Monday, October 18, 2010

'Tis the month to be slashin'

I recently watched a documentary on the slasher pictures of the late 70s and early 80s.  It gave me a warm, nostalgic feeling.  My introduction to the genre was John Carpenter's original Halloween.  I saw it at a screening at Butler University on October 30, 1981.  I was nine, going on ten-years-old.  I had just started working, throwing newspapers in the afternoon and spending my money collecting comic books.  It was a glorious time.  Ronald Reagan had yet to turn the clock backwards and there was a general feeling of freedom and goodwill.  How the hell the slasher genre made its mark at that time is beyond me.  As many have noted, it was basically a conservative genre.  Kids smoking dope and screwing around were cut to pieces and virginal girls were allowed to live.  As most of the genre's pioneers will attest, however, that was merely by chance.  In a famous Siskel and Ebert special, the normally rational Siskel went so far as to claim the genre was a reaction to feminism.  His left-wing reactionary, ah, reaction, failed to account for the "last girl" motif present in virtually every film.  How a genre that celebrates women fending for themselves against phallus-wielding, patriarchal maniacs is anti-feminist makes absolutely no sense.  Then again, Siskel and Ebert had a tough time making sense.  Let's never forget that Ebert penned the late 60s sleaze-fest Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.  I recently read a collection of his movie reviews (Your Movie Sucks) and every other review referred to semen, whether it had anything to do with the movie or not.  I'm guessing that a movie critic obsessed with semen doesn't care for any genre that celebrates the strength of women.

But I digress.

We all have vivid memories from our childhoods.  Most of them involve real activities with real people.  In the United States, some of those memories involve movies.  The two most vivid for me are:  The day in 1977 that my dad picked me up from my day care and took me to a matinee of Star Wars.  I remember looking behind the movie screen to figure out the secret to the great magic trick that motion pictures represent.  It was that moment that I knew, one way or another, I was going to become a story teller.  The other vivid memory is the night I saw Halloween.

Nine is probably too young for a movie like that.  At least, it was in 1981.  I was in the fourth grade and I had discovered what I called the "free movies" at Butler University just before the semester started.  They showed the films at 4, 7 and 9 (or 10, depending on the length of the movie.)  They were 35mm prints projected in Jordan Hall, room 131 (which is now, for some reason, 141), on a wide screen.  It was normally a lecure room with stadium seating.  The first few movies they showed that fall included Take the Money and Run (my introduction to Woody Allen), the hysterical Seems Like Old Times (my introduction to Neil Simon) and the amazingly boring Ordinary People (my introduction to the unreliability of the Academy Awards).  Usually, the theater was half full at best.  Absolutely nothing prepared me for what I experienced the night before Halloween (the holiday, not the movie).

The first thing I noticed when I entered the theater/lecture hall was that it was packed.  The only seating was on the floor, right in front of the screen.  I sat down with Billy Boyd, the neighborhood bully who insisted I had to see this film (Billy died mysteriously a few years ago in Kentucky, the state John Carpenter spent his childhood in.  Nobody knows how he met his personalized boogey man...)  We were surrounded by gorgeous sorority girls who screamed at every calculated scream-moment.  As soon as the music started and the ominous yellow credits, next to the suddenly terrifying image of a jack-o-lantern, washed up over the darkness, I knew I was in for a nightmarish ride.  I put my hands over my face, opening my fingers enough to see but having them ready should I need to cover my eyes.  Watching the POV shot of young Michael Myers moving in to kill his sister was a revelation.  I had never seen a movie where someone just killed somebody for, seemingly, no reason at all.  It was like a crowbar bashed right into all the ethical sensibilities society had tried to instill in me up to that point.  How can stories like this exist? I thought.

The entire movie was like a nightmare that wouldn't end.  When it was over, I walked back to my house with Billy Boyd, looking in every direction to make sure some masked freak didn't jump out of the darkness with a knife.  My parents were at a party.  There was a babysitter at my house watching my younger brothers who were five and two-years-old.  We turned on a small black and white television set in my dad's study and, wouldn't you know it, the network television premiere of Halloween was just starting on NBC (Channel 13 in Indianapolis).  So we watched it again (with added footage, which confused the hell out of me).  When PJ Soles and her boyfriend got out of the van and entered the (hohoho!) 'empty' house, Billy said, "This is where the movie starts to get really scary."

When the movie was over on television, my youngest brother, only two-years-old, refused to go to sleep.  I thought it was amazing that even he could sense we had watched something terrifying.  Billy Boyd went back to his house across the street and my other brother and I stayed up to watch the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers on the Sammy Terry show.  My parents finally came home and insisted we go to sleep.

I couldn't.  I went into my brother's room and tried to sleep and couldn't.  Finally I went into my parents' room and slept there.  Halloween played over and over again in my nightmares.  I kept hearing Billy say, "This is where the movie gets scary," and then the second half of the movie would play out and I'd wake up and go back to sleep and see it all over again.

I didn't sleep well for two weeks following the movie and wouldn't you know it, two weeks after Halloween, it was Friday, November 13th.  Can you guess what film they showed at the free movies that night?

I didn't sleep well for the remainder of 1981.

I saw most of the famous slasher movies of the early 1980s.  Most of them I saw on Cinemax when my dad finally got cable television.  I was "lucky" enough to see the two movies that brought the golden age to a screeching halt-- Silent Night, Deadly Night and April Fool's Day-- in the theater (in those days you could get into an R-rated movie if you looked old enough to walk without diapers;  on the off chance that you had some self-righteous jerk in the ticket booth, you just bought a ticket to a PG movie and snuck into the R-rated movie).  The best of the genre were hardcore, politically "incorrect" gore-fests.  In time I learned not to be afraid and enjoy the amazing special effects (most of which were done by Tom Savini).  I find it odd that now, almost thirty years later, these are the movies that spawn affectionate feelings for my childhood. 

Could this explain my sympathy for sociopaths?

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