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Halloween Film Critique

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John Carpenter’s Halloween: A Film Critique
Michael Chapes
Instructor David Hayes
ENG 225
February 13, 2014

“It's Halloween, everyone's entitled to one good scare.” - Sheriff Leigh Brackett As long as there have been stories, there have been stories about the other, the unrealities we might categorize today as fantasy... Early myths in all cultures are populated by demons and darkness, early Egyptian mythology resounds with tales of a world beyond the physical, a realm of the spirits, to be revered and feared. Classical mythology is filled with monsters such as the Cerberus, the Minotaur, Medusa, the Hydra, the Sirens, Cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis, to name just a few. Every culture has a set of stories dealing with the unknown and unexplained, tales that chill, provoke and keep the listener wondering "what if..?" Horror films are the present-day version of the epic poems and ballads told round the fires of our ancestors.
Horror movies of the 1970s reflect the grim mood of the decade. After the optimism of the 1960s, with its sexual and cultural revolutions, and the moon landings, the seventies was something of a disappointment. By 1970, the party was over; the Beatles split, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix died, while John Kennedy, his brother Robert, and Martin Luther King were all felled by an assassin’s bullet. These tragedies seemed to be just the first domino to fall, for then came Nixon, Nam, oil strikes, Watergate, and when society goes bad, horror films tend to get a resurgence, as a result of this turmoil, the 1970s marked a return to the big budget, respectable horror film, dealing with contemporary societal issues, addressing genuine psychological fears.
It was within these times that horror was once again considered a dead genre. Much like the Western movies were thought dead moments before it was resurrected with movies like Silverado, and Tombstone, the horror genre itself would rise like a phoenix from the ashes of the Universal/Hammer gothic cycle that had fallen by the wayside. The movie Halloween, which simple plot of babysitters being terrorized by a maniac wearing a mask gave birth to countless imitators, kicking off the entire “slasher” genre, was created almost by accident. However, it is also within these conditions, and what happened to culture after its release that makes Halloween the most influential horror movie of all time. Halloween was the creation of independent movie producer Irwin Yablans, who was developing a concept he had in his head titled “The Babysitter Murders, with the very basic idea that would become the plot of Halloween. In an interview, Yablans describes the series of events that led to Halloween being produced, “….I loved Psycho, I loved the Exorcist, and I’ve always been a fan of horror movies, so I think to myself, I can make a horror movie with this guy (John Carpenter). Then I thought, I won’t be able to spend much money-all this thought process was on the airplane coming back from Milan to New York-and I thought, why not a babysitter movie? A babysitter in jeopardy, because everyone’s either had a babysitter, been a babysitter, had children, you know, everybody can relate to it…..Then I thought to myself, well, if we can do it all in one night, we can probably do it for a price because we can keep it tight. Then Halloween just popped into my mind because, I guess, well, that’s the scariest night of the year.”(Rock off ) With a story idea in hand, the producer now needed to find someone who would provide the funding necessary to get “Babysitter Murders” off the ground. Enter Moustapha Akkad. Akkad, who, until recently, was the only person to be connected to every single movie in the Halloween franchise, was doubtful about the possibility of a movie getting made for only $300, 00. Yabalans, thinking on his feet, decided to play on Akkad’s pride. The producer recalls how he used a trick that Mother’s over the world have used to get their children to do something, the art of reverse psychology. “I said, John, look, $300,000 is a lot of money, it’s a big risk and I’m not sure Moustapha wants to take that chance.” Luckily for Yablans, Akkad took the bait like a fish goes for the worm on a hook, and production of the Babysitter Murders was underway. Now, this new horror movie needed a director to put it all together, and Yablans had one in mind. His choice was the son of a musician, a maverick whose last film “Assault on Precinct 13” was released by Yablans. This director’s name was John Carpenter. Yablans got in contact with John Carpenter to pitch him the idea. Carpenter liked the idea but he wanted complete creative control, and his name about the title. Yablans agreed. “The son a music teacher, Carpenter initially thought of following in his father’s footsteps. In fact, he still composes the scores for many of his own films. But instead of pursuing a career in music, he attended film school at the University of Southern California.”