The following is an essay I've wanted to put together for two years, ever since I chose HALLOWEEN as the movie I wanted to do a presentation on, as an assignment for a film class I was taking. It's comprised mostly of my notes for that presentation, with a few additional thoughts.
If you, infact, haven't seen this movie, there are definite spoilers here. I feel the need to mention this now, whereas I didn't in my last column, because this is actually a movie I recommend seeing.
HALLOWEEN is my favorite horror movie, and one of my favorite movies in general. I think it's one of the most well-made movies of all time, a midpoint between what horror movies were before it and what horror movies have been since. It has the classic elements of scary pictures in earlier decades, but it also has the more realistic and violent elements of the horror movies of the 70s and 80s; and it was a blueprint for a kind of flick that was rampant in the 80s and is still around today. PSYCHO and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE laid the groundwork for this film, but in my opinion, all the movies that have featured a killer chasing teenagers while wearing a mask (sometimes on a particular day) came from this. It's also a lot of fun to watch just as a movie.
It's about a little boy named Michael Myers who kills his older sister on Halloween night by stabbing her multiple times. He's placed in a mental institution and grows up there. As the doctor who's tried to treat him and a nurse who's assisting him arrive at the institution (after the doctor's made it clear to her how dangerous the man is), the man escapes and returns to his hometown. The doctor follows him there and tries to catch him as he goes on a killing spree (mainly of women the age his sister was when she died).
I think the movie's really about the fact that some people are born with evil in them: they're bad from the start, and there's no amount of rehabilitation that can fix them. There are no reasons given for why the killer does what he does in this movie: he's just mentally ill and violent by nature. Since we don't know anything about him or what his motives are, that again makes it all the more scary to me.
It's also about one of the worst fears people have in general: the invasion of privacy, by a stranger with cruel intentions, at the moment we least expect it. The movie shows people who find themselves in that situation and don't have time to react before they're killed. Then it spends the last 20 minutes with a character who continues to survive, and forces us to place ourselves in her shoes and ask ourselves what we'd do in that situation.
Finally, it's about how some people have the capability to embody the monsters and supernatural entities we fear as children. We don't want to believe that monsters exist, but some people are just that, because of their inability to feel or reason, and their inclination to attack. The character of Michael Myers is the classic "boogeyman," a mythological concept that's mentioned throughout the movie but is ultimately realized - for person after person - along the way. He's the "monster in the closet" that all children fear. How strange it is then, or maybe not at all, that a big part of the finale consists of him trying to murder someone in a closet.
It was directed by John Carpenter, who also co-wrote it and co-produced it with Debra Hill (a collaborator on several other movies with him), as well as composed the classic musical score. He was born in Carthage, New York, but his family relocated to Bowling Green, Kentucky when he was five. He loved horror and sci-fi movies, and began making 8mm movies before high school. He attended Western Kentucky University, then transferred to the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts. He made a short at USC that won an Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film and was subsequently released in theaters. This got him the clout to begin making feature films, of which HALLOWEEN was his fourth (one of the previous ones, ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, is also a classic and was recently remade). His later work includes THE FOG, his remake of THE THING, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS, GHOSTS OF MARS and
others; and he's still making movies today.
Not exactly a parent's dream.
The cinematographer's name is Dean Cundey. He was born in Alhambra, California in 1946. As a child he liked building miniature movie sets and reading "American Cinematographer." He went to UCLA's film school and was taught by a renowned cameraman named James Wong Howe. He built his own equipment van, and after he graduated, worked on such cult classics as ILSA, KEEPER OF THE OIL SHIEKS, BLACK SHAMPOO, SATAN'S CHEERLEADERS, and ROCK N ROLL HIGH SCHOOL. Even then, he had a rep for creating striking visual images, which he'd later develop further in not only HALLOWEEN but other works including PSYCHO 2, the BACK TO THE FUTURE series, JURASSIC PARK, WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, DEATH BECOMES HER, and THE FLINTSTONES. He's still working today.
HALLOWEEN was the first of many collaborations Cundey had with Carpenter, who initially chose him not only for his striking visuals and skill, but also because he owned his own equipment. Cundey would help define HALLOWEEN. He was one of the first cinematographers to make use of the steadicam, which was brand new at the time, and led to many of Michael Myers' point of view shots, which were also new at the time for horror movies. Nearly the entire opening sequence that Carpenter and Cundey constructed, comprised of close to five minutes of screen time, is one long steadicam tracking shot and is a classic sequence in the genre.
