Wednesday, January 17, 2018

someone should’ve listened to me earlier

Yesterday was an exercise, a deliberate exercise, in reevaluating Michael Myers. And, it was really fun. Not entirely serious, but also not entirely tongue-in-cheek. In fact, I think my urge to even write such things is indicative of my tendency to embrace the bad guy, in film, and in life. My favorite subject as a history major was sixties radicals, and I even had one of my lengthy pieces on the domestic terrorist group Weatherman published (and I still have the urge to write more about them sometimes). I've got like two whole shelves of books related to that organization and other violent dissidents and radicals. And more titles on my Amazon wishlist.

Speaking of--and I will connect these things in a better way as I go--my Amazon wishlist, I only just now moved to the top of my list Richard Nowell's Blood Money: A History of the First Teen Slasher Film Cycle. It surprises me that I have not gotten around to buying it by now; maybe because Google Books will allows quite long sampling. I was just reading about movie box office trends--outside of the (actually quite slow) success of the original Halloween--that led to the production of Friday the 13th. Nowell calls Cunningham's summer camp set film the "reinforcing hit" that proved the not yet born slasher subgenre was viable. I ended up at Blood Money (which I have read and cited sections of in this blog before) again because I was curious what "splatter" films Carpenter was emulating by adding extra gore to Halloween II. In his review, Roger Ebert suggests that, instead of "even attempt[ing] to do justice to the original [Halloween II] tries to outdo all the other violent "Halloween" rip-offs of the last several years." I like to cite Roger because he makes for a useful baseline, and I enjoy his take on films even when I disagree with him, but I gotta nitpick. First of all, it hadn't even been several years since the first Halloween... I mean, maybe in Roger's day, three years amounts to several, but--and Roger should understand this sort of thing--as Nowell points out, it takes time for "rip-offs" to get into theaters. Nowell points out how Phantasm, When a Stranger Calls, and Silent Scream, often compared to Halloween, had been completed well before Halloween hit theaters.

The best I can find for violent Halloween ripoffs before Halloween II is maybe Driller Killer, which was one of the original so-called "video nasties" in the UK and was eventually banned there. A blogger I can't seem to find a name for, writing in the blog and you call yourself a scientist? suggests:

In the meantime [between the release of the original Halloween and the sequel], the world of horror film was undergoing a profound--and profoundly depressing--revolution. Halloween's success sent low-budget film-makers into a a frenzy; and one of them, Sean S. Cunningham, hit upon a formula that could generate a maximum profit with a minimum of effort and ability. With its brutal simplicity, its general disinterest in story and character, and it's unapologetic emphasis upon the bloody details of human death, Friday the 13th is, in essence, Halloween stripped down to the very bone; and it proved to be a watershed in the evolution of the horror movie.

Before I get into scientist's details, it is worth noting that Cunningham told journalists, "Most scary movies aren't scary... They're just disgusting. A face hacked into four pieces isn't scarier than a face hacked into two pieces, it's just more disgusting" (Chase, 1981, quoted in Nowell). With Friday the 13th, i.e. the "reinforcing hit" that made it clear in the long run that low-budget slasher films could make money, wasn't even trying to use excessive gore to make its point. Nowell details how several of that films deaths take place off screen, and argues, "Instead of focusing on pain, suffering, and extended displays of damaged bodies, the makers of Friday the 13th had aimed to avoid the alienation of their preferred distributors." (Note: MPAA-member distributors did not yet go for such films.) Additionally, Nowell details--and, really, he has a lot of detail--how a lack of film content controversy in the summer of 1979 was "interpreted" by several filmmakers "as evidence that a shift was taking place in the priorities of the American popular press and the Classification and Ratings Administration... [They] saw an opportunity to highlight the depiction of bloodshed." I would put it into the larger context of all of American cinema (whereas Nowell is focused on a specifically small block of years and one type of film); American audiences had always loved films that pushed the envelope. We liked violence. Westerns, old ones, might seem quaint by today's standards, and they often avoided showing actual bloodshed, but they relied entirely on violent climaxes, on heroic willing to do violence to other men to win the day. Meanwhile--

(INSERT a montage of me rifling through some old bundles of history class notes and handouts, Halloween II paused on the tv, because I wanted to cite a specific article regarding what I am about to say, but I cannot find it.)

