Friday, August 31, 2007

You can't kill the boogeyman

If Psycho birthed the modern Anglo-American horror movie, then Halloween is surely among its most accomplished, intelligent and enduring offspring. Oft duplicated, since exceeded in violence, grimness and gore, Halloween, unlike most of its diabolical children, retains an elemental, almost Jungian quality, the primordial image not of an archetype, but of evil itself: the dispassionate, eternal, unstoppable force in the Shape of man. Jung wrote that

archetypes are like riverbeds which dry up when the water deserts them, but which it can find again at any time. An archetype is like an old watercourse along which the water of life has flowed for centuries, digging a deep channel for itself. The longer it has flowed in this channel the more likely it is that sooner or later the water will return to its old bed.
Replace "water of life" with "fear" and we have a winner. The opening line of Lovecraft's celebrated essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature, declares that "the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." We fear the darkness and the unseen horrors that dwell within. Vampire, the drinker of blood, of life; berserkr, literally, bear-shirt, the animal spirit of man unleashed; these and other monsters are embodied in the faceless Shape, Michael Myers. He is not a man but an elemental force as natural as those ancient flowing currents, as tooth and claw, as the blowing wind, to which humanity is powerless to stop.

The first shot of Haddonfield is a bare street devoid of life, windswept - an early warning - the leaves helpless on the breeze. When Laurie Strode arrives at home and moves to shut her bedroom window hidden by the flowing curtains, she looks down to see the Shape, the primordial, natural force of evil. In Laurie we see the weakness and frailty of humanity that thinks itself safe from danger within its artificially constructed havens. And in time, we see its courage and resolve in the face of (super)natural danger, which can never be truly vanquished. No one knows this better than Dr. Sam Loomis, the learned psychiatrist, the wise sage whose only weapon is knowledge. Like Odin, who placed one of his eyes in Mimir's well - the boundary between the underworld and the one of gods, giants and humanity; a liminal space between darkness and light - Loomis, in exchange for this knowledge, traded in a false peace of mind for the understanding of the world between the stable and the insane, the sanitarium and its denizens. He confronts Michael, understands him as evil personified, once chained, now unbound, yet cannot stop him. The last shot we see of the doctor's face reveals that this is the payment for that forbidden knowledge. He knows that evil can never be eradicated.

Sunlit, yet unsettling, a layer of creepiness floods even the most innocuous scene. John Carpenter has talked about his debt to Chinatown and its use of blue backlighting, put to expert use throughout the growing darkness. The disjointed quality of Halloween, the chaos below the calm surface, is unmistakable. Through judicious use of first person camera shots, quotidian ambient sound and one of the most instantly recognizable - and, crucially, effective - soundtracks in movie history, Carpenter has used the tricks of his trade to craft an unbreakable snapshot of the inexorable force of evil. The star of the show isn't the discovery of new ways to physically wound, the camera lingering over the bloodied and disturbed flesh and bone; it's evil itself, lurking beyond sight, the noisome air your breathe demanding that you not so much ruminate on the myriad gruesome ways you can meet your end, but simply know that the end is coming, and soon; worst of all, the stark realization that there's not a goddamn thing you can do about it. That is what keeps Halloween, after nearly thirty years, at the top of the horror movie mountain.

Hence, my decidedly mixed feelings about the Rob Zombie-helmed remake which opens today. Who would dare to rerecord Revolver or Master of Reality or Physical Graffiti or London Calling in their entirety? Or film a new version of Citizen Kane or A Clockwork Orange or North By Northwest? Yet one of the bleakest, claustrophobic and enduring horror films of all time was Carpenter's own remake of The Thing and, aside from Halloween, the best representation of his oeuvre. The flexibility of film compared to other media allows for easier reinterpretations of the original version or the source material. Hell, even The Day the Earth Stood Still is going to be remade. Bastards! Just make it a good movie, okay? But please, let us refrain from ever speaking about the 1998 remake of Psycho itself.

Anyway, watching the trailer of the new version, the visuals are solid enough. The style certainly appears to be there within the couple of minutes allotted to the viewer. Whether the soul is as well, whether it pays homage to the thrills of the original where the mere hint of evil is enough to shake the bones or whether Mr. Zombie takes the easy way out, succumbing to the gratuitous and weak splatter of so many half-baked scares of the modern horror film, inflicted on an endless parade of one-dimensional characters, certainly remains to be seen. I fear that it'll be the latter, hence the bar of expectation being set about grave, er ground, level. Muahahahaha, etc, etc. Hope I'm wrong.

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