Yes, it's that time of year again, the season of tricks and treats, of candied apples and toilet-papered trees, of costumes both scary and skanky. Here at The Unenthusiastic Critic, we celebrate All Saint's Day in accordance with tradition, with the same time-honored rites and sacred rituals our people have been practicing since the year of our founding, way back in 2011.
We make my girlfriend, N., watch scary movies. Welcome to The Unenthusiastic Critic's 3rd Annual Halloween Movie Marathon.
My girlfriend loves this time of year, and her excitement is barely containable.
She: You know, I'm really uncomfortable calling this an "annual" thing. I never agreed to this being an annual thing.
Me: Well, traditions sometimes take on a life of their own. Like Thanksgiving: the first time they did it, it was probably just some folks having dinner. But you do it a couple of years in a row and it becomes a tradition whether you like it or not. People expect it.
She: But I hate horror movies. And I've given you two years now to show me what horror has to offer, and frankly I was better off before.
Me: What do you mean? Just think what joys you got out of this last year.
She: Head rape. Rape by decapitated head.
Me: There was so much more than head rape.
She: Yes, there was also tree rape.
Me: We watched The Haunting, which is a great movie. We watched Night of the Living Dead, which you really needed to see—
She: Because I'm black?
Me: —for many reasons, up to and including its commentary on race.
She: Head rape.
Me: There was no head rape in that movie.
She: What I'm saying is, head rape was my take-away from the whole experience. It totally wiped out any other pleasurable memories.
Me: You liked The Haunting. You liked Evil Dead.
She: The Haunting was good, and Evil Dead was kind of genius. But it doesn't matter what else we watched: your decision to show me Re-Animator last year was a mistake, and did away with any good will you'd built up.
Me: Well, I don't think…
She: It's like you served me a delicious chocolate sundae, but you put shit on top of it. And then you said, "Oh, but the sundae is still delicious." But no, see, because there was shit on top of it. It doesn't matter how good the sundae is if I'm going to get E. Coli, and pink eye, and all this other crap, because you topped the sundae with shit. That kind of ruins the whole sundae.
Me: OK, here's what I'll promise you. There will probably not be any more head rape this year.
She: There better not be. Because, as it stands right now, if we ever break up, I'm going to describe you as the boyfriend who made me watch Re-Animator.
Me: Really? After eight years? That's how you'll summarize an eight-year relationship?
She: Yes, that's how I'll remember you.
Me: Okay, well, if you're planning to break up with me anyway, can you just do it now? Because I'm going to need to get someone else in here before Halloween.
She: Seriously? You'd just replace me with some other bitch to be The Unenthusiastic Critic? You'll just pass on the title?
Me: Yes, it'll be like The Other Darrin, or New Becky.
She: That's cold.
Me: The show must go on. But I admit you'd be tough to replace. I'd probably have to send away to a convent, or a third-world country, to find someone else who hasn't already seen all of these movies.
She: You'd never find anyone else willing to put up with this bullshit.
Of course, she's absolutely right. (But don't tell her I said so.) And the truth is, like many of the old ways, our sacred Halloween traditions are getting harder and harder to maintain in this cynical modern age. The original premise of The Unenthusiastic Critic was that N. would join me to watch films that nearly everyone else on the planet had already seen, but there really aren't that many horror movies that fit that category: horror is a cultish phenomenon, and universally known entries are few and far between. Despite the fact that no cinematic genre makes her less enthusiastic, most of the true touchstone films—like Psycho, Rosemary's Baby, The Shining, et al—N. saw long before we began; others—like The Exorcist—we've already covered.
So this year's list will be a mixture of well-known horror movies, well-regarded cult classics, and even one or two obscurities that may be unknown to any but the true horror aficionados. But we're beginning, appropriately enough, with one of the most influential (and endlessly imitated) staples of the genre, John Carpenter's 1978 slasher flick Halloween.
(As always, there be full spoilers ahead, so if you're the other person who has never seen Halloween, proceed with caution.)
Halloween (1978), directed by John Carpenter; written by Carpenter and Debra Hill; starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence, P.J. Soles, Nancy Loomis, Charles Cyphers, John Michael Graham, Kyle Richards, Brian Andrews, and Nick Castle.
Why I Chose It
Shot over just three weeks, with a microscopic budget of $320,000, John Carpenter's Halloween went on to earn over $50 million, becoming—at the time—the most successful independent film ever. (It held that title until 1999, when it was surpassed by another indy horror flick called The Blair Witch Project.)
