Saturday, October 24, 2015

John Carpenter, part IV: The Shape of things to come


One of the most influential pieces of popular culture ever made, Halloween is a how-to guide for its entire genre that, frankly, leaves me the slightest bit cold.

Directed by John Carpenter
Written by Debra Hill and John Carpenter
With Jamie Lee Curtis (Laurie Strode), Donald Pleasence (Dr. Samuel Loomis), Charles Cyphers (Sheriff Leigh Brackett), P.J. Soles (Lynda von der Klok), Nancy Loomis (Annie Brackett), John Michael Graham (Bob Simms), Brian Andrews (Tommy Doyle), Kyle Richards (Lindsey Wallace), and Nick Castle/Tony Moran/Will Sandin (Michael Myers)

Spoiler alert: essentially meaningless, but let's say "high"

John Carpenter's Halloween is difficult edifice to approach.  As one of the most analyzed-to-pieces films there ever was, there's little to say about it that has not already been said, and probably even less that matters—even by the standards of this blog, which is about as insignificant an exhibit as you'll ever find within the great monument to insignificance that is our Internet.  No, Halloween—sire of seven direct sequels, two remakes, and a thousand and one rip-offs—is less of a movie than it is an institution.  So what I needed was perspective, and, at a distance, I found it.  In another life, that distance may well have amounted to three years; in this existence, however, I only waited three hours.  I got the perspective I so desperately required, then; but I suppose that must be a story for another time.

When Halloween arrived in the late October of 1978, it was barely reviewed at all—and it made $70 million in theaters anyway.  What critical assessment Halloween did receive, mostly in response to its massive financial and cultural success, was largely positive.  It was not unanimous.  Notably, Pauline Kael dismissed it altogether, calling it a genre exercise that had been "stripped of everything but dumb scariness."  And she was right.

Yet I'd hazard that this phrase sums Halloween up, even for its fans.  Halloween is almost impossibly simple, its only real flourishes being the apocalyptic psychiatrist Loomis—more particularly, Donald Pleasence's performance of the same—and that battered William Shatner mask, donned by Nick Castle so that he could more effectively embody his force of blank and primordial evil.


Simplicity is so often a great film's cardinal virtue that it's difficult to say that it could ever be a vice, but Halloween may be the exception to prove the rule.  It's so lean and mean that it nearly lacks a personality of its own.  In Halloween, Michael Myers hates female flesh and must destroy it (along with some dudes in the process).  The unicorn arrives, and he gores the promiscuous; but one girl, the virgin, lives.  The end.

Okay, elemental it might be, but it's not quite that threadbare: we begin in Haddonfield, Illinois, on October 31, 1963 (as played by southern California in spring 1978, although in our winter-free anthropocene, California's performance can no longer be considered strikingly off).

Looks like fall to me.

This is the night that Michael, at the tender age of six, witnesses his older sister Judith fooling around with a sprightly young lad.  All at once, Michael finds an uncontainable rage within him.  He can satisfy it only one way: going up the stairs, hiding the shame of his human face behind a mask, and plunging the kitchen knife repeatedly into her torso until she dies.

Fifteen years fly by like nothing.  However, for Dr. Samuel Loomis it has been fifteen years fighting to keep Michael locked in the smallest cage the law allows.  At first, Michael's psychiatrist sought to reach the catatonic child; now, he's come to believe that whatever it is inside him, certainly it's not human.  The good doctor's hypothesis will be put to the test this very Halloween: fourteen years and 364 days after his sister's murder, Michael effects his escape and returns to Haddonfield.

Where everyone's entitled to one good scare.  Says so on the sign coming into town.

Meanwhile, meet his victims: Lynda, whose mannerisms suggest California more than all the green foliage in the world; Annie, the sheriff's pothead daughter; and Laurie Strode, the presumably unspoiled daughter of the local big realtor.  (I only mention her intact hymen again because it's considered an important development in the history of film.)  We follow them through their day, and Michael follows them, too; eventually, they separate to go about their Halloween business, Annie and Laurie babysitting separate kids three houses apart, and Lynda mucking around with her Noam Chomsky-esque boyfriend, Bob, who gets a line that is hilarious if you know it's a flub, and outright terrifying if you don't: "First I rip your clothes off... Then I rip my clothes off.  Then I rip Lindsey's clothes off!"  (Lindsey being the little girl being babysat.)

Yeah, well.  You can see a pterodactyl in Citizen Kane.

