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DVD Review: Halloween

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Not many movies stand the test of time. Even fewer horror movies do. Horror movies are notoriously cheap on production and quality, and viewed ten or twenty years later, they’re often more campy than chilling. You could actually get a bunch of friends your age together at Halloween, sit down with a lot of beverages (I’m a teetollar but you go ahead and have yourself a cold one) and crisp snacks, and spend a whole night howling and slapping your thighs while watching some of those old howlers.

At some point, you’ll call it a night (or morning of All Saints Day) and stand around the messed-up living room, going, ‘How the hell did we ever find these things scary?’ Call it the 20-year curse of low-budget horror movies, or call it just a nightmare on horror film production street, it’s an unremmiting law of the genre that these flicks offer diminishing returns as time goes by.

But a few horror movies manage to beat the rap. They still manage to work the same cruel magic on you, still manage to make you jump in your seat (watch out, oh crap, you got brewskie all over Marie’s new couch covers, damnit, Tim!), wince a time or two, drop your jaw and mouth-breathe in anticipation, and even, at their finest moments, scare the bejeesus out of you.

One of those rarities happens to be John Carpenter’s Halloween movies. Not the whole 8-movie series, or hmm, is it 9?, but just three choice ones that I think still stand the test of time, and can give you a jump or two on that beer-stained couch.

We all know the basic drill: On Halloween night in 1963, six year old Michael Myers brutally murdered his sister in the small town of Haddonfield Illinois. Now, 15 years later, on Halloween night 1978, he’s escaped from a mental institution and decides to swing by the old home town to visit the old house, maybe stick a few trick or treaters while he’s around, just for old time’s sake.

His old doc, Dr. Sam Loomis (played by Donald Pleasance back when he still had some turf on his roof, comes to warn Haddonfield Police that Michael might like to offer a more violent variation of the old trick-or-treat game, but of course, in the finest tradition of classic horror films, nobody takes him too seriously him until it’s too late–way too late, halfway through the sequel in fact!

A very young, blond, and extremely likable Jaime Lee Curtis stars in her first role as Laurie Strode and gets to play tag with the visiting Mr. Myers, for reasons that don’t become clear until the end of Halloween II and which I won’t give away here–not until you’ve seen the DVDs at least, heh heh heh. She’s the babysitter who meets the overgrown brat out of hell for most of the movie, and she plays more or less the classic slasher flick victim heroine.

Now, she’s not a fighter, not really, but when it comes to the pinch, she doesn’t just scream and say ‘Stab me, stab me now’ either. I’m just trying to warn you (or remind you, depending) that this is not about her versus The Shape (as Michael came to be called by fans of the series in later years). Because nothing can really fight The Shape or kill The Shape. But, ah, it’s way too early for that still; we’re still talking about the first film–or actually the first two films here.

In case it’s been a while since you’ve last visited this gem of 80’s horror film-making, or, incredibly, haven’t seen it at all as yet, then you should know that Halloween II continues exactly where the first film ended, literally moments after Laurie and Dr. Sam Loomis have had their climactic run-in with Michael, and after Michael has had a dramatic disagreement with a front lawn.

I’d strongly recommend renting or buying both movies together. And if you want more, get Halloween H2O. It’s by far the best of the sequels. But if you’re like me, an inveterate horror film fan, you might still want to plough your way through the other five (or is it six) sequels as well. Well, why not make a night of it, right? Go ahead, have a blast.

What makes Halloween (or Harrowing, as we call it in my house) was the quiet chill. This isn’t a Nightmare on Elm Street entry, with explicit gore, or a Friday the Thirteenth movie with explicit teenage nudity. (Friday the Thirteenth, by the way, just took the Halloween formula, sexed it up, dumbed it down, and ran with it–and is still running, to the best of my knowledge. Keep going, fellas! I’m right behind you…not.)

Sure, there is a lot of violence here, and a little shower-curtain nudity, but those are not the reasons why you watch a Halloween film. Halloween is one of the most tastefully made horror film franchises ever made. It’s extremely well shot, with the camerawork capturing late Seventies smalltown USA so perfectly that it works just as well as a slice of life of that whole period. It doesn’t even matter that the Special Features featurette tells you that the film/s were shot in suburban LA, not smalltown Illinois as the film claims. It’s that whole ‘feel’ that it just gets so right.

