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“Maybe when a horror film is stripped of everything but dumb scariness — when it isn’t ashamed to revive the stalest device of the genre (the escaped lunatic) — it satisfies part of the audience in a more basic, childish way than sophisticated horror pictures do.“
Pauline Kael loosed this salvo at John Carpenter’s Halloween in her 1978 review for The New Yorker. Time hasn’t necessarily proved her wrong — one’s taste is one’s taste. But time has proved more generous to Halloween, now considered a genre classic and one of the slasher niche’s greatest influences.
But as we inch closer to October — to the advent of the year’s best holiday, to horror’s monthlong moment in the sun, to the release of David Gordon Green’s direct sequel to Halloween, and to the original’s 40th birthday — we inch closer to the film’s annual cyclical reexaminations. It’s impossible not to reconsider Halloween‘s meaning year after year; it’s tradition. We celebrate Carpenter’s masterpiece as surely as we observe All Hallows’ Eve. In 2018, there’s extra impetus for new evaluation; the Green film, for one, and the anniversary, and also a new 4K (available Tuesday) for obsessive completionist horror nerds to lust after. Why not? Other than a crowded theater, there’s no better way to experience the film than at home in the best possible presentation. (Alone. With the lights off. You don’t need to set the mood for Halloween, but going the extra mile with ambiance can’t hurt.)
In 2018, revisiting Halloween means revisiting the Kael quote, especially the keyword of “sophistication.” We’re living through a so-called golden age of horror cinema, a genre renaissance, if you like; put in franker language, horror today gets taken more seriously by studios, by the press, by institutions like AMPAS and by audiences, than it did as far back as decades and as recently as years. Not that horror cares about being taken seriously, or about respectability, because horror’s very purpose sets it at odds with respectability. Horror peers into ugly places, shows us ugly sights and challenges social mores by exploiting its subjects and our cultural fears. We squirm in our seats, shiver at the thrill of titillating voyeurism and graphic content. That’s the deal.
As horror has gained in respectability, satisfying Kael’s old critique of Halloween‘s sophistication (lack thereof, really), so, too, have individual films taken the pursuit of respectability to heart. Watching Hereditary, Ari Aster’s much-lauded prestige drama in genre clothing, you might get the sense that this is precisely what Kael had in mind: A movie that dispenses with the naked artifice Halloween hinges on and functions as theater first, horror second. It’s refined where Halloween is coarse, stylish where Halloween is straightforward. Hereditary aspires to artistry. Halloween just wants to scare you.
So as to avoid picking on Aster, plenty of modern horror films follow a similar course, eschewing the surface-level elements of horror that movies like Halloween embrace: no masked killers, no idiot characters checking out the noise in the basement, no nudity, no sex, no drug use, no graphic, Rube Goldberg-esque kill sequences. It’s not that these movies don’t get made anymore (see: Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, The Final Girls, You’re Next, Deathgasm and so on), but rather that they’re not the flavor du jour. But let’s put the obvious in the open: Those movies are all art, too. They just can’t be bothered to disguise themselves as art. They’ve got too much work ahead of them freaking out, and grossing out, their viewers to waste time worrying about whether critics and aficionados will mistake them as classy.
But vulgar goals don’t necessarily beget vulgar craftsmanship, and as this season is the season of Michael Myers, it’s appropriate to look at Halloween and admire — to re-emphasize Kael’s word choice — the sophistication of its construction. Carpenter is a filmmaker with a head for fastidious direction. Halloween‘s opening sequence is proof enough of his technical finesse, that long take through young Michael’s POV as he prepares to take his first life; Dean Cundey, Carpenter’s cinematographer, wields the newly invented steadicam (credit Garrett Brown, 1975) to chilling, uncomfortable effect, shooting actions we know we shouldn’t be seeing with a lens we don’t normally see them through. This scene, like the rest of Halloween, is about experiential effect, using perspective as a catalyst for paranoia. We know Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is being watched, as most characters in horror films are, because we’re the ones doing most of the watching, and in the last place she expects to be watched.
It’s Halloween‘s implied politics that lend it true sophistication. (Not that all great art must be implicit; last year, for instance, Get Out put its politics on the table and wound up one of 2017’s best films.) Carpenter hints at what lies in the film’s heart, the corruption of the American suburb by inexplicable evil. “Doctor, do you know what Haddonfield is?” says Sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers) to Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence). “Families, children, all lined up in rows up and down these streets. You’re telling me they’re lined up for a slaughterhouse.” And they are. Michael Myers can’t be reasoned with, but worse than that, there’s no reason with Michael Myers. He simply is. That’s what lets him endure as a character. He’s the monster bred by an American dream that’s supposed to keep monsters at bay.
Would we acknowledge Halloween‘s unspoken complexities if the film came out today? Would we call it sophisticated? Or would we reserve our laurels for the Hereditarys out there, the horror films that announce their art cred upfront, as if embarrassed by the classification? (Is Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake, met by rapturous praise at the Venice International Film Festival earlier this month and at Fantastic Fest just the other day, guilty of the same aesthetic performativity via marketing?) The better question may be how many horror films have been denied by gatekeepers in criticism as cultural palates have changed over time. Maybe an updated Halloween home release, ahead of its anniversary as well as the Green movie, is exactly what we need to remember that horror doesn’t have to play art house to qualify as art.
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