This film and Psycho are pretty much the co-parents of the slasher genre. To be sure, there were plenty of films about maniacs carving up women with sharp implements released between those two films, but if Psycho established the tone of the genre, Halloween polished it into its most recognizable form.
(In this rather strained analogy The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the creepy uncle.)

Many of the standard tropes of the slasher genre become popularized here. There’s the use of POV shots from the killer’s perspective, a film technique that was lauded at the time but is sometimes criticized now for identifying the audience with the killer. There’s the explicit connection being made between sex and death, with the more chaste a character is increasing their likelihood for survival. And there’s the “final girl” character transitioning from a passive figure that requires rescue to one that fights back. Though, in fairness, Laurie is very much on the line there; she fights back, but she still needs Dr. Loomis to deliver the killing blow.

What I find interesting is, despite how much of an influence this film was on the genre, particularly through the 80s and into the 90s (the genre seems to be strongly in decline now, with the few contemporary films that dabble in it borrowing more from the self-awareness of the Scream franchise), is that so many film-makers seem to have learned the wrong lessons from the film. Even John Carpenter and Debra Hill did, as Halloween 2, and all other films in the franchise, can be safely ignored, and it would be advisable to do so. Chiefly, the ramping up of sex and violence that occurs in other films. Yes, there’s a link between the two here, but later films magnify it in such a grotesque way it’s hard to dismiss the charges of reactionary politics and misogyny that the genre attracts*.

But the big problem, as I see it, is that the imitators came away from the film thinking it was about Michael Myers. It’s not, not really. By design, Michael has no personality, no real face. He’s a blank canvass. There is one, and only one, moment of personality to the character, and that is when he pauses to admire his handiwork in the kitchen. Everything else is projected onto him by the audience. He’s not “real” in a certain sense. Even Loomis thinks of him as an “it,” as a force of evil. But because of his distinctive look, he became the “face” of the film. Which leads us to Jason and Freddy and Chucky and a whole host of horror movie villains that become the “hero” of their films. Which, I admit, I find problematic. It shifts sympathy from the victims; the film becomes about checking out the new and inventive ways in which people are killed. And that eventually just leads us to plotless dead-end films.

I mentioned Halloween 2 earlier, and I think it’s a good example of how the point can be missed, even by people who got it right the first time. The sequel is the film in which various motivations get piled on to Michael. Oh, Laurie is his long-lost sister. Oh, he’s actually cursed by a Celtic demon. Let’s up the gore and the sex and make Michael the focus of the film, because all these people ripping us off are making so much money, we need to hop on that bandwagon too. None of that “extra” information makes the first film any better. It actually hurts the film to watch it with the idea that Michael has been plotting to kill his sister for fifteen years, and has been able to track her down without even knowing what she looks like or where she is (it all becomes a remarkable coincidence). Laurie and her friends were just in the wrong place at the wrong time originally. Now they’re the victims of an orchestrated plot by a cult of evil Irish people? It ruins the drama of the original film.

*I don’t entirely subscribe to the idea that horror films are necessarily misogynist. Yes, there are misogynist films in the genre, lots of them. But on the whole I think the genre is less prone to it than, say, action films or comedies.

5 Responses to “Spooky Month Review: Halloween”
  1. Eli says:

    Have you seen the Rob Zombie remake?
    I’ve heard both good & bad things about it, curious about your take.

  2. Dorian says:

    “House of 1,000 Corpses” convinced me that as a film-maker Zombie had nothing to say that I cared to hear. Feedback on his remakes from my friends who enjoy horror movies suggest that I made the right decision.

  3. Bob Temuka says:

    That’s an interesting point about the villain becoming the main character and how the film becomes about checking out the new ways in which people are killed. How do the Final destination films fit into that? They don’t even have a villain beyond a somber mood and some water, but they have managed to fill four films with nothing but semi-inventive death scenes.

    I can’t stand those movies – not because they’re offensively bad, because they’re all the bloody same – but they have proven successful. Is that the next stage, where the main character shifts from hero to villain to nothing?

    And no, you’re not missing anything by avoiding the Rob Zombie Halloween movies. They really are offensively bad.

    On a completely different subject – I know you;ve mentioned your dislike of zombie films several times, but did you see Matt Zoller Seitz’s video essay on the genre here?:

    http://www.thehousenextdooronline.com/2009/10/zombie-101-guide-to-cinemas-most.html

    He makes some excellent points about the appeal of these films, beyond the obligatory “they go to the mall because consumerism sux!”

  4. Ashe says:

    I wonder if the problem is that the creators of modern horror are just trying, and failing, to create realistic, multifaceted characters. In practice, it creates the opposite effect – unreal characters with hasty motivations.

  5. Thom says:

    Rob Zombie’s Halloween suffers from the fact that he basically gives Michael such a screwed up past, it is not shocking he would become a messed up killer. Part of what makes the original Halloween’s portrayal Michael horrifying in the first film is his family life seems so mundane and “small town-ish”. It lends to that…blankness to the character.

    I like Zombie’s visual style. There is a sequence in House of a Thousand Corpses that if it had been done exactly the same in, say, a Cohen Brothers film, people would talk about how nicely it was done. The problem is the movie is pretty much crap. And he has yet to make a “good” film. I feel the potential is there, but maybe he needs to step away from horror to do it.

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