Horror-Film Hosannas, and Hesitations

I can still remember the night in fall 1978 when my oldest brother crept into the bedroom we shared, assuming I was asleep. When he realized that I was awake, he had a tale.

“I just saw the scariest movie ever,” he said. “Halloween. Have you heard of it?”

He proceeded to tell me, in what seemed a frame-by-frame recreation, the story of Michael Myers, the young boy who murdered his teenaged sister with a kitchen knife on Halloween Night, 1963, in the fictional town of Haddonfield, Illinois, and then, after spending 15 years in a mental institution, broke himself out, returning to Haddonfield—on Halloween Night—to recreate his carnage. As my brother related it, the story took shape in my mind, with visual approximations of what he was describing, especially the image of a dark-clothed, white-masked killer, who, after being shot six times, falling off a porch, and lying seemingly dead below, disappears, his off-camera breathing haunting the film’s final shots.

“Well, good night,” my brother said.

Fat chance! I stayed up that night as fearful as he was, maybe worse, my 12-year-old’s imagination hard to shut down. In those years before widely available VCRs and cable television, one had to wait, sometimes years, to see movies once they had left theaters. When I did see Halloween, at age 15 or so, it lived up to the version I had in my head. It didn’t occur to me until years later that the movie became special to me because I had heard it first, in an old-fashioned oral telling, as of an old ghost story, missing only the setting of a campfire. In a sense, Halloween had an unfair advantage over any other horror film; it terrified me before I’d seen it. Its being set in Illinois, where I then lived, may have had something to do with that, but more than anything it was the stark and simple premise, which resonated with a vague fear I’d always had: something dreadful is coming, and it needs no reasons. Halloween’s mute, single-minded killer was iconic in my mind long before he became iconic in the culture. (The other night, taking the dog out before bedtime, I heard something rustle in our front yard and glanced into the darkness . . . Michael? He has been with me for years.)

I’m not a horror-film buff, at least when it comes to the genre’s contemporary films, though in younger years I dabbled with the genre. At about age 13, I watched Psycho on nighttime television. Hitchcock’s classic is a much more complicated and skillful film than Halloween, but like Halloween, it works its spell most effectively not through what it shows you—which is not that much—but through what it makes you anticipate and feel. John Carpenter, Halloween’s director, learned these lessons well, and even named a character in his film after one in Psycho.

Before then, my taste had run to the Universal monster films, from the 1930s and 1940s, which I still love, though some are seriously dated, by now, and most are rickety, by modern standards, in their attempts at getting actual scares. But at their finest—such as in Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy, and some others—their imagery, direction, and cinematography are exquisite, their lead character (in the three cases above played by the quietly gifted Boris Karloff) is memorable and sympathetic, and the Gothic world they create seems nearly real. I saw them all in a span of a few years of my youth in Deerfield, in suburban Chicagoland, often sitting on the floor of our family room as the black-and-white screen flickered in the dark, always feeling more transported than scared. Even now, the Universal films serve as a reliable passport back to childhood.

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In fact, I never got all that far beyond monster movies, which may explain why the occasional detours proved so memorable. Once, when I was quite young, in our first Deerfield house—from which we moved when I was eight—I stumbled onto a creepy black-and-white film on an afternoon movie special. (Probably it was a UHF channel; back then, the likely culprit would have been WSNS, channel 44, already jam-stocked with nutritious fare, including pro wrestling, White Sox games, and Japanese adventure series, like The Space Giants, so poorly dubbed in English that we walked around imitating them. “Hold on a minute!” we would shout, moving our mouths into shapes that couldn’t possibly form those words.) The film concerned a female church organist stalked by a ghoulish-looking, white-faced man man whom no one else can see. It was Carnival of Souls, one of those weirdly brilliant B movies that has acquired many devotees since its 1962 release. It played on a fittingly overcast day, and it seemed to fill our home with shadows.

Though it’s a very different movie, I always think of Night of the Living Dead in tandem with Carnival. George Romero’s 1968 film, which eventually attained classic status and even became an unlikely franchise—not to mention spawning contemporary reworkings, like The Walking Dead—often played on late-night TV when I was a kid, probably also on channel 44. It remains shocking to watch, even today, and incredibly effective. So was The Evil Dead, a 1981 classic directed by Sam Raimi, later of Spiderman fame.

A year or two after Halloween, Stanley Kubrick came out with The Shining, a film so terrifying that even its trailer could give you nightmares. It was some years later that I saw it. I’d put it at the top of my list of scariest movies, though I’m in no hurry to see it again. (I never got around to seeing, even once, Suspiria, which always ranks high on horror-film lists, or many other lauded contemporary horror films from, say, the 1970s to the present day—all of which, in their descriptions, at least, make Halloween seem like thin gruel.)

