Get Thee Behind Me, Satan
Julien Allen on Halloween
"Aside the Devil turned
For envy, yet with jealous leer malign
Eyed them askance, and to himself thus plained:
"Sight hateful, sight tormenting! thus these two
Imparadised in one another’s arms,
The happier Eden, shall enjoy their fill
Of bliss on bliss, while I to Hell am thrust."
(John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book IV)
All told, John Carpenter’s Halloween is holding up pretty well after thirty-five years. Famously made on a shoestring budget, with a story and a style “driven by simplicity,” in Carpenter’s own words, the director's third feature is still its maker’s biggest hit—70 million dollars at the box office, over two hundred times what it cost to make—and an axiomatic high water mark in both independent and horror cinema. At the time of its release, it was met with cacophony of critical indifference, save one lone “Voice” in the wilderness: the Village Voice’s Tom Allen, the first critic to see what we all like to think we’d have seen. Reinstating Halloween from the nation’s living rooms to the big screen where it really belongs, gives audiences a clearer look at what makes a consummate frightener—and a chance to reacquaint themselves with one of cinema’s most underappreciated evildoers.
It is the intricacy and purity of its scare mechanics that lift Halloween from the lower depths of the slasher subgenre and help it repay so many repeated viewings. It feels stripped to the bone. Like a “Well-Tempered Clavier” of horror, it deploys all the recognizable components of its form with a minimum of ornamentation and (if one considers the close-to-zero gore quotient) uncommon restraint. Halloween refuted the assumption (as Tourneur’s Cat People and Wise’s The Haunting had done in their day) that in horror, “more is more,” thereby going even further than its close predecessor, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), in contributing to the rebirth of the horror genre. Far from constituting the first modern slasher (1970’s Carnival of Blood is just one of many feeble efforts from the newly permissive decade preceding it), it was the first to make studios really sit up and take notice, and remains one of the few films that frightens people who “don’t like horror.” It seems cruelly ironic that a director so clearly inspired by Hawks, Hitchcock, and Romero should, with one watershed film, inspire Friday the 13th, Sleepaway Camp, and Silent Night Deadly Night. It might be more rewarding to think of Halloween not by reference to its countless sequels, knock-offs, and remakes, but as an early entry in the career of this most thematically consistent of commercial filmmakers, whose approach to his craft is as undeviating and deceptively profound as the killer he created, and whose critical reputation is now exhilaratingly close to being set in stone.
The killer in question is Michael Myers, who escapes from a mental asylum seventeen years after committing—at the age of only six—the shocking Halloween-night murder of his teenage sister Judith. He returns to the scene of the crime, his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois, to kill again. Precisely why he does this is never completely explained, but his apparent intended victims are three more teenage girls, the most virtuous of whom is Laurie Strode (debutant Jamie Lee Curtis, the successor to Texas Chainsaw’s Marilyn Burns as the “final girl”). Michael’s psychiatrist—turned would-be executioner—Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance, in a role that both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee would later regret having passed up) is in pursuit.
Halloween has earned its horror-master-class status principally by its immaculate slow-build rhythm, gorged with suspense, gradually painting on layers of menace as Michael Myers gets incrementally closer to his prey. Our visual perceptions of the adult Michael start with an arm, then a shoulder, then a far away silhouette. His presence alone is thoroughly intimidating—he is Hitchcock’s ticking bomb—and we may only see his full form strike late in the film, but when it does, it is devastating. Carpenter realized the terrifying potential of a villain who spends hours simply waiting and watching. Before long, Michael needs only to slide into view, barely moving, and we jump.
Carpenter owed to Howard Hawks his appreciation of how confinement and imprisonment build character and tension, techniques he deployed on both macro and micro levels throughout his work. The film’s small town is an island; there is no sense of a world outside Haddonfield or an escape route from it—everything not in Haddonfield is filmed in darkness and in rain. This contained setting would later find its more explicit equivalents in Escape from New York’s Manhattan island prison, Village of the Damned’s quarantined title spot, the doomed arctic base in The Thing, and the church in Prince of Darkness. The climax of Halloween delivers a pattern of increasing confinement all its own to match the escalating menace: Laurie finishes trapped in the house, then in one room of the house, then in the closet of that room, leading to a confrontation of visceral power. Laurie’s efficient use of the coat-hanger and knife during this sequence may seem somewhat improbable (Carpenter’s aptitude for action would later improve considerably, finding its apotheosis in the euphoric, exhausting fight sequence between Roddy Piper and Keith David in They Live), but the damage has already been done. Our nerves have been cut to ribbons by the ruthlessly incremental shrinkage of the space. This mechanism is all the more effective in a theater, where the contrast between the spaces is so much more pronounced.
What might also impress viewers who haven’t seen Halloween on the big screen before is its disarmingly sophisticated 35mm Panavision cinematography, courtesy of Dean Cundey. The elegance Cundey brings to the Haddonfield scenes not only belies the film’s schlock reputation, but also serves as a potent tool in the film's fearing process. The widescreen format first gives a vivid form to the geography of Haddonfield, with a series of expertly executed tracking shots (which directly recall, in their desire to unhurriedly and intimately acquaint the audience with the layout of the town, Russell Metty’s filming of the streets of Los Robles in Touch of Evil) only for Carpenter to place the menacing figure of Michael within that familiar suburban landscape. Secondly, it defines—as the action becomes more close-quarters—the limits of the space the characters have to move around in, by cutting off the sides of the screen with darkness or obstacles, creating a more enclosed, boxy feel. Thirdly, once the film has us where it wants us, it populates the widescreen with a myriad of potential places from which the death’s head mask of Myers might once more materialize—we find ourselves scanning the extremities of the frame, to see if we can spot him. A subjective Panaglide camera cleverly describes Myers’ movements: despite gliding forward, unlike its fancier rival, the Steadicam, it vacillates slightly on its vertical axis, thereby replicating the eyeline of a walking human.
