HALLOWEEN (1978)




HALLOWEEN poster artwork



SPOILER INFORMATION



Released: 1978
Production: DEBRA HILL for Compass International
Direction: JOHN CARPENTER
Screenplay: JOHN CARPENTER and DEBRA HILL
Cinematography: DEAN CUNDEY
Editing: TOMMY WALLACE and CHARLES BORNSTEIN
Music: JOHN CARPENTER
Running Time: 93 minutes

Principal Characters:

DONALD PLEASENCE.....Dr. Loomis
JAMIE LEE CURTIS.....Laurie
WILL SANDIN.....Michael Myers (younger)
NICK CASTLE.....Michael Myers (older)
NANCY LOOMIS.....Annie
P.J. SOLES.....Lynda
BRIAN ANDREWS.....Tommy
KYLE RICHARDS.....Lindsey


ESSAY BY PAT H. BROESKE



Despite the fact that Halloween is credited with initiating a disturbing trend toward graphic screen violence, it stands as a hallmark within the horror genre. With its relentless, visceral delivery resulting in effective shock appeal, Halloween joins a select group of low-budget films, including George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973), that extended the boundaries of the horror film. (Although The Exorcist, 1973, had a similar effect, it achieved its fame largely through a big budget and a name cast.)

In terms of manipulative screen horrors, Halloween redefined audience expectations. In years to come, however, it is probable that the film will be best known as a showcase for John Carpenter's terse and invigorating directorial style. Halloween served as Carpenter's springboard to recognition among audiences and throughout the industry. Its manipulative, grisly nature aside, Halloween is also extremely well made, and although many critics have been contemptuous of the onslaught of bloody successors triggered by the film and of the (mostly) nihilist views of Carpenter's films, there is unanimity that the director is an excellent craftsman.

Filmed during twenty days for a scant $320,000, Halloween had grossed in excess of sixty million dollars by 1981. The most successful independent film ever made to date, it remains a perennial favorite at the box office and on television. Released in 1978 with phenomenal success, it spawned near-record numbers of imitators during the late 1970's and into the 1980's. Sporting such uneasy titles as He Knows You're Alone (1980), Don't Go in the House (1980), When a Stranger Calls (1979); and a penchant for holidays, as evidenced by Prom Night (1980), Graduation Day (1981), and Happy Birthday to Me (1981); and killers brandishing sharp-edged weapons such as knives, hatchets, razors, and chainsaws, these films evoked a kind of mad scientist syndrome, with the filmmakers wielding the scalpels. Halloween popularized the notion that a successful horror film can be a young filmmaker's ticket into the industry. It is notable that of the many who attempted to cash in on the bloody screen trend, however, none have shown Carpenter's skill at creating critically admired, commercially viable products.

In Halloween, Carpenter offers an inventive treatment of the familiar plot about an escaped maniac who terrorizes and murders teenage girls. A skilled trickster, he utilizes his mastery of the fluid camera to convince audiences that every space and every shadow is threatening. Moreover, through the use of a subjective camera which records events from the killer's point of view, each character seems a potential victim. These unnerving qualities serve to underline Carpenter's belief that "film is a feeling medium."

A graduate of the cinema school at the University of Southern California (where he did music, editing, cowriting, and some codirecting on the 1970 Academy Award-winning short film, The Resurrection of Bronco Billy), Carpenter garnered initial industry attention with his 1974 feature film, Dark Star. A space saga parody about "spaced-out" astronauts, the film did not succeed at the box office at the time of its release, but has since become a popular cult film on the midnight circuit. Carpenter's collaborator on the film and also its star was Dan O'Bannon, who went on to coauthor the story and screenplay for the blockbuster Alien (1979).

Carpenter made Assault on Precinct 13 in 1976. One of his most wrenching works, the film is a grim depiction of a crime spree in a Los Angeles ghetto; after taking a blood oath, gang members launch a kamikaze attack on a nearly deserted police precinct. Independently made on a $200,000 budget, the film bears several now-familiar Carpenter trademarks. Liberally doused with blood, the film presents violence with an ironic, doomed edge; in fact, the violence is unleashed with the shocking death of an eight-year-old child who is shot at point blank range while ordering an ice cream cone. Once the warfare begins, there are additional sardonic inferences, including the fact that two of the film's "good guys," those defending the precinct, are Death Row prisoners. Known for paying homage to veteran directors he admires, Carpenter gives innumerable Hawksian traits to Assault on Precinct 13, a film which essentially transplants Howard Hawks's Rio Bravo (1959) to the ghetto. Carpenter himself has labeled this film an "urban Western," and he edited the film under the name of John T. Chance, the name of John Wayne's character in Rio Bravo.

