Saturday, October 27, 2012

From My Collection: Horror Classic Review of Halloween

For me this was always one of the scariest horror movies of my childhood and youth. I'm not even sure I saw this in its entirety before my teenage years or even before college, but I'm sure I caught pieces of it here and there.

Click here for a list of all other films reviewed and considered for this October 2012 series of horror reviews.

John Carpenter’s Halloween remains one of the great classics of the horror genre with good reason. It spawned a tireless list of copycats that attempted to repeat the formulas of a low-budget film with a psycho killer picking off young people who take drugs and have sex. Unfortunately, the writers and directors responsible for films like Friday the 13th and even the Halloween sequels forgot about the great artistry that went into Halloween. In a way, Carptenter’s original film is the purest of the slasher films. It is simply constructed and executed from a smart screenplay by Carpenter and Debra Hill. It features a memorably hunting musical score by Carpenter and a faceless killer of blank expression and inexplicable motivation upsetting the delicate balance of suburban America.

There is so much to admire in Halloween’s simplicity. Carpenter frightens and terrorizes his audience with craft and ingenuity. His camera roves around Haddonfield, Illinois, very often taking in the town from the perspective of Michael Myers, the lunatic murderer who has spent 15 years locked away in an asylum. A brief prologue shot entirely from a first person perspective features the murder of a teenage girl. The end of the sequence reveals the killer as the six year old Michael. In the present day, he escapes from the asylum with an eye toward his old home. I can’t recall any moments in the film when Carpenter resorts to the cheap and false startles like a cat jumping through the window.

His psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance), is the voice of warning throughout the film, a role that would later be filled by hysterical teenagers in the slasher films that would follow, but almost always fail to live up to this one of a kind original. Loomis’s assessment of the deranged Michael offers an explanation without motive. When he explains to the town’s sheriff that he spent five years trying to get through to the boy and seeing nothing but black eyes with the sense behind them that he was biding his time, and the next ten years trying to make sure he was never released, we get a sense that Michael Myers is a force or evil. When Michael initially escapes, stealing the vehicle that was meant to transport him to a hearing, Loomis shouts to the accompanying nurse that “the Evil is gone from here.” In Loomis’s mind, Michael is not a man, but evil personified. It’s no wonder things like knitting needles and bullets can’t stop him.

Michael haunts Haddonfield on Halloween day like a boogeyman wearing a white, expressionless mask and mechanic’s coveralls. A high school girl, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) seems to notice him several times throughout the day. Is he pursuing her for some unknown reason or is it simply because he spotted her outside his boyhood home? The mystery is what drives the film and chills to the bone. Michael has no known motivation in this film. He is a bringer of bad tidings. He is doomsday for a quiet suburban town. He is, yes, a reminder that evil always lurks around the corner or possibly even in plain sight if we just open our eyes. Laurie’s friends don’t catch sight of Michael until it’s too late.

Halloween continues to be one of the few horror films that, no matter how many times I see it, still scares me and makes me peek around corners after watching it. It’s a film made by a man who knew how to build suspense. Offering up momentary shocks jolts your system into ready mode, sending adrenaline pulsing through your system. But when you see a girl get into a car with steamy windows, you know someone has been inside breathing for a few minutes. When the camera is positioned on Laurie as she sits injured and in shock while in the background the presumably dead Michael slowly sits up, our heart begins to beat faster and the anticipation builds.

This film remains the standard bearer for the genre. Scream came pretty close for me in 1996, though the two films are quite different stylistically. Halloween came along at just the right moment as the popularity of the horror genre was increasing through the seventies. Without its low budget and tremendous box office, other studios wouldn’t have been interested in emulating it. Even if they had, there were no other followers that came nearly so close to recreating as much terror.

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