The Series Project: Halloween (Part 1)

The Halloween season calls for the Halloween movies, starting with this week's dissection of the first two.

Witney Seiboldby Witney Seibold

Happy October, my fellow Series Projectors. This is the month when horror fans get to celebrate, as the Halloween season instantly equals a solid 31-day period of nothing but monsters, blood, and gore for most people. It also means that I, as master of The Series Project, get to roll around in one of the most popular horror film series of all time: Halloween.

There is some debate amongst horror scholars as to where exactly the “slasher” genre first began. Some claim that the notion of a serial killer methodically stalking victims can go all the way back to 1960 with films like Hitchcock's Psycho and Powell's Peeping Tom. Some people like to cite Tobe Hooper's 1974 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as the first slasher, as it has a monstrous masked murderer and a string of interchangeable young victims. The first film that looks and feels like what we, today, refer to as a slasher film is probably 1974's Black Christmas, a wonderfully wicked little number directed by Bob Clark.

But the film that codified the slasher genre was easily John Carpenter's Halloween from 1978. Halloween is the Platonic ideal of a slasher movie. It's The Beatles of stalking and killing. To this day, it remains one of the best and scariest of all horror movies.

Halloween introduced not only the structure and tone of the proceeding 25 years worth of slasher movies, but also the notion of a near-unstoppable, seemingly supernatural killer who would eventually become the antihero of a long string of sequels. Freddy and Jason would not exist were it not for Michael Myers.

There have been ten Halloween films in all, and I will be writing about them over the course of the next four weeks. The first two Halloween movies (which I'll be writing about this week) featured Michael Myers as he begins his crime career, and then seemingly dies for good. The third Halloween film infamously departed from Myers to tell an independent story. The fourth and fifth are a miniature story arc until themselves wherein Michael returns. The sixth film was a messy explanation as to Myer's seeming immortality, and I will be looking at both cuts of that movie (there is a bootleg “producer's cut” lurking about in the darker corners of horror). The seventh was a 20-year anniversary film, and was supposed to be the last. The eighth was a cheap and bland sequel with no distinguishing marks or scars. The ninth and tenth films were a 2007 remake and a 2009 sequel to the remake.

Let's take a look at Michael Myers, and his notorious film series, starting with the original and the best.

Halloween (dir. John Carpenter, 1978)

Halloween posterI'm dead serious about this: If you haven't seen the original Halloween, I implore that you cease reading and watch it immediately. Rent the video, go to a repertory house, download it, borrow it, whatever you need to do.

As you can see, it's hard for me to talk about the original Halloween without reducing myself to a blubbering mass of recommendations and unending fanboy praise. I do adore the film, perhaps to an unreasonable degree. Many horror films are in the same boat: One seemingly cannot talk about or criticize this movie, as it seems to have moved into an untouchable Olympian pantheon of Great Films. I'm all for building up a canon of great movies; i.e. a list whereupon we can jot down the capital-I Important Ones that everyone should see as part of a well-rounded film education, but I'm also a critic, and believe that all films should be seen as films first. Nothing, in short, is immune to some criticism.

So let's take a look at Halloween critically, and examine what it does, and perhaps what it doesn't do.

Halloween is a film about a young boy named Michael Myers who stabbed his older sister to death in what can only be a fit of pique. The young Michael went mute following the murder, and spent the next 20 years in an insane asylum, being looked after by Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance). Loomis eventually comes to the conclusion that Michael is not a calculating murderer, nor a psychologically damaged individual. He is not enacting trauma previously suffered, and he is not sexually frustrated. He is, in short, evil. All he seeks is death. Murder is not something that brings him pleasure. It's the only thing he can understand. Maybe. Michael Myers is a killing machine.

What does this say about Michael Myers as a character? As a soulless killing machine who was born bad (very much like the car from Carpenter's own 1983 film Christine) Michael Myers is, at least on paper, not a very interesting character. He is not complex, and we never understand him. We can't get into the mind of the killer, because he essentially has no mind. But when dealing with villains, having a blank slate of unknowable evil can be far more immediately rich and interesting than someone more complex.

Halloween closet

Let me compare Michael Myers, if you'll indulge me, to Iago from Shakespeare's “Othello.” Iago, throughout the course of his play, gives several reasons as to why he is doing the horrible things he does. He's jealous? He's getting revenge? He wants Desdemona? Nothing is really given as his one singular motivation. As a creature with no motive, then, he actually becomes all the more dramatically bracing. More immediate. His evil becomes a plot function, but a gut-churning one. We know in our hearts that there is no reason behind his evil. His evil might, philosophically, reveal our true natures: brutal, bestial, destructive for the sake of it. We are not beings driven by logic or reason. We are driven by an unexpainable need to destroy. Others and ourselves. Freud called it “The Death Drive.”

Michael Myers is very similar. In being given no motivation, he becomes scarier, and, in a weird way, more relatable. A dark part of us can relate to the purity involved in unadulterated destruction for its own sake. We are terrified of Michael, but may also admire his persistence of purpose. He will kill. That's what he does. He is murder. Also, when you take into account that he cannot be reasoned with, and his motivations are never clear, you know that he cannot be stopped. He cannot be reasoned with or dissuaded or shamed into stopping what he needs to do, and that is murder you to death.

Halloween Michael

Perhaps that's why the character is so fascinating to slasher fans, despite his total lack of dialogue, and no real backstory other than “he is evil.” It won't be until later movies that his motivations will be explained in fits and starts, and by the sixth film, it will even be explained why he seemingly cannot be killed. But for this first film, Michael is pure.

Standing opposite Michael Myers is Jamie Lee Curtis' Laurie Strode. Laurie is the classical archetypal “nerd” character, who is good with books, responsible in her babysitting duties, free and clear of any drink or (hard) drugs, and unlucky in love. Her type will appear in almost every slasher film that followed this one. Her character will serve as a “good” counterpoint to Michael's evil. But while Michael is pure evil, Laurie is not beatific and capable and purely “good” in the same way. She is not an angelic and forgiving force. She is a down-to-Earth force. She doesn't represent supernatural virtue, but actual well-behaved civilization. She is the mannered modern human who is facing off against ancient primal evil. Her innocence is the only force of nature on her side. Her social innocence, her sexual innocence, and her youth.

Halloween Laurie

So, if I may continue to BS my way through this movie, Halloween is ultimately a movie about the struggle between the manners of the modern civilized human, and the dark impulses that we're still made of. Also scares and stabbing and really well-filmed sequences of violence made my a workmanlike director who is perhaps one of genre cinema's most talented craftsmen. Seriously, I don't know what it is about Carpenter's style, but it's just subtly masterful. He always seems to know where to put the camera, and how to treat his material. Maybe it's because he doesn't take any of his films wholly seriously that he's free to focus on the filmmaking.

To conclude, just see the dang film already.

The first sequel was made three years later, but takes place the very second the last one ends.