Friday, August 31, 2007

Halloween '78: R.I.P. ????

Today is August 31st, and that means Rob Zombie's Halloween is officially upon us. I haven't seen the new film yet, and I have no idea if it's a masterpiece or a disaster, but I do know one thing: from this day forward, a certain percentage of the movie-going populace will associate the title Halloween with this remake; not the classic John Carpenter original from 1978.

So, in light of that fact, I decided to devote a little space on the blog today to some of my feelings about the original film; and why it remains such a great horror film.

For me, Halloween is right up there with Hitchcock's Psycho, Romero's Night of the Living Dead and Tobe Hooper's Texas Chain Saw Massacre as one of the most important and influential titles in horror film history.

In terms of cinema history, Halloween almost single-handedly spawned the slasher trend that dominated the late 1970s and early 1980s; a fad that included such films as Friday the 13th (1980), He Knows You're Alone (1980), Mother's Day (1980), Prom Night (1980), New Year's Evil (1980), Terror Train (1980), Graduation Day (1981), Happy Birthday to Me (1981), My Bloody Valentine (1981), The Prowler (1981), Slumber Party Massacre (1982) and on and on.

What most of these films "acquired" from Halloween was simply the notion of a masked, seemingly emotionless and inhuman (and unkillable...) knife-killer, as well as the organizing principle of setting a horror film on a holiday or at a special event (prom for example), and the nature of the victim pool -- usually teenagers.

What many of the films failed to understand, however, about Halloween is that it was legitimately and unceasingly scary, but not particularly gory. It gets a bum rap on that account. Like Chain Saw, there's very little blood on screen in this Carpenter film.

If you watch Halloween, you'll see it's both suspenseful and frightening, but not bloody. Director John Carpenter artfully stages much of the film's action so that Michael Myers remains in the shadows - watching - but not acting or doing. Often times, characters stumble upon the killer's aftermath (places he's been), like the old Myers place...where he's been eating a dog. This approach builds suspense rather then simply relying on gore. The audience doesn't know when Michael "The Shape" Myers will strike, and much of the film's considerable terror arises when that stark white mask emerges suddenly from black nighttime, from the corner of a particular composition, or is observed in the distant background of the frame.

Halloween also took the psychological aspects of the horror genre to a new and very different level from historical antecedents. Whereas Hitchcock's Psycho obsessed on the rational, medical and scientific reasons behind Norman Bates' psychosis in a famously talky coda, Carpenter and co-writer Hill in Halloween deliberately and systematically removed all attempts at rational analysis or psychological jargon. Michael Myers is the bogeyman and can't be diagnosed using the DSM-IV He is purely and simply evil, and even his highly-trained, highly-educated psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) cannot countenance him on a human, rational level. Michael boasts "the darkest eyes; the devil's eyes" and cannot be explained away by science. That's part of what makes this character so eternally scary. Again, I haven't seen Zombie's remake of Halloween, but I understand that his version delves into Myers' abusive childhood. For many reasons, I believe this approach radically mitigates the horror of Michael Myers, but I'm trying to be open to the fact that Zombie is giving us a "new" Halloween, perhaps with a different angle. I respect very much what the director accomplished with The Devil's Rejects. I'm just noting: if you delve into the Bogeyman's personal history - especially as a defenseless child - he can't really be the implacable, inscrutable Bogeyman anymore. His mystery will be gone, explained. Furthermore, sympathy for him will have been generated. That may be more effective in a straight drama, but it's death for a horror movie. You want your audience to be with the final girl to her last breath; not saying things like "'well, Michael was treated so badly, you can't blame him for becoming a monster."