It also invigorated—for better or worse—a film genre that is still going strong today. Though earlier films like Black Christmas (1974) had helped establish the basics of the "slasher film," the unprecedented success of Halloween is more directly responsible for the long line of knife-wielding maniacs—most of them pale imitations—who have stalked through movie houses ever since. Halloween itself spawned seven sequels and a 2007 reboot, and can certainly be considered the inspiration for 1980's Friday the 13th (nine sequels and a reboot) and other franchises like A Nightmare on Elm Street (eight films and a reboot). In Wes Craven's 1996 horror film Scream, the victims are a bunch of pop-culture-aware teens who have grown up on slasher films, and therefore know all the rules and tropes of the genre by heart. The definitive film—the one they're watching as they lay out the keys to surviving a horror flick—is, of course, Halloween.
What My Girlfriend Knew About It Going In
As always, before we begin the film, I quiz my girlfriend on what she already knows about it from cultural osmosis.
She: I guess I know more about this one than any of the other movies we've watched, since it is kind of the original slasher movie. Jason, and Freddy Krueger, and Michael Myers were kind of the big horror icons of my childhood. What year was this?
Me: 1978. You were negative-4.
She: And this is…Jason?
Me: No, this is Michael Myers.
She: Jason is the one in the hockey mask.
Me: Right. They probably fought each other at some point. [Note: weirdly, they never did, perhaps for the same reason you never see Clark Kent and Superman in the same place.]
She: OK. Well, I have never watched Halloween, probably because that music is terrifying enough to freak me out. Also, I'm not a fan of masks.
Me: The mask is creepy?
She: The mask is creepy. Whoever designed Michael Myers did an excellent job of creating something terrifying to look at.
Me: Do you know what the mask is?
She: What do you mean? Is it someone's skin or something?
Me: No, never mind: I'll tell you later. It might make the movie less scary if you know. Or more scary. Either way, it's best you don't know.
She: Actually, I'm actually pretty sure this will be one that scares me.
To help facilitate that experience, I get up to turn all the lights in the apartment off before we begin.
She: Really? Do we really need to do that?
Me: I think we do. You need to give horror movies the best chance to impress.
She: Okay, but gentleman's agreement: you are not going to enhance this experience in any way. No sudden movements, no creepy sounds, nothing. You are not allowed to fuck with me while we are watching this movie.
Me: So if—for example—I happened to have one of those masks stashed in this apartment…?
She: I can not guarantee that I would not try to stab you. You know, in self-defense. I'm just letting you know: I am a "stab-first-ask-questions-later" kind of girl. I'm not going to be like, "Oh, is that you?" No, I'm just going to cut you, and worry about it later.
Me: You've made that clear on any number of occasions, sweetie.
She: Just bear it in mind.
How It Went
We're off to a good start.
Halloween begins with just a black screen and some tinkling but effective theme music (composed by Carpenter) that plays over the opening credits. The tune bears a resemblance to "Tubular Bells," the equally iconic theme music to The Exorcist, but to me it's even more creepy: it's a little faster, a little more insistent, and way more unsettling. (You can listen to it here to put you in the mood.)
N. likes it too:
She: I hate that music
Me: It's awesome music. Let's turn it up for the full effect.
She: It's like the devil's ringtone.
Following the credits, title cards inform us that we are in "Haddonfield, Illinois" on Halloween Night, 1963.
She: Illinois! You didn't tell me this was homegrown horror.
Me: Yeah, very close to here. It's actually based on a true story, which happened just up the street. If I remember correctly, they never caught the guy…
She: Hey, gentleman's agreement! You just shat all over the gentleman's agreement!
Halloween's prologue is all one long, unbroken tracking shot, in which the camera is the eye of a figure who begins outside a suburban home, and circles the house to peer in the windows at two teenagers making out on the couch. This method of putting the viewer in a voyeuristic, stalker's role was nothing new to horror movies, of course, but it's used to good effect here (aided by Carpenter's use of a recent invention, the Steadicam).
Though we don't know it yet, this is Judith Myers (Sandy Johnson), and her boyfriend (David Kyle). As we watch from the outside window, the horny teenagers decide to move their coupling upstairs to the bedroom. My girlfriend, of course, recognizes what a bad idea this is:
She: Never have sex in a scary movie!
Me: They don't know they're in a scary movie. See, this is your thing: you always think you would survive because you would somehow know you were in a scary movie, and act accordingly.
She: I would. I'd be like, "Hey, it looks creepy as hell tonight: no way are we gonna have sex."