When I was a kid, in the 1970s, the Satan genre was big, still living off the momentum of 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby. When it appeared in 1973, The Exorcist became the biggest thing in movie theaters since Gone With the Wind, and The Omen, a darn good knockoff, appeared three years later. I watched them all in one burst, perhaps 20 years ago. They are fine movies, in my view, but I found only The Omen to be truly scary. Rosemary’s Baby was more depressing than anything else. The Exorcist was existentially profound, disturbing but more emotionally draining than frightening. Perhaps it is a parable about the limits of rationalism. It retains a kind of beauty.

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After Halloween became a sleeper hit, spawning the slasher genre, copycat films emerged, many of which became their own franchises. Friday the 13th was the most famous, with its murderous Jason standing in for Michael Myers. Somewhere in my travels, I saw a few scenes from it, but never had any interest; there was an occasional scare, but these kinds of films were mostly about sadism and sex, it seems to me. All I know about A Nightmare on Elm Street is what I’ve heard (it’s certainly a creative idea). Sometime in the late 1990s, I caught a few scenes of Scream and disliked it. Irony-steeped horror films date themselves within minutes, though this never seems to stop directors from making irony-steeped horror films. I’ve never been a fan of genre deconstructing movies; they’re strictly graduate-student stuff.

Since the heyday of the slasher franchise, horror films seem to have moved in new and much more disturbing directions, such that the idea of a mere slasher as villain seems quaint. I can’t speak with direct knowledge of these more recent movies, because I wouldn’t watch something like Hostel or Saw if I lived to be 100. Saw and its sequels are so grisly that they have coined a new genre: torture porn. Many of the new horror films seem to be of this ilk.

Then again, there really is nothing new under the sun, since no matter how shocking the new films may be, they always have a high bar to meet: 1974’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which makes some lists as the scariest movie ever made. Maybe this is a matter of semantics, but I’ve never found such movies “scary,” in the traditional sense; I find them depraved, a few notches above a snuff film. Somehow, I managed to get through The Texas Chainsaw Massacre once, but I was a young guy back then, and prided myself on not flinching.

That instinct ebbed with age, though, as did whatever enthusiasm I had had for voluntary frights. After my daughter was born, I felt a new squeamishness about on-screen violence and gore, an awareness of how even putatively nonviolent movies contained plentiful violence. When you’re a new father, you operate for a time with a sharply tuned sense of the world’s vulnerability; you’re seized by urges to help old ladies across the street, and to catch all the little ones, as Holden Caufield dreamed of doing, before they tumble over the edge into danger.

And yet, I retained my affection for Halloween, probably for reasons similar to my attachment to the Universal classics: it called back a time and a place. I even watched all its sequels, most of which are awful. This year, it was announced that a new sequel was on the way, 40 years after the original, and starring, as she had in 1978, Jamie Lee Curtis. I found myself back in a movie theater for the first time in a decade.

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It has been ingeniously marketed—its trailers create the plausible impression of a genuinely scary film, leavened with dramatic content about trauma and its after-effects—but the new Halloween is not very good. It comes across as more of a rough draft of potential ideas. Curtis is fine, but she is given much less to do than advertised. The characters are either undeveloped or unlikable, especially the husband of Curtis’s daughter, who plays like a caricature of Hollywood’s current understanding of men—juvenile, cynical, and weak. Midway through, I was more distracted by the filmmakers’ bad choices than the bad things being done by Michael Myers.

But Michael does do bad things, very violent things, in fact, and it was in these moments—when he was slamming the head of a hapless victim into a stone wall, say, or bludgeoning ladies’ skulls in their Haddonfield homes—that I realized how estranged I’d become from the horror genre. During these scenes, and the film has many of them, I noted myself doing what I once vowed never to do: look away. In one case, I covered my ears to muffle the sound of a victim’s brains being mashed by a hammer.

For all of the new Halloween’s flaws, I can’t blame the filmmakers too much for its violence. They are playing to current tastes, which tolerate inordinate levels of violence across almost all genres, to say nothing of the horror genre, which has crossed into new realms of brutality. My sensibilities have changed in the other direction, though, and since I’m so out of practice—I mostly don’t watch movies or television—Halloween’s violence shocked me, though it’s probably comparatively tame by current standards. What am I doing sitting here, I wondered, watching innocent people get their brains stomped in and their throats cut? Once you start asking such questions, you have no business watching horror movies—at least, not modern ones.

But tonight is Halloween, after all, and as the movie itself said, everyone’s entitled to one good scare. I just take mine more gently now.