The night he came home!
With John Carpenter's bona-fide classic Halloween making its high-definition debut on Blu-ray (and, given its disc track record, it is a reasonably safe bet that it won't be its last!) it is with great pleasure that I can now finally get the chance to discuss one of the all-time greats not only of its chosen genre, but of influential cinema in general. Independent filmmaking got a major boost when this little murder set-piece exploitation quickie thrust itself, like a knife, into the guts of the jaded seventies society, quite literally turning what horror films were perceived as being inside out. Standing proudly next to the genre's moral-bashing trendsetters of Night Of The Living Dead, Texas Chainsaw, The Omen, The Exorcist and Jaws, Halloween broke the mould and proved to be box-office gold. With a rash of sequels and a media merchandising cult that, like its main character of Michael Myers, will surely never die, the status of Carpenter's small-scale chiller is unquestionably that of one of the greatest horror films ever made. Bearing in mind its incredible popularity and undoubted familiarity to the vast majority of people reading this, it would be quite pointless to even attempt to keep this review spoiler-free. Thus, my intentions here, folks, are to simply revel in the atmospheric glory of the night Michael Myers returned to his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois and discuss, in customary depth, the themes and elements that created a shocker that will stand the test of time.
“I met him fifteen years ago. I was told there was nothing left - no reason, no conscience, no understanding in even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, of good or evil, right or wrong. I met this ... six year old child with this blank, emotionless face ... and the blackest eyes ... the Devil's eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realised that what was living behind that boy's eyes was purely and simply ... evil.”
Thank you for your diagnosis, Dr. Loomis.
Starting life as The Babysitter Murders, Halloween took John Carpenter ten days to write. His first fully-fledged horror film was designed as being merely a cheapo exploitation quickie to pander to little more than the drive-in crowd. Producer Irwin Yablans suggested that the film should take place on Halloween Night and, of course, that single momentous idea was the catapult that would fire the young director's imagination into the stratosphere. Cleverly riffing on the monstrousness of Norman Bates' everyday, likeable killer in Psycho, Carpenter wove his tale around the shocking murder of a teenage girl by her own beatific younger brother on Halloween. Incarcerated and studied - when treatment proves utterly futile - for fifteen silent, almost catatonic years, Michael Myers escapes from the lunatic asylum, as so many deranged murderers have done before and since, and returns to his hometown to re-enact his awful crime over and over again. Only his doctor, Sam Loomis (played by Donald Pleasance) has any inkling of the killer's true potential for horrific decimation and he hotfoots it to the scene of the old crime as well. In what would become the staple template for over two decades' worth of cobbled-together rip-offs, Michael sets his sights on a trio of teenage girls who, on the anniversary of his first slaying, will be either babysitting or canoodling the night away in large dark houses. The concept was a winner - simple, yes, but enormously galvanising and so streamlined in execution that it would be as direct as the butcher knife that Michael Myers arms himself with. And, as we all know, cinematic history was made and a new wave of horror film was born.
“This has most definitely stopped being funny. Now cut it out!”
Michael is not a simple brute-force killer, no matter how viciously strong he may be. He is cunning, playful and supremely self-confident. If his insanity is hardly up for question, then his intelligence is most certainly not. Maybe “someone round here” did give him lessons in how to drive a car, as Loomis rants about the deadliest escapee in American history, but his stealth and evasion, seek and destroy tactics are as honed as those of a member of the Special Forces. He has no trouble whatsoever breaking and entering, he's a master at surveillance and his asylum breakout, mostly unseen by us, is a pure textbook example of disruption and deception. Jason Vorhees would still be lumbering to Haddonfield even now, and Freddy Krueger could only dream (ahem) of such ingenuity. And his taste for the macabre is like a horror-junkie's dream. Look at how he appears and disappears from his prey's view, distracts and unnerves them by dropping plant-pots, locking or un-locking doors as the case may be, walking calmly and never running after them as they scream and scuttle. What about that grim display of bodies in the bedroom, capped off with his own sister's headstone (now that would have taken some doing - magical stone-lifting that is sort of tipped the wink in Halloween III with the supernatural snatching and re-locating of the monoliths of Stonehenge) and, of course, the bespectacled spook disguise that he adopts to “totally” creep out Linda. He isn't just a killer, and this is where the never-ending slew of rip-offs got it wrong. Michael Myers is a manipulator and a trickster. His sense of humour is apparent in almost everything that he does. Dressing up in masks and costumes - even as a six-year old - and planting that big, grin-and-glow jack o' lantern beside his presentation of death is the work of someone who is clearly enjoying the whole aura of Halloween Night, not just performing the ghastly stunts dreamt up by a screenwriter for pure shock effect. As he tilts his head from side to side, surveying a wall-mounted victim, you can easily imagine him thinking to himself about what cool little trick he can do next. But he is also, again, much more than this. Michael Myers is Halloween - the very personification of the horror genre, itself. As little Tommy, who will endure a night of terror that his hidden comics couldn't even come close to capturing, and his playground-taunters so accurately put it, he is simply, but crucially, the bogeyman. The shadow that moves across the bedroom wall, the closet door creaking open, the sudden sound in the middle of the night - he is all of those things.
