‘Demand me nothing,’ says arch-villain Iago at the end of Shakespeare’s Othello, having killed or caused to be killed at least four people. ‘From this time, I never shall speak word.’
There’s something innately creepy about the idea of a villain, a killer even, who gives you nothing – no explanation, no vindication, no gloating or ranting – by way of understanding their motivation.
While John Carpenter’s legendary original Halloween takes its cues from both relatively recent horror trailblazers like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and mythic, gothic horrors like Dracula and Frankenstein, Michael Myers, the movie’s bogeyman, is the ultimate modern silent killer. He never boasts, or explains why he’s going to kill you. Not for Michael the puns and exaggerated kills of 80s dream-slasher Freddy Krueger. No, Michael keeps his own counsel, and chases you, and kills you, entirely for his own unfathomable reasons.
Watching Halloween some 36 years after its initial release, the opening still freaks viewers out, from the music – that repetitive piano tune that’s barely a couple of notes and almost drills its way into your skull during the long and slightly absurd Jack O’Lantern credits – to the Halloween rhyme, ending in “Trick or Treat!” that immediately drops us into to the point-of-view camerawork, using what was in 1978 when the film was made, a new invention – the Steadicam. That point-of-view camerawork is one of the most creepy things in the whole movie because it involuntarily makes us the murderer – we look sideways to check there’s no-one to disturb us as we spy on the sexually experimenting teens. We walk silently into the kitchen, open a drawer, pull out a kitchen knife, hold it over our shoulder – there’s a frisson of something terrible as we realise the arm we’re using is in some kind of costume. We watch the teen boy pull on his shirt (despite, oddly, having just gone upstairs with the girl). We wait. We let him leave. We climb the staircase into darkness, taking our time. We spot the clown mask the boy wore as part of his Halloween efforts and slip it on – the point-of-view narrows to just what we can see through the eye-holes, and everything else is darkness. We see the clothes scattered on the bedroom floor, look at the rumpled bedsheets – clearly the boy is a hasty lover. We look up. There’s the girl. Naked. Brushing her hair. She sees us, calls out our name to stop us - we are Michael. We stab her. And again. And again. She falls, blood over her breasts. We turn, go back down the stairs and out of the front door, to be met by the adults coming home. They pull off our mask – and the point-of-view switches, pulls back to show us our avatar in this murder – a bewildered young boy, holding a bloody kitchen knife almost half the size of him, and dressed in a clown costume.
It’s disturbing and compelling in a way that only an independent film could really have been in 1978. The degree to which this was an independent movie can’t be overstated – part-written and wholly directed by John Carpenter, he also takes the credit for the music that has become one of the contemporary horror genre’s most recognisable themes. That image of the child who commits a murder is iconic and frightening now in a way that couldn’t be conceived in a world, for instance, before the Jamie Bulger killing. It poses the question – where does evil come from? And, like Iago, it keeps its secrets. But it also ensures that whatever else happens for the next 90 minutes, we’re not about to get up and leave. After that opening, we need a form of cinematic absolution which will only come with the defeat of Michael Myers.
The movie then takes us forward fifteen years, where the point of Michael’s silence is again underlined, as now in an institution, he is due to be moved to attend a court hearing. His doctor (and in large part, the Van Helsing to his Dracula), Dr Loomis, who’s going to collect him, says he hasn’t spoken a word since his first killing. A quick attack on the nurse who travelled with Loomis, and Michael has a car. He drives off into the night, and Loomis, calling him “the evil”, is fired with a determination to stop him. He knows what’s coming. He knows Michael’s going home.
Loomis, played with more conviction than he apparently felt for the work by Donald Pleasance, is the Cassandra of the movie – always prophesying the future, never welcome, always right. He has spent the last fifteen years trying to understand Michael Myers, and once he has understood him, trying to make sure he’s never released. Loomis is responsible for half of Michael’s mythic status, claiming that what is behind the killer’s eyes is simply evil.
It’s relatively easy, 36 years on, to dismiss the rest of Halloween as ‘just another slasher movie’. Relatively easy, but utterly misguided. It is in very many ways, the original slasher movie, as we understand the term today. Much of what we understand about the format, the subtext, the way the scares are constructed in modern slasher movies, comes from this low-budget ($320,000 – including Donald Pleasance and a young Jamie Lee Curtis) 1978 classic. The mythic use of ‘the bad house’ (which had stretched back to Castle Dracula and in recent memory had encapsulated the Bates Motel); the division between “good girls” and “bad girls” in the subtext of the slasher movie, with the intendant idea that only “bad girls” (girls who have sex before marriage, essentially) are actually vulnerable (If you think this is an overstatement, check out the commentary made on the genre by the Scream movies, or indeed the movie based largely around this premise, Cherry Falls); the tension-breaking fake-out, followed by the slamming scares, and the never-ending resilience of the killer all owe their place in our understanding of the modern stalker-slasher movie to Halloween, and to the masked creepiness of Michael Myers. The unkillable villain aspect in particular helps elevate the evil to another level: Michael is technically, as far as we know, only human, but in another nod to mythic horror tales rooted in the supernatural, every time he’s stabbed or shot in this movie, he comes right back for more, or disappears, adding credence to Doctor Loomis’s claim that there’s more to Michael Myers than simple insanity. Indeed even at the end, having been shot at point blank range, his body quickly goes missing, with the obvious implication that he’s escaped, and the itchy result that we don’t ever get our absolution.
The idea of the masked killer with more than human powers or resolve is actually one of Halloween’s most potent legacies – the first Friday the 13th movie was written and produced specifically to cash in on the success that Halloween had, making Jason Voorhees a Michael-wannabe, and what is Freddy Krueger if not an attempt to flip the coin of Michael Myers: one a killer child, the other a child-killer, with a face made a mask by the nature of his backstory. What, come to that, is Hannibal Lecter’s face-mask if not an attempt to add a little Michael Myers to the psycho psychiatrist?
The most chilling thing about the original Halloween though, besides the co-opting of the viewer into the role of killer within the first five minutes, is the absence of any rational motive for the monomaniacal killings – why does Michael kill the teenage girl in the first few minutes, who, it is revealed, is his sister? How does he recognise his younger sister Cynthia (renamed Laurie Strode following her adoption on the death of her parents, and played by Jamie Lee Curtis) when he returns to Haddonfield, and what is his fixation with slaughtering the women in his family?
Like all the best villains in literary and cinema history, we don’t know what’s at the core of him. And perhaps that’s just as well. Halloween also began a horror trend that seems to this day inescapable – the more sequels there are, the more we get to know and understand about the evil at their core, the less appealing they ultimately become. Psycho, on its own, was a horror masterpiece. So was Halloween. So arguably were Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser and Saw. So, come to that, were the original Frankenstein, and Dracula, and Wolfman, and Mummy movies. While there had been plenty of Draculas and Frankensteins, it was Halloween that first began this curse of sequel-itis (Psycho II didn’t appear till five years after the first Michael Myers movie).
But the original Halloween, with Michael silent as the bizarrely unkillable and motiveless bogeyman, reaches all the way back to that Shakespearean notion of the superiority of self-propelling evil. Demand me nothing, says Michael through his cold eyes.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk