Captain Kirk! How Could You?!
A while back I caught the most recent entry in the Halloween series, a decent return to form for a series that has struggled to justify its own existence ever since the first sequel came out. A lot of the sequels in the series have been bad (and sometimes bad and weird and unnecessary, a trifecta of awful), but mostly the reason the further exploits of Michael Meyers haven't worked is because they're all trying to be the first movie but, honestly, none of the sequels have ever really understood what made the first movie so good. And, possibly, it'd be hard for any of them to recapture that magic again.
A lot of that has to do with how the first Halloween is built. While the sequels (and a lot of imitators, like the Friday the 13thOne of the most famous Slasher film franchises, the Friday the 13th series saw multiple twists and turn before finally settling on the formula everyone knows and loves: Jason Voorhees killing campers 'round Camp Crystal Lake. series) have gone for more kills, more gore, more scares, the original film is a tightly plotted film that serves its scares our sparingly, prizing the build up of ambiance more than simple jump scares and kills. Halloween might be a slasher flick, but it honestly has more in common with Noir thrillers than it does with its gory cousins in the Slasher genre.
The film opens years before the main meat of the movie, with a teenage girl, her boyfriend, and a creepy stalker lurking outside their windows. The young lovers go upstairs to have sex and then the stalker enters the house, grabs a knife and, once the boyfriend leaves, goes on to kill the teenage girl in her bedroom. Thing is, she screams out, "Michael," before he attacks, clearly showing she knows the killer. And she does as, soon, its revealed that Michael is her younger brother, a six-year-old demented murderer. So he's sent to a mental institution hopefully never to be seen again.
That's the plan of Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence), the man responsible for Michael mental health. As he later states, he took over Michael's care when the child was remanded to the institution, and all he found behind Michael's eyes was cold emptiness. He spent eight years trying to get through to Michael and another seven trying to ensure he never saw daylight again. Unfortunately, during a prison transfer to a more secure facility, Michael escapes, heading back to his home town of Haddonfield. And there he picks out his next potential victim, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), a girl he sees on the street. Then, for the next few hours, he stalks her, killing her friends while waiting for just the right moment to strike.
The first thing to note about the film, something that probably everyone misses with all the built up continuity in the intervening years, is that there's absolutely no connection between Michael and Laurie. While the sequels would develop them, casting him as her brother and making her an adopted girl (something the most recent movie throws away), this film wisely doesn't go in for any of those connections. Michael has no reason to pick Laurie beyond he saw her and feels like he wants to kill her. Like with his sister, who he spent time stalking outside their home before he could catch her alone, Michael takes his time with Laurie, clearly relishing the build up, the anticipation, before he takes the right moment to kill. That's the only motivation he needs; it's utterly alien, completely cold, and it's what makes the character in this movie so perfect.
Consider Michael in the context of other slasher killers. Chucky (Child's PlayAlthough some might have thought that the idea of a killer doller slasheer flick couldnt' support a multi-decade spanning franchise, Chucky certainly proved them wrong, constantly reinventing his series, Child's Play to stay fresh and interesting three decades later.) and Freddy (Nightmare on Elm StreetThe brain-child of director Wes Craven, A Nightmare on Elm Street was his answer to the glut of Slasher films that were populating the multiplex. His movie featured an immortal character, Freedy, with a powerset like none other, reshaping the expectations for Slasher movies to come.) are motivated by revenge, by a need to find a way, over and over, to live in hour world why they quip and kill their way through the populace. They're personalities (especially in their later films), figures that cast their own reality and never hide in the shadows. Meanwhile Jason (Friday the 13thOne of the most famous Slasher film franchises, the Friday the 13th series saw multiple twists and turn before finally settling on the formula everyone knows and loves: Jason Voorhees killing campers 'round Camp Crystal Lake.) might seem like the closest analog Michael has, silent and hulking, but he has his own revenge motivations and he doesn't ever take his time; he sees someone, he kills them, and this it's on to the next victim. These movies prioritized kills and gimmicks over the thrill of the hunt, making their killers very different beasts.
We never get a chance to understand Michael (not even in the later films when they try to explain him). He's just The Shape, the guy lurking in the shadows waiting for his victims to give him an opportunity. His kills are never quick, he always lingers, not only during but after, going so far as to make a ceremony of what he does. He's driving, in a way, like serial killers (which, really, is part of the reason why he kills all the girls in this movie). He has a type (teenage, promiscuous, white girls) and a ritual (killing specifically on Halloween). We can build an understanding of what he does but the one thing the movie keeps from us is the "why". He's just dead inside, and that's all we're going to get.
That's what makes him so effective here, and the movie understand that. Why Michael could just be a magical, relentless killing machine akin to Jason (and, as we go through this series, we'll see him evolve into that), he instead kills sparingly and for reason. He primarily wants to target girls (only killing one boyfriend and one random guy because they're both in the way of his goal) and will take his time to get there. This means nothing in the film is expedient; the creepiness of the film builds over time, allowing the dread to crawl in throughout the film until you're just sitting, uneasy, the whole time.
While Michael is the center of the movie -- Laurie may be the main character, the Final Girl we stalk, but Michael is the real star -- the score acts as his co-lead. Built around three tracks (what I like to think of as "the Main Theme", "Creeping Dread", and "Time to Kill"), the score was written entirely by director John Carpenter, and the spare, synth vibes of the tunes really accent the movie. These three tracks give us all the music we need, and they're all design to build upon the creeping dread, to enhance the scare with an otherworldly vibe, adding to the fact that, to mere humans, Michal is like an alien, something we'll never understand.
It's interesting, in a way, because Carpenter would play with that same vibe, the creeping dread, the shadows lurking everywhere, never really understanding the killer that stalks us, with his later masterpiece, The Thing. That film is brilliant, giving us an alien creature to disgust and horrify us, but it's here in Halloween that he gives us a killer we truly will never understand. That something the sequels could never match; but continuing the story past one entry the films have to justify why Michael keeps coming back. They have to give him reasons, motivations, and explain his character. You can't explain the alien and maintain his horribleness, and no matter how good any of the sequels might be they suffer because they don't understand this movie at all.
The Killing Floor:
Premarital sex. Admittedly it wasn't all that impressive as we see a teenage girl and her boyfriend head up to her room and then, fifty seconds later he comes back down, apparently fulfilled. Considering she's about to die, I hope those 50 seconds in Heaven were worth it.
The girl had sex in the film so, obviously, she had to die. The killer breaks into her house (which we see as we're in their point of view the whole time), grabs a knife, climbs the stairs up to her room, and then stabs her to death. It's only after the killer flees that we find out it was her kid brother, Michael.
Final Body Count:
Five. The teen at the start of the film, plus a guy along the path to Haddonfield, an then three of Laurie's friends.