I won’t embarrass myself by trying to express the sort of warm human emotions I have little facility for. I will simply note that the comradeship of the various members of the Cabal, past and present, through the last 15 years has been one of the great blessings of my life. To that can be added the laughs, insight and intellectual stimulation they’ve provided me as a reader through nearly two decades and a metric ton of great writing. In both roles they’ve made me a better writer—yes, I could have been even worse—and a better person. Thanks, gang.
Here’s to Roundtable #100 in 2029.
MAJOR EDIT: Dammit, I *have* to leave myself enough time to edit these a bit. Despite at one point referring to Debra Hill as having married John Carpenter (no, you did not imagine that), it turns out I misremembered. I might have been conflating them with Gale Ann Hurd and James Cameron. At least his initials were correct.
To save myself some time, let me quote…myself:
“Horror films are very basic things. They’re mechanisms designed to induce simple, even primal, emotional reactions. Unease. Fear. Sometimes just nausea. Almost any filmmaker, even inexperienced and inept ones, can succeed to some degree in scaring an audience. For instance: Put a person in a room. We suspect that there’s something deadly in there. Now pull the field of vision in tight around that person, so that we can’t see much of the surrounding area in any direction.
Directors have been using this set-up since movies started, and it still works. Because we’re all afraid, on some level, of the same thing: Not Knowing. That’s why popular horror film elements include the dark, deep water, blinding storms and fog. After all, we can never tell, until it’s too late anyway, if there’s something out there. Or down there. Or up…Boo!
Think about the era of the Modern Horror Movie, post the collapse of the Studio System. The actual starting point of the Modern Era can be more or less pegged to the release of Night of the Living Dead. Now think of the great horror films since then. Almost all have been the work of young filmmakers, early in their careers, working on shoestring to moderate budgets. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Carpenter’s Halloween. Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. Alien. The Texas Chainshaw Massacre. Jaws. All are the work of comparative novices, all just trying to scare the hell out of people. “
When I originally wrote these words, it was in the context of famous mainstream directors messing up horror movies by trying to lard them up with political messages or outsized artistic goals. Horror Movies provide sturdy scaffolding, but they only bear weight in certain ways. Hang things incorrectly and the entire structure generally crashes down.
Yet one can over-complicate a horror movie in ways not pertaining to making it into something grander. The fear of Not Knowing is arguably the central preoccupation of horror films, even more so than the fear of death (see The Haunting for a prime example). Some variation of “What is out there?” is certainly the most frequently asked question in horror movies. The answers are fun and/or scary, but it’s the question that gets under our skin.
If not knowing is the core concern of horror films, then it follows that knowledge diminishes their appeal. Horror Movies aren’t Whodunits; we don’t seek satisfaction through solution.
This is the bane of the modern horror movie, especially since the ‘80s. Everything is designed to become a franchise now. A perfect little movie can no longer sit by itself, unless it fails financially. Instead it is viewed only as the first chapter. This leads to the inherent tension of sequels. On one hand, you need to deliver more of what drew audiences in the first place. On the other, you seldom get away with just Xeroxing the original. Like a wedding, you want something old, something new.
In terms of horror franchises, that means hiring people, usually young neophytes, to expand on what came before. This is usually done by making the backstories more and more elaborate,not to mention increasingly convoluted, contradictory and outright retarded. Each new film is ineptly stacked up upon its immediate predecessor. You all too often end up with an increasingly precarious edifice, wobbling ever more fiercely as more pictures are added to the pile. Eventually that tipping point is reached and the entire thing collapses. I’m looking at you, Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare.
So it was with the Shape, the murderous psycho of John Carpenter’s Halloween. He was scariest when we knew the least about him. Inevitably, as each new film revealed more of his ‘backstory’ and ‘motivations,’ our interest drops. In Wes Craven’s New Nightmare an evil spirit is defeated by trapping it in the form of Freddy Kruger. Definition is constraint, and a constrained monster is patently less fearsome than a free one.
When the Shape was undefined and mysterious, more of a concept than an object, every viewer could read into him whatever they feared most. As each film bound the Shape in chains of continuity, he grew less and less terrifying. Eventually he was just another guy planting an axe in some extra’s forehead.
Then there’s the equally dangerous tendency is just keep ramping things up. Sometimes this works, often it doesn’t. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom isn’t better than Raiders of the Lost Ark just because it has more action. Quite the reverse, in fact. And killing three times as many people in Halloween II as Halloween hardly means it’s three times scarier.
Yes, there are films where the success of a small-scale original allows for a grander canvas for the second movie. The Road Warrior and Dawn of the Dead are examples of successfully turning things up several notches. On the other hand, both series fell into decline after these second entries. To cite the misadventures of Goldilocks, moving one up from the bed that’s too small puts you in the one that’s just right. Moving one up from the one that’s just right, however, puts you into the one that’s too big.
The Mad Max movies failed because George Miller didn’t end the third movie where it naturally led. Max loses his family in the first film and becomes a drifter. He feels a reawakened sense of fellowship in the second film, but isn’t healed enough to settle down. The third film should have ended with him fully rejoining humanity and community.
This ending was clearly denied the movie for commercial reasons. If the series is predicated on Max being a drifting loner, you can’t have him achieve contentment. The Outlaw Josie Wales, a film that tells in one picture what the Mad Max series (should have) covered in three, ends after Wales accepts a place among a new family. Nobody was thinking, however, of making a second Josie Wales movie.*[*Well, actually, someone did. Ten years after Eastwood’s movie, there was an obscure cheapie sequel ingeniously named The Return of Josie Wales. Pretty much nobody remembers it, though.]
In modern Hollywood, however, studios want franchises, and want them to last forever. The paradox is that by denying audiences a conclusion, you often reduce their interest in a series anyway. Who knows, maybe mega-successful film franchises like the Harry Potter, Hunger Games and Twilight films had such continued success precisely because their fans knew they were, in fact, hurtling towards the end of a story. There’s wistfulness in reaching that ending, yet few fans demanded that the series continue past that point.
