By Kevin Redding
I haven’t yet seen the new Avengers: Age of Ultron trailer. I haven’t listened to much music of the pop or easy-listening persuasion. I also haven’t dared bite into an Oreo with white creme filling (see Halloween Oreos). And why should I? Why would I? It’s October for crying out loud! Right now, I have no patience for anything that isn’t based around the greatest, most comforting, joyous, and of course, spookiest, time of the year: Halloween, kids!
I have always been enamored by October 31st. It could be argued that my birthday falling in the same month has something to do with my obsession, but I can’t help but think that it’s way beyond that. From age two, I became infatuated with a couple important things: Tim Burton movies (specifically Batman and Beetlejuice) and the Addams Family franchise. My younger self was so fixated on these eerie and macabre worlds—so much so that the only guaranteed remedy to silence this curly-haired two-year-old’s wails was putting one of these movies in the VCR—and I’d sniffle my last bit of cry and watch with attentive giddiness.
I was always compelled by the spooky and altogether-ooky, and even felt a strange warmth from it; I loved to be scared, and I frequently wore a vampire’s cape around, even if it was the middle of July. And so to discover that an entire month and holiday was dedicated to the eerie and macabre and spooky and ooky was naturally a huge deal to me. Big plus: it was actually socially acceptable—nay encouraged—to wear a vampire’s cape during this month? Sign me up!
Halloween immediately meant so much. What got me was the way it not only embraced and played into itself as a flamboyant holiday, but reveled and triumphed in the weird, horrific, creepy and dark corners of our imaginations. It was always a unique celebration of human fear, of community—and the art of pretending.
As a kid, I was definitely strange, and not exactly brimming with social confidence. I didn’t have a torturous childhood by any means, but I was certainly on the outskirts of my academic peers. In the first grade, I had curly hair and I was missing my front teeth because of too much milk from my infant years, which paved the way for some vampire jokes… which I loved, of course.
But even as those jokes made me smile, I was also quiet and painfully shy and never quite knew what to talk about with others. I always looked to the members of the Addams Family for an escape. I wanted to be in that family so badly. And so I did the next best thing and went as Uncle Fester for Halloween, in a really great handmade costume, complete with light-bulb in mouth.
It was a beautiful thing, and still is. For those of us who have ever wanted to hide or escape or become someone else for a day—maybe even just dress like a zebra or something, Halloween was the day that encouraged it. You could be whatever you want, boundaries didn’t exist; go ahead, wear that old zebra costume if you want to! (You know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone dressed as a zebra for Halloween. But it’s not too late! Go crazy!)
Twenty-one years after the age of pre-pubescent cries for more horror tapes, I’m sitting in my bedroom listening to the “Monster Mash,” surrounded by gaudy Party City decor, feeling from my window the soothing chill of late October. A lanky skeleton hangs down from the ceiling, a jack-o-lantern pail grins at me. I’m wearing a five-dollar werewolf mask from Walgreens. It’s just an average October night for me.
Call me Pugsley, but I can’t comprehend when people don’t go gung-ho every day of this season. Don’t get me started on the fact that most TV channels don’t even kick into their Halloween movie fests until maybe October 20th, or that it’s apparently acceptable to watch things like The Bourne Ultimatum or just a normal, non-seasonal episode of The Big Bang Theory on October 31st, which I’ve actually seen people do. I firmly believe that Halloween should be taken advantage of on every single day of the month, no questions asked. Candy, music, particularly spooky TV show episodes. Go Halloween or go home… and while you’re home, pop in a good horror movie! And if you have to just pick one, make it John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978).
I’ll never forget sitting in last period study hall as a freshman in high school on the 31st. It was 40 minutes of do-whatever-the-hell-you-want while the teacher put a movie on. And because it was the big holiday, our teacher threw all caution to the wind and cheerfully popped in Halloween, sending us out of school on a ’70s slasher high. Even though this wasn’t the first time I had seen the movie, it was definitely the first time I was affected by it. Actually afraid of it. Mesmerized by it, even. I don’t really remember if anybody else in the room was strapped to their desks, with eyes aimed at the screen like I was (probably not) but I do remember feeling like I’d reverted to my two-year old self in that moment—silenced, pacified by a creepy movie. I became re-acquainted with iconic killer Michael Myers and it was love.
