Wednesday, August 22, 2018

40 Years of Halloween - Halloween (1978)

Cody Hamman celebrates the 40th anniversary of Halloween with some Film Appreciation.

At its core, John Carpenter's Halloween is a very simple slasher movie about a babysitter and her friends being stalked and sliced up by a knife-wielding madman. That sort of movie is a dime a dozen, and generally looked down upon. But Carpenter and his collaborators were able to bring that simple, generic story to the screen with such style that it even won over some of the sub-genre's harshest critics and is widely considered to be one of the greatest horror movies ever made. Viewers are able to overlook any issues it may have because it is such an incredible technical achievement - it looks and sounds amazing, and Carpenter and his cinematographer Dean Cundey were able to capture an effectively chilling atmosphere even while trying to replicate a midwestern autumn during a California spring.

There was a time when I would name Halloween as my all-time favorite horror movie, and while its luster has worn off for me a bit over the years I do still have a deep appreciation for the first film in the Halloween franchise.

Recently, a realization made me start appreciating the movie on a whole new level. Only within the last year did it fully sink in that this story was not one that Carpenter and his co-writer Debra Hill felt compelled to tell. This isn't something that was burning inside them, nor was it made under the circumstances that so many of my favorite films have been, where some small town people scraped together some cash because they had a dream of breaking into the movie business. Halloween was a work-for-hire product. Carpenter and Hill didn't come up with the idea of a killer stalking a boogeyman, the idea was brought to them by producer Irwin Yablans. It was first pitched to them as The Babysitter Murders, then became Halloween when Yablans figured out nobody else had made a Halloween movie, and that setting could make for an even better horror film than The Babysitter Murders might be on just any random night. Carpenter, who had already directed Dark Star and Assault on Precinct 13, put the script together with Hill while Yablans and uncredited executive producer Moustapha Akkad secured the funding. Hill would start off the writing, then Carpenter would punch up her work and put extra emphasis on the evilness of the killer, Michael Myers - who was named after Precinct 13's UK distributor. The script was finished in ten days.

And yet despite the fact that the story did not originate with Carpenter, he executed it in a way that only he could. It is distinctively a Carpenter film. Nobody else could have or would have made Halloween as it is. I find that to be an interesting thing to note; just because something didn't originate with you, even if it's not a personal story, doesn't mean your personal voice won't come through loud and clear in the finished product. It also doesn't mean that it doesn't have a chance of becoming one of the best things you ever make, as many people believe Halloween is for Carpenter. This is something I would have done well to realize a long time ago.

Regardless of my personal learning experience, Halloween is a classic, and proves itself to be surprisingly artistic from the moment it begins, the unforgettable, dark and effective score Carpenter composed in just three days driving us through a title sequence that perfectly evokes the titular holiday with orange font appearing beside a jack-o-lantern with a candle burning inside.

Follow that up with an impressive opening scene set on Halloween night, 1963. It's shot entirely from the perspective of a killer, even going so far as to shoot through the eyeholes of a mask when the killer puts one on, as they lurk around a house in the small town of Haddonfield, Illinois, spy on a teenage couple, then enter the house, grab a knife, and stab the teenage girl to death. Presented as one long take (there are a couple cuts hidden in there), this scene was shot with a PanaGlide rig, an alternative to the popular Steadicam, which was quite new tech at the time. The camera glides up to and around the house, through the back door, through the house, goes up the stairs, watches the knife rise and fall as the girl is murdered, then goes back down the stairs and out the front door... It's a stunning sequence, and ends with a moment that stuns in a different way when it's revealed that the killer we've been seeing through the eyes of is an innocent-looking 6-year-old child wearing a clown costume. A child who just murdered his big sister.

This is Michael Myers, starting his way down the path to becoming one of the horror genre's most popular icons, although his name doesn't get mentioned very often over the course of the film - more often he's referred to as "the evil" or "the boogeyman", and in the end he's credited as The Shape.

Jump ahead 15 years and the film introduces another iconic character, You Only Live Twice Bond villain Donald Pleasence in a role passed up by his fellow British genre stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, psychiatrist Dr. Sam Loomis - who has a name lifted right out of Psycho. Loomis has been Myers' doctor at the Smith's Grove Warren County Sanitarium ever since he was first committed, and will now be accompanying his patient on a court appearance... one that coincidentally requires Loomis and nurse Marion Chambers (Nancy Stephens as a character whose name is also made of Psycho references) to pick Myers up at the sanitarium on the night of October 30th. A dark and stormy night.

