'70s films, 31 Days of Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13, auteur theory, babysitters, Brian Andrews, Charles Cyphers, classic films, co-writers, cult classic, dead teenagers, Dean Cundey, Debra Hill, Donald Pleasence, electronic score, favorite films, Film auteurs, Haddonfield, Halloween, horror, horror franchises, horror movies, iconic film scores, independent film, insane asylums, Jamie Lee Curtis, John Carpenter, John Michael Graham, Kyle Richards, Michael Myers, Nancy Kyes, Nick Castle, P.J. Soles, Sam Loomis, set in the 1970s, slasher films, small town life, writer-director
Apparently, I owe John Carpenter’s classic Halloween (1978) an apology. Despite regarding the film as one of my favorites for more years than I can remember and revisiting it at least once a year, it seems that I’ve been taking it for granted. Call me “lazy” or “too comfortable” but I’ve been treating the film as background noise for far too long now: something to have on while serving up gift-wrapped sugar treats for the young’uns or to zone out to after a particularly long day at work. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that I’ve seen the film so many times, kind of like how we all used to get burnt out on big radio singles back when there was radio. I’ve been looking at the movie for years but I haven’t really been “watching” it for some time now. Obviously, this was a situation that needed to be rectified.
For this year’s screening of the seasonal chiller, I decided to give it my complete and undivided attention: rather than just put it on, I wanted to try to view it (if possible) through unbiased eyes. Essentially, I had a question: if I were viewing this for the first time today, would it still have the same impact on me that it did when I was a kid? It’s a flawed experiment, obviously, since there are so many other factors to consider, not the least of which is that at the time I saw the film, I didn’t really have much to compare it to: by this point, I’ve seen more horror films than I probably thought could ever exist back when I was knee-high to a grasshopper. Nonetheless, I wanted to see if the film could actually still affect me: I’ve been hearing stories lately about young people laughing their way through recent screenings of the film and wanted to see if this forefather to the slasher film still had any of its raw power left. As it stands, I found out two separate things: the film hasn’t lost any of its power over the 36 years since its release…and it’s entirely possible that modern audiences have rocks in their head. I’ll try to prove the former but you’re just gonna have to take my word on the latter.
Since I find it nearly impossible to believe that there are any film fans out there who aren’t at least familiar with Carpenter’s masterpiece (or Rob Zombie’s brain-dead remakes, if that floats yer boat), I’ll just give this the Cliff Notes synopsis: 15 years ago, young Michael Myers (Will Sandin) brutally stabbed his sister to death and was sentenced to an insane asylum. Dedicated psychiatrist Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) spends the next eight years trying to cure and the seven years after that trying to keep him locked away. When Michael escapes from the asylum on the day before Halloween, Loomis tracks him back to his boyhood home, the small town of Haddonfield. Michael arrives in the town on Halloween, steals some supplies (knives and a William Shatner Halloween mask) and quickly sets his sights on decimating the town’s supply of teenagers, in particular Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis), Annie (Nancy Kyes) and Lynda (P.J. Soles). As day gives way to night, Michael skulks about, picking one person off after the other. Loomis is on the case, however, and has been scouring the town from top to bottom, hunting for any sign of his elusive ward. As Michael closes the distance between Laurie and her two young charges, Tommy (Brian Andrews) and Lindsey (Kyle Richards), will Loomis get there in time or will the resourceful babysitter be forced into a fight for her life against a silent, inhuman monster?
But back to that earlier question: did the film have any impact on me this time around or did I find myself re-evaluating my lifelong love for the film, ala Kevin Smith’s now odious Clerks (1994)? As it turns out, the film is still just as impactful (to me, at least) today as it was a couple of decades ago: despite knowing every twist, turn and plot development, I was still glued to the screen and even caught myself reacting to a few setpieces that I was sure would be old hat by this time. Now that the “Is it still effective?” question is answered, time to think about the “Why?” part. Why is Halloween still such an effective horror, even as it rapidly approaches its 40 anniversary?
The easy answer, of course, is that Halloween is still so damn effective because it’s such a well-made film. Yeah, that’s a bit of a cop-out but let’s increase the magnification to 1000x, shall we? First off, Carpenter is an absolute master filmmaker: that’s no hyperbole, rather one of those accepted scientific facts. By the time of Halloween, he already had a massively entertaining sci-fi epic under his belt (Dark Star (1974), as well as one of the most undisputed badass films in the history of popular cinema: Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). I’ve already written extensively about Assault on Precinct 13 in another blog but here’s the recap: Assault is one of those raw, primal films that sprung fully formed into the world, like Athena out of Zeus’ head, and proceeded to rewrite the rule book on what low-budget action films were capable enough. Suffice to say that Assault on Precinct 13 would be a feather in anyone’s cap: for Carpenter, he just called it his sophomore film.
