(USA - 1978)

by Matt White

Cast: Donald Pleasence, Jamie Lee Curtis, Nancy Loomis, P.J. Soles, Nick Castle, Charles Cyphers, Brian Andrews
Genre: Horror
Director: John Carpenter
Screenplay: John Carpenter & Debra Hill
Cinematography: Dean Cundey
Composer: John Carpenter
Runtime: 101 minutes

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If there were one thing about Halloween that separates it from all the other "slasher" films, I would say it is the cinematography. This movie is almost an exercise in widescreen terror. Even more than most films, it really should not be viewed in pan and scam. Good independent horror films such as the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Evil Dead and even the Blair Witch Project (just because it is overrated does not detract from the fact that it was solid) had to settle with full-screen 16mm photography and excruciating low budgets. This film is low budget as well, but they had enough money to film on 35 mm and use a 2:35:1 lens (which requires a ton of lighting, hence higher budget). It allowed for director John Carpenter to flex his cinematic muscle, showing him to be one of the "directors to watch" of the upcoming 1980`s and it also portrayed a striking commentary on the state of American suburban life at the end of the 1970`s.

The opening of the film represents everything about the horror genre in my opinion: Cinematically innovative while being unabashedly exploitive. The first scene of the film is done in one take (or at least it gives the illusion of one take). The camera starts outside the house, as two teenagers, obviously a couple, are on the couch preparing to go up stairs. The camera then pans around and begins to enter the house, revealing a POV shot. The camera then has a mask put over it, limiting what we can see. Next, the door opens to a girl naked, sitting in front of her mirror, and then screaming, as she is murdered. The camera moves from outside the house to inside and up the stairs, all in one take. Impressive, but what is the final image of the take? It is a naked blonde girl being murdered. Since we see the whole take from the perspective of the killer, we become voyeuristic, not feeling the consequences of the murder, only the entertainment, much like the antagonist of the film, Michael Myers.

It could just be the influence of Alfred Hitchcock on both, but I would like to think Brian De Palma parodied this in his excellent film, Blow Out (1982). The film, like Halloween, opens with a one shot take, but it is even more exploitive than the film it is parodying. In that opening, girls are everywhere: in their rooms with guys, in the shower and even masturbating. The whole film, like many of De Palma's, becomes a commentary about voyeuristic pleasure at the expense of other peoples plight (which most horror films deliver). The opening of Halloween declares the rest of the film a voyeuristic experience, but a well made one. The opening of Blow Out is commenting on what lots of people find to have no correlation: exploitation and innovation working hand in hand.

In a way, it is a tribute to Carpenter. Around the early 1980`s, he was billed overseas as one of the directors to watch. His first film, Darkstar (which was originally a short film for college) is a cult favorite. Following that movie, Assault on Precinct 13, a low budget action retooling of Rio Bravo and Night of the Living Dead, commented on gang violence before it gained mainstream exposure in the early 90`s and got Carpenter recognized in Great Britain and Europe. Carpenter seemed to fulfill his reputation with Halloween, one of the best of American "slasher" films.

However, after the low budget success Escape from New York, he got in and out of the 1980`s big budget studio system and never recovered from the fallout. His only true "masterpiece" from that period was The Thing, where Universal Studios gave him carte blanche (and a big budget) to do whatever he wanted. After the film tanked in the family friendly summer of 1982 (it was released two weeks after ET) like another dark film released that summer, Blade Runner, he made an adult version of E.T. in Starman. Starman was a hit, but Carpenter had his final falling out in big budget production when he had disagreements with 20th Century Fox over Big Trouble in Little China. That film and They Live (made shortly thereafter) were good movies, but nothing compared to his previous films. The 90`s were a dark period with only In the Mouth of Madness and Vampires being moderate bright spots.

One of the things that makes Halloween more memorable than some of its slasher counterparts is Carpenter's score. He is one of the few directors who actually composes his own films. This gives his films a distinct character that is lacking in most movies. Although his scores may not be the as musically accomplished as the orchestrations of John Williams or the synthesizer magic of Tangerine Dream, Carpenter's scores fit the films they are made for. The score for Halloween was written in two days by the director, and the simplicity of the score is evidence of this, but its that simplicity that makes it that much more unnerving. The methodic, unrelenting pacing of the main theme seems to parallel the main villain, Michael Myers. He is unrelenting in the way he murders people and it follows a pattern.