Here you see what may be the most economical on screen escape from an institution ever. Carpenter only had 20 days and a $300,000 budget to bring Halloween to life, he didn't have the time or money to do anything elaborate at the sanitarium. So the escape is already in progress when Loomis and Chambers arrive, with hospital gown-wearing patients wandering around outside. When Loomis gets out of Chambers' car to assess the situation, Myers seizes the opportunity to scare the woman out of the car and steal the vehicle.

We don't get any lingering full-body shots of Myers while he pulls off this theft. We see him climb on to the top of the vehicle very quickly, reaching and smashing through the windows. Watching the car drive off through the night, Loomis says, "The evil is gone." He and Myers definitely do not have the normal doctor-patient relationship.

As the events of the film unfold, Loomis sets out on a mission to stop his patient. It's a mission he largely fails at. The doctor is more successful at being Myers' hype man, speaking to other characters about how scary and evil his patient is, and thus letting the audience know just how bad the escaped murderer is, making the viewer more unsettled than we would otherwise be if Loomis weren't here to go on about him. Thanks to the way Pleasence delivers the lines, a monologue about Loomis realizing his patient was unreachable, during which he says Myers has "the blackest eyes, the devil's eyes", is one of the most memorable moments in horror history.

Able to drive a car surprisingly well despite being locked away since he was six, Michael Myers returns to his hometown of Haddonfield with Doctor Loomis on his trail, never too far behind but always a little late and usually overlooking something. Loomis finds Myers' hospital gown by an abandoned tow truck, but he doesn't notice the body of the murdered tow truck driver in the weeds nearby. This is how Myers got the coveralls he wears for the rest of the film. Loomis arrives at a hardware store where the security alarm is still blaring because someone stole a Halloween mask, a rope, and some knives. You can imagine what Myers intends to use those things for. While standing outside the store, Loomis doesn't notice Myers drive past in the sanitarium vehicle.

If you're ever on the trail of an escaped madman, you might not think to drop by the cemetery where the sister the madman murdered is buried, but you're not Doctor Sam Loomis. He does stop by the cemetery to see the grave of Judith Myers, and discovers that her headstone is missing. This scene adds in a little extra bit of creepiness, not just because of the grave vandalism, but because the graveyard keeper (Arthur Malet) who leads Loomis to the grave has a great, unique voice, and he uses that voice to start telling the story of a man who kissed his wife and children goodbye, then got himself a hacksaw that he proceeded to do something terrible with.

Loomis decides that the best thing to do is hang around outside the rundown, fifteen-years-abandoned Myers house and see if Michael's going to stop by. But he's too late. Myers has already been there, killed and eaten some kind of animal (a dog?), and moved on.

Myers was in the house earlier in the day, when teenager Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis in her breakthrough role), whose father is a real estate agent, left a key on the front porch for some prospective buyers we never hear anything more about. Lurking just inside, he spotted the girl while she was on his porch - and although sequels would change the purpose for why Myers follows Laurie from this point on, here it's presented as if he just happened to see her and became fascinated. When Laurie attends school that day, there's a classroom scene where the topic is fate. Immovable, unchanging fate. It was Laurie's fate to cross paths with this killer. A case of horrible luck.

Through watching her interactions with others, we begin to like and care about Laurie. She's a nice, book smart, responsible, girl-next-door type; the sort of teen you could trust to babysit your kids. And people do. She is a babysitter, as Irwin Yablans wanted the lead character to be. Her young charge this Halloween is a boy named Tommy Doyle (Brian Andrews), who wants to spend the night eating candy and popcorn, making jack-o-lanterns, watching monster movies, and having Laurie read comic books to him. Solid Halloween plans. Michael Myers doesn't just follow Laurie for the rest of the day, he also keeps tabs on Tommy, hanging out outside his school, witnessing the kid getting bullied. While the teenagers around him will be too distracted with their teenage lives and relationships to realize something's wrong until it's too late, Tommy is aware that there is an evil presence in his neighborhood. On more than one occasion he'll spot Myers outside and freak out, but his concerns are brushed aside. It doesn't help his case that he refers to the masked man as "the boogeyman", a character he has just learned about. His new knowledge of the boogeyman is what has him so alert.

Of course, Laurie does have a hint that she's being followed. It's hard to miss a guy when he parks his car outside your school, drives past your friends when you're walking home, hides behind bushes and lines of laundry to keep an eye on you. But there comes a point when Laurie stops worrying about her stalker, and she does so long enough for everything to fall apart around her.

