John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) – Review by Sean Mercer [Cinemonkey]

The essence of Halloween is a burst of violence on the part of an insane, though clever, man who is "unstoppable," ubiquitous, and virtually inhuman. He is set against a small group of young women who remain ignorant of his existence, are powerless to stop him when he does attack, and seem to merit his fury due to the licentious and vain orientation of their actions and thoughts.

by Sean Mercer

Halloween is the best film of last year. Here’s why:
1) Made on a budget of less than a quarter of a million dollars, with a non-union crew in Los Angeles during three weeks, the film nevertheless shows no sign of its poverty, other than in, perhaps, the paucity of players. The photography, by Dean Cundey, is rich in greens, yellows, and blues, as befits the autumnal ambiance, and, the camera tracks in elegant follows, slides and swerves. The opening seven-minute take is a clever surprise, the subjective Panaglide camera preventing the viewer from knowing that the murderer is an 8-year-old boy, the discovery coming when the boy’s father rips away the child’s mask, and the camera cranes back and up from the mad, shocked face of the child, heaving breathlessly, to the full receding tableau of him flanked by unknowing parents. The script, as we see it realized on the screen, is excellent, the misleading simplicity of plot embodying a multitude of possibilities, themes, and feelings. Though some horror pictures go through a number of convoluted movements to create situations and suspense, Halloween reduces the horror genre to its basic elements: mad killer, teenage girls. From this basic premise comes a mythical and poetic rendering.
2) The film is kinetic. It utilizes the full force of the cinema’s power to execute emotions of pity and fear, and simply to create motion. The agonizing suspense is perfectly wrought, and the “stupidity” of the main characters wandering into dark rooms is utterly consonant thematically with their ignorance of the “evil’s” presence. The film works as an entertainment, as sociology, and as art.
3) For fans of young turks, Halloween indicates the joyous presence of John Carpenter, after the entertaining (though not fully realized) promise of Dark Star and Assault on Precinct 13. He can be construed as one of the horde of film student filmmakers who know more about light meters than life, but though there are influences in Halloween, it is a pervasive knowledge of technique rather than the perpetual theft of ideas and shots from the catalogue of other directors. The film shows an innate feel for the possibilities of film, as well as a love of color and camera movement. Such success and artistic freedom with low budgets makes any possible move to bigger budgets seem like a regression rather than an advance.
4) I believe the film reflects the “mood of the times” more completely than almost any other recent film and I will use the rest of this article to argue my case.

The film’s sense of timeliness is inextricably associated with its meaning. (I don’t assume only one possible meaning; rather, the thematic threads lead me to one interpretation.) It seems that a horror film’s meaning, especially one as quickly conceived and realized as Halloween is, more “sociological” than the meaning of the films of another genre, as if the artist’s unconscious had complete freedom, and the artist himself had absolute faith in his spontaneous impulses. Halloween’s rapidity of creation would only serve to enhance the unifying entity of an unconscious, allowing the artist no time to contemplate the implications of his ideas (and thus modify or alter them). This emphasis on the unconscious is ironic, for the film shows a Freudian dread and suspicion of the unconscious.

One hallmark of contemporary film is its lack of strong conflict. Rare is the film in which a villain is both complex and ruthless in the fashion of both great literature and earlier films, the latter of which, unfortunately, emphasized the ruthlessness over the complexity. There seems to be a general withdrawal from excessive displays of conflict, as if filmmakers dreaded arousing any passion in their audiences. There are exceptions, of course, as, for example, Star Wars, but the innocent, if not childish, level of the film nullifies any imposing belief in evil in a mature viewer’s mind. From such love stories as The Promise, The Champ, Heaven Can Wait, and so on, where in the past the “evil,” troublemaking characters would cause much more anxiety, to the pale dramas of Network, Cuckoo’s Nest, Rocky, etc., where there are sympathetic portrayals of good, perhaps, but no comparable evil— drama is saccharine, bleached out, made safer for the viewer to deal with emotionally. On the other hand, we have flattened- out, emotionless films, like those of Alan Rudolph, heavily influenced by European masters, but more a childish parody of the European style’s air of detachment. The cinema does have its villains, but no evil; the all-consuming desire to destroy for destruction’s sake. This is no prescription. There are many films that do not have “evil” as a subject. Rather, this is an appraisal of recent films that skirt the issue of evil in a fearful and hesitant manner that makes them suffer aesthetically.