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome could have provided a satisfactory close to Max’s story. It didn’t, and partly for this reason killed off the franchise they so frantically attempted to preserve.
Everyone was a loser; the studio, the audience whose passion for the character turned to indifference in the space of one movie. Certainly director George Miller was a casualty, as his career never fully recovered. (This, however, is a familiar pattern with young filmmakers who explode on the scene via an amazing genre picture. Few such ever make the transition to a successful long term career.)
And that was a series where one guy (director Miller) basically defined all three films. Yes, Mel Gibson played Max, and brilliantly, but Miller not only helmed but wrote or co-wrote all three films. So imagine the fate of series emanating from a variety of hacks following in the wake of a rare act of genius. One needs look no further than the Halloween series.
John Carpenter’s original was the work of a man who most would admit was a true master of horror. Those who followed in his footsteps include such luminaries as Rick Rosenthal, Dwight D. Little, the insufferable Dominique Otherin-Girard, Joe Chappelle, Steve Miner (actually known, and unsurprisingly the director of the one good sequel) and a returning Rick Rosenthal. He finally managed to kill the series entirely, although by then it was a mercy killing.
The problem with these latter directors isn’t that they weren’t famous when they made their chapters. The problem is that they remained that way after making them. Several went on to busy, even flourishing, TV careers. Yet even with Carpenter’s signature Halloween theme at their disposal, and his film to serve as a model, none of them came remotely close to measuring up.
Indeed, even Carpenter’s direct if reduced participation didn’t help much with the first sequel. On the other hand, he probably wasn’t overly invested in the project. In his early career Carpenter was almost uniquely uninterested in making sequels and follow-ups.
Even his revamps of Rio Bravo and Howard Hawk’s The Thing from Another World were early examples of re-imaginations rather than remakes. It wasn’t until his career was floundering decades later that he turned to following up his previous successes. Three of the final four films of his last gasp as a popular filmmaker were remakes, and they drove a stake into that career.
So in the early days of Halloween, no matter how mind-bogglingly successful that film was, Carpenter remained uninterested in returning to Michael Myers. Instead, he wrote, directed and scored The Fog. Admittedly, he worked on the script for Halloween II (1981) along with his producer Debra Hill, being the two who also wrote the first film. However, his lack of interest even in that diminished role was manifest.
Following that, Carpenter left the series behind entirely. Indeed, in an interview in 1982 he confirmed that both Myers and his nemesis Dr. Loomis were dead following the events of the second film. Carpenter remained true to that idea, and neither he nor Ms. Hill had anything to do with The Shape and Loomis’ return adventures.
Even so, Halloween II was commercially very successful. With Myers officially dead, the series was intended to become an annual franchise featuring a skein of unconnected, Halloween-themed tales.
The first and only example of this was the benighted Halloween III: Season of the Witch. Producers Hill and Carpenter commissioned a script from Nigel “Quatermass” Kneale, and then allowed it to be butchered. And although the anthology format concept is kind of neat,* it wasn’t what the marketplace wanted. Confused by the absence of Myers, fans stayed home in droves[*Here’s an idea; Bring the concept back with a series of annual Halloween-themed films for HBO or Showtime or some other cable station. Cable horror is hot right now, after all.]
Carpenter and Hill hung up their hats at this point and moved on. More to the point, the actual owners of the Halloween franchise, film producer Irwin Yablans and financier Moustapha Akkad, also admitted defeat. The series lay dormant for six years until they decided to give the fans what they wanted with the not exactly imaginatively-titled Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers. Horror buffs were used to crap sequels in those days (although Roman numerals were apparently now beyond them), and excited by Myers’ resurrection, returned to theaters.
As I write this I’ve watched the first three Myers films in short order. It’s a depressing spectacle. Admittedly, all three are actual movies. This is more than you can say about many of the hundreds of slashers, which were often preposterously crude and cheap-looking. And indeed, why wouldn’t they be? Slasher Movies at the high point of their popularity functioned much like pornos. Not really films, per se, but delivery systems for sex scenes on one hand and gore murders on the other.
The pretensions of individual filmmakers aside, cinematic niceties like plot, characters and acting were entirely beside the point. So it really came down to who was making the films. Many observers were shocked when Paramount released Friday the 13th, but that film’s extraordinary financial success ensured that the major studios were going to keep their hand in.
Still, films released by such entities had to have at least a modicum of professional sheen about them. Columbia Picture might release Happy Birthday to Me, but they weren’t going to put their logo on woefully cheap fare like Girls Nite Out or House of Death. Halloween II and Halloween 4 were released by Universal, so it’s not surprisingly that from a technical standpoint they are competent films. That’s about the best you can say for them, though.
So it’s not like, oh, The Howling “series,” where you started with a pretty well made film and immediately moved into hilariously cheap and oafishly produced semi-movies. Indeed, the sequels in the Halloween series offered much higher budgets than Carpenter had to work with. They pretty much had too, as Carpenter was only allotted a paltry $325,000 for his movie. Halloween II was budgeted at $2,500,000, Halloween 4 at twice that amount. This was also substantially more than Carpenter’s theatrical follow-up to Halloween. That film, The Fog, was made for a million bucks.
The (non-Wes Craven) sequels to A Nightmare on Elm Street, made by a series of increasingly inept and uninspired hacks, weighed down that franchise with barnacles of continuity and witless bits of general foolishness. Eventually the series was moribund, and by the time of Freddy’s Dead, the end result was a gigantic, all but unwatchable mess.
This too, sadly, is the legacy of our subject today, as we’ll see in the weeks to come.
“The Night He Came Home”
Laurie Strode: “[He] was the Boogey Man.”
Dr. Loomis: “As a matter of fact, it was”
The secret of the Halloween’s success and longevity is its sheer simplicity. Horror movies, being basic mechanisms, are generically simplistic. The original Night of the Living Dead is the story of a handful of people besieged in a house. Simple stories and complicated characters has long been a successful formula for filmmaking. (Albeit sadly a recipe that modern Hollywood all too often regretfully transposes.)
