Halloween (1978)

1508

Halloween (1978)
Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasance, Nancy Loomis, PJ Soles, Charles Cyphers
Director:  John Carpenter
Nutshell:  Carpenter’s brilliance had audiences gripped world wide as this tiny independent film starring nobody went on to become one of the most successful indie films of all time.
(The animated poster is borrowed courtesy of tellwut.com)

 

Not much point trying to add yet another review of a film that is now regarded quite correctly as nothing short of being a masterpiece, and not only as a horror film but also as a work of cinema of the finest quality and execution.  I can only share my personal experience when we watched this film on its first run in London at the then Odeon Chelsea on Punk infested trendy King’s Road.  Those were the days that multiplexes were just about to sprout like a bad rash all over the world but the Odeon on King’s Road was still a great single screen cinema with a capacity of 700 and every seat was taken as a pre-cell phone audience took just moments to start having their nerves shredded and jangled like seldom before.

It was nothing short of sheer exhilaration to actually experience an audience that was utterly captivated to pin drop silence and ultimately pulverized by the unrelenting tension that Carpenter lays of thick until finally, at long last, the mayhem is set fee.  Then Carpenter, aided by his own magnificent score goes on to crank up the tension to the point that an audience of 700 was squirming as one in their seats in and every single one of us held our breath along with Laurie Strode as Michael prowled behind the closet door.  It was the kind of experience that sadly doesn’t take place other than at film festivals where audiences largely respect the films enough to turn their cell phones off and also are able to get involved to the extent that the whole audience behaves as one, to a man.  Halloween is a film that had the ability to take its audience by the scruff of the neck and not let go till the grisly end.  John Carpenter’s grip on the audience as Halloween grew week after week after week just on sheer word of mouth, was cinematic mastery of another level.

Despite many considering Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom and Black Christmas by Bob Clark to be pre cursors and they certainly have a point but stylistically and for sheer mastery of execution, Halloween stands up high on its own pedestal, finally recognized as the best and the classiest of all the slasher films from the late 70’s and early 80s.    There followed a flood of imitators but sadly they started to get the plot horribly wrong and hastened a rapid downward spiral from which there was no recovery.  The first hugely successful rip off was Friday the 13th which went on to score huge box office numbers but was a different style of slasher film even if the premise had become a template already.

The POV camera was the most mimicked element of the Halloween but the music and all the little masterful techniques were  replicated by a bunch of hacks trying to make a fast buck but they started to get the “emphasis” wrong and we started to shape slasher films that were less about creating an atmosphere or unrelenting tension with hardly any bloodshed or gore that was Carpenter’s Halloween and the next slasher to hit the bullseye had already decided that it was the creative, gory death done by the masterful special effects and gore genius Tom Savini as its main attraction rather than to concentrate on the sense of dread that Halloween so perfectly invoked.

In Friday the 13th you basically have a film which is sequence of increasingly elaborate (as much as the censors could take in those days) scenarios where the shock factor is the gore and the suggested brutality.  There is a clear shift away from creating tension to creating shock value and Halloween avoided the grand guignol style of Savinis’s gore which gained more and more attention and success in the wake of the success of Friday the 13th which in turn spawned imitators which all went for emphasis on the elaborate gory kill rather than creating fear.

Slasher movies lost the plot almost immediately post Halloween with gore being considered the scare factor which it never really was.  Films like the shamelessly derivative He Knows You’re Alone not only borrowed the camera style and attempted to steal the same stalking menacing scenario and even went as far as reworking the soundtrack to the point when its almost a parody of the Halloween score.  Countless other slasher films arrive each with increasingly elaborate death scenes and more and more scope for Tom Savini to show his mastery (The Prowler AKA Rosemary’s Killer comes to mind among others) but sadly the shift of emphasis from creating tension rather than creating simply a bunch of sequences ending in an elaborate and gory death with lots of blood caused a little queasiness and some shock but no real horror that would live with you after the movie which all the great horror movies can manage.  Jaws had people screaming at mere shadows in swimming pools, however ridiculous it sounds, it happened.  Halloween had people hesitating to turn corners lined with hedges and bushes, the lurking figure of Michael Myers was enough to evoke utter dread without one drop of blood or any gore and special effects master to rely on.

Halloween created its tension through the masterful direction of its director and the superb script which gave life to the characters rendering them as people you liked and cared for rather than just some shapely teenager to show off some flesh before having their flesh taken apart in horrific style as quickly became the norm for almost all the following slasher films.

