Halloween movies month (special Día de los Muertos edition): Halloween

>> Saturday, November 01, 2008

Hi, I'm Fate
"...What Samuels was talking about is Fate. You see, Fate caught up with several lives here. No matter what course of action Collins took, he was destined to his own Fate."

-Laurie Strode's anonymous teacher


Well, of course I watched Halloween on Halloween. I think I said I was going, to didn't I?

I thought I heard something, but it's just the wind... with a kitchen knife... just the wind with a big ol' sharp knife in its hand...Of all the movies I've blogged about this month, John Carpenter's 1978 classic, Halloween may be the least technically accomplished. It's not because it's the lowest-budgeted film in the bunch (although a low-budget indie feature, Halloween had more than three times the budget of Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Halloween, it has to be pointed out, lacks the elegance of TCM, the style of The Abominable Doctor Phibes, the subtlety of The Haunting, the panache of Bubba-Ho-tep, the visual grandeur of Alien, or the ambitions of Martin. It's nonetheless a brutally effective film, largely on the strengths of Carpenter's infamous score (the main theme is perhaps one of the best known and most-imitated pieces of scary music this side of John Williams' score for Jaws, and an acting performance by Donald Pleasance that holds the movie together, although Carpenter's simple direction is quite effective and shouldn't be downplayed.

Still, it's hard not to notice the long string of continuity goofs and miscellaneous mistakes. Although the film is set in Illinois on Halloween (natch), it's all-too-obvious the whole thing was shot in southern California at the other end of the year (Halloween was shot in the spring, in fact). Although it's purportedly a fall evening, much of the exposition unfolds during a long afternoon-into-evening, and night comes like a curtain being drawn: abruptly, it's pitch black, with no sunset at all. And then there's the annoying mystery rain: since the shooting schedule was too tight to allow the streets to dry out, we see characters walking down suddenly wet streets and sidewalks when it was bone-dry (and, did I mention, a pleasant spring day?) just a shot before.

It's the bogeyman!Halloween wasn't the first slasher film, but it was sort of the father to all the slasher films that came after. Psycho was a character study, and so was Texas Chainsaw Massacre in its perverse way. But Michael Myers, ostensibly the killer in Halloween isn't a character at all--and that's why I say "ostensibly," because Myers is really a symbol for Death or Fate in Halloween, a gambit given away in part by the strange, rambling lecture given by one of Laurie Strode's high school teachers and quoted at the beginning of this entry. Indeed, in the movie's credits, the "character" is famously identified as "The Shape" (played by Nick Castle). And that's how he appears throughout Halloween, as a shape: he's a shadow on a wall, a silhouette in the foreground, a ghostly face floating in the darkness over somebody's shoulder.

Being Fate, of course he can't be killed. He's not even really a "he," it's a man-shaped supernatural force that drifts through a small town and leaves a small pile of bodies (unlike the epic body counts of the films that followed, Halloween features only five nearly-bloodless onscreen murders and one offscreen killing, making a total of six victims with a fifteen-year gap between the first victim and the last five). And being Fate, or Death, it ultimately makes sense that "Myers" violates the laws of space and time during his rampage--Death doesn't have to pick a window that will fit him, can disappear completely and totally by stepping to the side, can be faced but never really vanquished.

Carpenter and Hill actually finesse this aspect of the film very well, with some fine help onscreen from Pleasance. Unfortunately, the filmmakers who followed Halloween with knock-offs and sequels in the following decades, didn't get or chose not to imitate the quasi-supernatural aspects of the Myers persona, or The Shape: Halloween may deserve credit for being an innovative and effective film (it really is scary as hell, which is ultimately what matters most), but it also bears some responsibility for all the awful clichés of the genre: less-magical serial killers also violate the laws of physics now, and for no other reason than the script requires it and the script is a knockoff of Halloween.

I know, let's put every teenager in town in the school gym and surround it with snipers... nah, too easy...While the movie is famous for being Jamie Lee Curtis' big-screen debut--and she's mostly adequate to the demands of playing Laurie Strode and shows a glimmer of being the talented actress she's grown into--it really is the late Donald Pleasance who holds the movie together. Pleasance's Dr. Loomis (named after a character in Psycho) is a man whose gone from trying to help a troubled child to becoming a terrified man who has unsuccessfully tried to keep evil incarnate penned up for more than a decade. It's easy to think of Kurt Russell as being Carpenter's muse, but Carpenter really had two during his golden age: Russell may have been the action-figure side of Carpenter's persona, but Pleasance was Carpenter's intellectual side (for better or worse), and if Carpenter's recent movies have lacked any sense of thoughtfulness it may be because he doesn't have Pleasance to eloquently pontificate for him. Dr. Sam Loomis in Halloween really isn't much of a psychologist, he's exposition and warning and foreshadowing given legs and an English accent, and he's pretty wonderful at it.

I'd conclude, I suppose, with this thought: that Halloween is one of those movies that manages to be a great film because of its influence and significance and because it really does (mostly) work and definitely gets across its main point of terrifying its audience, despite the unfortunate fact that it's not necessarily a good film in terms of the technical sides of filmmaking. But it was Halloween, so I watched Halloween, and it can still make me nervous and it can still make me jump, and that's what matters, right?



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