Cinematic Thoughts for Cinematic Minds
Director: John Carpenter
Starring: Donald Pleasence, Jamie Lee Curtis, Nancy Kes, P.J Soles, Kyle Richards
John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) is perhaps the quintessential horror film as it strips away what it sees as any unnecessary elements such as make-up effects or underlying socio-political commentaries, taking horror back to its very basics. As Kim Newman states in Nightmare Movies (2011); “Halloween is the perfect machine movie. Its only message is ‘boo!’” (2011, p201). By taking the genre back to its basics, the film itself becomes incredibly simple yet effective with a clearly defined aim of being a pure scare machine. In this essay I intend to delineate the different ways in which Halloween attempts to create an atmosphere of dread, build tension, and execute shocks in order to scare the viewer through its use of settings, characters, and aesthetic elements such as lighting and sound.
In its use of a setting firmly rooted in reality, Halloween follows in the footsteps of other cutting edge independent American horror films such as George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972); films which eschew the gothic fantasy of Dracula’s castle in favour of a recognisably real setting. There is a tangible banality to these settings which lends the films a disturbing sense of verisimilitude as the horror is taking place somewhere familiar. The viewer is forced to confront the monster in a place they know all too well which, therefore, has the effect of making the horror seem like a real threat, something which could follow them home from the cinema. Halloween’s suburban setting is particularly effective at combining the banal with the horrific. In Clive Barker’s A-Z of Horror (1997), Carpenter explains that he chose the suburban setting because “Suburbia is supposed to be safe”, “if horror can get there, it can get anywhere” (1997, p64). Indeed, by presenting the infiltration of suburbia by the horrific, Carpenter denies the viewer the safety net of an intangible setting which they can easily escape from once the film has finished. He is, in effect, showing that nowhere is safe anymore, horror will find you wherever you are. However, in order to perpetuate a feeling of unease, even when the horror is seemingly absent, Carpenter imbues his suburbia with a strange, dreamlike quality. Almost otherworldly elements such as peculiar blue backlighting and eerily empty streets which should be full of people subtly suggests to the viewer that something is wrong, that the horror is never really absent, just dormant, lying in wait in the very fabric of suburbia. Thus, the viewer is made to experience a kind of jamais vu (the opposite of déjà vu) as the familiar suburban setting is tainted by an aura of eerie, almost implacable strangeness.
Serving a similar function to the suburban setting are the film’s characters. Like the setting, these characters, particularly the three main girls, help ground the film in a recognisable reality. They are realistic, likeable characters who the viewer can easily relate to. This means that when they are placed in a terrifying situation, fighting for their lives, the viewer shares their fear. The viewer likes these characters and does not want them to die which creates a great amount of tension in scenes where the viewer knows something is going to happen to them. The characters therefore function as a mirror image almost of the viewer, reflecting their fears and apprehensions on the screen; when the characters are scared the viewer is scared, when the viewer is scared the characters are scared. However, the character of Doctor Loomis serves a completely different function. Rather than mirroring the viewer’s fear like the girls, Loomis actively works to conjure and promulgate fear within the viewer. In John Carpenter (2011), Michelle Le Blanc and Colin Odell state that Loomis “is essential in giving the audience information” (2011, p42). The information he imparts pertains to the film’s antagonist, Michael Myers, whom he builds up to be a terrifying creature of pure evil in the viewer’s mind. He convinces the viewer that Michael is so terrifying that they are scared of him even before he embarks upon his killing spree. Loomis creates a palpable sense of tension with his over the top dialogue which is expertly delivered with utter conviction by actor Donald Pleasence. He lays the foundations for the viewer’s fear of Michael as they are apprehensive about when the horror will appear and what form that horror will take.
