Halloween I: Michael Myers’ First Blood

John Carpenter Halloween
“I’m not sold on the nose, but this mask is gonna have to do…”

This Halloween Jokerside turns to a true original, the definitive horror that to carved out the 1980s slasher genre as easily as dicing pumpkin. Halloween, one story, two films of two distinct halves…

IT WAS 1976’S HUMBLY PRODUCED AND KINETIC ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 THAT BROUGHT PRODUCERS TO JOHN CARPENTER’S SUBURBAN PORCH (MAYBE…) WITH THE AIM OF EMULATING WILLIAM FRIEDKIN’S THE EXORCIST. A SCRIPT FOR THE BABYSITTER MURDERS WOULD SOON TRANSFORM INTO THE FILM THAT’S CREDITED WITH CREATING THE HORROR SLASHER GENRE. Sure, producer Irwin Yablans suggested the name, and setting it during that ready-made night, but the main spark came from trusting in the low budget, inexperienced director and tight shooting schedule. The Shape had arrived in a very, very real world.

Psycho’s Norman Bates had shocked audiences in 1960, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Leatherface appeared four years before Halloween. But the Shape, Michael Myers, was something else. An unstoppable force that didn’t wait, but hunted. He came for you, unrelentingly, following a repeating formula and putting the homicidal figure of uncertain and damaged origins front and centre rather than the victims. Jason and his mum would follow within two years, Freddy four years after that.  Halloween, 1978. When the slasher horror film arrived.

Halloween (1978)

“The night HE came back”

It was a gift of a name, Halloween. And having impressed with thrilling actioner Assault on Precinct 13, John Carpenter and horror was to prove a genre match in ‘heaven’. Much of what makes Halloween the film it is comes from its limited resources. But many of those traits, from the long sequential tension, the simple shots and use of point of view, soon became definitive in the horror genre. Looking back along a franchise now numbering 10 films, via one reboot, this first film is a glorious trip back to ponderous lingering shots of banal suburbia. One that shows a defiant lack of gore.

Carpenter has named that his favourite shot is the one that brings us bang up to date to Haddonfield on Halloween 1978.  A short title against the wide shot of a suburban street cross-section, autumn leaves falling in the light wind, no one in sight. It’s the first of many hanging shots, and perhaps the one that reminds most of The Exorcist.

Leaves aren’t the only things falling. That shot drips with anticipation following confident sequences of strikingly different character. First, the simple titles. The black backdrop, unveiling the credits as a carved Pumpkin looms ever closer, just like the unstoppable Shape to come. And all the way to that close-up on the pumpkin’s eye and the nose, that music. As Carpenter said of his score, it was a luxury to have three days after only having only one to soundtrack Assault on Precinct 13. Iconic, chilling, relentless, unreal. Long before we see the Myers’ house, Halloween is iconic. And in preparing us for the necessary and riveting monotony it’s the perfect primer.

Haddonfield USA, Halloween night 1963

“Don’t forget to drop off the key at the Myers place…”

Revelations may pop up later in the franchise, but Halloween has little regard for flashbacks. The central character and his 15 missing years, requires only a few lines to bring us up to speed. In those 15 years nothing has happened to Myers bar convince one particular Doctor that he is pure evil.

The film opens with an extended POV shot that would become synonymous with the franchise. Looking back on this and its immediate sequel, it’s astonishing how little is revealed to the audience or the characters. The first lines we hear “We are alone aren’t we?” “Michael’s around someplace,” pretty much sum it up. If there was any doubt before, it’s suddenly clear that we’re seeing through the eyes of an unknown. And that position of privilege reveals nothing, the clinical movements that take in the victim, then the upstairs light going out, before on the first floor an arm picks up a mask and we see a clown’s sleeve. Then the vicious attack, the climb down the stairs and the revelation that we’ve been Michael. A small emotionless boy of six carrying a huge knife. Descending chords rub the incipient horror in while Carpenter has the camera detach and distance itself – one of the few times it rises into the air to summon judgement on the act we’ve been implicit in.

Smith’s Grove, Illinois. Oct 30 1978

“Just try to understand what we’re dealing with here.”

