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."


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Andrew Bemis said...

Note: I've had to enable word verification to avoid spamming. I hope this isn't too much of an inconvenience.