As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a massive horror fan. It’s my favorite genre, simply because of how rich and diverse it is. Horror is all-encompassing, allowing filmmakers and writers to branch out into as many different directions as they want. From science fiction to drama to mystery, and even romance and comedy, there’s horror films out there that venture into every territory. I’d argue that it’s likely the most versatile film genre of all, which gives it so much room for new, creative and innovative approaches. Horror is the only genre that seems like it reinvents itself continuously, constantly updating itself to reflect new trends both the film industry and in society as a whole, as well as the fears and subconscious worries that plague them. Every couple of years, just when it seems like it’s dead, the genre seems rises from the grave, renewed, and experiences a new renaissance. And I’m so indescribably happy to see that we seem to be in the midst of one of these revitalizing periods now, with the success of unique and boundary-defining films like Jordan Peele’s undeniably brilliant Get Out, along with better-than-they-should-be retellings of classic stories, like last year’s adaption of Stephen King’s It. But my love for horror is unfortunately a bit of a double-edged sword. Because it’s my favorite genre, and because I have so much reverence for it, it’s also the genre of which I’m most critical of.
Horror, taken as a whole, is not a perfect genre by any means. While there are many truly original horror films out there, there’s also an exponentially larger amount which are simply stale, repetitious retellings of the same tired tropes and plots. How many times have you seen a trailer and thought “I’ve seen this exact premise a thousand times before?” Probably pretty often. This is more evident in some sub-genres than others, but the worst offender is the Slasher. There are literally hundreds of films with the exact same plot: Madman with a knife/machete/chainsaw kills a half-dozen misbehaving teenagers before finally being defeated by a lone survivor. Rinse and repeat, ad nauseam for eight or nine sequels.
But the biggest problem with this approach isn’t the loss of originality in narrative. A familiar plot can still be worthwhile, provided it’s presented in an entertaining way. No, the real tragedy in this cookie-cutter franchise style of filmmaking is the dehumanization of the characters in these films. We’ve reached a point where the vast majority of horror movie characters aren’t characters at all; they’re props. What I mean by that is, particularly in slasher films, the characters themselves only exist as exhibitions of the villain’s prowess. In other words, they only exist to be killed, and therefore have very little else going for them in terms of character traits or personality. It’s how we wind up with the same basic set of victims in nearly every film in this category: The jock, the slutty cheerleader, the nerd, the stoner, the virgin, et cetera, et cetera. Because these films are largely focused with getting a visceral reaction from their audience, they become less about humanizing these characters, making them unique and allowing the audience to root for them, and more about killing them in as many gruesome ways as possible. They’re simply a means to an end. That end, in this case, being a shocking and grizzly death.
Again, the worst offenders here are the Slashers. Look at all the endless Friday the 13th sequels and all of its near-identical “clone” movies. All of the characters in these films are essentially cartoon characters, with nothing to them in terms of writing other than one archetypal trait that defines their entire being. That’s because producers and filmmakers believe that the audience is there to see these characters die, and nothing more. Which, of course, eventually gave rise to the “torture porn” sub-genre, containing films like Hostel and Saw. These are films whose sole purpose is giving the audience as much violence as they possibly can, with absolutely none of the character work. And yet, there’s dozens of them, each making for more money than they really have any right to. And although they’re the most frequent offenders, it’s not just Slasher’s, either. Look at supernatural franchises like Paranormal Activity, too. Exact same thing. Clearly, there’s a certain studio mindset that audiences don’t need any of the extra fluff, they just want the action.
But I disagree pretty strongly with that assertion. If anything, I think that a horror movie is only effective if the characters are compelling. Look at it this way: The point of a horror film is to build suspense, and to scare an audience. Sure, you can do that with music and cheap tricks like jump-scares, but to really get an audience invested, to really make sure that the violence and the more intense moments have an effect, is to get them to like the characters. To make them want to see these people succeed, and to get them genuinely worried about their well-being. If we as an audience like a character, if we can emphasize with them, then we naturally don’t want to see them harmed. Which, of course, inevitably happens, because it’s a horror film, after all. And we’re all the more affected by the violence because of this empathetic connection. Real suspense is when you genuinely want a character to live.
This is, I think, one of the greatest strengths of David Gordon Green’s 2018 sequel/reboot of John Carpenter’s legendary Halloween. The original is an obvious classic, basically birthing the modern Slasher film, and spawning an endless wave of knock-offs and homages. And still, it suffers from this same issue: Nearly all of the characters, save for Jamie Lee Curtis’s protagonist, Laurie Strode, are essentially just caricatures. Sex-crazed, drunk teenagers, who only exist as fodder for Michael Myers and his kitchen knife.
This new version, however, makes up for it in the best way possible. It features, for the first time in the history of the franchise, teenage victims that seem like real people. They talk and behave in such a way that allows each character to stand out as unique, fully-realized characters, rather that shallow, cartoonish stereotypes. They’re funny, relatable, and, most importantly, endearing. And that last bit is the key to why the horror and suspense elements in this new Halloween work so well: You genuinely fear for these characters. You like them, you sympathize with them, and you desperately want them to survive. When Michael Myers begins his bloody rampage, you feel the tension as he closes in on these kids. And when he finally gets them, it’s gut-wrenching. It’s real tension and suspense, not from cheap theatrical tricks like jump-scares or musical crescendos.
And that isn’t to say that they don’t adhere to archetypes. There’s a certain expectation to see certain character types in a Slasher film, and Halloween certainly honors this. Only instead of simply presenting them as hollow caricatures, they’re given legitimate depth and variation in their personalities and behaviors. For example, there’s a stoner, sure. It is, after all, a Danny McBride script.
But that’s not his defining character trait. He’s also a funny, charismatic character who loves his girlfriend dearly, who’s great with the kid she babysits, and who bravely jumps to defend them both when Micheal Myers comes knocking. The same goes for the film’s other teens as well. They’re all visually recognizable and representative of their stereotypical and archetypal predecessors in the genre, yet they’re also much more modern and complex.
This has multiple effects on the movie overall. For one, it makes the story far more intelligent than many others in its lane, showing an attention to detail and character development that normally is thrown to the wayside in writing a slasher screenplay. But more than that, to my original point, it makes the tension and suspense much more visceral and real. You like these characters, because they seem like real people. They remind you of people you know, and as a result, they endear themselves to you in a way that makes you really, genuinely root for their survival. They don’t feel like props, they feel like living, breathing characters. You feel a pang of sadness and remorse when they die, rather than just moving on and forgetting about them. And for a horror film, those emotions are crucial. Otherwise, the viewing experience is empty, simply a meaningless display of violent images. It’s a refreshing approach, one that I hope becomes more and more widespread given the success of this film. At the very least, it’s certainly cemented itself as one of, if not the best, entries in the Halloween franchise.