The night he came home. If only, that sub-title had made that still. This is all about the killer. And as he never speaks, Halloween effectively portrays the Shape through two players. There’s Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie, with her strangely heightened awareness of Myers from the first time she senses him. And then there’s Donald Pleasance’s wonderfully off-beat Dr Loomis, first seen during the asylum break-out. Wanting to pump Myers full of Thorazine, we realise the magnitude of the threat through the doctor’s fear – although until the end of his story he never escapes the wrongful appropriation of blame. The absurdity of that institution break-out, as scary as it is baffling, does propel the plot. And it brings the characters first strange realisation: Loomis has gifted Myers a car to travel 100 miles to Haddonfield, to arrive like Dracula landing at Whitby aboard the Demeter. And after 15 years of silent incarceration, Myers can drive. Not only that, but he stays in that car for some time; his methodical, calm control showing us a lot about the character.

Exploring the town

“He’s waited for it, inhumanly patient”

While cars play their part, much of the build-up, during the day of Halloween itself, is taken up with walking. First the handy plot point that Laurie Strode drops off the keys at the old Myers’ house on behalf of her realty company owning father. And inside the sudden realisation that Myers is inside. As he walks onto the path, and for the first time we hover just behind his shoulder, just off POV, we hear the distinctive breathing of the Shape. He already has his victim in shot. It would take a long time to realise what the plan is, but there is one. There has to be. At this point, we never see his face, although a boy who later runs into him does before Myers lets him run away so he can continue to hunt his quarry. Later, Loomis chilling deduction is that he’s been 15 years in silent preparation, “waiting for this hour”.

Laurie and Loomis

“So he came home”

Fine lines of foreshadowing and theme exploration run through Halloween. As Laurie sits in school, studying fate and showing us her fine grasp of the topic, she sees the Shape across the street. “Fate never changes” is the message and at that point the message is clear: Laurie Strode will meet her end thanks to this stalker.

Jamie Lee Curtis plays a classic ingénue here. Obeying her parents, teased by her friends, having trouble with boys and babysitting well and responsibly. All she is lacking is the traditional naivety. Laurie is supernaturally aware of the threat from the beginning.

“You can ignore it, or you can help me stop it.”

On the other side of the equation, Loomis’ worst fears are confirmed when he finds Michael Myer’s sister’s grave has been interfered with, the gravestone taken. But while that reinforces the facts for him and us, it doesn’t make him anymore believed in Haddonfield. In recent years, John Carpenter’s pointed out that no one really talks to him when it comes to remaking his films, and there’s a wry feeling that Loomis foreshadows that.

Laying out the cards

““Annie, someday you’re going to get all of us in deep trouble.”

Laurie and her friends have various encounters with the Shape, but it’s only Laurie who has a heightened awareness that adds to his unsettling presence.  For the rest of the group, it’s misdirection. “I hate a guy with a car and no Sense of humour” says Annie at one point.

The audience often sees where Myers is, but Carpenter still manages to pull a growing sense of tension from his circling, even in the broad daylights and lined drives of suburban Haddonfield. The hedge appearance is particularly effective. It’s hard not to see the future unfold in the girls’ return from school, where Laurie loses her friends to their homes one by one. In a reverse of the earlier shoulder hover, Myers gets close to Laurie in the infamous scene where he stands behind a hedge. Of course, he’s gone when she arrives, after some prodding by her mischievous friend Annie, and there follows one of the film’s best scares as she bumps into Annie’s father, Sheriff Brackett.

Later Myers appears in porches, under trees, amid clothes on washing lines. His plan may not require menace, but it isn’t derailed by him making himself visible. He’s clearly exercising some caution as he is only detected by individual characters until the endgame.

It’s all the more effective as his first onscreen murder (in the main time frame) occurs 51 minutes into the film, a prolonged strangulation. When Loomis had earlier stumbled across an abandoned truck on his way to Haddonfield, he had failed to find the former occupant’s body that we see.

While Myers’ game unwinds, Loomis is arbitrarily circling him. When Annie and Laurie (meta-listening to Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear the Reaper from 1976) come across the store break-in, we also find Loomis there, waiting for the Sherriff as Myers’ station wagon slides quietly past in pursuit of Laurie. “All they took was a Halloween mask, rope and a couple of knives” says the sheriff of the robbery, influencing not only horrors to come but future film characters like The Dark Knight’s version of the Joker.

