18
Oct
11

Story Structure Day 22: Halloween (1978)

Director: John Carpenter

Writer: John Carpenter, Debra Hill

Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence, P.J. Soles, Nancy Loomis,  Nick Castle, Peter Griffith, John Michael Graham, Bryan Andrews

Plot: In Haddonfield, Illinois, 1963, a 6-year-old boy named Michael Myers inexplicably murders his older sister on Halloween Night. Michael is sent to a mental institution where, for 15 years, Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) attempts to treat the boy for his psychosis. Eventually, Loomis surrenders, believing the boy to be beyond redemption, and turns his efforts towards containing the monster that has grown up to become a brute of a man. On October 30, 1978, Michael (Nick Castle) escapes from the institution and begins a trek back to Haddonfield.

The next morning, the day of Halloween, high school senior Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) drops off a package at the old, empty Myers house as a favor to her realtor father (Peter Griffith). She and the child she babysits, Tommy Doyle (Bryan Andrews) relate the legend the Myers story has become, unaware that a now-masked Michael is watching them. Laurie and her friend Annie (Nancy Loomis) encounter Annie’s father, Sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers), who informs them about a break-in and theft of a Halloween mask from a store in town. Loomis recruits Brackett to help him both in searching for Michael and in keeping his presence in town a secret.

That night, Annie and Laurie are both on babysitting jobs until Annie drops off her charge with Laurie and Tommy across the street so she can spend the evening with her boyfriend, only to return to what she thinks is an empty house. Naturally, it’s not. Soon afterwards, Lynda (P.J. Soles) and her boyfriend Bob (John Michael Graham) come over and find the house empty, seeing a free reign for some amorous activities of their own. Instead, they simply give Michael two more victims to add to his count. Still-nervous Laurie, across the street, decides to check out the unnaturally quiet house, only to find Michael’s victims, including Annie laid out in a gruesome tableau beneath the stolen headstone of Judith Myers. Laurie screams, tries to flee, and winds up taking a tumble down the stairs to escape Michael. Hurt, she staggers across the street to protect the children, but Michael follows her. In the final scenes, Laurie and Michael engage in an incredible cat-and-mouse game for her life, until finally she sends the kids out to seek help, drawing Loomis’s attention. He arrives just in time to save Laurie, shooting Michael and sending him falling from the window. A shattered Laurie asks Loomis if it really was the Boogeyman. Loomis confirms that it was… as he looks out the window and sees that Michael is gone.

Thoughts: Not the first “slasher” film, of course (we’ve already discussed at least two others that fit in that category), John Carpenter’s Halloween is truly the one that created the template future slashers would follow. In a simple 20-day shoot, on a shoestring budget, Carpenter gave us the synthesis of the mysterious figure, the slow build-up of one death after another to lead to a final confrontation, the use of the killer as some sort of karmic punishment for teenagers that get wrapped up in the evils of sex and drugs and alcohol, and of course the Survivor Girl in Jamie lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode.

Carpenter also uses visual tricks to great effect. The long opening scene is a single-take shot, all from the point of view of little Michael, as he watches his sister with her boyfriend, waits until she’s alone, and makes his first kill. The audience doesn’t even realize it’s a point of view shot for the first minute or two, until we see Michael’s little clown-clad arm reach out and grab the kitchen knife. Once he puts on his mask, our vision is impaired and reduced to a pair of small eye-holes, which covers up just enough of the brutality of his sister’s murder to make it all the more horrifying. He bookends this at the end of the movie, after Michael’s disappearance, with images of the empty rooms and exterior of the house where the rampage took place. Although we don’t see Michael again at this point, the idea that we are again looking through his eyes strikes you immediately.

For pure horror atmosphere, Halloween is undoubtedly one of the greatest films ever made. Some of the earlier slasher prototypes – here I’m specifically thinking of Last House on the Left and Texas Chainsaw Massacre – spent a good deal of time on mundane or even goofy nonsense before delving into anything horrifying. Halloween starts with a murder, and although it’s some time before Michael kills again, there’s a pervasive feeling of dread and terror that lasts throughout the film. Carpenter also composed the movie’s theme, which has really become an iconic piece of scary music, right up there with the themes to Psycho and Jaws.