Although Assault on Precinct 13 is today recognized as a shattering foray into the crime genre, reaction was lukewarm at the time of its release. It was not until 1977, when the film emerged as the surprise hit of the London Film Festival, that Assault on Precinct 13 and Carpenter were "discovered." As a result, producer Irwin Yablans, whose company had distributed the film, approached Carpenter about directing the first motion picture from his newly formed Compass International. Yablans had a concept called "The Babysitter Murders," which ultimately evolved into Halloween.

Mirroring familiar low-budget genre traits, Halloween abounds in ominous shadows, nubile teenaged girls, and illicit sex. The film opens with a brutal murder, and the story then jumps ahead fifteen years (this time-shift ploy was much imitated by succeeding "knife" films), when the lunatic has returned to continue his terror spree. While the basic format is certainly predictable, Halloween is not without distinctive strains. In the character of the murderous Michael Myers there are mythical qualities suggesting he is not human, but rather, the embodiment of evil. Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence), the psychiatrist who observed Michael for fifteen years, alludes to the theory throughout the film. "This isn't a man," he tells an investigator, describing a "blank, pale, emotionless face and the blackest eyes" that stand for "purely and simply evil." To the ire of many reviewers, Halloween's murders appear to be precipitated by illicit sex or the intention of illicit sex. Indeed, the film's heroine is a virgin who survives because her repressed sexuality gives her the strength to fight back against the relentless killer.

To a lesser degree, Halloween also examines the role fate plays in lives. This intriguing nuance surfaces when Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) helps her real estate agent father by dropping off a key at the notorious Myers house, the scene of the brutal knifing fifteen years earlier. Unknown to Laurie, Michael (Nick Castle) is hiding inside the house watching her as she makes her brief stop. Later that day, during a classroom discussion about fate ("fate caught up with several lives here," drones the teacher), Laurie finds herself inexplicably uneasy. Staring out the classroom window, she briefly glimpses a figure in the distance watching her. Now, fate will catch up with her life.

Set in the seemingly quaint town of Haddonfield, Illinois, Halloween opens on Halloween night, 1963, with a suspenseful sequence that speaks for the film's suspenseful pulse. Watching through the windows of a wood frame house, we are voyeurs as a teenage girl and her boyfriend engage in petting; their passions lead them upstairs to the bedroom. Later, after the boyfriend has left the house (with an obligatory "I'll call you soon"), the audience realizes that the voyeurism is actually the killer's point of view. As the camera moves indoors one sees through his eyes, around corners and through doorways. In the kitchen a menacing knife is pulled from a drawer; then the camera climbs the stairs to the bedroom. Once inside, vision is somewhat impaired, for like the killer, the audience is seeing through the eyes of a confining Halloween mask, which is similar to a view through binoculars. A quick survey of the bedroom reveals soiled bedsheets and a teenaged girl, partially nude, brushing her hair at a vanity table. Turning in surprise, she recognizes her assailant; it is her brother Michael (Will Sandin), and she is unable to fend off his furious stabbing. Afterward, the killer descends the stairs and wanders out the front door. As the sequence comes to a close, a shocked couple arrives home to discover their young son clutching a bloodied knife and standing motionless in his Halloween clown costume.

The story line then shifts to Smith's Grove, Illinois, on October 30, 1978. Dr. Loomis, who has deemed it necessary to keep Michael institutionalized, is distraught when Michael manages to escape in the institution's car. Again the setting shifts, back to Haddonfield. It is now Halloween day, and Michael has returned home.

Throughout the day Loomis attempts to retrieve his patient, convinced that he will return to Haddonfield, and he vainly tries to make local officials understand the imminent danger. Meanwhile, Laurie begins to sense that she is being stalked. Her nervousness grows when she sights a person watching her; he wears a plain face mask which lends an eerie, dreamlike quality as viewed from a distance. Tommy (Brian Andrews), the youngster she frequently babysits, endures the torment of classmates that day who insist that "the bogeyman" is going to come after him. Later that night, when Laurie babysits Tommy, both will realize their nightmares.

