Wednesday, October 17, 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: HALLOWEEN (1978)

Music/Direction by John Carpenter
Written by John Carpenter and Debra Hill
Cinematography by Dean Cundey
Editing by Charles Bornstein and Tommy Lee Wallace
Produced by John Carpenter, Debra Hill, Kool Lusby, Irwin Yablans, Moustapha Akkad

Starring
Donald Pleasence as Dr. Loomis
Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie
Nancy Loomis as Annie
Nick Castle as The Shape

WARNING: HERE BE SPOILERS. IF YOU'VE NEVER SEEN THE MOVIE HALLOWEEN (1978) DO NOT READ THIS REVIEW. HALLOWEEN IS A WORTHWHILE MOVIE, ESPECIALLY IF YOU LIKE HORROR MOVIES, AND IT IS BEST WATCHED WITH ZERO PRIOR KNOWLEDGE OF WHAT HAPPENS IN IT AND WHY. READING A REVIEW OF A MOVIE IS NO SUBSTITUTE FOR WATCHING A MOVIE AND FORMING YOUR OWN OPINION. 

OR NOT. 

MAYBE WATCHING MOVIES IS A HUGE WASTE OF TIME NO MATTER WHAT. WE COULD BE SPENDING ALL THE TIME WE USE WATCHING MOVIES ON TRYING TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO SLOW DOWN THE EFFECTS OF GLOBAL WARMING, OR SPENDING TIME HAVING SUBSTANTIAL  CONVERSATIONS WITH OUR LOVED ONES. 

I SUPPOSE IT'S JUST MUCH EASIER TO STARE INTO A SCREEN OF SOME KIND AND NOT CARE ABOUT THINGS. BETTER TO CONSUME STORIES MADE UP BY OTHER PEOPLE THAN MAKE UP OUR OWN STORIES.

 COMING UP WITH THINGS--THAT'S HARD WORK. 

YEAH, I'M KINDA CONFLICTED ABOUT STUFF.



When I first saw Halloween, I didn't like it. I thought it was tedious and anti-climatic. So there's this masked guy with a knife ambling around acting like a fucking creep who's supposed to be some kind of pyscho-killer-embodiment-of-pure-evil, but barely does any killing. The movie sets Mike Myers up like he's some kind of anti-christ, but the dude acts more like he's got brain damage than some kind of murderous intent.

 I felt bad for Mike Myers. Here was a guy inhabited by a spirit of darkness, has all kinds of homicidal designs, and he can barely get it up. What's his problem? Is it the drugs, Mike? They got you on some bogus meds down at the mental ward, bro? Don't tell me you started partying with the cocaine, son, that shit will fuck you up. Is it alcohol? Did you go through some kind of a divorce, or just a rough patch with the old lady? Feeling trapped by your own talents? Let's work this out, my man. To me, Mike Myers came across like 21st century Charlie Sheen: a man with so much self-loathing for his own talents that he revels in not putting them to worthwhile use.

Maybe I should set this up a bit: Mike Myers is a silent weirdo who killed his sister when he was a  six year old kid. He's been locked up in a state mental institution all his life. An intense, pistol-packing psychiatrist named Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) comes to the state mental ward to drive Mike to a court hearing of some kind but finds that Mike has busted out of the joint. Dr. Loomis goes looking for Mike in the psycho's hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois. The idea is that Mike has some kind of fixation on returning to the house where he murdered his sister. Along the way Mike starts to target some teenagers for slaughter, and it all takes place on Halloween night--rather convenient that. Makes for a great title, and a ready-to-go marketing campaign.

Most of the movie is from the perspective of a young woman named Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis). Laurie and her friends are in high school and they're picking up some spending dough babysitting kids on Halloween night. Laurie and her friends talk about boys, babysitting, and other mundane adolescent things. They are largely oblivious to the macabre history of the abandoned Myers house in the middle of their neighborhood, and they continue to remain oblivious even when Mike shows up and starts stalking them. Like I said, mostly Mike just comes off as a creep, some kind of perv who wants to harass young women.

Dr. Loomis decides to post it up in the old Myers household, a .44 Bulldog in his trench coat pocket. (I guess the doc is channeling his inner Dave Berkowitz) He figures Mike'll show up, and he'll give him two in the chest, save the tax payers the cost of another court hearing. What kind of  goddamn psychiatrist is this guy? Shouldn't he be dispensing meds, not slugs?