And kudos must also go to the killer for completely subverting the image of the heroic Captain Kirk of sci-fi classic show Star Trek, by selecting that truly hideous mask of William Shatner during his little theft from the store. That single most-iconic touch is so sublimely creepy - no blood, no wounds, no latex stitches, witch's nose, werewolf snout or vampire fangs, just an obscenely pale and featureless face that emerges from the shadows like a spectre. It may be an incredibly familiar sight now - and the sequels kept on dumbly modifying it and lessening its effect - but that first outing is the quintessential show-piece for masked maniacs ever since. Just that close-up shot of Michael picking up the phone and hearing Laurie on the other end is enough to turn the blood cold.
“It's Halloween, everyone's entitled to one good scare.”
Carpenter's delight in not giving any explanations for the horror is evident throughout. Marvellously, we have the supposed expert on the matter, a man who has studied Michael for fifteen years, completely unable to unlock the secrets of his violent quest and, as a consequence, reduced to little more than a quivering, slightly unhinged babbler. If that's our specialist in the field, what chance do we stand? I love this element especially. It is like Carpenter adhering to the ethics of his hero, Howard Hawks, as essayed in the awesome The Thing From Another World - which, beautifully we see playing as part of the Halloween Horrorthon on the TV, along with Forbidden Planet (check out reviews for both) - in that science is revealed to be next-to-useless when confronted with such otherworldly aggression, and only direct action is a viable means to fight it.
“A man wouldn't do this.”
“This isn't a man!”
In many ways, Pleasance is the best thing in Halloween. The already sinister-looking genre-veteran produces a Dr. Sam Loomis that is creepy, idiosyncratic, haunted and slightly mischievous - not exactly the first characteristics you would look for in a psychologist, eh? But then this is the effect that years of close proximity to Myers has had upon him - it has rocked his beliefs and his professional understanding to the core, probably making Loomis an obsessive shunned by his own associates. He is whittled-down, nervous and in a state of constant agitation. Pleasance portrays him as a slightly calmer, less over-zealous Father Brennan from The Omen. But like Patrick Troughton's memorable doom-monger, Loomis, too, has seen the Devil and is struggling to convince a sceptical world of the danger it is blind to. I think it is also great that little Tommy becomes like a mini-Loomis, himself - literally seeing the bogeyman all over the place but having amazing trouble trying to alert anybody else to the fact. But in Sam Loomis, Donald Pleasance found what would become his signature character, far more so than his Dr. Crippen, or his near-blind counterfeiter from The Great Escape, or even his callous user of a President from Carpenter's own Escape From New York. The role is fully rounded by virtue of the traits that he places in there. Those beady, frightened little eyes and his tiny fingers playing around his revolver - “Oh, I have a permit ...” he tactfully informs the Sheriff - and his smug, vaguely malicious grin after scaring Lonnie and his mates away from the Myers House. His relationship with Charles Cyphers' Sheriff Leigh Brackett (named after the celebrated author and screenwriter whom Carpenter so admired from Rio Bravo) is slight - only a handful of scenes - but they are deeply resonant. Brackett is reluctant to believe this renegade shrink with tales of an “inhumanly patient” psycho, but one look into those eyes and he knows that his town is about to be placed on the map with a bloody signpost once again. Famously, Pleasance asked Carpenter how he wanted that final expression of Loomis' to look, and it is no surprise that his last lingering glower of both terror and anger, fuelling the fact that he had been right all along about Michael's demonic nature, would be twisted so deliciously again into something equally memorable at the end of Escape From New York.
