'Halloween' remains apex of horror film genre

'Halloween' remains apex of horror film genre
                        

On a recent newsfeed, I read that the real-life house, where scenes involving serial killer Buffalo Bill from Jonathan Demme’s uber-creepy “Silence of the Lambs” were filmed, is up for sale. Listed at $300,000, and featuring four bedrooms/one bath, the 1.7 acre piece-of-land in Perryopolis, Pa. overlooks a railroad track and scenic view of the Youghiogheny River.

The listing agents, a sibling real-estate team, appear giddy while giving us a virtual tour of the home and then appear to be disappointed that there is not an actual well, where “Buffalo Bill” kept his victims in the movie, in the basement. Uh … what?!

I would not be remotely interested in purchasing this home, mostly because I think “Silence of the Lambs,” with both its visual and psychological terror, remains one of the best horror films ever made. In fact, had it come out in my youth rather than my college days, Buffalo Bill and Hannibal Lecter might still be haunting my dreams.

The scariest movies, I think, are often rooted in childhood memories and experiences that we associate with a more innocent time in our lives. Part naiveté and part not quite yet being desensitized to the “R” rating and all the revelations that come with it, our first scary movie tends to be the one we most remember.

While channel surfing on a late Friday evening a few weeks back, I paused and watched a few moments of the most recent adaptation of Stephen King’s “It.” The movie, itself, seemed well done, and I remember hearing King praise the film, and its sequel; as a great admirer of the book, I am a bit surprised I missed it, but with the chaos of life it just happened to be a film that slipped through the movie viewing cracks.

But of the 30 minutes I watched, I was not scared once. Not because it is not a scary movie, for some, or that it fails to get the heart beating a little faster as Pennywise terrorizes the youth of Derry, Maine. Rather, at the risk of sounding like an old curmudgeon, I think it is because I have seen it all before.

It was a pretty big deal in the Hiner house when, during a local charity auction, my parents placed a bid for a free three-month subscription to HBO and won. These were the days when “Free HBO and air conditioning” were the marquee draws to checking into a hotel while traveling. It was during this three-month period that I first encountered TV life without commercials and first viewed the scariest movie ever made, John Carpenter’s “Halloween.”

As “Halloween” floods the airwaves every October, I am reminded of its impact and long-lasting shelf life as a classic. Often criticized as a film with too slow of a plot, I would argue it is a theatrical master class in tension building, rivaling Hitchcock’s best. Carpenter utilizes the subjective point-of-view of killer Michael Myers so effectively early in the film that when we finally look at him, rather than through the eyeholes of his mask, it is quite unsettling.

Jaime Lee Curtis’s character, Laurie Strode, sees him for the first time as she is walking home from school with friends; Michael drives by in a car, and the audience realizes the threat could appear at any moment, day or night, lurking behind any bush, driving by in any car. Knowing what is all too inevitable, we almost want to shout a warning to Laurie and her friends.

These moments, combined with Carpenter’s minimalist yet eerie piano/keyboard score, are what build the suspense in the film. Interesting to note, Carpenter composed the iconic score in just three days; a score that film critic Mike Zoller Seitz told NPR is “right up there” with Bernard Herrmann’s “Psycho” score.

What complements the suspense and what ultimately makes the film so terrifying, even today, is that there is no real motivation behind Michael’s violence. Setting aside the attempted explanations for his killings in the forgettable sequels, as a stand-alone film, Myers’s only real motivation seems to be in returning to his childhood home of Haddonfield and choosing victims at random. As a film character, Michael Myers feels rooted in realism (as opposed to Freddy from the “Nightmare on Elm Street” films that helped popularize ‘80s slasher flicks).

The last shots in the movie, after Donald Pleasence’s “Dr. Loomis” has looked over the railing to discover the shot-six-times-and-fallen-off-a-balcony-Mike-Myers has vanished, are of hallways and rooms where Myers has left his violence, and of dark, empty houses, in a neighborhood that could be anyone’s, ours included.

These are thoughts I took to be bed with me, living on 511 South in the early ‘80s. Every noise I heard was Mike Myers creeping up the steps, and every sound of wind whispering through the trees matched Michael Myers’ breathing through this mask.

As a result, “Halloween” (with “Silence of the Lambs” and “The Shining” following very close behind) remains the apex of the horror film genre, and the film’s antagonist is the boogeyman that haunted the minds of movie-goers in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. While I enjoy revisiting the film every Halloween and the fictitious town of Haddonfield, Ill. where the story takes place, it is but one of the many reasons I will not be shopping for a home in Perryopolis, Pa. anytime soon.

Brett Hiner is in his 24th year of teaching English/language arts at Wooster High School, where he also serves as the yearbook advisor and Drama Club advisor/director. He can be emailed at workinprogressWWN@gmail.com.


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