Carpenter’s film is arguably more basic than even Romero’s. A homicidal maniac stalks a young woman one night, slaughtering her friends before turning his attentions directly to her. Indeed, producer Irwin Yablans and financier Moustapha Akkad hired the young Carpenter and Hill to make what they presumably envisioned as a more generic movie about a killer targeting babysitters. Carpenter and Hill credit Irwin with the idea of setting it on Halloween, however, a notion that inspired the two to make the film we know today.
Viewed properly, I believe, Halloween is a fable. Only those who stumble on the film unknowing can experience it was it was meant to be see. For the rest of us, knowledge robs of us from seeing the film as it was intended. The film is good enough that it survives this, but the film is richer when taking it into account.
Most viewer go in knowing what Michael Myers, or more properly The Shape (as he’s identified in the credits), is. Yet the film as constructed is meant to lead us to the punch line I’ve cited above, wherein Laurie—and the audience with her—realize that Myers is, in fact, not human. He really was the Boogey Man. With that realization, and the associated fact that you can’t kill the Boogey Man, the story effectively ends. Knowing that Myers is the Boogey Man going in robs us of this aspect of things.*[*As difficult as it is to believe at forty years’ remove, it was entirely possible to be surprised by this turn of events in 1978. In the wake of Halloween we get Jason and Freddy, along with quite a lot of less known but similar characters. Back then, not so much. There had psycho-killers going back to the very beginnings of the horror genre, but not so many supernatural psycho-killers.]
The biggest thing that the sequels tended to get wrong—and there were many, many such things—is that The Shape isn’t Michael Myers. Rather, it is an ancient, indestructible evil that inhabits Myers’ body. Carpenter even at this stage was a meticulous filmmaker. He hints at this rather than just saying it because that’s what good filmmakers do. If you don’t trust your audience to do some of the work, you are seldom going to make good movies.
Carpenter’s talents are fully on display during the film’s renowned opening. It’s a bravura sequence, much lauded to this day for its technical expertise. This is an extended Steadicam POV shot (one of many elements of Carpenter’s film that was ceaselessly ripped off ad nauseam during the slasher cycle), seeming to be—although somewhat deceptively—a single tracking shot lasting over four and a half minutes.
I’m sure everyone knows the scene I speak of, but: A title card establishes our setting as Halloween night, 1963, in (the fictional) Haddonfield, IL.* Haddonfield is emblematic of bucolic small town America. We share the POV of an unseen stalker, one watching through a window as two teens fool around in a middle class house. The voyeur waits until they go upstairs to consummate things, then circles the house and enters it via the back door.[*This is one of several in-jokes, including a slew of Hitchcock references. Debra Hill was born in Haddonfield, NJ.]
The mystery person unerringly locates and grabs a butcher knife from the kitchen. He then waits for the male lover to leave. We again follow the POV as it heads up the stairs, pausing to scoop up and don a clown’s mask left on the floor. Entering a bedroom, he kills the topless female. We watch this murder through his eyes.
Once this has occurred, the camera descends the stairs and leaves the house just as a car arrives out front. Two adults approach him, calling him “Michael.” They remove his mask and the camera finally assumes an objective perspective, thus revealing the killer. He’s a six-year old boy. Judith, the victim, was his sister. Michael stares forward in a catatonic fashion as the camera pulls away in evident revulsion.
The sequence is mostly praised for its technical expertise, and fittingly so. For its time it’s an astounding scene. There were no computers to fudge things back in those days. To execute a shot like this, you had to just have everyone hit their marks, including grips and lighting guys and everyone involved in shooting the scene, for minutes on end. If one thing went wrong, * such as the actors not walking in front of the window at the precisely correct moment or the cameraman stumbling as he strode around gazing through the camera, you have to start over.[*The shot isn’t perfect; you can occasionally briefly spot the cameraman’s shadow. And while it appears to be one shot, it’s not. They used shadows to allow them to splice two or three extended shots together. Still, given the budget and the limitation of equipment back then, it remains a remarkable achievement.]
The sequence is indeed so technically impressive that it’s easy to overlook some of Carpenter’s little touches. The boyfriend comes downstairs in a laughably short amount of time. Presumably this is Carpenter’s (or Hill’s) jape on the sexual prowess of teen males. The fellow also glances uneasily upstairs when answering a call from the girl. It’s as if he’s already planning on how to duck her now that he’s gotten what he wanted.
Meanwhile, the killer moves unerringly to the back door and then straight to the correct kitchen drawer to grab the knife. These are hints that he knows the house very well. As he should; he lives there.
The shot that really captured my attention on this viewing, however, is during the segment where Judith is being butchered. Shot through twins ovals representing the eye holes of the mask, in the same fashion as two round circles connote looking through binoculars, the view shifts from the girl being knifed to looking up to follow the blade as it repeatedly rises and descends again at the acme of its arc.
I’ve heard people consider this shot a mistake or a showy non sequitur, but I don’t think it is. Carpenter’s too smart for something like that. I believe it represents for the first time the actual viewpoint of young Michael. Michael’s sister isn’t his victim; she’s the victim of whatever is using his body. Disassociated from what are apparently his own actions, Michael’s attention is riveted on the flashing movement of the knife.
The deed done, the lad robotically stumbles outside in apparent shock. His blank expression reveals him to be an all but empty vessel. Michael is all but annihilated, his body merely waiting for some future Halloween—the night when the wall between the dead and the living is thinnest—to be inhabited once more.
And so we jump ahead 15 years, to October 30th, 1978. We now meet Dr. Sam Loomis, as played by Donald Pleasence in what remains his most iconic role. It’s a stormy night, and Loomis is returning to the Illinois state mental hospital he works. He’s being driven through the pounding rain by Marion Chambers, a newly employed nurse who will work with Michael. When she notes that the only thing she can’t stand is crazy gibberish, he informs her she was nothing to worry about. “He hasn’t spoken a word in 15 years.”