But as Laurie Strode, the young and oddly spindly Jamie Lee Curtis, of course notorious for having a mother, Janet Leigh, who played Norman Bates' first victim, Marion Crane, in Psycho, is magnificent as the harassed and tormented virgin. Much is made of the fact that her sexually active friends are slaughtered whilst the seemingly more moralistic and straight-laced Laurie survives, but this is really a misnomer. If Laurie really was as shy and retiring as most critics and audiences like to think, then she totally wouldn't be hanging out with Annie and Linda, would she? A little more conservative, studious and set in her ways, perhaps, but Laurie is no clichéd wallflower. “I wish I had you all alone .... Just the two of us,” she idly croons, no doubt thinking about the elusive Ben Tramer that she has secretively had her eye on. As inexperienced as the actress herself was in front of the cameras, Curtis found the soul of Laurie with consummate ease. Whether lying wistfully on the bed, playing fond big sister to little Tommy Wallace (“Laser-Man, Neutron-Man, Tarantula-Man” etc), managing to deliver a letter-perfect answer to her teacher's literary conundrum even after she has been momentarily distracted by a strange guy in a boiler-suit and a freakish William Shatner mask, or determinedly protecting her child-charges and herself from a remorseless killer with knitting-needle, coat-hanger and knife, she is totally one-hundred percent believable. Something that she wouldn't be in the first sequel, it must be said - the years between this and Part II making her traumatised Laurie look positively matronly when compared to her earlier real-life teenage self, despite both films being set on the exact same night. But Curtis earned her Scream-Queen sobriquet with honours here.
“Hey jerk ... speed kills!”
The other girls are effective too. P.J. Soles has literally made a career out of her totally sexy Linda, becoming a fan-favourite and a darling of the Halloween celebrity circuit. Bright as a button and too chirpy-to-live, Linda still has more three-dimensionality than the thousands of knife-fodder chicks that followed in her wake. By contrast, Nancy Loomis - a holdover from Assault On Precinct 13 along with Charles Cyphers and a stop-on for The Fog, again alongside Cyphers - as Annie is cynical, sarcastic and acid-tongued. Whereas Linda can be irritating but her looks will smooth that over, Annie can be just plain irritating. But again, this is no one-note performance. Her belittling of her own father, the Sheriff, even whilst covering up the fact that she has been smoking dope and the amusingly fateful series of events that will see her literally gagging to meet Michael make her role a tragically memorable one. She may have the type of droning voice that would even see a priest reaching for the nearest knife, but you most definitely care about what happens to her. And this is another clever thing that Carpenter is able to do. Despite a relatively low bodycount, we are not cheering for another “bubble-headed co-ed” (thank you, Herbert West, Re-animator for the use of that line) to get offed. The unending succession of sequels and derivatives can't say the same thing, of course. The genre, as a whole, took an (arguably agreeable) detour into the realm of the giddily gory, where entire casts of nubile young flesh were offered up for slaughter, their whole reason-for-being simply that of assembly-line carnage. Here, even dorky Bob, who may indeed get the best-looking girl in the film before he winds up as a perverse alternative to a fridge-magnet, receives just enough shading to make us reluctant to see him skewered. And Carpenter coaxes convincing performances from his child actors, too. Little Kyle Richards who plays Lindsay is actually the sister of Kim Richards, the youngster that Carpenter had so shockingly blown away in Assault On Precinct 13.
