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REVIEW:Two young teens head upstairs, their flirting on the sofa pressing them to go a little further and explore each other alone in her bedroom. From a window outside, the camera shifts and sweeps as it tries to keep up with the couple, clearly the eyes of a prowler or someone more nefarious spying on the lovers. As they head up, the unseen stalker–the camera acting as his eyes, with us seeing just what he sees–uses the cover of a deep ebony night to enter that back of the house. He pulls a large butcher knife from a kitchen drawer and slowly weaves his way to the stairwell. There, the frisky young man decides he should go, slipping on his shirt, bidding the girl goodnight and exiting. In shadow, the intruder waits, and then moves silently into the darkened second floor where he slips on a clown mask from the floor. He walks into the young woman’s room where she sits topless in front of a mirror, brushing her hair. She is unafraid of “us” as we move closer. She says, “Michael” and then, suddenly, the knife plunges. She screams and tumbles to the floor in a bloody mess. We run down and out of the house where we are met by a man and woman who seem to know us. At last, the camera separates from our point of view and it is revealed “we” are actually a very young boy dressed as a clown, gripping the crimson blade.
So begins John Carpenter’s classic slasher masterpiece, one of the most successful independent films of all time and not the horror gore-fest its many sequels have led most to believe it really is. A taunt psychological thriller that has led to decades of debate about its meaning and message. Far from the perceived teen slasher film it is often pigeon-holed into (though its follow-ups certainly defined the tropes of the genre) the original is deserving of its inclusion in the National Film Registry and is a must see for any film fan.
Scene Setup: It is fifteen years later and Michael Myers, the boy killer now grown up, has escaped the ward where was under the psychiatric care of Dr. Samuel Loomis (Donald Pleasence.) He returns to the hometown and begins stalking the pretty high school student Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis), who looks a little like his murdered sister. While she is convinced she is being followed her friends don’t believe, and they pay the price, each killed by the heavy-breathing, now masked killer. He’s got Laurie trapped in a house where she thinks she has already killed him with a large knitting needle. Little does she know . . .
Why it matters: Pretty much any modern horror slasher film owes a debt to this moment. A suburban home, a perky young teen girl, a relentless killer, stairs . . . it’s all here and done to perfection. These days, films are so slickly produced, layered endlessly with immaculate lighting, special effects, music and actors and actresses so stunningly beautiful, they exist far outside the realm of reality. John Carpenter’s Halloween feels urgent and grounded. The camera seems unsure, as do we, and the action is purposefully uneven, leaving us a little disoriented. Perspectives shift constantly and there is a murky hurried tension throughout. It set standard for future slashers, even though most of the tropes wouldn’t really begin until the sequels. It rests in our minds as a horror film with tremendous gore and violence, yet, in a testament to Carpenter’s direction, there is surprisingly little on screen, almost all of it in the opening kill.
More: Most revealing in the film is the use of a first person perspective, where the audience becomes the killer. Not new of course. Hitchcock did it in Psycho. But right from the opening shot, we sit uncomfortably behind the eyes of Michael Myers. It has raised a lot of debate about voyeurism and audience participation in violence. But that is the point really, as there is nearly no violence. It is what we think we saw that sticks with us. The killer is also an enigma, which further heightens the tension. Who is he? Why is he as he is? The film wonderfully avoids answering, leaving it to Dr. Loomis to famously reply about whether Myers, “it” really was the bogeyman, “As a matter of fact, it was.” Myers is pure evil, and has the second most memorable scary breathing outside of Darth Vader.
Jamie Lee Curtis was a TV actress when cast in Halloween. The film would make her an international celebrity and begin a short turn as the world’s most famous scream queen. Arguably the first “final girl” in slasher/horror films–a female sole survivor who vanquishes the killer, typically virginal or innocent, not partaking in the immoral behavior of her friends–Laurie is a model for all future hero girls in the genre. But perhaps more interesting, and a fact that certainly helped in marketing the film, was Curtis’s mother, Janet Leigh, most known for her onscreen death in the shower of the Bates Motel, one of cinema’s most celebrated scenes. (Carpenter pays homage to Psycho in many ways, including naming the psychiatrist Samuel Loomis, the same name as Marion’s boyfriend in Psycho).
Speaking of Donald Pleasance, he was most notable for his role as über villain Ernst Blofeld in the James Bond film You Only LiveTwice. It was a big coupe for Carpenter to land Pleasance considering the movie was extremely low budget and being independently produced. He brought a certain authenticity to the film and while he has limited screen time, he leaves a strong impression.
Naturally, we come to “The Shape” as he is credited in the film. That is Michael Myers as an adult. While we understand right from the opening that something is way off about the boy, it is as a grown up that we come to realize that there is something more about him than just his slashy personality. Countless theories exist about who or what he is and represents, from social commentary on the debauchery of teen life to the Devil incarnate to the darkness of men’s souls. They are all dismissed by Carpenter. Perhaps we read too much into the credit listing, as it has been noted that “shape” was a placeholder in the script for how Myers appeared first on screen when emerging from the dark. It is still a fitting title, though, and allows us to fill in that shape with our own terrible and personal meanings. It is also telling that The Shape is unable to kill Laurie, the innocent girl throughout the film. There are scenes where it seems impossible for him NOT to cut her up, but he misses his mark every time. That may be the point though. There remains a balance in nature, timeless as any story every written, spoken, watched or read, that evil and good are in an eternal struggle. That may be why, at the end of the film, despite being mortally shot and fallen from a second floor balcony, after Loomis double checks where Myers fell, the body has disappeared. The bogeyman lives on.
Lastly, we can’t talk about Halloween without giving a nod to Carpenter’s now classic score, which he also wrote. The theme is now a staple in horror music and is as iconic as the music you hear when you think of a great white shark. Creepy and mesmerizing, it has an other-worldly feel and perfectly creates a sense of dread.
While we’re no fans of the sequels, the original remains a chilling and thought-provoking work of art, and a natural addition to any scary movie list. Lots of spine-tingling moments and some genuine frights along the way, the film invites a deeper look and inspires conversation, especially when Laurie faces off again The Shape.