After 42 years, Halloween finally ends

After John Carpenter’s Halloween was released in 1978, my small tribe of suburban teenage babysitters became terrified to go to work. My favorite family kept me only by doubling my rate. For $2 an hour, I’d manage that fear and keep the knives handy. It was an early lesson in the intersection of the U.S.’s two fundamental engines: capitalism and horrific violence. 

It was a lesson that eluded me for years because Michael Myers was so clearly an aberration, like evil itself. When Halloween opened, I’d been sweating over a social studies report on former president Richard Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia, an act so monstrous I couldn’t wrap my head around it—and also clearly an aberration. This I knew to be true: facts, reason, and compassion were the dominant guiding ethos of the world. Or at least, we could all agree they should be. 

Directed in its original incarnation by Carpenter and produced by Debra Hill, Halloween remains a groundbreaking movie on many levels, from the voyeuristic opening tracking shot that pays homage to Touch of Evil (and rivals it in terms of taut storytelling) to its creation of the Final Girl trope, from its haunting score to its closing images of empty rooms steeped in unseen menace. It was bloodless until the final quarter: Carpenter and Hill knew that fear is as much about the anticipation of evil as about its manifestation. 

The original in the 13-movie Halloween franchise was scary for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was this: most previous horror movies (The Exorcist, Rosemary’s BabyJaws, Horror Hotel, and Nosferatu loom large in my 1978 memory as formative) all either had supernatural monsters or locales far removed from my boring life. 

Carpenter was among the first to create a blockbuster wherein evil invaded a place as mundane and midwestern as Haddonfield, Illinois. The town was fictional. But for the odd palm tree Carpenter failed to shoot around on location in Pasadena, California, Haddonfield deeply resembled Wheaton, where I lived during high school. Moreover, the targeted women here weren’t damsels in a murky far-off castle or mad scientists howling in vaguely Eastern European accents. Instead, the Shape (as Myers is referred to in the credits) was all about killing babysitter Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis in her film debut) and her friends.  

Still, Halloween was the good kind of scary because Michael Myers wasn’t real once the lights came up. He was so unreal there weren’t even words for him: the term “serial killer” didn’t exist in 1978. “Stalking” was something to do with deer hunters. 

The real monsters that had defined the headlines of my wandering youth (the Zodiac Killer in San Francisco, Son of Sam in New York, Gacy in the Chicago area) were no longer threats. They were vanquished or at least gone, just like Richard Nixon, who everyone knew was the scariest thing that would ever happen to the White House. 

Now, as I watch silver-haired AARP and red carpet headliner Jamie Lee Curtis reprising a role she created as a teenager, I’m struck by how innocent we were when the Shape showed up the first time. How did we ever believe that real monsters didn’t stalk our actual everyday lives? Why did we ever believe that when monsters did manage to surface, the world would be sane and united about killing them or least punishing them? 

At 60-something, Laurie Strode has spent her life fighting. In the latest installment, Halloween Ends, she has three speeds: Too Depressed to Move, Physically Exhausted, and Time to Stab That Motherfucker. It’s relatable—even in a mediocre addition to the franchise.

Also relatable: the part where Laurie literally spends years trying to warn people about the encroaching chaos and everyone tells her to stop being so dramatic. In 1978, the town sheriff all but patted Laurie’s head and told her to go have a glass of warm milk when she voiced concerns about being followed by a strange man. 

Sheriff Brackett didn’t take Laurie seriously until his own daughter turned up butchered. “Haddonfield” attitudes haven’t changed much over the generations—not in Laurie’s world nor ours—and now she’s viewed as a crazy old lady rather than the dramatic young one.  

Here are mini reviews of the three Halloweens that matter.

The first Halloween was brilliant. Carpenter saved the bloodshed and gore for the final quarter, and reportedly shot the entire production for under $200,000, of which Curtis got about $8,000. 

Carpenter ratcheted up the tension not by violence but by the harrowing terror leading up to it. He composed a score that had the ruthless simplicity of Jaws and the insistent violence of Psycho. Carpenter put Easter eggs (the term didn’t exist then) dealing with death everywhere: Laurie’s English teacher droning on about fate. Blue Öyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” on the car radio after school. The old Myers place, the porch a gaping mouth with pillars for fangs. 

Carpenter is a master at tapping into the lizard portion of the brain where fear lives, sometimes subtly, sometimes with staccato, arrhythmic stabs. 

Director David Gordon Green’s 2018 Halloween was fairly entertaining and a fitting sequel in contextual terms: the violence was at least triple the original in quantity and quality. Thematically, the #MeToo movement hung large over Michael’s crimes. Which brings us to Halloween Ends, where the Shape is still getting away with murder.

Halloween Ends (also directed by Green) is notable mainly for its cockamamie plot and its reverence for the original. Shot after shot—curtains blowing in an empty room, Laurie in a closet with a coat hanger, Laurie on the couch with a knitting needle, a backyard seen through a bedroom window—calls back to 1978. 

The screenplay is bollocks. Michael, ridiculously, takes on a young protege, who looks and acts like Clark Kent until he goes supervillain rogue. 

Halloween Ends2 1/2 starsR, 111 min.Wide release in theaters and streaming on Peacock

SPOILERS AHOY! Stop reading now if you don’t want any more details about the end of Halloween Ends

This time around, the fate of Michael Myers does finally seem about as final as that of a cow that has completed its duties in the stockyards. If they bring him back again, I’m out. I do not want to see Laurie Strode at 70, still sleeping with a butcher knife because some asshole without a face has decided her life—like that of all the women in her family—doesn’t mean shit. 

Trash reboots aside, the moral of the Halloween franchise is enduring: Myers has evolved from seasonal tentpole villain to metaphor. He—and everything he stands for—simply won’t die. 

He’s been shot, stabbed through the neck, locked in a burning cellar, and pushed from multiple windows. Myers is the looming embodiment of every femme’s worst nightmare: a tireless, unstoppable man who decides they are disposable.

If the years between 1978 and Halloween Ends taught me anything, it’s that Halloween was always about more than some guy in a William Shatner mask that you were fairly unlikely to encounter in actual life.  

In 1978, Nixon’s resignation was fresh in memory. I took it as proof that adults in the room could be trusted to deal with the monsters. I knew that as surely as I knew we’d never go back to the pre-Roe v. Wade days, because laws were laws. Abortion became legal when I was 11. Young as I was, I knew that nobody with a functioning brain stem would ever send us back to the medieval days of coat hangers and babysitters dying of “anemia.” That was as likely as a vampire showing up at your castle. 

There is nothing new under the sun about horror movies with underlying social themes.  Halloween is good, scary fun. But it is also more than that. As the movie’s producer in an era when female producers in Hollywood were all but unheard of, Debra Hill understood the threat of Michael Myers and all that he represents. 

I miss the days when I thought of him as just another scary story.


Wednesday, November 30, 2022 at the Museum of Contemporary Art

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