Though there are other exceptions, I choose to analyze Halloween as the antithesis of this trend, a film which seemingly indicates, because of its success, a psychological climate that has gone previously unfulfilled. The essence of Halloween is a burst of violence on the part of an insane, though clever, man who is “unstoppable,” ubiquitous, and virtually inhuman. He is set against a small group of young women who remain ignorant of his existence, are powerless to stop him when he does attack, and seem to merit his fury due to the licentious and vain orientation of their actions and thoughts. In short, these and other factors create a paradigmatic example of the narcissistic personality and the fears and defenses involved with it, as described by Christopher Lasch in his recent The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (W.W. Norton, New York, 1978). To see the characters of the film as manifestations of a prevailing pathology is not to establish its artistic worth, but it does make clear the film’s working out of various thematic elements. In the clarity of its plot and the purity of its character types, Halloween is the strongest current cultural example of the state of affairs described by Lasch.

Lasch stresses that the word “narcissism” has come to mean the opposite of its clinical usage. “Sennett reminds us that narcissism has more in common with self- hatred than with self-admiration” (Lasch, page 31). As he summarizes them, the main character traits of pathological narcissism are “dependence on the vicarious warmth provided by others, combined with a fear of dependence, a sense of inner emptiness, boundless repressed rage, and unsatisfied oral cravings. . . .The secondary characteristics of narcissism [are] pseudo self-insight, calculating seductiveness, nervous, self- deprecatory humor” (Lasch, page 33). He goes on to point out “connections between the narcissistic personality type and certain characteristic patterns of contemporary culture, such as the intense fear of old age and death, altered sense of time, fascination with celebrity, fear of competition, decline of the play spirit, deteriorating relations between men and women” (Lasch, page 33).

One of the many consequences of the narcissistic culture is a bureaucracy that “erodes all forms of patriarchal authority, and thus weakens the social superego, formerly represented by fathers, teachers, and preachers” (Lasch, page 11). But though the climate may change, individual psychology remains: the superego does not dissolve. “It encourages instead the development of a harsh, punitive superego that derives most of its psychic energy, in the absence of authoritative social prohibitions, from the destructive, aggressive impulses within the id. Unconscious, irrational elements in the superego come to dominate its operation. As authority figures in modern society lose their ‘credibility,’ the superego in individuals increasingly derives from the child’s primitive fantasies about his parents—fantasies charged with sadistic rage—rather than from internalized ego ideals formed by later experience with loved and respected models of social conduct” (Lasch, page 11- 12). In a brilliant footnote to the paragraph previously quoted, Lasch describes how the pre-Oedipal aggressive impulses of the superego are later tempered by interaction with a moderate reality (which leads to the “ego ideal”). If the early experience of the parents as “devouring monsters” is lacking, “as is often the case in a society that has radically devalued all forms of authority,” then the “superego can be expected to develop at the expense of the ego ideal” (Lasch, page 12). Elsewhere Lasch points out that the clinical depression Freud described in “Mourning and Melancholia” as “mourning with its admixture of guilt,” becomes in the narcissistic personality “impotent rage and ‘feelings of defeat by external forces'” (Lasch, page 39). Quoting Otto Kernberg again, Lasch tells how the child’s own aggression is both projected and internalized. Through constant projection the world becomes a place of “dangerous, threatening objects.” (Kernberg, quoted by Lasch, page 39). Dividing his own aggression up amongst external objects successfully keeps the child from having to admit to himself his own abhorred aggression.

It is easy to see how the psychic structures Lasch describes become translated into the figures in Halloween. Michael Myers as an adult is the punitive superego overfed by forces of the id, while Annie and Lynda are the ineffectual, childlike ego with no firm sense of inner strength, as created by emulation of strong parental figures, who live and are incorporated into one’s psychic environment. Charles Ponce, in his book, The Nature of the I Ching (Award, 1970), points out that the assault on the ego by Oriental religions is particular to them because the culture promotes strong ego, and what characterizes Western culture is a profound lack of self. “That the Occidental must seek support and comfort in systems foreign to himself is an indication that his ego is underdeveloped, not overdeveloped, as we too often assume” (Ponce, page 15).

