Friday, January 2, 2004

Halloween (1978)

If you're both a fan of the horror genre and a self-professed "child of the '80s" like yours truly, then you probably remember the innumerable slasher films released during the decade of excess. From classics like the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises to lesser-known gems like April Fool's Day and Prom Night, it seems like there were hundreds of these flicks released during the '80s.

But while the "golden age of slashers" was kick-started by the original Friday the 13th in 1980, the sub-genre's basic formula was truly defined by John Carpenter's 1978 opus Halloween. Often credited as the father of all slasher movies, Halloween's legacy as one of the true genre classics has been tarnished somewhat by the seven inferior sequels that have followed it between 1981 and 2002. But no matter, because Halloween is a damn fine horror movie.

Our tale of terror takes us to the sleepy Illinois town of Haddonfield, circa Halloween 1978. A young man named Michael Myers (Nick Castle) has escaped from Smith's Grove Sanitarium, where he had been incarcerated for murdering his sister as a six-year-old. Returning to Haddonfield after spending fifteen years in Smith's Grove, he acquires a mask and set of knives from the local hardware store, before hunting down a quarry to satisfy his bloodlust.

He soon discovers the perfect prey in a trio of friends: socially awkward babysitter Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), horny cheerleader Lynda Vanderklok (P.J. Soles), and the equally horny smart-aleck tomboy Annie Brackett (Nancy Loomis). Hot on Michael's trail is his psychiatrist, Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence), who is the only one who understands how truly evil his patient is. Dr. Loomis seeks to prevent Michael's rampage, and with the help of the local sheriff (Charles Cyphers), he attempts to find and stop Michael before he can kill again.

I'll be the first to admit that I'm not the biggest devotee of the Halloween franchise. It's not that I dislike the franchise or anything, but I'm just more of a Freddy and Jason person. However, I can appreciate a good movie when I see it, and Halloween is awesome. Moviegoers back in the '70s must have realized that too, because the movie racked up 47 million dollars and a spot as one of the highest-grossing independent films ever. Thanks to the movie's small budget, somewhere in the neighborhood of 325,000 dollars, Halloween is a minimalist affair. But this actually works in the movie's favor, allowing the crew to get a little more inventive with how the movie is made instead of relying upon special effects to handle it for them.

Director John Carpenter doesn't let the meager budget get in his way, as he manages to do a fantastic job. Take the film's prologue, for example. Carpenter opens the film with an amazing five-minute Steadicam sequence, actually three shots carefully edited together to create one long one. It serves as a long point-of-view shot, as we see through someone's mask-covered eyes as he enters sneaks into a house and hacks a young woman to death with a butcher knife, before running into the front yard and having the mask pulled off. The camera spins around to show us that the murderer is none other than a six-year-old boy in a clown costume. I thought it was a perfect opening scene, because it exemplifies the movie's entire attitude. You know something is going to happen, but you don't know how and you don't know when. You just know that when it does happen, somebody's gonna end up in a world of pain and we're gonna be privy to every second of it. The movie's concluding seconds are also show this, as we get a montage of all the important locations we've seen during the movie. These don't show where Michael could be, but where he has been. Michael was pretty much everywhere, like an evil that simply could not be escaped.

There are also two very excellent moments with Michael near the end of the movie. Both of them are simple, but both of them are truly frightening. In one, the Laurie character has discovered all of her friends dead, and in her hysteria, she begins sobbing with her back to an open door, the darkened room it leads to completely devoid of light. And ever so slowly, the lifeless features of Michael's mask slowly take form in the shadows behind Laurie, almost as if Michael was appearing out of thin air. We see, ten minutes after this, the second scene I'm referring to. Laurie believes she's gotten the better of Michael, quietly trying to catch her breath and compose herself in the camera's foreground. Michael lies motionless in the background for a few moments before quickly, unexpectedly sitting up and staring at Laurie with those black, soulless eyes. If Michael Myers were a shark, those two moments would be where they cued up the theme song from Jaws.

And on the topic of music, how about Carpenter's score? If one thing can be agreed upon in regards to Halloween, it's that the music composed by Carpenter (who listed the fictitious Bowling Green Philharmonic Orchestra in the credits as the music's "performers") is one of the movie's strongest assets. Using only a piano and a synthesizer, Carpenter has created the genre's most iconic, enduring scores. The music is just as simplistic as the rest of the movie, but it is nothing short of haunting, taking what would be mundane scenes and making them terrifying. Seriously, the movie would only be half as scary, if that, without the music. Go rent the movie and watch it with the volume turned down if you don't believe me.

