“Purely and simply… evil.”
At around 2.45am, January 15th, 1978, the faulty locking mechanism on a rear door allowed a man to enter the Chi Omega sorority house at Florida State University. He approached the room of 21-year-old Margaret Bowman and bludgeoned her to death with a piece of oak firewood before ensuring the job was finished by garrotting the student with a nylon stocking. He then visited the bedroom of 20-year-old Lisa Levy, beating her unconscious, biting and severely sexually assaulting her. Lisa died shortly after.
Next, he broke the jaw of Kathy Kleiner and left her with deep lacerations of the shoulder, before moving on to Karen Chandler, also breaking her jaw, crushing her finger and smashing her teeth. The attacks lasted less than 15 minutes and no-one else within earshot heard a thing.
Later that night, the man broke into the basement apartment of another FSU student, Cheryl Thomas, eight blocks from the sorority house. Thomas was left with a dislocated shoulder, fractured jaw and skull. The ferocity of the ordeal left the student permanently deaf. Within a month Ted Bundy would finally be apprehended.
Two weeks before the murders of Margaret Bowman and Lisa Levy, Bob Clark’s Black Christmas was due to premiere on network television channel NBC, under the title Stranger in the House. Following events at the Chi Omega sorority house, however, Florida’s Governor, Reubin Askew, called Robert Mullholland, President of NBC to ask him, in the light of the terrible events at FSU, not to broadcast the film. Mullholland acquiesced and NBC-TV offered its affiliates in Florida, Georgia and Alabama an alternative to air.
“It’s me. Billy!”
In 1977, Bob Clark was hard at work with a fledgling director called John Carpenter on what was to be Carpenter’s first film for Warner Bros. Clark has already made a number of films, including Black Christmas, and one day during conversation the subject of a possible sequel came up.
Clark wasn’t keen on the idea as he wanted to use horror films to establish his career, but Carpenter pushed him on a possibly storyline should he ever consider making a follow-up. After some thought, Clark responded:
“It would be the next year and the guy would have actually been caught, escape from a mental institution, go back to the house and they would start all over again. And I would call it Halloween.”
Apocryphal stories abound that John Carpenter stole this idea for his own film, but the truth is somewhat less controversial. In fact, Carpenter was given the title (originally conceived by the director and his then-girlfriend, Debra Hill, as The Babysitter Murders) by Irwin Yablans, who wanted to play off the holiday-themed title that had made Black Christmas so popular.
Black Christmas began life as a screenplay titled Stop Me written by Roy Moore. Inspired by the urban myth, ‘The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs‘, and a series of holiday season murders that took place in the Westmount area of Montreal, Moore’s story was more of a straightforward slasher (albeit before the term became commonplace). When Bob Clark took control of the project, he made a number of changes, including ensuring the killer is never fully seen, and centred the action around a series of increasingly hysterical and aggressive telephone calls, punctuated with comic relief via the character of housemother, Mrs. MacHenry, and the director’s insistence that the students were astute and based in reality:
“College students—even in 1974—are astute people. They’re not fools. It’s not all “bikinis, beach blankets, [and] bingo”
This was not to be a cheap, run-of-the-mill production. In fact, despite a snobbery towards the horror movie that sadly still endures, it’s star power was quite startling. Based on his performance as Dr. David Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Bob Clarke personally sought to hire Keir Dullea. Margot Kidder, fresh from playing Siamise twins in Brian De Palma’s Sisters, took the role of Barb Coard and Emmy Award winning actress Olivia Hussey was cast in the lead role of Jess Bradford following advice from her psychic, who told her that she would, ‘make a film in Canada that would earn a great deal of money.’ Horror and Giallo regular, John Saxon also signed on to play Lieutenant Fuller after original star, the Oscar winning actor Edmond O’Brien, had to step down owing to complications from Alzheimer’s disease.
With filming completed in Toronto over the course of early 1974, Black Christmas premiered in Canada on October 11th before opening in the US on December 20th. Warner Bros. who were distributing the film, were concerned that the title Black Christmas might be misleading to the general public and so changed the title to Silent Night, Evil Night. This title changed proved short-lived and was subsequently reversed.
Reviews were mixed and, with the benefit of lapsed time, can be viewed as the type of stock review still attributed to horror films by critics too lazy to dig any deeper. As Variety‘s review stated:
‘The plot has the usual abundant cliches: a drunken girl student, played by Margot Kidder, who goes to her death much too late in the film; a house-mother, who finds her hidden whiskey bottles after much swearing; a ‘nice’ girl, who finds herself pregnant much to the horror of her psycho piano student boyfriend; and stock dumb policemen.’
Clearly reviewers in 1974 had no inkling of the wave of slashers that were to follow in the wake of Black Christmas and it’s interesting to wonder whether they’d have been kinder given the ensuing slew of imitators of varying quality. The anti-horror bias seems to have overlooked the fact that Black Christmas features, unusually for a horror film, a largely female cast. Thematically it speaks of abortion (a hugely taboo subject in the 1970s), rebellion and sexual liberation – particularly in Margot Kidder’s character, Barb. The feminist undertone of Black Christmas seemingly falling on deaf ears of the era’s critics.
