Saturday, November 5, 2011

Halloween: The Shape of the Unheimlich

Whenever asked to name my favorite horror film I always arrive at one of two movies, both by the legendary John Carpenter: Halloween and The Thing (I’ll write about The Thing soon enough).  I find both to be strong contenders content wise and excellent examples of the qualities I am arguing for.  To wit, that a good film, regardless of its genre or labels, should not only deliver on the expectations of its audience, but also subvert those desires and produce something unasked for, but equally satisfying.
            Halloween is so beloved not because it’s another slasher with a body count, but instead because it is a thriller that delves into the uncanny.  Haddonfield isn’t just a town in Illinois; it’s also your hometown.  Laurie Strodes lives on your block.  Almost two-thirds of the story is dedicated to a day-in-the-life portrait of these young women, making the switch in the final portion all the more stark. 
            Not all of them are necessarily likable, but you have by this point spent enough time with them to know them as more than the card-board cutouts you might find in the lesser titles of the genre.  They feel like people that will be missed by someone and that makes their passing more real. Michael Myers is the caprice that fate sometimes deals out and these young women cannot escape him.  Carpenter has stated that all of his early films dealt with the notion of fate and how intractable and immutable it is.  Michael Myers is presented as an unstoppable force.  His motives are his own and nothing can deter him.  The terror and dread that you feel in watching this movie directly stems from the fact that Michael Myers’ motivations and thinking are unknowable and un-understandable.        
Not only is he incomprehensible internally, being unable to visually decipher him is also built into the film.  Just consider the approach taken to filming Myers.  He is almost always obscured and his actions take place almost exclusively in shadow: Peeking around a hedge, hemmed in by car windows, between a series of fluttering sheets and always surrounded by darkness.  Or, examine it more meta-textually—in the credits for this and all films, he isn’t listed as Michael Myers, he is The Shape.   

In each instance, it is clear that he is present, but impossible to determine his complete shape.

* * * *

            There are two ways that you can read this text and both versions are totally dependent on which edit you’re viewing.  Firstly, you can read it as part of a series, whereupon it is revealed that Myer’s is homing in on his long lost sister in order to fulfill some sort of familial bloodlust—the reasoning for which becomes increasingly more muddled and strained as the installments move on.  Or, secondly, as a stand-alone movie (as it indeed was during its initial release), John Carpenter’s singular take on the burgeoning slasher genre and not part one of an eight-part (or seven if you’re splitting hairs) franchise.  In this latter scenario Laurie is a beautiful, charming young-lady who has the misfortune of drawing the attention of one deranged individual.
I have seen both cuts of this film and feel that the original, theatrical edit is the superior.  The reason for this should be clear to any fan of the original: Halloween is an exercise in restraint.  The other cut, and sequels, give too much information, overstate the motives.
I completely see the reasoning behind the additional footage.  From a technical standpoint, when it was re-cut to be aired for television some of the more graphic moments had to be dropped, which necessitated filming new material to fill that space.  By this point the sequel had already been created and established the new continuity that the rest of the franchise would build on.
            But, the additional scenes in the extended cut fundamentally change the reading of the story.  The clearest instance of this is the bloodied word scrawled on his wall back at the asylum: SISTER.  With that one added detail, we can all breathe a collective sigh.  The movie becomes safer to watch.  It always had to be Laurie; this is her birthright.  Even had it been us who walked in front of the Myer’s house first that Halloween morning, he still would have chosen her.  We no longer have to worry tonight when we turn the lights off. 
Loomis senses the evil in Myers, knows of the preternatural patience, but Myers in this reading is still a man.  Not the avatar for the Spirit of Samhain or virtually immortal as he becomes in later installments.  He is human; he drives a car (There’s even that very upsetting sequence where he slowly follows Tommy as he heads home from school—it’s shot over the shoulder and feels so much like Kidnapper POV that I’m glad they only use it once.).  He eats, even if the only thing he could get was a stray dog. 
            To me that version is scarier.  I don’t anticipate running into too many druidic demi-gods in my lifetime, but the other reading—that sort of evil lives in many hearts—the other reading is the stuff headlines are made of.
            Of course to refer to him as a man gives the mistaken impression that he has conformed to what society would expect of that term.  He may be adult sized, but in many ways he stopped growing up the night he murdered his sister.  It’s evidenced by the Halloween style pranks he plays during the movie—stealing his sister’s headstone so that he can use it to scare Laurie, dressing up as a ghost before killing Linda or the macabre, but darkly funny, ways he hides the bodies for Laurie to find (they’re literally popping out at her).  But I think the most unsettling thing he does in this vein occurs right after he kills Linda’s boyfriend.  Myers pins the teenage boy to the wall like an entomologist and then stares at him as his life slips away.  He tilts his head from one side slowly to the other, almost as if he is confused by what is happening, like he didn’t know if he played that hard with his new toy it would break.