Early on Dr. Loomis describes, with all his psychiatric authority, that Mike Myers is "pure evil." Pure evil? What kind of medievalist bullshit is that? Mike needs serious help, doc! And you're writing him off with a bunch of superstitious mumbling moralistic mojo?! No wonder Mike is so fucked up. If I had some baldy-headed gun nut telling me I was pure evil since the age of six, I'd want to put on a mask and go stabbing people, too, give the guy what he wants, maybe shut 'em the fuck up. You want evil, Doc, here's some evil for your cueball ass!

Yeah, I know, I know: the movie shows Mike's murderous mask-wearing tendencies even before Dr. Loomis got his hooks into the kid. But maybe that opening scene is just how Mike remembers things after years of indoctrination from the good doctor. Lots of ambiguity in this movie when you really dig into it.

Anyways, Dr. Loomis is supposed to be some kind of hero, a kind of dragonslayer in a trench coat, but mostly he's inert, sidelined. He just stays in the old Myers house while Mike stalks teenagers, kills a few, and then shows up at the end to showboat with his big gun. The cruel irony is that he empties his six-shooter into Mike's chest, sends that sick, slasher fuck tumbling over a balcony, and then . . . Mike just disappears. Not only did Dr. Loomis not save anybody with all his pretentious huffery-puffery about pure evil and all the rest, but his big ol' gun with its bad ol' slugs didn't even slow Mike down.

Up yours, Dr. Loomis. Game, set, match goes to Mike Myers.

Maybe Dr. Loomis needs a post-game talking to: "Listen up, cueball: maybe you should try a little compassion and understanding with your patients next time, instead of powertripping on gunslinger/dragonslayer fantasies. Maybe the reason why Mike Myers stopped talking is because you never listened in the first place ya' chatty bastard. You ever consider that? Now, I want you to do six thousand push-ups, three hundred laps around the track, and maybe you can hook me up with some Vicodin next time you swing by the office. Okay? Sounds good."

Okay, okay, I admit it: I did like the ending when I first saw it. If I'm really honest, it was only mildly anti-climatic. In fact, I loved the fact that Mike Myers wasn't stopped with .44 magnum slugs, and that Dr. Loomis was shown up for the empty set of clothes that he was from the beginning . . . and I say this as a fan of Donald Pleasance. Nothing against the actor, it was a silly character to begin with, and Pleasance played it to the best of his abilities.

But I didn't get the movie as a whole. Why was Mike wandering around Haddonfield like he was unsure about what he was there to do? Was part of his game to torment Laurie and her friends, not just kill them? What did Mike have against Laurie and the other teenagers? They had no connection to his past. They never did him wrong. He was just lashing out at them randomly, no logic to his violence. I suppose one could say he was some kind of sex-murderer, that the knife was Mike's way of raping his victims as he murdered them, but Mike never really came off as a sexual predator when I watched it. And I didn't like the fact that Mike's crimes were so random. It didn't scan with me when I saw it as a teenager.

A lot of people have said that Halloween has some kind of sexual sadism going on, that the masked man can't stand that young people are enjoying having sex and so he has to show up with his knife and kill the joy. That rationale never really rang true with me. For one thing, Mike's murders are fairly indiscriminate, and all-too-efficient. He comes across as more of an assassin than a rapist. He sticks you with his knife not to violate you, but to end you. He's the Shape, after all, a cutout serving a force of pure destruction. His homicide is robotic, not domination oriented. There really isn't any sophisticated psychology or twisted desire going on under that mask. Just a will to destruction. If the military could mass produce this guy they wouldn't need recruits. Need to get Umbrella Corp working on that project.

(Imagine that: a whole army of Mike Myers duplicates, marching on whatever country is our enemy of the moment. Maybe that's what those Resident Evil games were suggesting with those bulky trench-coated mutants with the chain guns . . . hmmm . . .)

No, I really didn't get Halloween the first time I saw it. And I wasn't inclined to give it a second chance. John Carpenter had already made other movies that I liked a whole lot better. Like The Thing.