A tough cookie, she evinces disgust at his decidedly non-scientific attitude towards his primary patient, the now 21 year-old Michael Myers. “Don’t underestimate it,” he warns. She asks if they could perhaps refer to Michael as “him” rather than “it.” “If you say so,” he wearily responds. “Your compassion’s overwhelming, Doctor,” she sarcastically replies.
Loomis, like most people who know the truth in horror movies, objectively sound nuts. Even to the audience, as again we’re not supposed to completely catch up with him on Myers’ nature until the end of the picture. Hill wrote the dialogue for the teenage girls in the film, which probably accounts for how realistic they sound. Carpenter, however, wrote Loomis’ tirades about Myers. They are things of beauty, brought to life by Pleasence’s trademark soft voice and fidgety body language.
In this Carpenter was a beneficiary, much like Steven Spielberg with his malfunctioning shark, of not getting what he initially wanted. Carpenter originally offered the role of Loomis to Christopher Lee. Mr. Lee is a fine actor, but more of an icon and certainly a more forceful presence than Pleasence. You can picture Lee’s Loomis in your head, and it’s hard not to think that Pleasence’s version suits the film better. On a side note, Pleasence garnered only $20,000 for the movie. Hopefully he made a lot more when he returned to the role in the sequels.
Their car arrives outside the hospital, whereupon the headlights pick up the white uniforms of several patients as they amble witlessly around outside in the rain. (Cue Carpenter’s brilliant theme music.) Chambers is confused, but Loomis reacts like someone witnessing something he’s long dreaded. He tells her to stay in the car and runs to investigate.
Once he’s gone, a barely seen figure jumps upon the car and smashes the window. A terrorized Chambers finally breaks from the station wagon—she’s lucky she was in the first movie, she would have surely died in any of the higher body count sequels—whereupon the figure clambers inside and drives off. Loomis returns and reacts with panic to the vanishing taillights. “He’s gone, he’s gone from here!” he shouts. “The Evil has gone!”
We cut to Haddonfield, the next morning. Here we meet our protagonist, shy high school student Laurie Strode, and her two friends, blond wild child Lynda and sarcastic brunette Annie. As played respectively by Jamie Lee Curtis—the daughter, of course, of Janet Leigh, who was hacked to death in the shower in Hitchcock’s Psycho—P. J. Soles and Nancy Loomis (already a member of Carpenter’s stock company), they represent three of the genre’s most credible teen characters.*[*Even Carpenter fell into the trap of hiring overage actresses, though, probably because of work laws and certainly in Soles’ case because of the nudity her part required. In any case, while Curtis isn’t too far off at 20, Soles was 28 and Loomis 29.]
In most other films of this stripe, the three would seem pure stereotypes; the slut, the smartass and the good girl. Due to Hill’s dialogue and Carpenter’s knack with actors, not to mention their having hired talented actresses for the roles, the three are entirely believable. Curtis herself shopped for Laurie’s wardrobe in the film, spending a hundred bucks at a J.C. Penny.
Certainly in most movies we’d at the least have trouble buying that three such disparate girls were friends. Here, the trio have clearly known each other since childhood and, realistic chop-busting aside, remain as close as sisters. Aiding this is the way Carpenter handily portrays Haddonfield as the sort of small, no doubt semi-rural community where everyone knows everyone else on a first name basis.
The lack of parents during the picture’s main events is also pretty credible. We briefly meet Laurie’s father, a real estate agent. However, Laurie is babysitting that night at her charge’s house, explaining why no adults are on hand. Annie’s father is the town sheriff,* and thus will spend the evening riding around town, barely tolerating Loomis and his wild pronouncements of death.[*Sheriff Brackett is played by veteran character actor Charles Cyphers, another of Carpenter’s stock company. Mr. Cyphers also appeared in Assault on Precinct 13, Someone’s Watching Me!, Elvis, The Fog and Escape from New York. He also briefly appears in Halloween II.]
Annie is also supposed to be babysitting, right across the street from where Laurie will be. In reality, she’s mostly doing so to secure an adult-free house for her and her boyfriend Paul, as well as Lynda and her own boyfriend Bob, to drink and shag. In sum, Laurie is on her own working that evening, while Annie and Lynda are purposely dodging their parents to get up to some monkey business. (I hope Annie’s at least planning to wash all the bedding the two couples soil. Blech.)
Laurie, naturally, is the far more responsible babysitter. Annie and her young sittee Lindsay mutually ignore one another’s existence. Laurie, meanwhile, has a great relationship with Tommy, the boy she watches. Even without blatant expository dialogue the film successfully sells the idea that she’s been babysitting for his parents for a while.
Along the way to school, Tommy nervously warns Laurie about the Bad Place nature of the now ramshackle and abandoned old Myers’ house. Laurie’s dad had asked her to leave the keys to the place under the doormat so that prospective buyers can get in. Laurie naturally laughs off Tommy’s concerns. However, when she ascends the porch, an interior POV shot accompanied by the sound of heavy breathing reveals that she is being watched by an unseen presence in the house.
This scene is altered by our knowledge of the sequels and, you know, The Revelation. Standing alone as a singular movie, here the Shape’s fixation on Laurie comes across as entirely random. It is, seemingly, born of nothing more than her being the one to climb his steps. In a way, this happenstance is more frightening. Not only is Laurie endangered for no real reason, but her friends die merely to provide props to frighten the real object of the Shape’s games.*[*Indeed, taking The Revelation into account, Laurie being the first person Michael sees in Haddonfield seems a little too cutesie.]
Tommy splits off soon afterward as the two head to their respective schools. As Laurie strolls down the street, singing a song to herself, the Shape’s shoulder suddenly pops up in the foreground of the shot. This mastery of the wide angle frame is Carpenter’s trademark move (anyone choosing to watch one of his films in a zoomboxed format is nuts).
Even after decades and a dozen films he could still startle audiences this way. In any case, this suggests again that only now has Michael picked Laurie as his object of attention. She’s come into his field of view, and now the die is cast.
