Ambiance of Unease
This article debuted last year on The Classical Mess, a newsletter I was creating on Substack until I found out they were giving money to bad people.
Halloween really shook up the squares when it first materialized in 1978. “Absolutely merciless” is how Roger Ebert began a breathless review that also includes the phrases “violent and scary,” “terrifying and creepy,” “frightening,” and “terrifying” twice more. The Los Angeles Times ran its write-up under the bold headline “SLAUGHTER, FEAR IN GRISLY ‘HALLOWEEN.’” Staffer Kevin Thomas called the slaughter in question “realistically depicted” and said director John Carpenter’s voyeuristic camerawork “makes the film a complete turn-off about halfway through.”
New York Times film critic Vincent Canby asserted that “the point of [Halloween] is to cause us as much distress as possible in the safety of our theater seats”; if only Canby had lived to see the Saw franchise. Graphic, invasive images have become such a steady part of our 21st Century media diet (whether we invite them or not) that Halloween is now a quaint showing. Yet Carpenter’s provincial horror continues to succeed on an uneasy ambiance fueled by the distressing truth that a killer doesn’t need a motive.
Anguish paints the face of Michael Myers the handful of times we see him unmasked but we never learn what, exactly, is up his craw. He’s just a disturbed young man who the system has failed. One of his health care coordinators admits as much; when Dr. Sam Loomis gravely intones that he “spent eight years trying to reach [Michael] and then another seven trying to keep him locked up,” one wonders why he didn’t spend the full 15 on rehabilitation. That’s got to beat the alternative — hoofing through suburbia, five minutes behind every smart-mouthed teenager Michael dispatches.
Demure and bookish, Laurie Strode seems like she’s got even less of a chance against Michael than her brassy cohorts. Surprise! Laurie’s instincts take over once this knife-wielding shadow reaches spitting distance and she goes on the offensive. At one point, Laurie gouges a coat hanger into one of Michael’s eye. Anyone else would take the L after receiving such a deep gouge but our antagonist merely calls a time out (they’ve made nine sequels to Halloween, so excuse the spoiler). Is this our first hint Michael Myers could be supernatural?
Not exactly. Much earlier in the film, when Michael makes his daring escape from the mental health facility where he’s lived since the age of six, he commandeers a station wagon and speeds off into the night even though it is highly unlikely he’s ever been in the driver’s seat of any kind of car before. This is the Halloween plot issue people love to shred like iceberg lettuce. Well, look, maybe this kid’s a tool of Satan. Maybe he’s just got an incredible can do attitude. You can accomplish anything if you put your mind to it — anything except killing Laurie Strode (or escaping your own horror franchise; they’re making two new Halloween movies as we speak).
By the way, if you think Michael Myers looks a bit like Joanie from “Happy Days” when they yank his mask off at the end, you aren’t crazy. The actor is Tony Moran, Erin Moran’s older brother. Small world!