Monday, October 31, 2011

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #13: Halloween

The problem with writing about a film as influential, much-imitated and downright iconic as ‘Halloween’ is trying to find something to say about it that hasn’t already been said. I could probably jot down a quick bullet-point checklist along the lines of:

  • The subjective, prowling POV of the opening scene
  • Dean Cundey’s cinematography
  • Carpenter’s own score (minimalism at its eeriest)
  • Pre-David Lynch Lynchian small town vibe
  • Now you see Michael, now you don’t (repeat to increasingly nerve-shredding effect throughout the film then roll out as a horribly inevitable coda)
  • Authentically buttock-clenching scare scenes
  • The old ‘supposedly dead person out of focus in the background suddenly sits up’ routine done better than anywhere else in the history of scary movies
  • The final girl sequence par excellence

… and it’d suffice. It’d certainly tick half a dozen or so of the boxes that make ‘Halloween’ a classic. But it wouldn’t touch on any of the things that make the film work on a primal level. Such as how much of it takes place in darkness, from Dr Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) being driven through the grounds of an asylum in a nocturnal deluge, the wash of headlights illuminating the shambolic figures of inmates roaming around on the loose, to Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) fleeing the house she’s babysitting at into a street so deserted and devoid of sanctuary that it seems like she’s in a ghost town. Both of these scenes are shot through with the fractured and panicky immediacy of a nightmare.

Or the juxtaposition of the wide pavements and long avenues of Haddonfield with the tight interiors, characters continually trapped with the framework of doorways, windows, stairwells, corridors and – in one of the film’s most justifiably famous moments – a closet. And in both of these milieus, the implacable and seemingly unmotivated Michael Myers. A presence, a threat, a great hulking white-masking thing. Other horror movie antagonists benefit (or suffer, this latter usually exacerbated by sequilitis) from a personality, or at least some defining characteristic – from the overt theatrics and cheesy one-liners of Freddy Krueger to the grungy backwoods psychosis of Leatherface. Michael Myers – in this film at least; the sequels make the mistake of plumbing his backstory further than the simple act of childhood evil that kicks off Carpenter’s original – is basically a faceless, emotionless, unstoppable killing machine. Who thinks nothing of digging up his mother’s gravestone for use in a macabre little tableau.

And for this reason, Michael Myers is one of the great horror icons. He disturbs even when he’s doing nothing. Dude steps out silently behind a hedge to watch the retreating form of Laurie. Goosebumps. Dude stands motionless outside a window watching a girl disrobe. Hairs on the back of the neck moment. Dude drives past a school, driving real slow, keeping pace with a young boy walking home on his own. Squirmy sense of agitation. And when he does start getting his homicidal funk on, the absolute detachment he acts with is genuinely unsettling. Having knifed someone so viciously he leaves their body pinioned against a door, he stands there turning his head from side to side as if trying to figure out the meaning of a particularly obscure art gallery installation.

Best of all, though, is John Carpenter’s intuitive sense of pacing, his canny handling of the material. He knows to strip away everything from the narrative that’s extraneous. To keep things utterly simple. To set up a handful of characters, let them plan out their Halloween celebrations (whether they’re earning a little extra money babysitting or taking the opportunity to cop off with their dates) and then send Michael Myers on his unhurried but bloodily purposeful way right into the centre of their lives.


Kev D. said...

Good call on Carpenter's score. His scores don't ALWAYS work, but in this one, it is insanely effective.

Neil Fulwood said...

Thanks for the comment, Kev. You're right: some of Carpenter's scores are quite generic, recycling old themes. For me, his two best were 'Halloween' and 'Assault on Precinct 13'.