It’s also notable that the Shape only makes his presence known after Tommy has departed. Although his sightings of the Boogey Man send Tommy into flights of panic later in the movie, Carpenter establishes on several occasions that the Shape is uninterested in children. Not only does he never target a child, he outright puts aside two youngsters who run into him in the first two movies. I’ll discuss this point further when I get around to examining the sequels that followed the second film.
On a side note (to a side note), I’m not sure what to make of Laurie’s relationship with Tommy. He’s a similarly tow-headed boy about the same age as Michael when he killed his sister. Is this a coincidence, or does Laurie survive where Judith Myers died because she’s responsibly watching over her charge while Michael’s sister was fooling around?
This doesn’t really follow, though, as Michael was out trick or treating and there’s no reason to think the sister was meant to be watching over him. Surely if Carpenter meant to be drawing such a parallel there would be more meat to it. I can only take it to be a coincidence.
We cut back to the mental hospital. Loomis is leaving to drive to Haddonfield, to which he believes Michael is sure to return. Walking with him is the hospital administrator, Dr. Wynn, who clearly wants to hang the blame on Myers’ escape on Loomis. Loomis isn’t having it, however, as he’s been warning deaf ears of Myers’ dangerousness for years now.
Even after the patient has escaped, however, Wynn continues to discount Loomis’ views. He even remains skeptical of Loomis’ conviction that Michael is heading back to distant Haddonfield. “For God’s sake, he can’t drive a car!” he scoffs. “He was doing very well last night!” Loomis shouts back at him.
The Shape’s nature as an elliptical presence continues. Laurie is in class when she looks out the window and sees the Illinois state station wagon Michael stole parked across the road. Standing stock still behind it is Michael. He is barely visible at this distance, only his dead white face and shoulders sticking up from the other side of the car.
This is our first glance of the Shape as we now all know him, adorned in his trademark mechanic’s overalls and that starkly pale, blank featured mask. When Laurie looks up over again a few moments later, both the figure and the car is gone. As she continues through the day she sees him again and again, behind hedges or in the laundry hanging in her back yard. But he always disappears as quickly as he appeared.
Laurie spots Michael among the laundry from her bedroom window. Afterword she lies on her bed in utter melancholy. As an interesting bit of stage design, Laurie’s bed is a ludicrously narrow one seemingly fit more for a child. This signals that the tentative Laurie still feels trapped as she struggles to break into adulthood. Laurie is in many ways more mature than Annie and especially Lynda, but it’s easy to see how overshadowed she feels by their boisterous confidence.
There is a lot of build-up in Carpenter’s film. Following the murder of Judith in the beginning of the film, nearly an hour will pass before there’s more onscreen mayhem. This allows us to spend a lot of time with Laurie, both alone and with Lynda and Annie. Their friendship is extremely well realized, and the actresses play well off each other. We also see Laurie spend a goodly amount of time with Tommy as she babysits him.
During this latter portion, the Shape plays with Annie, constantly hovering around her location without letting himself be seen. When the killings do begin, we get three of them in the space of 15 minutes. After this the Shape finally turns his attention to Laurie. It’s to Carpenter’s credit that this entire middle section of the movie is never boring.
Indeed, quite the opposite. Michael’s constant presence on the scene, unseen by anyone but Tommy and Laurie, keeps the tension ticking. It’s notable that aside from Tommy (the only one fearful enough of the Boogey Man to be keeping an eye out for him), the only one to see the Shape is Laurie. And that’s only because he purposely appears to her. And although she’s disquieted by his reappearances, she’s still too much of an adult to admit that he might be actually dangerous.
Throughout the movie, we cut back to Loomis now and again. On his way to Haddonfield, Loomis stops to make a phone call. Emerging from the roadside phone booth, he spots off in the bushes further on an abandoned service station truck. Investigating the vehicle, he finds an abandoned hospital gown. He hurriedly departs, knowing he’s on Michael’s trail.
This is another scene where we get a sense of how amazingly organized Carpenter was. When Loomis walks further away from the road after noticing the truck, a train comes screaming along the tracks right next to the scene. Its shrill horn startles us, revealing again how attuned Carpenter was to the importance of sound design.
Obviously this is not the kind of production that could have hired a train. Therefore they must have blocked the sequence and known exactly how long it would take Pleasence to walk from the phone booth over to the area where the truck was concealed. This during the bare five days the production had access to Pleasence.
So they scouted this location, drove out there, rehearsed Pleasence and set up the cameras. Then they had to wait for the train to approach before setting Pleasence walking at just the necessary moment to get the locomotive appearing in the shot right when Carpenter wanted it to. It’s a credit to the production’s skill that they managed to pull this off. It’s the kind of thing that looks simple but must have taken a lot of planning to achieve. And all that effort for what is, in the end, five or ten seconds of film.
Having made his discovery, Loomis leaves to resume his pursuit. What we see and he didn’t was another corpse*, the truck’s driver, lying off in the weeds. This explains where the Shape procured his overalls. Later we’ll see Sheriff Brackett, Annie’s father, outside a burgled Haddonfield drug store. The only things stolen there were some rope, a few knives and a mask. With these items procured, the Shape was ready to start playing his games.[*This barely seen body is adorned with a slash of blood. Aside from another brief flash of the stuff when Judith was killed, this is the only blood we see in the movie, much less gore. However, Carpenter eventually grew more graphic, presumably to show he could also serve up what people like Sean Cunningham were giving audiences. This reached a height with his remake of The Thing, which features some famously spectacular splatter effects. Having made that statement, though, he ratcheted things back down after that.]
It’s pretty clear (to me, at least) that the vestiges of Michael are still in there, but he’s still the child he was when Judith was killed. He plays games with his victims. These are mostly variations of hide and seek. He also dresses up in a sheet and dons the recently murdered Bob’s glasses to impersonate him with Lynda.
She buys into his act, and grins as she flashes her boobs at him. Sadly for her, neither The Shape nor what remains of the six year-old Michael is much interested in girls. Annoyed at the lack of a reaction from ‘Bob,’ Lynda phones Laurie. During the call the Shape strangles Lynda with the phone cord. In doing so he uses her gasping sounds to lure Laurie across the street.
