The slasher sub-genre is praised and maligned in equal measure by horror fans and critics respectively. The premise is simple:: take a seemingly unstoppable antagonist and have him off various victims in increasingly violent ways until only one remains who usually survives the ordeal. Widely regarded by many as the modern progenitor of the sub-genre and certainly its finest hour is John Carpenter’s Halloween, which celebrates 40 years today!
Genesis of a Classic
Halloween came into being when director John Carpenter was approached by independent producer Irwin Yablans and financier Moustapha Akkad to direct a film for them in which a psychotic killer stalked babysitters. Intrigued by the idea, something which hadn’t really been explored in the horror genre to this point, Carpenter agreed to direct as long as he was allowed full creative control of the picture. On top of this, Carpenter demanded $10,000 for writing, directing and scoring the film.
Working with his then partner, Deborah Hill, the pair came up with a treatment entitled The Babysitter Murders. Not taken with this basic premise, Yablans suggested the film take place on and be called Halloween. Carpenter agreed to this request and the making of a cinematic phenomenon was set into motion.
Halloween tells the story of a boy called Michael Myers. One Halloween night, without motive, young Michael murders his sister. Michael is incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital under the watch of Samuel Loomis (Donald Plesence), a child psychologist who attempts over a series of years to make a breakthrough with an unresponsive Michael. 15 years later, Michael (Nick Castle) escapes the hospital and returns to his hometown of Haddonfield on Halloween. Unbeknownst to what awaits her, Laurie Strode (Jamie Leigh Curtis) prepares for her babysitting job and what’s to become the most memorable and traumatic Halloween night of her young life.
The Shape: Creating Michael Myers
Michael Myers has to be without doubt one of the most effective and enduring antagonists in cinematic history. The character was inspired by a college trip to a Psychiatric hospital where Carpenter observed patients with severe mental illnesses. Amongst them was an adolescent boy who Carpenter described as having a completely blank “schizophrenic stare”. There was nothing behind this young man’s eyes. This is something that both terrified and inspired Carpenter.
He may be known by the name Michael Myers, but is also credited in this film as simply “The Shape”. The Shape is most certainly a reference to Michael‘s complete lack of presence psychologically. Michael simply isn’t there, just motorized, homicidal instinct. Michael is of course best described by Dr Loomis in this infamous quote.
“I met this six year old child with this blank, pale, emotionless face, and the blackest eyes; the devil’s eyes ….. I realized what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply…evil.”
Carpenter took this premise and combined it with small-town America folklore. “Most small towns have a kind of haunted house story of one kind or another,” he stated. “At least that’s what teenagers believe. There’s always a house down the lane that somebody was killed in, or that somebody went crazy in.”. By tapping into this ingrained paranoia in the American psyche and combining it with the character of Michael Myers and his troubled back-story, a legend was terrifyingly brought to life.
Samhain: The Dark Magic Behind Halloween
I thinks it’s quite important in a piece on Halloween to delve a little into the holiday itself. To see how it influenced the film in some obvious and less obvious ways.
Halloween is undoubtedly a holiday horror fans all celebrate and enjoy. The holiday comes from the Celtic festival of Samhain. Samhain’s a time of seasonal change where the boundaries between our world and the afterlife were thought to be at their thinnest. This meant that spirits could more easily come into our world to commune with the living. During Samhain it is believed that the spirits needed to be appeased. Offerings of food and drink were left outside homes as the souls of the dead were thought to revisit their corporeal homes seeking hospitality. Part of the festival involved people going door-to-door in costume, often reciting verses in exchange for food. This tradition became what we now recognize as Trick or Treat.
It’s clear to see facets of the Samhain festival utilized in some ways in the creation of the movie. The idea of spirits returning to their home most notably being an obvious inspiration for Michael returning to Haddonfield. Michael himself could almost be described as a spirit, a shade, a shape. Once human, he is now something deadened, otherworldly, Michael is now a seemingly indestructible force. This also adds to a mystical aura surrounding the character. An antagonist that it is near impossible to escape in his relentless pursuit.
The Legacy of Michael Myers
In the 40 years since the films release, Halloween has carved itself quite the legacy. It has ingrained itself indelibly into popular culture. It has spawned 7 sequels, 2 remakes and with the release of the newest installment, a retcon. Some 40 years after the original film, Halloween (2018) ignores all sequels that preceded it. The film instead acts as a direct sequel to the original film. It’s a move that has been met with both condemnation and an open-minded sense of excitement.
Michael Myers is the Daddy of cinematic slashers, the forerunner of the triumvirate he forms with Jason Voorhees & Freddy Kruger, the big 3 of horror if you will. Without Halloween, there arguably wouldn’t be a Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm Street. The horror landscape would be a very different place without its influence. Halloween molded slasher movies into what we see today. It established many of the genres key tropes and did so in such a way that is often imitated but never bettered. Halloween is without doubt the king of the slasher movies and I think that’s a statement not many would really argue with.