Let’s review the Unreview Rules:
- I have to like it,
- I have to pay for it,
- I try my best to use E-Prime.
See that first rule? Read it again.
All right. Let’s talk about Halloween. I mean, the movie that scared me witless when I was ten years old.
See that frame right above here? See it?
That’s the first time I ever stood and screamed while watching a movie. I saw it in Ames, Iowa. That theater was in a mall and had only two screens. The one on the left was generally G and PG rated films. If there was an R rated film, it was in the theater on the right. A friend and I paid to see a movie on the left screen, but we snuck into the right screen to see Halloween. And let me tell you, that film scared the bejeezus out of me. I wasn’t right for days. Weeks. And when something scares me, I want to study it. I want to know why it scared me. Also, looking at it with a clinical eye tends to reduce the fear.
As the years went on, I kept watching that movie whenever I could. When it came on HBO, I’d watch it. Late at night with the TV turned down real low so my parents wouldn’t hear me. Sitting in the dark, all alone, I’d study every frame of that film. I also watched the other “slasher flicks” that followed. Friday the 13th, Prom Night, My Bloody Valentine…all the rest. And I’m sure it isn’t flying in the face of conventional wisdom to say that none of them matched up with Halloween. But it’s clear to me a lot of people don’t understand why. This evening comes to mind. Here, let me explain why horror works.
Let’s take a movie like Alien. You’re sitting in the dark theater and you know there’s an alien on board. You just saw it rip out of some guy’s chest. What does the crew decide to do? They split into teams, arm themselves, and have a plan for getting the alien off the ship. Sounds like a solid plan. But it doesn’t work. One of the crew gets killed (you think) and the rest of the astronauts have to figure out what to do next. They come up with a plan. They split into groups, arm themselves, and…oh well. Now the captain’s dead. Dammit. That plan didn’t work, either. Okay, new plan. Let’s get the hell off the ship. We’ll get into the escape shuttle. Screw the alien, we’re outta here! Oh, that didn’t work? Well, crap.
See a pattern here? Everything they do is smart. It’s exactly what you would do if you were in the situation. You sit in the theater and watch smart people do smart things with a smart plan…and one of them dies. And in your head, you’re saying, “If I was there, I’d go along with that smart plan and…oh, crap. I’d be dead.”
And that my friends is why horror works. Because you sympathize with the people on the screen. You empathize with the people on the screen. They’re doing what you’d do…and they end up dead. Not because they did something stupid, but because they did something smart but the killer—the alien, in this case—was one step ahead. That’s why horror works.
When you watch the 1978 Halloween, you’re with Laurie Strode. She’s smart, she’s capable, and most importantly, she’s babysitting kids. You see her talk to the kid, be on the kid’s side. She talks him down from being afraid of the Boogeyman when the other kids try to terrorize him. She says, “I’m here, and I’ll protect you from the Boogeyman.”
And you know what happens? THAT. That happens. She protects him from the goddamn Boogeyman. We’re on Laurie’s side because she does smart things. Not only that, but she’s protecting a child.
Now, if you make your movie full of stupid people doing stupid things, I’m going to stop caring about them because I know they’re gonna get killed. And when I stop caring…well, my friend, you just broke one of the oldest rules of storytelling: Never lose your audience. And that’s why the subsequent slasher films just don’t work. You don’t give a single turd for any of the kids at Crystal Lake. Not one of them. In fact, you want Jason to kill them all. You hate them because they’re pretty and stupid. And the film makers go out of their way to give them qualities you’ll hate so when Jason shows up with his big goddamn bladed thing, you’re cheering for him to kill the kids.
And that’s why Halloween is different. You’re not cheering for Michael Myers. You’re terrified of Michael Myers. And you want Laurie to make it. Just survive. And protect the kids.
For example, if I was making a sequel to Halloween, the very last thing I’d do is put stupid people in the movie so the audience clearly knows ahead of time these people are doomed. Like showing a father and his son on their way to a hunting trip and they come across a prison bus with prisoners wandering around. Just wandering around. And you know what else I wouldn’t do? I wouldn’t have the father leave his son in the truck as he gets out to investigate. And to make things even dumber, after you just told the audience, “These two are on a hunting trip,” you have the father wandering around without a weapon. Then, after the son freaks out because his dad hasn’t come back to the truck, you have the 12 year old boy leave the truck and go looking for his father, shouting “Daddy!” at the top of his lungs until the killer snaps the kid’s neck. Yeah, snaps his neck. You see and hear it, right there on screen. I’d never do that. And it’s a good thing this is a hypothetical scenario and not a spoiler. Because I’d sure hate to spoil a good horror film for you, Faithful Reader.