The Shape has killed Laurie’s friends, but it’s seemingly only to provide props to scare her. Annie’s corpse is set up in a careful tableau. She’s laid out on bed before Judith’s stolen headstone, the scene hauntingly illuminated by a Jack O’ Lantern. The other two corpses are set up to be discovered one by one after Laurie sees Annie. These deaths were but a means to an end, and that end was to terrify Laurie before he kills her too.
The Shape is clearly screwing around with Loomis as well. Outside the previously mentioned robbed store, Loomis stands around waiting for Brackett’s attention. He is scanning the area for signs of Michael, but fails to notice the stolen hospital station wagon driving right behind his back.
Meanwhile, at the end of the picture Loomis only tracks Michael down after finally noticing the same stolen car. This is cheekily parked but a few houses down the street from the old Myers’ place, not far past the bushes Loomis has been standing for hours now, staking out the place. It’s hard not to take his as another gag on Michael’s part.
The one real defining ‘move’ the Shape has is the robotic head tilt he displays when he dispassionately studies Bob’s body, who he’s pinned up on a wall with another butcher knife. As with the glance up at the knife while Judith was being killed, this strikes me as Michael’s shattered consciousness gazing upon the handiwork of his possessor with detached interest.
The Shape’s use of a mask is thus also an important aspect of the character. (To the extent he can be called a character.) Before killing Judith, he first pauses to don the clown mask that goes with young Michael’s harlequin costume. Meanwhile, the one time the adult Shape is briefly forestalled from killing his intended victim is when Laurie pulls up his mask. Not until the mask is pulled back on does the Shape move to finish Laurie off. The Shape isn’t Michael, who in the end is just one more bit of costuming he wears.
Like most great suspense films, this one is leavened with humor. Wiseacre Annie is particularly amusing, flustered and annoyed and constantly bitching that her boyfriend has been grounded for their big sex night. He eventually gets free but needs a ride. Luckily for him, Annie is killed before she can pick him up.
Loomis also provides comic relief, in an odd way. Pleasence’s fidgety nature allows Loomis to be somewhat comical even as he delivers these just marvelous pronouncements of death and doom. It’s a precise performance, even when he’s eating the scenery, but the role’s over the top qualities can get very funny at times.
Loomis is best, however, when he’s ranting about Michael. When he and Sheriff Brackett come across a partially eaten dog in the old Myers’ place, Brackett suggests with revulsion that it was killed by another animal. “A man wouldn’t do that,” he maintains. “This isn’t a man,” Loomis sneers in reply.
This is only an undercurrent, but the relish with which Loomis speechifies suggests someone who, no matter how outrageous his remarks may have struck others, has actually been guarding his tongue for years. Now the worst has happened, and he’s free to say exactly what he thinks. As he tells Brackett:
“I watched him for fifteen years, sitting in a room, staring at a wall, not seeing the wall, looking past the wall. Looking at this night, inhumanly patient, waiting for some secret, silent alarm to trigger him off. Death has come to your little town, Sheriff. Now you can either ignore it, or you can help me to stop it.”
The way Loomis says it, you never doubt he means Death with a capital ‘D.’
For his part, Brackett clearly wishes Loomis to just be a harmless kook. However, he just can’t ignore the possibility that Loomis is on to something. This is probably because Haddonfield, as seemingly paradisaical as it is, is still a community scarred by the events of 15 years ago. Maybe Brackett’s been waiting all these years for the other shoe to drop too.
Indeed, to be fair to all the films in the series, there’s never that tiresome thing where Loomis is ignored by the cops despite ever mounting evidence of mayhem. After all, Brackett and those who follow after him all live in Haddonfield. They know every resident personally, and aren’t going to ignore the possibility of danger to them, no matter how remote.
They aren’t happy about it, though. “If you’re right,” Brackett says more than once, “damn you for letting him out.” Loomis of course takes umbrage at this. He’s the classic Cassandra, having warned people for years about Myers while only garnering hoots of disdain for his trouble. And no wonder. Here’s another example of how Loomis talks about him:
“I met him, fifteen years ago; I was told there was nothing left; no reason, no conscience, no understanding; and even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, of 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 that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply… evil.”
I note again that Pleasence’s delivery of this dialogue is just fantastic. He really nails the part, and it’s obvious why he became the de facto star of the series, especially after Curtis abandoned the franchise. (Although she eventually returned to it decades later.)
There’s a scene in a graveyard where he asks the talkative groundskeeper to show him to Judith’s tombstone. Along the way they find a hole where a stone has been stolen. The groundskeeper curses the local kids, but Loomis’ face displays agitated certainly as he waits for the fellow to confirm what he already knows: the missing tombstone is Judith’s. It’s a great little bit.
Like Michael, Loomis has also been waiting for years, knowing this night would come. While touring the old Myers house with the Sheriff, Loomis is startled and pulls from his rumpled raincoat a .357 magnum revolver. “I have a permit,” he shrugs with an embarrassed little grin when he notices Brackett giving the weapon the fisheye. One gets the idea that he bought the gun long ago in anticipation of his very occasion.
This quiet, bumbling quality is exactly what Christopher Lee never could have brought to the role. With his towering height, stentorian voice and remarkable force of personality, Lee never could have sold Loomis as someone who had been so easily dismissed for so long. Certainly not without his having throttled a person or two along the way, anyway.
And so the film chugs long towards its punch line, where both we and Laurie realize that Loomis was right all along. Despite Laurie rationally telling Tommy that there’s no such thing as the Boogey Man, sadly, there is. All the improbabilities are explained; Michael’s ability to drive a car, his talent at evading the police despite having been locked up in an asylum since he was a child, his ability to appear and disappear and yet remain unseen seemingly at will.