Much of value has been written about Laurie Strode (from her virginity to her maternal qualities), but comparatively little about Michael, whom one might feel deserves better. It serves a particular view of Halloween as a simplistic slasher film to perceive him only as the danger and to refuse—like Loomis would have us do—any suggestion of character, but to do this is to miss both his human and thematic dimensions. Embodied by Carpenter’s University of Southern California contemporary Nick Castle (who would go on to co-write Escape from New York), Michael is referred to in the end credits simply as “The Shape,” thereby calling to mind one of the most vivid inventions in literature: “The Creature” from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Michael’s appearance might have overtones of Boris Karloff’s interpretation: slow, upright, exceptionally strong, mentally unsound and occasionally cumbersome, but his actions suggest a purpose, patience, and intelligence closer to Shelley’s creation. His choice of victims is evidently ascribable to a moral punishment fantasy: his sister Judith was a postcoital casualty and both Lynda (P.J. Soles) and Annie (Nancy Kyes) have similar grubby plans on their minds, seventeen years later. The white mask, and later, in one of a number of moments of deliberate levity, a ghost costume, are clearly disguises Michael has chosen to blend in unnoticed on trick-or-treat night. Furthermore, his modus operandi amounts to a devious form of terrorism, based on showing his concealed form to Laurie as much as possible.
For the audience, the mask provides yet another layer of removal in a film which has so many—shadows, net-curtained kitchen windows, fogged-up windshields—and underscores the refusal of Myers to let his guard down. Leatherface was also masked of course, but he pined, played, and grunted his way through Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Myers gives us nothing. His expressionless visage makes him closer to the unseen monsters of The Haunting or Duel, not to mention the unrelenting robotic terror of Westworld and The Terminator. This quasi-Bressonian rejection of the acting process in Myers empowers the viewer itself to fill the space in his head, to question Michael’s own fears and desires, making him a phantasmic vessel for everything we (love to) fear most. In other words: he really is the bogeyman.
Carpenter would later go on to do ghosts (The Fog, Ghosts of Mars), aliens (They Live, Village of the Damned), vampires (Vampires), and of course, Satan himself in Prince of Darkness, perhaps Carpenter’s signature work, assembling as it does all the bellwether themes—survival, imprisonment, inexplicable hostile forces—many of which are incubated in Halloween. By contrast to this later work, Halloween would be his only horror film not to feature—on its face at least—a metaphysical dimension. Its entire premise reposes on a cruel juxtaposition between the self-imposed “pleasurable” fear, manufactured by the holiday trappings of Halloween (jack-o-lanterns, trick-or-treat costumes, and children curled up on the sofa watching Hawks’s The Thing from Another World) and something all too terrifyingly plausible (an escaped maniac with a knife).
If it therefore seems fanciful to credit an outwardly functional villain like Michael Myers with such depth, we should note that Michael is apparently immortal (Loomis puts six bullets in him, yet he escapes) and also appears to be gifted, if not with the ability to disappear into thin air, at the very least with superhuman reflexes that sit awkwardly with his shuffling gait. The effect of Michael’s occasional sudden disappearance from the frame in the early Haddonfield sequences might even lead viewers to question their own eyes, or—because of Carpenter’s fondness for the subjective camera—those of Laurie: is she herself mad, or delusional?
These are, of course cinematic games, not to say cheats, testament perhaps to Carpenter’s shamelessly unscrupulous approach to the business of scaring us. Others will feel that Michael's final disappearance is purely driven by commerce—a view not remotely borne out by anything Carpenter did next (he agreed to write the second part after he had made The Fog, but didn't direct another Halloween film). If we look closer, there are clues as to Michael’s own significance in Halloween that go beyond any suggestion of dishonest or greedy filmmaking and place him squarely inside Carpenter’s metaphysical wheelhouse. The final scenes of Halloween are single stationary takes of the landscape of Haddonfield, underscored with Michael’s breathing and Carpenter's own pounding score. Myers is Evil, and while Evil can be repelled, it cannot be defeated. That message, announced at the end of Assault on Precinct 13 and common to nearly all of Carpenter, is sufficiently plain without the need for seven sequels to prove it.
He may have none of his loquacity, but like (Milton’s) Satan, Michael Myers is the implacably ingenious embodiment of Evil and a tragically lost and tortured soul. Loomis (whose role in Halloween is more that of a soothsayer and hunter, than a doctor) will go out of his way to deny Myers any such sympathy, ratcheting up in our minds the scale of Michael’s pathology and in the process, betraying his own Hippocratic promise: “He has no understanding of even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, good or evil, right or wrong . . . when I looked at him, all I saw was a blank, pale, emotionless face, the blackest eyes: the Devil's eyes.” There are two unmaskings in Halloween, both of which operate in a contrary way to the traditional template of The Phantom of the Opera: they reveal here something not physically horrifying, but psychologically so. The removal of the clown mask at the beginning, showing Michael as a child brandishing a bloody kitchen knife, has the effect of a shock reveal, but more enduringly, it establishes the argument that this character, on a human level, is fundamentally pitiable. When Michael (aged 23) is unmasked by Laurie during the final battle, his face is confused and vulnerable. Some fans swear he sheds a tear at that moment. His pointed—but pointless—replacement of the mask, surely one of the most moving single shots in all of horror cinema, shifts the scales of our sympathy for a split second and brings Michael’s tragic dimension screaming back into focus.