I’ve been fairly surface level lately and, while I love these 300-word movie reviews, I’ve been craving to dig a little deeper again and, after recently dipping back into the Halloween franchise, I decided to set my sights on crafting a piece which is more in-depth concerning one of my all-time favorite films. Hope you enjoy.
Horror is a genre which is generally looked down upon. Horror movies are almost universally scoffed by critics, especially in this day-in-age where the critics have seemed to lose that sense of fun which goes along with the whole movie-going experience. But, this is not a new trend in the history of horror films. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule: critics in 1931 were generally quite approving of Universal’s Dracula. Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times cited the film as “the best of many mystery films” and praised the work of director Tod Browning and actress Helen Chandler. Dracula was a commercial success for the studio and Universal became the leading house of horror films throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s; their entertaining monster movies allowing audiences to forget the real-life horrors of the Depression and World War II.
But, in 1931, Dracula was a new phenomenon. Up to this point, the horror film was a rarity in English cinema. While Universal had dipped their toe into the genre pool particularly with The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, (1923 and 1925 respectively), those films had been silent and, though actor Lon Chaney had perfected make-ups which disguised his features to such a point that he was unrecognizable and almost inhuman in appearance, both their plots were firmly grounded in reality.
|Dracula (1931) - The Original, Modern-Day Horror Film|
Dracula was another matter entirely. For the first time, a film (with sound nonetheless) was daring to present a situation which did not have such an easily explainable answer. No rational explanation was put forth to explain away the vampire and, in the film’s original excised coda, Edward Van Sloan’s Professor Van Helsing went so far as to remind the audience that “there are such things” as creatures that go bump in the night.
In truth, all of this speaks to the groundbreaking nature of Dracula and, though the horror genre has progressed to such a point where Dracula no longer has the power to scare or thrill audiences the way it once did, its legacy is undeniable and a strong case can be made that without it, the modern horror film would not exist. But, Dracula is an outlier and, even Universal’s later work began to be panned by critics. Perhaps no more scathing assessment of a horror film (and a true genre classic) has been made than the reviews which appeared following the release of Hammer Studio’s seminal 1957 release, The Curse of Frankenstein. Reviewer Dilys Powell claimed that it was the kind of movie which made it impossible to argue against the notion that cinema “debases” and a reviewer for The Tribune opined that the film was “depressing and degrading to anyone who loves the cinema.”
Despite the decades of abuse which horror films have taken, however, they have endured. And, some have become undisputed classics of the genre and film itself. In fact, if one suspends the definition of horror to a certain degree, then ten films in the AFI Top 100 could be classified as horror films. While the market will surely almost be inundated with more bad horror films than genuine classics, a choice few have been selected as the best-of-the-best. But, I’m here to pose a question which may be impossible to answer: which horror film is the very best?
Could it be the relatively simple story of the night he came home?
I was just getting into horror when my Mother first mentioned Halloween. We were in the car, I seated in the back seat, when I posed the question, “What’s the scariest movie you’ve ever seen?” It was a question I remember asking on more than one occasion to both my parents (I recall my Father told me that it was a toss-up between The Birds and The Exorcist – two excellent choices and, for sure, scary), but it did not take my Mother long at all to answer, “Halloween.” In that moment, the word took on a monolithic aspect which it had previously lacked. Suddenly, the holiday which I never really took to (surprisingly because I loved horror films as a kid at the ripe age at which Halloween is best enjoyed) was given another meaning altogether; a meaning which was able to frighten my very own Mother. This Halloween movie must be truly frightening indeed.
For years, I didn’t go anywhere near the movie. Honestly, I was a little scared. I remember paging through our copy of The 1001 Movies You Have To See Before You Die and coming across a full-page illustration of the film’s truly terrifying poster: a Jack-O-Lantern with, what appeared to fangs, and a veiny hand clutching a glimmering butcher knife. It was serendipity that I’d come across the film again, but its ghostly appearance there in that book only made the whole film seem even more frightening. And then, I saw the trailer. Though I would not have admitted it at the time, it scared me. Particularly, the scene of Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie being chased across the street by the knife-wielding Michael, his white mask shining in the moonlight, positively sent chills down my spine and I steered clear of the movie again.
However, after years of having never seen the movie but remaining aware of its existence, I finally decided to bite the bullet. I’d just watched Rosemary’s Baby for the first time and figured that if I was able to handle the film which harrowingly depicted a woman giving birth to the Devil’s child, Halloween would be a walk in the park.
I was wrong. Even after years and years, John Carpenter’s 1978 horror film managed to scare me. And I loved every second of it.
What cannot go overlooked by anyone who is watching Halloween is just what an influential film it was. While many have pointed out that Halloween did not truly invent the slasher film sub-genre – many point to either The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Black Christmas or even, in some instances, Psycho, as holding that honor – Halloween nevertheless made the slasher a viable sub-genre for horror. While Texas Chainsaw and Black Christmas had an exploitation-like vibe which put them somewhere nearer to the grindhouse end of the film spectrum, Halloween manages to carry off its brutality with a certain amount of decorum. It is much closer in spirit to a film like Psycho then the other proto-slashers which preceded it. And, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then Halloween is surely one of the most complimented horror films of them all as it launched a countless number of other holiday-themed horror movies well into the next decade. Nevertheless, Halloween has managed to stand a cut above all of its imitators. How did it do so?
