Sunday, 2 October 2011

Halloween

1978
Dir. John Carpenter

Fifteen years after brutally murdering his sister on Halloween night, mentally deranged Michael Myers escapes from the psychiatric hospital where he was incarcerated. With his psychiatrist hot on his heels, Myers makes his way back to his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois, with the express intention of committing more murders. On Halloween night he sets his sights on several teenaged babysitters, stalking and slaying them one by one…

After being impressed by Assault on Precinct 13, producer Irwin Yablans approached director John Carpenter with an idea for a low-budget horror film about a maniac who stalks babysitters. Tentatively titled The Babysitter Murders, the project appealed to Carpenter, who along with his then partner Debra Hill scripted the story. After it was suggested they set the story during the course of one night, Carpenter and Hill decided upon Halloween, with its rich history and spooky connotations.

With a measly budget of $300,000 and a tight shooting schedule of 21 days, the newly-titled Halloween began filming in various locations in California (standing in for Illinois).
In one of the many deliberate nods to Hitchcock’s Psycho, Carpenter cast actress Jamie Lee Curtis as his female lead Laurie Strode, as he thought it would be fun and interesting to menace the off-screen real-life daughter of the original slasher film victim; Janet Leigh, whose stabby death in the shower of a creepy motel back in 1960 signalled the arrival of the slasher film. Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing were approached to play Dr Loomis but the part eventually went to Donald Pleasence.
Furthering the surprisingly coy and reflexive sense of humour the film boasts, several characters are named after characters from Psycho and they watch The Thing From Another World on TV – a movie about a sanctuary coming under attack from a seemingly unstoppable killer (and a film Carpenter was eying up to remake later in his career).



The stylistic techniques and plot elements of Halloween were pretty groundbreaking at the time - and while the film can’t lay claim to actually initialising them (it owes a dept to and borrows from earlier titles such as Psycho, Peeping Tom, Black Christmas, Deep Red and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), it still utilised them in an original way and laid out the blueprint for later slashers, solidifying the subgenre’s conventions.

• A masked/unidentified killer with connections to a past event or misdeed
• A group of teens in an isolated location
• Phones/cars that have a nasty habit of not working when they’re needed most
• Ineffective police/authority/adult figures
• Drug/alcohol use
• Characters having premarital sex
• Characters’ splitting up to look for other characters/investigate strange noises, usually in creepy woods or in dark basements.
• The use of knives or other sharp implements as murder weapons – killers in slashers prefer the thrill of the chase and the intimacy afforded by killing victims up close and personal with a knife.
• There is always one girl (the ‘final girl’), usually the one who doesn't have sex or indulge in drugs/alcohol, who is left standing after her friends have been bumped-off by the killer. She must use her resourcefulness to escape and stop the killer.
• The way is always left open for a sequel, should your slasher movie be successful.

With back to basics plotting and structure, Carpenter ensures maximum tension is extracted from his deceptively minimalist approach and manages to create moments of nail-biting tension, suggestive chills and an unnervingly creepy atmosphere punctuated with shrill jump-moments throughout. POV camerawork a la Black Christmas and Deep Red implicate us as viewers in the onscreen violence and align our vision with that of the killer’s. The opening scene is shot completely from the unseen killer’s perspective. Carpenter makes expert use of the still quite fledgling Steadicam, and we seem to float, wraith-like through an empty house on Halloween night, up the stairs to stab a young woman to death. While appearing to happen all in one take, there are actually three discreet cuts in this sequence. The camera also pulls back from the reveal of the killer as a young boy as though shocked with what it has seen.



Much of the film follows the girls as they go about their daily routines, completely oblivious to the danger they are in. Tension mounts and is punctuated at regular intervals with well timed jump moments. Establishing the mundane lives of the main characters as they plan their evening, telephone each other and watch old horror films on TV, helps the audience to identify with them. The three girls are likable and ordinary, and therefore the shocking fates they encounter have an incredible impact. The cosy and homely spaces they inhabit throughout the film perfectly convey their sheltered lives. When these havens are invaded by Myers, the effect is chilling to the core: once secure and safe homes become threatening, with danger potentially lurking in every shadow, behind every piece of comfortable furniture.