The one film that did manage to create a sense of similar unease and tension came decades after Halloween in the form of the hugely loved or hugely hated Haute Tension from Alexandre Aja of France.  This twisted little masterpiece of slasher movie making merged the two elements of gore, shock value and tension quite beautifully and left a viewer reeling, mostly out of sheer nail-biting tension and it was done with superb style, some slightly dodgy but very nasty gore and a sublimely atmospheric music score which somehow gelled together to create a similar adrenaline rush of dread and unrelenting tension similar to a what John Carpenter achieved with Halloween.

Betsy Palmer of Friday the 13th and Swami ji, like Jason and Mom.

All the other zillion slasher films, some successful, some not all borrowed shamelessly from the Halloween template but piled on the gore effects which became tedious and repetitive very, very soon and thus slasher movies started to get familiar and stale at a very rapid pace (think Happy Birthday to Me) and soon turned into parodies of themselves as the style and manner and the template had been repeated to death until finally realizing this, Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson conjured up the savvy Scream which took the slasher movie template and paid homage to it while also taking the mickey out of the whole “establishes slasher movie rules” that had now been cemented because of the thousand imitations that followed Carpenters great film.  Unfortunately the succeeded in cloning Friday the 13th far better and not Halloween which remains several classes and cuts above the rest of the slasher pretenders and rightfully so

One recalls the early 80s debate when the discussion would arise…” did you like Friday the 13th more or Halloween?” and though there is nothing but love for Friday the 13th  and the memories of meeting with and chatting with and indeed sharing a little smooch with Betsy Palmer (2008) will forever be a highlight of my life, it really cannot and should not be compared to Halloween with is in another realm of film making altogether.

Myself and 699 others who viewed the film at the Odeon in Chelsea’s upmarket Kings Road back in 1978 on that night, I suspect many of them will forever remember the experience of collectively being pulverized for 90 minutes relentlessly till the end of the film and even that comes as a sucker punch and you left the theatre thinking……………no way, HE is still out there and that he is in fact waiting “behind the bush”.   Never have I ever hesitated to walk home turning corners of hedged and bushy gardens and homes along the way.  Never has a shape or a mask appeared so menacing.  And quite simply , never has there been a slasher film quite like John Carpenters Halloween.  Clearly I am not alone in the way I feel because two years or so later when the sequel opened and I forced a friend to drive me miles to watch it in downtown Boston, I have never encountered an audience that was so wildly excited to watch a  movie at any stage in my life.  The anticipation levels were as mine were but this audience could not hold their feverish excitement at all and the first 30 minutes was the audience just getting to grips with their excitement.  When Carpenter’s signature tune kicks off in Halloween II, the entire cinema was hand clapping rhythmically to the sounds…..it was a thrilling and unique experience once again even if Halloween 2 ultimately wasn’t quite the great film it was following but it had some of the same qualities some of the time and that was enough to satisfy some of us perfectly well.

There is not just one reason Halloween stands tall and remains to this date the best slasher film ever created and stylistically and creatively nothing short of a cinematic masterpiece.   It may have lost the ability to shock and surprise but that’s hardly surprising considering all its techniques and its style has been aped a million times but those of us who know, will know that Halloween was the film that did it first.  Michael Myers is the original slasher and Halloween remains the one to beat…and thus far Haute Tension gave it a befitting nod but the rest are still trying to get the right balance between creating a real sense of dread, tension and fear while others sadly are still caught up with just creating some shocking gore that doesn’t scare, it just revolts.  1976’s The Omen could be “blamed” as the film that introduced audiences to the “elaborately staged gore set piece”, but Halloween eschewed that and yet the imitators found creating gore and shock much easier than creating a body of work that would have an audience chewing off its nails, sitting nervously on the edge of their seats, being pulverized by tension.  That is what Halloween was about, not about cheap gory set ups and shock effects.

There can be pages volumes of discussion about Halloween vs Friday the 13th and slasher films in general, but can there be any doubt that Halloween stands above while the others are really rather repetitive.  Perhaps of the imitators My Bloody Valentine has stood the test of time better than some but even that had more of an emphasis on gore than it did on the stalking fear but it did have atmosphere and some mood and the best killers mask since Michael Myers legendary William Shatner mask from the local Walmart.

Halloween still remains the king of all Slasher movies and rightfully so and it is with muted enthusiasm that the latest remake/reworking of the film is about to be released with Jamie Lee Curtis reprising her Laurie Strode character and judging by the trailers and some of the reviews from early screenings, this one is attempting to get the dread that came over the town of Haddonfield somewhat in the style of the original and with the film being scored by John Carpenter again and indeed the very same mask used as in the original.  For old die-hard Halloween fans, and there are legions out there, the heart beats just a little quicker in anticipation then it has for any of the other dire sequels that have been churned out over the years, most of them total abominations and an insult to the classic original film.