Tuesday, August 31, 2010


John Carpenter's "Halloween" (**** out of ****) qualifies as both a trick and a treat.

First, the unlikely notion that an independently-produced horror movie made for a miserly $320-thousand could amass $75-million dollars and remain popular twenty-two years afterward constitutes quite a trick. Incidentally, Carpenter took twenty days to shoot "Halloween." Second, not only did "Halloween" catapult newcomer Jamie Lee Curtis to stardom {she reigned as the 'Scream Queen' in a spate of "Halloween" knock-offs, like Paul Lynch's "Prom Night" (1980) and Roger Spottiswoode's "Terror Train" (1980)} but also it spawned six sequels and two remakes of varying quality. Naturally, none surpasses the consummate skill and artistry of Carpenter's seminal slaughterhouse saga. Arguably, if Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" carved out a new sub-category for slashers among 1960s' horror movies, "Halloween" hacked out a niche in cinematic history when it revived the genre. According to producer Irwin Yablans, "Halloween 2" appeared primarily because scores of "Halloween" clones came out and coined considerable box-office success. Second, "Halloween" suffices as a treat because it focuses on far more than gratuitous blood & gore. Essentially, the film dwells on the cosmic issue of 'Evil' and Man's inability to combat both Evil and Fate as entities at work in our Universe.

Carpenter directs with commendable restraint considering the genre. Anybody who pans "Halloween" as tawdry and exploitative misses out on what elevates this minor chiller above its clones and makes it worth watching beyond the usual cursory viewings. Although it depicts savage violence, "Halloween" spills pints rather than buckets of blood. If you're counting, three females and two males perish. He doesn't rely on sophisticated special effects or ghastly prosthetic make-up appliances. He generates tension, suspense, and nerve-wracking horror by deliberately pacing the action and doling out shocks and surprises. "Halloween's" stark narrative simplicity propels it to its slang-bang ending. Carpenter and co-scenarist Debra Hill surgically pared down the plot to its absolute essentials. They relate a story with a beginning, middle, and an ending in straightforward fashion. Indeed, characterization remains deplorably one-dimensional, but the cast is convincing enough so it really doesn't matter. Moreover, they play roles that wouldn't experience radical growth over a 24 hour period, unless they wind up dying. Michael personifies Evil from start to finish. After he escapes from the Illinois State Hospital, Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance of "You Only Live Twice") sounds the alarm: "The evil has gone from here!" Fate deploys Michael as an instrument, and Fate allows Michael to thrive with impunity in the end as the only truly phantasmagoric character.

Essentially, "Halloween" is a thriller with a monster for a killer. The horrific elements of Michael's villainous appearance and his supernatural qualities make this a chiller. Visually, Carpenter links a classroom discussion of Fate to Michael as the killer sits parked outside Laurie's school in a station wagon. Laurie notices the station wagon parked across the street from her school and spots the same station wagon later when her friend and she are walking down the street. However, Laurie doesn't lay eyes on Michael for the first time until she sees him in broad daylight standing on the sidewalk by a hedge. Furthermore, nothing superfluous clutters up the narrative, clocking in at a lean, mean 92 minutes. One scene depicts Dr. Loomis advocating Michael's prolonged incarceration in a mental institution. Of course, the squeamish should watch "Halloween" in the company of somebody responsible, since the film concerns some unsavory themes, such as a murderous juvenile, a lunatic on the rampage with a blood lust nothing except death can quench, and the security of hospitals charged with keeping these maniacs locked-up behind bars. The irony of a psychiatrist who totes around a revolver with a gun permit and acts like a vigilante who shoots first and ask questions afterward represents still another topic for discussion.

Carpenter and Hill confine the action to three acts. They set up the characters efficiently enough, introducing Michael first, then Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence of "The Great Escape") and his nurse Marion Chambers (Nancy Stephens of "Russkies"), and finally Michael's victims. Laurie Strode, Annie Brackett, and Lynda van der Klok comprise the trio of high school girls/victims that Michael sets out to slaughter. While Annie and Lynda are sexually active sirens, Laurie is the "Girl Scout" of the group. She doesn't have a date for the school dance and is either shy or afraid to ask a guy out. She fits the classification of a sexually repressed girl, a character who typically survives the slasher because in a sense she reflects elements of his own repression. Once Michael makes the 150 mile drive to Haddonfield, the plot concerns when the characters converge on Lindsey Wallace's house where the murders transpire. Quotable dialogue reverberates throughout this slickly made white-knuckled thriller. During a telephone conversation, Laurie learns Annie has spoken to a guy the former has a crush on, and Laurie's responds: "Are you fooling around again? Well, I'll kill you if this is a joke." Despite a number of flaws and flubs, "Halloween" has managed to withstand the ravages of time. One big question the original left blank dealt with Michael's apparent obsession with Laurie Strode. "Halloween 2" accounts for this mystery in a way that "The Empire Strikes Back" would alter Luke Skywalker's destiny. Ultimately, Michael epitomizes Evil incarnate as the inexorable catalyst in horror movies, just as the Terminator evokes a similar quality in science fiction.

"Halloween" adheres to several horror movie conventions. First, mankind can vanquish Evil with a capital E in battles but cannot altogether conqueror it. Generally, the best horror movies provide closure of the worst sort. The heroes may survive, but so too may the villains. Sure, the improbable ending with a villain recovering not only from a fall from a balcony but also six bullets weakens the credibility of "Halloween." Nevertheless, successful horror movies require larger-than-life monsters, and Michael attains a legendary status at fade-out by being able to waltz away with six slugs in him. Happily, Donald Pleasance's Dr. Loomis doesn't react with either surprise or alarm at Michael's resilience. Bullets cannot stop Michael because he possesses supernatural qualities. Little Tommy refers to Michael as the 'Bogeyman' and assures Laurie that nobody can kill the 'Bogeyman.' At fade-out, Laurie asks Loomis if Michael were the 'Bogeyman,' and he affirms that fact. No, you don't have to watch "Halloween" only during the actual holiday itself to appreciate this seasonal chiller.

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