Laurie is friends with flighty cheerleader Lynda (P.J. Soles), who overuses the word "totally", and fellow babysitter Annie (Nancy Loomis), who is not quite as responsible as Laurie. Annie will be taking care of little Lindsey Wallace (Paris Hilton's aunt Kyle Richards) in the house across the street from the Doyle house, and she's the type of babysitter who will smoke pot on the way to the job (she gets Laurie to take a toke, too), end up walking around in her underwear after she spills popcorn butter on her pants, and then ditch your kid with her friend across the street when her boyfriend calls her over to his place.

You'd think you could trust Annie more, since she's the daughter of the town sheriff, Leigh Brackett. Sheriff Brackett is played by Charles Cyphers, who does such a good job in the role and has such a great screen presence that you might not notice how useless the character is. Brackett doesn't even believe Loomis is right about Myers being in town, he has no time for the doctor's "fancy talk". He does have a great introduction, delivering the line "You know, it's Halloween. I guess everyone's entitled to one good scare, huh?" after Laurie is startled to bump into him. That may be his biggest contribution to the film, but Brackett is still such a cool character that I named one of my cats after him.

As night falls on Halloween, Myers follows Laurie and Annie when they go to work at the Doyle and Wallace homes, driving behind them, unnoticed, while they smoke and listen to Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper". Then it shifts full into The Babysitter Murders mode as Myers watches the girls' every move, waiting for the perfect time to strike. Carpenter milks the tension, putting his characters in dimly lit rooms and making sure we know Myers is never too far away from them, usually just on the other side of a door or window, so we never know when an attack might happen.

Not only is the blank, white mask Michael Myers wears (the filmmakers modified and painted a William Shatner / Captain Kirk mask to create this iconic look) very unnerving, it's also great for catching the light so we can see Myers when he's standing in the background of scenes.


Far from a slashfest, Halloween has us wait 50 minutes between the murder of Judith Myers and the start of the killing on Halloween night. The only death in between is the tow truck driver, and we just see his body after the fact. Carpenter spends those 50 minutes establishing characters, creating a creepy atmosphere, and building tension. Once the killing starts back up, there are only a few murders, but they're effective and they come at you quickly. By the time Laurie realizes the guy who was following her earlier is still around, that Tommy was right and the boogeyman is in town, her best friends (and Lynda's boyfriend) are dead.

With a bad feeling, Laurie crosses the street from the to check in on her pals... and there she finds that Michael Myers has created a twisted house of horrors for her to walk through. Dead bodies displayed in rooms, strung up in doorways, jack-o-lanterns lit up on tables, Judith Myers' headstone propped up on a bed. Once he's sure Laurie has seen all the terrifying sights he has created for her, he makes his move, leading into an intense, extended climactic chase and confrontation sequence.


Making this all the more effective is the fact that Michael Myers hasn't spoken a word since before he killed his sister. This isn't a killer who is making quips or explaining motivations, he's just relentlessly pursuing victims he has chosen seemingly at random in a calm, deliberate manner. They get no reasons for why this is happening to them, Myers just stares at them through his expressionless mask. Even when he has to chase Laurie in the end, he doesn't get excited or quicken his pace. He walks after her - almost like he's operating on the knowledge that "fate never changes", and it's her fate that he is going to catch up with her.

Myers was played by a lot of people during filming, with production designer Tommy Lee Wallace taking over when the killer had to smash through parts of the set, Tony Moran stepping in when Myers is briefly unmasked at the end, and even Debra Hill putting on the mask for one shot. Most of the credit goes to Nick Castle, though. Castle was a friend of Carpenter's who had worked on Dark Star, played in the band The Coupe De Villes with Carpenter and Wallace, and would go on to co-write Escape from New York and become a director himself. Castle is behind the mask for most of the major moments, and he had a wonderful, smooth way of moving.

Carpenter and Hill were given a task to bring a specific project to life, and while other filmmakers might have made decisions that could have resulted in Halloween coming off as a lousy exploitation movie that would fade into obscurity, this creative team made all the right decisions to earn Halloween a lasting place among the horror genre's highest-ranked films. They created memorable characters, cast the perfect actors for their roles, and dropped them into a wonderfully crafted film that tells its simplistic story in a fully engaging way. Many others have tried to tell almost the exact same story, but few have gotten anywhere close to the level the original Halloween is on.

Irwin Yablans certainly hired the right people.

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