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Halloween
1978 - R - 91 Mins.
Director: John Carpenter
Producer: Debra Hill
Written By: John Carpenter and Debra Hill
Starring: Donald Pleasence, Jamie Lee Curtis, P.J. Soles, Nancy Loomis, Charles Cyphers
Review by: John Ulmer
   
You can thank William Shatner for "Halloween." It is his face, after all, that the infamous Michael Myers (Nick Castle) wears in the shadows of "Halloween," spray painted white and its hair frizzled up in all directions. Michael is always in the shadows, an ever-present force with hints of supernatural evil.

And that is where the granddaddy of horror film exceeds where all the others fail -- in its suspense, and not in its exploitation of horror. Michael Myers exists in the shadows as a primal fear in "Halloween," preying on innocent passersby. And although it has been falsely mistaken to be a bloody slasher film over the years since its release, primarily thanks to its many sequels and uncountable rip-offs, the film features virtually no blood whatsoever. No, the film goes for real scares rather than blood and guts. It's the "Psycho" of its generation, and it pays its respects to Hitchcock in more than just the literal sense.

Its imitators and sequels (the ninth film coming out next year) all lost sight of this. Over the years, "Halloween" has been slowly but surely regarded with less and less respect, simply because its imitators used its original ideas so much they turned into clichés. By today's standards, "Halloween" may look tame and quite routine, but you must understand that back in 1978 it was anything but average and typical.

And despite the clichés, I still don't consider it average because John Carpenter knows how to use the camera to his advantage. It's the subtle stuff that counts -- such as the fact that we take the first person view of Michael Myers as a child, while he murders his older sister in cold blood. But after his parents unveil him, we never assume his perspective ever again. Sometimes we think we are, but then we see Michael's outline appear by the camera or far away from the camera. (Though this was ruined when the film was chopped for TV and Michael Myers wasn't always viewable off screen due to standard format.)

The camera also takes on the eerie presence of a third person -- when Michael attacks Laurie in that coat closet, you're in there with her. When she runs along the street looking for help, Carpenter uses a dolly shot and makes the effect exist as though we are with her. As Michael drives the stolen car through Haddonfield, we're in the back seat with him. We're always with the characters, which is a very subtle but effective technique that Carpenter uses, separating it from the other slasher films. It is as though we become an unmentioned character ourselves. It almost turns the film into a sort of adventure ride.

The film opens on Halloween night in Haddonfield, Illinois, 1963. A young girl named Judith Myers has a quickie with her boyfriend upstairs in her bedroom, and after he leaves she is murdered with a butcher's knife by her six-year-old brother, Michael, dressed in a Halloween costume and looking plenty innocent, even while holding a bloody knife in front of his surprised parents.

1978. Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) has been following Michael's case since its birth in 1963. He worked for eight years trying to reach the boy, to connect with him. ("He hasn't spoken a word for fifteen years.") Loomis worked another seven years trying to keep Michael locked up forever, after realizing what existed behind the boy's cold eyes was purely and simply evil. But now, the night of his transportation to a court hearing, Michael has escaped from confinement, and Loomis knows where he's headed: back to Haddonfield.

Michael does come back to Haddonfield, and there he preys on innocent virginal schoolgirl Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), left to baby sit two children on Halloween night. Meanwhile, Dr. Sam Loomis walks around town searching for Michael and saying such fun, clichéd lines as, "It's your funeral!", "He came home," and "Evil has come to your small town, Sheriff."

One of the many keys to the film is Michael's hinted supernatural power. Now it's common fodder to feature supernatural bad guys in horror flicks, but back then nothing had made a villain into a supernatural mad man incarnate before -- not even "Psycho." Michael is the villain who always knows where to hide, where the hero(ine) is hiding, how to position himself in the shadows without being seen, and how to always be a step ahead of everyone else. He can appear to a single person in front of a bush and then disappear behind it, gone from sight forever. The supernatural eeriness of the character was copied in the 1986 thriller "The Hitcher," where Rutger Hauer played a homicidal hitchhiker trying to prey on a young boy for no reason whatsoever. Hauer was played as a supernatural character but the film failed to make any sense of anything, wandering back and forth between a mortal foe and an immortal one. It also hinted that there was a purpose behind Hauer's killing spree, which was never delved into.

"Halloween" is smarter. Myers has not motive for killing. And instead of constantly featuring him on screen, Michael is revealed slowly and slowly, piece by piece. First the shoulders. Then the back of the head. Then the face from a distance. A bit closer. But he never walks around in the daylight, right in front of the camera, because that would completely diminish the film's creepiness. Even when Myers is seen in the dark towards the end of the film, and finally unmasked for a brief moment, we never really feel that we've seen him. He is still a dark figure.

Some people didn't understand "Halloween." They didn't understand Michael Myers' motives for killing. That's the majesty of it all -- he has no clear motives. The later sequels tried to establish motives for Michael, and completely failed. They also turned Michael into a frequently seen being, no longer the mysterious, scarcely seen creature from the first film.

He targets young girls. Why? Perhaps his motive for killing is out of some sort of sexual frustration or sick craving. But I don't think so. Michael's reasons are not meant to be known. That's part of the character's intrigue. Having no motive to kill will scare audiences a lot more than killers with motives, simply because then the audience members feel as though they could be possible targets. It's a lot scarier when a shadowy character kills without reason as opposed to an on-screen character with reason.

Yes, by today's standards the film may seem somewhat tame and predictable. The virginal heroine fighting off the knife-wielding madman bent on chasing her in the shadows. The teenagers who have sex and then die immediately thereafter. But when "Halloween" was made, there hadn't been anything like it -- the closest film in relation was Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960), another subtle horror film with a low amount of gore.

Pleasence, who starred in the film simply because his daughter enjoyed the music score in Carpenter's previous low-budget film, was startled by the filming crew's laidback manner. A British screen veteran with an impressive resume, Pleasence came to Carpenter at one point during the shoot, when the final climatic scene reveals Michael's disappearance once more, and said something to the effect of, "Should I do an 'Oh my god,' or an 'I knew it'?" Carpenter was too naive to know the right answer. "Can you do both?" he said. And so he did. That is why, at the end of the film, when Loomis looks over the balcony and realizes that Michael is not there, you see two different expressions that clearly work better than a single expression of disbelief or knowledge.

The closing chiller, as the camera focuses on various rooms and we hear Michael's breathing grow louder and louder, is perhaps the most important shot in the entire motion picture, save the opening shot in which we take on the killer's perspective.

All the sequels and rip-offs such as "Friday the 13th," "My Bloody Valentine," "A Nightmare on Elm Street," "Jeepers Creepers," etc., burned the storyline to the ground. In retrospect, "Halloween" is very predictable. But it still has a distinctly subtle style of psychological horror that all the other gratuitously violent slasher cash-ins lost. This is the granddaddy of teen slasher movies, and always will be. And after you get past the fact that it started an entire franchise of unwanted motion pictures, you'll realize that there's a lot more to "Halloween" than meets the eye. It's a cut above the rest, so to speak.
 
Movie Guru Rating
A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic.
  5 out of 5 stars

 
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