Posted in: Film Reviews, Horror

Review: Halloween

[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 another—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 scenario—make that screenplay—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 reading—”He” really can’t be stopped—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.

The original "Halloween"
The original “Halloween”

From the moment a white-hospital-gowned figure, red-tinted by the taillights of a car, seems to sail up from the bottom of the screen in preternatural flight, passing the rear-window frame of the automobile and landing out of sight on its roof, we feel a desperate need to keep an eye on every sector of screenspace. No matter how fluidly Dean Cundey’s Panaglide camera (operated by Ray Stella) slips around the residential streets, sideyards, and cozy homes of the Middle American community where most of the movie is laid, no periphery is accidentally arrived at; the directorial eye never loses control. Virtually every shot contains corners, apertures, fillable black holes fraught with ghastly potentiality. And that ever-drifting camera eye—is it just that of a camera recording the scene for our voyeuristic convenience, or an inhabited point of view, an indicator of the one direction the vulnerable character ought not go? The answer is that sometimes it’s one, sometimes the other, but before much of the film has elapsed it scarcely matters, because this movie itself is what’s trying to scare the shit out of us.

Let’s have no clucks of disapproval: if that’s why Carpenter is there, it’s certainly why we’re there, too. Halloween may be an exercise in cinematic sadism, but it’s sadistic in precisely the same time-honored, wholesome manner of cheerful adolescents telling ghost stories to their younger companions round campfires. It’s as if Carpenter were pitching, “You’ve heard of Hallowe’en, good old smalltown Hallowe’en, full of crisp Ray Bradbury autumn wind and the clean/musty smell of cornshocks and exhilarating scares instead of gnawing urban paranoia. Now, we’re not going to bob for apples but we are going to have an old-fashioned Hallowe’en party here. And just for starters: have you ever heard of The Bogey Man?…” The bogeyman here is a former resident of this small town come home to the scene of a prepubescent crime, and some of his atrocities are tokenly stimulated by accidental recurrences of action-patterns that preceded (though didn’t necessarily cause) his previous rampage. His depredations make an elusive, almost traditionally moralistic kind of sense: the people who get it in the neck, or wherever, are the naughty kids, the ones enrolled in extracurricular sexual experimentation (for whom the 20-second orgasm is the ne plus ultra). At the same time, he seems particularly fascinated with a little boy who might be his own childhood counterpart, and a rather seriousminded high-school girl (Jamie Lee Curtis) who’s quietly opted out of the randy social scene around her.

As the autumn sunlight shifts from golden to bronze and then gives way to blue-black night, Carpenter and his eerily faceless marauder close in on a couple of houses where children and their teenage sitters—among them the aforementioned boy and girl—have settled in for a marathon evening of horror and sci-fi classics on TV. The most prominently featured items are The Thing (Carpenter has testified to a deep reverence for Howard Hawks, and his penchant for lean, tanned, gutsy leading ladies is one manifestation of Hawks’s influence) and Forbidden Planet. Both choices are appropriate. “He” strikes poses reminiscent of James Arness’s supercarrot in The Thing and apparently shares his resiliency. And it’s not hard to connect the marauder, and his suggested-but-not-run-into-the-ground aptness as a response to the petty dynamics of the junior social scene, with the Monster from the Id in Forbidden Planet. Halloween toys with the possibility that “His” mania might be catching, if only in that the experiences of this night may so traumatize the survivors that they could rehearse the mayhem forever, weird without end. This is less a serious threat—or serious point—than simply another angle from which to terrorize and tantalize us. John Carpenter doesn’t want this kind of cinematically invigorating evil to end; it’s intrinsic to a classical order he believes in. And he believes in it enough to imagine something really far out: a local TV station that would project Forbidden Planet in a widescreen format….

© 1979 Richard T. Jameson

2009 afterword: Reviews, like the movies they treat, remain artifacts of their time. Which is not to say that the observations this one contains have lost validity; quite the reverse. But it’s nice to remember the virtues and beauties of Halloween in terms of that particular moment in 1979 (the 1978 movie having reached Seattle a few months late), when filmmaking and film exhibition were in various states of crisis and the outlook for John Carpenter’s career was endless promise. It’s not Carpenter’s fault that the lucid and scarifying artistry of his breakthrough movie served as prototype for several dozen (several hundred?) of the dumbest, most mechanical slasher films rolled out in ensuing decades. It’s at least partly his fault that “He” could not be stopped after all, and that the chillingly open ending of Halloween, instead of being allowed to retain its goosepimply grandeur, opened the door to sequels bearing as much relation to Carpenter’s one-of-a-kind masterpiece as Psychos II, III, and IV do to the one and only Hitchcock Psycho (we’ll get to you later, Gus Van Sant!). Still, I am delighted to have been “wrong” about one thing: letterboxed presentations of widescreen films are now an article of faith with all the best TV channels. RTJ

Direction and Music: John Carpenter. Screenplay: John Carpenter, Debra Hill. Cinematography: Dean Cundey; camera operator: Ray Stella. Production Design: Tommy [Lee] Wallace. Editing: Charles Bornstein, Tommy [Lee] Wallace. Production: Debra Hill; executive producers: Moustapha Akkad, Irwin Yablans.
The Players: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence, Nancy Loomis, P J Soles, Charles Cyphers, Nick Castle.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.