Halloween ★★★½

Part of Hoop-Tober

“Every kid in Haddonfield thinks this place is haunted.” “They may be right.”

I hate root beer floats. I know everyone else seems to delight in them as a delicious sweet treat, but for me, even the smell of root beer is nauseating, like some ill conceived cleaning solution gone to seed. It is singularly gross.

I also do not much like whiskey. I like plenty of other liquors—gin, tequila, vodka—and I know whiskey is a thing that men are supposed to enjoy. If needed I can force it down, but no matter how I try to convince myself that it is delicious, I can’t escape that it tastes like Band-Aids soaked in gasoline.

It’s a sad moment, the realization that something that millions of others blissfully enjoy does not fulfill you in the same way. It leaves you with the vague sensation that something is wrong with you, some crucial component fundamentally broken. You hold your nose and try to convince yourself that the object of so many others’ desire could be the object of yours as well. Eventually, though, you must accept yourself for who you are: a weirdo who hates root beer, is barely tolerant of whiskey, and only moderately likes Halloween.

Before I am deafened by the clatter of everyone’s browsers slamming shut, let me clarify: I like Halloween. It is a good movie, and undoubtedly a superior entry in the slasher subgenre, and I enjoy it well enough. But try as I might, I cannot love it or find within it the components of the masterpiece so many others sincerely believe it to be. I am so squarely in the minority that I am sure my feelings must be misguided. But they are my feelings nonetheless, uncommon though they may be.

I can certainly see why so many enjoy the film. There are many things to like in John Carpenter’s tale of an asylum escapee returned to his hometown on Halloween night to resume a murder spree interrupted fifteen years earlier. Carpenter’s simple, haunting musical theme is memorably insidious, crawling under the skin. The opening POV sequence of six-year-old Michael Myers (Will Sandin) watching his sister, Judith (Sandy Johnson), fornicating, then grabbing a butcher knife and a clown mask and brutally slaying her, is rightly iconic. It is an utterly perfect film in miniature—suspenseful, frightening, beautifully composed, and with a shocking reveal of the murderer as a young boy barely in grade school. That scene alone is enough to give Halloween marks as a worthwhile and influential film.

And influential it is, kicking off in full force the slasher craze that consumed the 1980s and solidifying (though not inventing) the many tropes that it would adhere to, including the prevalence of the killer’s POV, the dangers of substance abuse and sexual activity, and the innocent Final Girl. Halloween’s reach is undeniably vast and worthy of respect, as is the fact that Halloween is far better than almost all of the copycats that arose in its wake. But one of Halloween’s most often copied elements—the unkillable, vaguely supernatural villain—is also, for me, one of its most problematic.

The early years of horror cinema were dominated by otherworldly monsters and ghouls. Films like Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, and so many others looked for horror in ghosts and creatures from other dimensions that—although they often arose from or were unleashed by mankind’s hubris—did not explore the demented regions of the human psyche.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho—an enormous influence on Halloween and so many other films, horror and otherwise—began to change that, finding horror in the warped mind of the boy next door. As the ‘60s and ‘70s progressed, films like Black Christmas and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre increasingly looked for terror not in paranormal beasties or science-fictional creatures but in the evil in men’s hearts and minds. Each formula was successful, and each produced features both excellent and atrocious, but modernity and postwar disillusionment brought the horror ever closer to home.

With Halloween, Carpenter and co-writer Debra Hill decided to have their cake and eat it too. Michael (played as an adult by Tony Moran and Nick Castle) is supposed to be the human embodiment of evil, a reminder of the threat that lurks next door in every small town, but also superhuman and invincible. Indeed, he is frequently referred to as both the boogeyman and as evil personified—both spectral and incarnate; even the end credits list him as both Michael Myers, a human being, and The Shape, an otherworldly force. It is a combination that clearly works for many, and it has its charms—Michael’s implacability, his slow-moving, relentless monstrousness is truly chilling. But for me, the film’s determination to set no rules for itself—or, more precisely, to set two different sets of rules and then pick and choose which to follow as strikes it as convenient in the moment—is counterproductive, rendering Michael almost boring in his ability to be whatever Carpenter decides suits his whim. (Michael’s repeated popping up or disappearing after he should have died, while at times effective—especially in the case of his slow rise in the bedroom while Laurie clings breathlessly to the doorframe—is the most obvious and most irritating example.)