Carpenter's fingerprints are all over this bad boy, as he and frequent collaborator Debra Hill co-wrote the screenplay too. I don't believe anyone is ever going to argue that the script for Halloween deserved any awards, but it does have some great dialogue and some great scenes, as well as two great horror movie characters in Michael Myers and Dr. Sam Loomis. Their story is very much a Van Helsing tale set in 1970s suburbia. But unlike the fearless Van Helsing, who is sure of himself and knows exactly how to defeat the vampire menace, Dr. Loomis is unsure of just how to stop Michael. And never let it be said that Dr. Loomis does not know fear, because it sure looks to me like he does. While the good doctor doesn't fear for his own life, he instead fears for the lives Michael might take instead. And if he can't stop Michael, he's going to at least try to make sure Michael is slowed down. And that's a pretty good hero, if you ask me.

Michael, on the other hand, is pure evil. He is listed as "The Shape" in the credits and is referred to as the boogeyman throughout the actual movie, both fair assessments of the character. Michael might have the shape of a man, but inside, he's completely soulless. His plain white mask is emotionless, with deep black eyes that have no life inside them. He's just a heartless, soulless killing machine. While the character's motivations have been brought up in the sequels, Michael's a million times scarier when he has no motivation. A killer that murders his victims just for the sake of it is, to me, much more frightening than one that has some sort of lame excuse. If Donald Pleasence ran up to me one day and said, "Look, there's this whackjob that killed his sister for no reason when he was six, and he busted out of the loony bin last night and he's gonna kill half the town and I don't know why, and we're all pretty screwed if we don't find him and stop him right the hell now," I'd be on the first plane to Timbuktu until the whole thing blew over.

The other characters, meanwhile, are typical slasher movie characters. Laurie is your standard "Final Girl," the intelligent stick in the mud that is the complete opposite of her friends. She isn't a sex-addicted drunk like the others, and unlike her friends, she actually gets to defend herself instead of getting killed due to making stupid decisions. Annie and Lynda, on the other hand, are our comic relief for the evening. Neither of them are all that bright; Lynda would rather drink beer, have sex with her super-annoying boyfriend Bob (played by John Michael Graham), and use the word "totally" in every sentence whether she needs to or not, while Annie has no problem pawning the child she's babysitting off on Laurie so she can go get laid. Not only that, but at one point, she feels the need to strip down to nothing but her skivvies because she spilled a little something on her shirt. Who does that?

Last but not least is the cast. Jamie Lee Curtis does a wonderful job as Laurie, despite not having a whole lot demanded of her outside of acting nerdy before acting scared out of her mind. You'd never notice that this was only her first movie by the way she holds the screen, and she proves to be deserving of the "Scream Queen" title that was bestowed upon her. Nancy Loomis and P.J. Soles, meanwhile, play characters that are a little annoying and kinda stupid, but are still likable and entertaining in their own ways. Loomis and Soles look like they're having a lot of fun playing a pair of airheads, so I won't so I won't fault them for that.

But I believe it goes without saying that the true stars of the movie are Donald Pleasence and Nick Castle. This is their movie, and both of them are excellent. Castle stays mostly in the background and in the shadows for the majority of the movie, but when he gets to stand front and center, he has an intimidating, almost inhuman presence that really fits the character. Pleasence, the movie's most accomplished actor, is pitch perfect as Dr. Loomis. His dialogue would probably sound pretentious if delivered by anyone else, but Pleasence delivers them with a dramatic sense of urgency, as if every second that passes while Michael is loose is a second that moves us closer to the end of the world.

Halloween has earned a reputation as being one of the horror genre's most enduring modern classics. A remake and bunch of grossly inferior sequels are never going to change that. It's a brilliant movie, and an important benchmark in the horror genre. And thirty years after its initial release, it still holds up. That's why I'm so bummed that newer generations of horror fans that have yet to see it only know of the most recent entries in the franchise. So yeah, I guess what I'm saying is that if you haven't seen Halloween, what's the deal? Why not? Halloween isn't flawless, but it's very, very close. So I'm giving it four and a half stars and a hearty seal of approval. Go check it out, and don't let the boogeyman get you while you're out trick or treating.

Final Rating: ****½

No comments: