Monday, October 31, 2011
Scariest Characters in Cinema #2 - Michael Myers
John Carpenter's Halloween wasn't the first slasher movie, but it is the purest. The film that defined the slasher formula before it was a formula, Halloween perfected all the techniques and tropes - shots from the killer's POV, an isolated setting, young female victims, a climactic chase between the killer and the Final Girl, multiple false endings - that we now take for granted. As I said, other films had traveled this road before Halloween; the difference is that Carpenter, like Welles with Citizen Kane, brings these elements together with an assured, singular style and an absolute mastery of timing, lighting, spatial intelligence, music and every other trick in the book that a director can employ to maximize tension. Carpenter always seems embarrassed by Halloween, shrugging it of as a quickie exploitation film, and it's clear that other films he's made are much closer to his heart. But perhaps it is that lack of pretense that makes Halloween so wickedly effective - it's the work of a master architect plying his craft for a carnival spook house.
The film's killer, Michael Myers, shares with many of the characters on this list an impenetrability - we don't know why Michael, as a clown-suited 6-year-old, killed his teenage sister on Halloween night, or why he returns 15 years later to stalk and kill babysitters. We learn that his psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance), has decided after years of careful observation and analysis that Michael's clinical diagnosis is "pure evil." And the movie proves Loomis' point - Michael is as much of an unstoppable force as the shark from Jaws. His only apparent interest is to hunt his prey as they drink, smoke and screw, and Carpenter is amazing at finding opportunities to hid Michael and the "boo!" moments in the background or margins of the frame, until we become anxious of the negative space in every shot. And the ending is a terrific punchline, as it turns out that the kids Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) has been babysitting are proven right - the boogeyman is real.
I've always felt like Halloween II was a bit underrated - putting the silly decision of revealing that Laurie is Michael's sister (which Carpenter admits he wrote late one night, out of desperation, because it worked in The Empire Strikes Back) aside, it's the only sequel that comes close to the suspense of the original. After the failed experiment of Halloween III, which swapped Michael Myers for an evil Irish toymaker (and which is extremely entertaining despite its lack of any relation to Halloween), Carpenter bailed and the franchise's producers decided to replicate the formula as much as possible, and except for occasional highlights like the final scene of Halloween 4 or Jamie Lee Curtis' great performance in the late-1990s period piece Halloween H20, the results are mostly ho-hum. At best they're bland retreads of the original; at worst, they fail to understand that the incomprehensibility of Michael's actions is what makes him frightening, attempting to explain the character with pagan cults and mysterious cowboys. I do like Rob Zombie's entries, particularly the director's cut of Halloween II, which is quite visually haunting, has an unusual level of empathy for its characters and is actually a pretty insightful depiction of PTSD. In any case, at least they were different.
Jen has never seen Halloween; we're watching it tonight. I'll be interested in seeing if decades of movies that borrowed and stole from Halloween has taken away its power to frighten, or if the strength of the filmmaking trumps familiarity. For me, any way, it's become such a big piece of my cinematic experience; it just wouldn't be Halloween without Halloween.