Most horror films today are terrible and contrite, boiling down to just basic jump scares or excessive gore to excite their audience. It’s a shame really because good scary movies can really shine a light on the human condition, revealing our greatest fears and desires, showing us the darker side of nature that many of us keep hidden. By acknowledging this dark side and examining it, horror films can do so much more than just scare; they can make us feel.
So in looking at the best of the best of horror, it’s natural to look at the films that have defined the genre. And no film may have changed the genre more than John Carpenter’s Halloween.
The plot of Halloween is simple: A crazed killer escapes from a mental institution to terrorize a suburban town on Halloween night, the same night he murdered his sister years ago. If it sounds familiar, that’s because it has been done to death since Carpenter’s film was released, a testament to the influence of his work.
The killer, Michael Myers, is not some raving lunatic. He never says a word. The only thing you ever hear from him are his low, shallow breaths. He is often referred to as the boogeyman by the children in the film. He practically ceases to be a man and instead becomes a malevolent force, something that can not be killed, but lurks everywhere, behind bushes, in your garage, in the bedroom where you think you are most safe. In many ways, he is a metaphor for death, always lurking, waiting, omnipresent. The camera tracks him through both his point of view and through the other characters, often with the use of steadicam, bringing us right into the action.
Jamie Lee Curtis as the young Laurie plays the role with poise and innocence. The effect of a masked figure hunting such a girl is the ultimate nightmare, the outside world crashing in on youth and innocence. Laurie’s journey of going from naive girl to heroine is illustrative of the growth of adolescence and understanding the apparent senselessness of death, something that can take you at any time. You can also make the case that Michael represents the male hierarchy intruding into feminine virtue or that the act of trying to murder Laurie is akin to an act of rape or that it is simply a struggle of good and evil; one is good, pure and innocent, and one is evil, malicious and tarnished. There are many interpretations of what each represents since the forces Carpenter is dealing with are so elemental.
And then there’s the score. If you were to watch the film without that trademark score, it’s a pretty dismal affair, but there’s something about the simple repetition and the eerie piano music that crawls under your skin and won’t let go. The score becomes a representation of Michael in the film, his own voice since he himself doesn’t speak. It is almost an entry into his psychosis, his insatiable desire for murder driving him continuously.
No greater compliment can be given to any film than the act of duplication and Halloween may be the most imitated film of all time. The lone female survivor followed by a senseless killer, the act of sex an harbinger of death, a psychopath who simply commits foul acts for the fun of it, suburbia being the center of evil: all were started at least in some part by Halloween and its success. The formula has gotten stale recently simply because it has been done so frequently, but that should in no way detract from the glory of the original slasher film.
At the end of Halloween, the killer is seemingly dead and all is right with the world. Except nothing is right. Our world of innocence and high school frivolity has been crushed, our friends are dead and our sense of safety and place in the world has been turned upside down. Michael Myers was more a force that could not be reasoned with than a man, and we are left to pick up the pieces of our lives. Except we learn that Michael Myers is not dead. His body is gone, the bullets meant to kill him obviously ineffective against such an evil being. We are left with random images of the places we have been throughout the film, knowing he could be anywhere now, always hearing the huff of Myers’ breath, omnipresent, the score building to a crescendo towards the inevitability of death.
What modern filmmakers forget as they copy Halloween‘s tropes is that the film is not just a slasher film (only five people die throughout the course of the film plus a dog), it is also an examination of death and innocence. Modern horror movies are so caught up in the thrill and the gore that they forget what is really at the heart of a good horror story, the thing that sticks with viewers; our fear of death and how it is always there.