What makes the cinematography outstanding is the use of the frame to reveal things that we or the characters don't know yet. There's also great use of darkness and shadow to conceal the indentity of the killer, and a lot of use of the color blue, which makes things feel cold and creepy. From a technical standpoint, the most important element was the use of darkness. It's so dark in this movie that at times we can barely make out the action, but we can always tell what's going on and to who. The cinematography supports the film because it's always one step - or a few steps - ahead of the characters. The color scheme and shadows, along with the widescreen format, reveal things hidden in the frame that audience members can see are there, but that the characters have no way of knowing. The movie is mostly shot at night, and this helps accentuate the overall theme of inherent darkness in a human being's soul. There may be occasional illumination that creeps up, in the form of the blue light, household lamps or the daylight before nightfall on Halloween day. But ultimately the darkness prevails. Michael Myers is hidden in the dark so much of the time that he embodies a fear of the dark and the reasons to be afraid of it. And these themes and ideas, as well as the lighting itself and framing designed to put people off guard, reveal the film's status in the horror genre.
The cinematography mixes with the sound design completely, infact more effectively than in any other movie I've seen. Every time the camera reveals something to us, there is either an accompanying musical cue on the soundtrack or the sound of the killer's breathing behind the mask.
I don't know exactly what kind of camera was used, but the production budget was very low. Although I mentioned the impact of the widescreen format in the movie's effect earlier, I must also say that I saw the movie several times in a 4x3 tv ratio before I saw it in widescreen, and it was still very scary because of the way it was shot and the intensity of the proceedings.
The only hints of the time period are in the hairstyles of the actors and the use of "Don't Fear the Reaper" on the car radio of two of the teenaged characters (the song could be on the radio in any era, I know, but it's clearly meant to be new in this one), although one could argue that the film quality itself shows its time period. However I think the movie stands up very well today. Again the use of framing to show little graphic violence may be evocative of the time period too, because after that people expected gore in movies like this. But this particular movie, I think, can still be watched by many and stand apart from others like it in their eyes.
The movie is definitely in the horror genre, but I'm not sure it translates that way to a
lot of people who are new fans of the genre. Unlike many movies it inspired (and continues to inspire), it doesn't have a lot of violence in it. It has killings, to be sure, but no graphic carnage, very little blood, and no special effects. It's still scarier to me than most horror movies because of what it doesn't show: it relies purely on the images and music. It also builds the characters very well and makes people watching the movie like them, which also makes it scarier when they get killed.
"There's no such thing."
Infact several of the movies that piled on the bloodshed in the wake of HALLOWEEN are not only direct descendants of it, but involve the very same characters. HALLOWEEN 2 was a sequel I - and many others - thought was pretty good. The major difference (other than the mask) was that the killings were designed to help the movie fit in with the graphically violent movies that HALLOWEEN inspired. This didn't win it favor with a lot of critics. The third "Halloween" movie didn't feature Michael Myers at all, part of an idea Carpenter and Hill (who still co-wrote 2 and produced 2 and 3) had to make the series an anthology of several different stories. However it turned out to be the only part, and the next five sequels returned Myers to the fold, as well as Donald Pleasance as the character of Dr. Loomis (for 4 through 6) and Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode (for H20 and RESURRECTION, the two final sequels). Rob Zombie's HALLOWEEN and HALLOWEEN 2 have their fans and their detractors, but few would argue that - for better or worse - they added a lot of extra violence, as well as explanations for events that had previously been more mysterious. They may have either reinvigorated or destroyed the franchise.
But one of the most amazing things about that original HALLOWEEN movie, a film that I could see being enjoyed by people who don't even like horror movies, is that I can still watch it now and not even think about the unkillable, Jason-like monster in later sequels or the long-haired, hillbilly serial killer in Zombie's movies. The scenario never stops being plausible in the original movie, and it never stops being intense.
HALLOWEEN is ranked as #10 in the most profitable independent movies ever made. For many years after its release, it was the most profitable. It was produced for $325,000 and ended up grossing $47 million domestically and $8 million overseas, equalling $55 million dollars (the equivalent of $176 million today).
It premiered on network tv in 1980, with 12 minutes of new scenes that Carpenter shot to complete the two hour time slot. These scenes were actually filmed during the making of HALLOWEEN 2, and are still included in some tv versions aired today.
In his original review, Roger Ebert compared HALLOWEEN to PSYCHO, ending the review by saying "I want to be clear about this: If you don't want to have a truly terrifying experience, don't see HALLOWEEN " Infact, Siskel and Ebert both gave the movie a positive review on their show, and later devoted a special segment to the movie in a program they did - in the early 80s - on what they saw as the disgusting and mysogynistic nature of the slasher genre, which had just started at the time. In this show, they used HALLOWEEN as an example of how such a movie can be done well, to highlight the movie's quality and to differentiate between what they admired about it and what they loathed about the others.
