Friday, July 10, 2009

Carpenter's Tools: Halloween

John Carpenter's first two features showcased an impressive talent who had a knack for getting good-looking shots on a shoestring budget. He was a fair distance from his deliberately campy '80s era, the one that would define him for many, but he was already developing his signature style: stately, darkly lit static and smooth tracking shots, suspenseful POV angles and a refreshing inability to take himself too seriously. Carpenter's $100,000 low-key action film Assault on Precinct 13 paid homage to George A. Romero, but it is this follow-up, made for $300,000 -- is he like the McGuyver of filmmakers or something? -- which delved into his love of supernatural horror and forever established the director as a cult icon.

Halloween wasn't necessarily the first slasher picture: indeed, Carpenter and co-writer Debra Hill freely admit borrowing from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Black Christmas and Hitchcock's great Psycho, all of which contain a number of details that became future slasher tropes. But Carpenter's film kick-started the genre, previously explored almost exclusively in Italian Giallo films and the American grindhouse pictures they inspired. Those films, however, cared less for creating an atmosphere of tension like the more mainstream films just mentioned and instead simply strove to pour so much gore on the screen it practically splattered the actual print. Halloween, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre before it, ran in the opposite direction, keeping gore to a minimum even as they sparked controversies for their alleged vulgar content.

Indeed, it's strange, though perhaps inevitable, that this film inspired countless imitations which all completely missed the point. Heck, the slasher genre has become so intertwined with gore and torture porn that there isn't a snowball's chance in hell this film would get made today. Consider this: for the first 50 minutes of the film, only a single murder occurs on-screen (well, unless you count a dog, and even then you just see its corpse). The rest is entirely devoted to establishing a mood. Name me one slasher film made since that devotes an entire half of its film to establishing character and tension.

Carpenter builds this atmosphere through a series of agonizingly long takes, ones with only brief glimpses of Michael Myers, who escaped his mental hospital in transit to a maximum security prison. 15 years ago, he brutally stabbed his sister -- which we see in a creepy POV shot through the slits of a Halloween mask -- and now he sets off to return home and kill again. Upon reaching town, he sets his sights on a gang of teenagers: Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), Annie (Nancy Loomis) and Lynda (P.J. Soles). They're set to baby-sit kids tonight, though I'm a bit confused why a parent would force their kids to stay inside while they went out on Halloween. Well, the backers wanted a movie about baby sitters, so I guess even independent films don't always guarantee total artistic freedom.

But story matters little in Halloween. Myers is, as the children aptly call him, "the Bogeyman," and he will stalk through the three houses occupied by his targets until he kills them all. That's not to say that there's nothing to the film, however, only that Carpenter devotes his time to creeping us out instead of piling on the endless exposition that absolutely destroys so many horror films today (see: The Unborn). Carpenter knows that the greatest fear is fear itself, the dread of the unknown, and so we are just given evil incarnate.

The only real exposition comes from Myers' psychiatrist, Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance), comes after him and attempts to warn the police. "I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized what was living behind that boy's eyes was purely and simply... evil." On paper, this seems a bit self-important and points toward some terrible overacting, but Pleasance absolutely nails his role. His speeches do not bog down the film because he delivers them on the verge of wild-eyed terror; he knows what's in store for this town if they don't find and stop Michael, and it chills him to his core.

The first hour is an outright masterpiece of pacing and direction. Those long takes give every scene a sense of dread with objects not suddenly popping up in the foreground so much as slowly materializing out of focus behind the characters. When Laurie sees Michael leering from behind a shrub near the beginning, she slowly walks toward him as the camera glides along in front of her slowly and the music builds, only to turn when Laurie reaches the hedge to reveal nothing. Later, Annie is on the phone with Laurie as Michael stands outside waiting to make his move. At several spots we expect him to burst through the open kitchen door and kill the prattling teen, and at one point she even looks out the door and we hear a sharp gasp, only for the shot to cut to reveal that it was just Laurie chuckling. Every single shot, it seems, raises the tension.

