It has been a while since I have provided any updates. Life has been influx, but I have decided to pick up writing once again.
Back in September 2013 I wrote a paper for a critical studies film course, shockingly I decided to pick a horror film. Unfortunately, to my dismay the instructor did not enjoy my paper due to its grotesque topic. For the remainder of the course I decided to make sure I only wrote on horror related themes. For the purpose of this particular assignment I opted to select my favourite film of all time, Halloween (1978) to review. The problem with this course was that as many of you know, John Carpenter’s Halloween is next to a perfect film. How does one critique a nearly perfect film? With great difficulty I assure you. Please have a read and enjoy.
John Carpenter’s film Halloween is a classic. The low-budget film created for a meagre $300,000 in 1978, was a first of its kind, becoming a template for the horror genre. Celebrating thirty-five years since its first release, there are few films in any genre that have maintained such momentum in entertaining audiences; and Halloween has not lost its eerie edge. With a shadowy figure and the film’s piercing score, it is no wonder that the birth of the boogeyman ultimately had a major impact in transforming the horror genre and inadvertently creating a new sub-genre, the slasher. This critical film analysis will provide core information regarding the film, and discuss its relationship within the horror genre and how it measures up to other films within the same genre. It will also discuss the impact that the film has made and depict where the film was successful or not.
For the purpose of this analysis, I will distinguish the horror genre from the slasher genre and provide insight into what makes Halloween a classic horror and slasher film. An effective horror film is one that is able to delve into our primal fears. It allows us to go to dark places where we are not comfortable going, yet cannot look away. I define a good horror film as one that stays with me long after the lights are turned off and the curtains drawn. The intention of a horror film is to elicit an aversive reaction from its viewers, tapping into our fears, often forcing us to face humanity’s greatest fear, death.
The methods filmmakers use to evoke such chilling reactions vary. Andrew Tudor suggests three main categories, including the scientific horror (monsters and aliens), horror of the psyche (psychotic killers) and the supernatural horror (witches and zombies) (Tudor, 1989). Halloween, with a cold senseless serial killer mutilating babysitters, clearly falls under the psychotic category. What Halloween did for the horror genre was create a benchmark for a new sub-genre, the slasher. The slasher was all but unknown in 1978. By the 1980s, the genre was being mass marketed by movie production companies, with filmmakers continually trying to up the anti by creating more graphic and imaginative death scenes (Wilshin, 2006). Encompassing this genre is the faceless unstoppable killer from whom, no matter what you do, you cannot escape. The slasher film is distinguished as a niche category of horror films depicting a psychotic, often supernatural-like villain who graphically violates victims, usually teenagers, using weapons, such as a pick axe or chainsaw.
Halloween provided the opportunity for subsequent filmmakers to bring their graphic visions to the silver screen. However, Halloween approaches its scare tactics with a more “tame” approach and sparsely uses gore. Instead of mass amounts of blood and guts, John Carpenter’s method was to capitalize on our own fears in our imagination. The presence of evil is personified behind the mask of a silent killer who slowly walks towards his victims and cocks his head innocently. Regardless of new innovative filming techniques and computer graphics, Halloween still maintains its status as a truly frightening film.
In 1960 when the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, released Psycho, audiences and future filmmakers were opened to the notion that no one in a film was off limits. The most sympathetic character could be the villain and the leading lady could be killed off. Prior to Psycho, horror films had largely gothic romantic themes to them, e.g., castles and Dracula (Cohen, 1986). Hitchcock changed this, and so began modern horror. John Carpenter was influenced by Psycho, depicted by the fact that his leading actress, Jamie Lee Curtis, was the daughter of Janet Leigh, who stared in Psycho. Paying homage to the earlier film, John Carpenter intentionally named his hero Sam Loomis after a character in Psycho. In retrospective analysis, Psycho was a clear predecessor in the slasher genre and was a landmark in the horror genre, paving the path for filmmakers like John Carpenter.
