myers become a predator in the truest sense because, while Loomis is looking for Michael, he and Sheriff Leigh Brackett return to the old Myers house where the very first murder occurred and they find something:
[inside Myers’ house]
Dr. Sam Loomis: Hey… What is that?
Sheriff Leigh Brackett: A dog.
[Loomis and Brackett walk next to dog]
Sheriff Leigh Brackett: It’s still warm.
Dr. Sam Loomis: He got hungry.
[referring to a partially eaten dog]
Sheriff Leigh Brackett: A man wouldn’t do that.
Dr. Sam Loomis: This isn’t a man.
A friend of mine works as a professor of Psychology at the same school I teach at, and before that he used to work in a prison system as a psychologist. We were talking at book club one night about the death of Jesse’s dog in the graphic novel Preacher, and while many of us commented on how the purposeful murder to the animal seemed unnecessarily graphic, he interrupted to share a thought. He noted that being in the system he saw some “scary” people. I put that word in quotations to emphasize his delivery not to mock him. These “scary” people you would encounter in that system usually weren’t the murderers, the rapists, or the petty offenders. Instead the people that were the most frightening were the ones who tortured animals for fun. They would usually laugh while describing torturing the pets or else be terribly calm.
This aside only seeks to illuminate a point. It takes a certain willpower to murder to torture an animal and Michael Myers does so without forethought or much pressure. The act of slaying an animal like a dog, a domestic pet to many people, is a simple act so that he can eat. It also however, in terms of the laws of movies, makes him the most despicable monster that ever lived and quite possibly worse than Hitler. I believe that’s a verbatim quote from some film critic, but it’s been a while since I read that, or thought I read it, man that was a lot of candy in that Jack o’ Lantern.
I really struggled when thinking about this essay because I’m not exactly sure how much there is to say about Carpenter’s movie once you get past the fact that it helped establish his career which would produce such wonderful movies like Escape from New York and The Thing. The film also, in its own way, helped to establish the aesthetic of Carpenter films which has been repeated by filmmakers like Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, the most recent example however being The Duffer Brothers with their Netflix miniseries Stranger Things. Carpenter as a film maker has contributed a feeling and an atmosphere that is still being replicated or borrowed or recreated, and perhaps the reason for this is because his films are blessed with a great simplicity. Even as he would tackle a film like Escape from New York, which relied on a devastated Manhattan island for a movie location, his movies feel like they are taking place in real locations with real people who, most importantly, feel real for their setting.
Halloween then really starts this because of the domestic simplicity of Laurie, the virgin/heroine/victim of the film. At times her virgin innocence, just typing that makes me feel creepy, becomes a little galling and the viewer actually starts to hope that she’ll get laid at the end of the movie just so that she’ll stop whining about being the girl scout, but even so her real qualities as a character make the film so enjoyable to watch because you recognize that this nice girl has become the target of a supernatural monster.
Michael Myers, as he exists in the first Halloween movie, is a monster because there is no opportunity to understand why he is performing the atrocities that he is. He also seems to possess the ability to overcome physical ailment and outright assault. He is, as Laurie puts it:
Laurie: It was the boogeyman…
Dr. Sam Loomis: As a matter of fact, it was.
After this there was close to about six or seven sequels before Zombie’s remake and a sequel to that one which, even if I am an apologist for Zombie, finally killed the Halloween myth for me. After a while it just got to be too much, and as I said at the top. I’m with Stephen King. After a while the anti-hero’s journey just becomes a gratuitous exercise in morbid pornography.
Still, despite this I still hold a place in my heart for the first Halloween movie because it was one of my first intros to the horror movie genre. There were plenty of nights spent awake as every tree branch landing on the roof was Michael Myers, the boogeyman who haunted my nightmares and who reminded me that having sex in the 80s led to horrible consequences.