The teenagers are occasionally stilted, yet they act like real people, and Curtis is likable as the chaste, bookish gal who would become a staple of the genre. They treat the eerie atmosphere around them with the indifference that might strike an audience as stupidity, but honestly, how many of you assume that a soulless killer is coming for you when your hear a dog barking?

Sadly, when Myers gets down to the actual killing, the film loses its way a bit. His dispatches of the other teens are suggestive and horrifying -- particularly when he swiftly kills Lynda's boyfriend and we see only him looking quizzically into the victim's lifeless eyes. But his efficiency makes his inability to kill Laurie all the more glaring: in a fantastic scene, Laurie discovers all the bodies that Michael has set up in a bedroom and his white mask slowly reveals itself behind her. Then he goes to stab her and somehow misses. Later, he also launches a surprise attack, only to hit a spot on the couch nearly a foot away from her.

Setting those faults aside, however, Halloween is still a hell of a gripping ride, thanks largely to Carpenter's score. Carpenter's music is a big part of what makes his films so entertaining, but the soundtrack for Halloween must surely be his best. That simple piano theme is as iconic as Myers himself. The score isn't nearly as boisterous and manipulative as, say, Psycho's, yet it keeps you on the edge of your seat even when we never see the carnage to go along with it. Its simplicity, the simplicity of all of Carpenter's scores, complement his stark shooting style, and I've yet to see a better combination of the two in the man's work.

Because Halloween really launched the slasher genre as a mainstream genre and not simply an exploitation movie, it has been at the center of numerous debates over its content, as the genre as a whole is often prone to misogyny and sadism. Misogyny is indeed a terrible attribute of the genre, one that keeps me away from it as much as, well, the sadism. But Laurie is a resourceful person who fights back against this monster. Is she a genius? No, because she's a teenager. That sort of mentality that a woman who is not entirely self-sufficient is weak is ludicrous and I've even seen people attack Joss Whedon for writing female characters that need the help of others (never mind that that help comes from other women as it does men). Yes, Loomis appears at the end to shoot Myers and save her, but he doesn't kill Michael either. That doesn't diminish Laurie's impressive struggle with Myers at all.

Another reading suggests that the film celebrates conservative values. Of the teenagers, only Laurie, the one who looks after the kids, who studies and, most importantly, doesn't have sex, survives. But that does not take into account the fact that sexual repression is clearly a motivator in this film; the young Michael spots his sister fooling around with her boyfriend, so he follows her to her room, where she is topless, and murders her. In the film's present, he pursues the more promiscuous teens first before moving in on Laurie. Laurie, repressed herself, repeatedly stabs Myers with phallic objects. If you really want to make this film about sex, then I would say that Michael is a homosexual who couldn't handle his sexual identity because of, yep, conservative family values. I don't buy that however; I just think he's evil and, if anything, he's going after innocent youth. Besides, if Carpenter really wanted to tout conservative ideology, would he have really put them in a character openly referred to as "Evil Incarnate"?

As with his other films, Halloween overflows with references to his heroes. Laurie, of course, is the capable Howard Hawks leading lady, and the Hawks-produced (and largely directed) movie The Thing From Another World plays on the TV set at various points in the film. Sam Loomis is a direct pull from Psycho, where it was the name of Marion's boyfriend. And Jamie Lee Curtis was cast because she was Janet Leigh's daughter, giving the whole thing a borderline meta feel.

While aspects of it are noticeably dated and it loses its way a bit in the final 20 minutes, Halloween is still, in a way, a masterpiece. It has survived because its endless imitators never really figured out what made it so damn good in the first place. You don't need to watch a killer devise elaborate and grisly tortures for his victims to make him scary: the fine line Michael Myers walks between a realistic, psychotic killer and something supernatural and primal makes him far more foreboding and terrifying. With a heroine who holds her own and doesn't have to stoop to running around in panties to get our attention, the character aspect of the film is even better. I admit I was not really scared by the film, did not jump when something appeared; I was, however, digging my nails into my armrest by the end of it. Some might accuse the incessant tension of Halloween as some sort of tease, but I think it promotes a more interesting kind of horror, one in which the screams are actually a relief and not a payoff, and the withholding of them only makes the dread worse.

No comments:

Post a Comment