Cinema Lessons: Halloween
We are navigating a particularly terrifying moment in history. The largest assassination attempt in the long and storied history of the country will shadow Halloween 2018. Without a doubt, a filmmaker is already spinning these real-life nightmares into cinematic expression. I wanted to take a look back at the warnings and lessons left by the great horror films of the past.
Halloween weekend is the perfect time for movies. Buy a bag of Halloween candy, your favorite humans, and gather around for an ancient tradition. Giant shadows cast on the walls tell tales of a bygone era. Horror movies are filled with life lessons passed down from one generation to the next. No lesson is harder learned than those that scare.
1. Halloween (1978)
Director: John Carpenter
DP: Dean Cundey
I’ve been obsessively listening to the eight-part podcast, “Halloween Unmasked.” It is hosted by the very talented Amy Nicholson. In the show, Nicholson interviews John Carpenter, Jamie Lee Curtis, the original “Shape” himself, Nick Castle, and many of the other brilliant minds who made Halloween a reality. One of the things that stuck out to me, was how consumed the American populace was with serial killers at the time.
Halloween took the fears of the public consciousness and pitted them against a nearly defenseless babysitter. As the physically imposing Michael makes his way down the unsuspecting suburban street, the reality that monsters don’t come from swamps or outer space, they are the unknown neighbor became staunchly real.
My father, often tells me about the first time he saw Halloween. Waiting outside a single theater movie house, the audience shrieked in horror over and over again, as he waited in line for the next screening. Everyone outside the theater knew they were in for a wild ride before they even took their seats. Quality horror changes the landscape of what we believe is terrifying. Before “Halloween,” dead villains did not stand back up.
Halloween comes at a bisecting point in cinematic horror history. Early monsters of American cinema like Dracula, the 50-foot woman, and the pod people didn’t need a reason to be villainous. A faith-based nation could easily believe in pure evil. In the 1980’s the cold war brought around a new kind of villain. Patriots of foreign countries, vengeful incinerated janitors, and eventually scheming high school students were humans who had been turned evil. Their crimes were driven by a human desire. Michael is a human, but he behaves like a monster. No discernable conscious thought except to kill.
Michael is both a relic of a bygone age and a beacon of light for the next generation of filmmakers. What was Carpenter’s message to the people? Well, Halloween Unmasked doesn’t give us a lot of answers on this. Mostly, Carpenter needed to make a movie, that would earn money, and he had a very short amount of time to do it. But, looking back, I think Halloween asked us to question where evil comes from and to be prepared to fend it off. Watching Laurie walks down the street with her friends, no one would describe her as a fighter. She didn’t yet have to be a fighter. But, when her back was against the wall, Laurie pulled out all of the stops and defeated evil in its tracks.
2. Scream (1996)
Director: Wes Craven
DP: Mark Irwin
There are only a handful of films that can make our sides hurt from laughing one minute, and leave us shrieking in fear the next. Fewer still are willing to kill off one of the biggest actresses of the day. Craven wasn’t afraid to do any of it.
With Ghost Face, a new creature haunted our nightmares. This time it wasn’t a serial killer or the government, but a bunch of bored high school students. Preempting the conversation on school violence, Scream let us peer into the mind of jealous and vindictive students.
Inspired by the Gainesville Ripper, Ghost Face, used his victims like a game of Clue. The two boys responsible for the murder, lead their victims in a spiraling circle so that they spend most of their time pointing fingers at one another. The lesson here is good reporting and fact-checking our essential. Yes, Sidney is the hero, but she couldn’t have done it without reporter gal-pal Gale following the story.
Like the Babysitters Club met Jason at Camp Crystal Lake, Scream is sexy, vibrant, and shocking. It’s rare to see killers take such childlike glee in their killing. Michael Mayers was soulless, these boys moved without a heart. Scream set a new president for how death can be used for shock. It is the perfect Halloween sleepover movie.
3. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Director: Roman Polanski
DP: William A. Fraker
It is continuously shocking to me that a predator could have directed one of the most chilling feminist horror films of all time. Yet, Rosemary’s Baby is, to this day, a horrifying film about the fears of carrying a child. In movies, babies are typically a joyous surprise or a reuniting gift to floundering relationships.
Polanski, with the help of writer Ira Levin, plundered the depths of growing a parasite directly beneath the human heart. A lack of bodily autonomy after a simple visit to the doctor is absolutely chilling. The familial, good intentioned take over of the home is actually a hostile destruction of a safe space.
Finally, the reveal of 9 months of hard work is horrific. While everyone celebrates around the grieving mother her world is falling apart. Every step of pregnancy is fraught with danger, add a twist of the devil and Rosemary’s Baby personifies the terror of early motherhood.
4. Aliens (1986)
Director: James Cameron
DP: Derek Vanlint
So far this list has been riddled with serial killers and demons. Truly the stuff of nightmares. But in man versus wild is a primal fear. One where the only thing that matters is survival. Cameron tapped into this primal fear in Aliens. The only sequel to appear on this list, I prefer the original Alien, but I admire the hell out of what Cameron crafted in his take.
Less a psychological exploration of the trial of motherhood wrapped in a monster movie, Aliens took a horror film and injected it with an action film. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) isn’t a woman trying to survive, she’s a survivor preparing to kill.
A civilian, bunked with loudmouth marines, Ripley has to convince everyone there’s danger around the corner. She is old, at least in her eighties, she’s a woman, and she’s been labeled hysterical. That’s a lot to overcome, but then she also has to protect this surrogate daughter she finds along the way.
The lesson here is two-fold. First, listen to the disenfranchised. Trust the experiences they have lived through. It was foolish not to bring an army instead of a platoon. The second lesson, despite what Gordon Gekko was preaching, is that greed is death. Burke wanted to make a lot of money off of a tragedy. He put dozens of lives on the line for a cash payout. He ended up paying the ultimate price himself.
5. The Babadook (2014)
Director: Jennifer Kent
DP: Radek Ladczuk
Kent’s Babadook is one of the first horror films of the new millennium that I believe will still be considered terrifying in a hundred years. Like Nosferatu the creature is haunting. They are designed to look as if they walked right out of a Grimm fairytale. The set design and costumes are simplistic. These characters could exist in any decade and thrive.
In the hand full of horror films about motherhood, most are about protecting the child. Parenthood, after all, is mostly about making sure a child rises through adolescence mentally and physically unharmed. Mothers are expected to relinquish their pain and focus all of their energy on their children.
In the Babadook, Kent expertly examines how draining and ultimately dangerous that line of thinking can be for the child. When Amelia (Essie Davis), ignores her grief and the demon that follows, the demon begins to attack her child. Grief quickly turns to anger, which evolves slowly and painfully to depression.
Amelia’s pain is palpable. She is exhausted by it and it shows in her clothes, in her shaking voice, and mood swings. Her behavior has driven away everyone who wants to help, except a kindly old neighbor who recently suffered her own loss. It takes everything Amelia has to fight her monster back. But she can’t kill her monster.
Kent teaches her audience a valuable lesson. Trauma and depression don’t disappear after a hard-won battle. Amelia keeps her monster in the basement. Her son helps her pick the food to satiate the being, but only Amelia can face the Babadook and feed it. It is still a labor to care for her personal demon, but it’s no longer draining Amelia. By the end of the film, she is dressing as if she cares about herself. She’s repaired her relationship with her son. There is life after trauma.