As I mentioned above, Halloween is not looking to drench its screen in gratuitous amounts of blood. In fact, hardly a drop is spilled in the film’s entire runtime. John Carpenter uses suspense to elicit his thrills more than visual horror. The sequence in which Michael stalks his first victim, Annie, goes on for ages with almost no relief for the audience. We’re left sitting on the edge of our seats waiting for something to happen. To modern viewers, we know enough about the conventions of the modern horror film to know that Annie is doomed, but the way that the scene just continues to unfold never gives us the relief we seek and, as a result, for a modern day viewer, the scene carries just as much weight as it did back in 1978.
Even after Michael has claimed his first victim and the action shifts to the ill-fated Lynda and her boyfriend, Bob (who, again we know must be doomed – they’re breaking that cardinal rule of how to survive a horror film: don’t have sex), Carpenter manages to inject suspense into the film. The sequence’s long, drawn-out takes give the impression that someone is watching all that is happening. The screenplay also manages to cleverly off Bob and build up even more suspense by having Lynda not know that it not her boyfriend who has returned to the bedroom but rather Michael covered in a sheet. It’s all truly nail-biting stuff.
But, for my money, what truly elevates Halloween beyond other such genre classics as Psycho, The Shining, The Exorcist, and even my favorite movie, Jaws (which is technically more of a thriller than all-out horror, but for the purposes of this post I’ll settle with calling it a horror), is its simplicity. I should mention now that I do think all of those aforementioned films are excellent examples of finely-crafted horror cinema and they all deserve praise. But, what makes Halloween work, perhaps better than those others, is its sheer straightforwardness.
There is no labyrinth-like plot, red herrings or false-starts, to true spectacle to distract, Halloween focuses entirely on its characters and situation. The film centers around only a handful of characters which the script takes its time in fleshing out completely and its central concept is so simple and so effective: a young woman gets caught up in a truly horrifying series of events. This aspect of Halloween can be chalked up to the film’s budget (or perhaps lack thereof), but Halloween is a testament to what lengths one can go on virtually nothing.
When Donald Pleasance’s Dr. Sam Loomis says that Michael Meyers truly is the boogeyman – the embodiment of all that is evil – the film brilliantly flirts with higher concepts. In the same way that The Exorcist portrays its demon as an intangible force of evil, Halloween does much the same with Michael. The implied metaphysics is astonishing and again, so deceptively simple. With little to no explanation concerning this turn of events, Halloween elevates itself from the run-of-the-mill slashers (like Friday the 13th and others which followed it), and becomes a far more intelligent horror film than it is often given credit for.
|"Death has come to your town, Sheriff"|
Terror in the suburbs
In lists of the all-time greatest horror films, Halloween often crops up, but I have never seen it top the list. Though credited with ushering in a new wave of horror films, Halloween manages to surpass its imitators with its understated presentation and incredibly foreboding atmosphere. Truly, never has the dichotomy of the sleepy, peaceful suburbs and unrelenting horror ever been presented as well as it is in Halloween and watching a place we once thought of as a safe-haven being decimated by an expressionless-masked killer is shocking indeed.
Some things never change and the critical reception which Halloween received upon its initial release was lukewarm at best. A reviewer for The New Yorker called it derivative of the films of Hitchcock, De Palma, and Val Lewton, and that the film lacked intelligence. And, while the film may harken back to the classics of Hitchcock and Lewton, it is by no means a rip-off and, as I discussed above, there is a great deal of intelligence lurking beneath the surface of the film.
But, much like Michael Meyers himself who cannot be kept at bay by knitting needles, knives, or bullet wounds, Halloween plowed ahead and went on to become one of the most profitable independent films of all time. John Carpenter was launched into stardom as one of the new masters of the horror genre and would go on to helm The Thing (1982), yet another undisputed horror classic. Jamie Lee Curtis’ career was also jump-started but the film and she went on to appear in numerous box offices successes.
|The nightmare is far from over for Laurie Strode|
Even if you do not believe that Halloween is the finest horror film of all time (there are plenty of contenders for that title and many, many of them are deserving), its truly groundbreaking nature cannot be underestimated in the least. It – and Michael Meyers – endure. It shall last for years, decades even to come and it shall continue to scare generation after generation with its uncompromising mood which borders on sheer terror. It will continue to fuel nightmares and make audiences – myself included – just a little fearful of that darkness at the top of the stairs.
After all, you can’t kill the boogeyman.
Thanks everyone! I know this was a long one and I thank you for sticking with it to the end. So, this all begs the question: do you too think Halloween is the finest of all horror films? If not, which movies deserves such a title? Let me know in the comments below and stop back soon for continued movie reviews and further content.