(Rock off) As a member of the Baby Boomer generation, Carpenter, along with others with names such as George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppela, and Steven Spielberg, was part of a group of film directors who finished film school in the 70’s, and then went out and revolutionized the Hollywood studio system. The first change Carpenter wanted to make was the title of the movie, and it was this new title that may have been the most integral part for the film’s success, for it seemed to strike a cord within the collective consciousness of the movie going public. The new title called forth images of ghosts, haunted houses, death, demons, and most importantly, evil. This new title was of course, Halloween. Yablans immediately liked the new title, and told Carpenter a story about how his creative vision for the film. “I grew up with radio, Inner Sanctum, Lights Out, radio horror shows. I think that’s why great writers came from that time, because you had to be descriptive…and I said I want it to be like a radio show. I want it to be spooky, scary, but leave much of it to the audience, and John, he got it. I mean, he understood that immediately. I think that one of the great successes of Psycho and The Exorcist was the anticipation. Hitchcock did that very well. “ Halloween was then filmed over the course of twenty days in the spring of 1978, mostly using Pasadena California to stand in for the fictional town of Haddonfield, Illinois. The way the film looks, with it’s crispness as well as the way Carpenter uses crane and dolly shots absolutely defies the fact that Halloween was made for very little money. Carpenter seems to have a talent for putting every single cent on screen, and the way this film was made has become the stuff of legend. For casting, Carpenter turned to his then girlfriend and longtime collaborator, Debra Hill. It was Hill who suggested they cast Jamie Lee Curtis in the role of level headed babysitter Laurie Strode. In Halloween: 20 Years of Terror, Hill says of learning that Jamie Lee was the daughter of Psycho actress Janet Leigh, "I knew casting Jamie Lee would be great publicity for the film because her mother was in Psycho." Halloween was Curtis' feature film debut and launched her career as a "scream queen" horror star. For the role of Dr Sam Loomis, Carpenter originally wanted either screen legends Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee, but both turned him down. For Carpenter, the real star of the movie was British actor Donald Pleasence, who plays Dr Loomis, the psychiatrist of the movie’s knife-wielding psychotic, Michael Myers. “He was the first star I’d worked with,” says Carpenter, “the first big one, and it terrified me. Donald agreed to be in it and I met him for lunch to talk about the movie. He said, 'Well, I don’t understand this script and I don’t understand my character, but my daughter is in a rock-and-roll band in London and she liked the music to your last film [Precinct 13], so that’s why I’m here.’ I thought, Jeez, but I came to be real close friends with him and he’s one of the funniest people when you get past what he needs as a person. I just loved Donald – I cast him as the president of the United States in Escape from New York, so you can tell how much I wanted him.” Casting an established actor such as Pleasence not only helped lend gravitas to the role of Doctor Loomis, but it also helped give Halloween a linchpin upon which the other actors got to hang around. Much like when the Salkinds cast Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando in Superman to support the then unknown Christopher Reeve, Carpenter does the same here by having a well known actor include in a group filled with young and inexperienced cast and crew Halloween (1978) begins on Halloween night in 1963. From a mobile first-person point of view shot created by cinematographer Dean Cundey's moving Panaglide camera, the heavy petting escapades of Judith Myers (Sandy Johnson) and her boyfriend (David Kyle) are seen by lurking eyes peering through a window. After an upstairs bedroom window goes dark, the unknown voyeur moves into the house, a hand seen reaching out and taking a large knife from a kitchen drawer. Pausing as the boyfriend leaves, the voyeur continues upstairs, putting on a Halloween mask, and entering Judith's room. She is seen topless in her underwear brushing her hair, the shot matted to indicate the mask, a perspective enhanced by the sound of breathing, an audio motif that recurs throughout the film. With a pan, the camera shifts the voyeur's gaze to the tell-tale signs of rumpled sheets on Judith's bed then back to Judith. She exclaims, "Michael," her voice providing an additional clue that she knows the voyeur: she does not sound frightened, only annoyed at an invasion of her privacy and minor offense to her modesty before he begins stabbing her with the knife. We soon discover that the voyeur-turned-murderer is Judith's six-year old brother, Michael, who had remained unseen during the opening mobile point of view shot. Revealing Michael's identity would have shattered the suspense since the perspective would no longer have seemed intrusive or dangerous. He could have been simply returning home from trick or treating, which his clown's costume implies.
The opening sequence, which ends with a crane shot lifting away from Michael as his parents discover him in the front yard, establishes a pattern in the film. When Michael stalks, there will either be more-or-less subjective point of view shots either from his perspective or from a series of deep focus shots that foreground Michael, in either the left or right corner of the frame, with Laurie or another potential victim positioned in the background, blithely unaware of being pursued. His movie made Carpenter a household name and with good reason. Carpenter's work is a large part of the movie's success. His steady-cam work would lend an eerie vibe to even the most normal scene. His use of long, wide shots make the audience unwilling participants in the voyeurism. Contrary to some criticisms of the time, it does not make one sympathize with the killer. The viewer is made nervous to be in such proximity to the viewpoint of the antagonist.