No, it didn't help that I had already seen John Carpenter's The Thing before I saw Halloween. In fact, watching The Thing at an early age has not been terribly helpful to most horror movies I've seen during my lifetime, even other movies directed by John Carpenter. Once you've grokked the best, it's hard to go back. The Thing is probably one of my all time favorite movie experiences. In fact, The Thing is so good that I loved it even though the first time I watched it  was in a heavily censored broadcast TV version. The Thing, even in a compromised form, was an exquisite fictional expression of the theme of paranoia. Now that's film making: your craft is so strong that it can't be weakened by the pinhead moral guardians running prime time television.

The Thing had it all: a strong, committed cast, precise widescreen compositions, dead-on editing, a sublime Ennio Morricone soundtrack, outrageous monster and gore effects, and clever dialogue. The Thing was a masterful balance of two contradictory approaches: economy and excess. The plot, characterizations, and thematic elements are all there in just the right proportion until the alien horror claws its way into the widescreen frame violating all sense of scale, proportion, hope . . . be not deceived, people. The Thing is Carpenter's masterpiece. Halloween was just an exercise, albeit a very popular, long-lived one.

But after watching Halloween again recently I must confess to actually admiring it, now. It is a subtle piece of work, maybe Carpenter's most subtle film in his whole portfolio as an artist. If The Thing is Carpenter's definitive expression of the theme of paranoia, then Halloween is something like a statement on how everyday people can be totally oblivious to the invasive presence of supernatural evil. Mike Myers isn't really Mike Myers, when you break it down. Nor is he anti-christ, Satan, Pazuzu, Son of Sam, Ted Bundy, or some murderous agent of the state--he's beyond all these things. He doesn't need a name, or a sexual urge, or a God, or a Devil, or an ideology to commit his crimes. He is homicide incarnate. He's the Shape, a superflat killing machine whose humanity switch got shifted into the off position by some unnameable, Lovecraftian force of of darkness when he was six years old. You can't negotiate with him, you can't kill him, you can't touch a heart of darkness with appeals to mercy or common decency. Really, it's not even a heart of darkness. There's no heart to be found. Rather, it's a pure void trying to manifest itself as best it can. First it uses its bare hands to break a neck. Next, it acquires a knife to pierce a beating heart . . . follow out the logic on that one if you dare.

So, yes, I've come to appreciate the thematic richness of Carpenter's movie.

But let's look at the nuts-and-bolts craftsmanship, maybe the area where Carpenter has brought his deepest, most consistent game as a filmmaker. The widescreen compositions in Halloween are his most subtle of all his movies. They manage to be both mundane and menacing in the same instant. He imbues an autumnal suburban setting with both realism and amplified dread. It's hard for me to pin it down in words, but here's an exercise: watch the movie with both the lights and the sound off, and just take a look at how Carpenter frames his shots. The blend of the everyday and the scary-weird is uncanny. The editing is also sharp. Although this is a slasher flick, he doesn't go for the cheap shock. He goes for seamless, relentless momentum, setting you up for a trap you can't escape.

The acting is strong, too. Jamie Lee Curtis and Nancy Loomis as the two main teenage protagonists are  credible, unforced.They handle the dialogue well, and, most importantly, they are totally oblivious to the horror invading their lives until it's too late. Donald Pleasence's Dr. Loomis isn't so much a great psychiatrist as he is a man obsessed with eradicating a great evil that he has no chance against. Yes, I mock the character above, but when you break it down, Dr. Loomis has seemingly lost his marbles, too. Spending all those years in the presence of the Shape must've drove him over the edge . . . Pleasence is one of those actors who is always worth watching. Even in his bad movies. The man cannot hide his inherent intelligence and charisma. So it's especially cruel that such an appealing actor is pitted against an unbeatable foe.

The Thing is still my favorite Carpenter movie, but I have now gained a true appreciation of Halloween as an exercise in a more measured, disquieting approach to telling a horror story. I'm pretty bloodthirsty as an audience member when it comes to horror, but I have no patience for braindead slasher bullshit or tedious, substance free torture porn grandstanding. I think part of the mojo of Carpenter's approach as a director is that, in his best movies, he sticks close to his characters even as they face off against outrageous monsters and weather storms of reality-shattering lunacy. A class act.

Halloween trailer:
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