Kevin Lehane – writer of monster movie Grabbers and co-host of The Best Bits pod – closes out our #31DaysOfHorror series by talking about the first film he ever saw…
Before I turned six, I wasn’t really aware of films. I was growing up in Surrey, England, and watching TV on my dad’s lap when he’d come home from work. Together, we’d watch reruns of shows like The Muppets, or Monkey, or A-Team, or whatever else was on before I had to head to bed. I’d seen snippets of films along the way, but for the most part I’d never experienced a full movie. I remember seeing the first thirty-odd minutes of Jaws one evening when my mam was feeling generous and preoccupied with knitting a scarf. And I remember her reaction to it as the shark pursued the two scheming fishermen whose dock had collapsed and they were scrambling to get out of the sea. “Swim! Swim!” she blurted at the telly while I knelt before it. Films were exciting.
But they were also dangerous. I remember a traumatising exposure to their power around that time when one night I snuck out of bed to sit quietly on the top of the stairs, and spied through the spindles of the staircase the opening scene to The Twilight Zone Movie. As Dan Aykroyd showed Albert Brooks something really scary, I leapt up in a petrified panic and ran down the stairs to beg my mam to turn it off. “You shouldn’t be watching it” was all my mam could say to me as I believed something malevolent had now come into the living room through the TV, and had now changed the molecules in the air. I was happy with sticking with my appointment TV of He-Man from then on. No more movies for me.
But then as I turned six, my parents were getting divorced, and during this confusing time, I spent many weekends unaccompanied at my cousins. They were teenagers and owned a VCR. If we had one, I don’t remember us ever using it. But they did, and they got plenty of life out of it. Each weekend, they would rent movies from a pokey little video shop in Plumstead. Films like The Terminator, American Werewolf in London, and Gremlins. All the films I was too young to see, and they were keen to.
One such night when I was likely still reeling from the news I was moving to Ireland with my mam and leaving my dad and my home behind, I remember seeing the video boxes for the films they were going to put on that night. Somehow, I passed the vibe check, and later that evening when I was up well past my bedtime, we watched John Carpenter’s Halloween. The first film I had ever seen from start to finish.
From the moment Carpenter’s classic started I was welded in place with the music feeling like ice-cold fingers tickling my spine. This was not He-Man.
“Michael Myers is a six-year-old boy with the strength of a man and the mind of an animal”, so it goes. And from the moment Michael is revealed as a child with the power to kill, I saw myself on screen. No, I kid: but I was mesmerised. The killer was a child. At least in the intro. And then, children close to my age, like Tommy and Lindsey, were in peril. I was enthralled.
John Carpenter’s classic effectively launched a whole new genre in 1978 with the slasher film. Some may argue Black Christmas did it first and did it spectacularly, but Halloween drew the first blood. Coming hot on the heels of the Ted Bundy murders where a sorority was attacked and a slew of young women were murdered in the night, the film tapped into a new fear – that of the serial killer, a term yet to be popularised. The film was a hit and seized the attention of audiences all over the world. It launched a billion-dollar genre with countless copycat masked spree killers on screen. Eleven sequels and forty-three years on, we’re still grappling with the Shatner-masked maniac with a new sequel trilogy adding fresh kills and further depth to John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s creation of The Shape.
For me, my obsession with films was born watching it on that dark night on my cousins’ couch: when Laurie saw a man in a white mask hiding in bushes; when Annie forgot her keys; when Laurie walked across the street to check on her friend’s wellbeing; when she hid in the closet after being attacked; when she fashioned the wire hangers into a weapon; when The Shape disappeared into the night after wreaking havoc; when every place The Shape had been was now unsafe and haunted – the power of fear permeating every location. It permeated me too, with every spine-tingling moment seared into my mind. I was obsessed with this thing called film. I needed to know everything about it, and I needed to see Halloween again. Right after Halloween II.
I moved to Ireland not long after that night, with the names of all those in the film’s credits committed to memory. John Carpenter. Debra Hill. Dean Cundey. Jamie Lee Curtis. I became a latchkey kid far from home in the second city of Ireland, Cork, and it was an unhappy time for a while. I struggled to fit in with my accent causing derision every time I spoke.
I missed my dad too, and I didn’t know how to articulate feelings that didn’t have words associated with them. I was bereft and isolated and frustrated. But Cork was a small city and a safe one and so I would wander off by myself whenever I could to make pit stops at video shops I’d find along the way.
Inside these temples to cinema, I would ritually flip the backs of boxes to match up the names to the ones I knew made Halloween. Whenever I found one, I did what I could to absorb it. We didn’t have a VCR, but just reading the box covers was my IMDb back then. I was like an illiterate in a library: I’d study the box art, read and reread the blurb, memorise the stills. Back at my Nans, where I now lived, I’d then pore over the TV guide like it was a bingo card and every so often I’d strike it lucky and see that The Fog was screening at 9 p.m. next Friday. Over the course of fifteen years, I ticked off every John Carpenter that way in between making trips to the cinema, stealing reads of film magazines in shops, and watching every film review show and Movie Magic episode I could find on TV.
John Carpenter made a film in 20-days for $300,000 with friends and newbies and got everything right. It’s an immaculate movie. One that launched a thousand imitators, some worthy, most not, but few films are as beautiful to behold and as transfixing to watch as Halloween. I’m writing this having just watched Halloween Kills, a film which is someone else’s love letter to the original. It’s an intense film with fascinating themes on violence and toxic fear. It isn’t the original: it’s a new beast. But it speaks to the awesome power of the 1978 film that we’re still watching Michael wreak havoc, Laurie and Lindsey and Tommy fight back and listening to John Carpenter send shivers up and down our spine with his iconic Halloween themes.
I have a hypothesis presupposed from conversations with friends who make movies that if a child sees a horror movie before they’re ready, it won’t just ruin their night, it’ll redirect their life. So many of my friends saw a film way too young that fascinated and emboldened them. The awesome power of movies was something they needed to understand, to recreate and relive. For me, the power of mastering a fear I had of leaving my dad became intertwined with watching an elegantly crafted scary movie. I could handle Michael Myers. The Boogeyman. I can handle life too, like the all too wise Tommy Doyle.
I’d gone on a journey through Haddonfield and had come out of it feeling stronger in myself. That’s the value of horror.
If I’d never seen Halloween, I don’t know that I have gone down the road I did with wanting to write films, or talk about them on my podcast, but I am glad that I did. Halloween is a magical time in Ireland: it’s where the holiday originated. Growing up in a country where it’s celebrated each year meant even without a VCR, or a video card, or my dad to watch with and feel safe, I got to rewatch and relive John Carpenter’s Halloween classic year on year, and each time I saw it on the TV guide I got to introduce it to others, to cousins and new friends that I’d made. Before long Ireland felt like home, and Halloween had made it fun.