The movie currently has a 93% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an 85% positive rating on Metacritic. It in fact got a bad review from Pauline Kael, who found the movie derivative of Hitchcock and DePalma. I think that's not giving it enough credit, but opinions vary.
It's included in Time Magazine's top 25 horror films. It's #4 on AFI's top 10 horror films. And it's #14 on Bravo's Scariest Movie Moments. In 2006 it was included for preservation in the US National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
The following is a selection of scenes I compiled from the film HALLOWEEN and what I think makes them so effective:
By this scene we've seen the character of Michael Myers murder his sister in cold blood, and we've heard him be described by his doctor
as having no feelings or remorse. When the two pull up to the gate, the patients are all on the lawn, wearing white and resembling ghosts. It seems like they shouldn't be there. The doctor goes to check on things, and the nurse stays in the car. As the rain pours, making the scene even more ominous, she's attacked by Myers. However, nothing happens to her physically, and we never see Myers' face; it's more like she's being menaced by an evil presence. He steals the car, showing how quickly helpless people can be manipulated by a force of horror.
He tried to tell em.
Halloween day scene:
As the main character, Laurie, walks through the neighborhood with the boy she's going to babysit that night, she stops at the ole Myers house, which has long been abandoned. We see her from within the house, and we know who's point of view we're sharing.
The phone call in the field:
Dr. Loomis makes a call explaining his whereabouts. He finds what he thinks may be a clue and leaves. The camera pans over, and the audience realizes that what he didn't see was a bloody, dead body in the field.
The little boy is taunted by bullies, and there's the ominous shot of his pumpkin being smashed. One of the bullies runs away and right into Michael Myers, as a cause of one's terror encounters real terror. Again, we don't see Myers' face, but we're made aware of his presence by ominous music and the little boy's reaction. Then there's a shot as the killer walks along the sidewalk, in front of a school full of kids who are the age he was when he committed his first murder, again evoking the presence of natural evil.
Myers blends into the sheets:
Great realization of the fear of seeing something that may or may not have been there, and a good use of surroundings.
Myers watches the house:
I think this is a great use of widescreen and a very well-composed shot. Now Myers is wearing a mask, which - unlike later "Halloween" movies and takeoffs - made total sense in this film because it allows him to blend in with the trick-or-treaters. The original Michael Myers mask (which for some reason wasn't used in any of the sequels or re-dos) was created by spraypainting and widening the eyes of a William Shatner Captain Kirk mask. No other mask in the franchise has even come close to being as effective. In this scene we get a great view of a house and lawn, and it's easy to see how anonymous this killer can become when hiding behind a tree.
First girl gets it:
This is great because the girl gets in her car, and the killer literally comes out of the dark. This is often something I remember when I get in my car at night.
Kid sees Myers:
Here the kid sees him from the window and freaks out - it's another "now it's there, now it isn't" thing. But it's a great use of a long shot.
Myers stabs Laurie:
Again, here the killer basically walks out of the darkness, from the right side of the frame, surprising her - and the audience - completely.
Myers walking towards Laurie:
Here's that shot put into action and building, kind of like a nightmare. It's a long shot of the killer as he just keeps getting closer and closer, to the point where I actually feel like she does. Unlike other movies featuring a killer, this killer doesn't run: he walks. And that somehow makes him scarier, because he doesn't need to hurry: he and the audience know he'll catch up to the victim eventually.
First of all, I'm sure in 1978 people thought the killer was dead. But with the use of rack focusing and music, we learn that's not so. And as suspense builds, she's attacked again. She pulls his mask off for the first time since he put it on, and as the doctor arrives and shoots him, we get a look at his face for the first time; and this shows he actually is just a man. This sets up the ending of the movie, when that notion is put into question.
Like so many elements of HALLOWEEN, this ending has been repeated hundreds - if not thousands - of times since. But it inspires and amazes me to know that, at the time, this type of movie was brand new. Even more so to realize that it still feels so fresh today.
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This is an outlet granted to me by the makers, in which I will espouse grand words, unleashing in written form
the very movie-related praise and outrage I'm probably thinking about and/or discussing at the time anyway.
I was born in a log cabin that was built in a sewer. After serving during wartime, I woke up from this vicious dream and learned to tapdance.|
It's a commendable trade, but not a recommendable one. As I've said many a time, on one hand, I have five fingers. Yet on the other hand, I have
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II...the last was The Terror, and this much is true. Far be it from me to call myself stupid, but if I did so (and believe me, I would), I'd say it behind
my back. Then I would figure out how I did it. Sometimes I sleep. Love, Nate.
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