Friday, July 8, 2016

HALLOWEEN (1978) - ****1/2

Rated R
Running time: 91 min.
Release date: October 25, 1978

The 1970s brought about some influential films in the horror genre. We've seen The Exorcist, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and now here is Halloween as directed by John Carpenter. This film was pretty much the impetus of the slasher genre, influencing future franchises as Friday the 13th. However, whereas the slasher genre has devolved into "see the killer, run from the killer" without much along the lines of character development, John Carpenter's mastery of the camera, as well as his own musical score, have the cumulative effect of creating a creepy atmosphere. Halloween is a true horror classic.

In Haddonfield, IL, Halloween night in 1963, a young boy spies on his sister and her boyfriend from outside as they make out, then move the proceedings to the bedroom. This entire opening scene is shot from the boy's point of view, as we see him enter the house, open a drawer, walk up the stairs, put on a mask, walk in on his naked sister and brutally murder her. The audience is given the killer's eyes as he watches the knife repeatedly. The young boy is 6 year old Michael Myers, and he is sent to a mental institution for the next 15 years.

Fast forward to those 15 years later, as Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) and a nurse are on their way to take Michael (Nick Castle) to a hearing that will have him locked up permanently. Upon arrival, they find that there has been an escape, as inmates are all on the loose around the hospital.  Michael hijacks the car that Dr. Loomis arrives in and speeds off. Later on, the warden states "He can't even drive a car!" Dr. Loomis retorts "He was doing very well last night! Maybe someone around here gave him lessons." Loomis suspects that Michael is headed back home to Haddonfield, so he follows his trail there. Indeed, Loomis is correct in his assumption. In Haddonfield, young high school student Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis in her feature film debut) drops off a key at the old vacant Myers home, as her father is a real estate agent in the process of selling it. We get a shot of Michael, inside the house, heavily breathing, as he watches Laurie walk away. Thus, his stalking of her begins.

Laurie appears to be a regular girl, dedicated to her school work and a little lacking in the courage to ask a boy to the school dance. Her friends are Annie (Nancy Loomis), the daughter of the sheriff, and Lynda (P.J. Soles), From a casting standpoint, all of these girls look to be a little too old to be playing high school students, probably the film's only drawback. Curtis is very good in the role, as her character comes off as sympathetic and more down-to-earth than the other characters, which gives the stalking angle more flow. Laurie begins to see Michael from the window in class, behind the bushes on the walk home, in the backyard behind the sheets drying in the wind. Carpenter does a very skillful act here, having Myers disappear with the turn of a head, or blink of an eye. It's almost as if imagining someone watching us is just as chilling as someone actually being there.

Dr. Loomis arrives in town and convinces the sheriff to be on the watch for Michael, as Loomis holds the fort at the Myers home, having seen evidence that Michael has been there. We also find out that Michael has stolen the headstone of his late sisters' grave for some reason. Loomis has described Michael as someone he spent eight years trying to reach, and the next seven trying to keep locked up, simply because what he found was pure evil. The screenplay by Carpenter and Debra Hill has provided all the insight we need into Michael's motivations. He is insane and evil, plain and simple. The scene changes to nightfall, and Laurie babysits young Tommy while Annie babysits young Lindsey, until she gets a call from her boyfriend Paul. Annie then pawns Lindsey off on Laurie, who describes herself as the "girl scout" coming through once again for her friends. Very shortly after this, Laurie's friends and their boyfriends soon begin to meet their fates, and all without a single drop of blood shown on camera.

Carpenter doesn't need the gore to ramp up the horror. He has used his skill with the camera to establish the chills: long distance shots, foreground shots, heavy breathing, and the aforementioned point of view shot. Accompanying these camera tricks is the film score created by Carpenter himself. A chilling, haunting piano throughout the film, even during the daylight scenes, lets the audience know that danger lurks from the beginning. Scenes of suburban life, like walking to school and driving the streets, are underscored by the moody sounds, providing a sense of dread even when the characters don't suspect any danger.

Halloween is John Carpenter's best film, as the low budget forced him to rely on his craftsmanship to convey fear, where he is very successful. Nick Castle's hulking figure and the creepy white mask provided a convincing maniacal killer with minimal "acting" required. Carpenter's presentation of Michael hiding behind bushes in the distance, the scene of Michael tilting his head at the body of one of his victims, these all established a character who operated on insanity and evil alone. The comparisons to Hitchcock's Psycho are there, but Halloween is the film that provided the template for future slasher films.

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