Thirty years of horror: Halloween (1978)

Tom: Time and tropes have not been kind to Halloween. John Carpenter’s dialogue and all his actors are terrible. Even — especially? — Donald Pleasence. “He’s gone! He’s gone from here! The evil is gone!” At least it’s a joy seeing P.J. Soles. Her “see anything you like?” scene, which has a wholesomely 80s quaintness to it now, certainly blew my adolescent mind back in the day. But the slasher template established in Halloween is so played out, and so thoroughly deconstructed, that Halloween itself has become inadvertently hilarious.

After the jump, what really breaks my heart.

Tom: I fondly recall Carpenter’s soundtrack for Escape from New York, Starman, Big Trouble in Little China, and especially Ennio Morricone’s Carpenter-esque soundtrack for The Thing. But Carpenter is so heavy-handed with the Halloween music, which is ironic considering it’s such minimalist piano/synth dribblings. Compare this to The Exorcist, where you vividly recall the Mike Oldfield Tubular Bells theme, even though you only hear it twice, each time very briefly, and not even at the moment you might have remembered it (Max von Sydow’s fog-shrouded arrival for the third act takes place in total silence). But in Halloween, Carpenter’s music wears out its welcome because he uses it so frequently, as if he were scoring a silent movie. It’s like watching the movie and having Carpenter sitting behind you, peppering you with observations about the movie he made. Isn’t this bit scary? Isn’t this bit suspenseful? Isn’t the tension building? Aren’t you scared? Alright already, John, I get it. Can I please have a little peace and quiet while I watch your movie?

But John Carpenter fans will appreciate that Halloween is the director’s first collaboration with cinematographer Dean Cundey. Carpenter’s previous movies, Dark Star and Assault on Precinct 13, were dark, muddy, and shot with a basic “uh, let’s put the camera here” approach. Now along comes Cundey, lending the picture sharp colors, a flood of ominously cast shadows, confident camera movements, and the sort of carefully delineated lighting you’d expect in a stage play, a carnival haunted house, or an Italian horror movie. Cundey’s cinematography will be a fundamental part of The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing, and especially the gorgeous comic book vibrancy of Big Trouble in Little China. It all started here and it shows.

Chris: I was looking forward to watching Halloween not only because of the excellent reputation of the movie itself, but for a more personal reason as well. I’ve never actually seen it. In fact, I’ve never seen any of the Halloween movies, or the Friday The Thirteenth movies, or any of the seemingly endless slasher films of that era. Movies that were a major part of the cultural lexicon for my peer group weren’t in my vocabulary.

In the summer of 1979, things were pretty great for me as a kid. I was 12 years old, my widowed mother had recently remarried a wonderful guy who was an amazing father to me. My mom and my stepdad had been married for less than a year, and I guess they wanted to go out with friends and do stuff like dinner parties and whatnot as a couple to make up for lost time, which was always fine with me. As the youngest of four brothers by 13 years, I was basically an only child, and I’ve always valued my “alone time” to read, watch TV, or listen to music.

The problem was, my mother was a meticulous housekeeper and I guess at some point she told my stepdad that she simply couldn’t do the active social life thing and maintain our new house the way she’d like it kept. They quickly arrived at a compromise solution: Mom would hire a housekeeper to come in once a week to vacuum, dust, mop the floors in the kitchen and bathrooms and stuff like that.

They hired a girl named Mary to do that.

Mary was amazing. It was the summer before her senior year in high school, which made her five years older than me; it might as well have been 20 years, though. She was stunningly beautiful, and that’s not my mind’s eye playing tricks on me. My friends in the neighborhood got in the habit of calling me later that summer to find out if Mary was going to be over to work. If she was, they’d just happen to coincidentally drop by to play Atari. We were 12. We were idiots.

Actually, in reality I should note that I was painfully shy. Still am, sometimes. In this case, I didn’t even feel like I was the same species as Mary. I was a scrawny doofus and she was this gorgeous girl, five years older than me who obviously had it going on in every way imaginable. At the start of that summer, Mary would come by, usually dropped off by a friend or family member and she’d work. I’d hide out in my bedroom until it was time to dust and vacuum there, and then I’d scuttle off to somewhere else in the house where she wasn’t. Like I said, awkwardly shy.

That didn’t last long. Mary would have none of that. Maybe she felt obligated, maybe she was bored, but I like to think that it was because she was incredibly kind–on top of her other winning attributes–that Mary would seek me out. She’d corner me and ask pointed conversational questions and make me answer her. It turns out we’d attended the same grade school when I was in first grade (and she in sixth), which made me think that both our fortunes had improved some since then. (That school, Powell Terrace Elementary, was in a pretty hardscrabble neighborhood.) Eventually Mary and I got to the point where we were chatty, and before long I’d wait until she’d finished with the vacuum sweeper and then follow her around while she dusted and we’d just talk one another’s ears off. It was in this way that I learned that Mary was very funny, very smart, and sometimes painfully direct.

