By Calum Waddell
With the recent release of the trailer for the upcoming Halloween reboot, Michael Myers and his perennial victim Jamie Lee Curtis have been back in the mainstream public conscience for the first time since 1998, when the twenty year anniversary film – and sixth sequel in the series – H20 proved to be a strange summer success. Curtis would return for a prologue to the retconning Halloween: Resurrection (2002), a film so poorly received that it led to a terrible Rob Zombie remake in 2007 and concluded the original franchise – at least until now. My reason for discussing Halloween is that when I came to write The Style of Sleaze I was aware of its lofty place in the horror film pantheon but I also believed its lineage was not related to the exploitation movement that I identified in my book. Indeed, what I think makes the motion picture so fascinating is that director John Carpenter seemed to realise, in the post-Jaws, post-Star Wars youth market of American cinema, that rightly or wrongly there was a ‘line’ that any enterprising young genre-maker had to aspire to get to in order to ‘sell’ a cheap knife-kill movie. In The Style of Sleaze I describe Halloween as a film that aspires to be ‘just like Hollywood’ but I mean that in the most complimentary terms… Halloween looks like an ‘A’ film in the way that previous indie-horror does not.
Even prior to Halloween, there was a clear stylistic difference between Hollywood horror movies – fluid, colourful lighting and cinematography in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973), thematic focused on wealthy families and the supernatural, character-driven narratives – and the more plot-intensive, gritty and racially or sexually transgressive nastiness of Night of the Living Dead (1968) or The Last House on the Left (1972). However, another aspect to the Hollywood horror movies, and it is one that Halloween is very quick to mimic, is the sense of ‘painless death’. In his useful book, Blood Money: A History of the First Teen Slasher Film Cycle (Continuum, New York, 2011) author Richard Nowell talks about ‘painless death’ and relates it to such famous scenes as David Warner’s spectacular decapitation in The Omen (1976).
In The Style of Sleaze I talk about how ‘the exploitation-horror film’ is all about suffering and heightened images of extensive visual corporeality – not entirely dissimilar to how the sex spectacle became more graphic and displayed in ‘real time’ in contemporary independent blockbusters such as Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) and the hardcore hit The Devil in Miss Jones (1973). For films such as The Last House on the Left, or George Romero’s later Martin (1977), there is a disturbing travelogue approach to torture and death; the grungy visuals work concurrently with low-rent production values and a believable unfolding of eventual mortality. The violence in these films feels ‘real’.
However, I do not think it is just this aspect that makes Halloween such a ‘ground zero’ film for changing the face of independent horror in the 1980s (when its influence really began to be felt). Exploitation films inspired a B-variant (I Spit on Your Grave as an even more threadbare, and certainly less intelligent, The Last House on the Left) but B-horror was also prominent during the 1970s and well into the 1980s: launching talents such as Jeff Lieberman (with Squirm in 1976), Joe Dante (with Piranha in 1978) and Don Coscarelli (with Phantasm in 1979). Halloween, to me, falls into this category – and the B-horror that became known as ‘the slasher film’ is far less ‘exploitation’ than it is a youth market orientated hodgepodge of influences.
With Halloween, Carpenter aspires to make his achievement look like a Hollywood movie – not just in its Steadicam work and widescreen photography – but with its remarkable restraint. Any threads of ‘exploitation’ in Halloween are actually schizophrenic: the plot is taken from Black Christmas (1974), right down to the use of ‘creepy’ phone-calls in at least two scenes, there is a ‘demonic child’ element from The Omen, three female teenage protagonists whose lineage belongs to Carrie, if not indie-sleeper The Pom Pom Girls (1976), but the look owes a lot to Dario Argento’s classic (and classy) colour-scapes as well (as does the soundtrack). Watching the film today and it is an entrepreneurial gamble at a very young market – Carpenter does a brilliant job building the personalities of his female characters and we become invested in their conversations, love lives and goal-orientations long before Michael Myers begins killing them. The sense of Halloween as a B-movie is further stressed by the ludicrous plot points that are introduced to later sequels, which push the film further into Ed Wood-with-a-budget territory – and not just the ‘revelation’ (borrowed from The Empire Strikes Back) that Jamie Lee Curtis is the estranged sister of Michael Myers in the first film. There is an improbably empty and dimly lit hospital, allowing for a minimal, inexpensive cast that can be bumped off in Halloween 2 (1981), an Irish mask maker with deadly but under-developed paganistic intentions in the unrelated Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) and by the time of part six, The Curse of Michael Myers (1996), fans have been exposed to a telepathic niece, a druid cult, satanic rituals, plenty of exposed boobs and even an oddball subplot involving incest. These were major releases, now, playing in big multiplex cinemas so the oddness of the Halloween mythology effectively makes up for the franchise inability to do anything remotely edgy in terms of actual violent horror.
Of course, by 1996, the style of the American exploitation-horror film had long since vanished from mainstream theatres and even straight-to-video shockers, such as the Night of the Demons series (starting in 1988), aspired to a look and feel that at least challenged Hollywood horror on the rental shelves. This is perhaps why the new Halloween – which will reportedly ignore all of the plot threads from the previous sequels – can attempt to charm a new generation. None of the Michael Myers films are especially lurid (with an exception made for Rob Zombie’s glossy, but vulgar, rehashes) and the theme of the killer as unstoppable bogeyman offers just enough supernatural tension to feel otherworldly. Unlike the exploitation-horror discussed in The Style of Sleaze, you can feel safe in watching a Halloween movie: nothing too horrible is ever going to happen.
Calum Waddell gained his PhD at the University of Aberdeen. His published works include Jack Hill: The Exploitation and Blaxploitation Master, and RoboCop: The Definitive History and Cannibal Holocaust. He has also written extensively for newsstand publications that include SFX, Sci-Fi Now, Total Film and Dazed. His work as a documentary director include 42nd Street Memories and Slice and Dice: The Slasher Film Forever.
- Find out more about The Style of Sleaze: The American Exploitation Film, 1959-1977
- Browse all books in the Traditions in American Cinema series