Saturday 21 November 2009

Horror comes home

The development of horror from its origins in eighteenth-century Gothic fiction and dark romanticism* to the present day has always closely mirrored the historical development of society. Early horror was a reaction to the industrial revolution, the enormous development of the productive forces creating a contradiction between an increasingly urbanised population and the countryside, now thought wild and uncivilised. The ‘dark places of the earth’ (Joseph Conrad) became an Other, a canvas on which both fears and desires were projected. Thus in Dracula Jonathan Harker travels to a world in which the achievements of civilisation are noticeably absent (no trains in Transylvania). In some senses, it’s an alluring world: most obviously the Count’s polygamy and sexual voraciousness offer an enticing alternative to the public rectitude of Victorian England. But the inviting Other also seeks to devour Harker.

If horror is found outside the bounds of civilised society, it’s not always so easy to keep it out. In Dracula, the titular vampire soon comes to England and terrorises Lucy Westenra. It is this invasion of the domestic sphere by the Other that is the most defining trait of post-war horror. The blank spots on the map had disappeared. To be sure, the city-countryside contradiction still existed and was in many ways at its starkest. A string of horror films and thrillers of the 1970s – Deliverance (1972), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), I Spit on Your Grave (1978) and others – dealt in no uncertain terms with the horrors that befall people from the city as the countryside avenges its victimisation (Carol J. Clover). Of these, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) comes closest to being a slasher film, but it’s not quite there: the distinguishing feature of the slasher, as typified by Halloween (1978) and Black Christmas (1974) before it, is that evil is no longer on the outside. It has invaded the home itself.

Halloween establishes this paradigm in its famous first scene. After opening credits featuring John Carpenter’s incredibly creepy theme, we are outside a small-town house on Halloween night, 1963. A stalker lurks in the bushes, observing a young woman and her boyfriend inside. His perspective is our perspective: the entire scene is presented as a single scene from the first-person perspective (although Carpenter hides a cut at one point). The stalker sneaks around the house, then enters through a back door. He picks up a kitchen knife and a Halloween mask. The couple go upstairs, oblivious to the world; the boyfriend leaves shortly afterwards, rather smug about the world’s shortest teenage sex. Our stalker goes up the stairs. He brutally stabs the girl to death before running outside, where he is confronted by two adults. As the man takes off his Halloween mask, we leave the killer’s perspective for the very first time and realise, to our horror, that he is a six-year-old boy with a disturbingly blank expression.

The killer, Michael Myers, is placed in a psychiatric institution for life, but manages to escape almost fifteen years later, on October 30, 1978. His therapist, Dr Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence), suspects that Michael will return to his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois, to wreak more murder, and tries to enlist the help of local police in chasing down Michael. Meanwhile, local teenagers Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis in her film début) and Annie (Nancy Loomis) are babysitting local children, while their friend Lynda (P.J. Soles), obviously unaware she’s in a slasher film, thinks the absence of adults presents a great opportunity for sex with her boyfriend Bob (John Michael Graham). Needless to say, ‘the night he came home!’ will be bloody.

Halloween’s greatest strength is its simplicity. You’d think the old ‘escaped lunatic’ trope would make the film tired, but instead it imbues the proceedings with an archetypal character. Michael Myers kills because he is evil, pure and simple; he is only technically human, knowing neither love nor hatred. He cannot be bargained or negotiated with; he does not want revenge. He doesn’t want anything. He is a machine, pitiless and unfeeling. You cannot propitiate him by changing your behaviour. If he comes across you, he will kill you, and therein lies true terror.

On the receiving end of that terror are our actors. Most of the characters, frankly, are paper-thin. Lynda and Annie are both defined chiefly by their great interest in sex, and can only be distinguished by hair colour and the former’s tendency to say ‘totally!’ a lot. Donald Pleasence makes the most of heavy-handed dialogue. The standout is Jamie Lee Curtis. She is at once convincingly caring and tough, afraid and determined. Her hard, almost androgynous features are a perfect fit for the role. She doesn’t exactly confirm to the Final Girl mould, either: while she is indeed a virgin, dialogue establishes that this is for lack of opportunity rather than moral uprightness. I am unsure about the usual pseudo-Freudian psychosexual interpretation of the slasher film. It seems to me that Laurie’s superiority over her friends is not to do with sex, but with emotional maturity. Michael in his mechanical nature represents primordial unreason, but Laurie is mature enough to take responsibility for others as well as herself. While Annie dumps the girl she’s babysitting on Laurie, the latter protects the kids in her care. Laurie has learned to master her baser desires, while her friends’ enslavement to these causes their deaths.

Speaking of deaths, there aren’t that many. Five people and a dog are murdered in Halloween, but two of these killings (including the dog) occur off-screen. If, as the great Tim Brayton has said, the number of murders in a given slasher film is inversely proportional to the movie’s quality (which explains the scores slaughtered in any given Friday the 13th sequel), Halloween must be pretty good. Which it is. Nor are the deaths very bloody: although Halloween is brutal, scary and nasty-minded, there is virtually no gore.

About the direction and cinematography no words need be spoken, for they are fantastic. Some of the most famous compositions (Michael in his white mask rising behind Laurie, for instance) are at once beautiful and horrifying. Carpenter’s pacing, too, deserves praise. In a world in which many horror directors feel the need to pile up the deaths to stop audiences from dozing off, Carpenter devotes the middle section of the movie solely to building an all-encompassing atmosphere of dread. And how well he does it: when night falls, each death is as harrowing as about twelve of the same in the Friday the 13th series. I joke, of course: deaths in Friday the 13th are never harrowing, only mildly diverting, if you’re lucky.

Halloween is a short, taut film. It’s also art. And it’s very scary. It is, then, all the things the slasher genre that exploded into mainstream popularity a few years later with Friday the 13th (1980) and its sequels was not to be. But the sad decline of the slasher film from bad movies into unspeakably horrible movies cannot taint the terrifying power of Carpenter’s greatest work.

*I desperately tried to fit my beloved E.T.A. Hoffmann into that sentence, but just couldn’t. Read the man, will you?

In this series: Halloween (1978) | Halloween II (1981) | Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1988) | Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988) | Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989) | Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995) | Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (1998) | Halloween: Resurrection (2002) | Halloween (2007) | Halloween II (2009)

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