Monday, October 31, 2011

The Night HE Came Home!

Director: John Carpenter
Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasance, Nancy Loomis

Enormously successful independent film from director John Carpenter, set a standard for the genre that is still being felt to this day, for better or worse. Halloween is a legitimately effective film, practically a how-to guide in how to make a scary picture. Despite it's reputation as being very bloody and violent, like Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre(1974), the horror is suggested rather than shown, a reason why this film still retains the power to terrify today.

Several films helped invent the slasher film, including the work of Mario Bava and Dario Argento, and certainly Bob Clark's Black Christmas(1974), but this one had the most far-reaching impact. It led to numerous sequels and rip-offs, almost all of them terrible and inferior versions of Carpenter's original. The difference in Carpenter's initial vision is taste and intelligence, which many of the future films could have profited by.

The film opens to one of the most unforgettable and chilling horror themes ever, as composed by director Carpenter. It's amazing how simple and effective those opening credits are, complete with grotesque grinning pumpkin. As a child, I found this very unsettling, mainly due to the score and the fact that all that was on the screen was that damn pumpkin. What follows is one of the great opening scenes in a horror movie as a killer lurks through a house, and we the audience, see his perspective. He murders a beautiful woman and goes outside, where he is unmasked, and he turns out to be a six year old child!

Jump ahead fourteen years and we find the child grown up, still a resident of an insane asylum. He is to be transported to another institution by his doctor(Donald Pleasance), who believes that he is pure evil. The maniac escapes and comandeers his car and drives off into the night, en route to his old hometown. There we are introduced to a group of high school girls, including Jamie Lee Curtis in her first role as Laurie Strode. Unlike later slasher films, the young women here are realistically depicted and likeable, which bears more on the plot. Carpenter builds the tension subtly with Laurie claiming to see a strange figure staring at her(the killer is called, "The Shape" in the credits for a reason), but she's not sure if he's for real. She has to babysit some children on Halloween, who proceed to watch The Thing(1951) and Forbidden Planet(1956)! As the girls go off on dates, the killer stalks them and begins to murder them one by one. The Doctor arrives in town and tries to warn the Sheriff(Charles Cyphers), but is afraid of a panic. Pleasance is great in this, but is real perfection when he has that monlouge about the killer, known as Michael Myers, and his supposed evil intent. He also has the film's finest moment when he scares a bunch of kids that are spying in on Michael's old house.

The body count tallies up and soon the children(who have mentioned a fear of the boogeyman earlier) tell Laurie that the boogeyman is outside. She goes to investigate and finds her friends dead and runs into the killer who stalks her outside and into her home. Despite being stabbed and beaten, he proves unkillable and continues to return in several tense moments, particularly when Laurie is stuck in a closet. In the final struggle, Laurie unmasks the killer, who reveals his "bland, pale, emotionless face" before the Doctor arrives and empties a 357. magnum into the fiend and sends him flying out of a second story window. In a great ending, Curtis asks Pleasance, "Was that the boogeyman?" and Pleasance answers, "As a matter of fact, that was", before looking over the ledge and finding the killer gone.

Halloween is a masterful horror picture, Carpenter in complete control of creating a truly frightening cinematic experience. Despite the low budget, Halloween remains a professional and well-made film that begs repeat viewings. Unlike other contemporary horrors that have become over-anthologized to the point of tedium, ultimately lessening their impact, Halloween is still effective and deserving of such critical praise. The largely amateur cast are all excellent and sympathetic, a soon to be rare quality in the modern horror film. Curtis' strong willed heroine set a standard for the horror film heroine, while also proving her worth as an actress. Her character gains the audience's sympathy almost instantly and she never resorts to being either a bimbo or an action hero, like in today's films. She gives a credible performance and part of the reason why the film terrifies is because we care for her character. Her friends, played by P.J. Soles and Nancy Loomis, are likewise very good, bringing a warmth and charm to their roles that remind one eerily of High School days long past.

The anchor to the film's dramatic power is veteran actor Donald Pleasance who makes the role of Dr. Loomis, his own. Originally offered to both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, but subsequently turned down, Loomis plays like a modern day Van Helsing, determined to erradicate evil, even if no one really believes him. That's the power of his role that we the audience are not so sure, either and think that Michael Myers may be nothing more than a run of the mill lunatic. That's the reason why that ending is so bonechilling, as Loomis looks over the balcony and we realize that he was right and that Michael Myers really is the boogeyman! It's just plain unforgettable and remains long in the memory, like good horror should.

Several memorable vignettes occur throughout the picture, the most effective being the most subtle. Images of Myers appearing from behind a bush and stalking a young boy on his way from school are really unnerving, and of course, that entire "haunted house" segment at the end, when Laurie discovers her friends and the killer are very frightening. Later films imitated much of this, but none failed to recapture what was done here. The film was a massive global success and led to several sequels, which got increasingly sillier and more pointless. Initially the concept was to have the series be about different stories for each Halloween, but the failure of the third film saw an end to this concept. The film was remade in 2007, none too effectively either, in what has to be one of the all-time worst genre remakes. Rob Zombie directed in typical hack fashion, with little logic or subtlety, emphasizing the backstory of Michael Myers, a truly poor plot device. This completely missed the point of Carpenter's vision where the killer was seen as a force of nature and did not need motive or explanation. He just was and explaining his murderous actions lessened the impact considerably.

Halloween is a landmark film, uneffected by the years of imitation, carving a niche for itself as a classic horror film in the tradition of the original masterpieces of old. Carpenter would make many fine horror films throughout his career, but this early work remains the pinnacle. One of the twenty greatest films in the genre's history, this is an essential viewing for Halloween, it's also an essential for any time of the year when you need a good scare. So, when Michael comes home October 31st, invite him in and enjoy the atmosphere. Just remember that if you get to close to that Myers house, get your ass away from there.

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