Now the relatively slow burn of the first hour of Halloween pays off, as shudders of release represented by Michael's murders alternate with renewed and heightened tension while Laurie slowly, slowly realizes that the boogeyman is absolutely real.

There's an emptiness in Halloween—a kind of deliberate mechanical hollowness—that is both a strength and a weakness.  If you make a slasher film that is nothing but the essence, does it still work?  Yes—but not as well as the superior slashers that deliver both the essence and something more.  The dumbass twists and guignol gore that make the genre really enjoyable would only come later, as the field blossomed and filmmakers did what they could to distinguish themselves from Halloween's formalist basics.  Carpenter's great innovation, which doesn't seem so special today, was the self-conscious presentation of his slasher villain as a nightmarish icon.  (And all for the princely sum of $1.98—plus whatever a large jumpsuit and Nick Castle's lunches cost.)

This element remains incredibly vivid, even if Michael (in this iteration) is part of my fundamental problem with Halloween.  He's conceived quite essentially as a void.  Michael's void dominates the movie—and it's a matter of taste, I suppose, whether that makes it more frightening or simply less interesting.  The void is filled only partway up with the compelling energy that Pleasence brings to the show.  It's Dr. Loomis' pants-shitting speeches that wind up giving Halloween a personality after all—indeed, they'll come to define the whole franchise.  If Pleasence weren't skulking in those bushes, urgently reminding us of Michael's all-caps EVIL, Halloween would collapse upon itself, incapable of withstanding our rightful attempt to extract a full feature's worth of entertainment from it.

But there he is, and he's shitting those pants with gusto.

Not that it's ever unpleasant, even when it's without Pleasence: the girls range from merely a little annoying all the way to Jamie Lee Curtis, who—probably by accident, although genetics certainly played their part—turned out to be a pretty great actor, and who is at least very good here.  Curtis and a reasonably well-observed script give Laurie a humanity that would do well in any movie, and grounds Halloween in totally (totally!) recognizable emotion, whether it's her profound desire to fuck the hell out of Ben Traemer, or, in her confrontation with Michael, her coronation as the only Scream Queen any normal person could actually name, other than her own mom.

Before we end (on a more positive note), let me tarry just a bit on the parts that I actively disliked.  Halloween gets awkward and clumsy far more often than you'd ever want your legendary, elemental slasher film to get.  There are weird moments throughout that I could go on about, but in your heart you already know the ones I mean.  But, just for example, there's a bizarre sequence of shots that is supposed to indicate Michael has vanished without a trace, when what the montage actually says is that Laurie watched a creepy guy standing in her yard saunter off into the treeline, and not even necessarily that quickly.  And then there's Michael's ride.  Yes, it's quite easy to complain about all those later slashers which more-or-less explicitly gave their villains an ability to teleport.  But their makers probably just watched Halloween, and hence understood—on a basic, animal level—that there is something just awfully Goddamned wrong about an avatar of pure EVIL who spends such a remarkable amount of the first act tooling around town in his beige wagon.

Mythic?  (OK.  Those trees are pretty mythic.)

But now we can turn to other things.  Even I, an outsider to this particular Druidic cult—I know that one sticks in your craw—must nonetheless acknowledge there's still much to enjoy about Halloween.  Pleasence we've already dealt with, but, please, let me quote him:

I watched him for fifteen years, sitting in a room, staring at a wall, not seeing the wall, looking past the wall—looking at this night, inhumanly patient, waiting for some secret, silent alarm to trigger him off.  Death has come to your little town, Sheriff!  Now you can either ignore it, or you can help me to stop it.

This, of course, is fucking magnificent.

Nearly as magnificent is Dean Cundey's cinematography.  Perhaps it's not so magnificent as to justify a swear word, but not for nothing did Halloween propel Cundey into the A-list.  Even when Carpenter's filmmaking falters—which is rarely, but very noticeably when it does, since Halloween depends more than virtually any movie ever made on the quality of its filmmaking—Cundey's lighting and lensing never, ever fail.  Blacks are black in Halloween; autumn is autumnal; the shadows are strange and terrifying.  The focal plane is the most useful blade in Halloween's kitchen: the backgrounding of Michael Myers is nearly the whole of his effectiveness.  The best shot in the whole film is Laurie Strode, catching her breath and waiting for the cops, while her pursuer, over her shoulder and out-of-focus, calmly reboots and sits up.  Elsewhere, Michael is most often seen at a fearful distance, a shadow (indeed, a Shape), still and implacable, seemingly painted onto the backdrop.

