Reflections in a Flickering Eye
The horror genre has always reflected social anxieties. Mary Shelley’s novel about a re-animated corpse summarized unease about the monsters science and technology might unleash; electricity was just starting to be understood and used, and it’s no coincidence that the mystical life-bestowing element in Shelley’s tale was lightning.
Or how about Bram Stoker’s "Dracula?" The original novel pre-dates hunky teens with fangs and the image of vampire as immortal, forever young and sexy, the rock star of darkness-dwelling creatures. In Stoker’s novel, the aristocratic Count Dracula stood in for all his social class: The entitled and soulless beast that literally sucked the lifeblood out of the peasantry in order to maintain his own fruitless existence.
In 1978, filmmaker John Carpenter put his finger squarely on the pulse of our modern fears when he directed a film called "Halloween." The movie’s script, by Carpenter and producer Debra Hill, sketched out a new kind of monster: The wordless, relentless, unkillable maniac with a knife whose main demographic, both as a killer and as a movie icon, was hormone-addled teens.
In a way, Michael Meyers prefigured the current zombie craze. Like a zombie, he’s driven by insane hunger, even if it is a hunger that centers on inflicting death. (That said, there’s a nice touch in the original movie in which Michael’s psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis [Donald Pleasance], together with a local sheriff, stumbles across a half-devoured dog -- the remains of a recent meal.) Also like a zombie, Michael Meyers doesn’t run; his approach is steady, inexorable, and expressionless.
And he wears a mask. This is the coup de grace, the brilliant finishing touch that boosts Michael Meyers from grinder film baddie to bona fide boogeyman. Who is underneath that blank white mask (reportedly cast from William Shatner’s face)? Michael could be anybody.
Horror films are fun because they are a cinematically bloody, but harmless, means of confronting half-buried fears. Much of the horror genre is, in fact, quite funny; I’ve long regarded the original "Halloween" to be something of a comic gem, given its over-the-top absurdities. These days -- and the Rob Zombie remakes are as guilty of this as the original movie’s sequels, to say nothing of the raft of imitators like Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees that came in Michael’s wake -- the trope of the unkillable murdering maniac belongs squarely in the splatter film category, with buckets of blood being the main attraction.
But a good horror film tickles the funny bone with excess and a healthy dose of the ridiculous, all while engineering genuine shocks and jolts. Indeed, if a jolt can also be an absurdity, so much the better... as when, in "Halloween," Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, in her first film role) stumbles upon a grisly tableau that presents its terrors in a tidy sequence. First there’s the body of slutty friend Annie (Nancy Kyes) laid out on a queen-sized bed, the site of recent carnal frolics now neatly made up and turned down. A headstone, stolen from a local graveyard, sits upright at the head of the bed, and a jack o’ lantern flickers cheerfully nearby. What the hell?
It’s not until the dead body of a young man suddenly and inexplicably comes swinging down that the puzzled Laurie grasps what’s going on. This isn’t a prank; there really is a psychopathic murderer on the loose! To underscore her realization, a cabinet door opens itself at her elbow, revealing the corpse of Laurie’s other slutty friend, Linda (P.J. Soles).