Friday, October 31, 2014

Film Review: HALLOWEEN (1978, John Carpenter)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 91 minutes.
Tag-line: "The night HE came home!"
Notable Cast or Crew: Starring Donald Pleasence (THE GREAT ESCAPE, PHENOMENA), Jamie Lee Curtis (PERFECT, PROM NIGHT), P.J. Soles (CARRIE, ROCK N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL), Charles Cyphers (ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, THE FOG), Nancy Kyes (ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, THE FOG), Kyle Richards (THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS, ER), Brian Andrews (THE GREAT SANTINI, THREE O'CLOCK HIGH), Nick Castle (writer of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, THE BOY WHO COULD FLY).  Written by Carpenter and Debra Hill (THE FOG, REBEL HIGHWAY).  Edited and production designed by Tommy Lee Wallace (STEPHEN KING'S IT, HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH).
Best One-liner: "Death has come to your little town, Sheriff."

HALLOWEEN.  The gold-standard for American slashers.  Foreboding atmosphere in 5/4 time.  A seasonal ode to the boogeyman, that blank slate whom we ourselves illustrate, whose gaps we fill with our innermost fears and deepest uncertainties.

As our subconscious mind paints vivid nightmares as we sleep, so does it adorn the empty mask of Michael Myers:  he is whomever we wish him to be.  Myers is so formless, Donald Pleasence's Dr. Loomis can't even ascribe a gender: "Don't underestimate it."  It is we who give form to The Shape, that "infinitely patient" shadow in the mist, that void, that lurker in the dark.

"Every town has something like this happen," intones the cemetery groundskeeper, and in those words is the history of 20th Century American horror, from H.P. Lovecraft to Ray Bradbury to Stephen King to Wes Craven to David Lynch.  No place, no town, and no mind is immune from the horrors of life and the dread of death.
I adore HALLOWEEN.  Many of its successors have been garbage.  Glorious garbage, usually, but garbage nonetheless.  HALLOWEEN was a masterpiece, a perfect storm; a the fervency of youth, the craft of experience, a certain magic of atmosphere.  Dean Cundey's cinematography captures a mood and a time and a place, dipping occasionally into that melancholy horror vibe I've written about elsewhere.

Raymond Stella's panaglide work is off the charts: this movie looks far more professional than many of its big budget counterparts.

Carpenter's brilliant score (supposedly written in three days) is exquisite.  At one point, two alternating piano keys build a wall of mood that stands taller than a dozen inferior films.

The characters (Jamie Lee Curtis, in particular) are instantly likable.  They have real hopes and dreams and feelings; sometimes we eavesdrop on their mundane, high school activities– zoning out in class, talking about boys... at one point Jamie Lee and Nancy Kyes are just driving around and bullshitting and tokin' the reefer and fearin' the reaper (yes, Blue Öyster Cult makes a soundtrack appearance) and it feels like a scene out of DAZED AND CONFUSED.  Real life is unfolding, and consequently we care about what happens to these people.
Unlike many of HALLOWEEN's successors, these characters are not token victims or sluts or sacrificial lambs – they're just folks, the genuine article– they could be friends of yours.  I'm betting a lot of the credit here belongs to Debra Hill, Carpenter's writing and producing partner, who also also made major contributions to THE FOG and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK.
I also must point out the wonderful understanding of spatial relationships and the geography of the neighborhood.  We always have a grasp of what's happening and where: the Myers house, the high school, the general store, the Strode house, the Doyle house, etc.  This is key when it comes to separating HALLOWEEN from the slasher pack.  Scenes of terror are far more suspenseful when you can actually understand what's going on.  You'd think that would be obvious, but alas...

In any event, others have written quite admirably and extensively about these aspects of HALLOWEEN: I highly recommend J.D. of Radiator Heaven's exploration of Carpenter's craft, as well as John Kenneth Muir's psychological analysis of Mr. Myers.  I, as usual, shall devote the remainder of this review to tackling my beloved minutiae:  so, without further ado, here are my unlucky thirteen favorite facets of the pumpkin-flavored gem that is HALLOWEEN.