The opening shot of Halloween followed the villain through his eyes and acted as a camera showing us what he saw. The scene is reminiscent of the three-minute opening sequence in Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958), where the camera records a single uncut shot. The filmmakers of Halloween created their film based upon the ideas of the horror pictures they grew up watching and that inspired them. Halloween is the first of its kind that acknowledges that horror films exist, showing characters watching the film The Thing from Another World
Films take on the shape of the social factors and the era in which they are created. The dark film noir themes of the 1940s were in line with the depression and disillusionment of that era. The 1950s science fiction horror films were created in response to a fear of science and the unknown. According to the documentary film Nightmares in Red, White and Blue, John Carpenter felt that at the time Halloween was released there was a sense of dissatisfaction and people just wanted a good scare (Monument, 2009). He notes that the film was released at the time of the Jim Jones Jonestown suicides and the unpopular Jimmy Carter was president of the United States. He felt that there was a sense that things “were not quite right.” Perhaps these social elements along with the previous milestones that were achieved by other filmmakers, such as Alfred Hitchcock and George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead), allowed for an atmosphere for Halloween to be both a commercial and critical success.
Halloween has made an unmistakable imprint on cinema. However, there is some question as to what the horror genre is turning into. Much like opening Pandora’s box, have we opened a can of worms that we cannot undo? During the 1980s, the astronomical number of slasher films created was overwhelming. By the 1990s, people were oversaturated by gore and audiences seemed to have seen it all. During the early 2000s, a new wave of directors began to immerge. Eli Roth, Rob Zombie and James Wan, new visionaries in horror, used realistic gore and techniques that were so over the top that the slasher genre had to be renamed. These young, new directors who grew up watching films like Halloween, reinvented the genre again and turned the slasher genre into splatter horror, or torture porn (Bell et al., 2006).
While Halloween, is not a graphic film, perhaps some scenes depicted were far-fetched and unbelievable. The audience is required to suspend belief in that after the villain is shot dozens of times and falls from a three-story house, he is still capable of getting up again. This might be hard to believe for many viewers, as it requires a suspension of belief and a recognition that this is just a film for entertainment value.
Criticism surrounds women in the horror genre, suggesting female characters are depicted as weak and sexually exploited (Dika, 1991). It is beyond the scope of this analysis to delve into the details of women in horror, but for the purpose of this examination, I will comment on the women in Halloween. While certain critics made note of the sexual promiscuity of the female characters in the film, I find it ironic that in an exploitation film like Halloween, its heroine is an intelligent forthright woman who fights back against adversity. Perhaps the only weakness in the film is the lack of character development. We only get to know the female lead, while the other characters are senselessly butchered when engaging in sexual acts.
The question remains, is realistic gore unhealthy for viewers and is it subversive and dangerous? My opinion is that graphic depictions actually promote a de-sanitized notion of horror, showing us that there is nothing pretty to it, depicting how ugly and awful horror and death can be. Regardless of what critics seem to think about where the genre is going, it is clear that it is still popular; the remake of Friday the 13th (Nispel, 2009) opening weekend earned over $40,000,000 (Boxoffice Mojo, 2009).
The easiest genre to criticize is horror; critics question the value of watching individuals being mutilated on screen. What is valuable is that it allows us to experience our humanity. There is a lot of darkness to the art of horror, but it also allows us to play with our fears and fantasies in a safe way. Fear is not bad; it is a real emotion and we have to deal with it. Films such as Halloween allow us to confront and cope with our feelings about death.
Halloween struck a cord, because everyone can relate to the terror of being stalked by a faceless man in a white mask, unlike a creature from a black lagoon. Those averse to the film point out the lack of motive behind the killing. My opinion is that the brilliance of the slasher film is that a motive is unnecessary, the killer could be anyone and we do not know why. Spawning nine subsequent films in its franchise, including a remake of the original film, Halloween continues to influence generations of filmmakers. There is no doubt that the film has made an impact on the genre, however the question is open as to whether the impact is positive or negative. Much like how horror films are treated as the black sheep of the industry, I propose that depending on what your feelings are towards the horror genre, the answer will be either supportive or against it. Regardless of personal preference, there is no doubt that Halloween is a historic classic.