--Vietnam had become the first televised war, with explicit acts of violence caught on video, and violence had come to campuses and urban streets here in America through the 60s and into the 70s and commercial film had changed. More was allowed, more was possible. If gore was profitable--and it bugs me that old reviews like Roger's (he refers to "countless imitations, each one worse than the last" and I just want a footnote with a list) and more recent pieces like scientist's don't offer up the abhorrent examples; I see a bunch of zombie and cannibal films when I look at lists of horror films in between the first two Halloweens and not a string of pseudo-slashers. [To be fair, it was a very brief search. I’ve got a better list for tomorrow.]

Plus, there are scientist's specifics. The use of "frenzy" suggests an immediate negative, like low-budget filmmakers are sharks feeding on corpses rather than people trying to do exactly what he says Cunningham did--"generate a maximum of profit with a minimum of effort or ability." That is Hollywood. That is filmmaking by anyone who wants to make a living at it. That is capitalism. If anyone should be complaint about such a thing as copying the trend just to make a buck--and, to be fair, Nowell specifically quotes Cunningham about wanting to "rip off" Halloween--it should be me. (Note for newbies: I tend toward a dislike of capitalism.) The only way a low-budget filmmakers can survive as a filmmaker is to make something profitable. And, there's that last bit there, too--"or ability". Because, clearly Friday the 13th, which has also been emulated plenty, which still holds up after nearly four decades of films, involved no skill on the part of its filmmakers. scientist refers to Friday the 13th's "brutal simplicity" as if Halloween doesn't also have brutal simplicity. scientist suggests that Friday the 13th has a "general disinterest in story and character" while Halloween (which scientist seems to like) has little story to it at all, and offers only as much depth of character as its actors can put forth, despite the the script. And, I love the film, by the way, but Halloween's script I great because it is already a bare bones plot with just a handful of characters hung on it, and it doesn't require great depth of character to involve us because it is not that kind of movie. Unless scientist saw some scene I did not in which Bob Simms had a deep, philosophical soliloquy before opening that cupboard door. Meanwhile, arguably Halloween II actually contains more story, or tries to, by cutting away from the hospital setting to fill in the gaps left by the original--why this town? Why this girl? One of the reasons I rather like Halloween II despite its flaws is that it is actually a good example of a sequel in that it extends the plot while furthering the story as well, offering up deeper meaning and details that affect one's understanding of the original. Whether it does this well or not is secondary to that fact that it does it.

later refers to "the moment that John Carpenter and Debra Hill made the--"

And, here, scientist gets some sarcasm to counter mine, I suppose. scientist continues:

--well, I hesitate to use the phrase "artistic choice"; "commercial choice" is more like it--anyway, the choice to make their sequel a slasher movie, certain aspects of Halloween II were guaranteed: a sharp rise in the body count, for one; the concomitant introduction of a myriad of minor characters who have no purpose but to die, for another; and perhaps most of all, the ever increasing extravagance of the manner of those deaths.

The "slasher film" didn't quite exist as such, just yet, though. Halloween was released in October 1978, Friday the 13th (Nowell's "reinforcing hit") in May 1980, Friday the 13th, Part 2 in April 1981. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre wouldn't be a franchise for another five years. The little-known "slasher films" that no one can bother to cite--they don't make the slasher film a thing. Carpenter, in deliberately adding extra gore in his reshoots was aping splatter films, aping Italian giallo films, aping exploitation films. And, while it may not be your thing (or scientist's thing) it is a legitimate artistic and commercial choice...

To be continued.

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