Me: I see. "It feels a little spooky tonight: institute horror movie protocols!"
We move with the mysterious figure through the empty house, and we see his hand—our hand—open a kitchen drawer and remove a butcher's knife.
Me: You don't bring a knife in this situation?
She: Well, everyone already has knives, so there's no need to carry one. You only need to bring your own if your weapon of choice is something unusual.
Me: I see. So if you like to kill with a chainsaw, or a fisherman's hook…
She: Right, then you carry your own specialized weaponry.
Me: Okay, but anyone who broke into our house would be really disappointed with our knife selection.
She: Yeah, they really would. We've got a bunch of dull-ass, crappy knives.
Me: Maybe that would save us. "This is all you've got for me to murder you with? Really? Screw it, I'm going down the street and find people with decent cutlery to murder."
By the time we've got our knife and moved towards the staircase, Judith's beau is coming back down the stairs; he pulls his clothes back on and leaves the house, roughly a minute and a half after they went upstairs.
She: Wow, that was quick. Poor girl.
Me: Lucky guy, though: if he'd paused for a little foreplay, he'd be dead now. Let that be a lesson to us all.
To reinforce the voyeuristic, viewer-as-killer effect, we see "our" hand pick up a clown mask and put it on, and our vision becomes limited by the tunnel-vision frame of the mask's eyeholes. We check out that hussy Judith, brushing her hair at a vanity, wearing just her panties, and our eyes roam over the mussed sheets of her wanton bed. (Judith is humming to herself, and looking way more satisfied than one would expect her to be after what must have been a 30-second screw.) Finally she turns to face us—yelling "Michael!" in alarm—and we watch ourselves stab her repeatedly with the knife.
Still in the tracking shot, we go back downstairs and leave the house, just as a car pulls up and two adults get out. They unmask "us," and only now do we move to a third-party POV, to reveal that knife-happy, morally-judgmental Michael is actually a young boy around six years old.
She: Ah, creepy clown kid!
Me: He doesn't look so tough. I bet I could take him.
She: I think he has ADD.
Me: Really? A little Ritalin could have prevented this tragedy?
She: Plus, obviously, he really didn't want to be a clown for Halloween. No wonder he's so pissed off.
Me: Well, it is a pretty dorky outfit.
From there we flash forward to the present day: October 30, 1978. On this rainy night, Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) and a nurse (Gwen Van Dam) are driving up to the sanitarium where Michael Myers has been living ever since he fatally slut-shamed his sister. They have to transport Michael to a court-mandated assessment (or something), but Loomis—who is to this story roughly what Robert Shaw's Quint is to Jaws—makes it clear he never wants Michael to be free: he refers to Michael as "it," not "he." Later in the film, Loomis will tell us exactly what he thinks of Michael Myers, but it's almost unnecessary: just a couple of lines of dialogue, and Pleasence's restrained, curt performance, convey very effectively that Michael Myers is a monster, not a person.
As they approach the sanitarium, they notice many of the inmates milling about outside in the rain. I'm not going to spend a lot of time analyzing the film-making in Halloween, but it's worth noting that here the car's windshield serves the same purpose as the mask in the earlier scene: to create tension by putting us in the POV of the characters while simultaneously restricting our field of vision. (I also don't know how consciously Carpenter was aping earlier horror films throughout Halloween—my guess would be that he was very aware of it—but the shots of the ghostly inmates illuminated against the darkness instantly evoke the herds of zombies in Romero's Night of the Living Dead.)
While Loomis goes up to the hospital to check out the situation, the nurse sees an inmate run on top of her car; she then—instantly earning my girlfriend's scorn—rolls the driver's side window down, and gets attacked from above by the hand of an unseen assailant. She manages to get out of the car, and as the mysterious figure drives away, Loomis comes running up. "The evil is gone!" he proclaims.
She: The crazy took your car, bitch.
Me: What I want to know is this: when in the past 15 years did he learn how to drive?
She: He's an idiot savant. Really gifted in driving…and stabbing.
And then it's the next day, Halloween, and we come upon our heroine, high-school student Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), on her way to school. Though she had done some TV work previously, this was the feature film debut for 20-year-old Curtis. She's good in this movie, but both she and Carpenter have admitted that what got her the role might have been the fact that she is the daughter of Psycho's Janet Leigh. She's a second-generation scream-queen.
She: By the way, I already know that Jamie Lee Curtis survives.
Me: Spoiler Alert!