Finally and most obviously, there’s his gradually revealed inhuman strength and indestructibility. These qualities escalate until they are finally just inarguably superhuman. Myers one-handedly lifts the sizable Bob well up off the floor before pinning him to the wall with a single thrust from his butcher’s knife. And there’s his ability to single-handedly heft around Judith’s tombstone, a sizable hunk of granite.
Meanwhile, maybe someone could survive taking a knitting needle in the throat or even a butcher knife in the chest. But six .357 magnum bullets right in the chest from point blank range? Not likely. “You can’t kill the Boogey Man!” Tommy warned. He was right.*[*Never discount what a good actor brings to a picture. Loomis was supposed to react with dismay when he emerges onto the balcony the Shape plummets from after being shot, only to famously discover the body missing. Supposedly it was Pleasence who suggested that Loomis should instead look like that was what he expected to find.]
In the aftermath of the film, with critics looking for something to say about the movie, some inevitably suggested that Carpenter meant to “punish” Annie and Lynda for being sexually active, while Laurie lived because she was a virginal good guy. I find this line of thinking spectacularly reductive, but it was raised so often that Carpenter eventually had to respond to it. Laurie survived, he noted, because she was just more watchful and aware then her friends due to her lack of partying.
In point of fact, though, I have to disagree with Carpenter here. (I think he formulated this line just to shut his critics up.) Laurie is more aware to be sure. Yet she is aware of the Shape because he keeps appearing right in front of her, and then disappearing moments later. So obviously she’s more aware of him than Annie and Lynda are.
That said, Laurie still disregards Tommy when he tries to warn her about the Boogey Man. Again, this is rational on the surface. But the fact is that Laurie is ignoring her own fears while doing so, blocking them out, and so isn’t really much more ‘aware’ than her friends. In contrast to them, in fact, she’s obtuse by choice. Annie and Lynda weren’t even aware of the Shape until they died.
This isn’t to say the two aren’t distracted by their carnal activities. Annie eventually dumps Lindsay on Laurie because all she can think of is getting into Paul’s pants. When Annie goes to pick him up, she is unable to open the car door and realizes she left the keys in the house. However, after reclaiming them and returning to the garage, she has a (pretty realistic) brain fart and doesn’t notice that the car door opens now sans key.
The first intrusion of reality occurs moments later when she notices the interior windows of the car are all fogged up. This is, of course, because the Shape is in the back seat waiting for her. (This is another indication of the Shape’s supernatural nature, as we know the door was locked a few minutes ago. There are several other scenes where he also seems to control doors from a distance.) Exit Annie.
No, if Laurie survives, it’s because she is the Shape’s actual target and he’s playing with her. He pretty much just kills Annie and Lynda. However, with her there’s a lot of cat and mouse. His pursuit of her in the murder house is purposely slow. He stabs her, but not enough to stop her running. He herds her to the back glass door, which is wedged shut from the outside with a rake.
Even this is a gambit, as it allows Laurie to smash the glass and shove the rake aside. The pursuit, as designed, continues. A screaming Laurie runs from house to house, futilely trying to get someone to help her. Eventually she gives up and runs back to Tommy’s house. The Shape certainly could have caught up to her by now, but he only is seen approaching once she is back at Tommy’s.
That’s not to say that Laurie doesn’t prove to be tough and display a lot of pluck. When she’s attacked she again and again looks for a weapon, and isn’t afraid to use whichever one she finds. She even does that thing most movie heroines never do; she grabs the Shape’s dropped knife and uses it against him. Of course, weapons can’t stop the Boogey Man, but she does buy enough time for Loomis to follow the screams and rush in and blow the Shape off the balcony.
This whole sequence, from the time of Laurie finding her friends’ bodies to the Shape’s dive off the balcony, is one of the best sustained sequences of any horror movie. Especially notable is the classic bit where the Shape smashes his way into the slat-door closet where the panicked Laurie hides herself in. Carpenter’s score is at its most effective there.
The Shape has a pretty distinctive thing where when he’s fatally attacked he goes down and rises again a bit later. This is generally thought of, I believe, as him rebooting in a fashion, as he’s healed by whatever entity powers him. This is how it’s used in all the movies to follow, so at this point it’s probably canon.
Viewing Halloween as a standalone again, though, suggests another possibility. Every time Laurie strikes him down, he falls. She believes the worst is over, only to have him rise again. (The best example, of course, is that wonderful shot where he sits straight up over her shoulder as she sobs in the hallway.) But maybe he’s not recalibrating. Perhaps it’s just another game. It’s Michael, and this time he’s Playing Dead. Once Laurie’s bought into it, it’s time to rise and start to play again.
Carpenter’s skills as a director cannot be overstated. Even at this early stage, working on only his second professional film and with a pittance at his disposal, he evinces a mastery of the frame that few others ever master. His storytelling is smooth and economical, while his films generally lack flashy moves and editing tricks. (Big Trouble in Little China being an obvious exception, with the director paying homage to crazy Hong Kong filmmaking decades before anyone else here.) Carpenter is an avid student of the masters; Hitchcock, Ford, Hawks, Welles, etc., and he learned well.
The Shape himself is a throwback to the very first great horror movie. His shiny white mask and a dimmer switch allows for the classic shot of the Shape slowly manifesting from the darkness behind Laurie’s back. I always assumed Carpenter modeled the Shape’s look on that of cinema’s first slasher killer, Cesare the Somnambulist from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
The Shape perfectly echoes Cesare’s expressionless dead white face and featureless black clothing, not to mention his penchant for suddenly looming out of the darkness with a butcher knife. It’s also notable that Cesare, as I believe Carpenter meant Michael to be, was an innocent lacking control over his own body, one forced to commit murder at the command of another.
The ending itself, with the Shape disappearing after what should have been a fatal shooting, is perfect. The camera cuts around to various nearby locations, and we hear his trademark heavy breathing as we cycle through the shots. (This presumably because of his mask and its puny mouth hole; logically there’s little reason save asthma for other slasher killers to breathe that way, but many of them did.) The Boogey Man is still out there, and he could be anywhere.