I wonder if there's a reason why most stabbing victims are actually stabbed, like, forty times.  Do you think it might be to ensure death?

This is when we see him at all: aside from emerging from, and returning to, what amounts to another dimension, large stretches of Halloween, especially the semi-bravura opening shot, are filmed from Michael's own eyes.  For this, Halloween gets the credit—and from certain Moral Warriors, the blame.  I find this bizarre and interesting, considering that the trick itself is as old as time.  Even the technical proficiency of Halloween's opening first-person shot, done in a simulation of a single long take, finds precursors in Argento and, particularly, De Palma.  When it ends with Judith Meyers' mousy death scream, it winds up wipe for an acidic parody—which is exactly what De Palma delivered in Blow Out.  Anyway, Judith's lackluster death is the sort of thing that happens when you shoot a movie in a month; but I suppose it's also the kind of thing that gets a pass when there isn't much real competition yet.

I digress.  We were talking about the greatness to be found in Halloween, weren't we?  Well, it's impossible to deny the effectiveness of how that POV shot permits Carpenter to delay the reveal: the fact that the sex murderer is just a six year old boy—certainly enough to put anyone off their kilter.

And the beginning remains the precise place to look if you want to find the greatest part of Halloween—and do I even need to say I mean Carpenter's score, one of the best scores ever written by either a human being or one of the extraterrestrials the government won't tell us about?  Of course that's what I mean.

Halloween already has an essentially perfect opening credits scheme, but that theme makes it the best part of the movie—and I don't even mean that in a nasty way.  Carpenter's synthetic 5/4 miracle of a score returns whenever Halloween needs its adrenaline jolt, papering over every flaw and every missing piece—and then some.  It would be enough to elevate Halloween to watchability even if nothing else had gone right at all.  (The crazy part is that it's still not Carpenter's best score!)

And much else does go right.  The transition to an increasingly-unhinged register in the climax is absolutely welcome—and Carpenter's score bridges that transition so that you don't consciously notice that the tone has slightly but crucially shifted.

If Halloween is not Carpenter's best—even by most counts—it's still his most important work.  Besides giving him a reputation as a bankable director and launching a major subgenre of horror into the mainstream, it also put into its first solid form the theme which would define nearly the whole body of Carpenter's work: evil will wait.  Most of his films—perhaps all of his best films—are further explorations of this bleakly simple idea.

And Halloween remains deathless, too.  For my part, I'd never previously considered it remotely great—nor even especially good—and I still didn't after rewatching it for this retrospective.  But then I had the chance to put it into a context that could not have been available to anyone in 1978.  And that transforms it, like magic, into the necessary foundation for a thing so wonderful that I don't know if words could convey how wonderful, even if you'd believe me, which you won't.  But, like I said—that really is a story for another time.

Score:  7/10


  1. I must agree, the original film leaves me a bit colder than I'd like to admit. However, as an eternal slasher fan I feel a certain sense of obligation to the property. Not so for the sequels, which are occasionally fun but one of my least favorite mainstream slasher franchises,

    I'm anxious to hear about this life-changing slasher experience you've been hinting at! (And by the way, I'm popping in Brain From Planet Arous tonight - exciting!)

    1. Oh, but you know what it is... you don't want to know, but you know.

      Very cool about Arous. I hope you enjoy it! I watched Terror Train a couple of days ago, and maybe enjoyed it even more than the first time.

  2. 'Halloween' is elemental, for sure... but it's a lot more nuanced than your review gives it credit for, I think. Namely: it's evident from the film that Michael Myers is not simply a void, but a character with a personality and motivations and feelings (even a sense of humor!). He doesn't simply wander and kill aimlessly, it's clear he's on a mission; he stalks particular people, strikes under particular circumstances, kills certain people but spares others. He even goes so far as to put together a work of art! He's trying to express himself, sending a message.

    Dr. Loomis is mistaken: Myers may be evil, but he's not purely evil, and is in fact human. He's not even amoral, I believe Myers thinks he's doing the right thing. I like Loomis too much to just label him a quack, but a psychiatrist declaring a juvenile "pure evil" simply for never talking has clearly got a couple screws loose himself.

    That's not to say 'Halloween' is all that deep or complicated, but there's quite a bit more going on in it on than simply a walking void of inexplicable murder.