She: Because I know they made that "Halloween 20," or whatever it is, where she's like a mom. [Actually Halloween H20: 20 Years Later]
Me: Was that the one where she and Lindsay Lohan switch bodies?
Laurie's real-estate-broker dad asks her to drop off a key at "the old Myers place," and on the way to the abandoned house Laurie runs into Tommy (Brian Andrews), the kid she's going to babysit tonight. The kid informs her that the Myers place is "the spook house."
Me: Kid's racist.
She: I don't think that's what he meant.
Me: I think he did. The whole film's a metaphor for white fear of black people moving into the 'burbs.
As Laurie drops the key under the mat of the house, we see a figure watching her from the doorway, and we hear heavy breathing; as she walks away down the sidewalk, we see him watching her. This shot will become a recurring image: for most of the movie we see just enough of the killer to know we're in his POV; the bits of him we see function like the gun-toting hands that are visible in most first-person shooter video games, putting the camera—and us—in the role of the stalker.
(By the way, this figure—who we know to be Michael Myers—is actually listed as "The Shape" in the film's credits. There's a brief scene late in the film in which we see his face, and there Michael Myers is played by an actor named Tony Moran. Throughout most of the film, however, he's played with slow, lurky panache by a friend of Carpenter's, screenwriter Nick Castle).
Apparently, Laurie and Tommy have attracted the attention of "The Shape," just by going to the house: throughout the rest of the day he stalks them both, looking menacing in his green overalls and breathing like an asthmatic Darth Vadar.
Meanwhile, Dr. Loomis is begging anyone who listens to send out SWAT teams and tanks to re-capture Michael Myers, who—he says—is definitely heading back to Haddonfield. Given this information—and the fact that Michael is still driving the car he stole that says "For Official Use Only" on the door, and the fact that Michael is camping out IN HIS OWN HOUSE—it's kind of remarkable that no one catches him. (One can only assume the events of this movie were followed by a class-action lawsuit against the authorities for general incompetence.)
After school, Laurie meets up with her two best friends, Annie (Nancy Kyes) and Lynda (P.J. Soles).
She: They're going to die.
Me: I don't know why you'd say that.
She: They're smoking cigarettes and talking about boys. They're obviously loose women.
Me: I think you're right. Besides, the blonde one [P.J. Soles] is one of the bitches who threw maxi-pads at Carrie.
And indeed, they both mock Laurie for being such a bookworm goody-goody, and never hooking up with boys. They don't realize that these are the very traits that guarantee Laurie will outlive them both.
Laurie has begun noticing the mysterious car driving around town, and she and Annie spot the lurky figure who seems to be following them. They don't seem overly concerned, however, and soon are toking up in Annie's car.
Me: See, the good girl smokes too. And she smokes pot.
She: Yeah, and it's probably not a good idea to get high when you're already paranoid.
But there's nothing to be afraid of, because Annie's father (Charles Cyphers), the local sheriff, is on the case.
But incompetent authorities are as much a staple of horror movies as jump-scares and slut-shaming. No one but Loomis seems overly concerned that Judith Myers' headstone has gone missing, and the Sheriff doesn't seem particularly worried about the fact that someone—"probably just kids"—broke into the hardware store and stole a Halloween mask, a couple of knives, and some rope.
She: Oh, no, that's not suspicious at all.
Me: Nope. Someone stole a basic Serial Killer Starter Kit, that's all. Probably just kids.
Dr. Loomis comes to talk to the Sheriff, and while he's standing on the street looking around, Michael Myers cruises right by him.
She: LOOK BEHIND YOU.
Me: Seriously. There's only about two cars driving around this shitty small town, and one of them is Mr. Evil's.
She: AND DOES NO ONE HEAR THAT MUSIC?
And then it's Halloween Night. Annie and Laurie go off to their respective babysitting jobs, just a few doors apart. One of the things Halloween does very effectively is make the suburbs feel like a menacing place: this neighborhood is dark and largely empty, and though no one seems nervous about that, we know that The Shape is lurking outside. We hear a few kids out trick-or-treating, and the sound of their laughter becomes chilling: children are running around freely and unchaperoned, like the neighborhood is completely safe, but we know it's not.
Meanwhile, Loomis and the Sheriff are investigating the Old Myers house, where they discover a half-eaten dead dog. "A man wouldn't do that," the Sheriff says, but Loomis assures him that Michael Myers is not a man.
