Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Slashological Strata of Fate: HALLOWEEN to THE TERMINATOR (1978-1984)


The early 80s --the height of the slasher craze --was for many impressionable, alienated teens like myself a time of fear, paranoia, isolation and frustrated sexual awakening; it all pooled together to form a budding fascist militarism within our ranks. Slasher films were an inescapable part of the landscape even if you avoided them: TV commercials, newspaper print ads relentlessly ogling cowering or showering girls from the perspective of killers --from approx. 1980-1983 there was no escape. The movies catered to a repulsive habit I never witnessed firsthand but was often reported by aghast critics: the habit of audience cheering at each bloody 'creative' murder. The gory details of these onscreen murders were passed on to those of us who didn't see them, either in school or (in my case) by my strange Christian Science Sunday school teacher. The goriest murders popped up in ads and posters: the girl about to be skewered through the mouth with a shish kabob (Happy Birthday to Me), someone with a TV smashed on top of his head  (Mother's Day), and so on. Luckily, or even worse for my anxiety and mistrust of the world, the shock and alarm expressed by critics like Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel--who devoted a whole episode of their Sneak Previews TV show (which I watched religiously) to what they called "dead teenager movies"--was enough for me to lose all faith in my schoolmates, and neighbors, and everyone else around me who seemed relatively unperturbed by it all. Me, until I discovered the defense mechanism of WW2 comic books and keeping the radio on, low but enough to drown out the frightening suburban evening silence, I could barely sleep at night. 

And it was before internet, so those as traumatized as me couldn't really find like-minded pre-PC people, the ones who, like me, thought women very very vulnerable and felt horrible for being too small and young to protect them and too naive to realize that such an approach wouldn't win me a girlfriend. It seems women weren't turned on by guys who made themselves miserable worrying about them. I ztill developed an almost rabid hatred of misogyny. I slid into punk rock and sneered at humanity in general and how sex and booze made our peers sloppy and indifferent to their own self preservation. My fellow virgin friends tried to absolve ourselves by thinking any bitch dumb enough to sleep with so-and-so, to fall for his dumb line and drink his gauche drinks, well, maybe she deserved all she got... gradually Jason Voorhees became what the Monster from the Id was to Morphius in Forbidden Planet

My poor Krell...

I'd later get sloppy drunk too, and laid, and high as hell (before Facebook and cell phones so our mothers couldn't see or check on us), become everything I may have aspired to in the cool 70s, but hated in the early-80s, but for now, 1980-1982 at age 13-16--the borderline to forbidden knowledge of how less depressed I'd be once I started drinking and making out with girls was heavily patrolled by a legion of masked, silent, shambling butcher knife wielding, unkillable automatons and the slavering morons who cheered their every thrust. We--who saw the line--dared not cross it. Instead we carefully, quietly armed ourselves for future battles. Stashing the butcher knife under our pillow, our baseball bat under our bed, preparing for the time when we would need to battle the shambling slasher who was, in our brains, slowly working his way down the block.

Get thee to a gunnery...

Guilt and horror and refusal to see these films would remain with me until I read Carol Clover's Men Women and Chainsaws and learned that was the whole point... I didn't have to afraid for girls, or of girls, I could be afraid through girls!

Back in those early 80s though, the main dread was that the slasher would get us in our sleep, or when we were alone, and we all thought of what we would do if he came home, as Halloween's tag line read, and the thought he was never going to die held us in a giddy grip that made it necessary to keep the TV or radio on, and a nightlight, to drown out the scrapings of trees against the house, and the creaking footsteps we couldn't be sure we heard as we tried to sleep in the groaning of tree branches outside.  My fear never stopped until I learned after watching Battle of the Bulge one night that just thinking about WW2 eased my fear. It could occupy my brain and all the armaments made me feel secure in the way armaments will. If that sense of military security was only in my imagination, well, that's where the monsters were too, so it worked. If that's not an encapsulation of the rise of 80s action movie militarism I don't know what is. So, retrace the steps and wonder... did Halloween indirectly cause the Iraq war?


The thing you have to remember though is that poor Laurie Strode didn't have a Laurie Strode before her to teach her to not drop the knife by the killer just because he's temporarily playing dead. Myers was the first of this type, this emerging breed of mute, indestructible automaton killers patrolling suburbia and in the first Halloween.  (Before then, serial killers were strictly in the city or the country). Jamie Lee doesn't yet know he's got nine hundred lives and you need to take drastic steps like defenestration, or what I eventually determined was an unbeatable and less messy course of action: thumb removal (no thumbs, no strangling or holding weapons, all he can do is lunge and snap like a turtle).


