October is Halloween movie month! Having been completely deprived of any kind of Halloween experience growing up, I now spend 31 days celebrating with film and TV. I like to shoot for a mix of old and new, horror and comedy, from the slightly spooky to the totally terrifying to the just plain weird. Each day of October I’ll reviewing one of these ventures in the realm of the creepy and supernatural. Some will be high quality cinema and some will require large amounts of alcohol to survive. Stock up on seasonal beer and Fireball-apple jello shots and join me! A warning, though – unless the review is of a very recent release, HERE BE SPOILERS.
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasance
Synopsis: The story begins in 1963, when 6 year-old Michael Myers murders his sister while wearing a Halloween mask, in some kind of weird psychosexual fantasy. After fifteen years in an insane asylum he escapes and returns to his hometown, where he begins stalking high school student Laurie. On Halloween night, she and some friends are babysitting and/or messing around with their boyfriends, when Michael begins to pick them off one by one. First Annie is killed after she drops her young charge off with Laurie and the boy she is watching, Tommy, in order to go pick up her boyfriend. Then Lynda and her boyfriend are killed after having sex in the house where Annie was babysitting. Laurie goes over to check on them after receiving an alarming call from Lynda and discovers their bodies, staged dramatically, before Michael attacks her. He chases her back the house she was babysitting at and she manages to hide the children and then fight Michael off with a knitting needle. He’s not easily killed and is about to overcome her, when his psychiatrist, who has been tracking him all this time, comes in and shoots Michael multiple times. He falls off the balcony, but when they look down his body is gone.
Going back and watching the original Halloween now is like going through a time warp. Although hardly the first slasher film and owing much to Psycho and other of its ilk from the 50’s and 60’s, Halloween is definitely the origin of the modern slasher flick and kicked off a flurry of them in the 80’s and 90’s (with the 2000’s we got the torture porn genre, which is its hillybilly cousin on steroids). Frankly, it’s not scary. Maybe it was, watching in a dark theater for the first time, or maybe I’m so inured to terror and violence that it seems almost quaint. There’s little blood or gore, and really very little real tension until the last third. I mean you know Michael is stalking Laurie and her friends, but most of the movie is them chatting, getting high, and arranging their social lives. Even at the climax, the level of fear is nothing compared to modern day horror.
Still, the genre owes it, both in good ways and bad. It sets a high bar in terms of quality, even if it’s tame by today’s standards, and had a huge stylistic influence, but it also sets up some of the most pernicious tropes that plague these types films to this day. Although not the origin, Halloween definitely popularized the have-sex-and-die morality. Laurie is modest, reluctant to date, and responsible to her babysitting charges. Her friends are basically just trying to get laid, and whether they succeed or not, they pay the price. Michael’s sister was also killed for displaying sexuality and it’s the sexuality of young women that drive him into his murderous frenzies. The women are at fault for being the temptation, and only the powers of a virgin can defeat him. Also, all the girls who were killed were insufficiently nurturing, another common theme in slasher/horror, while Laurie is more motherly.
This film also helped popularize the Final Girl trope – the one female who is good enough (and, usually, blonde enough) to make it to the end of the movie. She isn’t slutty, she’s better than her female peers, she’s usually spunky and resourceful, and she alone faces the killer/demon/vampire/pervert and makes it out alive. The Final Girl isn’t always a bad trope, but there are two main kinds: those who defeat their stalker themselves and those who just hang on long enough to be rescued by a man. Unfortunately for Laurie, despite being indeed spunky and resourceful and stabbing Michael more than enough times to kill him, she is still unable to save herself and has be to rescued by Dr. Loomis, who has had very little to do until then. Laurie’s actually a great character and seeing her denied that agency at the end is galling.
Lastly, the movie relies on the concept that some people are just monsters from the start. Again, this is not a new idea in film, but Halloween really sets this up as the standard for slasher and serial killer movies for many years. Michael wasn’t screwed up by anything. He’s not even ill. He’s just evil and always was, from birth. There was never anything good in him at all, and as such he’s an unambiguous antagonist. We don’t need to know his motivations or worry about trying to kill him because it’s strictly kill or be killed. He deserves no thought of pity. This is morally expedient, plotwise, but morally troubling in real life.
Promoting the idea that some people are irredeemable from the start, born evil, makes the world a worse place and encourages us to write others off early and close ourselves to empathy. Personally, I prefer more nuanced bad guys even if they have been bad a long time (Hannibal is an excellent example of this, particularly in the TV show – his monstrousness is never excused or reasoned away but he’s still human and complicated). Anything that turns people in mindless killing machine and strips them of their humanity entirely I have problem with. Making Michael superhuman in his ability with withstand pain/survive wounds and also completely silent definitely ups the fright factor but continues to reinforce him as less than human. Which I’ll admit is the point – horror movies are interested in scaring us, not exploring the delicate moral dilemmas surrounding the criminally insane. But if I want a mindless, unkillable pursuer I’ll take a monster or a demon or even an alien. When it comes to human villains, I prefer them to retain some vestigial humanity, no matter how twisted.
Still, however dated the plot or troubling the implications, Halloween is an important movie and still surprisingly enjoyable – sometimes on purpose and sometimes just because of how ridiculous it seems today. The score is at least half of what produces any anxiety at all, and the camera work and editing set the mood and have been mimicked with varying degrees of success for decades since. Jamie Lee Curtis, unknown at the time, really carries the the movie with her talented portrayal of Laurie. Her fright, and her fight, are realistic and effective. Nick Castle, although as the adult Michael his face is never seen, also deserves a lot of credit for his physical performance. His slow, relentless, heartless pursuit helps make Laurie’s responses believable. Less believable is the idea that a teen girl screaming for help in a nice, suburban neighborhood would not attract anyone to aid her, that no one is outside on Halloween night, and that Haddonfield appears to be populated entirely by teenagers and their babysitting charges – no adults. Also, it’s clearly spring outside.
In all, Halloween is worth watching at least once for historical value and Jamie Lee Curtis. After that, it’s worth rewatching for nostalgia, irony, or if you have the Rifftrax.
Quality: 4 Donald Pleasances out of 10 – Despite all the credit it gets, contains very few new ideas and mainly responsible for reinvigorating the genre than creating it.
Enjoyability: Depends how you watch it and how much you’ve been drinking.