It is not uncommon to hear people complain about horror; describe it as predictable or stupid. Granted, in recent years there have been a number of horror films that are completely ridiculous but isn’t that the same with every genre? I can’t understand why horror gets such harsh treatment from the majority of people, perhaps it’s because horror isn’t accessible to everyone and is designed to shock and scare? Maybe it’s because not everyone understands that horror is, in my opinion, the only genre that provokes such a passionate response from cinema-goers. I haven’t heard someone attack romantic comedies as viciously as people attack horror, but they are arguably just as predictable and are easily made to be cheap and cheesy versions of what others consider great romantic films. For example, you could argue that Fools Gold (2008) is no comparison to When Harry Met Sally (1989). If we put that in the same context as the action genre, you could say True Lies (1994) isn’t as good as Die Hard (1988), and so on and so forth. So I would argue that House Of Wax (2005) is terrible when compared to Halloween (1978). My point is that horror films are either overlooked or over criticized when actually it is a seriously intelligent and self-aware genre that forces the audience to witness. I don’t mean that it forces us to watch someone get their head cut off, although gore is a factor, I mean that horror films play on the idea of voyeurism and judgement of others. In a ‘predictable’ slasher film, we are forced to watch a half-naked girl running in the woods getting cut to pieces – but the average arm-chair critic never stops to wonder why or question the meaning of that. So, I’m going to try to explain why horror is clever and that, perhaps not all horror films deserve to be verbally bashed. Following from my example a great horror film I will explain why John Carpenter’s Halloween is not only a classic horror, but one that deserves your respect.
It goes without saying that Halloween takes influence from great and definitive horrors that came before, but instead of copying like many modern horrors, it advanced and developed to make the slasher-sub-genre what it is today. When Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom was released in 1960 it wasn’t recognized as a revolutionary and influential film and was trashed by critics. What they didn’t realize was that this film was just slasher in its infancy, it was the raw material that many directors to follow would use to build the foundation of intelligent codes and conventions. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) rode on Powell’s coat tails and John Carpenter simply evolved the genre further by developing the key element that made these films infamous, and that element is voyeurism.
When the title sequence of Halloween begins and the theme tune plays, most people see a pumpkin and immediately pin it to iconography as pumpkins are of course related to Halloween. However, this opening sequence signifies the theme of the film and subconsciously tells the audience what to expect and what they should be afraid of, that’s what they will see and how they see themselves. It is no coincidence that the camera begins in an extreme close up of the pumpkins eye and slowly pans out to reveal the eerie orange glowing face on a black backdrop. The very idea of candlelit pumpkins on people’s porches and windowsills is to chill and scare, to create the fantasy of a face in the darkness. At first the camera is placed within the eye and then the narrative starts as a point of view shot from Michael Myers as a child. We are forced to see what he sees, we are forced to judge his sister’s titillation and we are forced to witness the consequences as an anonymous watcher or an initiator, But why? Why is this intelligent? And why is it now used so frequently in horror?
The voyeuristic nature of a point of view shot is clever because it is the only time the audience is allowed to understand Michael Myers’ reasoning. As a child watching fornication he was confused and his perception of human interaction was disoriented. The use of the mask from his sister’s boyfriend was meant as a playful gesture but as Michael did not see what actually transpired between his sister and her boyfriend, the audience were denied voyeuristic pleasure and fulfillment. The theory that knifes and stabbing weapons are used as phallic objects applies to this scene as Michael puts on the discarded mask and stabs his sister, the mask shrouds his face and arguably his humanity and understanding of sex. This applies to the other victims, although it is a convention of slasher that sex equals death, it can also be Michael punishing the promiscuity of Laurie’s friends because he has denied himself any humanity and natural impulses. When you begin to relate that theory to any other slasher film, it is easy to see a deeper message within films that were discarded as being trashy or predictable; slasher films are trying to relay a moral message through extreme punishment and graphic images, other genre’s display their motives clearly within the narrative whereas horror uses hidden messages that are only obvious when pointed out.
Usually the faces of Gothic horror such as Dracula or Frankenstein were found in remote and exotic locations. Large castles on the outskirts of town or secret laboratories held all the loathsome and insidious creatures behind locked doors, waiting for someone to stumble upon them. Psycho was set in the Bates Motel off a quiet road, and once the evil waiting there was destroyed, Norman Bates was locked away to never hurt anyone again. In Peeping Tom the victims willingly put themselves in an intimate setting with Mark Lewis; he never stalks them in the street or climbs through a forgotten open window. This is where Halloween triumphs and John Carpenter becomes a pioneer in slasher films. Michael Myers is placed where the audience feels safe, the place where Sam and Lila retreated after discovering Norman Bates, their home. The American Suburb was designed to be a utopia away from the noise and pollution of the city – a place of tranquility and the epicenter of opportunity. John Carpenter put an unstoppable force within Haddonfield, Illinois and destroyed the mirage of safety that the Suburb community enforced. This was truly groundbreaking for the face of horror, Carpenter turned the dark corners of every home into a potential hiding place for Myers, he made every window an opportunity for ‘The Boogyman’ to peer in and select his next victim. He also promoted the fear of others and the lack of help when Laurie runs around her once tight-knit community calling for help, as she screams at the top of her lungs and bangs on her neighbors doors; the porch lights are turned off, the curtains are drawn and she is left to fend for herself as Michael Myers approaches. There is a theory that if you are under attack, you should shout ‘fire’. This is because people are more likely to respond to a fire as it may affect them, however if you shout ‘help’ people are dissuaded because they don’t want to get involved. Yet again, Halloween has set itself aside from the tacky imitations; can you be certain that you are safe in your own home? Do you find yourself scared at night? It is entirely possible that Michael Myers is the root cause of this; he was one of the first serial killers to break down the remote castle doors and set foot in your own backyard.
Although that is only scratching the surface of Halloween I hope that this has helped everyone understand how horror films can be intelligent, and stopped the instant dismissal of horror. Don’t tar every horror film with the same brush, because then all the tar will get mixed and the foreman will be wicked annoyed.