[Decoding Evil] A Study of Michael Myers and the Halloween Film Series
Decoding Evil is a bi-monthly column exploring the monstrous and villainous antagonists in horror cinema, with Mitchell Brown providing an analysis of their symbolism and the films that made them.
"I watched him for fifteen years, sitting in a room, staring at a wall, not seeing the wall, looking past the wall, looking at this night, inhumanly patient, waiting for some secret, silent alarm to trigger him off." - Dr. Sam Loomis, Halloween (1978)
John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) has become required viewing for the Halloween season. It’s considered one of the best horror films ever made because of its sleek cinematography, piercing score, and career-defining performances from Jamie Lee Curtis and veteran actor Donald Pleasence. Though, for many, the film's real star is the man in the mask: Michael Myers. The ‘Boogeyman’ has become an icon of the slasher genre and horror. With his instantly identifiable white mask, slow stalking pace, and lack of emotion, he’s the perfect villain.
Carpenter co-wrote the original film with producer Debra Hill, intending to explore the story in a single film. What began as an idea about a psychotic killer stalking babysitters brought to Carpenter by Irwin Yablans and Moustapha Akkad became Halloween after he agreed to direct the film if he had full creative control. The story concept grew into a film about Halloween night, taking inspiration from the Celtic Pagan tradition of Samhain, which would later be mentioned briefly in Halloween II (1981) by Dr. Sam Loomis (Pleasance), “It's a Celtic word. Samhain. It means 'the lord of the dead.' The end of summer. The festival of Samhain. October 31st.”
In an interview with The Guardian, Hill stated, “The idea was that you couldn’t kill evil, and that was how we came about the story. We went back to the old idea of Samhain that Halloween was the night where all the souls are let out to wreak havoc on the living, and then came up with the story about the evilest kid who ever lived.” The film originally received less-than-ideal reviews but was a box office success, grossing $70 million against its $300,000 budget, making it one of the most successful independent films ever made.
With great success, naturally, comes talks of a sequel. No one involved in the production of Halloween was interested in making Halloween II (1981), least of all Carpenter, who didn’t return to direct but produced and co-wrote the script. Carpenter stated in the documentary Halloween: A Cut Above the Rest (2003), “What got me through writing that script was... Budweiser. A six-pack of beer a night, sitting in front of the typewriter saying, “What in the hell can I put down?” I had no idea. We’re remaking the same film, only not as good.” Carpenter returned only for the hefty paycheck—he's endearingly honest about being involved with specific projects just for the cash.
Believing that the story of Michael Myers had been milked for everything it was worth—or in films yet to come, more than it’s worth—Carpenter and Hill decided to move the franchise toward an anthology series. The next installment, Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982), is a wholly original story and an excellent film. Unfortunately, it wasn't a box office success. For this reason, Akkad decided to go the safe route and bring back Michael Myers for all remaining sequels, much to the detriment of the franchise.
Michael Myers is the quintessential villain, and in Halloween, he makes an excellent monster. What makes him so scary is that his pursuit of Laurie Strode and her friends is entirely random. He’s pure evil. A creature of instinct rather than want and desire. He’s basically the shark from Jaws (1975). Michael has no motivation for selecting Laurie as a target. She is a victim of circumstance, chosen because she happened to walk up to the doorstep of his childhood home while he was inside. Say what you will about David Gordon Green, director of the latest Halloween trilogy, but the nearly four-minute long take shot of Michael's killing spree from Halloween (2018) is a perfect visual representation of his lack of fastidiousness. If anyone else had walked up to the front door, he might have gone after them, which would be an entirely different film.
Michael Myers is reminiscent of Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) in Taxi Driver (1976). Bickle instills the fear of bumping into someone who outwardly appears to be a "normal guy" but is actually someone capable of unspeakable evil. When it comes to his physical appearance in the first film, he isn’t terribly tall, physically imposing, or even monstrous in appearance. Due to this, it's easy to make assumptions about his appearance beneath the mask. He could look like Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th: Part III (1982) or Vincent (Brian Van Holt) from House of Wax (2005). When finally unmasked, it's revealed that he’s… just a guy. He’s not scary, menacing, or even hideous. He looks like an average person, and that’s the point. He could be anybody, but his monstrous nature lies within.
While Michael Myers is pure unmotivated evil, that concept doesn’t lend itself to sequels. It's so simple and clear-cut that trying to elaborate further deflates the mystery. This is why Halloween II is the best direct sequel. It’s not a great movie, but it works as a continuation of the night he came home and went on a killing spree. His obsession with Laurie makes sense when you consider it takes place five minutes after the first film. The story's continuation works but undermines Halloween by changing his relationship with Laurie.
Laurie and Michael's surprise sibling relationship has become essential to the film series, morphing his storyline into a bizarre pursuit of his family members, specifically Jamie Lloyd (Danielle Harris). It's a notion that flops because it isn’t introduced until the last act of Halloween II, and once it's revealed, it doesn’t change the stakes or the dynamic between them. The truth is never even admitted to Laurie.
This also undermines Myers' arbitrary pursuit of Laurie in Halloween. If it ever seemed like this revelation was shoehorned in or not thought out, Carpenter is the first to agree that it was a bad idea in an interview with Patrik Cavanaugh, "NBC purchased the rights to show Halloween on network television. But our movie was too short for them. So we needed to add some time. I think we had to add, what was it, eight minutes or something like that? I don't remember. And there was nothing to add. The first movie was just what I wanted to make. I don't have anything to add. So I came up with this brother thing. It was awful, just awful. But, I did it." The foundation of all the following sequels is based on the film needing to fill out the timeslot to air on network television and Carpenter pulling his hair out, grasping at straws for anything to meet the required runtime.
Due to the story's obvious limits, the attempted move to an anthology series was smart on Carpenter and Hill’s part as producers. The reasoning for the change in concept was sound as well. SlashFilm reported that in an interview, Carpenter stated, "I also had a lot of hope for giving new directors a chance to make films as I had been given a chance with low-budget films." This is what happened with Tommy Lee Wallace, who worked on Halloween and The Fog (1980) with Carpenter when he was brought in to direct Halloween III. Carpenter’s perception of the film was far more glowing than critics, “I thought Halloween III was excellent. I really like that film because it's different. It has a real nice feel to it.”
Halloween III is an excellent, creative horror film without studio meddling or oversight. The move to an anthology would’ve been a success at another time. The American Horror Story (2011) series is proof of concept. If the innovative team behind the original two films was involved in a string of new stories that were wildly different but had the connective tissue of Halloween, it might have worked if given a chance. While Michael Myers would’ve been absent, the thematic elements that make Halloween a classic would have continued to contribute something new and exciting to the genre.
Aside from what could have been, Michael Meyers has become the central villain of a franchise that shouldn't have been. As a force of pure evil, his indiscriminate killing sprees don't lend themselves to a series. When the sequels, specifically Halloween II (1981), provided him with motivation for his intuitive urge to kill, it created an unnecessary tether that kept the characters alive for decades. We can’t seem to escape the character of Michael Myers, which is unfortunate because he's become tiresome.
Like the Xenomorph in Alien (1979), the great white shark in Jaws (1975), and other monsters, Michael Myers exists in a finite spectrum of story and character possibilities that don't support franchise longevity or creative freedom for expansion. A franchise revolving around Michael Myers comparatively is like having a series centered on the entity from It Follows (2014). It’s hypothetically possible but utterly unnecessary.
Mitchell Brown is a Wisconsin-based horror enthusiast and writer. He is an aspiring screenwriter graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, majoring in English with a minor in Film, Video, Animation, and New Genres.