But back to Halloween. So we’ve got a master director who’s just taken his first baby steps towards on helluva career. What else do we have? How about that iconic electronic music score? Short of the Jaws (1975) theme song (and maybe Jurassic Park (1993), come to think of it), I’m hard-pressed to recall another film’s instrumental score that’s so easily recognized and functions so Pavlovian among genre fans. The responsible party? That’d be our man John, again, who also wrote the instantly memorable score for Assault. So we have a master director and an amazing musical score…what else we got? Well, we’ve also got a pretty impressive cast, even if they’re mostly unknowns (with the exception of the legendary Donald Pleasence, of course). Despite appearing in a few TV shows prior to this, Halloween was also the big-screen debut of Jamie Lee Curtis, which also adds a few feathers to its cap: film fans, genre or otherwise, know Curtis as being one of the most dependable, strong and fun performers to tread the boards in this modern film era. Curtis’ performance as Laurie is a true watershed moment in horror, since it introduced the horror world to the notion of a strong female lead. While Laurie might not be quite in Lt. Ripley territory, her character is anything but a damsel in distress: Loomis may shoot Michael several times from a safe distance but Laurie goes mano a mano with the fucker, employing hangers, knitting needles, knives and whatever else she can get her hands on to inflict maximum damage. Loomis may be the guy who gets in the final shots (for all the good that does) but Laurie’s the one who softened up the devil, in the first place.
Unlike the scads of “dead teenager movies” that followed in its wake, the “victims” in Halloween are not a clichéd, unlikable bunch of cannon fodder: they might not be fully developed characters in the way that characters in The Godfather (1972) are, for example, but they’re also a light year away from the “horny/stupid/asshole” stereotypes that would pop up in just about every other slasher film ever made. Laurie and her friends may not quite look like teenagers but they definitely sound like them and it’s pretty impossible (for me, at least) to not feel empathy for them. Contrast this to something like Hatchet (2006), which delights in introducing super-shitty characters so that audiences will cheer when they get fed into a wood chipper: it’s a subtle but big difference.
Alright…so far, we have a film with a master director, excellent musical score, effective acting and sympathetic characters. What else does it have going on? Well, it’s got an exceptionally tight script, for one thing, a script which manages to dole out just enough information to get us intrigued but not enough to make us glaze over (I’m absolutely looking at you, Rob Z). It also has some pretty astounding cinematography, courtesy of Dean Cundey, the man with the camera who shot everything from Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks (1976) to most of Carpenter’s catalog (including The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China and Escape From New York), Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) and Jurassic Park (to name but a very few out of a very impressive career). Cundey uses plenty of gorgeous wide shots in the film, along with that (by now clichéd) “killer’s POV” that’s name-checked in just about 99.9% of slasher films. If you watch Halloween and think, “Gee, this stuff is so cliché,” ponder this, Poindexter: this was the film that pretty much wrote the rulebook on this kind of stuff (if you held up your hand and said, “Bay of Blood (1971)!,” you get points for that, too).
So all that stuff’s thrown into the mix, which should go a long way towards answering the question, “Is Halloween actually a good film?” (Short answer: Of course.) The deeper question, however, is why is Carpenter’s film still so effective despite all the films that have come and gone since? There have been plenty of bloodier, rawer, more frantic, more hopeless and more eye-popping films over the years, no two ways about it. How, then, could I stand on my apple-box and bend your ears about this old dinosaur? Well, folks, there’s a pretty simple answer: like Hitchcock before him, Carpenter is an absolute wizard at creating tension so thick that you could cut it with a knife. From the opening credit sequence (and let’s be honest: it’s one of the coolest, if simplest, credit sequences in the history of the medium) to the final shot, Halloween is nothing short of a barely concealed live wire. Much of the credit for this impenetrable mood is due to Carpenter’s amazing score: rarely have there been musical tones that seem more suited for reaching into someone’s chest and squeezing their heart into strawberry jam. The film also has a deadly serious tone (despite some welcome comic relief via the ultra-snarky Annie), which helps with the oppressive atmosphere. Digging deeper, however, there’s another reason for this: Carpenter has purposefully crafted a world that oozes menace and threat from every pore, regardless of the time of day, the characters involved or the storyline.