For instance, one afternoon, we had this conversation. “I noticed you have Queen records next to the stereo. They yours?”

Me, feeling cool: “Yeah.”

“You know they’re gay, right?”

Me, feeling…weird and putting puzzle pieces together in my mind about pictures of Freddie Mercury I’d seen: “No they’re not!”

“Hey, I just read it in a magazine that they were, that’s all. Maybe they’re not.”

Silence. Picture me confused.

“Are you gay?”

God. That question. Someday maybe it won’t be a big deal for anyone, but I imagine it’s still a big deal now. It certainly was a Big Deal in 1979. If you were a scrawny kid like me, with hair too long and a voice too squeaky, you got that question — an accusation — long before knowing it shouldn’t be anyone’s business or a source of shame.

“No!”

“Hey, it’s cool. I mean, it’d be okay if you were. You could say so and I won’t tell.”

“I’m not!”

“Fine, sorry. I just mean though, if you have stuff you want to tell, you can trust me. Everyone needs someone they can tell stuff to.”

She actually said that last part, and I remember it verbatim. I’d learn years later that Mary probably had a tough start to life, but it got better. She was the youngest in a huge family, and likely she had older brothers and sisters she could trust and tell her secrets to. Maybe she felt like I didn’t have that, living by myself with just my parents. I’ve always thought that. I knew Mary didn’t have a father who was much in the picture. I think she knew my father had died. Maybe she wanted to see if I needed to commiserate. I wish I’d asked.

That fall my mom was thrilled to find out that Mary’s senior year class schedule allowed her to get out early enough to still come over once per week and clean. I’d get home from school by 4:30 or so and Mary would usually be just finishing up, and then most times she’d have to wait for her ride to come pick her up. We’d hang out and watch TV and talk. It was amazing that dorky me was talking to this funny, smart, popular, girl who looked like a model and was a senior in high school. This was a huge deal for a seventh grader. Huge.

One afternoon I know we talked about horror movies. I had these Aurora plastic model kits that depicted famous movie monsters. They glowed in the dark. I had Frankenstein’s monster, the wolfman, and the hunchback of Notre Dame. If you’ve seen the movie Super 8, the kid in that film has the same models in his bedroom. Maybe Mary had noticed them from doing the dusting. I think that’s what started the conversation. She asked if I like scary movies.

For me at that point, a scary movie was whatever they were showing on late night creature features on regular TV. So yeah, I liked scary movies as far as I knew, and told her. She told me that she liked some of them but didn’t seem like a big fan. She said she’d seen The Exorcist and that had really bothered her. She’d sneaked into the drive-in to see Texas Chainsaw Massacre. She didn’t think it was very scary.

Two movies she’d seen the past year made an impression on her. She’d seen Last House On The Left with a carful of friends at the Plaza Drive In (which apparently replayed that awful movie a few times a year), and she had been terrified watching it. She sternly informed me that I was not to see it. She’d also gotten into St. Andrews Cinema, a local second-run movie house with some friends to see Halloween, which she also thought was scary. I remember her telling me Halloween was a pretty good movie, but that it got to her. I remember her saying, very clearly, “I can’t think of any worse way to die than being cut up with a knife.”

Eventually I think Mary’s schedule started to tighten up, as you’d expect from a popular girl in her senior year in high school. She’d frequently recommended a friend who took her place with the housekeeping. Still, once a month Mary would find some time to come by to do the work, and I was always happy to see her. Even as a hormone-addled 13-year-old in the winter and spring of 1980, I’d stopped thinking of Mary as this beautiful creature to desire, and rather more as this cool girl who I could talk to and who would listen and who didn’t make me feel like a dork. I thought of her as a friend. Her schedule got even tighter in the summer of 1980 and she finally told my mom she wouldn’t be able to come by to clean anymore. Mom was bummed, and I remember us running through two or three housekeepers that summer, trying to find someone who worked as conscientiously as Mary did.

Late that same summer, I went off on my first scout camp. It was my first time a week away from home without other family around. It was kind of scary, and kind of exciting too. I’m not sure what I was doing at 11:00 am on Friday, July 25th, 1980. Probably working on my canoeing merit badge. I was a terrible canoeist.

But back in St. Charles, Mary was at her home with a stranger who shouldn’t have been there. His name was Anthony Joe Larette. He was an ex-con and sex offender. No one knew it at the time, but he was also a serial killer who may have had as many as 30 victims. He later told the cops he’d sneaked into Mary’s apartment to steal some stuff, and she’d surprised him by coming home. What probably happened was that Mary stayed home from work with a bad migraine, hiked up to the grocery store nearby, and LaRette spied her there. He likely followed her home, and then entered the house. He likely tried to rape her, and Mary fought back. Larette pulled out a knife, and stabbed at her repeatedly, hitting her in the chest and all over her hands and arms as she tried to defend herself. Eventually, he cut her throat from ear to ear. He probably thought she was dead, lying in a pool of blood on her floor, and got distracted. Summoning up all her strength, Mary jumped up, ran out her back door and across the street, trying to scream. A neighbor called 911. The ambulance and cops got there in minutes. But by then, Mary had bled out and died on the neighbor’s porch.

