Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)

Well, I've now decided to start on the long-time-ago promised series of essays on horror films and was going to start with another, but since I just wrote about Rob Zombie's remake, I figure why not start the series off with the original. Be forewarned that there are spoilers in the following; I'm working under the impression that the majority of people reading this have already seen the film.

What makes John Carpenter's 1978 film Halloween work so well is that it has all the elements - and let's face it, clich├ęs - of the Unstoppable Monster, Women-In-Danger and Haunted House movies, stripped down to their bare essentials. Not one frame in this movie is excessive or wasteful: it shows the exact minimum of what you need to see in order to understand what's happening, which makes it such a tense and terrifying viewing experience.

Halloween was made on a relatively low budget (about $300,000) and as a labor of love by Carpenter, producer and co-writer Debra Hill, and his cast and crew, which shows. Because it went on to gross more than $50 million, a (let's be charitable) disappointing franchise and subpar subgenre (the slasher movie) were inevitably made. Despite this, in terms of filmmaking, Carpenter's film is more closely aligned with Hitchcock's Psycho than with the Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street movies (not surprising, then, that Janet Leigh's daughter is cast as the heroine and Donald Pleasence's character is named after a character from Hitchcock's film).

Unlike some of the other horror films that I hope to blather on about on this site in the near future, Halloween doesn't really have anything of substance to say: as opposed to several horror films from the '70s like Dawn of the Dead or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, there's no social commentary or "message" to be found in this movie. The story is about as simple as you can get: a deranged killer escapes an insane asylum to wreak havoc on his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois on Halloween night.

But that's beside the point: Halloween is an example of masterful filmmaking.

Unlike its sequels and imitators, Halloween is very light on gore and featuring a relatively low body count for a horror film but lingers in the imagination as being a bloodbath. Again, this is because Carpenter follows Hitchcock's cues from Psycho, particularly from its infamous shower scene: you swear to yourself that you saw the knife make contact with Marion Crane somewhere in those 90-plus shots, but you really didn't.

In fact, you rarely ever get a good look at Michael Myers, the giant mute killer in the revamped Captain Kirk mask (simply listed in the credits as "The Shape," played by Nick Castle), aside from in silhouette or in passing. Two of the most frightening scenes - the Shape's escape from the mental institution in the beginning and when Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis in her feature film debut) rips off his mask in the end - are when he's not wearing his mask, because even though you can technically see his face, you still couldn't say what he looks like (his facial expression - or lack thereof - doesn't seem too different from the mask itself).

(I had toyed with the idea of pointing out the really terrifying scenes and describing them, but then this would go on indefinitely. Plus, I think everyone who's seen this movie has very different thoughts as to which scenes are the most terrifying. I think, in addition to the previously mentioned scenes, the scene where the Shape is attacking Laurie in the closet while the light bulb is turning on and off is absolutely terrifying. My sister pointed out that the music-free scene where the boy Laurie is babysitting sees the Shape carrying the body of one of her friends in the house across the street gives her the willies. Other people have other scenes. So let's just say that trying to find a mass consensus as to which scenes are the scariest is an exercise in futility.)

The opening scene depicts the brutal murder of a teenaged girl, presented as one long, continuous shot from the point of view of a masked killer (well, okay, there are actually hidden three cuts but never mind). I remember the first time I saw this in high school with friends. We all laughed at the somewhat cheesy image of the killer stabbing the girl. Then the killer comes down the stairs and goes outside to meet a middle-aged couple pulling their car up front. The couple looks concerned at the killer. "Michael...?" the man asks. He pulls off the mask and the camera cuts to show a young boy, about six years old, wearing a clown costume and holding a butcher's knife. We stopped laughing.

After that opening scene, not only aren't there any more first person point-of-view shots, there is no point in the film where the audience identifies with the killer.

(Carpenter makes sure that the viewer's sympathies and connection always lie with introverted virginal babysitter Laurie Strode and her friends, who the Shape stalks. These characters are not merely two-dimensional killer fodder: they are funny and intelligent characters with quirky and believable personalities.)

Through methodic camerawork, measured and deliberate pacing, and a haunting yet simple musical score that slowly builds its notes and themes one on top of each other, Carpenter slowly and steadily ratchets up the tension until the horrific and relentless finale between Laurie and the Shape.

Here's an example:

If you notice when the Shape comes out of the shadows to attack Laurie, he doesn't spring out (in fact, he rarely jumps out at his victims throughout the movie). The camera's aperture changes to allow the Shape to be visible. In other words, he's been there the whole time, but the audience - and Laurie - isn't aware of him until it's too late.

On one hand, it's a shame that Halloween has been lumped in with such uninspired dreck as Friday the 13th, Prom Night, Silent Night, Deadly Night, and Black Christmas, but it's not terribly surprising. For good or for bad, because of its enormous financial success, Halloween spawned the slasher films from the late-'70s the mid-'80s. Despite this, Halloween is in a league all of its own because it actually delivers scares.

Never babysitting again,

James "Unless I Get Paid More" Comtois

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Blogger Paul Rekk said...

Awww man, Black Christmas and Friday as "uninspired dreck"? The nostalgia sympathy's kicking in over here, Comtois!

I'm glad I checked J-Speak this morning -- I was about to post my thoughts on the Zombie version (p.s. I loved it.) and this was a great lil' pick-me-up on the beauty of the original.

And for my money, the ghost costume scene is devilishly creepy -- it gave Michael a sense of intelligence, humor, and premeditation. Pure evil isn't just a big lunkhead anymore.

11:07 AM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

I know, I know, but I guess I'm supposed to be putting on my "Sunday
Best" for these essays. I mean, part of me really wants to offer an
analysis of April Fool's Day, but I want to maintain th illusion of
credibility for the time being :)

Yeah, I really dug Zombie's version, too. It looks gorgeous, doesn't
it? (Yes, for a blood-soaked movie, I think the adjective applies.)

Obviously, it doesn't compare to the original, since Carpenter's is
just so...tight. So many scenes in the original make my stomach
muscles clench up, even watching it for the bazillionth time.

But still, the kid massacring his family, the shot of the older
Michael in his cell with all the paper mached masks, just amazing
imagery. And I do think the term "vision" applies to the first half
of Zombie's movie; it truly is his vision for the story.

And thanks for the vote on the scariest scene. That's a damn good one.

11:56 AM  

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