As for the script, it was co-written by Ms. Hill, who died at the tragically young age of 54. She was a great partner for Carpenter, and I have no doubt she bought a lot to the table. She surely deserves much of the credit for three girls’ extremely believable friendship. She’s even smart enough to write in moments when Lynda and Annie’s joshing of Laurie goes too far and the latter is genuinely hurt.
However, the Shape as a creation is entirely of Carpenter’s worldview. There’s a Lovecraftian feel to the Shape, at least as I interpret him to be a human taken over by an ancient, malign alien entity. There are a lot of Lovecraftian themes running through Carpenter’s work, most notably in The Thing, Prince of Darkness and (of course) In the Mouth of Madness.
Carpenter also has a rather mordant take on the possibility of overcoming evil. Although his films feature extremely capable tough as nails protagonists, male and female alike—a nod to one of his heroes, Howard Hawks—the endings of his films are generally quite downbeat (spoilers ahead, so no bitchin’):
- The ship blows up in Dark Star.
- The death row inmate antihero of Assault on Precinct 13 survives the siege, but still faces execution.
- The Shape proves unkillable and is still on the loose at the end of Halloween.
- Elvis gets fat and dies in Elvis. (OK, that one might not be on Carpenter.)
- The seemingly satiated ghosts return to murder Father Malone in The Fog.
- Snake is irked with the President of the U.S.—Donald Pleasence!!—and so personally causes a horrific nuclear war in Escape from New York.
- MacReady and Childs watch each other freeze to death, never knowing if the other is a monster that will revive to destroy mankind in The Thing.
- In Christine…OK, I don’t remember, but the car probably comes back to life or something.
- In Big Trouble in Little China we see at the end that Jack’s travails are hardly over.
- In Prince of Darkness the day is saved but only by the film’s heroine basically being damned to Hell.
- In They Live we get the closest thing to a happy ending. The hero dies, but exposes the presence of aliens in our midst. Sure, the result will be mass carnage and war across the globe, but at least Man has a fighting chance now. (Again, this is apparently Carpenter’s idea of a happy ending, and occurs in one of only two films of his that are basically comedies. I don’t count Memoirs of an Invisible Man because who would?)
- In the Mouth of Madness features another all-out apocalypse as the Old Ones return to our universe.
- I don’t remember the ending of Village of the Damned, and I don’t care anyway, because it was an awful movie.
- Didn’t see Vampires.
- Ghost of Mars was also awful, not to mention a tired remake of his own movie from 25 years earlier. I think I vaguely remember it also ending with the cast (and maybe again the world?) facing inescapable death.
So, you know, the climax of Halloween falls pretty squarely into things.
Aside from his directing and scripting chops, there is, of course, that score. Like his filmmaking, Carpenter’s scores are simple on the surface, even repetitive, but polished and possessing the ability to get under the viewer’s skin. Few films, certainly horror films, have relied as heavily on a score as this one does. If the music wasn’t so fantastic it would grow wearisome. As did dozens of the patent and inept rip-off scores heard in the slasher films over the years to follow.
The music never grows stale here, though. Even if you’ve seen the film over and over, as I and many others have, it continues to function superbly. Early on in things it’s slow and creepy, helping to maintain tension during the extended set-up portion of the film. Then at the end it explodes along with the violence of the climax. The score is, undoubtedly, a modern masterpiece.
The overall result? Happy Halloween.
Halloween isn’t a perfect film, or a flawless one in the way Jaws is. (Of course, Spielberg had about 40 times more money to play with.) When hospital escapee Michael shatters the car window early in the film, you can see the metal disc taped to his palm to help him shatter the ‘glass.’ And there are a few obvious continuity errors. During a short drive of several miles at best, for instance, we jarringly go from one shot featuring late afternoon lighting to the dark of night in the next. And during Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World, playing on a local TV spook show, scenes are clearly shown out of order.
That kind of nitpicking has little effect on one’s admiration for Carpenter’s film, though. It’s a masterpiece, and will probably still be watched and recognized as such 50 years from now.
The big drawback of the film, which can be ignored with a slight effort of will, concerns where the sequels took things. Even the direct sequel, which Carpenter and Hill also wrote and oversaw as producers, is pretty bad. The film was never meant to be sequelized, and you can see why Carpenter stayed so uninterested in making follow-ups to his films for so long.
There’s an interesting little coda to the film. In 1981 NBC bought the rights to broadcast the film for $4,000,000. (Yes, by itself this was over 12 times the film’s production budget.) They required some cuts, unsurprising since the movie was rated ‘R’. However, with the trims and the general length of the film to start with, the picture was 11 minutes short of the necessary running time NBC needed.
Halloween II was in production, and so Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasence were on hand. Nancy Loomis, who had a cameo in the second film, and P.J. Soles (now 33 and clearly too old for her teenager role) also returned. Carpenter himself shot the new footage, after refusing to film the sequel, perhaps to keep the tone consistent.
Over three days Carpenter shot a handful of solo scenes with Pleasence as Dr. Loomis. One is an extended scene of him trying in vain to convince an oversight board to shift the as of yet still incarcerated Michael Myers to a maximum security facility. He also had several short scenes at the hospital itself after the Shape has escaped from there. One of these vignettes telegraphs The Revelation.
Meanwhile, Curtis (her hair up in a towel, presumably so she didn’t have to wear a wig), Soles and Nancy Loomis have a long scene further establishing their long friendship.
The scenes are nice enough, but the real lesson they teach is the same one you might learn from watching a zillion deleted scenes on a variety of DVDs. The lesson is that there’s a reason they were edited out. I’ve seen thousands of deleted scenes, I’m sure, and can think of only one I was mystified had been cut. Viewed by itself, the scene might be interesting in some fashion or another. But unless including makes the overall picture better—and as noted, that’s pretty darn rare—you’re better off without it.
It was fun to see Carpenter’s additions to Halloween. In the end, however, the overall film is diminished by their inclusion. All in all, the original version is much superior.
Check back next week to see how Loomis, Laurie and the Shape fare next.
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