Halloween is a fairly bloodless film – there is a distinct lack of graphic violence and gore, as Carpenter prefers to illicit chills and suspense rather than utilise gross-out special effects. Many of the slashers that would come in the wake of Halloween (including its own sequels) opted to go all out with gore and blood, instead of slow-burning tension and unease. The onscreen violence is pared down and comes in short sharp shocks until the climax when Laurie is pitted against Myers. Most of the creepiness and moments of spine-tingling dread comes of course from the frequent glimpses of Myers, AKA The Shape. There is something unbelievably chilling about that blank, moon-white face slowly emerging, phantom-like from the darkness, and hovering just out of the sightline of the oblivious characters.

Making wonderful use of his widescreen frame, Carpenter and director of photography Dean Cundey utilise the foreground and periphery of the screen to create tension and atmosphere. The presence of The Shape, indeed even the mere threat of his presence, is enough to render any previously cosy domestic space or autumnal leafy suburb, a now creepy, dangerous place, saturated with menace. Carpenter’s expert use of widescreen and his placing of The Shape just on the periphery of many shots - lurking in the shadows and corners of the screen - is more than enough to generate unease, the threat of violence and set hearts pounding… Indeed even when he appears to Laurie in broad daylight, his presence obviously doesn't belong in cosy suburbia - his eerie menace juxtaposed with familiar settings, and in broad daylight, is positively haunting. It isn’t what The Shape does in these shots that make proceedings so creepy, but what he doesn’t do. Anything. He just stands there.

His relentless advance on Laurie forms the film’s nail-biting climax – her increasingly frenzied and panicked attempts to escape boldly contrast with his coldly clam onslaught to create striking tension. What makes events even more disturbing is that he doesn’t seem to have a motive – other than associating the teens he stalks with the sister he butchered when he was a boy. Much pontificating on Dr Loomis’s part eludes to the fact that Michael is actually evil personified, and as the film progresses he becomes something resembling the bogeyman incarnate.

Although criticised for its ‘misogyny’, various feminist critics such as Carol J Clover have argued that Halloween, with its strong and resourceful final girl Laurie Strode, actually empowered women. While Laurie still depends on Dr Loomis to come to her rescue, she puts up a damn good fight and holds her own until he does. His attempts to stop Myers are arguably more ineffective than Laurie’s. Much has also been made of Halloween’s seemingly conservative morality, and the ‘sex equals death’ mantra it appears to exhibit would feature in pretty much every slasher movie that came afterwards. Carpenter denies deliberately creating this conservative morality and insists Halloween is not a morality play. Interestingly he once stated that it wasn’t Laurie’s virginity or purity that helped her survive, but her pent up sexual frustration. The weapons she uses to defend herself against Myers’ attacks are everyday household items – items linked with domesticity and possessing distinct connotations of feminine ‘homemaking’: a knitting needle, a coat-hanger and a kitchen knife. However, taking into consideration what Carpenter said about Laurie’s sexual frustration pouring out, it is interesting to note that (Freud alert!) her choice of weaponry is also ‘phallic’ in form.


One of Carpenter’s stipulations for directing the film was that he could score it too. His typically minimalist score is one of horror’s most recognisable and chilling signature pieces. It lurks somewhere between Psycho’s frenzied and shrill jabbing and Jaws’ ominous rumbling.

Halloween still stands the test of time and remains a thoroughly unsettling, suspenseful and haunting film to this day – ensuring its rightful status as a classic of the genre. Like all good horror films, it makes the viewer feel unsafe in their very own home.

13 comments:

Caffeinated Joe said...

Great review and spot on surmise of the film, even through to today. I am married, with kids and now into my 40s and this film STILL gives me a level of unease and eeriness. It was just done right and it shows.