Every kid had their own late night strategy for tackling an unstoppable Michael Myers / Jason variety killer and in hindsight it's clear Laurie Strode's ignorance was the root force for the 80s action movie surge. The new heroes killed their enemies eight dozen ways at once, obliterated them. Sometimes they even tangled with indestructible psychos personally: Chuck Norris went on a round of futile karate kicks against a modified killer in Hero and the Terror (1988); Charlie Bronson tangled with a freaky psycho who kills while buck naked in Ten to Midnight (1983); Clint tangled with a kinky leather man in Tightrope (1984). When we first saw the preview for The Terminator (I remember seeing it come on before either CHUD or Christine at the Montgomeryville PA drive-in) we thought it, too, was Arnold's contribution to the by-then passé formula - except he was the bad guy, and the indestructability was explained by him being a robot. 

In the preview, it looked like yet another low budget Italian knock-off spandex-and-shiny vinyl-style slasher/action sci-fi hybrid. There he was, our once-proud Cimmerian, Conan, now dressed up in Eurotrash leather and shades, riding what looked like a scooter through Rome, aiming his laser sight at some target in a phony looking 'Tech Noir' bar. We figured he had really gone off the A-list with this one, that he'd be doing dinner theater next. So when we read the glowing reviews and heard the record box office we could scarcely believe it. Seeing the film a few weeks later I understood why: this time the opponent knew all the unstoppable killer's tricks before the movie even started, so it was like the final girl finally had a guy who understood her predicament before. she did. There would be no more dropping butcher knives, ever...

Won't get fooled again: Blue Steel, Escape from New York, Aliens
The idea that kept us up at night prior to 1984 was there there might be some crazy killer who had us earmarked for death for no reason, but now we could relish the cozy comfort inherent in the idea that for every Moby Dick monster there would be an Ahab or Dr. Loomis showing up after him and vice versa. In Halloween the same essential dynamic takes place, just substitute Donald Pleasance's quiver-voiced shrink for Michael Biehn.


To help lay all this out, I've assembled the following textual horror strata map. Most crap horror films never get past the surface (topographical) layer, while only a few get all the way down to the core, creating an inverse pyramid:

Surface (Topographical): Mise en scene; iconography: mask, axe, chainsaw, screaming woman, corridors advanced down stealthily, shocks around the corners, cowering in corners, rising up, sudden face in the bathroom mirror or behind the fridge door; closet door slats being peered through. A killer presumably already killed sitting slowly up and turning his head, the black kid dies first, etc.
Textual: Condemnation of lustful behavior; warning to never take the 'safety bars' off our First World social order consumerist entitlement
Subtextual: Feminism; homophobia; collapse of the American Family; critique of sexual repression; man's inherent savagery; castration anxiety; misanthropy; misogyny
Structural: The uncanny rhythm of slowed down time and sense of danger erupting from even normal things (that we see in our own daily lives) as they exist in an unsteady relation to language and perception: closet doors, darkened laundry rooms, cars, darkness, bushes outside the house, staircases, mirrors, telephones, porches, windows - i.e. the lack.
Core: Death Drive; initiation from child to adult through fright-endurance (every kid's very first day of school like an initiatory death); the learning of aggression for survival; the human tendency towards fascism; distrust of neighbors and people walking past your house (i.e. itchy trigger-finger neighborhood watches)
It's in this last one we see how, in its way, The Terminator, Rambo, and Sigourney Weaver in Aliens, are all illegitimate sequels to the slasher movie craze, and just maybe so is our modern trend of abducted daughters, torture porn, and NRA zealotry.
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So that was the first half of the 80s. Maybe we never had a midnight visitor with a laser sight or a knife but it hardly matters now. I still can't sleep in dead silence. I need a white noise machine, old radio shows, a whirring AC, the TV left on all night on low volume, or all of the above; I moved to the city that never sleeps--which after seeing The Warriors and Escape from New York in that same approx. time frame I vowed to never do--but the crime of the 70s was my boon, because dead bolts, steel doors, small apartments on high floors all made one's safety from outside monsters easily secured. Meanwhile my "little" brother is a member of the NRA and lives in a city that encourages concealed weapons permits. Is this all the fault of Michael and Jason?

I would say yes, maybe.

It's no coincidence that the personal freedom of the 70s ended the same time slasher movies were widely available on video where moms and little kids could see them (the ratings took awhile to translate to the new medium,, so kids could rent very graphic stuff during the rise of the slasher film, and there's certainly a link). Most of the violence was innocuous, even laughable, but the cumulative effect--the sheer number of R-rated violence available, even just looking at a shelf of the covers--was traumatizing. I could be traumatized by catching the end of Looking for Mr. Goodbar on The Movie Channel thinking it was Annie Hall one year but still get refused admittance to see Creepshow (1982) at the local cinema the next. Funny how fucked things are.... maybe it's in our nature to destroy oah-selves, but it's also in our nature to then get preachy about how destructive we are, and refuse admittance to teenagers for films perfectly suited to sick children.


At least one good thing came of all that fear and mistrust: Woman got a gun and learned to be her own Dr. Loomis. She kept watching the dark, and would never fall for a killer playing possum ever again. By Terminator 2, she had arsenals stashed away in Mexico just waiting... the fan was shit-caked and the Blockbusters were busted. There was nothing left now to scare us... not even the bomb.
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