The Michael Myers of the original Halloween is such a potent "force of nature" because he cannot be explained or appeased; he is shot six times at point-blank range in the film and survives. He can catch up with his victims at a brisk walk even though they are running from him. If a victim hits on the idea of closing a window to protect him or herself, Myers has already come through that very window and is waiting to catch the victim. He is forever patient. Simply stated, he is the perfect embodiment of primeval terror, a monster whom we cannot escape no matter how much "educated" man thinks he understands or knows about the universe. I hasten to add, nowhere is it stated in Halloween that Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is actually Michael's younger sister. That's a contrivance added in Halloween II (1981) which diminishes much of the Shape's initial terror. It's an explanation for something that requires no explanation. Michael is scarier when the audience doesn't understand his motives. The sister sub-plot has been adopted as canon in the franchise and the same back-story is being used by Rob Zombie, but frankly, I believe that's a fatal mistake too. If a remake or a re-imagination is a sincere attempt to improve on qualities of an original film and fix mistakes, it doesn't bode well (at least to me), that Zombie didn't eliminate this clumsy explanation for Michael Myers' killing spree. This is a prime example of something that should have been broached and fixed in a re-boot.

The original Halloween is an influential horror film not merely because its precepts and ideas were adopted by a whole school of slasher films but because, first and foremost, it is terrifying. It's also a well-made film that depends on the canny use of film grammar, and an understanding of how to utilize the wide screen. The opening sequence, a sustained point-of-view subjective shot, is a stylistic tour de force, for example. One can also study here how Carpenter manipulates foreground and background components to generate chills and revulsion. At the end of the opening scene (young Michael's murder of his eldest sister in 1963), the camera swoops up and away from Michael with horror and revulsion, his parents frozen in a kind of horror. It's almost as though Michael's butchery is so horrible, so grotesque that the camera itself backs away and then crawls to a stop. This is the kind of theatrical, trenchant film technique that a neo-stylist like Carpenter can create in a heartbeat. I like Zombie, but I will be looking here to see that he understands Halloween's visual tradition too. It's not enough for his remake to re-tell Michael's story; the director must demonstrate that he is a virtuoso in the (now) rare art of screen form and technique reinforcing on-screen content.

For example, one of the all-time great horror movie compositions occurs near the end of the film when Laurie Strode (in focus in the frame's foreground), leans against a door frame and relaxes, believing Myers is dead. Behind her, in the blurry background, Myers bolts upright into a sitting position and turns towards her...on the hunt yet again. The shot is brilliant for the use of depth of field, but also for generating suspense: the audience sees Myers, but Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) does not. We in the audience are suddenly privy to knowledge that our heroine isn't, and so tension is built. This shot has been copied probably a hundred times in horror films since Halloween.

All great art reflects or mirrors the age in which it was created, and Halloween is no exception. The film came out in 1978, not long after Watergate, the Energy Crisis and the end of the Vietnam War. Even a change of political parties and Presidents (from Ford to Carter) didn't seem to be solving the nation's mounting problems. The economy was slipping into recession. Crime rates were high.

I believe Halloween reflects these "malaise days", the then-slowly-dawning idea that our "safe" and "modern" and "rational" society is just an illusion and that we don't truly control our environment, our criminals, or even our economy. Medicine, science, education, and law - even parental protection - are merely comforting (but empty) security blankets and in Halloween these protections are proven inadequate. Nothing can stop Michael Myers. The suburban teen characters in the film are unprepared and unable to conceive of a reality that includes this irrational, inexplicable monster. Despite all the infrastructure bureaucracy designed to make people secure, Michael Myers still kills. He is what we all fear deep down, a new "predator" for a breed of comfortable, pampered, modern Americans; one who can't be reasoned with, dissuaded or ultimately even comprehended.

The suburb of Haddonfield is described in the film as essentially a "slaughterhouse," meaning that Michael will have no problem hunting and killing his prey, who are basically sheep. Why should he have difficulty? We lived (in the 1970s) and also today with the belief that police, the government and the legal system protect us from harm. More than that, we believe we understand the universe and human behavior and psychology. We think we have "conquered" our world.