More than any other element previously discussed the success of Halloween as a scary film undoubtedly lies in the effectiveness of its monster, the Shape. It is important to note that, although they are ostensibly the same character, Michael Myers and the Shape are actually two very different entities. Michael Myers is a man, the Shape is not. After the opening scene where the killer is revealed to be a little boy named Michael, Carpenter instigates a process of dehumanisation, transforming Michael Myers into a monster. This process of dehumanisation begins when Loomis refers to Michael as “it” and “the evil” rather than “him” or “Michael”. Later in the film Loomis even goes so far as to definitively state that Michael “isn’t a man”. Le Blanc and Odell argue that, “In draining Myers of his soul he becomes an any-horror, universally fearsome – the bogeyman, the Shape” (2011, p42). By making the Shape an inhuman monster, Carpenter attempts to reawaken a primal fear in the viewer, transposing the ancient instinctual fear we all share of a faceless, inhuman predator stalking us in the dark to modern suburbia. After all, a suburban house is nothing more than a nicely decorated cave, once all the lights have been turned out and darkness descends there is barely any difference. The Shape instils fear in the viewer because he fulfils the same function a predator did in the Stone Age, preying on humans in the dark. In Horror: The Definitive Guide to the Cinema of Fear (2006), Kim Newman likens the Shape to a predatory animal, stating that the “mad killer isn’t the product of a family or a society that has warped him like Norman Bates or the Chain Saw clan but a shark who happens to have been born into a human skin” (2006, p115). It is my contention that, rather than acting as a phallic symbol as many others have argued, the Shape’s knife is instead a clear extension of his predatory nature as it is akin to a predator’s sharp tooth or claw which threatens to rip at flesh and make us easy prey. As a side note, Wes Craven takes this idea of the killer as a predatory animal a step further in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) by giving Freddy Krueger a claw. In Daniel Farrands and Andrew Kasch’s Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy (2010), Craven explains that his reason for using the claw is because an animal’s claw is “the earliest weapon that mankind might have been afraid of”. Clearly then, the Shape is frightening because he reactivates a primal fear, something which has been relaxed and repressed by a seemingly safe modern environment. He is working on pure instinct, unlike a human killer he has no motive, he kills simply because he is a predator and that is what predators do. Carpenter cleverly utilises this ancient fear of the predator who hunts us in the night, playing on the fact that we are programmed to be afraid of predators; it is in our nature.
The dehumanisation process is also explored through the visual representation of the Shape, how his physical form is conveyed on-screen. In order to convince the viewer that the Shape has transcended his humanity and become the bogeyman, Carpenter’s camera fragments Michael Myer’s human body, stripping him of a recognisable human form so that he physically becomes a shape; the Shape. This is achieved by using close-ups of various body parts such as the Shape’s arms or shoulders, and extreme long-shots where it is only possible to discern the outline of some strange figure. The Shape is never framed in the same way the other characters are with medium close-ups capturing a visibly human form. This fragmentation of the Shape’s body suggests to the viewer that they are not supposed to see the Shape as a fellow human being as they are prevented from processing a recognisable human form. Because they cannot process the Shape as human, he becomes something alien, something other, and something to fear. The Shape’s full form is only revealed towards the very end of the film, at which point the viewer is already sufficiently convinced that he is not human, so it does not matter. Possibly the most iconic aspect of the Shape’s visual appearance which explicitly marks him as other to the human characters (and the viewer) is the Halloween mask he dons. This blank, pale, emotionless visage masks, not only his physical human features, but his humanity itself. It acts an impenetrable shield which blocks any attempt to identify with the character. The mask is a perfect reflection of the Shape’s psyche, conveying to the viewer that he has no emotions, no sense of right and wrong, and no humanity. This is why I, personally, find it quite jarring and problematic when the mask is removed near the end of the film. By showing that a normal human face lies beneath the mask, it undermines all the effort Carpenter has gone to in order to convince the viewer that he is not a man. It is, however, only a brief shot so does not detract too much from the overall effect but, in my opinion, the film could have done without this sequence.