Throughout the movie, Myers’ psychiatrist Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) avoids using human pronouns such as “him” or “he” when describing his former patient, settling for “it” or simply “the evil.” Because of this, and the fact that Michael Myers is scripted and listed in the credits of Halloween merely as “The Shape,” I will respect Dr. Loomis’ diagnosis in this essay and refer to Myers as the inhuman presence that it is.
The movie is one of the scariest and most unsettling of all time, due largely in part to Carpenter’s unnerving less-is-more showcasing of The Shape, and by that I mean it is felt much more than seen up until the end of the movie. The film is at times eerily soundless (minimalist, considering it’s a cheap indie) but there’s a horrifying musicality to The Shape’s occasional breathing from inside its blank, emotionless, painted-Shatner mask. Then of course there is Carpenter’s tense score of synthesizers, which thumps, shrieks, lurks quietly, and builds—perfectly mirroring the careful pace taken by Haddonfield’s most talented killer-of-teenagers. And no, the score is not quite melodramatic—it serves its simple purpose instead in its literal ticking. Tick, tick, tick, tick, until the next victim is chosen! And it’s this novel theme that starts everything, as the credits fade in and out over a slow shot of a jack-o-lantern, dimly lit, swallowed up in darkness. A perfect Halloween visual to kick off a perfect Halloween movie.
Going into production, Carpenter was limited to a $320,000 budget and thus decided to have his movie take place over the course of one whole day, and the scariest day of the year at that. It’s also likely that budgetary reasons might justify why Halloween is so tame in content, especially by today’s horror standards. There is no real gratuitous gore; we don’t need a kill every other scene. Instead, Carpenter takes the Jaws route, and keeps The Shape at a far distance from what’s going on, but makes sure it’s always there, always watching, always felt. The Shape first takes (well, shape) when it’s six years old, in 1963. We see its every move through a POV-shot, wandering through the house. In the beginning, WE are the killer, which makes for some awesome discomfort. Young Shape puts on a tiny mask and stabs its sister with a pair of scissors. When the camera turns around, we see that the murderer is just a fresh-faced boy—but he’s wearing a peculiar blank and wide-eyed stare. Fifteen years later, The Shape, now 21, breaks out of its psychiatric hospital abode and returns to its town to kill once more. (Sometimes I do forget that The Shape is only 21 years old in the movie. That mask sure puts a few years on ya).
Now, this is probably the most frightening aspect of this character: Myers didn’t come from a broken home, Myers wasn’t abused, Myers wasn’t living in a corrupt neighborhood. Myers was seemingly normal, from a normal home and a normal family, in a normal neighborhood. The only explanation comes from Loomis: Myers is the physical embodiment of pure evil, plain and simple. Of course, this cool-factor is tarnished a bit in Rob Zombie’s 2007 re-imagining of the film, wherein Myers does come from a broken home—living with his stripper mom, his drunken mess of a stepfather, his bully older sister. To me, such an origin story takes away the true horror of Carpenter’s original killer. And while human (shh, don’t say that in front of Loomis), there’s a very unnerving supernatural quality to our original Myers; the way it seems to be at various locations at once, stalking at every corner, making sure you never feel safe. The Shape can be anywhere at all times, and I’ve always believed that good horror is more about feeling as opposed to seeing—something on which Carpenter builds his whole character, and furthermore his whole movie.
Where a shark’s only routine is to swim, eat, and make little sharks, The Shape’s only routine is to stalk, kill, and make sure teenagers don’t make little babies. There’s a great shot towards the end of the movie where Myers tilts its head and takes a minute to admire its own work. Yep, it’s just stabbed a horny kid named Bob up against a wall—like the guy is some kind of picture frame or something.