"I met him fifteen years ago," Loomis explains. "I was told there was nothing left, no reason, no conscience, no understanding, in even the most rudimentary sense, of life or death, of good or evil, of right or wrong. I met this six-year-old boy with a blank, pale, emotionless face, and the blackest of eyes, the devil's eyes…"
She: "…like a DOLL'S eyes…"
"I realized," Loomis continues, "that what was living behind that boy's eyes was, purely and simply, evil." And this is the special charm of Halloween, though it—and its antagonist—spawned far too many inferior imitations: Michael Myers is, simply, the bogeyman. Later films expanded and elaborated upon his biography, but in this first film, at least, he has no personality, no real back story (apart from killing his sister), and no particular motivation: we don't even really understand why Loomis is so afraid of him. It's just stated as a fact: Michael Myers is pure evil. But that's enough: he is an enigma, a blank slate, an iconic manifestation of whatever it is that scares us. He might as well be the shark in Jaws.
Loomis and the Sheriff decide not to notify all the other cops, but agree that the Sheriff will "keep his eyes out" while Loomis waits in the Myers house for Michael to return.
She: I don't understand this plan!
Meanwhile, Annie is babysitting—poorly—while the family's German Shepard is barking uncontrollably.
She: Always pay attention to the dog!
Across the street, the kid Laurie is babysitting has spotted The Shape out the window. "Laurie, the bogeyman's outside!" he cries, but she sees nothing.
Me: Should you always pay attention to kids, too?
She: Sometimes. Kids are less reliable than dogs.
Annie, making popcorn, manages to spill butter all over her clothes, prompting her—in fine '70s horror movie fashion—to change her clothes right there in the kitchen while mouth-breather Michael (and we) watch voyeuristically from outside.
Me: Gratuitous panty shot!
She: I can't believe that no one can hear him breathing. That must be some thick damn glass.
Annie has let the dog out, and we hear it bark, growl, squeal, and then go quiet.
She: Oh, that's not a good sound. Poor doggie.
Me: Michael must have gotten hungry again.
Annie now needs to wash her butter-stained clothes, and so—still in a button-down shirt and her panties—she ventures out to the separate shack in the back where these people keep their washing machine. (Because sure, why not?)
She: Who walks outside like that?
Me: Loose women in the 'burbs.
She: I would just wear the dirty clothes. Fuck it, it's not that serious. That outfit is not worth dying over.
We expect that she will get skewered the moment she walks into this dark, improbably-isolated outbuilding—especially when she (to my girlfriend's horror) leaves the door open behind her—but Carpenter is working in a slower tempo than that, thwarting our expectations and building the tension intolerably. She gets locked in, she tries to crawl out a window, and we even see Michael Myers behind her.
She: This is why I don't go to our laundry room at night, FYI.
But she doesn't get killed. Lindsay (Kyle Richards), the kid she's babysitting, comes to fetch her for a telephone call from her boyfriend, and for the moment the tension dissipates, unresolved.
My girlfriend is not pleased with the work ethic of Michael Myers.
She: He's not doing anything! He's just kind of lurky.
Me: He's very patient for a sociopath.
She: Less lurky, more stabby!
Annie agrees to go pick up her boyfriend, and so dumps her own charge off across the street for Laurie to watch. Having now firmly established her credentials as a bad girl—and an irresponsible babysitter—Annie is now fair game. She gets in her car to go pick up her boyfriend, but she notices too late that the car's windows are all steamed up. Before she can figure out what this means, Michael Myers appears behind her and strangles her.
Meanwhile, across town, Loomis is still on his useless, ill-conceived stake out. Hiding in some bushes, he sees some kids daring each other to go venture onto the porch of Boo Radley's house. "Get your ass away from there," he hisses at them, and my girlfriend laughs.
She: I like him.
Me: Yeah, but he's dumb. He could have used those kids as bait.
Sheriff Numbnuts returns, but he still doesn't completely believe the doctor. "Haddonfield is families, children, all lined up in rows up and down these streets: you're telling me they're lined up for a slaughterhouse?" They might be, Loomis says. "If you are right," the Sheriff says, "damn you for letting him go."
She: This is really an indictment of our entire mental healthcare system. Revolving-door policy, soft on crime…
Me: I blame Obama.
With Bad Girl #1 dispatched, Bad Girl #2 arrives right on time. Lynda and her boyfriend Bob (John Michael Graham), both drunk, arrive outside the house where they think Annie is babysitting Lindsay, hoping to borrow one of the upstairs bedrooms for a while. Lynda—clearly the brains of the outfit—explains to Bob how Annie will distract little Lindsay so they can sneak upstairs, and Bob repeats the plan back to her. "So first you rip my clothes off," Bob says, "then I rip your clothes off, then we rip Lindsay's clothes off!"
