Friday, October 22, 2010

Halloween (1978)

Driving through the great state of Illinois, outside of Chicago and its suburbs, can be pretty dull.  As part of the Great Plains, any trip that goes from end to end of the state is going to be dreadfully boring, unless you have some sort of corn fetish.  Little did I realize that I have come this close to danger on my trips; just off Interstate 55, near the city of Pontiac (whose website proudly points out public restrooms and a "Most Wanted" list) lies the fictional town of Haddenfield, best known as the home town of slasher movie Hall of Famer Michael Myers.

Halloween begins, against all odds, on Halloween night (shock!) in Haddonfield, 1963.  A young girl and her boyfriend decide to go up to her bedroom and get their sexy freak on, as long as someone named Michael is away.  The camera is clearly serving as the point of view of a character watching the couple; in the time it takes this unseen character (admittedly, probably Michael) to move from his place, peering in from an outside window, where he hears this exchange, to the kitchen, where he grabs a knife, the guy has already finished, dressed, and leaves the house with a noncommittal remark about maybe calling the girl again sometime; this scientifically proves, once again, that the speed of light's got nothing on the speed of a teenage boy.  After Don Juan (possibly not the real one) sneaks out the door, the unseen character picks up a clown mask, puts it on, and walks up the stairs to the girl's bedroom.  The girl, brushing her hair while nearly nude, identifies the character as Michael and swiftly dies from several knife wounds.  Moments later, the girl's parents come home and we finally get a camera shot of the savage Michael; he is a six year-old boy, dressed in a very ugly clown outfit, and he has just murdered his own sister, thus fulfilling the desire of many younger brothers, across the world.
On the bright side, it appears to be stain-repellant

Fast forward fifteen years, and it is 1978.  After eight years of trying to treat young Michael Myers, Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) concluded that Michael is a soulless killing machine and has spent the last seven years trying to ensure that Michael stays in confinement for the rest of his life.  Because, you know...that's what doctors do.
That sounds reasonable
On Halloween's eve, 1978, Michael escapes from the Smith's Grove institution, steals a car, and drives off into the night.  Convinced that he knows Michael better than anyone --- despite the fact that Myers has not spoken a word in fifteen years --- Dr. Loomis heads to Haddonfield, expecting the worst.  Meanwhile, Michael has already arrived in Haddonfield and has even broken into his old home, now the local haunted house.  He also made a shopping stop during the night, breaking into a general store and stealing a mask, some knives and a rope.  Exactly what his motives are is never clear, but it is obvious that he is in town to pull some major They Live action.  He is a picky psychopath, though.  Instead of killing just anyone, Michael chooses to stalk a well-behaved teenager, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, in her first film role).  Sucks to be her. just an unflattering screenshot

There are two aspects of this film that really stand out.  The first is the music.  Director John Carpenter also composed the film's score, which includes the main theme (which acts as a cue that Michael is around and about to be creepy/evil), as well as the slightly less creepy through line that seems to follow Laurie around when she's not in danger.  Most horror movies have mediocre and often instantly dated scores, but Carpenter created one of the best musical mood pieces in cinematic history.  The music is classier and more unsettling than the Friday the 13th CH-Ch-ch AH-Ah-ah, and strong enough to follow Michael Myers into every one of his sequels.  The camera work is the other noteworthy technical part of Halloween.  In the opening scene POV shots (which, while done well, has been done before), it was an inspired idea to have the character don a mask and then have the camera see only through the eye holes of the mask.  The rest of the movie is only nearly POV, with the camera actually just peeking over Michael's shoulder.  This is far more effective than POV shots because it is more stable; this way, you aren't supposed to always know where Michael is and can still be surprised when he pops up. in a closet.  For the record, he's looking for a crushed velvet jumpsuit.

The acting and directing in Halloween are much better than you might expect, especially if you have seen the sequels.  Jamie Lee Curtis wasn't spectacular in the film, aside from her Scream Queen shrieks, but she was as good here as anything else I've seen her in.  Donald Pleasence is very good as the not-overreacting-at-all Doctor Loomis; he gives such a good speech about the evil of Michael Myers that you don't really need any proof to back up those claims.  The supporting cast isn't great, with PJ Soles as the only stand out, partly because she is awesome at saying "totally" and partly because she shows her boobies.
The direction is the real star in this picture.  John Carpenter took the story that he co-wrote with Debra Hill and shot it in a way that provides suspense and implies violence.  The violence in this film looks great, but a lot of it is not shown; you don't notice that, though, when you're watching the movie.  When it needs to be spectacular, it is (like the mounting of a guy on the kitchen wall), but the subtler moments are still the more memorable ones.  In the kitchen scene, it's pretty sweet when Myers kills the guy, but the creepy moment comes as he steps back and tilts his head, pondering his victim's death twitches.  Those are the moments that make Michael Myers, as an unimaginably evil character, work.  That's important, because the character has some pretty ridiculous survival skills; he manages to get stabbed in the neck, eye, and chest, shot in the chest, and he falls out of a two-story window, but he still keeps chugging.
Read the directions, Laurie: stab repeatedly, until victim is definitely fertilizer

While totally awesome, this movie does have some minor flaws.  For starters, the POV camera in the opening scene is clearly being held at an adult height, despite Michael being only six at the time.  That's not a big deal, but I refuse to believe that a six year-old that can hack his sister to death for no reason would allow anyone to dress him in that ugly costume.  I mean, unless his sister dressed him; in that case, she had it coming.  Still, that was a pretty cool scene, even if it was done just to add a tiny bit of shock when the killer is revealed to be a child.  Another strange part comes when Michael stalks the boy Laurie is going to babysit that night; how would Michael know who the kid is?  If it's just Michael being Michael (read: creepy), then why don't we see him stalk anyone not connected to Laurie?  Another odd moment comes when viewers catch a glimpse of Michael without his mask on; he's nowhere near as frightening when he looks like an ordinary guy.
Also odd: when he took a bathroom break and was out of position for this kill
Probably the biggest gripe I have with the movie is the prototypical slasher "ending," where Laurie seemingly kills Michael, but decides it's better to walk away than to check to see if he's dead.  She does that twice.  The first time I can understand because she has never tried to kill someone before, but horror movies have steep learning curves --- you already smoked pot in this movie (a slasher pic deadly sin), Laurie, so you had better get your game face on if you want my sympathy.

Despite those minor flaws, this is still a great movie that holds up to repeated viewings.  Actually, those flaws become amusing and charming to those who are familiar with the movie.  I may be a bigger fan of Jason Voorhies, but this is the movie that truly gave birth to the slasher subgenre and still towers over it to this day.

1 comment:

  1. I may be biased, but I dig the Friday the 13th sound better. It is more subtle. The Halloween sound track is a bit over bearing. Yet, Halloween is probably the best slasher flick ever made (save Jason Goes to Hell).

    Chuck D says, "The Great Plains end well before Ill-eee-noiz."