Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, March 17, 2013

Director Report Card: John Carpenter (1978) Part 2

4. Halloween

Let’s seriously talk about “Halloween” for a moment. Not a lot happens for the majority of the picture. You have that iconic opening before going to an equally good beginning and then… Girl talk! Not to say that the characters of Laurie, Annie, and Lynda are unlikable. Truthfully, they are a fairly well realized group and each actor is very good in the part. I know Debra Hill talked about making sure the girl talk was authentic sounding. Nobody’s really spellbinding and you get the impression that each actor was just playing a character close to their personality. Jaime Lee might be the iconic one, but my heart will always belong to P.J. Soles, who is immediately likeable, even with all that “totally.” And what the hell ever happened to Nancy Loomis? Their is a certain naturalistic charm to the three girl's performances.

Another thing I’ll point out about this movie is just how loose its script is. You have people doing stuff at one house, Michael kills them, waits around for the next people, kills them, before someone else wanders into his zone, and then he sets off to kill them. Meanwhile, Dr. Loomis stands around, idling, waiting for when the script needs him to say something spooky or throw out some exposition until the very end where he shows up to save Laurie Strode’s ass. A lot of discussion has been made about the ambiguity of this flick but, let’s stop kidding ourselves, some parts are just underwritten. I’ll give Carpenter The Shape’s naturally existing, explanation free evil, but some of the other stuff is just thin.

If you’ll allow me to wander off into film theory land for a moment… Yeah, yeah, all the other slashers ripped off “Halloween” but Laurie Strode doesn’t do shit. It was the rip-offs that really came up with the idea of the final girl rising up against her male attacker and saving her own life. I’ll give her credit for surviving so long but, if not for Loomis, both movies would’ve had a way more downer ending.

I know you must think I hate the movie now but I don’t. Despite all of the aforementioned issues, “Halloween” is a classic for a reason. There is a genuine sense of dread throughout. The first act doesn't so much drag as builds, adding to the tension with each new hint or glimpse. Michael Myers might be the most famous slasher but he’s really more lurk, less hurt in this first movie. Like any predator, he spends the day watching his prey, observing their habits. After night falls, when his powers grow, he attacks, isolating and picking everyone off one by one. I can’t remember who first compared The Shape to the shark in “Jaws,” but the comparison is apt. The scene of Michael carrying Annie’s body around the Doyle house is where dread really hits me for the first time. When little Tommy sees something he shouldn’t. That is the boogie-tales and camp fire stories, the unspoken rules that define our culture.

The old movies playing on the TV throughout the film is probably just Carpenter being cute, but I can’t help but wonder if he’s being just a tad post-modern there, as if comparing the fictional evil of space aliens with the actual evil of psychotic killers. The film, in general, resist any sort of sociological reading. The director has denied the conservative religious angle frequently applied to this and other slasher films. Instead, the film is deeply rooted in middle America, suburban urban legend. The house everyone goes out of their way to avoid... The boogiemen and monsters that lurk in the shadows... I maintain that this is one of the reasons the film was such a huge success, why it resonated so strongly across the pop culture landscape. "Halloween" shares a common experience, horror stories any one can relate too.

And of course the last act is just ball-to-the-walls intensity. Yes, we all know that Myers is going to get back up each time, but the combination of the dark direction, the world famous music, and Ms. Curtis’ desperate performance make it scary, even after a hundred viewings. Carpenter's visual layout has to be commended as well. Frequently emulated, never topped, the scene of Myers rising up from the floor right over Laurie's shoulder is still chilling. Myers' mask is blank, suggesting the lack of a face, the lack of personality. It's an old trick, employed all the time in the horror genre, but rarely is it this effective. Or maybe the mask was just picked because it pops out of the darkness all the time.

I make fun of Dr. Loomis’ function in the script, but, seriously, what a great character. It probably wouldn’t have worked with anybody but Donald Pleasence. (Though Carpenter’s first choice of Christopher Lee makes me wonder…) He makes Sam’s histrionic, melodramatic dialogue a reinforcement of his status as the knower of evil. I especially like the underpinnings that the doctor is just as crazy and obsessed as his murderous patient.

And that ending… Forget all the sequels. Forget how derivative the open ended horror finale is, for a minute. Those last shots are brilliant. By showing all of the areas where the madness had taken place, combined with that throbbing score and the heavy breathing, the evil of Michael Myers suddenly goes from an isolated event to an infectious virus polluting the world. Perhaps the real testament to the power of “Halloween” is that it remains effective despite being the most famous, and possibly most ripped-off, horror movie in the world. [Grade: A]

1 comment:

Jack Thursby said...

Never noticed that before but you're right. Although Laurie is the original 'final girl' she doesn't have many of the hallmarks. She's pretty ineffectual at fighting Myers at the end (though I'll admit I wouldn't have thought to jab a coat hanger in his eye). It was only in the subsequent rip-offs that the 'final girl' became more proactive.

Didn't know Carpenter wanted Christopher Lee for Loomis! That would have been interesting but I don't think it would have topped Pleasance - he does hysterics so well. Part of what I think remains enduring about his performance is that he's such an unlikely looking hero. He's balding, short and slightly chubby whereas Lee, famously, is very tall.