Saturday 15 November 2014

Movie Review: Halloween (1978)

The small, independent B-film that became a sensational international success and launched the slasher flick genre, Halloween is a brilliant piece of compact film making. John Carpenter creates a masterpiece of mood, mounting tension and frenzied horror, all embellished with an unsettling killer's point-of-view perspective.

In the small suburban town of Haddonfield, Illinois, 6 year old Michael Myers stabs his sister Judith to death on October 31 1963. Committed to a high security mental institution, he slips into a seemingly catatonic, non-communicative state. At age 21 Michael (Nick Castle) is deemed to be a low risk and transferred to a hospital, much to the horror of his doctor, the psychiatrist Dr. Samuel Loomis (Donald Pleasence). Michael soon breaks out and makes his way back to Haddonfield, killing anyone who gets in his way. Once Dr. Loomis realizes that Michael is on the loose, he gives chase.

Back in his hometown, a masked and threatening Michael starts stalking reserved teenager Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis), and her more outgoing friends Annie (Nancy Kyes) and Lynda (P.J. Soles). It's Halloween night again, Laurie has babysitting duties while Annie and Lynda want to have fun with their boyfriends. The streets are crawling with trick-or-treating kids, Dr. Loomis and Sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers) are frantically looking for Michael, but the bodies start to stack up as Michael goes on a murderous rampage.

Halloween was produced on a $350,000 budget, and generated $70 million at the box office. Hollywood was awakened to the profitable potential of easy to make horror films, and Michael Myers became the first serial killer of teens to spawn a franchise of sequels, soon to be followed by Jason (Friday The 13th), Freddy Krueger (A Nightmare on Elm Street) and a host of lessor imitators.

Halloween popularized the essential building blocks of the slasher genre, including the larger than life killer who is next-to-impossible to kill, a world populated mostly by teens, and the final girl trope. The film also established some essential rules for who lives and who dies. Laurie is polite, modest and avoids boys and sexual adventurism. She also takes her baby-sitting responsibilities seriously. The victims tend to be more outgoing, less responsible, chasing boys, and quicker to enjoy sex. Poor Judith gets next to no screen time: she has sex with her boyfriend and dies within the first few minutes of the genre's birth, the first of countless girls to pay the ultimate price for on-screen carnal pleasure.

Carpenter co-wrote Halloween with Debra Hill, and the script celebrates its simplicity. The first act establishes Michael's background (monster is born); the second act is all about stalking (monster prepares to strike); the third act is a frantic kill-fest, with Michael picking off his victims and closing in on Laurie (monster on the loose). Michael is the impersonation of the bogeyman from every child's nightmare, his mask rendering him faceless and his lumbering, imposing gait seemingly unstoppable. And it's all happening on Halloween, the kids under Laurie's care getting a close-up view of a real demon unleashed on the harrowing night.

Halloween is filled with classic, unforgettable moments. The opening single-take sequence through Michael's first-person view is jarring at many levels, the viewer forced to see the world through a menacing killer's eyes. The reveal that Michael, having just slaughtered his sister with a massive knife, is just a kid, is a shocking moment, Carpenter lingering on parents staring incredulously at their young, murderous son. The stalking scenes ratchet up the tension through Michael's sheer presence, as he starts popping up everywhere that Laurie and her friends want to be, behind the bushes, under the laundry line, across the street, standing, observing, plotting, threatening. Nothing violent happens for much of the middle half of the film; just an exquisite build-up of tension.

Carpenter's simple musical theme demonstrated how 10 notes on the piano can conjure up a mood of creeping cataclysm, and adds a suffocating sense of dread to the unfolding carnage. Donald Pleasence was the one known actor Carpenter was able to afford, and he provides Halloween with an anchor of adult sanity, the one observer who forecasts Michael's evil intentions and swings into action to try and save a community. As the daughter of Janet Leigh, moviedom's most famous victim of a deranged murderer, Jamie Lee Curtis was perhaps fated to play Laurie. This was her film debut, and she went on to reign as the "scream queen" in a series of horror films before transitioning to bigger and better roles.

Simple, effective and creative, Halloween slashes its way to classic status.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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