Monday, November 2, 2015

Death Has Come To Your Little Town, Sheriff

Michael Myers ready with a knife in HALLOWEEN (1978)

By the time I post this, it will be after midnight, but it's Halloween every day of the year in my heart. And there was a hell of a night in my neighborhood too. Those jerks across the street, of course, had their Hallelujah house with undead cheerleaders gushing blood from botched abortions and gay men transformed into monsters by some unspecified disfiguring STD.
I thought maybe Otis Calhoun had given up. I thought maybe that prison bromance had softened him up.
But nobody bears a grudge quite like a Southern redneck.
In the distance you could hear the growl of the motorcycle and the sound of two men howling like wolves. Then out of the darkness of the night, Otis Calhoun emerged, riding on the back of his brother Lyle's motorcycle, dressed as Bluto from ANIMAL HOUSE and carrying a jack o' lantern with one hand and a Wild Turkey bottle in the other. He bellowed something that sounded like, "Chug a beer for Satan!" and, like he did many years before, hurled the jack o' lantern straight through the brand new picture window. Then Lyle plowed the motorcycle straight through the garage where Otis sprayed all the Hallelujah house with bourbon.
From that point on I lost track of all the mayhem, but there are emergency vehicles around the block and it looks like the Thomas's garage is on fire. I have a feeling November is going to be a busy month for Otis Calhoun's parole officer and Butch Walker, who's excited that Otis is back on the streets because he needs a new car.

And speaking of Halloween mayhem, it's time for the film that inserted the holiday into the annals of horror history. That's right, before JOHN CARPENTER and DEBRA HILL came along no one had made a horror movie about Halloween before. The tenth film in the 31 Days of Halloween review-a-thon is none other then the seminal low-budget classic HALLOWEEN (1978) written by DEBRA HILL and JOHN CARPENTER, directed by JOHN CARPENTER and starring the ultimate Scream Queen JAMIE LEE CURTIS as the shy babysitter besieged by the boogeyman.
Even if you haven't seen the film, you know the plot and it was re-used and re-invented countless of times by both independent and studio imitators.
The film opens with a point-of-view tracking shot through a house on Halloween night. This is already disorienting to the audience as we don't know who we are or why we're grabbing a butcher knife out of the kitchen drawer. We are both a helpless voyeur and complicit as seventeen-year-old Judith Myers is stabbed to death after having sex with her boyfriend. And the guy was a total minute man too.
To our shock, we discover the perpetrator is six-year-old Michael Myers, her little brother.

Six-year-old Michael Myers has killed his sister in HALLOWEEN (1978)

Fifteen years later, Michael's psychiatrist Dr. Samuel Loomis (veteran DONALD PLEASENCE) insists Michael should never be released; He's purely and simply (dramatic pause) evil.
But before he can be transported to a maximum security institution, Michael escapes and heads back home to Haddonfield, Illinois, right in time for Halloween.
Shy, thoughtful Laurie Strode (JAMIE LEE CURTIS) has an evening of baby-sitting planned while her more extroverted friends sardonic Annie (CARPENTER regular NANCY LOOMIS) and boy-crazy Lynda (cult favorite P.J. SOLES) are trying to sneak some sex and underage drinking into the mix. But little do they know of the evil that is stalking them...

Many reviewers interpreted the film as reactionary and puritanical due to the fact that the virginal Laurie survives the night while her sexually active friends are made into mince-meat, but I think this is an overly-simplistic view. HALLOWEEN was created in an eye of a cultural storm: after a decade of social upheaval and economic crisis, there was finally calm and affluence. I'm sure many were convinced this return to stasis would not last and this contributes to the point of view of the film that we are never really safe, no matter how many protections we have.
Evil is not in an Old Dark House or in the rural badlands: it has invaded upper-middle-class suburbia.
In some sense, the Michael Myers character is a reaction to the cultural results of the feminist movement and the sexual revolution but not quite in the way most reviewers have hypothesized. CAROL J. CLOVER, writer of the brilliant MEN, WOMEN AND CHAINSAWS, has stated the audiences for HALLOWEEN and the slasher films that followed are "the children of feminism." Following both social movements, the divorce rate rose substantially and the family dynamic changed permanently. Many children now came from homes with a single, working parent and did not have as much supervision and attention as their counterparts of previous generations.
At the same time, because of the economic boom following a decade of turmoil, society shifted from social consciousness to instant gratification.
Michael Myers is representative of the anger of the latch-key kid generation which lost some of their own childhood due to the actions of adults.

Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis), Lynda (P.J. Soles) and Annie (Nancy Loomis) in HALLOWEEN (1978)

His older sister, who is supposed to be taking care of him, ignores him to have sex with her boyfriend. It is not the act of having sex that signs these character's death warrants: it's the preference for instant gratification over responsibility.
Sex in American culture is perceived as an entrance into adulthood. Therefore in horror films, it's not sex being demonized but the fear of adulthood and the loss of childhood innocence.
Michael, in his fear of adulthood, remains a developmentally arrested child. When he is briefly unmasked near the end of the film, his facial features are child-like and boyish. Like most Americans, he is repelled by sex and cannot perceive women as anything other than mothers or whores.
His inability to mature and to comprehend the changing world around him in turn causes him to completely lose any sense of identity or personality. He becomes nothing but a robotic killing machine seeking out sister surrogates to punish, all the while wearing a featureless mask.