She: Congratulations: you're dating a pedophile.
Me: Like the van wasn't enough of a giveaway.
They enter the dark house, naturally leaving the front door wide open behind them.
She: NO ONE CLOSES DOORS IN THIS MOVIE!
They start making out on the couch, and Michael Myers, of course, is watching them.
She: See, this is why he killed his sister. No nookie!
After learning from the safely-virginal Laurie that Lindsay is gone for the entire night—"He's a little bummed about that," my girlfriend says—Bob and Lynda have sex by the romantic light of a jack-o'-lantern, while Michael's shadow looms behind them.
The actual sex lasts all of 20 seconds. "Fantastic," Lynda says, when Bob rolls off of her.
She: No, it wasn't.
Me: Either Carpenter was prudish about filming sex scenes, or else the men in this town have some serious control problems.
She: Who wants to have sex next to a jack-o'-lantern anyway? That's kind of creepy.
Me: Blame the kinky fucks who live there. Who the hell puts a jack- o'-lantern on their bedside table?
Lynda lights a cigarette to mask her disappointment, and Quick-Draw Bob goes in search of beer. As if fornicating, smoking, and drinking weren't enough to seal his fate, Bob completes the Hat Trick of Horror Movie No-Nos by uttering the infamous phrase: "I'll be right back."
She: Isn't that one of the rules? Never say "I'll be right back?"
Me: Yeah, he might as well stab himself in the face.
Downstairs, Michael appears—right on cue—and nails Bob to the wall with a butcher's knife.
She: That's a powerful knife. "It dices tomatoes, it slices through cans, and it's strong enough to hold your boyfriend pinned to the wall!"
I said that Michael Myers had no real personality, but perhaps I spoke too soon: he seems to have a rich interior life, and a wry sense of humor that his stoic demeanor and homicidal tendencies belie. When he goes back upstairs to take care of Lynda, he indulges this quirky nature.
It would be a stretch to call this scene "comic," but certainly Carpenter is indulging in a little whimsy himself, and edging right up to the border of self-parody. Lynda—as though contractually obligated to single-handedly fulfill the film's Horror Movie Nipple Quota—first flashes her tits at The Ghost of Bob, and then—when he doesn't respond—she get strangled with the phone cord while trying to call Laurie with her shirt unbuttoned.
But then the sheet comes off, and we get our first real look at Michael Myers, albeit in his Halloween mask. Until now we've only really seen him from a distance or in silhouette, but now—with Laurie growing more concerned at the other end of the phone—he picks up the receiver and holds it to his ear in a close-up. It's a clever combination of shots that emphasizes the connection between the hero and the villain: he's killed other people, but Laurie is the one he really wants, and so we really see him for the first time. Now, it's an intimate struggle between these two final players.
I said I wasn't going to geek out too much about the Carpenter's craft in making Halloween, but perhaps just a bit more—if only because it's easy to underestimate what he does and why it's so much more effective than the work of his imitators. For one thing, he's incredibly patient. Following this scene, we have a long, slow sequence in which Laurie—accompanied only by quiet, repetitively suspenseful piano notes—moves slowly through her house, and outside, and across the street towards the house where Annie and the others are supposed to be. We enter her POV for several Steadicam shots, so we can feel her looking at the house, and thinking, and trying to process what might be happening. And then we cut to shots of her, and Carpenter does some remarkable things with the darkness around her, and the depth of the distance between the two houses. We don't know where Michael Myers is, but we know he could be anywhere, and so every step of her long walk feels dangerous: this comfortable suburban neighborhood has become the most dangerous place on earth, and we keep expecting to see Michael's luminous white face glowing somewhere in the deep darkness around her.
She enters the dark house by the open kitchen door.
Me: Isn't old Bob still hanging right there?
She: I'm sure he cleaned Bob up. You can't just leave your toys all over the place. Besides, he probably wanted his knife back.
She walks through the dark house, calling to her friends. My girlfriend, as usual, knows exactly what Laurie should do.
She: See, this is where I'd just walk out, and set the house on fire.
Me: You don't think that would be a bit of an overreaction, given what little information she has at this point?
She: Nope. Better safe than sorry, that's my motto.
But remember, Laurie doesn't know that anything has happened. She doesn't know there's an escaped lunatic at all, let alone that her friends have fallen prey to him. To her, nobody is even really missing yet. At most, she thinks they're all playing a trick on her.