The Shape, then, is pretty brutal, but it’s not fast. And I really love how slow-moving it is. Myers doesn’t need to be flashy. It doesn’t need to run, or have big muscles, like Leatherface or Jason Voorhees (or big metaphysical muscles like Freddy Krueger). The Shape is simply a patient force of evil which knows a good, sporty kill when it sees it. And yes, The Shape is the truly most effective birth-control method, as the ones who are killed throughout the movie are your run-of-the-mill teens who partake in beer-guzzling, pot-smoking, and sex. This is why the movie’s protagonist, high schooler Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is the lone survivor. She’s down-to-earth, smart, and not sex-crazy like her friends, who give us the bulk of our cringe-worthy ’70s indie movie dialogue. And Laurie’s tough-as-nails, doing all that she can to protect herself and the kids she babysits from the evil lurking in Haddonfield. She even gets in a few good attacks on The Shape, the most painful-looking being the ol’ wire hanger in the eye.
What’s most important about Halloween, though, for me, is that it truly triumphs in the atmosphere of its namesake, above everything else. Take away the title and the setting for just a minute and watch: the movie just feels like late October, especially in all its daytime scenes (and what a feat, really, because they actually filmed it in the summertime). There’s the slightly disturbing quiet of walking down the sidewalk as orange leaves cartwheel around your feet, while nobody seems to be around—a feeling I certainly know well—which the movie captures perfectly as Laurie Strode strolls home from school. And, as it needs to, Halloween also lives in the dark. Daytime exteriors aside, the movie thrives on its lighting, or lack thereof. One of the most visually satisfying and iconic shots, for me, is the far-away shot of The Shape’s silhouette standing in front of a glowing, white house, surrounded by the black of the night. A majority of Myers’ screen time comes in the form of silhouettes in the background of shots, or the occasional white emergence of its mask.
At the film’s end, Loomis shoots The Shape six times, sending it off a second-story balcony. It lands on the grass below, seemingly dead. However, upon further inspection, Loomis finds that The Shape—the evil—is gone yet again. Carpenter closes his movie on a series of shots in several locations: empty rooms, through open windows: places where The Shape could be. We hear the muffled breathing against the mask and the movie ends. As a stand-alone movie, Halloween works expertly. If the film were not franchised, it’d be a mystery left unsolved, which is horrifying. But alas, the movie would go on to create nine sequels and two remakes, all of which are loved in their own right by this guy right here (although I wouldn’t say they got better as they went). But Halloween II, in particular, is great, as it picks up exactly where the first ended, on the same night, and with a bigger budget—which means more gore and increasingly creative kills. It’s an excellent slasher, and in fact I consider the first and second Halloweens as one big dramatic run-down of one terrible night for Laurie Strode.
When all is said and done, however, it’s tough to beat Halloween (1978), our timeless classic, when you’re looking for something to keep you up at night. Seriously, watch it and then turn the lights out and try to fall asleep quickly. Couldn’t Michael Myers be in the corner of your room? Under your bed, even? Don’t peek through your blinds either—it’s probably there, too. When I walked home after watching the first 40 minutes in study hall, I felt exactly like Laurie did when she was walking home from school. I felt that The Shape was hiding behind an upcoming bush, driving in a stolen car, slowly creeping a little too close for comfort. I remember constantly looking over my shoulder, and moving with big, quick steps. As I got past a busy stretch of road and swung around a corner down a long, winding and deserted stretch, surrounded by woods and not much else, I gripped the straps of my backpack and ran as fast as I could. I may have closed my eyes a bit. I was just doing everything to protect myself from The Shape.
And it was a great, thrilling feeling.
So do yourselves a favor this Friday: grab a pumpkin cup of apple cider, munch on some Halloween Oreos, wear a zebra costume or anything your little heart desires, find your inner vampire-teethed weirdo, and pop in Halloween. If you’re in good spirits, I don’t think you’ll regret it.
Check out the original trailer for Halloween here: