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Four Halloweens

In the annals of horror cinema, there are watershed moments:  F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, the first time that Bela Lugosi donned Dracula’s satin cape, Night of the Living Dead. It’s rarified company, and the entry bar is high in a genre full of broken boundaries and pushed envelopes. True watershed horror is not just technically excellent, well-written, or especially chilling. It breaks new earth in a well-dug graveyard; finds new lenses through which to project old fears, or vice-versa. One such film is John Carpenter’s most celebrated and influential movie, 1978’s Halloween. 1960’s Psycho may have been the first truly modern horror movie, and 1974’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre (about which I have written here) may have been the slasher prototype, the ancestor from which subsequent films evolved, Halloween is widely considered the first “true” slasher film. While Psycho and Texas Chainsaw were groundbreaking in both their subject matter and execution and addressed the then-still-nascent concept of the serial killer, Halloween took the dark, Freudian madness of Norman Bates and the masked, bloody butchery of Leatherface and plunged them deep into the heart of suburbia, a place more banal than the settings of previous films – and thus, more terrifying.

Terrifying, titillating… and lucrative. Halloween, shot on a budget of $300,000, grossed $70 million, making it one of the most profitable independent films of all time (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, remember, cost $140,000 to make and cleared $30 million). It’s thus no surprise that Halloween, like many of its innumerable imitators, spawned a long string of sequels. Over the course of its 40-year span, the saga of Michael Meyers has evolved like an alligator or a coelacanth: it has changed, but it has retained its essential nature more deeply and far longer than many of its contemporaries. Within its bones we can see the shape of horror’s past and the outline of its current configuration. While it is possible to do a film-by-film breakdown of the Halloween movies, the oeuvre can be broadly understood by considering it in four snapshots: Halloween (1978), Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998), Halloween (2007), and Halloween (2018).

When the original Halloween was released, it was condemned by some critics as violent and misogynistic. I can see where this critique is rooted. In Carpenter’s film, women are either victims or damsels (or both), and while they aren’t one-dimensional caricatures, per se, they aren’t exactly badasses either. One criticism that I think is way off the mark, however, is the idea (notably promoted by Nick Martin and Marsha Porter in their Video Movie Guide) that Carpenter’s directing invites viewers to empathize or identify too much with his story’s antagonist. I suppose that since the POV shots with their creepy in-mask breathing were a new technique in 1978 we can excuse a bit of the hysteria about their supposed power to make us all psychopaths and butchers, but still. There’s comparatively little actual on-screen mayhem in Halloween; its scares are creeping and claustrophobic as well as visceral. And, more importantly, Michael Meyers is one of the least-humanized killers in horror cinema. He has no tragic death at the hands of neglectful camp counsellors, and we never see his face, nor hear his voice. His mask has the appearance of humanity – the illusion of it – but it is dead and expressionless. He wears a jumpsuit, which obscures his body with the neutral inhumanity provided by a uniform. In the credits, a child actor is billed as “Young Michael,” but his adult incarnation is famously credited as “the Shape.” None of this speaks to excessive humanization.

Halloween spawned many sequels – including the notorious and execrable Halloween III: Season of the Witch, which is an incoherent mess and has nothing to do with the plots of any of the other films – but to encapsulate the second phase of Meyers’ lifespan as a villain, we can skip five installments and turn directly to the sixth entry in the franchise, Halloween H20: 20 Years Later. Between 1978 and 1998 lie twenty years that span the golden age and subsequent decline of American slasher cinema. In films like Sleepaway Camp, Prom Night, My Bloody Valentine, Friday the 13th, Happy Birthday to Me, and countless others, cheerleaders and prom queens get menaced and teenagers are diced up. Killers wield knives, axes, and machetes, and mask their identities in increasingly novel ways. H20 and other slasher films of the late 90s and very early 00s represent the artistic terminus of the genre: bloated, corporatized, possessed of none of the gritty punk rock energy of early offerings.

H20’s tepid plot, silly 90s signifiers (which include an inexplicable cameo from LL Cool J as a cop-cum-romance novelist), and antiseptic focus-grouped slickness aside, it’s always nice to see Jamie Lee Curtis, and she is the one redeeming feature of this entry. 1998 saw Jamie Lee at the height of her powers: if Halloween was her introduction to acting, H20 was filmed after her transition from horror to “real” roles. Curtis got her start with Carpenter in Halloween and The Fog and would go on to star in Prom Night, but by 1998, she had been featured in films like Trading Spaces, A Fish Called Wanda, Blue Steel, and – perhaps most notably, given the number of awards it earned her – True Lies. At the turn of the century she was, like the Halloween franchise itself, a well-known, highly-valued commodity – and while her performance in H20 didn’t suffer for it, the film itself certainly did. While the late 90s saw some gems — Cube, Interview with the Vampire, and Event Horizon all spring to mind – it was a time when bloated horror monstrosities ruled the Earth. Leprechaun 4: In Space, Lake Placid, and Dracula 2000 were all horrible films in unique ways, but all share the same essential ingredient that renders the final product so inedible: a boundless contempt for horror fans. “Those idiots,” these movies seem to say, “are willing to sit still for anything.”

