50 years, 50 films: Halloween (1978)
Me meet more horror in our trawl through the last half-century of movies. Or do we?
Here’s a question for you: what is a horror film? You will (most of the time) know one when you see one. But it’s a hard thing to define. For me, to qualify, we require some supernatural element or some hint of a supernatural element. Vampire films obviously make the grade. So does anything involving a werewolf. Any book on the history of horror will include chapters on the various adaptations of Frankenstein. But those films are surely science fiction. They fit all the necessary requirements for SF. Right?
The definition is slippery. Many texts list Silence of the Lambs as the first horror film to win the best-picture Oscar. I definitely call horse doo-doo on that. The film is a detective story that happens to have a particularly horrid villain. But I see no way that it counts as a horror flick. Look at it this way. Thomas Harris’s source novel is rarely found beside Stephen King in the horror section of any bookshop. It sits in crime. Quite right too.
But what of Psycho? Surely, despite the lack of demons or undead, you, dear Screenwriter, would class that as a horror film? No way, imaginary interlocutor. It’s certainly scary. But then so is Michael Haneke’s Amour.
I do, however, find my resolve breaking when it comes to John Carpenter’s magnificent Halloween. It’s not just the fact that, if you exclude Halloween from the horror camp, you, rather controversially, exclude all slasher films from that category. (Though it is interesting to note that, in Scream, the killer wonders if Drew Barrymore likes “scary movies,” not “horror movies”.) I call you back to the definition at the top: we require some supernatural element or some hint of a supernatural element. Forget about it. Michael Myers is every bit as supernatural as the werewolf (and rather more so than Frankenstein’s Creature). He seems indestructible. He has superhuman strength. Donald Pleasence’s Dr Sam Loomis seems to agree. “This isn’t a man,” he says at one point. When Laurie asks if that was the boogeyman, Sam replies: “As a matter of fact, it was.”
Carpenter is, essentially, putting all the attributes of a classic horror monster onto the shoulders of an otherwise ordinary madman. (You might argue that something similar happens in the near-contemporaneous Texas Chainsaw Massacre.) In so doing — building on the work of Psycho — he helped create a whole new genre.
Let us make a bold statement. No director other than Hitchcock has built suspense so effectively as does Carpenter in Halloween. He satisfies our desire for mayhem us by using an audacious travelling shot to tell the origin story of deranged Michael Myers. Then calm breaks out as we slip forward to Halloween (more supernatural intimations) in the present day. We are eventually going to see the villain. But Carpenter, a great analyst of classic cinema, knows the virtue of the unseen (or barely seen) threat and, at first, allows the knife-wielding loon to appear only briefly in hints and half-glimpsed flits. Along the way, Carpenter establishes a series of conventions that are now as honoured as once were the rules of commedia dell’arte. If you want to get all those conventions in a row then you could do worse than seek out Carol J Clover’s Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. In that classic 1992 work, Professor Clover comes up with the durable notion of the “final girl”: the studious, sexually cautious woman who survives the mayhem and finally gets to dispatch the monster (only for him to rise in the sequel). There is certainly something worrying and potentially reactionary about the way the sexually promiscuous girls get killed first. But Clover is keen to assert that these films, unlike older horror films where the chicks just screeched, allowed women to grab the stake and fight back. The “final girl” reached her apex with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which found its hero killing off the last monster again and again and again…
This is a nearly perfect film. Jamie Lee Curtis asserts her authority as Laurie Strode. The lumbering creature — famously wearing a William Shatner mask — is as worrying as anything from Universal horror. Let’s not forget the music. A few weeks ago, I somehow forgot to include the director’s own electronic score in my list of top soundtracks. Stupid me!
What a film. What a horror film. Yes, that’s what it is.
Other films considered for 1978 included Days of Heaven, The Deer Hunter, Dawn of the Dead, Fingers and Autumn Sonata.