Me: On the other hand, I'd sure as shit turn some fucking lights on.
She: Or at least pick up something to hit somebody with! I mean, white people live there: there's gotta be a golf club somewhere!
Laurie's realization that something is very wrong comes all at once, and pretty unequivocally: she opens the upstairs bedroom, and finds her friend Annie laid out dead on the bed beneath Judith Myers' tombstone.
She: Okay, he's a little theatrical.
Me: Well, he hasn't spoken for 15 years: he's had to find other ways to express himself.
(I have to admit, I'm amused by imagining the scenes we didn't see, of Michael Myers rushing around the house like an interior decorator on speed, fussily making sure his various tableaux were all ready for presentation.)
Laurie discovers Bob hanging from one closet, and Lynda stuffed into another, and as she reels into the dark hallway in terror a face slowly emerges—just barely visible at first—from the shadows behind her.
He stabs her from behind—just catching her arm—and she tumbles over the railing and down the stairs. (I'd say this whole stairway sequence is a fairly conscious homage to Psycho.) As Michael pursues her, Laurie manages to get out of the house and run out into the neighborhood, screaming for help. She bangs on a neighbor's door, begging for someone to help her, but the neighbor peers through the shades and ignores her.
She: That's not very neighborly.
(In fact—though none of it is terribly overt—it's easy to see Halloween as an indictment of this whole suburban, middle-class world: even before Michael Myers starts killing people, this whole idyllic neighborhood feels barren and desolate: just dark houses, empty spaces, and leaf-strewn streets. And, of course, there aren't any adults: just children left in the care of teen-age babysitters.)
In another sequence that takes fantastic advantage of the deep, wide-open spaces between the two houses, Laurie pounds on the locked door of the house where Tommy and Lindsay are sleeping, screaming at them to let her in, while Carpenter shows us Michael—so far away at first—very slowly walking towards her from the other house.
Laurie finally gets in the house, and locks the door behind her. She tries the phone, but—like every phone at every key moment in every horror movie ever—it's dead. Michael appears from behind the soda, and she—to her credit—stabs him in the neck with a knitting needle. He falls and lies motionless, and she collapses onto the couch.
She: That's a mistake. Make a move!
Me: But he's dead.
She: He's not dead! You think a damn knitting needle took him out? THIS IS NOT THE TIME TO REST ON YOUR LAURELS, BITCH!
But N., of course, is working—like the kids in Scream—from knowledge gleaned from movies like Halloween, to which Laurie herself is not privileged. I don't know if Halloween more or less invented the indestructible killer, but it was certainly not the predictable cliche in 1978 that it has become ever since. It is entirely believable that, in Laurie's world, if you bury a knitting needle eight inches into some motherfucker's neck, you'd have a right to expect that the motherfucker would be dead.
Kids, on the other hand, instinctively know better. When Laurie reports to Tommy that she has killed the man, Tommy lays some wisdom on her: "You can't kill the bogeyman." And right on cue, Michael appears again.
In one of the documentary videos included on the Halloween DVD, Jamie Lee Curtis defends her career as a "scream queen," and talks about how Laurie Strode was one of the best parts she ever had. "I try to point out the irony that, in those 'exploitation' movies, I was intelligent, forthright, and fought back against adversity," she says. And she's right. Curtis is wonderful in the film, bringing real dimension to what could have been a thankless part, but it also helps that Carpenter and co-writer Debra Hill wrote Laurie to be a brave, resourceful young woman while not turning her into an implausible super-hero.
For Laurie is believably terrified, but she's also brave enough—and noble enough—to put the safety of the children first, and she lures Michael away from them. In perhaps the scariest and most famous sequence in the film, she locks herself in a closet while Michael smashes his way through the rickety doors. She fashions a weapon from a wire coat hanger and stabs him in the eye, making him drop his knife—and then she stabs him with the knife as well.
When Michael falls again, she could be forgiven for thinking that this time he's really dead—forgiven, that is, by anyone but my girlfriend.
She: She never learns! WHY WOULD YOU DROP THE KNIFE???
But Laurie not only drops the knife, she lowers her guard. She sends the kids out to call the cops from a neighbor's house, and then she sits huddled in the doorway with the body of Michael Myers on the floor behind her.
She: WHY WOULD YOU SIT THERE WITH YOUR BACK TOWARDS HIM LIKE THAT???
And of course, the inevitable happens, and Michael Myers sits up once again.