Fortunately, not every horror movie is made by committee, and some are even made by people whom I would very lovingly refer to as horror geeks. One such troubled soul is Rob Zombie – White Zombie frontman, solo metal artist, and, as of 2003’s House of 1000 Corpses, horror auteur. Zombie’s love of horror is legendary and encyclopedic. His music is stuffed with samples from and lyrical references to classic films – including, in his cover of KC and the Sunshine Band’s “I’m Your Boogie Man,” which samples a few lines from Carpenter’s original 1978 Halloween. All that is to say that it was no surprise when Zombie was tapped to reinvigorate the franchise, or when John Carpenter told him to “make it his own” – and that’s exactly what he did.

2007’s Halloween was the series’ first reboot in 30 years, and took place during an era of remakes that included new takes on My Bloody Valentine, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Hills Have Eyes, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, all of varying quality. Zombie’s Halloween is, to say the least, less than beloved of critics and fans of the series. I’m an outlier in this regard. I love Zombie’s vision, love the working-class grunge we see in Michael Meyers’ genesis, and I love the deep dive it offers into the psychology of a mindless killing machine like the creature that he becomes. We see, in short, the journey from Michael to The Shape, with all of its tragedy, madness, and blood. Like the plot, the visual lexicon of the movie is similar to Carpenter’s original offering. The early scenes of Zombie’s version take place in the mythical late 1970s of his imagination, the same haunted world of carnies, strippers, and rednecks where many of his music videos are set, and where the films 31, House of 1000 Corpses, the Devil’s Rejects and 3 From Hell transpire. His Halloween was very much a product of the mid-to-late 00s crop of reboots, retools, and reimagining – a superior example of this species, to be sure, and successful enough to net Rob a job helming Halloween 2, but alas, the Zombie-Meyers alliance only lasted for two films.

Which brings us to 2018’s Halloween. 40 years, ten films, and more than $700 million later, writer-director David Gordon Green was tapped to prune away the thicket of complicated stories that had grown around Meyers and his murderous vendetta against the hapless residents of Haddonfield. Green worked with Danny McBride (AKA Dr. Steve Brule) to return Halloween to the simple brutality of its original premise. Green and McBride’s Halloween ignores the initial film’s many sequels and picks up after the events of 1978, whereupon Meyers was in this telling incarcerated for four decades and once again breaks free to terrorize all and sundry. Halloween sees the return of Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode, and in a much better-written and more fully-fleshed-out version than the one presented by H20.

And therein lies the vital innovation of 2018’s Halloween, the ingredient that was missing from its predecessors. Green and McBride realize that Halloween is most truly told as a story of women, survivors of violence and trauma who deal with their brushes with inhuman brutality in imperfect ways. The newest Halloween also pays tribute to the longevity of the series and the genre; it traces the impact of Meyers’ actions on three generations of Strode women, from grandmother to granddaughter. It nods to the 70s aesthetic of the original (slightly grainy, colors muted in the direction of khaki and sepia) without wallowing in it the way Zombie did: it brings back Jamie Lee Curtis, but lends her character weight and gravitas, unlike H20. Simply put, the 2018 Halloween is by far the best sequel of the series and serves as a worthy successor to the original. There are two more sequels planned from the same creative team, 2020’s Halloween Kills and 2021’s Halloween Ends: I look forward with great enthusiasm to both.

Halloween has been a horror franchise juggernaut for a long time – centuries, in cinema years – and, adjusted for inflation, remains the highest-grossing horror franchise of all time. In its many incarnations we can trace the evolution of the American slasher film, from its grubby 1970s origins, through an inevitable period of bloat and reimagining, to our present moment and its retro sensibilities. From Stranger Things to Mandy, The House of the Devil to It Follows, modern horror cinema looks to the “golden age” of American horror for much of its inspiration. We could do far worse – and whatever comes after Halloween Ends, I’m confident that the story of Michael Meyers and Laurie Strode will continue to evolve.

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