In fact, Carpenter obviously draws on the history of Psycho in several places: his killer is obsessed with slaying women, particularly those of his own family; Dr. Sam Loomis is named after the John Gavin character from Psycho; Michael’s knife –his stance – echoes “Mother” and her weapon as she stalked Marion Crane; even his heroine is played by Jamie Lee Curtis, real-life daughter of Janet Leigh, who played Norman Bates’s most famous victim. I’m pretty sure the film’s original title was The Babysitter Murders (or) I Love Hitchcock. In a curious bit of pre-reflection, the babysitters and their charges spend Halloween night watching the 50s sci-fi chiller The Thing From Another World, which Carpenter himself would remake a few years later, and which we’ll actually discuss here in a few days.

Michael, in this film, is almost omnipresent. He’s an enormous, white-faced ninja, appearing at random times, able to pop up from virtually anywhere, and always, always watching. When you consider how relatively little violence there is in the film – the death scenes are few and brief – it’s amazing how effective Michael’s presence is at creating the overwhelming sense of fear. At the same time, there’s an odd sense of innocence to the character… or at the very least, confusion, like he doesn’t fully comprehend anything he’s doing. Bob’s death in particular demonstrates this: Michael pins the boy to the wall hard enough to leave him dangling there in his death-gurgles. As he’s dying, Michael tilts his head at him, almost quizzically, like a puppy looking at a stranger he can’t quite figure out.

Oddly enough, the family obsession isn’t actually that clear in this first film, except for the fact that Michael’s original victim is his older sister. There’s no reason at this point, though, to believe that his madness is anything other than a random killing spree. Halloween II, also written by Carpenter and Hill, is probably one of the all-time great horror sequels. It picks up immediately after the climax of this film and the entirety of the action takes place on the same night: Halloween 1978. If one views the two of them together, as if it was one long film, you get a richer story and uncover much more about the Myers family – namely the fact that Laurie was adopted by the Strodes and is, in fact, Michael’s younger sister. I have no idea if Carpenter and Hill were thinking along these lines when they wrote the original screenplay, but in the sequel they pull out a revelation that makes the earlier installment better by adding a totally different subtext. (Contrast that to the Star Wars revelations: no matter how much you love the original film or Empire Strikes Back, don’t you always feel a little squicky now when Leia plants a wet one on Luke Skywalker?)

As much as Michael Myers became emblematic of the horror movie boogieman, so did Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode come to embody the Survivor Girl trope – the one girl who remains (relatively) clean and innocent while all her friends are busy drinking, smoking (anything they can get their hands on), and engaging in lots and lots of teenage sex. We go back to the old Horror Movie As Morality Play idea, as these other teens are picked off one at a time, leaving only the clean, sober, virginal one to make the final stand against the killer. And truly, Curtis’s final stand is one of the best ever. She’s scared, but she’s also tough and determined, more so to protect the children than to protect herself. At every step of those final scenes, while Michael stalks her through the house, her first concern is to protect the kids, then herself. It’s a heroic stance that makes us sympathize even more than we would have originally (and the Babysitter Versus the Boogeyman idea is already one that wins her a great deal of sympathy from the audience). When she’s scared, you buy the terror on her face wholeheartedly. When she’s angry, you wouldn’t want to be the one to cross her.

And yes, like every horror movie in the history of ever, you’ve got those scenes where you want to just scream at her to turn around, dammit, he’s right behind you! But you usually say this while laughing, knowing the teenager is going to bite it and you’re really just there to see how it’s going to happen. This is one time where you really want her to turn around before it’s too late.

The series went off the rails with its third installment, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, which didn’t feature Michael at all. The idea was to try to turn Halloween into an annual Tales From the Crypt-style anthology series, each installment telling a totally different scary story. It’s not a bad idea and it may have worked if it wasn’t that Halloween II had already cemented Michael as the star of the franchise and if Halloween III wasn’t such a hot mess. Future installments never quite matched the original two, drifting Michael further and further down the road of the supernatural, which undermined what made the original so great in the first place. In the first two films, Michael is a terrifying figure because he represents a hidden dark side that could exist even in the most seemingly innocent person, a darkness that could erupt at any time and become the shadow in the window or the boogeyman behind the closet door. Once you make Michael the victim of a curse or a demon, you lose that. So go out and watch the first two Halloween films as part of your seasonal festivities, and ignore the rest.

From the terror in the house next door, tomorrow we’re going to the depths of deep space for perhaps the greatest blend of science fiction and horror ever made: Ridley Scott’s Alien.

Blake M. Petit is the author of the superhero comedy novel, Other People’s Heroes, the suspense novel The Beginner and the Christmas-themed eBook A Long November. He’s also the co-host, with whoever the hell is available that week, of the 2 in 1 Showcase Podcast. E-mail him at BlakeMPetit@gmail.com.

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