Thursday, October 31, 2013

Monster Serial: HALLOWEEN, 1978

Hello, boils and ghouls! October is upon us and that means one thing: HALLOWEEN! While most holidays get a measly day or two of formal recognition, orthodox Monster Kids prefer to celebrate it in the tradition of our people: By watching tons of horror movies. This month at THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY, we're going to be discussing some of our favorites every day until Halloween. So, put on your 3-D spex, pop some popcorn and turn out the lights .... because we're going to the movies!


HALLOWEEN is a movie preoccupied with the idea of folklore, so it shouldn't be surprising that the film doesn't quite live up to its own reputation.

Released in 1978, the John Carpenter film has since been buried under a landslide of sequels, remakes and ripoffs. It's a solid, well-structured, spooky movie that might feel a little flimsy these days, mostly because its carcass has been picked clean by commerce. Carpenter famously declined to helm any of the sequels because it's an almost impossible concept to extrapolate upon. HALLOWEEN is not a movie composed of characters, but of situations, and any attempt to follow the original film could be nothing more than a glorified re-make. I think history has supported Carpenter's concerns.

But, back in 1978, HALLOWEEN had not yet become a "thing." Removed from it's unrealistic notoriety, it's a simple, elegant movie that does exactly what it sets out to do and nothing else.

The story: Fifteen years earlier in the fictional town of Haddonfield, Ill., something terrible happened. We're not told this, we're shown this, forced to watch young Michael Myers stab his older sister to death with a kitchen knife on Halloween night. Worse, the entire sequence is shown from Michael's point of view, making the audience an unwilling participant. It's an interesting creative decision because, after the movie's prologue, Myers is little more than a phantom. There's a lot of nebulous speculation about his goals and intentions, but Carpenter wants us to understand that this part of the legend is true. No matter what we hear later on, this actually happened.

What little we know about Myers comes from Dr. Sam Loomis, a rather superstitious physician played by Donald Pleasance. It's easy to see Loomis as the hero of the film, but it's questionable that he ever had his patient's best interest at heart. When a grown Michael Myers escapes from a mental institution at the start of the film, Loomis is more than a little dismayed. He refuses to even acknowledge that his patient is a human being, referring to Myers more often than not as "The Evil." Their therapy sessions must have been interesting.

While Haddonfield hadn't entirely forgotten what Myers did as a child, none of the characters seem to be familiar with the facts of the case. To the neighborhood children, the Myers house is a place to be feared, mostly because it's fallen into ruin in the years after the murder and just looks spooky. It's the only clue we're given about the fates of Micheal's parents, and it's more than a little sad. Judith wasn't the only victim that night; he appears to have murdered his entire family, at least on a spiritual level. Their home has become a scar on the community.

Upon Michael's escape from the mental institution (which might be the creepiest scene in the film, made up of blurry images of people in white gowns wandering in the darkness) he makes a beeline for his former home. "The Shape," as he's known in the movie's credits, spends the better part of the movie following three teenage girls around town, and this is where HALLOWEEN might stumble for modern audiences. Not a lot happens for most of the film; Carpenter spends much of the story's middle act following the activities of these girls with voyeuristic intensity. While we're never again given the "first-person shooter" perspective used in the film's opening, the photography doesn't let us forget that Michael is lurking nearby. Without this visual posture (the work of the great Dean Cundey) we'd be left with a movie about three really dumb teens.

And holy shit, they're dumb. Not so much the character played by Jamie Lee Curtis, who makes fairly reasonable decisions. But her friends appear to be scripted by an alien who only has the vaguest idea of what teenage girls might sound like. Here's a sample:
"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?"
And so on.

The kids in the film never feel real, not the least of which is because they're all a little old to be playing high school students. At 19, Curtis was the only actual teen in the film (the actresses playing her friends weren't far from their 30th birthdays,) but that's to be forgiven. This is not a character-driven piece, and it wouldn't have changed the story had actual 16-year-olds been cast. As with any fairy tale, only two things matter: That the characters get separated from authority figures, and that most of them get dead. You might even argue that liking these kids would detract from its entertainment value, a problem with horror films touched on in last year's CABIN IN THE WOODS. There's a fine line between horror and straight-up tragedy.

Things really begin to move in HALLOWEEN after the sun sets, though. The camera fully shifts away from Myers' perspective during the final act, sometimes revealing two stories simultaneously. There's the movie the characters think they're in, and there's the unsettling reality of the situation preparing to pounce upon them with murderous abandon from outside of their peripheral vision. This happens several times during the final act and it never fails to work. The most meta of these compositions involves a young boy watching Myers carry one of his victims across a neighbor's lawn as the electronic sound effects from FORBIDDEN PLANET blares from the television set. It's as though a horror movie is ripping its way through the screen and into our reality. Creatures from the Id, indeed.

HALLOWEEN is a film heavy with folklore. Everyone in the film has a story to tell, from the creepy cemetery caretaker's gruesome story that's interrupted by the discovery of a stolen grave marker, to the quaint superstitions about "The Boogeyman" and the Myers house shared by Haddonfield's children. The movie even gives us glimpses of its own DNA in clips from FORBIDDEN PLANET, a film about monsters of the imagination made real, as well as THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, which features a mute killer clad in a familiar-looking boiler suit.

Even the role of Dr. Loomis is as much Greek chorus as protagonist, providing us with constant reminders of the villain's "otherness." We should be afraid of Michael Myers, he warns. He's evil. And yet, nobody pays him much attention.  Loomis failed to convince the authorities of his patient's danger because he failed to scare them. Carpenter knows that it takes more to rile up an audience than insisting on an emotional response. If HALLOWEEN has a message, it's that there's nothing more important to a story than the telling of it.

WALLACE McBRIDE is editor of The Collinsport Historical Society

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Really loved this article! I have been on a Halloween binge, actually, and haven't watched this film in several years until recently. Was a lot of fun reading it! I give it 2 thumbs up and a "Totally!"

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