Happy Halloween, ya turkeys!
The Plot: Fifteen years after killing his teenage, not-a-virgin sister when he was six, Michael Myers (Austin Powers, The Love Guru) escapes from a mental institution and returns to his hometown so he can hunt down some baby sitters, because, uh…well, one girl totally keeps having sex with her boyfriend, a different girl would really like to have sex with her boyfriend, and the other one is single but really good with kids. To be honest, I’m getting mixed signals here. Oh, it’s just because they’re there? And because Michael Myers (Austin Powers, The Love Guru) is pure evil? That’s…huh. Okay, I guess.
You’ve all heard of Halloween, and are probably aware of the ungainly franchise that it spawned. Some of you may even have seen the Rob Zombie remake and its sequel(s?). I’ve only seen this one, and from the looks of things that’s not going to change any time soon. That’s pretty much all I have to say about the franchise. It’s also worth noting that Halloween kind of spawned the whole slasher genre, which is neat. Two years after this came out, the (I hear) vastly inferior Friday the 13th appeared on the scene, giving birth to its own stupid franchise. Four years after that, A Nightmare on Elm Street showed up, another highly influential slasher flick with a string of bad sequels tagging along behind. Though much of Halloween now seems dated, even tame, you’ve got to give it credit for its influence. You also need to give it credit for the parts that work really, really well, which I am going to talk about…right now.
John Carpenter is an expert at mounting and maintaining tension. Just look at The Thing, a study of paranoia made all the more effective by Carpenter’s juxtaposition of a claustrophobic research station and a seemingly endless arctic wasteland. The tension there comes from the characters’ isolation from the outside world and close proximity to each other and a monster that they barely comprehend. Still, we see a fair amount of the monster, and the masterful tension is undercut by gross mutations and a strong desire not to be eating this pizza right now.
Halloween, by contrast, scares you for the first hour or so by having the threat just barely on screen. Michael stares at Laurie (Jamie Lee-Curtis) from across a street or a yard; they’re usually separated by a window, but the simple knowledge that he’s there makes the space between them seem irrelevant.
It’s a technique that seems old hat now, but when it’s done well it’s done well, no matter how easily we spot the trick. Carpenter comes close to over-using it here. There comes a point where the small scares get repetitive and the tension needs to go to the next level.
The more you think about Halloween, though, the scarier it becomes. Watching it with your roommate and a ton of candy, it’s easy to scoff at things like lights that apparently don’t work after dark, or doors that won’t open from the inside. Actually, I won’t give this movie a pass for that stuff. That was dumb. Seriously, who gets a phone call from someone getting murdered across the street and doesn’t turn on the lights when they go investigate? It’s not like Michael cut the power, she doesn’t even try to turn them on. It’s a natural reaction, people! You do things like that to put yourself at ease, even when there almost definitely isn’t a serial killer in your house. I get it, the dark is spookier and more cinematic, but come on.
That oversight aside, Halloween is generally effective and making you afraid. Michael is menacing, especially when off camera, and the teenagers are all fairly likeable, even the sex-obsessed ones. The film’s slice-of-life approach to early scenes with the babysitters makes them even more relatable, which in turn makes the audience feel more threatened when Michael starts going after them.
The suburban setting adds to that effect. If you’re watching the movie at home on a dark and stormy night, or, say, writing your review of the film at 3:00 AM on a dark and stormy Halloween, then the threat seems even more real. Wait a minute, I enjoy sex with my boyfriend or girlfriend! I’m inside a house/apartment/dorm room! This could happen to meeee!
Add to that the fact that the killer is a masked psychopath with no hint of remorse and hey, presto, Donald Pleasance is getting scared too.
Halloween is an effectively made horror film that gets more unsettling the more you think about what it does to be scary. While our generation may be too jaded and desensitized to be afraid of flimsy butcher knives or to buy into Michael Myers’ (Austin Powers, The Love Guru)* lazy pro-abstinence message, I like to think that we can all appreciate a well-constructed scare. And also that scene where the girl gets in the car and realizes that he’s behind her because the windshield is all fogged up. Man, that was clever.
I hope you all enjoyed this Octoberween, because I spent all afternoon working over a hot oven to make it for you.
Have a safe, candy-filled, costumed, and maybe drunk Halloween, kids.
*Upon further research, totally not the same Mike Myers. Whoops.