Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Halloween (1978)

by Matthew "Latent phase" Funk

Sex is scary.

Sure, sex has a lot going for it: biological urge, the romance of bonding with another, all the Red Shoe Diaries hype that society slathers on--we’re soaked with ways sex is a special and positive thing. But every reason that sex is special has a flip-side that’s a reason to be frightened of it. John Carpenter’s Halloween is that fear of sex distilled into a walking, faceless fatality.

Halloween was as much as a creation of its producer and co-writer, Debra Hill, as it was John Carpenter. Hill stitched its dramatic beats together from the fantasy frights she had as a teen babysitter, and the film smacks of both a coming-of-age tale and an urban legend. For those of you who’ve just arrived on Earth, I’ll summarize the story: A little boy, Michael Myers, flips his five-year-old wig one Halloween night and stabs his naked sister into oblivion, before ending up in state’s custody. Years later, Myers escapes from the asylum with his far-beyond-driven doctor on his trail, and goes about murdering a flock of babysitters and another hapless boyfriend.

But really, it’s all about how sex is scary.

It’s stylized, as John Carpenter films tend to be. This also makes it dated. And compared to the latex-happy fare these days, it’s pretty tame. Despite all these expiration dates, Halloween remains a timeless classic. That’s because, like all good myth, it is human experience distilled.

Halloween understands that when puberty hits, libido comes barging in and rifling through your darkest places. Sex, as a force in your life, is urgent and fierce and faceless. You don’t know what it is yet but you know it feels like your life depends on it. Like a horror film stalker, it can’t be seen or escaped, but it sure as Dickens has your number.

Halloween nails the quintessential quality of its message: its menace is faceless and, for most of the film, seen only as a shape or as the gaze of the camera. Myers isn’t shackled by humanizing elements like motivation or fancy gimmicks. He is distinctive in his lack of identity. His only purpose is to be a deadly power pursuing girls and boys awakening to their sexuality.

He does this with supernatural efficiency when it comes to targeting the randy. Myers may have been locked up at Xavier’s School for the Gifted given his ability to vanish from view, detect how scared teens are and invade their dwellings without so much as a busted window. How Halloween is shot drives this home, with Myers’s character being conveyed by the shot’s perspective itself for most of the flick. The Kryptonite to Myers’s baffling powers takes the form of the sexually uninitiated protagonist--whenever Myers goes after the wallflower, Jamie Lee Curtis, he turns into the fourth Stooge.

Putting the cinema-studies analysis to this facelessness shows how pure Halloween’s message is: there is a primal force that wants to kill you because you are naked and horny.

Legends are rife with this breed of cautionary bogeyman. The Greeks used to personify their fears as fickle gods and animal-human hybrids. Later cultures dropped the whole "Furries of Vengeance" bit and invested terror in the garb of these supernatural Scared Straight programs--Grimm’s fairy tales featuring a scissor-wielding maniac who went after nose-picking children’s fingers. Getting a paranormal punisher on your tail for bad behavior is nothing new.

How Halloween made these murderous tales of misbehavior new was by using the medium of film to liberate the vengeful spirit from identity. Myers is just a leering camera shot, stalking his victims, untouchable but all-knowing. Refining the malevolence to perspective itself removes it from the safety of something we can see and face. Myers has no face--he’s just punishment itself: mortality magnetized to teen libido.

When his mug finally is spotted, it’s just a Bill Shatner mask white-washed into anonymity. How better to model libido-made-ghoulish than to have him look like the ghost of the star-faring sexual conquistador of the Enterprise?

There’s really little worth to Halloween beyond this central motif. Jamie Lee Curtis manages a nerve-gripping performance at times. Donald Pleasance, in the role of Myers’s gun-toting therapist, delivers the dramatic goods. Otherwise, the film is just a study in how stilted slasher flicks can be. At this stage in his career, Carpenter only manages to make his supporting cast marginally less zombie-like than the gangland hordes of Assault on Precinct 13. His shots often look like just what they are: a young director trying too hard to amp up the tension.

The real merit is in crafting the antagonist as an archetype: Not an angry human like Freddy Krueger, not a wild animal like Leatherface and not a phantom with a vendetta like Jason Vorhees. Myers is just violence drawn by adolescent sex drive, for no reason other than that’s scary.

The fact that this threadbare motive isn’t so flimsy as to collapse the whole plot is a foundational principle of slasher flicks. On a certain primal level, we understand why sexuality incites horror. Whether from fear of emotional vulnerability to another, or performance anxiety or basic carnal repression, we get that sex has an inherent anxiety--it has power. In Halloween and its many misbegotten spawn, that power is a fatal one.

The only character who escapes that power--Jamie Lee Curtis--is the “virginal” type. Myers has gone through her pals like Ted Bundy on a crack binge, but he balks during the many attempts to do her in. Faced with her sexual innocence, Myers fumbles like an overanxious geek trying to score with the prom queen. He can’t hold the object of his desire and, try as he might with his handy butcher knife, he can’t penetrate her fatality. Just like in the unicorn legends, only a virgin maid can tame the beast without getting the shaft. Jamie Lee manages to bungle her way into defeating him three times before deus ex machina can arrive in the form of Donald Pleasance with an itchy trigger finger. Penetrated by an older male, our phantom of teen sex falls like the limp dick he is and fades away.

Confronted by all these coincidental sex metaphors, Carpenter and Hill have claimed they were unintentional. I only buy that as far as I can throw their ids. They may not have spent weed-fueled late-night brainstorm sessions analyzing why what they were writing was scary, but they knew how scary was supposed to work. Whether Halloween and its host of imitators understood why the ethics of its plot were palatable to the viewing public is irrelevant. That’s like trying to figure out libido itself. They worked because, for the common viewer, they were instinctively understood.

That’s what keeps people buying tickets and what keeps the basic motif of Halloween flowering into knock-offs where the nubile die for nookie. Viewers don’t need Freud sharing their popcorn to get that sex has a whiff of death to it and that the sexually innocent should avoid that fatality if the moral universe is to be sane and orderly.

Even audiences in the know may roll their eyes, but still tune in to see boobs, and those who dare to touch them, drenched in blood. That dark and restless corner of the libido that never quite exited the adolescence into the light is fascinated with sex’s forbidden thrill.

And that’s the sole reason Halloween remains relevant. Out of legions of cinematic exercise, it’s the seminal model--the originator of the modern model for sex as fear. It’s the pure power of the gaze, stripped of all the safety identity grants by clever camera work and minimalist editing. To see it is to stare into the abyss of adolescent libido at its purest and most vulnerable.

If you can look past the Farrah hair and overacting, that is.


  1. This is the only horror movie I can think of where the killer is seen driving a car.

    What do you make of that, MC Funk? A car/sex connection?

  2. The best of the best!!! Although I had a soft spot for The Burning. It was banned in the UK, but I had a copy on VHS and used to copy it for mates for a couple of ££ a go.