I got back from scout camp that Sunday. My mom knew how much I liked Mary, and so immediately sat me down and told what had happened. Her killer hadn’t yet been found, and the story was all over the news. They showed a picture of her on TV — a senior picture maybe — where she looked pretty, but the photo didn’t really do her justice. You had to see her and talk to her to get an idea of just what a stunningly beautiful force of nature Mary was. They found Larette in a month or so. By 1982 he was on Missouri’s death row, and confessing to dozens of other murders. He was executed in 1995.

Mary was the first person I’d ever known who died at the hands of another person. I remember feeling incredibly sad at the time. I didn’t really understand it. I know I internalized a lot of it. In 1982, one of those lurid “True Detective” style magazines — the ones you used to see on certain newsstands with scantily-clad women depicted in all sorts of unsettling, garish, bondage scenes — did a full feature story on Mary. I wouldn’t have known, but someone at my mom’s office had a copy and xeroxed the article and gave it to my mother, and she screened it before passing it along for me to read. It was surprisingly thoughtful and un-embellished. I read things I already knew. Mary was something of a jock, she was one of the popular kids, and pretty much everyone who knew her shared my high opinion of her. I also read the details of her final day and death, of her flight across the street, streaming blood, mortally wounded. I thought about those details a lot in the years to come. I could picture it in my mind, like a movie. I would constantly think about how terrified she must have been just then, and how awful her final moments were.

And so I couldn’t help but think of Mary every time I saw a trailer on TV for a film like Happy Birthday To Me, or The Slumber Party Massacre, or similar dreck. As I went through high school, friends would eagerly take in the latest Jason movie, but I’d beg off. It was too soon for me. The thoughts of my friend and her death were too vivid. I couldn’t handle that kind of sickening end being made light of as a plot device. While everyone else could keep the “it’s only a movie” mantra going, I’m not sure I could. It would all feel too real.

Plus, to a certain extent, it sort of felt like betrayal. I remember Mary kind of giving an involuntary shiver when she scolded me that I was not to see Last House On The Left. I think somehow I built up in my mind that all slasher films were that graphic and brutal and depraved. Of course, they’re not, as I discovered while finally watching Halloween. But I can remember that I felt like I would disregard her warning if I went to see Sleepaway Camp or Silent Night, Deadly Night.

I should also be clear here. I’ve always been fine (more or less) with gore. I saw both Re-Animator and From Beyond at the theater. That same era I managed to see four David Cronenberg movies, including two of the most squirmy, uncomfortable films I’ve ever watched in Shivers and Dead Ringers. It wasn’t the blood. It was the vividness of what Roger Ebert used to call “dead teenager movies” and the knives and the slashing and the screaming.

That being said, it’s been decades since it occurred to me why I haven’t seen any slasher movies. As I sat down to write about Halloween, it all came back to me. You avoid something for some reason when you’re young, and then you keep on avoiding it out of habit, and eventually it becomes an aversion where you plug other pieces of logic into the matrix. It’s a reflex where you may have forgotten the original trigger. That’s me and slasher films, I think. I had a valid reason to begin with, and then slasher movies continued to get more and more awful, and it got easier and easier to miss them because they were terrible movies in a terrible sub-genre. Then they gradually stopped making them, and slasher movies gave way to torture porn, and it’s the 21st century and nothing’s shocking anymore and time has done what time will do.

And so here we are. I’ve finished watching Halloween. I knew less of the story than I thought. I had no idea how good Donald Pleasence would be here. Young Jamie Lee Curtis is as iconic as advertised (her acting ability stands out especially compared to the other girls, who are terrible). John Carpenter’s use of the camera for the first-person shots as Michael Meyers (an homage of sorts to Peeping Tom, perhaps) is decent, but feels a bit clunky and dated sometimes too. There’s also blood, of course. And knives. And slashing and stabbing and screaming.

But for all the reputation and for all the movies that followed it, Halloween wasn’t particularly graphic. It’s suspenseful. I thought much of it was well-crafted. I enjoyed the tension. The heroine in the foreground/killer in the background scene at the end has been copied so many times it’s lost its impact. It was fun to imagine how it played with audiences who first saw it back in 1978 in theaters though. It made me think of Mary and some random boyfriend watching the movie at St. Andrews Cinema back in the day. I can see her there frozen in time, munching popcorn and having a blast. It’s a happy memory, odd as that sounds. I think she’d like that.

(So what’s this “thirty years of horror” thing?)

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