This time, however, help is on the way: Dr. Loomis has finally spotted the most conspicuous car ever, and he has made his way towards the house. As Laurie struggles with the unkillable Michael Myers—pushing his mask off so we glimpse his tortured face beneath—Loomis rushes up the stairs and shoots Michael five or six times, blasting him back off the balcony to fall to his presumed death on the lawn below.
"It was the bogeyman," a tearful Laurie says to Loomis. "As a matter of fact, it was," he agrees—and confirms it by looking over the balcony and seeing that Michael's body has disappeared: Loomis isn't even surprised. Carpenter ends the film with static shots of the various locations where the entire film happened—typical scenes of suburbia, now made forever more frightening—over the sound of the insistently suspenseful score and Michael Myers' heavy breathing.
You can't kill the bogeyman.
I honestly wasn't sure what my girlfriend would make of the original Halloween, precisely because it is such a seminal, influential film. Nearly everything in it has been imitated and recycled countless times—mostly in less artful, more gory ways—and I didn't know whether familiarity with its tricks and tropes would lessen the impact of this classic, carefully crafted gem.
As it turned out, I needn't have worried.
She: Well, that was creepy as shit.
She: Yeah. I'm kind of uncomfortable being in the dark right now.
Me: Oh, good.
She: I think the reason he's so scary is because…because he's so blank, and vacant. Aside from those little vignettes he likes to set up, there's really no humor to him. With most horror icons there's a little humor and humanity to them, but he's a total blank slate. He really is just this unstoppable force.
Me: He is, and it works. I mean, I think in other movies that kind of thing just gets ridiculous, but here it's just steady and unrelenting. He doesn't seem like a supernatural thing so much as a genuine force of nature.
She: Right. And maybe this seems scarier than other things we've watched because it feels like this dude could actually be walking the streets. And that may be rooted in childhood fears, because I grew up aware of this character: he was part of the lexicon. And, there were stories of people like this doing this kind of thing in real life, so it seemed like this actually breached into the real world and became a real threat.
Me: Well, I think part of that is real and part of it is perceived. I mean, like most horror movies, you could analyze this politically if you wanted to: the prologue takes place just before the Kennedy assassination, and the main story takes place in 1978: post-Vietnam, mid-energy-crisis, around the time of Ted Bundy and Gacy and a lot of fairly shitty stuff. So I don't think it's a stretch to say it's at least drawing on a sense of America's loss of innocence and that anxiety reaching the suburbs. I mean, you kept commenting on how nobody locks their doors…
She: Right, it's like they live in fucking Mayberry…
Me: And that seems even creepier now than it probably did when the movie came out, because then it wouldn't have been unusual. I grew up in the '70s, and we never did lock our doors, and kids wandered the neighborhood at night without any worry. But now the people in this movie seem so naive and vulnerable, and the absent parents seem irresponsible. And that's probably a result of some real stuff and some fake stuff that have happened since. I mean, movies like this probably helped convince people to be paranoid. There never were any razor blades in the Halloween candy, but the perception is that the world has grown so much scarier and more dangerous.
She: And indiscriminately so. I mean, most horror movies you do something to invite the bad thing into your space, but here there's no reason she gets on his radar.
Me: Well, she did go to his house…
She: To drop off a fucking key! She didn't deserve this. She didn't even have sex!
Me: In later movies they come up with a reason.
She: Oh yeah, doesn't she turn out to be his sister or something?
Me: Yeah, but that was obviously a later revision to justify why he'd keep coming after her. But in this one he just saw her and focused on her…and even then he took her friends out first.
She: Yeah, because they were sluttier.
Me: So: scariest movie we've watched?
She: Probably. He's definitely the most menacing figure physically, and the mask is just so placid and creepy.
Me: Oh yeah, now that you don't have to take it seriously I can tell you what the mask is: it's a William Shatner mask.
She: Seriously? Like a Halloween costume?
Me: Yeah. It was such a low-budget production they just bought a Captain Kirk mask, altered it a little, and painted it white.
She: Huh. Actually, that makes it MORE unsettling. Anyway, it's very effective.
Me: So…you wanna turn off all the lights and play hide-and-seek?
She: No, because your face is super white.
Me: Any other final comments?
She: Probably not going to be able to sleep tonight with your white-ass face breathing heavily next to me.
Me: Then I call this one a success.
Next for The Unenthusiastic Critic:
What does my girlfriend find even scarier
than crazy white people in creepy masks?
Crazy white people in creepy masks who sing a lot.
But that's what she encounters in the 1973 classic
The Wicker Man.