The Shape — otherwise known as Michael Myers — is a terrifying movie monster not because his motives for killing are unknown, but because he performs the cardinal function of the horror genre and imbues the film with a distinct lack of closure. In John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), The Shape is a menacing force with a large kitchen knife, navy coverall, and soft-featured mask who escapes from an asylum and returns to his home town of Haddonfield, Illinois to terrorize the town’s teenage babysitters. Aside from the very loose motive formed a decade-and-a-half earlier when Myers watched his sister — who was supposed to be babysitting him — have sex with her boyfriend, we aren’t given much in the way of explanation by his psychiatrist, Dr. Sam Loomis (played by Donald Pleasence). Even Loomis seems to generalize his condition to the town sheriff and other characters by calling him “evil,” and agreeing with Laurie Strode that he is, in fact, the boogeyman. He tells Sheriff Brackett, “I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply…evil.”
When Loomis fails to explain Myers’ condition, he strengthens the idea that The Shape’s motivation is both unexplainable and unstoppable. That we are unable to fully explain away Myers’ psychological problems and confine him to a clinical box the way we do with Norman Bates at the end of Psycho (1960) underlines the film’s distinct lack of closure. At the end of the film, when closure is nearly achieved, Myers rises from the dead and disappears into the night. Dr. Loomis had him cornered and caught him “in the act” as his namesake did in Psycho (that Sam Loomis, who was the boyfriend of Lila Crane, was played by John Gavin). But unlike the pat ending to Psycho, Carpenter and Debra Hill let The Shape loose into Haddonfield after taking six bullets from Loomis’ Saturday night special.
What is most terrifying, however, about The Shape and his place in horror film history is his performance of the genre’s key contemporary function to withhold closure. The Shape performs this function by evading capture, but — on a broader level — the Halloween film series solidifies the genre’s resistance to capture and death. With its assortment of sequels, reimaginings, namesake-only spin-offs (Halloween III: Season of the Witch), extended television broadcasts, remastered DVDs, and other “definitive” editions, The Shape embodies the genre’s purist drive for more: more victims, more mayhem, more unexplained motive. With each entry in the series, there is always the false hope that The Shape won’t make it out alive; that he’ll become more than a faceless monster and resemble something more tangible and vulnerable. But if he were to do so, he’d be breaking the basic rule that monsters don’t die. We won’t let them die, nor will film producers.
A bitter pill to swallow. As a boy growing up with the series, I wanted closure and looked forward to each sequel with the belief that this time The Shape will be explained and face certain death. I wanted the nightmare in Haddonfield to be over. The series came closest to closure in Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998), which pitted Myers against Laurie Strode for one last confrontation at her son’s private school. Laurie pins Michael against a tree with a van and as he extends his arm to her — a sign of human feeling? — she takes a breath and lops his head off with an axe. Just as the original film ends on Myers’ heavy mask breathing, H20 ends with Laurie, out of breath, exhausted, and relieved.
But, wait. Halloween Resurrection, which was released in 2002, takes a few steps back and offers an alternate reading of that satisfying ending. It wasn’t The Shape that Laurie decapitated. Myers supposedly switched outfits with a paramedic and escaped into the woods, while the unfortunate ambulance driver got the axe instead. By this point, however, I was starting to clue in to the genre’s need to reaffirm its purpose by never providing real closure. While I thought I had been tricked, I came to realize that The Shape’s terror depended on his ability to evade capture. Some might call these developments “twists,” but they represent more than that. The modern horror genre, especially Hollywood horror, replays the escapist scenario in order to survive itself. And though we, as an audience, believe we want closure, it’s hard to deny the terrifying notion that The Shape won’t be stopped because he can’t be stopped.
All of this leads me to my favorite moment in Carpenter’s original film. It’s right at the end when Loomis peers over the balcony to find Myers gone. Loomis’ reaction isn’t telegraphed by the score or underlined by excessive cutting. He confidently walks over to the balcony, fully expecting to see Myers’ body lie below, but then his eyes widen at the site of an empty patch of grass where Myers should be. His eyes seem to glaze over as he lifts his head to stare somewhere beyond the frame. He’s accepted it, perhaps, because he expected it. Then, to emphasize the lack of closure, Laurie begins to sob heavily into her hands. She knows the nightmare isn’t over, most likely because of Loomis’ stone-faced silence.
I never fully appreciated the artfulness of this simple reaction. When I listened to Carpenter’s audio commentary on the Criterion LaserDisc way back in 1993, he spoke briefly about this moment and its singular importance to the whole film. (The commentary seems to have survived multiple DVD and Blu Ray re-issues).
During shooting, Pleasence reportedly asked Carpenter how to play the scene. Here’s his summation of the event:
[Pleasence asked] “How do you want me to react when I look off the balcony. There are two ways. I can react ‘oh my god, he’s gone.’ Or I can react ‘I knew he would be gone.’” It was the first time an actor had given me a choice. And I was stunned by it. So I asked Donald to please play it both ways and I’d decide later. See if you can figure out what choice he made as he looks down from the porch.
I still love how Carpenter withholds his decision from the audience. It’s a clever little game that still entertains me when I watch it. Year after year, my impression changes. At the moment I believe Pleasence articulates both shock and knowingness. Shock at the moment when he sees the body is missing, but a complete lack of surprise that he’d be gone. Loomis hopes the nightmare will be over, but knows too well that Myers is not really human after all.