Frankenstein has never scared me. This is the result of a lifetime of knowing the monster only as a cutesy Halloween figure, clomping and moaning in cartoons or puttin’ on the ritz in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein. I can appreciate Boris Karloff’s gifts, but I’m just too far removed for those 1930s films to have much impact. Sometimes when an archetype has gone stale it needs to put on a new face to remind us why it was so frightening to begin with. I was reminded of this when Julien Allen, writing for Reverse Shot, compared Michael Myers of Halloween to the monster. The threat these characters pose is so basic we can miss it among more convoluted horror ideas — it’s just a very big man who intends to kill you and can’t be reasoned with. If Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) is to be believed, Michael also carries on the metaphysical horror present in the Frankenstein story, because he is a living human without a soul.
The doctor’s frustration is understandable. He had spent fifteen years as the young man’s psychiatrist, never getting a single word out of Michael. That’s enough time for even the most patient of caregivers to lose hope. As Loomis put it, he “spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up.” There wasn’t going to be any rehabilitation here, because this wasn’t just a criminal, but a manifestation of Evil. This movie gives us a perfectly weighted binary of character types that I’ve always found fascinating: the loquacious, philosophical doctor and the mute, intractable slasher.
As tempting as it is to leave the discussion with those broad categories of Good vs. Evil, since Halloween gets at essential primitive horrors befitting the movie’s title, there’s more to Michael Myers than that. He wouldn’t be such an enduring character if there weren’t. The first-person perspective used in the film’s audacious opening makes the whole story a tragedy. We meet him as a six-year-old on Halloween night, sneaking around outside and looking through the windows of his house as his older sister does things with a teenage boy that Michael is too young to understand. Something in him fractures, and he stabs her to death. It all started when he forgot his mask. He had his costume, but in the excitement of going trick-or-treating, he forgot to put on the mask that goes with it, and he decided to go back for it. This revelation is perfectly timed in the scene, after Michael gets the knife from the kitchen but before he reaches the stairs to his sister’s room. First we feel recognition, then heartbreak, and then shock. This is the last time the movie will explicitly take on Michael’s point of view, but it’s all we need. This event is the dark inversion of a superhero origin story. From this point, Michael is the Bogeyman.
An entire subgenre of cinema owes its existence to Michael’s choice of victims after breaking out of a mental hospital and going on a killing spree in his hometown. There can’t possibly be much more to say about it, except that it’s clearly an extension of that same childhood trauma. Michael can only deal with teenage sexuality through murder. He’s not exactly a poster child for abstinence advocacy (he uses a knife, and what do knives resemble?). But his aim seems to be revenge on those who, like his sister, stop looking after the little kids on Halloween night so they can fool around upstairs. There’s definitely a hint of morality in that. Unfortunately, his rage oversteps even those boundaries. Not even the good girl is safe.
Along with Dr. Loomis, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is the main figure representing Good in this story. Her archetype — pretty but not exceptionally so, shy, bookish, responsible — is so often caricatured that it’s inspiring to see her nobility shine through in this film. We don’t need side moments revealing her to be a klutz, a know-it-all, or even a prude. She’s too busy doing her job (babysitting) to wag a finger at her friends. These two protagonists are a surrogate for the audience; we feel their fear. The terror of Michael Myers strikes at them from opposite angles. Loomis knows all about Michael — where he’s going and why, what he intends to do — he just can’t find him. Laurie has no idea who this strange man is who keeps following her around and staring at her — only to disappear before she can confront him — but he won’t leave her alone. The uncertainty, the helplessness, the anxiety are all carefully established long before the attack comes. When it does, all three elements are exploded as a safe, quiet neighborhood becomes an isolated prison.
John Carpenter’s film is great not only as a horror story but as a piece of craftsmanship. Its visual elegance alone is masterful — Dean Cundey’s Panaglide camera restlessly moving around the small town as though it’s trying to spot the same person we are, the wide screen tempting us with a broad field of vision that still leaves plenty of room to hide. Michael’s legend owes to his uncanny ability to glide in and out of sight; this effect is achieved through composition and editing, punctuated by the jolts of music familiar to anyone who’s seen many horror films. Carpenter himself composed the minimalist score for the film, surely one of the most effective in movie history.
I find every element of this film thrillingly satisfying. Is it still scary? That’s hard to measure. But it certainly hasn’t been declawed. Maybe its claws will erode over time. Parodies, reinterpretations, and knock-offs have already been plentiful in the thirty-five years since the movie’s release. They will continue, and I’m sure they’ll ultimately make The Shape seem just as harmless as The Monster. On the other hand, the filmmaking here is so potent that I think Halloween will always work for people who are willing to get swept up in it. The visceral sensations are great, but the movie isn’t just about fearing the reaper. It’s about the sins of the past coming back to a town that had failed to bury them properly. That’s a common theme in the horror genre: suburban life as a whitewashed tomb. The reason we can’t see Michael coming is that we’ve chosen to forget him.