To call John Carpenter’s Halloween “rarified” is a laughable understatement. Near forty years after its original release, Halloween is still a high water-mark for American horror movies in addition to a host of other things: a shadow-clad monument to the emotionally disruptive capabilities of genre; a progenitor of all sorts of cinematic archetypes and methodologies that have been employed since by hundreds of filmmakers desperate to emulate the terror of Michael Myers’ first traipse through the suburbs; a chief reason I had to spend as many nights in my parents’ bed as I did (the other being the blair witch who, I was convinced, would start doing home invasions any fuckin’ second now).
What makes Halloween’s deification all the more stunning is how confoundingly simple a film it is. Aside from a few vaguely-defined introductory locations, the film’s action is geographically restricted to a few square miles in the fictional suburb of Haddonfield, Illinois, and said action is defined by its paucity: there is a force killing young people. There is a doctor who is trying to stop him. There is a young woman who wants desperately not to die. That’s it.
And sure, when contrasted with the nigh-infinite number of critical analyses and paens this film has inspired, the above summary may come of as a little glib, or perhaps an understatement akin to calling Inland Empire a movie about a “woman in trouble.” But truly, that’s all there is. The Force. The Doctor. The Young Woman.
We know this story; variations on the escaped lunatic yarn have been haltingly barked across campfires since a time I don’t feel like googling, and were doubtless boogie-boarding into cliche by the time 1978 rolled around. But this is the film’s greatest strength, one that separates it from other early examples of slasherdom: wheras previous examples of the nascent genre are enamored of the gothic (Psycho, Silent Night, Bloody Night) or the perverse (Texas Chainsaw, The Hills Have Eyes), Halloween, through its upended protagonists and campfire-tale narrative, presents the familiar as the ultimate breeding ground for unease.
Michael Myers’s implacable motivations (implacable at least, when ignoring the careless caulking of Halloween’s sequels and remake) do not refute this notion. Despite the fact that the Shape’s nature remains alien doesn’t impact his ability to curdle the comfortable, aptly demonstrated by the film’s bravura opening sequence. We follow the six-year-old Myers as he skulks about his home, the audience caged in his point of view as he dons a mask and murders his teenage sister. Still clutching the knife, he bounds down the stars, bloodstained and heavy-breathed, swinging open the front door to discover his parents arriving home from wherever. They approach, his father tears the mask from Myers’ face. And, in a tone of voice that suggests no shock, no fear, just gentle confusion, his father asks simply:
Alien as this killer may seem by film’s end, Carpenter goes out of his way in this opening scene to demonstrate that Michael Myers is known. Explicated in that single, plaintive question on the part of his father is the terrifying notion that ultimate darkness can lurk anywhere, and you may not notice it until it is rooted, until it is every day, until it is standing there holding a bloody knife and until it is and yours. And the audience, banging frantically on the door locking us inside Myers’s head as he kills the first of many, have gotten their first taste of powerlessness.
When the film jumps forward fifteen years (October 30th, 1978 to be specific), we are revealed protagonists dangerously blinkered by what they know: Sam Loomis and Laurie Strode. Loomis is a child psychologist and knows everything there is to know about our killer (“everything there is to know” essentially boiling down to “he’s a real goofed up dude”), and upon Michael’s escape from incarceration Loomis races to Haddonfield, certain that our killer would revisit his familial stabbing grounds the second the opportunity to do so presented itself. Loomis knows Michael. However, this knowledge makes no difference. Upon his arrival in the idyllic suburb, Loomis almost immediately anchors all of his attention to the Myers’ now-dilapidated homestead, his utter confidence in Michael’s homeward-bound nature blinding him to the horrors that would occur just across the street. In fairness, Loomis is correct: Michael did indeed pay a visit to the old property, but far earlier than her had anticipated. By the time the good doctor makes the decision to stake out the Myers’ house, Michael had arrived there, set up shop, and subsequently abandoned his old home with his eyes trained on targets new: Laurie Strode.
The Doctor couldn’t stop the Force. We know this story.
Though Laurie survives the night He came home, she too is undone by a confidence corrupted. Over the course of Halloween day, Laurie gradually becomes suspicious– is she being followed? That she repeatedly catches sight of Myers in mid-pursuit (she spots his unmoving Shape through a classroom window, she glimpses him on her way back from school, unhurriedly shuffling behind a hedge) does not engender a “YES” loud enough to spark any kind of a response from her parasympathetic nervous system. After all, Laurie Strode knows Haddonfield. And no amount of rattling cars with shadowy drivers or worried mutters from the children she babysits will convince her of the fact that something truly and unspeakably Bad could be breathing in her hometown’s houses until it’s well beyond too late.
The young woman didn’t think anything was amiss. We know this story.
Loomis’ bullish confidence allows for the death of three young people: his eyes glued to a an abandoned house made doubly so by Michael earlier that morning, our killer bounds around that very same block, unmaking with impunity while an old man watches a dead house. Laurie’s passive faith in her hometown’s ultimate geniality, strong enough to soothe fears of a masked and distant stranger, is spidercracked by the discovery of her butchered friends and kicked through by the man who killed them.
We know this story.
And it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference.
Carpenter lets us sit and steep in our collective prognosis, just as he lets his protagonists steep in their perceived grasp of the presented situation. Our knowing a killer is on the loose in Haddonfield, a killer who has absconded the only place he’s expected to be is turned into a torture by the film, the feeling of superiority that dramatic irony grants an audience gradually giving way to begging subservience as minute after minute of the film are devoted to little but these characters living their lives, either ignorant of what’s fated to happen or trying in vain to stop it. The sick thrill of knowing a doom is incipient curdles, the clash between audience and character awarenesses throwing sparks in our faces as we’re forced to consider that the people in a horror story we know like the back of our hands are just that: people. Not shallow archetypes, not grist for the grand guignol mill, people. We know this story and when Laurie stumbles through houses much like her own, the manhandled corpses of people she doubtless never considered her life without falling about her as she’s pursued by something that simply should not be, that knowledge becomes tragedy.
When the dust settles, Loomis and Laurie left standing and The Shape seemingly shot dead, we see two people, disparate in vocation, age, experience, and personality, come to the conclusion that anyone would in those circumstances: they do not know anything at all. And as Sam Loomis looks out the window at where Michael Myers’s body should be, it should be right there and it is not, as Laurie Strode begins to sob because everything everything everything is wrong we see two people realize something else: they will never know anything again.
And it’s frightening to know we couldn’t help them at all.