Carpenter's direction is as innovative as it is skilful. This, “Assault” and The Thing are his best and most sustained movies. Escape is excellent, but it strikes me as being too messy and slipshod to really exist on the same level of technical and helming expertise. The Fog is tremendously well-shot and exquisitely atmospheric but teeters on the brink of botching things with a rushed final act and daft double-take climax. Halloween, though, suffers none of that. His inspired use of the Steadicam, or rather Panavision's own variant, the Panaglide, is naturally wondrous to behold in the hands of the masterful cinematographer Dean Cundey, works wonders with killer's POV shots, prowling meanders around dark houses, phenomenal framing of The Shape atop the stairs, a body lying out of everyone's sight except ours, and scene-setting travelogues around the streets of Haddonfield. But it is Carpenter who set these shots up. His determination to drag us into the film is something that had not been done by any other filmmaker before, at least not to this degree of intimacy. The sense of our own movement within the picture is superlative and always convincing. You consciously look for Michael all around the frame, Carpenter and Cundey creating one of cinema's most effective ghost rides. That famous opening-shot, a lengthy take with only two hidden edits, that details the death of Judith Myers and the unmasking of her angelic six-year old brother as the killer was spellbinding to audiences of the time. Personally, though, I have a couple of problems with this scene. The oft-commented on ridiculousness of the upstairs lovemaking taking place in virtually a nano-second is the obvious one, and has never been neatly explained by Carpenter, and the imaginative but rather lousy shot of the killer (or, rather, us) looking up at his own stabbing hand coming down again and again. To me it just looks incredibly silly, although you could dress it up as the young Michael studying his methods for later improvements or refinements. Oddly enough, as the film goes on, it appears that Michael Myers actually prefers strangulation as a means of dispatching his victims, choosing the knife for the men as he would obviously want to be less hands-on with them. Still, the film has many moments of stunning visual magic - Michael gracing the frame as only a pale smudge way back in a distant window - there one second, gone the next; the crafty widescreen shot of Loomis looking in one direction and then the other as Michael drives past him the opposite way; the Shape's shadow-obscured head, hair a straggly mess of wisps flung back as Loomis confronts him in the bedroom; the distant shot of Michael carrying Annie's body back into the house as a gaping Tommy looks on; the killer sitting up again behind Laurie and turning robotically to face her. All together now ... Dum... Dum-Dum ... Dum ... Dum-Dum ... and repeat.
Don't forget to check out the gaffs too, though. There are plenty of them. They might not be in the same league as those to be found in Escape From New York, but there are definitely a few daft ones knocking about. Ok, I'll give you one to get the ball rolling - Carpenter re-used some shots of the house for the final montage suggesting that Michael could be anywhere lurking in the shadows, but he forgot about the knife lying on the floor by the sofa that Laurie left there - the same knife that Michael came after her with upstairs.
Detractors often cite Carpenter's scores as the synth-doodlings of a primitive Casio keyboard. Carpenter, himself, ascertains that he does the music for his films because he is cheap and on-time. Of course, however many people dislike his extremely catchy and atmospheric scores, there are even more of us who are instantly hooked on them. The cues he crafted for Halloween, instantly recognisable and as utterly mesmerising as they are indelible on the brain, took the lean, mean two-tone musical narrative of Assault On Precinct 13 - a propulsive action beat alternated with a slow, mournful mood piece - and worked even more power and adrenaline into it. The celebrated title-cue becomes the super-speed main theme for Michael Myers, a racing heartbeat struck with thunderously ominous chords of doom, whilst a much slower, foreboding-tinged piece conveys not only the plight of Laurie Strode but the slow, enveloping horror that is overcoming Haddonfield, itself. It is impossible to think of the film without hearing those themes reverberating through your skull. Like Jaws before it, the film - as John Carpenter and the young female executive from 20th Century Fox who first saw the rough, un-scored version with him both agreed - was nothing without the music. Demonstrative, overbearing and hyperactive it may be, but the score for Halloween is also excellently mood-enhancing, maddeningly infectious and totally, incontrovertibly indivisible from the visuals it accompanies. Carpenter wanted to emulate the slow-burn, brooding atmosphere of Hitchcock-regular composer Bernard Herrmann (one of the very best film scorers of all time) and cap it off with the heavy, characterised beat of Ennio Morricone (who would, ironically, go on to emulate Carpenter's simplistic, minimal raw-power style for the director's own The Thing). For me, the score simply is Halloween and if you are passing my house around October 31st, then you will unavoidably hear it's immortal 5-4 beat echoing out. It is also worth mentioning that besides the terrific “Don't Fear The Reaper” by the Blue Oyster Cult (which, unsurprisingly, appears in numerous horror films) there is also a track playing on Annie's car radio by the Coups De Villes, Carpenter's own band, which also featured fellow producer and director of Halloween III, Tommy Lee Wallace.