Carpenter also makes splendid use of the foreground, creating startles by having Myers suddenly loom into frame. The camera pans across, following the unsuspecting characters as they go about their business. Then it is revealed that Myers is nearby, watching them, waiting to strike with the same amount of otherworldly patience that he had sitting in an insane asylum until he decided it was time to escape. In Halloween the source of the fear is always Michael Myers. The viewer is keenly aware of his constant presence, and this keep the audience on the edge of their seat. Carpenter crafted the film in a way where any part of the screen could hide Michael Myers, any shot could be his point of view, and this keeps the viewer on edge, never knowing where or when the villain might attack next. Another striking aspect of Halloween is not the way it was filmed and edited, but also the way the score is used. Halloween’s once-heard-never-forgotten score was composed of a tune that Carpenter already had an idea in mind long before he started shooting the movie. “The main theme, the theme that people know the most, was something I’d thought of for years, and it comes out of my dad [a music professor] teaching me 5/4 time on a pair of bongos he bought me. I was just noodling on the piano to that beat and just played some octaves.” The score becomes symbolic of Myers himself, for much like the seemingly invincible killer, the music is always present, lurking in every corner, and since the audience now associates the music with Myers, it keeps them on the edge of their seats, always waiting for the scare to happen, adding to the tension of the movie. Each member of the young cast plays their parts to perfection, almost as if Carpenter cast them because of who they were as people, not how they acted. PJ Soles, who plays the part of bubble headed cheerleader Lynda, her dialogue filled to the brim with the word “totally”, with such enthusiasm that the audience absolutely buys into her character. When she is dispatched by Myers, Lynda has just finished making love to her boyfriend, who unbeknownst to her has just been killed by the silent killer, and she seems blissfully unaware that the shape wearing the blanket like a ghost is almost a head taller then her boyfriend, and it is this ignorance that costs Lynda her life. This sets up the finale of the movie, with Laurie going to her friend’s house to make sure that Lynda is ok, aware of the potential danger that may await her. When she finally encounters Myers, unlike every other woman in horror movies to this point, Laurie may scream in terror, but she also fights back, using her brains and whatever objects she can find handy as weapons to combat her attacker. The house becomes more of a funhouse with the bodies of Laurie’s friends placed in areas of the house for the frightened heroine to run into. However, Laurie is able to knock Myers down, using a knife and a coat hanger to the eye, and as she sits on the floor sobbing, we think the terror is finally over. Then Myers sits up. He starts stalking towards the unaware Laurie, and he is about to get his hands on her when Loomis appears, drawing his handgun which belches out six shots, slamming into Myers’ chest which knocks him off a two story balcony, dispatching Myers and finally ending this night of evil. However, when Loomis looks over the balcony we see that Myers’ body is gone, and Loomis looks right at the camera as if he knew this would happen. Early in the film, Loomis describes Myers as: “I met him, fifteen years ago; I was told there was nothing left; no reason, no conscience, no understanding; and even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, of good or evil, right or wrong. 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 realized that what was living behind that boy's eyes was purely and simply... evil.” After taking a knife to the neck, coat hanger to the eye, and six shots from a handgun into the chest before plummeting off a balcony only to get back up, we can see that Loomis is correct. Myers is not just a man who went crazy one night; he is pure evil, a force of nature that cannot be stopped. This force of nature can also describe the film’s success as well. Upon its release, Halloween was panned by critics. Pauline Kael wrote a scathing review in The New Yorker suggesting that "Carpenter doesn't seem to have had any life outside the movies: one can trace almost every idea on the screen to directors such as Hitchcock and Brian De Palma and to the Val Lewton productions.” However, it was a review by the Village Voice that helped Halloween start to gain momentum with the film public. The main critic for the Voice, Tom Allen said that Carpenter's camera work was "duplicitous hype" and "the most honest way to make a good schlock film.” This statement was mirrored by Roger Ebert as well. By the end of its theatrical run, Halloween had grossed $47,000,000, making it at the time the most profitable independent movie ever made. However, with the success of something that was truly original, that always seems to give birth to numerous imitators, and Halloween was no exception. The very basic formula of Halloween, teenagers are stalked by a masked killer and dispatched one by one until the final girl defeats the killer, using point of view shots, making sex a trigger for death, as well as having this all happen on a holiday, was duplicated almost verbatim with scores of films. These films, all now lumped under the category of “slashers” rarely ever strayed too far from the formula, and they all made a large profit. Movies like Friday the 13th, Prom Night, My Bloody Valentine, Graduation Day, Silent Night Deadly Night, and New Year’s Evil all jumped on the path that was trail blazed by Carpenter, for they all recognized that “Halloween employs filmic elements such as mise-en-scène, editing, cinematography, and sound as well as narration and the conventions of the slasher genre to cue the viewer to recognize the threat posed by the bad guy even as the good guys remain ignorant of that threat.(Wood.)” It is because of not just the film’s success, but due to all of the imitators that followed, as well as giving birth to a whole new sub genre of horror, these all make Halloween one of the single most influential movies ever made.

Reference: Rockoff, Adam. Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, 1978-1986. Jefferson, NC: McFarland &, 2002. Print.

Wood, Robin. "Return of the Repressed." Film Comment 14, no. 4 (1978): 25-32.

Akkad, Malek(Producer), Hutchinson, Steven, (Director). (2006). Halloween: 25 Years of Terror(Motion Picture) USA: Anchor Bay

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