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Entries in Halloween [1978] (1)

Saturday
Oct062012

Halloween (1978)

Reconsidering a Masterpiece

Damn you, Tom Savini! Some time ago, I heard a story that the makeup effects legend has a big problem with John Carpenter's seminal slasher film, Halloween:* In the opening scene, six-year-old Michael Myers (Will Sandin) stalks his older sister, Judith (Sandy Johnson), and stabs her to death with a large kitchen knife. We see all of this from Michael's point of view--which is odd, because the first-person shots are high, as if a six-foot-plus-tall man is committing these terrible acts. Even when Michael's parents come home and pull a clown mask off his head, the scene cuts to find Dad in a crouching position, where the moment before he'd been standing and reaching up past the camera.

Yes, it's going to be one of those reviews.

I didn't set out to watch Halloween with an overtly critical mind, but the Savini anecdote stuck. It opened me up to scores of other details I'd missed the twelve times I'd seen the film before, during a childhood and young adulthood spent hailing it as a horror masterpiece. Though groundbreaking in its day, and not without its chills, Halloween really is a movie for kids. That's hard to admit to myself, but it's not a bad thing.

Co-writers Carpenter and Debra Hill set out to make a low-budget thriller that would hopefully turn a profit for their backers. They succeeded beyond anyone's expectations, as Halloween grossed $47 million; spawned seven sequels, a remake, and a sequel to that remake; and launched Michael Myers as an iconic pop villain for the ages. It also marked the big-screen debut of Jamie Lee Curtis, served as the launching pad for one of horror's eeriest and most recognizable scores (also by Carpenter), and cemented a "slasher genre" template that's still in use today.

Much of the film's success, I think, has to do with context and nostalgia. It shocked audiences who'd never experienced anything like Carpenter's white-masked, invincible bogeyman before. Sure, Myers was preceded by Leatherface and the evil crank caller from Black Christmas, but both of those films took place in unconventional locations (a remote Texas farm and a sorority house, respectively). Halloween brought the terror into suburbia. The adult Myers (Nick Castle), freshly escaped from an insane asylum, returns to Haddonfield, IL to kill as many people as possible. And he begins with a trio of babysitters--you know, the people parents hire to protect their children at home during carefree evenings away.

One of the reasons the movie has remained popular, I believe, is that so many people of my generation saw it as children. The ill-fitting William Shatner mask and anonymous, faded mechanic's jumpsuit were imprinted on countless young brains, giving an instant "scare pass" to anything he appeared in.** Plus, the Internet wasn't around in 1978, meaning audiences wouldn't be burdened by nitpickers' treasure trove of inconsistencies for another two decades. For example:

  • The movie takes place in Illinois, but for every shot of a character walking down a long sidewalk surrounded by blowing, brown leaves, there's another of that same character looking across the street to sunny, manicured California lawns (a dead giveaway as to the film's actual shooting location).
  • During the iconic scene where Myers stabs one of the babysitters' unlucky boyfriends through the stomach, impaling him against a wall, it's obvious that there's way too much knife blade sticking out. It's a cool idea, but the visual payoff is just ridiculous.
  • In the middle of a scene where Annie (Nancy Kyes) is driving Laurie (Curtis) to a babysitting job, the setting changes from late afternoon to late evening, mid-conversation. It gets dark early in the Midwest, but this is black-magic meteorology if I've ever seen it.
  • The three actresses playing high school-aged babysitters are in their twenties. At the time of filming, Kyes and P.J. Soles were almost thirty years old--which makes all the shy talk about getting asked by boys to the big dance a little creepy. The girls do well enough in their roles, but they struggle with Carpenter's "teen-speak" in a way that suggests they're out of touch with the age group they're supposed to be portraying.
  • Speaking of age, I did the math and realized that Michael Myers is only twenty-one when he goes on his killing spree. Castle strikes an imposing figure, sure, but there's something silly about running away from an "embodiment of evil" who's barely old enough to vote. For me, great movie killers should either be creepy little kids or undead, middle-aged adults who've lived a bit. Otherwise, all the dramatic heavy breathing and stomping around just comes off as frustrated moping.***
  • During Myers' climactic, twelve-minute assault on Laurie, the frantic babysitter gets the best of her attacker--and then throws her giant knife away. Twice. The first time is hilarious, but might be written off as a function of panic. The second time is a case for the audience to hope Myers gets up again and finishes his work.

That last twelve minutes is what really pulls Halloween together. For much of the film, Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey play with long, narrow POV shots that put the audience in the protagonists' shoes; the key difference is that we have a clue as to the danger the leads are in, and it instills an involuntary flight response. When Myers comes after Laurie, all of the wide open spaces are gone, but the narrowness and distance are recreated in confined spaces like hallways and the famous closet scene.

At a certain point, there is a great sense of inescapability that makes watching the movie unnerving. For whatever flubs Carpenter and company might have let slide leading up to the climax, Halloween's last act is worthy of all the praise it can get. Hell, it even manages to make Donald Pleasence's Dr. Loomis worth a damn.

Ah, Dr. Loomis. Arguably the franchise's biggest gem next to the masked killer. As a kid, I thought he was a badass mystic who doubled as a psychiatrist. After treating Myers for a couple years in the asylum, he determined that his charge was, in fact, evil incarnate, and devoted his life to keeping him locked up. He follows Myers back to Haddonfield and spends much of the movie lurking in bushes and saying ominous things to the skeptical sheriff (Charles Cyphers).

On this last viewing, though, I realized that Loomis is just a cross between Friday the 13th's Crazy Ralph and Quint from Jaws--a weird, old kook who's great at describing scary stuff with flowery language. His main role in the film is to trick the audience into believing that the killer is the devil himself, and not just a silent, cold-blooded maniac. Honestly, if Carpenter had removed all of Loomis's lines to this effect, we would have no indication that Michael Myers is more than just a really creepy guy with serious respiratory issues.

This is all blasphemy, I know, but it seems to me that Halloween is in danger of fading from "horror classic" status as older generations of fans die off. It really is an Assurance Picture: chances are, you couldn't sit a sixteen-year-old or a twenty-five-year-old down in front of this movie and have them buy into its corny, unsophisticated charms without a generous heaping of back-story regarding its place in cinema history. It pains me to say this, but Rob Zombie was justified in remaking Halloween for the Millennial crowd.****

I appreciate Halloween for what it is, but watching it as an adult who watches a lot of movies, I can't flip whatever magical brain override is supposed to give the film a pass. It's a fine indie picture with numerous problems, a hell of an ending, and the blessing of the marketing gods. It stands tall in the annals of horror, but much of that--it seems to me--is the stuff of myth rather than substance.

*I'm pretty sure it's attributable to Savini. If not, I apologize.

**For awhile, anyway: as the later sequels strayed from the core terror elements and ventured into myth-building and fad-chasing, Myers became a watered-down afterthought (as evidenced by his lack of a scary mask beyond the Halloween 4 poster).

***This comment is not meant as a serious criticism; the thought got its hooks in me early on and made me giggle at various points throughout the film.

****That's an endorsement of the effort, not the end result.