Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Halloween (1978)

Halloween (1978)
Directed by John Carpenter; Starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence, P. J. Soles

Rating: 4/5

The build up to Halloween (the holiday, not the film) has inspired me to explore the old slasher ‘classics’ of the ‘70s and ‘80s, which until now has been something of a neglected pursuit. It transpires that they are often relentlessly formulaic and derivative, although this does serve to highlight the strengths of superior films in the genre.

Traditionally, we are introduced to a group of carefree and naive teenagers who are then systematically and sadistically dispatched with varying creativity by an unseen killer. The film usually concludes with a battle between the now revealed killer and the final (usually female) survivor, culminating in an often mind bogglingly ambiguous climax.

Artistic integrity aside, many of these killers have developed into iconic horror characters, and (sometimes in spite the original directors’ wishes) have spawned persistent franchises. It is thus with a sense of genuine curiosity that I look towards the horizon at the undoubtedly heady delights of Friday the 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989) and an answer as to why Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991) is followed by yet another three Nightmare on Elm Street films.

Where better to start than with Halloween (the film, not the holiday)? Even if it didn’t spawn the genre, its global success certainly solidified it in the public consciousness. It brought horror away from the supernatural and into the idyllic streets of suburban America.

Naturally, the film opens on Halloween night (purportedly chosen when director John Carpenter realised that nobody had yet made a film by that name) when a teenage girl is murdered by her own brother, the young Michael Myers. He bears a simple name that would come to represent evil incarnate, at least until it became irrevocably associated with a certain Canadian comic actor.

The tagline “The night he came home!” is enough to reveal that the rest of the film takes place on a Halloween some fifteen years later, when an adult Michael escapes from a psychiatric hospital with the single minded objective of returning to his hometown and indulging his psychopathic tendencies.

For reasons at yet unknown, his ultimate objective seems to be Laurie Strode, played by Jamie Lee Curtis in a role which would earn her the title of ‘scream queen’ and land her roles in the wave of slashers that appeared in Halloween’s wake, including Prom Night (1980) and Terror Train (1980).

For all its commercial success, Halloween is at heart an independent film, one of Carpenter’s earliest, brimming with evidence of budgetary constraints and notably fraught with continuity and production errors. The famous mask was in fact a painted William Shatner mask from Star Trek, and the film was shot during spring in Southern California (not autumn in Illinois) on a tight schedule: Donald Pleasence, who played Michael’s psychiatrist Dr. Loomis, filmed all his scenes in under a week.

Against this backdrop, Carpenter makes use of shadow and subtlety, rather than special effects. Those familiar with more modern films may be surprised by the low body count and lack of graphic violence. The slow pacing draws out the tension, and allows the character development that other such films lack. Much of the first half follows Laurie and her friends through their day, whilst Michael stalks them one step behind. He is the unsettling figure in the distance, always drifting in and out of sight. Only Laurie sees, and her distress falls on the deaf ears of her incredulous friends.

Not everything about Halloween is completely original. At one point, Michael evokes a traditional campfire tale by hiding in the back seat of a victim’s car, a variant of which has appeared in everything from The Godfather (1972) to The Dark Knight (2008) and even in later slasher films.

Pleasence steals the show as Dr. Loomis, bringing gravitas to a film of otherwise fluctuating acting quality. It’s faintly hammy, but the sinister British elocution provides a voice of reason and grim truth against the sea of American hysteria as he reveals the true depravity of his patient’s soul in one of the best quotes in the film:

“I met this six-year-old child, with this blank, pale, 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.”

We cannot deny that Loomis was right to be wary, but at its most cynical reading this paints a picture of a psychiatric system that has utterly failed Michael as a patient. Nevertheless, for a film which appears grounded in a real world interpretation of horror, there are undeniable echoes of the supernatural: Michael’s nigh immortality to the grievous wounds inflicted upon him lend credence to the diagnosis that there may be something truly diabolic at work.

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