“Every kid in Haddonfield thinks this place is haunted.”
Partly due to the gap of four years in films in the same ostensible style – young people in peril from an ominous human force – and because films released in the intervening time, including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Town That Dreaded Sundown toyed with the narrative format to the extent that they can’t be viewed as slasher films in the purest sense. Alice, Sweet Alice should have filled the void in 1976, but was beset by myriad distribution problems and commercial failure under its original title, Communion. The film was subsequently re-released in 1978 in order to capitalise upon the success of one of its stars, Brooke Shields. By this time, however, Halloween‘s release would unfortunately overshadow Alfred Sole’s film.
From its Touch of Evil-inspired opening, to the closing shots of the numerous places Michael Myers had lurked and killed in, Halloween is a masterpiece of atmosphere, suspense and style, with Carpenter in full control of his environment, utilising the incredible skill of his team; not least cinematographer Dean Cundey, whose wide, empty shots slowly close in over the course of the film, amplifying a sense of suffocation as Michael Myers nears his end game. Debra Hill’s influence on the screenplay brings authenticity to the dialogue of Laurie Strode and her friends, while the casting of Donald Pleasance – in the part of Dr. Loomis previously turned down by both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing – proved to be the veteran actor’s swan song role.
It’s difficult to do justice in words to John Carpenter’s Halloween. Much has been written and discussed about this most seminal of horror films and its place in the pantheon of horror cinema, artistically, stylistically and thematically. It’s interesting to note that John Carpenter himself outwardly abhors the notion of Halloween having any depth beyond a lunatic returning to his birthplace to lay waste to anyone who gets in his way.
It’s highly difficult to accurately assess the film in a way that’s agreeable to everyone. Is it as simple a film as it seems, that of an escaped madman who slashes his way through several unfortunate teenagers, or is it a meditation on the notion of fate? Indeed, in one sequence, Laurie Strode sits daydreaming during class as we spy Michael Myers’ stationary car outside. All the while we hear the voice of Laurie’s teacher: “You see, fate caught up with several lives here…”
Whatever Halloween ultimately means is down to the viewer. To some it will always remain a simple story and the heralding of the Golden Age of the Slasher, to others it’s an important document of 1970s American cinema.
Reviews upon Halloween‘s 1978 release veered from the sublime to the ridiculous. While Roger Ebert described it as ‘an absolutely merciless thriller, a movie so violent and scary that, yes, I would compare it to Psycho.’ While New Yorker film critic, Pauline Kael, stated,
‘Maybe when a horror film is stripped of everything but dumb scariness—when it isn’t ashamed to revive the stalest device of the genre (the escaped lunatic)—it satisfies part of the audience in a more basic, childish way than sophisticated horror pictures do.’
The latter review is an odd one. Surely horror films are supposed to be scary, whether from a visceral jump-scare base, the off-kilter creeping dread that the viewer can’t shake off, or because they simply frighten the life out of us by revealing what lurks under the bed or in the darkness.
Kael also wrote that, ‘Carpenter keeps you tense in an undifferentiated way—nervous and irritated rather than pleasurably excited.’
This seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of the horror film. One is not supposed to feel excited. Horror cinema is at its best when the viewer is uncomfortable, nervous even: that primal feeling of fear when experiencing an assault of the senses and the hairs on the back of the neck are standing up straight. Of course it’s only a film! It’s entertainment, after all, but who says that the viewer must be pleasurably excited to enjoy it? It is not the light that the horror fan seeks, but the darkness.
It is within this very darkness that Michael Myers lurks, the silence only broken by heavy breathing as he prepares to strike once again. Myers is, to quote Dr. Loomis, “purely and simply…evil.” He is remorseless, relentless and he will keep coming for you. It’s hard to think of anything more terrifying than that.
John Carpenter’s thoughts on the film’s originality, or lack thereof, was typically philosophical:
“Perhaps all the sequences in Halloween are familiar to the audience. They’ve seen them before in horror movies. They’re simply being reinstated: kind of classic horror setups, reworked slightly.” (1)
Black Christmas and Halloween are rightly regarded as two of the high-water marks of the slasher period, yet both are curiously bloodless affairs, preferring to illicit scares via atmosphere rather than visual bloodletting. Shadows, darkness, dread and the shrill ring of a telephone all feature heavily in both films, with gore far less a concern than what’s left unseen, but not unheard.
In hindsight, with the incredible number of slasher films produced in the wake of Black Christmas and, in particular, Halloween, it’s difficult for someone experiencing the films for the first time to wade through the mire that followed and detect notes of originality. As this 2007, efilmcritic review of Black Christmas notes, ‘it really doesn’t hold up today unless you can forget the 12,000 films exactly like it, which is difficult.’
A number of the most celebrated sequences have been emulated numerous times and passed off, either as original works or homages. Regardless of the intention, these godfathers of the slasher genre remain the standards by which all other films are compared.
Sources: Halloween (Devil’s Advocates series) by Murray Leeder (1)