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Carpenter co-wrote the film with producer Debra Hill. She claimed that Carpenter wrote all the horror, while she wrote all the baby-sitting material. The movie, originally to be entitled "The Babysitter Murders," actually makes an interesting observation on the state of the nuclear family at the end of the 1970`s. There are hardly any parents in this film. The surrogates of the kids are teenage babysitters, who use the opportunity to enjoy rendezvous with guys. Michael Myers killed his babysitter (his sister), and later starts murdering others. Is the absence of the parents producing a correlation to murderous behavior? A lot of people think so. For example, in Larry Elder's book, "The Ten Things You Can't Say in America," he argues the biggest problem America faces is illegitimacy and children (mainly males) growing up without father figures. Statistics are listed, showing that a majority of male prison inmates grew up in fatherless homes. In Halloween, a movie made about some 20 years earlier, the consequences are being played out in brutal fashion. In the end, Myers is not killed by a teenager, or the main protagonist (Jamie Lee Curtis in her debut role) but is shot by middle age psychologist (Donald Pleasance), the only person closest to being a "father figure" in the film.

There's probably another reason Pleasance, the only strong male character in the film, is the one who "killed" off Myers: Carpenter is a misogynist. His films rarely have strong female leads. The Thing did not even have a female character (so the hyper-visceral aspect of the film substituted for the lack of sex appeal, a common characteristic of modern horror films). In Vampires, the one female character is abused often by the protagonist (James Woods) and in most of his other movies like Big Trouble in Little China, the female roles are window dressing at best. The exceptions are Ghosts of Mars (which had Jason Statham and Ice Cube as strong male balances) and this film. However, in Halloween, the film that first introduced the world to Jamie Lee Curtis, the term "Scream Queen" takes gets its proverbial crown. Curtis`s character does not do much of anything except scream and run away a lot (she was good at it though). This is not criticism, just fact. There are now plenty of female action heroines to balance the lone director of Carpenter, and movies are not about affirmative action anyways. If it works for the movie, then it works and it does work in Halloween.

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The acting in this movie is solid for horror fare. Some of the dialogue is corny and weak, but that usually does not ruin a horror film if it does its main job and that is the case here. Jamie Lee Curtis does a good job in her first outing, and it made her the star of horror films in the late 70`s early 80`s. Her delivery is weak in certain places, but she does a good job of acting terrified. Curtis is one of the few genre performers to actually rise above their genre in to a certain degree of success in Hollywood. Donald Pleasance does his job as well as the psychologist pursuing Myers. He shows why he is a solid character actor with a good subdued performance. The real star is Nick Castle, who earned $25 a day to play the role of Michael Myers. His raw movements added a lot to the role. Hill noted that in Halloween II, they hired a professional stuntman to go behind the mask, but his movements looked too smooth. Myers is actually billed as "The Shape" here. Carpenter purposely prevents the audience from really seeing him, allowing us to instead imagine what something that was "purely and simply…EVIL!" would look like.

Going back to the photography, this is the first Carpenter film photographed by Dean Cundey (a relationship that would last over a decade). Cundey`s use of the widescreen is impeccable. I think it is one of the major reasons (along with the score) that make the film effective. Even though it seems a little raw at times in this film, Carpenter's partnership with Cundey would produce some great widescreen visuals in later films (that are overlooked). I think Cundey`s work with Carpenter is far more interesting than anything he's done with major Hollywood powerhouses like Steven Spielberg (Jurassic Park) and Robert Zemeckis (the Back to the Future films). In Carpenter's films there is a presence of the camera probing. There is nothing like this in Jurassic Park or Back to the Future.

The one problem with Halloween is it falls in to the same category as Jaws and Rocky: the reputation of the original is stained due to the lackluster quality of its successors. I have not seen the other Halloween films, and I do not intend to either. I can safely assume they do not hold up to this film. Carpenter ghost-directed a majority of Halloween II and wrote the score, but it does not receive the raves this film has. The rest of the series does not even get mentioned. It is a moot point though. Fans of the genre know Halloween as a standout, and those opened minded to horror cinema as legit appreciate it as well. When thinking of this film and John Carpenter, I am reminded of a quote by Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs: "Write one book and chances are it could be bad. Write 100 and there is bound to be at least a good one in the bunch." Halloween is one of the good ones.



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