Halloween night

“Halloween night is when you play tricks on people and scare them. It’s all make believe.”

It’s in these cars that we reach the night of Halloween and the fruition of Myers’ impossible plan. And having reached that night, for the first time we see him in the distinctive blanched mask. That mask has become the stuff of legend. When no mask passed muster it was a modified Captain Kirk mask picked up on the day of shooting that became the Shape. And it’s effective. Roughly human, but emotionless. It’s not the equivalent of the hockey mask to come, or a disfigurement like Freddy’s. Many slashers have donned a mask, but none are as dehumanising as Myers’. Sure, no store would sell that, but if they did the only taker would be one who, as Loomis states, “isn’t a man”.

Part of the reason that Loomis is impossible to believe is because he’s so devout, unswerving and dedicated. It’s with him that we again walk through the derelict Myers house. As the Sheriff deduces, “seems to me you’re just plain scared”. One of the finer moments comes when Loomis later chuckles when scaring some of the trick and treating kids, a generous moment to breathe, although he remains jumpy.

The Shape

“Death has come to your little town Sherriff”

Loomis describes Myers as possessing “no conscience, no reason, no understanding”.  More tellingly he describes first meeting the six year old with his “blank, pale, emotionless face”. That mask, the famous dehumanising mask, is just a representation of what’s underneath.

Incarcerated and silent, Myers’ abilities are more than those fastidiously remembered from the first six years of his life. Loomis says that “what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply evil”. It’s implied that he is driven by another force. In the second film Loomis states that he didn’t move for 15 years, implying that he has incredible muscle ability to match his smooth driving. When he later approaches Annie’s house, the family Alsatian barks at him, a sure sign of the supernatural.

And then there’s the immortality.

Victims

“Can’t I get your ghost, Bob?”

Myers only has one victim in mind, the reason for that remains unrevealed during this 90 minutes. Although the reappearance of Judith Myers’ tombstone shows that he has a message in mind, other deaths only serve to help him reach that final goal. In both cases, Laurie’s two best friends fulfil much of what would become a staple of slashers – extra-marital sex, loose morals, substance abuse, reckless abandon and disrespect. Still, in between the tense cupboard lurking, the Shape takes time for some extraordinary moments. Slaying Lynda’s boyfriend Bob by pinning him to a door with a single jab, Carpenter lets the camera linger on Myers as he surveys his work. Again, the only sound is his breathing. And then, in what might be the only moment of improvisation, he oddly confronts Lynda in a sheet earing Bob’s glasses.

It’s easy to think of that knife being perpetually melded to the Shape’s hand. He uses strangulation just as much however, and the only time his aim is noticeably and strangely off is when he has Laurie finally in distance. The final act of the film repositions the main players into separate houses. In this suburbia, those houses act like islands, something that would be later picked up to similarly good effect in A Nightmare on Elms Street. Laurie has to leave hers and cross the sea of the road to come into contact with Myers. A necessary confrontation. Loomis is similarly adrift in that sea for most of the film, until the flare of the escaping children brings him to the right house. As the action switches from the Wallace house to the Doyle House, where Laurie has two charges, one of the tensest moments comes when she can’t get through the threshold. When she does at the last moment, the trick is of course that she and the audience suddenly have no idea where Myers is as soon as that ‘safe’ door closes. The fact that her safe house isn’t her own is a vague hint to her origins, not that we’d learn them here. Certainly, the house evens things up as she is able to wound Myers when he mishits yet again.

The boogeyman

“You can’t kill the boogeyman”

The personification of Myers as the boogeyman is something the film makes expressly clear at the end. Earlier, her young charge Tommy Doyle is taunted about the boogeyman by school bullies, and later becomes transfixed with the idea. Laurie and Loomis are the only ones capable of harming him. Indeed, his home invasion turns Laurie into a killer. When she takes refuge in yet another cupboard she makes a remarkable weapon from a wire coat hanger. But soon realises that she’s foolish to leave him. Along with multiple stabbings, Myers escapes five bullets from Loomis and a fall from a first storey balcony.

His unnatural rising behind Laurie for his final attack is one for the film’s definitive moments.  His unmasking, where for just a fleet second we see his perfectly human, slightly injured face is affecting, especially when he pulls the mask back on before continuing his plan. A pause that gives Loomis his moment.