Michael Myers is terrifying evidence to the contrary. In his original incarnation, he is one of the great movie monsters. He is such a powerful specter, such a terrifying creation that the mere presence of The Shape (and his accompanying theme song, from John Carpenter) electrifies many of the less-than-worthy sequels to the original film. Even the bad sequels possess some sense of energy and terror because we gaze upon that blank white mask and our darkest fears get reflected back. However, for the new Halloween to be a great film, to live up to the heritage of John Carpenter's original, this will not be enough. The re-imagined Halloween must also speak powerfully to a context beyond "killing babysitters." This must be a film not just about Michael Myers, but about how "The Shape" represents our fears today. This is certainly something that is do-able in an age which has seen Americans trade liberty for security on a regular basis, but I don't know yet if Zombie has taken this into account. Hopefully - being a student of horror films - he realizes that a good horror film is scary because of technique; and a great horror movie is scary because it tells us something relevant about ourselves and our culture.

So, the time has come. The Shatner Mask today passes to Rob Zombie. Michael has been a durable movie monster for nearly thirty years. If he remains so for the next thirty depends now on Zombie's interpretation and reading of the Halloween myths.


  1. I'm on the fence as to whether or not I'll see the Zombie remake (it has to do with how much work I get done this week). However, I just watched the original for the first time in about two years and was struck by something that I had somehow missed all the previous times:

    Carpenter's camera almost never stops moving. I would venture that this is one of most "mobile" cameras in the pre-digital era. There are the much-assessed POV shots, but what strike me are the Godardian tracking shots that always linger just a bit longer than is comfortable. The miracle is that those relatively few still/stationary shots are given an immense amount of gravitas when compared to those with movement...Carpenter's camera goes from Godard to Ozu in no time flat.

    In terms of substance, what really hit me this time was how internally conflicted the film oscillates between the heady terror of those great shots of emptiness (a scene outside a window of a windy street, the furniture in a living room with no bodies in sight - in short, the seemingly superfluous stuff of which "art films" are made) and the utterly inane, banal tropes of Laurie's ditsy friends.

    This brings me back to my "misreading of history" thesis that I put forth on my piece on contemporary horror films from about a year ago (we've yet to actually reconstitute Virtual Fools because of constant FTP issues...long story). Subsequent imitators "misread" Carpenter's film - the real meaning is in the absences, the suggestive fears, and the style, the structure - instead extracting the ritualistic punishment that renders teenagers guilty until proven innocent.

    Remember, I've not yet seen the Zombie film, but I'd venture a guess and say that its a "misreading," for me at least.

  2. Anonymous9:47 AM

    Ok, let me state for the record that I am a HUGE Michael Myers fan. He is, without a doubt, my favorite horror movie character. And that is saying a lot because I love Jason Vorhees quite a bit too. Now, pay close attention to what I said. I am a Michael Myers fan. I do not worship at the altar of John Carpenter. I think he is a great filmmaker when he wants to be.

    Without a doubt the original Halloween film is the best of the series. I am also a big fan of the stryline from Halloween 4,5, and 6. I think the whole Thorn Cult plotline from the Producer's Cut of 6 is really cool. To me Laurie Strode is without question, Michael's sister. I absolutely HATED H20 and Ressurection! They were not only too much in the vein of Scream but without Dr. Loomis the series just doesn't work. I mentioned this fact to Moustapha Akkad when I met him and he agreed and said they were looking into how to solve that. So when I read that Rob Zombie was going to make the new Halloween I was thrilled. And I have remained thrilled . . . not skeptical . . . not cautiously optimistic . . . THRILLED.

    So, on to Zombie's Halloween. I saw it twice this weekend. It totally kicks ass. I finally got to see Michael do some of the stuff I had always wanted him to do. I think it is awesome to have a balls-to-the-walls Halloween. Carpenter already gave us the "less is more" Halloween. Zombie doesn't give is a carbon copy of the original, he gives us his own vision. I liked getting to know Michael as a child and seeing his relationship with Loomis. I was never keen on the idea of Michael Myers being a "force of nature" or "The Shape." To me his is a man, Michael Myers.

    You guys can have all the highbrown filmmaking debates you want but Rob Zombie's Halloween made me one happy Michael Myers fan. And after the crap-o-la that was H20 and Ressurection that is a wonderful thing.

    Chris Johnson