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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Retro Review: Halloween (1978)

"I met him fifteen years ago. I was told there was nothing left. No reason, no conscience, no understanding; even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, good or evil, right or wrong. I met this six-year-old child, with this blank, pale, emotionless face and, the blackest eyes... the Devil's eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up, because I realized what was living behind that boy's eyes was purely and simply... evil."

What more appropriate time to take a special look at John Carpenter's masterwork than this week, right? I don't know about you, but around this time of year, I pretty much walk around with that iconic theme music playing constantly in my head. And "The Shape", Michael Myers? A movie monster that can hold his own with the best of 'em.

The original Halloween spawned a huge movement, an explosion of slasher flicks about mindless killers, masked or otherwise--with Friday the 13th being the most obvious copycat of the bunch. Yet just as decades of rock bands have tried in vain to be Led Zeppelin, so does Halloween stand head and shoulders above any of the wannabes that came later (including its own sequels).

Unlike the majority of schlocky slashers, Halloween contains a mind-wrenching level of suspense, and very little gore. It's direct inspiration seems to be Hitchcock more than anything else, as can most obviously be seen thanks to the name of Michael's nemesis, Sam Loomis, a moniker lifted directly from Psycho. We also have, in the lead role of Laurie Strode, one Jamie Lee Curtis, daughter of Psycho's Marion Crane, a.k.a. Janet Leigh.

Along with co-writer and paramour Debra Hill, Carpenter crafted a fine tale whose impact should not be allowed to diminish because of all the inferior stuff that came after it. The Shape is absolutely terrifying by simple virtue of the fact that he is faceless, unknowable evil. This is one of the reasons why Carpenter's original outshines Rob Zombie's competent remake--Michael's utter lack of humanity.

As his counterpoint, we have the intense and commanding Donald Pleasance as the doctor who knows the murderer better than anyone else. The stage-trained British thespian Pleasance brought a respectability and gravitas to the film, and his is far and away the finest dramatic performance in the picture. He almost serves as a Greek chorus, doing nothing more than warning the other characters and the audience of the danger that's in store. In fact, his only action occurs in the climax of the movie.

Jamie Lee Curtis originates the concept of the "final girl" in the role that made her a star--the virginal Laurie. She is the epitome of the scream queen, evincing purity, evoking vulnerability, and putting over the abject terror that surrounds her. Yet in a twist which would forever define this type of role, she finds the strength within herself to face up to the monster. It's powerful stuff to this day.

That said, it needs to be pointed out that the majority of the rest of the acting in this flick is right about at '70s porno levels. I was surprised, in fact, after my recent re-viewing of the original F13, to find that for the most part,the young people in that movie were a cut above, acting-wise. P.J. Soles and rest of Michael's future victims are clumsy and broad in their performances, but we forgive them for it, because the tableau in which Carpenter has placed them is so powerful that it doesn't even matter.

It's all about the technique here. Carpenter and his cinematographer, future Speilberg and Zemeckis favorite Dean Cundey, craft some amazing sequences, most famously the opening POV shot that pulls you in right from the word go and informs you that this is no ordinary teenager slice-and-dice. And in a taut suspense film like this, due credit must also be given to the guys in the cutting room--Carpenter's editors Charles Bornstein and Tommy Lee Wallace (later director of Halloween III) deserve some recognition for this veritable symphony of nail-biting fear.

More than a person, Michael is a force of nature, the embodiment of not so much what I would call "evil" perhaps, as a completely amoral sociopathy. There is no anger or hatred within The Shape (another misstep of Zombie's); he simply exists to end the lives of others. Almost the Grim Reaper himself. The mask, that brilliant touch infamously crafted from one of Captain Kirk, presents us with a truly blank, empty killer. He is an entity, coming and going at will, virtually impervious to physical harm. (I always wondered whether or not it was wise for Carpenter & Hill to have him drive a car, as this implied a certain level of higher reasoning. Still, it does make for a bizarre and unsettling image, doesn't it?)

By synthesizing Hitchcock and crossing him with the '70s grindhouse aesthetic, Carpenter was able to create what might even be called the "purest" horror film of the modern era--which in turn set in motion a wave of influence which we are still feeling. Some would even call it the greatest horror movie of all time, as can be evidenced by its number-one ranking by the "Cyber-Horror Elite". I sincerely hope that reading this has put a lot of you in the mood to relive this immortal classic--hurry up, before the season is passed. Watch it one more time.


le0pard13 said...

Excellent pick and wonderful look back at a great horror film, B-Sol. One of my all-time favorites. And thanks for posting that earlier Cyber-Horror Elite list link with this.

RayRay said...

Excellent review, as always. Yes, Halloween is the beginning, and the end, the alpha and omega of the slasher genre. None were before, and none since have matched.

le0pard13 said...

In case you haven't caught this, the Trailers From Hell site is showing their appreciation of this great film with a post. Enjoy.

B-Sol said...

Thanks, Leopard!

Wings1295 said...

Excellent review of a flick that is always well-deserving of praise.

Great film, I have seen it many times and never tire of it. Or the chills it still creates. Classic.

Did a review myself @ Caffeinated Joe - Halloween

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