Despite seeming the obvious way to go, the majority of Halloween’s narrative doesn’t take place during the evening: some of the flat-out creepiest shit happens right out in broad daylight. Carpenter does something so simple, yet devious, that I’m surprised no one else has really figured this out yet: he lets his monster just walk around among the unsuspecting sheep. During the lead-up to the night-time festivities, Carpenter manages to stick Michael into the corners or margins of just about every shot. Laurie notices Michael watching her from across the street, while she’s in school…Laurie notices Michael hanging out on a sidewalk, in her neighborhood…Michael is just driving a car around through the streets of Haddonfield, as natural as if he were cruising on a Saturday night. Unlike other cinematic monsters, Michael doesn’t seem to strictly a “creature of the night,” as it were. The majority of the kills occur after dark, but the stalking is pretty-much a 24-7 deal.
There’s a reason this works so beautifully and it has to do with that old chestnut of Hitchcock’s regarding showing the bomb: if a couple are sitting at a table and suddenly blow up, the audience is surprised and shocked but only momentarily. If the audience witnesses someone place a bomb under the table, set the timer and leave, however, than we suddenly have a whole other animal…we have suspense. The characters might not know about the bomb but we do, which has the natural effect of keeping us on the edge of our seats: we keep yelling at the screen, telling the idiots to get the hell away from the table but they, of course, won’t listen.
Carpenter’s bomb, so to speak, is Michael. In many ways, he’s like a living ghost that haunts Haddonfield. Since we already know who and what he is, thanks to the opening, Loomis’ description and the harrowing asylum escape, we already know what he’s capable of once he shows up among the “normal” folks. Laurie and her friends might not know who the goony guy in the Shatner mask is but we do and that makes all the difference. Since Michael is an omnipresent force in the film, we never reach a point where he’s not on our minds: we might temporarily forget him, as we get caught up in some bit of teenage minutiae but he’s always right around the corner to remind us. Once the killing begins in earnest and Michael becomes an unstoppable force, it’s almost like our fears have been confirmed: if only those idiots would have listened to us about the bomb, none of this shit would be happening. Thanks to this technique, Halloween has about a million times more resonance and power than generic slashers that merely set up a group of people, establish a threat, wait until dark and kill ’em all.
These are all great reasons to love Halloween, as far as I’m concerned, but there are plenty of other reasons. Nick Castle’s performance as Michael may be mute but he manages to instill no small amount of characterization, none the less: one of my favorite scenes in any horror movie, ever, is the bit where Michael lifts Bob (John Michael Graham) off the floor, nails him to the wall with a knife and proceeds to stare at him, slowly cocking his head to the side as if he were a dog watching a caterpillar. It’s a terrifying moment precisely because it’s such an innocent, human expression: we don’t expect this emotionless monstrosity to express curiosity, after all, since that makes him more uncomfortably human than we’d like. There’s another fantastic scene (in the same part of the film, ironically enough) where Michael puts on a sheet and Michael’s glasses and goes to see Lynda. She expects Bob while we know it’s Michael under the sheet: her goofing around turns to frustration when Bob won’t end the joke, while our hearts jump from our chest to our throat like a strongman test at the carnival. There are about a million ways this scene could have been played out but only one that achieves maximum chills and Carpenter nails it.
And there, in a pretty huge nutshell, you have it: my rationalization for why Halloween should still be considered not only a forefather to modern horror films but also one of the best examples of the genre that we’ll probably ever see. Like Hooper’s landmark The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), the original Halloween is surprisingly light on actual gore: there are plenty of strangulations and off-screen killing but this is about the furthest thing from something like Friday the 13th (1980) that you can get. This, of course, makes the numerous (and increasingly violent) sequels seem even more half-baked than the numerous TCM sequels: while there was some (small) precedent for graphic violence in Hooper’s film, there’s virtually none in Carpenter’s, despite the subject matter.
Despite not really thinking about Halloween in any meaningful way for years, all it took was one good, close viewing to remind me of all the reasons that this film was always one of my favorites. Like eating comfort foods, there’s just something about watching Halloween that seems natural and…well…good, to me. In a day and age where one-upmanship is the name of the game and jaded viewers have seen just about everything short of actual snuff films, it’s refreshing to return to something like Halloween and remember a time when it was possible for a horror film to make you think and feel without battering you into submission. Watching Halloween in this way has only reaffirmed my earlier love for the film: horror films wouldn’t be the same without Carpenter and Halloween wouldn’t be Halloween without…well…Halloween.