Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Film Appreciation - Black Cats & Goblins

This week in Film Appreciation, Jay Burleson discusses the tricks and treats of John Carpenter's 1978 horror classic Halloween.

Green's Video Store in Hartselle, AL was a childhood haunt of mine for as long as I can remember, up until the point that it closed down. The little mom and pop video store feels like a haunted mansion in my mind, with every other room leading into another room stocked full of VHS tapes. Add to it the fact that the place was dimly lit and that the horror section stretched far away from the new releases and the comfort of anyone close by, and Green's Video could be remembered as a scary place, if it weren't for all the hidden treasures that it held. I spent many afternoons walking up the inclined hallway and into the horror section, looking for what would become my next favorite, but mainly renting the same films over and over again. I started out early, and at the age of six my mom had already scared me half to death with Friday the 13th. She figured if I liked that film then she should probably rent me this other horror gem that had a similar approach, and considering it was almost Halloween, the timing would be perfect.

And with that, my obsession with Michael Myers and the Halloween horror movie franchise began. Horror movies and Halloween went hand-in-hand in my life from as early as I can remember-- be it a timely jump scare as I jumped out in front of my mom and scared her half to death-- or if it meant sitting in front of the TV and watching another of her favorite scary movies from the '70s and early '80s.  I can remember the first time I ever watched John Carpenter's Halloween, with the lights out in the living room, and six year old me pacing around by the couch as parts of the film seemed to drag on forever without anything happening. The younger me didn't much care for that slow build at the time, but that didn't stop me from instantly becoming a fan of the franchise and seeking out everything that went with it.

Now at the age of 23, I hold those memories close to me, and my appreciation for Carpenter's Halloween has only solidified over time. If you're not familiar with the picture, it's set on Halloween in the small little town of Haddonfield, Illinois, and there is an escaped mental patient wearing a jumpsuit and white mask on the loose. The story is simple, the suspense is perfect, and the film set a template that would take off and help turn the '80s into a horror movie haven, with the likes of Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees joining Myers in the ranks of indestructable killers.

Halloween is headed by John Carpenter, who is now known as one of the masters of the horror genre. Carpenter crafted the screenplay for Halloween along with his partner Debra Hill and they set out to make the film with very little money. After its surprising success, Halloween would hold the title of the highest grossing independent film ever, until 1990 when it was finally knocked off by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film.

The plot: At age six, Michael Myers murders his sister on Halloween night. He's sent to Smith's Grove Mental Institution and placed under the care of Dr. Samuel Loomis. Myers doesn't speak or do anything at all for 15 years (other than learn to drive a car) until he escapes just before Halloween and heads back to his hometown of Haddonfield with Dr. Loomis in hot pursuit. Once back home, Michael begins to enjoy Halloween the way that only he knows, by stalking and killing teenagers.

Halloween is anchored by two very strong performances, one by a veteran actor, Donald Pleasence, and the other by a complete unknown at the time, Jamie Lee Curtis.

Of course, Curtis is exceptionally well known today, but back in '78 she was a complete nobody. Her performance in Halloween definitely didn't scream nobody though, and she didn't have any trouble finding work after Halloween filled up seats in movie theatres across the country. Curtis plays the shy and offbeat heroine, 17-year-old Laurie Strode, who notices that someone is watching her and her friends when no one else does, and actually has the smarts to battle back against the unstoppable killer when he attacks. Opposite of Laurie Strode is Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) who has spent the last 15 years of his life as Michael's doctor and is hellbent on stopping him from unleashing his evil into the world. Pleasance has a list of acting credits that top out at somewhere over 200 titles, and his experience and acting chops help to give Halloween a much more dignified feel. His work as Loomis has endeared him to a generation of horror fans who probably couldn't care less about much of his other work but will always know him as the wide-eyed psychiatrist known as Dr. Loomis.

While those two performances helped make Halloween the classic that it is, John Carpenter and his wonderful direction, writing, and also musical composition are at the heart of Halloween's success. From his use of the 2.35 scope and brilliant placing of objects in the frame to masterfully pull off the suspense to his simple yet haunting music, Carpenter was probably never better than he was on this project. Halloween might not be Carpenter's best picture (The Thing probably holds that title) but it is Carpenter doing everything with pretty much nothing in the way of production and budget. What Carpenter is able to accomplish (and do give credit to the cinematography from Dean Cundey) on basically no money at all is truly mind blowing.

Halloween is a classic amongst horror fans, and definitely one of my favorites. The iconic white mask and the chilling score never get old to me, and Myers was never done better than in '78 at the hands of John Carpenter and Debra Hill. Some of my favorite scenes are the simple little things like Laurie Strode walking to or from school. It always felt like it could be my own home town, which was one of the things that made Halloween work so well. It showed evil in a believable way and made you feel as if it could be right next door. Then at the end it showed you that the evil can never really die.

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