“It was the bogey man” “As a matter of fact, it was”

But of course, despite the injury the body is gone. There is something else at work, and Carpenter is right to leave on the strangely knowing look on Loomis’s face. That this isn’t over, says Pleasance’s face. Although that look would be the first thing the sequel changed. Shots of the rooms around the neighbourhood, backed by the same unstuttered breathing, show that Myers is built into the fabric.

Halloween II (1981)

“Miss Strode allegedly shot and killed Myers herself after being abducted on Halloween night…”

Produced three years after the phenomenal success of the original (generating 200 times its budget in returns), Carpenter stepped back from directing to produce the sequel that added gore to the formula.  And those weren’t the only changes in a film that takes place immediate after the events of Halloween.

There’s a mighty twist in the wings, and a reconstruction of the first film’s final moments make some changes immediately clear. In the repeated scramble with Laurie, Michael Myer’s face is obscured when his mask is removed. He remains the Shape. And following the plunge there’s no haunted look from Loomis. This time the doctor makes his way down to the grass to find, in disbelief, that the impression and blood are there but the body is not. The knowing glance of the previous film is gone, instead Loomis’ desperation is reset.

Later comes the story’s big reveal. A twist that indirectly makes more sense of the tight original while demanding some factual changes. As Loomis is forcibly recalled from Haddonfield he learns that Laurie is Michael’s younger sister, removed from the name and all knowledge after Michael’s actions. Her heightened awareness, here a little more obvious in her dreams, and his pursuit suddenly has a reason. It doesn’t destroy the original concept, although it requires slightly more suspension of disbelief. It was clear that a meditated plot carried out with such dedication and calm perseverance required a grand purpose. But it’s less realistic that it comes now, than it is true.  That said, some reminders are surprising. It’s half an hour in to the film, two hours into the story, that Laurie discovers her attacker was the Michael Myers.

In this film bookended by the Chrodettes’ Mr Sandman, the most important thing is the exploration of what happens when an unstoppable killer’s deliberately laid plan goes awry.

Unravelling

“I shot him six times! This guy he’s not human!”

Unfortunately, as Roger Ebert neatly surmised, Halloween II depends on the idiot plot. Having lost many of the original players, the action follows Laurie Strode to the local hospital, and a new cast of victims. The family connection isn’t the only piece of retconning, now Laurie suddenly has male attention. Other hospital workers are there to make up the body count, a phenomenal spree of 10 as we are informed at the close. One particularly excruciating side note sees the film’s belligerent joker lure his nurse girlfriend to a hydrotherapy pool they can use it as a hot tub. Erratic behaviour, especially with the murder spree that’s unravelled in the nearby town. While utterly superfluous murder for its own sake, something the first film managed to skirt around, Myer’s silent murder and then the sickening sight of his girlfriend mistaking the shape’s hand for her boyfriend’s are memorable. Even when the street is boiled down to the corridors of a hospital, the tightly coiled cat and mouse chase of the original is lost.

The perfect disguise

“Haddonfield was a pretty quiet town before tonight…”

There are parts of the concept that the second film takes and expands. The most effective is that for all the talk of the boogeyman and Halloween pranks that the first film played on, here we see better than ever that this is the one night Myers can walk the streets unimpeded, hidden among the trick or treaters. There is an effective return of the over shoulder shot when Myers hears from the news reports where Laurie has been taken.

That’s another addition. While the first film played on mystery, the later part of the night unfolds against the press reports that not only a killer is on the loose in Haddonfield, but it is Michael Myers. It’s a whole different canvas, with effective scenes letting the news remind us of the first film’s events while Myers gathers a weapon and sets about Laurie’s neighbours. In the café, rumours of seeing Myers have already spiralled into speculation that someone swore they saw Michael Myers. As the Shape follows his victim to the hospital, he leaves a mob in his wake throwing stones at the Myers house.

“One of their number was butchered…”

Weakness of gore

“I suppose if we left the door open we could hear if someone was coming or if the kids started to cry“

Myer’s may seem more knife happy now, but that would change. What is instantly noticeable is the upping of the gore. Halloween II brings the whites of Myers’ eyes as his first onscreen victim’s blood splatters from her slit throat. But a weakness comes from diversifying Myers’ MO in pursuit of this. Although Halloween II was designed to end his story, it’s a classic case of sequelitus. During the pointless hot tub scene, the Shape increases the pool temperature to lure the couple apart, a sign of unnecessary stealth – before he drowns the nurse in boiling water. At other times he abandons strangulation and the knife to bludgeon a security guard with a hammer, and is controlled enough to inject a nurse in the eye with a hypodermic needle who has come across Laurie’s doctor in the same state. That said, Myers has no doubt seen a fair few syringes during his 15 years of incarceration.

From the discovery of Doctor Mixter’s corpse, the audience is one step behind the killer; other characters uncover a body at a time. That reaches a peak when Laurie’s flame discovers the dragon nurse of the ward has had her blood let across the floor and promptly slips in it and knocks himself out. It’s a startling image, but poses more questions about Myers’ abilities and how that could fulfil what was such a singular goal earlier in the day.

Alongside this, Myers’ supernatural powers develop further. One poor nurse is impaled and lifted from the floor by scalpel on one arm. Later, his immortality already has the power to affect events as Loomis takes efforts to keep a Marshall away from his body. And fails.

Raising the stakes

“You don’t know what death is”

Dramatically, Halloween II isn’t as tight as its predecessor. Much of that comes from recapturing the concept of the original. Aside from the early reframing of Loomis, Myers needs to be allowed time to escape and regain his menace. And that comes from a tragic mistake by Loomis himself, as the even more deranged doctor mistakes a trick or Treater for Myers only for the suspect to be hit by a car and engulfed in a fireball. Unlike the characters we’re absolutely aware that this is an innocent, and while it buys the plot time and puts Loomis back into his lone-voice role, it sticks that this this horror isn’t really confronted and Loomis doesn’t get his comeuppance before his noble end. It’s all the worse when we find the police car that ran the innocent over was carrying the news of Annie’s death to her Sherriff’s father. While it’s believable that the news would remove him from the picture, it also denies him dramatic revenge.

“Damn you, what have you done?”

The Celtic Twist

“It’s the unconscious mind, we’re all afraid of the dark inside ourselves”

Halloween II may continue a number of tropes from the first film through its cut phone lines and handy cupboards (although, those are more red herring than in the first film), but a new expanded mythology takes precedence. That’s particularly acute when direct reference are made to sequences in Halloween. Near the end there’s a nice nod back to the street chase and locked front door of the first film, this time enacted just a few hours later in the hospital carpark. This time though, once Laurie has gained entrance, the unstoppable killer proves the point by smashing through the glass door that had stopped Laurie. The odds are firmly stacked in his favour, especially considering his immortality. And by this time, another twist has brought ancient themes into the mix.

Combined and tangled with the familial revelation, Halloween II’s storytelling is broader and more confused than its predecessor. Loomis discovers that Myers has scrawled “Samhain” in blood on a school wall shortly before the doctor’s removed from the action (only for that to direct him straight back into it, thanks to his desperation and concealed familial information). The ancient Celtic festival drags the idea of ritual and sacrifice uneasily into Myers’ motivation.

“He waited with extraordinary patience. There was a force inside him biding its time”

Not as neat as the first film’s foreshadowing, it does set up an inevitable conclusion in fire. The endgame to the hospital boiler room where Loomis chooses a terrible time to hesitate, and is wounded. While Laurie’s once and only drawing on her brother’s name causes the killer to pause himself, she displays her own inexplicable skill and unswerving accuracy in shooting both his eyes.  The sight of the giant impaired, swiping blindly, sticks in the mind as Loomis and Laurie prime the gas.

“It’s time Michael”

Of course, it ends in fire – the Samhain prophecy predicted that. Although fire, nature’s greatest cleanser isn’t quite enough to wipe out the excess baggage of the sequel that concluded the lean original. While the second film isn’t as nuanced in its foreshadowing, it at least has enough conviction to finish the story. While the first ended on a  question and shots of the domestic, now it’s a burning mask that’s seared into Laurie’s mind as much as ours. The story is ended, Myers, Loomis and other victims along with it.

The Shape was gone. For seven years…

This Halloween retrospective will continue without the Shape in Halloween III, before his miraculous recovery In Halloweens IV, V and VI

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