My favorite film.

:)

Aaron said...

At this point there's not much more that much that needs to be said about this classic, but this is an excellent review. Looking forward to the rest of your reviews, James!

James Gracey said...

Thanks Aaron - though I'm inclined to agree with you. What else can you say about Halloween that hasn't already been said? Such a great film - one of my all time favourites.
I don't think I'll have the same problem with some of the sequels though... ;)

christine said...

This is an awesome piece. It captures what makes this film effective and, in turn, what made some of its sequels so ineffective.
Halloween is such a fun film to analyze and discuss. It's so simple and yet is steeped in subtext. Thanks for this, James.

Wes M said...

Fantastic stuff James, a great read. Just three random thoughts on the film...

1. It's been argued that had Bram Stoker not changed the title of his novel The Undead at the 11th hour to Dracula the book could well have suffered the same fate as Stoker's otherwise obscure novels - the point being, would Carpenter's film have found the same success with it's original title, The Babysitter Murders ?

2. One of my favourite parts of the film - and it's a little moment - is the long shot from accross the street of The Shape carrying Annie's body which at that very moment the electronic music from Forbidden Planet playing on the TV swells up on the soundtrack creating a very eerie marriage of sound and image...

3. A moment that always takes me out of the film for a few seconds is the scene where Bob and Lynda arrive at the house and Bob scoops Lynda up in his arms but forgets to close the door of his van ! That moment just bugs me !!

James Gracey said...

@Christine – Thanks! Like you rightly pointed out, there is so much more one could discuss when it comes to Halloween. It (and Scream) really ignited my love for slasher films – I still remember how uneasy and nervous it made me feel the first time I ever watched it. Its one of those films I’d just love to be able to watch again for the first time.
It is so effective because it is so simple – and teasing out subtext is always fun!

@Wes – Yeah, The Babysitter Murders just doesn’t have the same ring to it as Halloween, does it?! That’s an interesting idea, too. I’m not sure it would have been as iconic had it retained its original title – though had the film itself not changed I guess it would just speak for itself.
I love that moment too - there’s something really gothic about it – you can’t help but think of all those moments from the likes of Frankenstein or Dracula when the heroine faints and is carried off by the monster. Except in Halloween, the monster is not from some far flung ‘other’ place – he was born just down the street.
There’s a moment that ‘bugs’ me too, and ever since it was pointed out to me I can’t help but see it every time I watch the film… When Laurie sees Michael lurking behind the hedge and Nancy goes to investigate, as she turns to call back to Laurie, some smoke (from the cigarette of one of the crew members) is clearly visible wafting out from behind the hedge…

Thanks for dropping by guys!

Drymonema said...

Incredible review! This is a great read James, and a well-rounded introduction to what made slashers what they are as a whole. Thanks for your comments on my blog and I look forward to reading more of yours as well!

Shaun [The Celluloid Highway] said...

As an exercise try watching HALLOWEEN with the volume off...it's utterly abysmal. This film is totally reliant on an inspired soundtrack. One also has to admire the composition of the frame.

James Gracey said...

I think those were also the sentiments of the producers when Carpenter screened the first cut of Halloween without the score. It really is one of the all time greats of horror cinema.

As an aside, I'm currently listening to the score for Halloween III. An underrated gem - I adore its dark tone and throbbing synths.

Shaun [The Celluloid Highway] said...

Do you have an official copy of he HALLOWEEN III soundtrack James, or did you download it? if its the latter I wonder if you could inbox me on Facebook and point me in the right direction...I've been after that one for some time. Cheers!

James Gracey said...

No worries amigo!

Fred [The Wolf] said...

My favorite film of all time. You summed it up perfectly. Just a masterpiece of horror cinema right here. Great review!

James Gracey said...

Yes, Fred - This is one of my all times faves, too. I can watch it and rewatch it and never bore of it or fail to be spooked by it! I adore the atmosphere, the creepy mood and the sense of impending doom - and Carpenter's score just brings it all together so well.