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Monday, May 11, 2009

Rediscovering Halloween

It's become something of a custom in my family ever since we moved out to Connecticut, that whenever my sister pays us a visit from the "old neighborhood" (where Brooklyn at?), I will sit her down, after the kids have been put to bed, and we will watch a horror movie. Usually one she has never seen or one we mutually love. And in the case of last night, with my sis in town for weekend Mother's Day festivities, the choice happened to be none other than John Carpenter's Halloween.

Let me preface this by saying--and I warn those of you with delicate constitutions ahead of time--that my sister had never seen the original film, only the Rob Zombie remake. Let me also say that she came over accompanied by my well-meaning dad, who looked me dead in the eye, and declared beforehand that he preferred Friday the 13th. After allowing the agony of those two pronouncements to wash over me, I calmed myself, and got down to the business of showing both of them the errors of their ways.

I explained it the way Halloween-lovers the world over have always explained it to the uninitiated. How this film is head and shoulders above anything else that followed in the slasher subgenre it spawned. How it's closer to the work of Alfred Hitchcock than the work of Sean Cunningham. Then I dimmed the lights, popped in the disc, politely informed everyone to shut the hell up, and let Carpenter and Debra Hill's masterwork speak for itself.

My sister was immediately struck by the shocking nature of the opening scene, particularly for its time. She did also mention that the reaction of young Michael's sister to being stabbed to death probably leaves a tiny bit to be desired, which I couldn't argue with.

But after having seen only Zombie's version, she was definitely riveted from beginning to end, pointing out how the remake was more polished, yet lacked the sustained atmosphere of suspense and dread. It was also worth noting the completely different objectives of both directors. While John Carpenter sought to shroud "The Shape" in mystery, adding to his mythic nature by providing minimal info, Rob Zombie quite obviously chose to humanize him and explore his backstory, making the movie more "about" Michael and less "about" Michael's actions.

It's also worth mentioning that I discovered several things about the picture by paying extra special attention to it last night:

1. Donald Pleasance is God. Yes, I know, this is no new discovery. But I can't get over how much he brings to the movie, what a levl of gravitas he adds. The man is the gravitational center of the film. His monologues to the police chief in particular are among the finest to be found in any horror movie, ever. Also, it's fascinating to notice that he actually does next to nothing in the movie, acting more like a Greek chorus--until the very end, when he takes swift action and draws the plot to and end (sort of...)

2. Jamie Lee Curtis is in a league of her own. Amazingly, this is the first motion picture appearance of Janet Leigh's daughter, and she knocks it out of the park with a subtle, nuanced and thoroughly convincing performance that defines the "final girl" trope for all time to come. I also noticed that, in comparison to her, both Nancy Loomis and, yes, P.J. Soles (sorry, BJ-C!) are quite laughable in their acting chops. Just about '70s porno level. I expected P.J. in particular to shout out, "Oh, Mr. Greenfield!" at any moment.

3. Michael is far from the average slasher. He drives a car. He patiently stalks his prey. His actions infer thought, logic, and even a sick sense of humor (ie. the infamous bedsheet scene). Clearly, Mr. Myers is light years ahead of Pamela Voorhees lumbering clod of a son, that's for sure! Nick Castle's silent performance is actually a thing of beauty.

4. There is almost no violence until the final act. And oh yeah, almost NO blood. Pretty amazing. The amount of restraint Carpenter shows in building the tension is impressive in the extreme. In the classic horror tradition, its all about the anticipation. And then the movie explodes into an orgasm of intense terror as Michael puts his violent fantasies into motion at last. Brilliant filmmaking, with some damn fine camera work by Dean Cundey.

5. Easily one of the most ripped off movies of all time. Unfortunately, Halloween suffers because it is viewed by some through the lens of the films its inspired, rather than vice versa. It's riddled by so many of the cliches we've come to know and love in these types of movies: the unstoppable killer, the false deaths, the final girl's discovery of all the bodies, the head tilt, etc. But it cannot be stressed enough that in 1978 these were largely original devices. We do the film a disservice by judging it from the wrong angle.

And so, as the end credits kicked in to Carpenter's thrillingly terrifying theme music, I turned to my misguided family members in triumph. You see, Halloween is one of those horror movies a lot of people seem to take for granted, and its awesomeness is often not appreciated enough (despite its being voted the number one horror flick of all time by the "Cyber-Horror Elite"). Casual fans will choose to judge it based on qualifiers other than their actual memory of the film itself. And that's when you have to shake them out of their misconceptions and remind them exactly why John Carpenter and Debra Hill were true horror visionaries.

Mission accomplished.


RayRay said...

I recently saw Zombie's Halloween remake. I like Zombie's other two films a lot, so I didn't go in with the usual dread that comes with seeing unnecessary remakes. I was pleasantly surprised that it was interesting, and very not bad.

But it does not hold a candle to the original, and you laid out many of the reasons why.

Halloween is like that influential rock band [wow, second music reference for me today] that everyone else rips off for a generation. See: Led Zeppelin. All that came after it came because of it.

Not to mention I am a HUGE John Carpenter fan, what, with like 4-5 other totally awesome flicks under his belt, plus others.

Therefore, well met, my good man, and glad you corrected your family.

Wings1295 said...

Great post on a great film. Carpenter's "Halloween" is my all-time favorite film, from any genre. I love it.

So much is subtle. What he does show you is enough for your brain, your imagination, to fill in the rest and scare the crap out of yourself. Truly masterful.

I think Zombie totally missed the point with his "remake". And the more I hear about his sequel, (and the quotes and sound bites from him are NOT lacking), the less I care for whatever he ends up producing.

Anonymous said...

"Easily one of the most ripped off movies of all time." While I do agree with that statement (and please forgive me as I am just playing Devil's Advocate here. I love the original Halloween and watch it every October 31st) but didn't 'Halloween' rip off 'Black Christmas'? I watched 'Black Christmas' for the first time last year after hearing so many good things about it. It's not the greatest movie ever, but I was still pretty blown away by it. Extremely suspenseful from beginning to end, much like 'Halloween' and the similarities don't end there yet 'Halloween' gets all the credit for starting the Slasher sub-genre. Perhaps you could write a short entry on this much forgotten and overlooked classic?

John said...

Though it's been said countless times, Halloween really is the archetypal slasher. Psycho, Black Christmas, and to a degree some of the giallos laid the groundwork, but Halloween is a true slasher film. Everything about it works, and it's genuinely frightening even today. However, it is not my favorite slasher. I think it's a far better film than Friday the 13th or any of it's sequels, but I absolutely love F13, probably quite a bit more so. I love F13 for different reasons.

Wings1295 said...

John, I love the "F13" films, as well, but differently than "Halloween".

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