* * * *

To examine something, to shine a light upon it, the item in question must cast a shadow.  I feel this is the true value of the horror film.  It allows us to discard the saccharine sentimentalities and the plaintive dialogue of mainstream films and terrify us.  By exposing our fears, it points out the things we hold most dear.  By acting as a silhouette the darkness inherent in the horror film is capable of giving us the clearest outline of our souls.
            Halloween is terrifying not because some guy in a washed-out William Shatner mask is stalking about with a 15 inch blade, but because he is there at all.  Michael Myers is in our yards, in our garages, our bedrooms.  His blank face is waiting to be filled in by someone—perhaps that person you passed on the way to the car, the person in line beside you in the supermarket—and his motives, like his face, are never clear but still fatal.  He is the Boogey Man.  He can be anywhere for the simple fact that he can be anyone.  Laurie Strodes dropped a key off for her father and it aroused the attention of the wrong person.  Halloween reminds us that no matter how our work day might have gone, the errands we ran, the chores we performed, throughout the small and large of daily life there is always, always, underneath it all an ache that never stops buzzing: I want to feel safe.  Bringing that to light underscores just how quickly a situation can go from being labeled “secure” to being “dangerous”.
            Let’s take one of the film’s final moments as an example.  This scene fills me with dread like no other part: Laurie has narrowly escaped the first encounter with The Shape.  She smashes her way out of the neighbor’s house and limps her way back to the street.  The entire time she is screaming at the top of her lungs for help.  No one answers.  One house goes so far as to turn the lights on and peek through the window, but nothing else.  She is left to fend for herself as The Shape pursues.  This is a familiar street and she knows the people that live here.  None of that matters now that he is here.
What bothers me most about this scene is how starkly alone Laurie is revealed to be.  She might as well be on the moon—her neighbors simply refuse to help.  And what is truly horrifying is how this scene was inspired by a real event.  In 1964, Kitty Genovese was murdered in front of her apartment and anywhere from a dozen to 40 neighbors heard the attacks and her cries for help, but no one came to help her.  It makes my blood turn cold when I think about it.    
            Beyond the realm of fiction, the events in this movie have some anchor to the real world.  Freddy is a spirit, Jason a ghoul, Pinhead a demon (or angel to some), but Myers is a flesh and blood maniac. 
            And while you can argue that most of the killers in slasher movies were also flesh and blood maniacs, you have the extra removal from real life by the locale.  Halloween isn’t set at the first Valentine’s Dance in ten years in a remote mining town, or on Prom Night, or at a summer camp, or on a speeding party train—situations that you might find yourself in, but certainly far from ordinary backdrops.  Halloween, as I’ve said before, happens in our yards and our own homes.
And if there is one place in your day to day life that you should feel safe, it is your home.  That is the heart of the uncanny in this film—that the most familiar setting in your life should be un­-made, that your home should become an un-home.  How would you ever be able to sit down in your living room and watch a movie comfortably again knowing that he was there?  How would you be able to sleep in your bed?  It wouldn’t matter how many houses Laurie moved into from that point on, that thin veil, that illusion, that is our only security has already been cut.  When you get down to it our home is no more a fortress than any other place, but to challenge that, to make the center of our lives the springboard for such a threat is a subtle and truly insidious thing to do. 

Consider this final subversion: As a child the closet was always the place to be feared because it was from there that the monsters tried to escape.  It was dangerous because it was dark and unknown.  During Laurie’s final confrontation with The Shape, she hides in the closet.  Here the monster wants to break in.  And she is in the most danger in this scene when she is exposed by the light.  If the closet can be seen as a spiritual Pandora’s Box—everything evil we can imagine is contained within—what does it mean that The Shape wants to break in?  Or the role-reversal of light and shadow? 
It’s as if this creature wants to destroy Laurie (and by proxy us) on both levels, physically and mentally.  By leaving no corner secure, The Shape ensures that after this night we all understand that no one is ever truly safe.

Coming eventually...