Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Halloween (1978)

Halloween is my favorite time of the year. I love the Fall season with leaves changing color, pumpkins on the front porch, and kids dressing up for Halloween.  In my youth, I dressed the gamut of horror creatures such as a skeleton, Frankenstein, and Dracula. As an adult, I have reserved October and Halloween as the month to watch old and new horror films.

It's hard to believe that no one had come up with a horror film set on Halloween until HALLOWEEN. When you think John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN (1978), you think of it as the granddaddy of all the slasher films that popped up in the 1980's. FRIDAY THE 13TH, MY BLOODY VALENTINE, PROM NIGHT, and WHEN A STRANGER CALLS were among the slasher films that owe their birth to a tiny low budget ($300,000) movie. But HALLOWEEN really owes its roots back to Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO (1960) which first gave us a knife wielding psychopath. And when PSYCHO was a big hit, copy cats sprang from all corners of the film world: PARANOIAC, THE SHUTTERED ROOM, WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, and PEEPING TOM. Moviegoers showed with their attendance that they liked to be scared by maniacs with knives and axes and chainsaws.

What appealed to me about HALLOWEEN was the idea of a horror film taking place on All Hallow's Eve. When HALLOWEEN was released in 1978, I wasn't old enough to see it at a cinema. I bought the novelization of the film first (which was more graphic both in sex and violence than the actual film). I finally got to see HALLOWEEN  a year later at my friend John's house (John is the guy who could see R rated films before most of us could see them thanks to his liberal parents). John's family had the first VCR of any of my friends and we watched HALLOWEEN on the now defunct Beta format.

HALLOWEEN is more suspenseful than scary. Director John Carpenter (Carpenter and co-writer Debra Hill wrote the screenplay) is more interested in mood and suspense than showing blood. Carpenter gives us red herrings and false scares at first to get us nervous. The biggest scares in  the film come from the music cues (Carpenter was the composer of its synthesizer score). And Carpenter's biggest coup was that he cast Jaime Lee Curtis in the lead role as the babysitter terrorized by evil incarnate Michael Myers. Curtis's mother was none other than PSYCHO star Janet Leigh (her father was actor Tony Curtis). So HALLOWEEN and PSYCHO had this instant cinematic connection. Mother and daughter would act together in Carpenter's next horror film THE FOG (1980).

HALLOWEEN begins at the scene of the crime, Haddonfield, Illinois 1963 on Halloween night. 6 year old Michael Myers (Will Sandin), dressed as a clown, stabs his sister Judith Myers (Sandy Johnson) for no apparent reason, except that she just had sex with her boyfriend. He waits in front of his house with a bloody knife when his parents return home from a night out. Michael is sent to an Illinois State Mental Facility where 15 years later, Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence), the psychiatrist who has treated and observed Myers, arrives on a rainy night to move Myers to another facility. But Myers escapes from the State Hospital, stealing a car and driving away. Loomis is positive that Myers is headed back to Haddonfield. Halloween is the next day.

Three high school girls will become linked with the return of Michael Myers to the town where he committed his heinous crime. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), the straight laced good student; Annie Brackett (Nancy Loomis), the daughter of the town's Sheriff Leigh Brackett (Charles Cyphers); and Lynda van der Klok (PJ Soles), the wild one of the three. Myers return to his empty, dilapidated old house and begins stalking the three girls who live nearby.

Loomis arrives in town and hooks up with Sheriff Brackett. A visit to Judith Myers grave reveals her headstone is missing. Loomis knows Myers has returned. Costumed trick or treaters walk the sidewalks as nightfall approaches. Laurie and Annie both have to babysit on Halloween night. Loomis stakes out Myers old home but he never shows.

Annie is the first to be killed, strangled in the garage. Lynda shows up at the house with her boyfriend Bob Simms (John Michael Graham). They hop into bed since Annie isn't around. Myers will dispatch with Bob with a large butcher knife downstairs then throws a sheet over himself and impersonates Bob before killing Lynda. Myers heads over to finish off Laurie but she proves to be the toughest, most resilient of the three and battles Myers as Loomis finally arrives to help defeat the maniac.

After HALLOWEEN came out, many film critics saw a connection between the act of sex being punished by a violent death like in HALLOWEEN and other slasher films of the time. Carpenter insisted he just needed his characters to be doing something before the killer surprised them. Since the main characters were teenagers in high school, sex seemed the obvious teenage activity to distract them. But there is a theme that resonates in HALLOWEEN and its imitators that the virginal, conservative heroine like Laurie survives the madman's onslaught while Annie (who's going to pick up her boyfriend and bring him back to the house to have sex) or Lynda (who does have sex with her boyfriend in the house) are murdered because they're promiscuous and easy.

I remember watching Siskel and Ebert on television and both critics gave thumbs up to HALLOWEEN. But many critics saw HALLOWEEN and other slasher films as promoting violence against women. Although I abhor violence against women in any form, horror films are usually scarier and more terrifying when it's a woman threatened by an alien creature or psychopath than a man. Carpenter and Hill (who's a woman) make Jamie Lee Curtis the heroine. She's scared but not weak and she uses her brains to fight back against the masked bogeyman. Laurie becomes empowered when she's attacked. But she does follow all the classic wrong things to do in a horror film: walk into a dark house, drop the knife that could help save her, turn her back on the killer when he's wounded.

