Michael Myers has been coming home for decades now, ever since he rampaged through the town of Haddonfield, Ill., in the 1978 horror masterpiece Halloween. The masked killer was supposed to be locked securely within a psychiatric hospital, but he escaped through many sequels and spin-offs. We’re supposed to forget all about those for the new Halloween, which is designed as a direct sequel to the original. (Then why is the new film titled simply Halloween? I worry about these things.) The creepy opening sequence depicts a Michael who’s been safely imprisoned for 40 years. Someone’s had the brilliant idea to transfer him to a new facility, which of course means putting him out into the world, which of course cannot be healthy for the world.
The Fog (Shout Factory), John Carpenter’s follow-up to his breakthrough hit Halloween, isn’t among the director’s best films, but it is one of his most gorgeous.
Carpenter and his producer / co-writer Debra Hill wanted to make an old-fashioned ghost story, something spooky and eerie, rather than another slasher movie (not that “Halloween” is just a slasher movie, but that’s how the industry saw the film and the director). So they came up with a story about a hundred-year-old curse involving an island leper colony, a fortune in stolen gold, and an act of genocide covered over in a story that has become legend in this fiction California coastal town. Jamie Lee Curtis plays a hitchhiker who stops over on the 100th anniversary (that’s bad timing), her mother Janet Leigh plays the local civic leader, Tom Atkins is a fisherman who picks up Curtis (in every meaning the term), and Hal Holbrook is a boozy priest who uncovers the curse, but the hero of this one is actually Adrienne Barbeau, a single mom and evening deejay in a lighthouse booth who goes on the air to give fog reports like traffic updates.
You can see Carpenter reaching for a larger canvas, incorporating more characters and storylines, crosscutting and weaving story arcs. And you can see the appeal of an old-fashioned ghost story played without gimmicks, although he ultimately has to compromise his original concept. When he tested the finished film, where the fog itself was the monster and no murders appeared on screen, he found that his campfire tale was more soggy than scary. It simply didn’t work and he didn’t need studio prodding to bring back the cast and toss in ghost pirates and a series of murders. (Carpenter and Hill discuss this in a commentary track they recorded a decade ago, included on this release.) It still isn’t particularly scary or compelling, the performances are variable, and the dialogue seems to mark time between money shots.
But it is a beautifully shot film, with the fog coming alive and taking over the frame like a creature in its own right. Carpenter and Dean Cundy were the low-budget masters of composition and lighting of their time and this film is an exemplary case, creating compelling shots even when the drama itself is weak. As in Halloween, Carpenter and Cundy shoot in Panavision and fill the sides and backgrounds with shadows and empty spaces “where evil can inhabit,” as Cundy describes in an accompanying interview. The monsters don’t come from outside of the frame or hide behind objects. They arise from the darkness (or, in this case, the empty white of the fog) itself, materializing as if they have always been there. In its own way, The Fog a quintessential Carpenter horror.
[originally published in Film Comment Volume 31, Number 5, September/October 1995]
Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 genre-juicing vampire film Near Dark opens close up on a leggy mosquito poised to tap into screen-spanning flesh. Apt epigraph for a film about heartland bloodsuckers; but also your ticket into any of the intensely sensual, romantically nihilistic excursion – The Loveless, Blue Steel, Point Break, and now Strange Days – head-tripped by this dark daughter of Hawks and Hitchcock. Bigelow’s movies gauge psyches and society in extremis, running on empty. Her nomadic protagonists, “riders” of one stripe or another, hooked on whatever “zap” best fuels them, cruise the nervous systems of her often hyperreal “outside” – unspooling ribbons of baked macadam, rain- and neon-slicked streets, granite-gray arches of breaking surf, even brightly surging brainwaves – trying to stay ahead of their own shadows.
Latterday kin to Hawks’s daredevil existentialists, Bigelow folk all hanker after heartstopping action and spectacle, the sort of “speed” that punches life up to top gear and outruns terminal ennui. Hanging out on the edge of the world, emotionally and in the flesh, these are orphans to the bone – loners, outlaws, pariahs. Plugged into jerry-rigged “families” for dangerous shelter, their rage and despair often explode into demonic self-projections.
[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]
A thing that bugs me about the vast majority of contemporary films is, they rarely give the feeling anyone cared much about framing them. The movement away from studio (i.e., factory) filmmaking has had a lot to do with this. Advancements in film speed, equipment mobility, and other such factors that ought to have been unqualifiedly liberating have had the counterproductive effect of encouraging slovenliness rather than responsible flexibility. A movie can get made anywhere now, one place is as good (i.e., workable) as anotherâ€”and somehow that extends to frame-space as a “place” too. Throw in careless labwork (we waved byebye to real Technicolor several years ago) and you’ve got smeary colors and big, fuzzy grain to help reduce definition, and definitiveness of vision. It’s hard to maintain faith that a given movie had to look the way it does, because it could just as well have looked, well, a little different.
People won’t be talking about this as they leave their naborhood moviehouse, but one reason John Carpenter’s Halloween is so successful a marrow-freezer is that Carpenter appears to have set out to reinstate scrupulous, meaningful framing all by himself. In fact, except for its shamelessly (and irresistibly) zingy music score (by the director), Halloween achieves its considerable power almost entirely through visual means. There’s not a lot of scenarioâ€”make that screenplayâ€”to deal with; indeed, the least satisfying thing about Halloween is its attempt to arrive at some scriptoral accounting for its ultraweird dispenser of mayhem, an Omen-era, cosmic-evil readingâ€””He” really can’t be stoppedâ€”that rings too familiar. At the same time, the nonending ending Halloweenreaches has a validity missing from more flagrantly copout conclusions where the filmmakers more or less simultaneously ran out of running time and ideas of what to do next. For Carpenter’s direction has undercut the idea of a world with any secure breathing-room, let alone a sanctum for salvation.