Your Memory Is a Monster
Of the many horror movies I watched growing up, I remember two scenes with absolute clarity. First, the scene in A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, where the gearhead chick gets turned into a roach and squished inside a roach motel. Bad, right? Gave me a fear of roaches that has lasted my entire life, in spite of the fact that it was quite possibly the dumbest thing I've ever seen in a horror movie, outside of the compact disc Cenobite in Hellraiser III. The second continues to shape much of my inclinations when it comes to horror, and that's the closet scene from Halloween, John Carpenter's legendary 1978 masterpiece. I don't think anything scared me more as a child than seeing Jamie Lee Curtis squirm around in terror on the closet floor as Michael Myers shattered the door. But why is Halloween underappreciated? Because it goes largely unrecognized by mainstream filmgoers as the source of many of their favorite tropes and as the major influence it continues to be on film as a whole. The elements that make Halloween the film that it is can be seen not only horror films released since, but have insidiously wound up in the strangest of places. Films like Apollo 13, where tight interior shots echo the claustrophobia extant in the aforementioned closet scene (largely due to the influence of cinematographer Dean Cundey, who worked with Carpenter on Halloween, as well as the original Assault on Precinct 13 and Escape From New York). Or Schindler's List, a film where John Williams, for once, foregoes his normally overdeveloped scoring and opts for a simplicity that not only complements the film but enhances its sadness and brutality.
For the uninitiated, Halloween tells the story of Laurie Strode (Curtis), teenage babysitter and established good girl, and her eventual run-in with Michael Myers in the fictional town of Haddonfield, Illinois, on Halloween night. Myers, a plodding methodical psychopath who has escaped from a mental institution after 15 years, stalks Laurie throughout the course of the film, all the while killing her friends, their boyfriends, and assorted other minor cast members. The film culminates in an unwilling showdown, as Laurie attempts to protect her young babysitting charges. Written by Carpenter and Debra Hill and directed by Carpenter, Halloween is by no means a perfect film. The script has some issues, and pretty bold ones at that. Most of the supporting cast is, sadly, poor at best and painful at worst. But the film's assets far outweigh its detriments.
The opening sequence, in which a young Michael Myers murders his sister on Halloween night 1963, immediately makes clear one of the great strengths of the film: its blissfully spare combination of cinematography and music. Using point-of-view shots and the swelling notes of a theme of his own composing, Carpenter firmly establishes within the viewer a sense of dread as young Mike brutally stabs his sister. It is this feeling that carries the action in the beginning of the film, through Myers' escape and the development of circumstances that bring him and Laurie together. The rising action, while maintaining the tone and look of the opening sequence, is unfortunately also where the writing and acting suffer the most. Particularly painful are the scenes involving Laurie's best friend and fellow babysitter, Annie (Nancy Loomis), and another friend Lynda (PJ Soles), which are the clumsiest of the film. Fortunately, Carpenter threads this initial narrative with occasional glimpses of Michael as he stalks Laurie through Haddonfield. In one such instance -- one of the best scenes in the film -- Laurie is walking home from school and glances back to see Myers standing on the sidewalk at the end of a hedge. With a second glance he is gone, and Laurie walks slowly back to investigate. As wind-stirred leaves whip around her ankles, the music builds as she approaches the hedge, coming to a jangled and discordant halt, revealing nothing. It's effective because we identify with Laurie's curiosity overcoming her fear enough to look behind the hedge, and the initial parts of the film work because of small moments like this one.
Another saving grace of the initial action is Dr. Sam Loomis, Myers' doctor at Smith's Grove Sanitarium, played by Donald Pleasance. Pleasance, working for next to nothing on a very tight shooting schedule, brings just enough mad doctor to Dr. Loomis that it elevates the performance past cheesy gravitas. His blustery speeches and doomsday pronouncements somehow manage to avoid pomposity and self importance, instead coming across as borne out of tightly controlled terror. Pleasance also elevates those around him, seen most particularly in Curtis' performance in the latter half of the film. The mad panic as Laurie attempts to protect herself and her young charges is mirrored by a frantic Loomis, knowing that Michael is out there and even then suspecting that nothing can really be done to stop him. There is no more gripping scene than that of Loomis peering over the second story balcony, and, seeing only the patch of ground where Michael landed after their final confrontation, beginning to yell, the jagged panic evident in his voice.
What makes Halloween stand out, beyond being one of the most beautifully shot films of the last half a century, and what delineates between good horror and bad, is what Carpenter leaves up to the imagination. Blood on the cutting board of an old woman after Myers steals her knife, the dead-eyed gaze of a strangled babysitter. These are the images that Carpenter uses to transform unease into dread. While gore is not something that those that came before and after shied away from, Carpenter uses the distinct lack of viscera to maximum effectiveness, forcing every bead of sweat and every panicky whimper out of the viewer. The end result is as satisfying as the bright blood of any gaillo masterpiece, or the swirl of Janet Leigh's life down the shower drain in Psycho.
While considered one of the preeminent examples of modern horror filmmaking, Halloween, and more importantly Carpenter himself, deserves far more credit. Borrowing liberally from several genres, Carpenter created a synthesis that would in short order become the slasher genre. But unlike its influences, which include Italian gaillo, Hitchcock, and horror productions from years previous, such as The Last House on the Left and Black Christmas, Halloween managed to rise above it inherent limitations and create a style of film that, when done well, speaks to us. Films like Halloween thrill us because while we the viewer see an unkillable evil approaching, the protagonists see very little, humanizing them to a certain extent, even helping to maintain the suspension of disbelief. They remind us of what it was like to be that child, dreading the sunset on Halloween night. After all, we'd all like to think that we would figure out who the killer is, defeat the monstrous evil, and save, at the very least, our own asses. Deep down though, we know we're just as helpless as Laurie Strode, bumbling along until we finally see the handiwork of our own boogeyman.
Henry Britt is a writer from Houston who likes coffee and laughing at the misfortunes of others, in that order. You can email him or leave a comment below.