Spoilers will follow, but I assume you've all seen HALLOWEEN already.  I hope.  If you haven't, in penance you must listen to the Silver Shamrock song from HALLOWEEN III on loop while drinking the contents of a six-demon bag.

#1.  Where's the blood?
Incredibly, this film which set a new benchmark for American horror (and in the same year as the gory masterpiece DAWN OF THE DEAD) contains nearly nothing in the blood n' guts department.  Our only glimpse of viscera is in the opening scene when Michael stabs his older sister Judith, and, between the slats of his mask, we can barely discern the blood welling from her chest.  Ah, the power of psychology: the film is so effectively frightening that many are convinced this thing is an out and out gorefest.  Nicely done, Carpy!

#2.  The spooky imagery of the inmates wandering the asylum grounds the night of Michael's escape.

It's a subtle, fleeting image, but one that lingers.

#3.  Chain-smoking Carpy.

John Carpenter was so stressed out by the making of the film– his most ambitious project to date– that he chain-smoked like a madman.  While Annie (Nancy Kyes) investigates this hedge, puffs of Carpy's cigarette drift across the screen.  It's very difficult to tell in the screen grab because the smoke blends in with the leaves, but it's the kind of goof that somehow enriches the entire experience.

#4.  Michael Myers amid the fluttering laundry.

An oft-imitated scare.  It's simple, bold, and in broad daylight.  It shouldn't work but, oh boy, it does.

#5. The production design of Laurie Strode's  (Jamie Lee Curtis) bedroom.

It's simple and cozy, but with the James Ensor poster and the Raggedy Ann doll, we see a juxtaposition of burgeoning woman and naive youth.  And yet both conjure feelings of masks and contortions and the morbidity of childhood.  I have always felt that Raggedy Ann has rather macabre implications, and James Ensor's (a Belgian modernist painter of the 19th and 20th Century) work sort of speaks for itself:

Join the party!

#6.  A Coupe de Villes cameo! 

About a half-hour in, while Jamie Lee and Nancy Kyes drive from point A to point B, on the radio in the background is a generic doo-wop song that proclaims "Shanananana, let's rock, shanananana, let's roll, shanananana, let's twist!"  The performers are none other than the Coupe de Villes, the rockin' trio made up of John Carpenter, Nick Castle (who plays Michael Myers and co-wrote ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK), and Tommy Lee Wallace (who co-edited HALLOWEEN, devised the Michael Myers mask, and directed HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH).  You can (and should) read more about the full glory of the Coupe de Villes here, here, and here.  And here.

#7.  That beautiful moment when Michael Myers casually drives his station wagon behind Donald Pleasence, who has no fuckin' idea.  He could've nipped this whole thing in the bud before sundown, had some dinner, and taken a load off at the local Haddonfield pub.  I'd watch that movie, for sure!  Ah, well.

Anyway, allow me to say a few words about Pleasence's "Dr. Loomis," a character born of dogged, no-nonsense intensity. 

He says many ridiculous things in this movie and imbues them with power.  He is our Van Helsing.  He sets the stakes.  He tells us what we're up against.  And he sells it.  God bless Donald Pleasence.

#8.  Carpy's voice cameo as Annie's needy boyfriend Paul.

Paul's kinda fun, kinda sleazy, and absurdly lazy.  He browbeats his girlfriend into giving him a free ride ("Come and pick me upppp...") even though she's babysitting and doing laundry and kind of freaked out.  This directly leads to her brutal murder.  C'mon, though, don't judge– Carpy just wanted a ride!  Imagine it: Carpy waiting around on the stoop for a ride that never comes.  Hell, I'd watch that movie, too. 

#9. The subtle joy Donald Pleasence gets out of frightening children.

While staking out the old Myers place, some trick-or-treaters stumble a little too close to the dangerous site.  Pleasence pretends to be the boogeyman and whispers "Get your ass away from there!"

The children take flight, and then Pleasence smiles, utterly pleased with himself.

Even when you're fighting against the existential concept of evil, a man's still gotta get his kicks somewhere.

#10.  P.J. Soles is a goddamn blast.

