Josh: Let's go back to 1978, when the slasher film didn't really exist. Then came John Carpenter's "Halloween." Let's get this out of the way right at the start, Adam. I've seen the jack-o'-lantern light. Last week, you teased this episode by pointing out I was one of four critics on Rotten Tomatoes who had not given 1978's "Halloween," a fresh rating. That did not put me in good company for the record–
Adam: No, it's Sam who really likes to bring that up, our producer.
Josh: [Laughs] I know. Well, Roger Ebert was not one of those four, because his four-star review called "Halloween," "...an absolutely merciless thriller," and even compared it to "Psycho." In a 2014 Rolling Stone readers poll, asking about the best horror movies of all time, "Halloween," placed fourth. The movie is so revered it even currently has its own limited run podcast, "Halloween Unmasked," hosted by the wonderful critic, Amy Nicholson. Part critical assessment and part oral history, the series recounts how director John Carpenter's third film, which he co-wrote with producer Debra Hill, became an unexpected hit and the fountainhead for countless slasher flicks, in which a psychotic killer slices his way through horny teenagers, only to be thwarted by the virginal heroine in the end. That heroine here in "Halloween?" Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode, the matronly high school babysitter, stalked by a masked maniac Michael Myers, who has returned to his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois, where he murdered his own teenage sister 15 years earlier when he was just 6. My dismissal of "Halloween," after seeing it for the first time some 10 years ago was partly just me doing a bad job of movie criticism, Adam. I wasn't watching carefully enough and I was not giving the movie the benefit of the doubt. One thing I didn't give enough thought and attention to is "Halloween's," place in the sex-equals-death genre of horror. I lumped the movie in with "Friday the 13th," and wrote it off as at once puerile and puritanical in the way it eagerly punished Laurie's promiscuous friends, while rewarding her with survival. Paying more attention to that theme this time around, Adam, I've got a different take. But first I want to hear yours. When did Halloween first scare you, does it still scare you today, and what do you make of its sexual politics, especially in a contemporary horror-aware movie world that recognizes Laurie Strode as the original Final Girl?
Adam: No, it didn't really scare me this time for whatever that's worth. Thinking back to the last time it was discussed here on the show – though discussed... I'm going to use that term loosely, because Sam and I, we talked about "Halloween," as part of our Horror Movie Marathon. It was the second marathon we'd ever done on the show. This is back in 2005.
Josh: Is this the one "Suspiria," was part of as well?
Adam: Exactly. I think we had talked about "Suspiria," just before this review of "Halloween." Again, I'll use the term "review" loosely, because I did revisit this and it was the only film in the marathon that I was already familiar with, but Sam wasn't. At least I think I was. I grew up seeing "Halloween," on all the time, and I felt like I'd seen so many parts of it that I really knew the film. Sam didn't feel like he knew it at all, so we included it in the marathon. For me, watching it 13 years ago now, it felt like I was seeing something pretty miraculous, and actually, I'd say I did my own bad job of criticism in '05, because we spent about 9 minutes on it and really didn't get into any of the substance of the movie. In fact at one point I said, "Well Carpenter's not saying anything profound here." I basically just chalked it all up to style. But I was so enthusiastic. I was entranced by the filmmaking, those tracking shots and the soundtrack, and just Carpenter's control and his craft. This time I maybe wasn't as surprised or taken off guard by that and was more aware I think of some of the absurdities of the script, which isn't uncommon in the horror genre. Of course now I can intellectualize it a lot more. I've a lot more to say about the film. We'll see if there's any substance behind it. But that question about final girls, and where this movie kind of stacks up in that discussion, is a really fascinating one to me. I'm far from an expert on this but you said it in the tease. Slasher films didn't really exist before John Carpenter. I'm sure someone can write in and say, "Well this could work," or whatever, but generally speaking, people look to the films of the '70s and '80s – "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," definitely came before "Halloween" – but I feel like Laurie Strode has to be the Final Girl doesn't she? Whether or not she was in fact the first – I know the term came from the Carol Clover book that focused on those '70s and '80s slasher films – I think "Halloween," has to be the biggest one of those. Even though I haven't read it, Josh, my understanding is it takes a feminist approach to gender in these slasher films, and argues that while these movies start out offering the perspective of the male killer – and we certainly get that in Carpenter's "Halloween," right with that fantastic opening that all takes place from the viewpoint of the young Michael Myers. Even when he puts the mask on, we watch the murder of his sister play out through the eye-holes of the mask – and then these films end with the perspective shifting to that of the female victim who ultimately wins. And of course, as an example – I'm sure there are many others we could point to – when Laurie is hiding in the closet upstairs... We watch Michael from her viewpoint as he busts through those closet doors. We are hiding in the closet with her. So that shift is definitely there. Now the counterpoint, surely, is that it's hard to reconcile as feminists the notion that promiscuity is bad, that these young women in any way deserve to be punished to die because of their sexual transgressions. This movie probably does fit into that scheme. But where I think "Halloween," is still relevant, and maybe set a standard that all of the copycats didn't fully follow, is that this movie seemed to me, on this watch, something I didn't tap into at all, frankly, 13 years ago. This movie is fundamentally about the concept of sexual transgression, and about the concept of good-versus-evil and good-girls versus bad-girls, and even good-boys versus bad-boys. I think the most famous line in the movie is probably the one where we have Donald Pleasance, as the doctor Sam Loomis, say that, "He had the blackest eyes, the devil's eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him and then another seven trying to keep him locked up, because I realized what was living behind that boy's eyes was purely and simply evil." He believed that wholeheartedly and no one else sees it or is willing to see it. But I think given what we see in that opening shot of Michael, when his parents come home, there's at least a suggestion of... I don't know that you can say he's a victim in this. But it's as if he's suffered some kind of trauma as well. That look on his face, of a 6-year-old boy, it certainly suggests innocence, though, of course, we saw it all play out. We know there was nothing innocent about it as he holds that knife with blood on it. I think what really emerged this time was not just the talking-to and -about Laurie Strode to Laurie, often and her propriety and her purity, but even the way she personally seems to wrestle with it. There's really a key moment I think when she admits that she's attracted to Ben Cramer. Then, when she essentially retracts that – and I love that we get there's at least two of them in the film, maybe more – these asides to herself where she actually talks to herself and reassures herself that she really is a good girl. She makes a bet with her friend Annie, the one who reached out to Ben. She says, "If you watch her I'll consider talking to Ben Cramer in the morning." And then, basically, saying, "Oh, I didn't mean it. She doesn't really like you that way. Is it a deal?" And Lori says to herself after her friend leaves, "The old girl scout comes again."
Adam: Right? So for me, it's less about a filmmaker – and let's point out too... written by Deborah Hill the screenplay and produced by Deborah Hill along with Carpenter – it's less about making these black and white delineations between moral and immoral, and genuinely wanting to explore some of that gray area, I think specifically as it relates to repression.
Josh: Yes yes yes yes. These are the distinctions that I missed the first time around.
Adam: I did too.