Throughout the film, the camera set-ups are just amazingly well done. Creeply, freaky, with beautifully designed lighting (the moments were Michael Myers steps out of the shadows into the gritty light is pure cinematic beauty), and masterfully designed movements and tracks. From the very first frame, Halloween looks and feels like a legit film, not just a low-budget horror flick, and that credibility and quality adds immeasurably to its viewing experience. It maintains that sedate stately camerawork throughout, even in the most horrific moments, and while I don’t claim that it’s Hitchcock, it’s certainly a good enough homage.

The second thing that makes Halloween great 80’s horror is John Carpenter’s score. It’s still as chilling as it was when the film was first released, and doesn’t seem dated by even a day. You can take all the big digital scores produced today on mega-budgets by Oscar-winning music composers, and Carpenter’s simple theme on a synthesizer still outperforms them for sheer background atmospheric value. At times, just that camerawork and that score, with not a word being spoken (or just maybe a few lines of a conversation picked up in passing, or on a phone call) and Halloween conveys more menace and mood than a dozen wannabe horror movies.

Debra Hill’s script, co-written with director Carpenter, is pitch-perfect too. There aren’t any corny lines or at least not any unknowingly corny ones–a lot of the characters are kids or bubblegummers after all–and structurally the script is a perfect two-and-a-half act, with the last half carried over to the next film, and the next, and the next, in the long-honoured tradition of ‘it ain’t over yet, folks’ which horror film espouses.

The casting is perfect too, with even the most trivial bystander or onlooker, or screaming neighbour just right for that moment. And of course, Jamie Lee Curtis, very young, very blonde, and so endearing in her first major starring role, is a star from frame one.

The violence is carefully crafted. There’s no attempt to outdo each murder, to splash the gore and shock you out of your popcorn. At the same time, there’s careful thought given to the killings, with more is less being the maxim. So while you don’t actually see a lot of blood splashing or knives hacking and hacking endlessly, the killings are brutal and sudden and effective as hell.

They get more effective by the second film, where some of the murders are worth waiting for, just to see ‘how this creep dies’ or ‘that slut gets her commuppance’. Yup, also in the tradition of teenage horror flicks, Halloween follows the morality line, with each victim doing something unlikable to justify, however remotely, Myers gutting them.

Even the Undying Beast, so familiar from countless horror franchises now, seems original and fresh in the first sequel. The fact that they don’t try to explain why with corny pseudo-scientific rationale just makes you respect the makers all the more. Like a force of nature, he just goes on, and it’s only in the later sequels that that repeated ‘fall and rise’ of Michael Myers starts to get wearisome.

Which is why, unless you want to spend the whole night experiencing the diminishing returns principle, I’d advise you to go straight from Halloween I and II to Halloween H2O. It’s set 20 years later, in the year Y2K. Jamie Lee Curtis returns, and so does Michael and the doc. And if you haven’t watched the movies in between, it works almost as well as the first pair. In some ways, it’s a pretty damn good third entry. If only so many other ripoffs hadn’t played all the cards that are there to be played in this particular game of slash poker.

In the end, if you really want a night of quiet terror this Halloween season, then I can’t recommend anything better than the film that took its name from the season. And lives up to it.

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  • http://www.nycbros.blogspot.com JayMoo

    I agree that Halloween 1978 was and is an amazing horror film in many aspects. It launched a completely new sub-genre (slashers) and inspired a decade or more of horror films that brought a new vitality into the genre of horror. It came at a perfect time when adults had lost credibility in the eyes of the youth – as their parents had been hippies, drug users, and irresponsible…how could they tell us know. Additionally, the sexual revolution of the 70s was dying down – so a new look at morality caused for heroin’s like Jamie Lee Curtis (who was a virgin, and thus was the only one able to actually see Mike Myers and know of his danger).

    I do disagree with your criticims of its followers. First, Halloween has more nudity than FT13th by far, with 3 separate scenes involving breasts, one with full sex. Nightmare really had none and wasn’t as violent as Halloween. Halloween set the pace for these, but they were creative in their own right and added to the movement of the slasher film. Movies like April Fools is where everything started to fall apart.

    Good review though – have you read American Horror? Check it out – very textbookish, but intelligent.

  • http://indianenglish.blogspot.com/ Ashok K. Banker

    Nightmare not as violent as Halloween? :~) Sorry, but I just saw Nightmare last night again for the, oh, fiftieth time or so (another family member is a major Freddy Kruger fan) and it’s got very strong sexuality and the violence is way over the top compared to Halloween. In fact, the Nightmare on Elm Street movies out-grossed (pun intended) other Eighties horror movies in the aspect of finding new and creative ways to ‘off’ their casts.

    Thanks for the reco. Will definitely check out American Horror. Sounds like something I would write! :~)