Laurie's friend Annie (Nancy Loomis) also has a babysitting job, across the street from Tommy's house. Unlike Laurie, however, Annie is rather negligent of her young ward, Lindsey (Kyle Richards), and plans a sexual tryst with her boyfriend. Another girl, Lynda (P.J. Soles), and her boyfriend also have a sexual encounter at the house where Annie is sitting; "Everyone's having a good time tonight," Laurie says glumly, peering through venetian blinds at the house across the street which is the site of the planned romances. Of course, it is Laurie (and Tommy and Lindsey) who will have the best of times that night, for they will manage to survive the relentless attack.

Annie, Lynda, and Lynda' boyfriend are gruesomely murdered. Although Laurie is wounded, stabbed in the shoulder, and dazed by the events, she fights back. Ultimately, it is she who drives the knife through Michael; but still he comes at her, with the attack ending only when Loomis arrives in the nick of time and coolly shoots the murderer. Stabbed and shot, Michael's body tumbles from the bedroom window onto the ground below. Turning to her rescuer in a state of near shock, a bloodied Laurie asks, "That's the bogeyman?" "As a matter of fact," says Loomis, "that was." The supernatural thread becomes joltingly real when the camera returns for a final glimpse of Michael, only to reveal that his body is gone.

In addition to directing and co-writing Halloween (along with his partner, writer-producer Debra Hill), Carpenter scored the film's erratic music, a simple but effective piano melody that repeats constantly, signifying pending suspense. (In films such as The Fog, 1980, and Escape from New York, 1981, Carpenter's scores are heavily synthesized.) Applauded by audiences for its edge-of-the-seat suspense but condemned by some critics for its violence, Halloween is a taut thriller that serves as Carpenter's industry calling card. It also stands as a memorable introduction for Jamie Lee Curtis, the daughter of Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, who makes her film debut in Halloween. This casting ploy garnered press because, in a sense, she was following her actress mother's footsteps, since Leigh played the famed victim of the shower assault in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). Curtis has since gone on to "scream queen" status, with roles in horror vehicles such as Prom Night, Terror Train (1980), and Road Games (1979). Within the genre she is known for her gutsy characterizations (always the heroine, she never "dies") and commendable work.

Carpenter's credits since Halloween have included the inventive ghost film, The Fog, about a band of bloodthirsty leper pirates, and Escape from New York, a commercially popular film which looks at the future through a grim, clouded crystal ball (among other things, Manhattan Island is a maximum security prison in the year 1997). Carpenter is equally skilled working within the framework of television. In 1978, he made the television film Someone's Watching Me (released theatrically in Europe as High Rise), a thriller inspired by Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954) which starred Lauren Hutton. In 1979, Carpenter's longtime interest in rock and roll and the legendary Elvis Presley culminated with his three-hour television film Elvis. A ratings blockbuster (toppling much-publicized competition from network showings of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Gone With the Wind), Elvis starred one-time Disney studio star Kurt Russell in the title role. Russell's performance was one of the television season's biggest surprises, and his role as the surly antihero Snake Plissken in Escape from New York was one of the most widely lauded of 1981. Russell is presently at work on a third Carpenter project, a remake of the Howard Hawks film The Thing (1951).

Carpenter, who served as executive producer for the sequel Halloween II (1981), tends to work with a familiar ensemble. Producer Hill often teams with him; Curtis has starred for him twice, the second time in The Fog; Castle, who plays Halloween's deadly Michael Myers (the credits label the character "The Shape"), coauthored the script for Escape from New York with Carpenter. Carpenter's wife, Adrienne Barbeau, noted for her success in television, including the long-running series Maude as well as for her voluptuous figure, also appears regularly in his films.

Prior to achieving his status as a versatilte, inventive filmmaker, Carpenter authored the screenplay "Eyes," which, after some dozen rewrites, became the 1978 film Eyes of Laura Mars. This film, which departs widely from Carpenter's original script, is not at all in keeping with his since-evolved style. "I like to be as simple as possible. I don't like to show off," says Carpenter; thus, his films have concise story lines and economical technical sleekness. As a result, many critics argue that his work lacks defined characters with whom the audience can sympathize or relate. To date, however, the Carpenter flair for fast-paced, high-action storytelling---sometime at the expense of characterizations---is a signature of an industry original. If the director's "great" film is yet to come, his track record is an exciting one.



From MAGILL'S SURVEY OF CINEMA.

Essay © 1981 SALEM PRESS. All Rights Reserved.

Poster artwork © 1978 COMPASS INTERNATIONAL PICTURES. All Rights Reserved.

Title and logo designed by Karen Rappaport




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