With this orientation as a guideline, we can conclude that, whatever the personal, mad reason for Myers’ return, thematically it is to destroy the careless, vain behavior of the girls. The three of them are an imbalanced mixture of adolescent self-absorption and insecurity. Annie and Lynda are both sexually active and indifferent to anything but the “moment” (as shown in Lynda’s description of the school books she doesn’t take home), while Laurie, the intelligent schoolgirl, though not as vain as her friends, is nonetheless overly self-conscious. Annie is pleased that Laurie thinks “about things like that” (boys and sex), manifested in such a hideous and insensitive glee one can only assume a fundamental feeling of insecurity on her part about her own sexuality. Laurie’s much-commented-on “virginity” does not provide her with a purity that saves her, but rather with the freedom from self-absorption that distracts (and allows the deaths of) Lynda and Annie. For example, while Laurie “knows” of Myers’s presence all along, Lynda, upon first seeing him drive by, mistakes him for a cute boy at school. We are allowed to see the irony in Laurie’s sense of exclusion from her contemporaries; although Annie and Lynda have an admirable vitality and openness, they also have a cruel camaraderie that does not exclude competition, a “calculated seductiveness” (the way Lynda gets Bob to get her a beer, how Annie entices “El Jerko” on the phone), a relentless selfishness that satisfies needs of which even they are not aware. In contrast to this, Laurie, in her sensitivity, self-reflection, intelligence, and quick thinking, is especially attractive, and though she regrets her alienation, we can see her as being much better off.

It is significant that the young Myers murders his sister as she is sitting before a mirror and that Annie, before she is killed, pauses briefly before a mirror and brushes her hair. The parallel only more pointedly illustrates the vengeance against their self­absorption by the vindictive superego, but also indicates a cyclic sense to Myers’s madness. According to Dr. Loomis, Myers has spent a lifetime awaiting the opportunity of another Halloween. But why? What is the nature of his insanity, and why does he return? That the first two murders commence after the same action (his murder of the mechanic not being a part of his compulsion, but rather an expediency to achieve his groundwork) alerts us to the cyclic nature of his aggression. His desire to return suggests that as a child he did not “finish the job,” and though the fact of the unfinished business may not have occurred to him for several years, once he is activated, he must not only recreate the murder of his sister (with Lynda, whom he kills after she has sex), but also the boyfriend (Bob), friends, etc. The knife is a phallic symbol, obviously, and his stabbing of Judith is clearly a substitution for his own inability to acknowledge his desire to have sex with her (notice that he puts on the mask before he stabs her, the same mask her boyfriend playfully donned before they retired to the bedroom).

It may not be valid to imagine states of mind not explicitly described, but it seems to me that the compulsion to recreate the murder and proudly display it, headstones and all, represents the desperate suppression of a mad guilt over both the murder of his sister and the sexual desire (notice, in fact, that none of this speculation is included in the film—Carpenter and Debra Hill avoid the over-analysis that mars the end of Psycho for many). The infantile nature of this genius madman (who, in a brilliant bit, goes to Lynda in a ghost sheet, wearing Bob’s glasses) is beautifully evoked in the kitchen long shot of Myers as he turns his head from side to side, fascinated by the spectacle of Bob’s death. The pervasiveness of his presence in Haddonfield gives credence to thinking of him as a superego run amuck. Loomis calls him “the evil” and he seems to be everywhere at once. We can infer his movements later (that is, figure out where he was later as we watch a different scene), and his movements are consistent, but the experience of the film creates a feeling of unstoppable, inhuman power. The conclusion, in which Myers is shown once again to be unstoppable after three false endings, has to be taken metaphorically. After all, he has been shot six times, stabbed in the eye and throat, and has fallen from the second floor of a house. In such a wounded state he could not get far, particularly after killing the sheriff’s daughter. Rather, the ending simply re-establishes the pervasive sense of doom toward which the film has moved, the narcissistic vision of evil, the black, uncontrollable impulse of the unconscious, as a powerful, unstoppable all-knowing entity that toys with the helpless and weak. Laurie’s redemption is caused by a working through of any remaining “narcissism” she may have had; to put it less clinically, she has transcended through her experience all the tendencies that would make the life of Annie and Lynda attractive to her. The “evil” that has been released is nonetheless still a part of the very culture. In this way, fate, or the fate of pathology, as discussed in Laurie’s class at school, “is a natural element, Fate is immovable, like a mountain. Fate never changes.”

Cinemonkey, Spring 1979 Volume 5, Number 2; pp. 5-7


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