Michael Myers pins Bob to the door in HALLOWEEN (1978)

HALLOWEEN, like all horror films about teenagers, is a coming-of-age film underneath all the stalkings and stabbings. Laurie is far more responsible then her instant gratification-seeking friends. She's on the other end of the spectrum, completely selfless and always doing things for other people. But Laurie is at an age where she is deciding what kind of woman she would like to be. Like Michael, she has reservations about adulthood but she does not allow her fears to arrest her. Though introverted and studious (her hobbies are reading and knitting), she is not quite the prude that many reviewers construe her to be. After all, she gets high with Annie right before her baby-sitting job. Like most teenagers, Laurie is curious about sex and romantic relationships, but she's not going to rush into anything before she is ready. Unlike her friends, she knows both these things entail responsibility. The deaths the sexually active characters face, in addition to the death of their childhood, could also represent the ramifications of sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy.
"Guys think I'm too smart," she shrugs.
Laurie's transition into adulthood is achieved through survival; she is resourceful and courageous in the face of adversity. In surviving her battle with Michael Myers, she not only grows from child to woman, but grows into the kind of woman that she wants to be, rather than what other people want her to be.
It's arguable over which horror movie character deserves the title of First Final Girl, but its undeniable that Laurie is the template future Final Girls adhered to.
I really resent those boneheads whining that HALLOWEEN is anti-feminist when Laurie demonstrates herself to be intelligent, resourceful and strong. She would like to have a boyfriend but is independent enough that she does not need one to define herself.
Laurie Strode is a feminist.

Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode in HALLOWEEN (1978)

And while I'm talking about strong, resourceful women, let me take a moment to give a shout out to the late DEBRA HILL. Not only did she co-write and produce one of the most influential horror films of all time, but she rose through the ranks of low-budget horror to become a successful producer in male-dominated studio Hollywood. That's no small feat, I can tell you.

But as much as I love Laurie, Annie Brackett may be my favorite character. The sarcastic best friend is a favorite horror movie trope of mine as that's the role I play in real life. Though I would probably face sudden death at the knife blade of a masked maniac for being so sassy, I just can't shut my mouth. NANCY LOOMIS grants her a terrific HIS GIRL FRIDAY-style snappy delivery, and aside from Dr. Loomis, has the best lines in the movie.
"I hate a guy with a car and no sense of humor."

Nancy Loomis as Annie Brackett in HALLOWEEN (1978)

And what about Dr. Loomis you ask? It's through his character that the film explores the concept of evil. In HALLOWEEN, evil has no explanation. Do we ever really find out the specific reasons why a six-year-old boy would stab his sister to death? The sequels would posit all kinds of theories but here, there is no real explanation. The graveyard cartetaker, Mr. Lowry, tells Loomis another tragic story involving hacksaw mayhem one town over, remarking that "every town has something like this."
Evil is not exclusive to Haddonfield it is everywhere in every small town in America. As mentioned before, no one is safe from it. Even Laurie in her hesitancy to take risks is not safe.
Evil in HALLOWEEN is an unstoppable force of nature. In Laurie's high school philosophy class, the lecture focuses on the idea of fate.
"Fate is immovable like a mountain...fate never changes," the teacher lectures.
Perhaps this implies that the mayhem transpiring on Halloween night was meant to happen and there are larger forces at work.
He is equated by Tommy Wallace, Laurie's baby-sitting charge, to the boogeyman: an all-purpose monster symbolizing all things that are malevolent to children. The boogeyman, too, is a way we try to understand the forces of evil in the world through myths and stories.
Michael Myers is the equivalent of a hurricane, with no emotions or personality to hinder him, leaving a path of death and destruction.

Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) does not realize Michael Myers has risen behind her in HALLOWEEN (1978).

He cannot be stopped. Laurie stabs him with a knife, stabs him in the eye with a coat hanger and stabs him in the neck with a knitting needle but he still will not die.
Even after six gunshots and a fall from the second story, Michael survives.
He is both a supernatural monster and a human monster. Supernatural in that he is more force of nature than human. He is both the inexplicable evil that men do and a vessel for the forces of evil themselves.
In the last scene of the film, Loomis looks down where Michael's body once lay and finds that it is now gone. He is unsurprised; he knew this would happen.
There is a montage of all the places Michael has been that night, now empty, as we hear his labored breathing over the soundtrack.
Not only can evil not be defeated, it's everywhere.

Donald Pleasence as Dr. Sam Loomis in HALLOWEEN (1978).

With his featureless white mask, robotic compulsion to kill and supernatural abilities, Michael may also represent the ultimate force beyond human control.
"Death has come to your little town, Sheriff," Loomis states.
Michael Myers is also the equivalent of the Grim Reaper and our ultimate fate that cannot be defeated, death.
As one leaves their childhood and teenage years behind, death looms a little closer.

Annie (Nancy Loomis) does not realize Michael Myers is lurking outside in HALLOWEEN (1978).

It's through stories of the boogeyman and horror movies that we can attempt to understand the forces of evil in this world and help face our fear of death safely.
Laurie is an observant young woman and, as someone tentative to act, she is a watcher. In that respect, she is representative of HALLOWEEN's audience. Those that watch HALLOWEEN do so because they are trying to face their own fears.
While much attention has been paid to the fact that sequences in the film are shot from Michael's point of view, they forget to note that there are also sequences shot from Laurie's point of view. While Michael is a representative of evil, Laurie is a representative of good and both these forces are a part of us.
Unlike her friends, who are not interested in facing anything going on around them and instead settle for the brief escapism of sex, drinking and drugs, Laurie observes, is brave enough to investigate when she suspects something is wrong and strong enough to survive her brush with evil.
Ignoring the problem does not make it go away and it's Laurie's perceptiveness and her strength to face things rather than hide that allows her to survive the night more then her status as a virgin.

Laurie Strode and Tommy Doyle watch the horror movie marathon in HALLOWEEN (1978)

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