Sunday, October 30, 2005

The boogeyman is coming!

It's a given that Jess and I will be watching Halloween tomorrow night, just as I'm sure it will be for many of you. The 1978 original is perhaps the purest horror movie ever made - like Psycho, it begins with the modest goal of scaring the bejesus out of us and eventually reveals itself to be a spookily transcendent little movie that touches upon our deepest, most universally human fears.

The sustained opening shot has often been noted as a reference to Welles' Touch of Evil; whether or not it was intended as homage, I prefer it here. We are carried towards the first murder with an unbearable atmosphere of grim inevitability - a single, sustained synth key underscoring a light going out in a bedroom window is enough to make us jump. As we follow the killer upstairs, the scene turns eerie, then titillating, then violent, until the reveal of the killer's identity, which forces us to reconsider the entire sequence in a new, much more disturbing light. John Carpenter has gone through the essential elements of horror - tension, shock, surprise - as though running down his checklist, and this is in the first five minutes. For the rest of the film we never feel safe, because we are in the hands of a director who might do anything.

Last semester, my semiotics professor and I argued over his assertion that the entire slasher genre is misogynistic - that it punishes women for their sexuality. This is the kind of knee-jerk, first-level reading that liberal arts college professors seem to favor, and it's totally ("Totally!")inaccurate when referring to Halloween. Sex is certainly key to the film, and many of its imitators lazily resort to the "sex=death" assumption. But in Halloween, sex is an expression of youth and vitality - a pure assertion of life. Sex, booze and pot serve the same purpose for the teenage characters that monster movies, candy, and comic books serve for little Lindsey and Tommy. Early in the film, there is a brief moment where Laurie, Jamie Lee Curtis' character, smiles affectionately at a group of early trick-or-treaters at the house next door. Halloween, like Christmas, is an excuse for anti-intellectual, childish fun, plain and simple; as Sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers) puts it, "I guess everyone's entitled to one good scare."

But Michael Myers isn't born from this desire for a pleasurable, reassuring "Boo!" I don't want to slip too much into the sort of pseudo-intellectual, self-aggrandizing "interpretation"-speak typical of film criticism, but a little might be required here, so bear with me. Myers is an archetypal figure of existental dread, a blank persona onto which we project our anxious suspicions that life is meaningless and death is the only inevitability. Phew, glad that's over with. To summarize, Myers is a pop version of Don Giovanni's Commandatore - he is a figure of pure death, arriving to put an end to the aforementioned vitality and confront the film's characters with their own mortality.

The juxtaposition of life and death, of fun and serious business, is demonstrated most effectively when Myers appears in a makeshift ghost costume while Lynda (P.J. Soles) lies naked in bed. Lynda assumes that the ghost is her boyfriend Bob playing a dumb post-coital joke. She laughs, then flirts, but gets no response. When I first saw Halloween, this scene freaked me out more than any other - it was a masterstroke on Carpenter's part to make the killer so blank. And when Lynda removes his costume, there is just another mask - another empty, dead stare. There are few scenes in cinema that are so effectively hopeless (another that comes to mind is the fashion show scene in The Garbage Pail Kids Movie). The monologues that Dr. Loomis (played by the awesome Donald Pleasance) delivers about Myers' evil strike many as goofy, but when I was younger, I took them dead seriously.

In the end, Laurie survives not because she is a virgin (again, first-level reading), but because she has long put away childish things - she is resourceful, and while she posesses a healthy amount of skepticism, she is perceptive enough to survive Halloween night. For now, at least - the movie's final shots of empty rooms, dark backyards, letting us know that even if we can't see the monster, he's still out there. As with all of the great horror movies, Halloween offers us no resolution, only a deeply chilling "memento mori."

"That was the boogeyman?"

"As a matter of fact, it was."

Thursday, October 27, 2005


In the month leading up to the release of Batman Returns in 1992, I was pretty much incapable of thinking about anything that wasn't Batman-related. Rewatching it last night for the first time in years, I was pleasantly surprised with how well it had aged. Most people prefer either the first Batman or Batman Begins, and I can see why; both have more in common with the character as envisioned by Bob Kane and Frank Miller, respectively. But my favorite moments in Batman are the most Tim Burton-esque - the Joker trashing Gotham Art Museum to Prince's "Partyman," the crazy commercial for Joker-brand products, etc. I love comics, but I'm a movie nut first and foremost, and not only is Batman Returns the most auteur-driven Batman movie, it may be Tim Burton at his purest.

Every frame of this movie is crammed with lovingly crafted bits of insanity - the Penguin's duckmobile, the crazy-kitty Shreck logo, the army of penguins, Vincent Schiavelli avec monkey - that turn Gotham City into its own self-contained, demented universe. Batman Returns was also a gateway movie for me in a lot of ways. Reading articles on the movie before its release, I would come across references to directors like F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang as influences; seeing their films opened up my mind and let me to other films like The Third Man, which led to Citizen Kane, and so on. I think I spent a lot of my childhood pursuing filmic influences and origins the way many of you followed music, and while I can't tell you much about bluegrass or Manchester, I still look back on those days with great fondness. Also, this was the first time I saw Christopher Walken in anything; it says a lot about Walken that anytime he shared the screen with a penguin man, I was thinking "Wow, who's that guy with the white hair? He's creepy."

The best thing about Batman Returns is clearly Catwoman, who singlehandedly brought an end to my latency period. The scene where she returns after her transformation and just wrecks all of the quaint little knicknacks in her apartment should be required viewing in every feminist theory class. When she saves a woman from an attempted sexual assault and then mocks her helplessness - "I am Catwoman. Hear me roar." - eight-year-old me didn't quite know what was going on, but he liked it. It's hard to believe now that Michelle Pfeiffer was ever this kickass, but I think Catwoman would force Nietzsche to give women a lot more credit. When she and Batman realize each others' identities at the Christmas party (great use of Siouxsie and the Banshees), she's at once the vengeful, righteous warrior and the vulnerable "executive assistant" who just wants a decent boyfriend, and she's unapologetically both. And it's fantastic. Incidentally, Catwoman is one of several female protagonists, along with Lydia Dietz, Cathy Wood, and the Corpse Bride, that leads me to believe that Burton and I dig a lot of the same things about women.

It's interesting that Burton doesn't extend his empathy for his masked protagonists to the penguin, who is viewed as an abused but still essentially corrupt grotesque. His death inspires pity, but we can't relate to him, and perhaps neither could Burton. So he pushes the Penguin to the limit - a sleazy, grunting, kitten-eating, undersexed blob. This, coupled with all the surprising S&M business between Batman and Catwoman, apparently led to a lot of crying kids. And really, that just makes me love it more. How the hell did this creepy, kinky little big movie sneak through a studio system preoccupied with toy and cheeseburger tie-ins? This is really a remarkable superhero picture, one that is worth revisiting. But for now, I got badder fish to fry.