Halloween’s sin could be far worse—it could set parameters for itself that it then chooses to violate—but Carpenter’s grab bag approach is still detrimental, draining the life from his creation. Why bother fighting an invincible force? Why bother caring about those in the invincible force’s way? The fact that Michael—a human person—is stabbed with a knitting needle, a hanger, and a butcher knife; shot six times; and falls from a second-story balcony and yet is seemingly unharmed makes him, for me, rather uninteresting. He is neither here nor there—he’s not a ghost, not creepy because of his invasion from some paranormal place, and he’s not a person, not someone with motivations (however skewed they might be) and thought processes and vulnerabilities. Dracula is frightening because he seems to have emerged from some Gothic dream where sexuality is fatal. Norman Bates and the Sawyer clan are terrifying because they feel like people we could happen upon in real life, fatally warped by their circumstances. Michael is...all of these things, I suppose? But by being all things to all people, he ends up being nothing. By trying to have the best of both worlds, Carpenter ensures that his villain and his film lose many of both worlds’ virtues.

None of this entirely undermines the film’s many pleasures. Donald Pleasance is suitably hammy and self-serious as Dr. Loomis, the psychiatrist convinced Michael is returning to Haddonfield to wreak havoc anew, and Jamie Lee Curtis is terrific as Laurie Strode, the teenage babysitter upon whom Michael most heavily fixates. Curtis is wonderfully naturalistic and believable as a smart, serious, introverted teenager, a bit too mature for her age and self-conscious about it. Whether interacting with her friends, Lynda (P.J. Soles) and Annie (Nancy Kyes), or watching over her charges, Tommy (Brian Andrews) and Lindsey (Kyle Richards), or screaming in terror at Michael, she is a consistent delight. Plenty of small moments, like Loomis waiting to speak with Sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers) while Michael drives past in the background, are beautifully memorable.

And there are other technical elements that intrigue as well. Carpenter’s fabled use of dark space and composition is famous for a reason. His positioning of Michael within the frame—foregrounded and breathing heavily, or off in the distance obscured by foliage or drying laundry—is always effective, as is his eye for deploying darkness and offscreen space in service of suspense. And his ability to create tension with suggestion and a minimum of gore is a great pleasure too often ignored by Halloween’s imitators. When Michael slowly approaches Laurie as she desperately tries to get Tommy to let her into the house, the pulse never fails to rise.

But the positives are accompanied by frequently unmentioned shortcomings. Though the film goes to great pains to emphasize the fifteen-year gap between six-year-old Michael’s first killing and the current events, the credits refer to Michael as being 23 years old. A small budget doesn’t negate the ability to do basic math, especially when your first-billed actor can’t stop talking about the math in question. Outside of Pleasance and Curtis, the performances are, at best, weak, typified by Kyes noting that Lynda will be saving her treats for her boyfriend, Bob (John Michael Graham), before Soles can even finish her line about getting out of taking her brother trick-or-treating—the basic acting sin of flagging that your words are memorized dialogue rather than treating them as a character’s spoken thoughts. Laurie refers to the Wallace house as being three houses down from the Doyle house even though we can plainly see that they are across the street and catty-corner from each other. All small points, but all sloppy ones not generally found in all-time-best pieces of filmmaking.

And there are numerous script contrivances that, while by no means terminal or unusual for the genre, seem to cut against Halloween's masterpiece status. Why, for example, does Loomis leave the nurse alone in the car when there are psychotic inmates clearly roaming about? To permit Michael’s escape, of course. Why does Laurie’s teacher give a ham-fisted speech about the inevitability of fate? Because it’s cheaper than mass mailing flyers entitled “THEME” to prospective moviegoers. Why is it broad daylight in Haddonfield at 6:30 p.m. when Annie picks up Laurie (a time when darkness would already have fully settled in over Illinois by October 31), and still bright and sunny during most of their drive, only to become suddenly pitch black upon their arrival at their babysitting posts—posts such a short distance away that Laurie walked near them on her way to school that morning? What explains such cosmic shenanigans? The need for darkness to enhance the terror, plausibility be damned. Why does Sheriff Brackett take Loomis’ word that no warning should be issued about Michael’s escape, that the Sheriff should patrol the alley while Loomis patrols the street, etc.? So Loomis can end up the hero, naturally. Why does Laurie—a girl whose intelligence is constantly emphasized and, to the film’s credit, frequently shown—decide to leave two small children with whose care she has been charged alone and go traipsing off to a darkened house on a hunch that something might be wrong there? And why would she wander about that house for so long when all the lights are off and no one responds to her queries? Why, because the finale must be set in motion. Why does Michael, such an adept killer previously, become such a shoddy murderer when confronting Laurie? Because we need a Final Girl, that’s why. These and other details seem little, and in isolation they are, but they crop up consistently throughout the film, chipping away at its claims to perfection.

Halloween is entertaining enough and has good enough construction to mostly overlook these things—again, I truly do believe it’s a good movie! But Carpenter’s suspense-making skill cannot fully distract from this cavalcade of issues nor, more importantly, can it compensate for the fundamental flaw in his villain’s construction. It’s a film I enjoy, but can never really love. Millions of people—people whose opinions I deeply respect—think Halloween is the gold standard of modern horror. Who knows—they may be right.

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