From Riff Randell in ROCK N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL to Norma in CARRIE, she playfully and lovably embodies every scrappy gal from the 1970s and succeeds in absconding with every scene she appears in.   In her final bit, her fate is sealed when she asks her bespectacled boyfriend for a beer, again and again and again.

 "Where's my beer?!"

Thanks to her, the "boyfriend who steps out to grab a beer and never comes back" has become a stock figure in horror film.  It's truly a cautionary tale, and has stopped many a beer-fetching dead in its tracks.

#11.  This one comes courtesy of my girlfriend.  The major question she had was, "Where, exactly, are all the parents?  Some key party?  It was the 70s."  She made a good point.  Hey, is that why the Sheriff (Charles Cyphers) is so grumpy?  He spent his Halloween traipsing around with Donald Pleasence instead of gettin' his freak on with the swingers from EATING RAOUL?

Donald Pleasence: bitter about not being invited to the key party.
On a more serious note...

#12.  The neighbor who shuts Laurie out during her moment of need.

Violently pursued by Michael Myers, Jamie Lee Curtis finally makes it out of the house and shouts for help from the next-door neighbor.

A shadow comes to the window and looks her over, and in a nod to Kitty Genovese, shuts the blinds and turns off the porch light.

You really feel Laurie's desperation in this moment, which may actually be the most chilling scene in the film.

#13.  The ending.  And not simply the banality of the unmasking or the uncertainty behind Michael's disappearance.  I mean the final shots of the film:

The void, the breathing, the emptiness.... these are the places we have seen Michael, and now they are empty.  But there is not even a whisper of reassurance.  The terror never came from Michael– it came from that void.  All we really ever had was the void; we projected the rest.

This kind of oppressive foreboding prefigures Carpenter's THE THING, where vacant corridors take on a life of their own in a very similar fashion. 
 THE THING even had a cameo in HALLOWEEN!

Five stars.  And a Happy Halloween to all!

–Sean Gill



Jason said...

Startin' my Halloween off right with your review! Thanks! I'm playing Halloweens 1, 2, and H20 in the background of my party, so I'll be listening for the Coupe de Villes.

Mike Bradley said...

Yyeeeeeaaaaahhhhh! That's the way to finish a countdown! Absolutely right about everything here. Very few things in life are as good as advertised, but "Halloween" is most certainly one of them; just perfection. Love the minutiae; if I could add one of my own, it'd have to be Loomis's quip about Myers's driving, "maybe someone around here gave him lessons!" It's so random! I also must add that I spoke too soon in an earlier comment when I talked about watching parts 1 thru 5 on a loop this month, and that they were all winners. Truth be told, I had only just recently ordered replacement copies of 4 & 5, and when I finally sat down to revisit those two childhood favorites, I was waaaaaaaay disappointed to see just how generic of slasher flicks that they were. It only makes the original more towering in comparison. Shameful! The only saving grace might have been the scene early in 4 with Loomis confronting Myers in the diner/garage; that was kinda neat. End of tangent; thanks again for this and all of the Halloween countdown!

J.D. Lafrance said...

Fantastic review, my friend! One of your very best and chock o' block with some great observations.

It is the little things that makes HALLOWEEN so great and keeps 'em coming back for more. I've seen it countless times but pull it out every year around this time and pay attention to the things going on in the background of scenes or the reaction shot of a given actor to something that is happening.

I also like the little commentary on bullying - the kids that bother the kid that Laurie babysits and then when one of the punks takes off he bumps right into Michael! You don't even get a full shot of the guy - just his torso and his hands, grabbing the kid oh-so briefly. Chilling.

Another awesome review!

Sean Gill said...


Glad to hear it. God bless those Coupe de Villes!


Thanks for the kind words! That is funny about the driving lessons– I think I heard somewhere that in the novelization, they explain it as years of careful observation of others' driving. 4&5 are fairly generic, but they've got a certain degree of charm; they're good background viewing for half-paying attention at a party. As for the countdown, I do believe there'll be some overflow into November!


Glad you enjoyed! And that bullying moment is a great one- kind of a "death creeps among us" vibe. If only we knew how many close calls we've had... Definitely the sort of thing that sets HALLOWEEN apart from the pack.