“Oh, Laurie ... scared another one away ...”
If Halloween has a message then it isn't that promiscuity leads to penetration of a far deadlier variety than expected - it is the sobering realisation that we are not safe in our own homes. Outdated and dislocated gothic fantasies had had their day, Carpenter's film informed us. And if we were justifiably warned by the likes of Texas Chainsaw, Straw Dogs, The Hills Have Eyes and Deliverance that straying from the beaten path was a severely unwise thing to do, then the notion of horror coming home to us was a devastating sucker-punch. The sickening thought of our own vulnerability even in the place that we feel safest is perhaps the most powerful and relevant concept that the horror genre has ever produced. We don't all live in the shadow of Transylvanian castles or out on the moors or take vacations in secluded woodland cabins - but we do all have a place that we call home. Halloween showed us that death can come to any little town. We didn't have to go into deep space or venture out into the ocean to find it - it could very easily come straight to us.
It is pertinent to note that George Romero had brought horror home even earlier with Night Of The Living Dead, though he would, of course, go on to attack more spectacularly, that “other” favourite haunt, or home, of ours - the shopping mall - in Dawn Of The Dead. He actually went even further in the subversion policy that horror makes its own, by suggesting that the monsters were actually “us” all along. But that is a different discussion, and one that I will gleefully delve into much more deeply in my reviews for the new BDs of both Dawn and Day Of The Dead. John Carpenter assaulted Middle America in a more incisive and insidious manner, though. Flesh-eating zombies don't exist, but lunatic sickos most certainly do. They may not be as indestructible as Michael Myers, but then we may not be as lucky or as resourceful as Laurie Strode. Halloween also proved that our belief in the authorities and the police to save us when our fortress has been invaded is pretty much unfounded. In today's ridiculous and back-to-front world, Laurie and Loomis would probably face charges if The Shape's body had actually remained sprawled in the back garden. How's that for the ultimate Halloween trick?
“Two roadblocks and an All-Points-Bulletin wouldn't stop a five-year-old!”
It is also easy to say that Carpenter ushered in the stalk 'n' slash genre with Halloween, but that isn't strictly true. The Italians had been doing it for quite a while already. Mario Bava and Dario Argento (in his earlier giallo and most definitely in Suspiria, which Carpenter cites as being a huge influence), had primarily asserted the thematic and emotional audience-connectivity to a girl being pursued by a knife-wielding maniac. But what Halloween did so unbelievably well was to open the floodgates to a tidal wave of copycats (not unlike the serial killer phenomenon in real life, in fact) that swept over cinemas and drowned their patrons in blood. But, in his own relatively gore-free way, Michael Myers came to represent the faceless, unstoppable and remorseless randomness of murder. If even your own sweet little sibling could commit horrifying butchery, then all hope and trust was lost, Halloween seemed to declare. The film, the legacy and the legend of its archetypal killer are now beyond reproach. John Carpenter hammered his name onto the monument of the Titans Of Terror with this immortal classic and, even if his career further down the line began to dip quite considerably, he will always be remembered as the man who brought horror home for Halloween. Considering its powerful influence upon the genre and its ongoing pop-culture relevance, it is not possible to award this trendsetting movie milestone anything less than a top score. Along with some of the first-rate horrors from Romero, Craven, Cronenberg and Raimi - movers, shakers, innovators and trailblazers, all - Carpenter's first horror film is still as powerful as the day it first stalked the silver screen. It may not be perfect, there are certainly some ragged edges on show, but its importance ensures we grant it 10 out of 10.
“It was the bogeyman.”
“As a matter of fact, it was.”