Although the storylines aren't exactly the same, HALLOWEEN has a lot in common with PSYCHO. We already talked about the fact that HALLOWEEN actress Jamie Lee Curtis is the daughter of PSYCHO star Janet Leigh. You can't get better cinematic karma than that.  The Donald Pleasence psychiatrist character is named Sam Loomis after Janet Leigh's boyfriend in PSYCHO (John Gavin played Sam Loomis in that film). Both films deal with a maniac wielding a knife. HALLOWEEN'S Michael Myers is described as pure evil. He takes on the persona of the boogeyman that frighten little kids like Tommy Doyle at night. Only Myers the boogeyman is after high school girls. They remind him of his first victim, his own sister. Norman Bates in PSYCHO has mother issues that crop up when he meets women, issues that lead him to impersonate his mother and take on her personality at times. PSYCHO'S bad man is more complicated than HALLOWEEN'S Myers.

Carpenter follows Hitchcock's lead and goes for the suspense angle in HALLOWEEN even though both films are considered horror films. But HALLOWEEN never dwells or shows much blood or gore just like PSYCHO only made you think you saw the knife touch Marion Bates in the shower. HALLOWEEN'S sequels and reboots and copy cat slasher films would ratchet up the gore and blood.  Music is the last component that unites HALLOWEEN and PSYCHO. I think Bernard Hermann's score in PSYCHO is one of the most chilling and haunting pieces of music ever. Carpenter's score is more modern with a synthesizer replacing an orchestra but he sets the mood with music and keeps the film tense for its entire 90 minutes.

Film buff Carpenter peppers HALLOWEEN with little cinematic easter eggs. Besides the homages to PSYCHO, he has the young kids watching THE THING FROM ANOTHER PLANET (1951) produced by Howard Hawks, one of Carpenter's favorite filmmakers. Carpenter would remake THE THING in 1982. He also named Haddonfield's sheriff Leigh Brackett. Brackett was one of Hawks' favorite writers who wrote THE BIG SLEEP (1946) and RIO BRAVO (1959). Carpenter tried to get Hammer horror stars Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing to play the psychiatrist Loomis but they turned him down. But he got Donald Pleasence, one of my favorite actors from THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963) and the James Bond film YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967). Pleasence brings class to HALLOWEEN.

One issue filmmakers have when casting actors to play high school students is they look too old to be in high school. HALLOWEEN has that problem. Actresses Curtis, Loomis, and Soles look like college coeds not high school teenagers (although Curtis was actually high school age). But their All-American good looks and camaraderie help make HALLOWEEN all the more scarier when Michael Myers comes stalking them. Jamie Lee Curtis would become the Queen of Horror for a few years appearing in HALLOWEEN II (1981), THE FOG (1980), ROAD GAMES (1981), PROM NIGHT (1980), and TERROR TRAIN (1980) before directors discovered her comedic talents in TRADING PLACES (1983) and A FISH CALLED WANDA (1988).

Nancy Loomis who plays Annie worked with Carpenter in ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976) and later THE FOG.  PJ Soles who plays Lynda would become a horror fan favorite from HALLOWEEN and Brian DePalma's CARRIE (1976). Soles also showed her comedy side in ROCK AND ROLL HIGH SCHOOL (1979) and STRIPES (1981).

Another talent who would emerge from HALLOWEEN'S success is cinematographer Dean Cundey. His lighting in Halloween is superb (check out the light filtering on Laurie as she hides in the closet). Cundey would go onto to work on many big budget films such as JURASSIC PARK (1993). HALLOWEEN was also one of the first films to use the Steadicam which makes tracking shots smoother, like the camera is floating (and it cuts down on the number of set ups for a small production like HALLOWEEN). I love the opening credits with Carpenter's creepy Tubular Bells like music and a flickering Jack O'Lantern growing larger. It sets the film's tone right away. And when Laurie and little Tommy (Brian Andrews) look out the window and see Myers standing in front of the house across the street wearing his cheap mask (a modified  William Shatner as Captain Kirk mask it turns out), that visual is as frightening and scary as any gory horror scene could be.

Carpenter's HALLOWEEN would spawn two sequels in the 80's and then a reboot with three or more films in the 2000 era. The only one I've seen and it's a departure from the series and the most bizarre, disturbing film is 1982's HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH. It's very David Cronenberg like (but directed by Tommy Lee Wallace who was the production designer on HALLOWEEN).  Check it out if you dare.

As much as I rave about HALLOWEEN, the Michael Myers character has never been one of my favorite modern horror characters. He's not nearly as interesting as Freddy Krueger from A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET series. He's more like Jason Voorhees from the FRIDAY THE 13TH films, the only difference Jason wears the hockey mask while Myers dons the Halloween mask. But the original HALLOWEEN ushered in the modern horror film that has dominated the cinema ever since.  After you're done handing out candy to the Thor's and Hello Kitty's on Halloween night, lock your door and watch HALLOWEEN to top off your evening. But keep the lights on.

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