Did I mention it was a twelve year old boy? And his neck just snaps.
Anyway, one of the small details most people miss about the original Halloween film is the lack of gore. There’s almost no blood at all in the film. The only blood you see is a gash on Laurie’s arm from a knife wound, and it’s clear its painted on. I mean, clearly painted on. The movie works not because it tries to gross you out, but because it uses mood, atmosphere, lighting and music to fill you full of dread. When the kills come (and there’s only 4 in the whole movie), they are sudden. It’s over in a moment. And the first half of the movie let you get to know the characters. Well, some of them. Some of them you don’t know, and yes, that’s a weakness in the original film. But Carpenter kept the body count low, so each death counts.
If I did a remake of Halloween, you know what I would not do? Throw in more than a dozen deaths. And make them as brutal as I could make them. Because that would be reducing Halloween to its shallow imitators who didn’t understand the original to begin with. Because each person you kill makes the audience care less. I mean, fourteen deaths would be a lot. Like a Friday the 13th movie a lot. Way, way too many. But who would do that? What kind of writer or director would throw in 14 or so murders knowing that each one has less of an impact, so by the end of the movie, the audience is so numb, they stop caring? I’ll tell you who would do that: someone who didn’t know what they were doing when they were making a Halloween sequel. That’s why I wouldn’t do it.
But if someone asked me to make a Halloween sequel, you know what would be really cool? I’d do a flashback to the original with Laurie sitting in class while the teacher talks about a particular story. She’s distracted by a shape standing halfway behind a tree, watching her. The teacher asks Laurie a question and she answers it, looking back out the window to see the shape is gone.
Now flash forward to the present day. Laurie’s granddaughter sits in the same chair with the teacher talking about the same story. She looks out the window and sees Laurie standing in the same place the Shape stood, watching her from halfway behind a tree. The teacher asks a question, the granddaughter answers, and when she looks back, Laurie’s vanished.
You know what that tells me? Especially after you establish that Laurie has been preparing for Michael Myers to escape and return to Haddenfield? That she’s set up her house as a huge death trap? That tells me that the last act of the film is going to be a complete reverse of the first. It’s going to be Micheal wandering around the house while Laurie haunts and hunts him. Wouldn’t that be awesome? Wouldn’t that put so much power into Laurie’s character after she was nearly killed by this guy forty years ago? Watching Micheal become the victim as Laurie hunts the sonofabitch room by room? And there’d be a bit where he threatens the granddaughter or you could have Michael hurt Laurie so bad that the granddaughter has to pick up the plan and…
…yeah, that doesn’t happen. Don’t worry. No spoilers.
Come to think of it, this hypothetical sequel…you know what else I wouldn’t do? Have Laurie explain to her daughter and granddaughter the different qualities of each shotgun she has stashed in the house. “This one is for stopping power…this one is for accuracy…and this one is tactical.” The last example is a snub nosed shotgun, perfect for going room-to-room. You know what I wouldn’t do? After explaining that to her family, not five minutes later, she goes room-to-room…with the shotgun with the longest goddamn barrel she can find. Because that would be stupid, especially after explaining that the short barrel shotgun is the one you use for that kind of…
…yeah. I’m glad that’s only a hypothetical example. Because that would be a huge spoiler if it actually happened.
Halloween (1978) works because it’s the story of ordinary people facing off against unstoppable evil. And remember me talking about that moment I stood up and screamed? That moment right there in that picture? I stood up and screamed nobody knew it was going to happen. We thought Michael was just a lunatic. We didn’t know he was “pure evil.” Laurie just didn’t count on Michael Myers being what he is and neither did we. Who would be? The first time you watch the film, you have no idea what he is, so when he does his famous sit up, you scream. Because that’s when you realize exactly what she’s up against. It’s the Boogeyman. For real. Not a crazy guy in a mask, no. The honest to God real and walking talking goddamn Boogeyman. And that’s the moment when I was so afraid, I couldn’t sit still. I was trembling in my seat. Because this young girl who is protecting a ten year old kid—just like me—was in the same room as a real monster. A real monster. Not Frankenstein or Dracula or Wolfman. They were fake. This was a real monster. He could be in my closet, right now, waiting for me to come home. And the worst possible thing you can do when you make a horror film is fill it full of worn-out cliches from the original’s predecessor because that makes it something you never want a horror film to be: boring.
That’s why Halloween (1979) works. And that’s why…
…sorry. Rule #1.