It’s that time of the year again: when the days shrivel into dusk, the nights grow cold and the autumnal winds kick up gustfuls of carefully piled leaves. It’s Halloween, when horror is at a premium and even God-fearing boys and girls bate the monsters in their closets to catch a glimpse of the grotesque. In my house, there is only one tradition that matters. Never mind the costumes, candy and haunted houses. This night belongs to Michael Meyers, and I’m not talking about Rob Zombie’s tired retread of Carpenter’s masterpiece. Halloween belongs to the original Boogeyman.
When six-year-old Michael Meyers murders his sister on Halloween night, he’s institutionalized for what Dr. Samuel Loomis can only hope is the rest of his natural life. Fifteen years later, however, he escapes from Loomis’ custody and returns to his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois, where he continues his nascent killing spree, taking a special interest in teenage babysitter Laurie Strode.
The reason why Halloween continues to be relevant over thirty-five years after its initial release is that it’s not just a horror film – not just about a menacing slasher stalking deviant teenagers. Even though it picked up where Psycho and Peeping Tom left off in the sixties by defining this particular corner of horror – fleshing out the skeleton of what a modern horror film looks, feels and sounds like – it is not solely defined by those trappings. Like every memorable addition to the horror canon, it is a film first and a horror film second.
To modern audiences watching it for the first time, it might not be readily apparent exactly why Halloween is as revered as it is. For a slasher film, it has a remarkably low body count; Michael Meyers is responsible for only seven deaths, one of which was a dog and the other occurring fifteen years before most of the film. By today’s standards, the violence is exceedingly tame: with little to no gore, often lacking the heavy-handed graphicness that increasingly desensitized audiences have grown accustomed to. The writing is the definition of simplistic and the acting is only ever serviceable.
It is, however, John Carpenter’s resplendent direction that raises Halloween above its questionable script and largely armature cast. While lesser directions would have been, and historically have been, happy enough creating an extrinsic force to menace a cast of protagonists ranging from amoral to ethically repugnant, Carpenter fixes his moralist gaze on us: transforming the audience into the killer.
We view the film’s famous opening sequence though the eyes of the young Michael Meyers: forcibly adopting his unbroken perspective as he stalks his sister and her boyfriend throughout the house, patiently waits for the boyfriend to leave, confronts and then murders his naked sister. It’s only after the deed is done that Michael is unmasked and we are jarringly separated from him, zooming out of the scene as part of the more familiar third-person perspective.
More than being a film about an escaped lunatic returning to his old haunting grounds for some holiday-themed horror, Halloween actually centers on Michael’s sexual impotence. As a six-year-old child, he was neither capable of understanding exactly what his sister and her boyfriend were doing together nor physically capable of replicating the act himself. His only avenue to imitate their intimacy was to stab her nine times in the chest – physically penetrating her in a grotesque approximation of their sexual union.
Throughout the film, the amorous activities of his victims have propelled Michael to action in the exact same way that they did as a boy: stabbing and strangling them in a simultaneously sadomasochistic and childish understanding of sex. Only now, years later, he commits them with the grunting and heavy breathing associated with sexual arousal, climaxing with every new victim. His killing spree is not motivated by a need to punish the moral failings of youth, but by his failed attempts to join in the fun
Unlike the myriad of lesser imitations and blatant rip-offs over the years, Halloween is a supreme masterpiece of the horror genre, combining its visceral thrills with a deeply psychosexual understanding of its antagonist. Along with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it refined the budding subgenre into a readily understood set of syntax and semantics. I give the film a solid 10 out of 10.