The physical absence of the Shape on-screen is arguably even more terrifying than his presence. Carpenter builds the tension to excruciating levels as the Shape plays a malevolent game of hide and seek, disappearing and reappearing. This is clearly evident in the long, drawn-out sequence in which he is stalking Annie. The viewer is made aware that the Shape is stalking her as he is visible in the background, hiding behind translucent curtains. This immediately raises the alarm, blatantly telling the viewer that the Shape is going to kill her. What the viewer does not know is when he is going to kill her, and so this feeling of unease and apprehension is perpetuated and prolonged when the Shape disappears from the screen. Now, not only does the viewer not know when he is going to strike, they also do not know where he is. This creates a great deal of tension as the viewer is made to suffer an agonising wait, until suddenly all that terror is unleashed as the Shape pops up out of the darkness of the back of Annie’s car, making them jump. Carpenter makes extensive use of darkness and shadows throughout the film to both suggest and hide the Shape’s presence. This is put to startling effect in one particular scene where the Shape’s white mask slowly materialises out of the shadows behind Laurie. This helps lend the Shape a supernatural aura as he seems to appear out of nowhere, linking him even closer with the nightmarish figure of the bogeyman whom we fear lurks in dark, waiting to grab us.
The use of sound is also, quite ironically for a character who does not speak, absolutely integral to the Shape’s effectiveness as a frightening monster. The music and sound effects are just as essential as the visual elements at personifying the Shape as a menacing, inhuman monster. The foreboding synthesiser score and loud jolting notes perfectly compliment the visuals, to the point where you could not imagine one without the other. This symbiotic relationship between image and sound is one of the key elements which make the film so effective at being frightening. In Teenage Wasteland: The Slasher Movie Uncut (2010), the film’s co-writer and producer, Debra Hill, concurs that “We wanted it to be like a jack-in-the box” (2010, p75). Like a jack-in-the box, the film makes great use of stillness accompanied by silence and motion accompanied by loudness to increase tension and heighten the shocks. Hill’s likening of the film to a child’s toy is apt as many of Halloween’s scares originate from childhood nightmares. This is clearly evident in Michael Myer’s transformation into the bogeyman, the games of hide-and-seek played out by the Shape and his victims, and the setting of the film on Halloween night, a holiday where children dress up to scare each other. In fact, the Shape is himself a rather child-like figure. Newman highlights this point when he suggests that the Shape “seems to enjoy scaring people more than killing them” (2011, p203). Indeed, the Shape appears to take a child-like glee in frightening others like when he plays dead after Laurie attacks him only to leap up again to continue the game of chase. The link between the Shape and a child is most apparent in the famous scene where he dons a white sheet and his last victim’s glasses, as he pretends to be Lynda’s boyfriend. The Shape, like a trick-or-treating child, puts on a costume and pretends to be someone else in order to achieve a scare. It also displays his impish sense of humour as he is essentially playing a practical joke on Lynda who is blissfully unaware that the joke is very much on her.
Possibly the most chilling aspect of Halloween is the oft-discussed ending in which Carpenter’s monster undergoes a final transformation, and becomes something even more terrifying than the bogeyman. This transformation occurs after Loomis shoots the Shape and he seemingly plummets to his death. Loomis looks down to discover that the Shape is no longer there, after which Carpenter initiates a montage of shots, accompanied by the Shape’s heavy breathing, showing all the places he has been over the course of the Halloween night. Here the Shape ceases to be a shape anymore as he no longer has a physical form. In 101 Horror Movies you Must See Before you Die (2009), Aleksandar Becanovic remarks that “The figure of the Shape is ultimately transformed into fear itself: Myers is effectively everywhere, he cannot be visually pinned down anymore” (2009, p250). Stripping the Shape of both his humanity and his form, Carpenter’s process of dehumanisation reaches its logical conclusion as the Shape becomes not a monster which evokes a sense of fear but actually fear itself. This is arguably one of the most truly unsettling endings in the history of the horror genre as the evil remains undefeated and transcends its cinematic representation. The Shape leaves the cinema after Halloween has finished and returns home with the audience, firmly engrained within the viewer’s very being as a feeling of nervous unease. The Shape is always there, lurking within the terrifying darkness, ready to emerge whenever we feel afraid.
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Marriot, James, and Newman, Kim. Horror: The Definitive Guide to the Cinema of Fear. London: André Deutsch Limited, 2006.
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Schneider, S. J. (ed.) 101 Horror Movies you Must See Before you Die. London: Cassell Illustrated, 2009.