Halloween (1979): Lookback/Review

John Carpenter's Halloween: The Night WE Came Home

***SPOILER ALERT: This review contains revelations about the conclusions of HALLOWEEN, HALLOWEEN II, and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.***

Though the season of the witch lies smashed and moldering under a layer of toilet paper and shaving cream all across American lawns, there is no time that isn’t ripe to revisit Haddonfield for a reexamination of John Carpenter’s classic Halloween. This holiday favorite was released in 1978, on the eve of the decade that marked Carpenter’s heyday. But however gracefully (or not) his films may age, they become especially potent in times of economic turmoil.

From The Fog to Big Trouble in Little China to Prince of Darkness, John Carpenter’s oeuvre is populated heavily by blue collar heroes and anti-heroes – truck drivers, fishermen, hapless hired guns for the government, prisoners, homeless people and transients. Although life-long sanitarium resident Michael Meyers appears to be an exception to this downtrodden heroic rule on paper, his apparently arbitrary choice of attire is the first of several clues to one of the film’s subtexts.

Having been institutionalized after inexplicably committing a brutal double murder – including sororicide (slaying his older sister while she babysat him as a little boy) – Michael Meyers ends his 15 year tenure by breaking out the night before All Hallow’s Eve and returns to his home town to visit his surviving little sister. Although teen bookworm Laurie Strode wouldn’t recognize the brother she doesn’t yet know she has (until the second film of the franchise, anyway), Michael hides his identity in a mechanic’s generic jumpsuit and a Halloween mask that personifies one William Shatner. Although it is meant to resemble a famous face, the actual product presents a visage so terrifyingly inhuman in its approximation of familiar features that it more resembles the revolting unformed imitations of the shape-shifting Thing, the Howard Hawks version of which Laurie watches with her babysitting ward (which pre-dated the John Carpenter remake by four years). The combination of the laborer’s coveralls and this visage sans yeux creates the impression of a kind of “evil everyman,” an embodiment of the anxieties and frustrations simmering under the surface of the working class.

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Indeed, the script calls on Donald Pleasance, as a doctor well versed in Michael’s pathology, to describe the young perp’s post-murder expression in the exact verbiage one would use to describe the mask: “a blank, pale, emotionless face, and the blackest eyes…the devil’s eyes.” Micheal Meyers’ movie monster contemporaries all have an instantly recognizable aesthetic; Freddy Krueger’s scorched skin, the hockey mask that covers only half the rotting flesh of Jason Voorhees (cinema’s only developmentally disabled villain?), Leatherface’s, er, leather face. Michael’s face, which we never see even a hint of, is covered by a mask that suggests a human being in only the most abstract terms, more a symbol of a person than a specific monster with personal motivations like Elm Street’s sex offender or Camp Crystal Lake’s most picked-on patron. Michael’s apparent lack of reason for slashing his way through Laurie’s more wanton friends on his way to their confrontation prevents the audience from constructing a comforting set of rules we could follow to save ourselves. Michael Meyers’ hostility is part of a generalized angst that is more reminiscent of the 1969 classic Night of the Living Dead’s “return of the repressed” mentality. It is more than worth mentioning, without even referring to detailed research, that the 1970s were a startlingly horrific period for the industrialized world’s economic situation, with the United States’s aptly-named “misery index” – the sum of the unemployment rate and the inflation rate – topping out at a then all-time high. A lot of people had a lot to feel repressed about; anxious envy of an age group whose young lives were filled with potential could take seed anywhere at all.

The most obvious similarity between Halloween and Night of the Living Dead is the trope of brother coming back for sister in a kind of incestuous rite of closure. It’s a good clean cypher for the broader idea of how little we know those closest to us, our neighbors, and what they might really think of us. Halloween is rife with suburban symbols of this modern anguish, with Michael Meyers mistaken variously for perhaps a kind of demented janitor lurking behind the chain link fences of the school, a policeman patrolling the area in his stolen cruiser and a senile neighbor peeping at teenage girls. Ground zero for the sense that something is rotten in Denmark is most obviously scene of the crime, the old Meyers house, breaking up the brightness of the neighborhood like a bad tooth, but it is hardly a lone culprit. Anyone who has spent any time in the suburbs – especially in their developmental years – knows all too well Laurie’s lingering fear of what might lurk behind the man-sized hedges cultivated to keep out intruders. In all these ways, Michael’s threat floats from place to place and person to person, keeping alive the awareness that a disgruntled segment of society might someday bite the hand that supposedly feeds it.

Even the environment chosen for Halloween was clearly selected for its every-town nature; though it was obviously filmed in California, the fabricated location of for the film’s events is Illinois. The inexplicable evil of Michael Meyers could roost anywhere, even behind one’s own eyes. Bob Clark’s Black Christmas predates Halloween by only four years, but Carpenter takes Clark’s cue, importantly, by consistently placing the audience behind the mask. The sensation is that Michael’s malice could arise anywhere – that in fact, it is almost relatable.

A cynical reading of this suggests that there is a vicarious thrill in watching Michael Meyers terrorize teen gigolos, teasing cheerleaders like PJ Soles’ proto-sorority slut, and even introverts with a bright future like Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode. It’s just as reasonable to imagine, however, that there is a similar thrill to be had in lashing out at a leisurely pre-labor class of young students who will grow up to inherit a different world, as members of Working America. Placing the audience behind the coarse perforations in the mask invites identification with this jealous, murderous angst – if not personal, than as a free-floating psychological ailment that might appear around any corner, in any incorporation. Michael Meyers could be anyone, because the nature of his rage can by sympathized with by anyone.

This generically versatile desire to visit vengeance upon people who are privileged, with pleasurable lives, perhaps highlights the failure of justice and reason in the social systems to which we subscribe – failures which were certainly being witnessed and lived in the world experienced by the film’s contemporary audience. In the attempted defense against the seemingly omnipresent evil of Michael Meyers local law fails, sanitary suburban social order fails and family ties only exacerbate it. Even psychiatry, in its mission to explain away bad behavior and cure it with evidence of its origins, fails in its confrontation with a prepubescent boy with no known motivation to murder both a relative and a stranger. It is exclusively the voice of Donald Pleasance, in combination with trick-or-treaters’ superstitions, that reveals a reasonable approach; evil does not come from an avoidable, assuageable source – because the potential to express it is in everyone. Throughout the film, babysitter Laurie grapples with her charges’ fears that there is a “boogeyman” who will come for them regardless of their innocence, while trying to suppress her suspicion that they are correct and she is just as viable a victim. Unfortunately, her precocious maturity in no way protects her from the marauding force that pursues her through the night with no weapon as exotic as a machete or a homemade fistful of blades, but rather an intimately familiar kitchen knife. Just as much as in 1979’s Alien, the horror comes from within – within the neighborhood, within the family, within the home, within anyone.

As the story concludes, Donald Pleasance’s Dr. Loomis, having long since given up on diagnosing young Michael’s disease as anything other than “pure evil,” substantiates Laurie’s heartbreaking admission “It was the boogeyman” with the stoic affirmation “As a matter of fact, it was.” Implicit in Loomis’ confirmation is our incapacity to provide a cause of this corrosive evil in human beings – the boogeyman isn’t Michael Meyers specifically, but anyone who becomes possessed by this sort of rage. No number of bullets will stop the archetypal force that is Michael Meyers, as is proven by the startling evaporation of his corpse at the apparent end of the ordeal. Just in case the point hasn’t been driven home yet, the final image is of the old Meyers house as seen through the eyes of Michael’s mask, accompanied by breathing so vivid you would swear it was your own.

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