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.
About a decade ago while I was attending the Vancouver International Film Festival, I ended the screening day over beers with a small group of critics. By the end of the evening, we came around to proclaiming John Carpenter the most underrated American filmmaker of our time. Here’s a filmmaker who has made only one feature in the past decade, the low-budget The Ward, yet his legacy is getting more respect than ever — at least on home video. In 2013 alone, he’s had six films debut on Blu-ray and one remastered in a gorgeous new edition, reason enough to revisit his legacy.
Assault on Precinct 13 (Shout Factory, due November 19), Carpenter’s first feature out of film school, is a siege thriller inspired by Rio Bravo that plays out like Night of the Living Dead (which Carpenter readily acknowledges in the disc supplements). He’s very much the film aficionado sharing his love — he’s more at home referencing other movies than striking out into his own cinematic world — but he brings a sturdy professionalism to the budget-starved production and an impressive storytelling intelligence to the script and direction (where actions speak louder than quips). And for all the exposition of the attack motivation, he turns his marauding street gang into an almost inexplicable force of single-minded purpose.
All that potential blooms in Halloween (Anchor Bay).
Two from John Carpenter arrive this week in newly remastered editions.
Prince of Darkness: Collector’s Edition (Shout Factory) gives the Blu-ray debut and deluxe treatment to what is perhaps the most underrated film in John Carpenter’s filmography. “While order does exist in the universe, it is not what we had in mind,” explains a professor in theoretical physics in the first act, as good an introduction as you can get to this metaphysical mix of quantum physics and Christian mythology. Carpenter wrote the film under the pseudonym Martin Quatermass, a tribute to writer Nigel Kneale, and this is very much in the Kneale tradition, bringing myth and science together into a metaphysical horror. The premise is basic — a group of people (in this case scientists and graduate students) in a confined space (a neglected Los Angeles church) hunted by a killer — but the stakes are cosmic. Carpenter, working in a small budget, returns to simple, practical special effects, which has the effect of grounding the horror, while the dialogue plays with the scope of the threat. It’s a film that, a few awkward performances aside, gets better with each viewing.
Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary by John Carpenter with actor Peter Jason, new interviews with John Carpenter (10 minutes), Alice Cooper, who is memorable in a wordless role as a possessed street person (9 minutes), effects supervisor and actor Robert Grasmere (12 minutes), and co-composer / arranger Alan Howarth (10 minutes), a “Horror’s Hallowed Ground” tour of the locations, and an alternated opening from the TV version.
Halloween: 35th Anniversary Edition (Anchor Bay) doesn’t need as much build-up. It is, after all, the film that put the director on the map. But while it was a massive hit movie that (for better and for worse) pushed the slasher movie into the American mainstream, it is also a beautifully-made made picture by a director who brings a visual intelligence to a genre so often reduced to hack directors and gimmicks in place of storytelling. Carpenter was a master of the Panavision frame and he brings an increasingly claustrophobic atmosphere to the film, hiding his boogeyman in the shadows and sometimes in plain sight, taunting the audience not with what they can’t see, but what they can’t control. Which is much scarier.
It gets a superb new high-definition transfer, supervised by cinematographer Dean Cundey, and a new commentary track with Carpenter and star Jamie Lee Curtis, reuniting for the first time in years (“Jamie and I haven’t seen each other in a long time,” remarks Carpenter during the credits) to compare memories and swap stories. The Blu-ray and DVD also features the new hour-long documentary “The Night She Came Home” with Jamie Lee Curtis at a rare convention appearance and the previously available featurette “On Location: 25 Years Later” from the “25th Anniversary Edition,” with P.J. Soles and Debra Hill back at the scene of the crime to revisit the original Michael Myers house, plus ten minutes of footage from the TV version.
[Originally published in Film Comment, March-April 1980]
Junior high-school memory (Art class? English? Doesn’t matter): “art = form + content.” Sez who? Sez the teacher, who does not want to be bothered with picky questions about art, won’t say anything about form that she can’t test you on via the multiple-choice method, and wants to read essays only on what the poem is about.
Does style come into this anywhere? Oh, sure. Somewhere, vaguely, grudgingly. “The author’s style”—that is, his way of doing things; sort of a signatory manner. Nice to have, but apparently not so necessary as form and content. Consoling words, form and content: art sounds evanescent, indefinable, but form and content smack of industry and consumerism. Style is something extra, a conversation piece, maybe even frivolous, like a car cigarette lighter or power windows. You could get where they wanted you to go without it—to the pragmatic, this-will-be-good-for-you-and-prepare-you-for-life meaning (or “message” as the student mind, quick to psych out the priorities, swiftly translates it). A piss-poor destination, to say nothing of how it scants the pleasures of the trip.
Huge title card: “THEN—”. Followed by: “Content, as I see it, is a series of connecting shocks arranged in a certain sequence and directed at the audience.” Sergei Eisenstein, you are so right! (I wish I liked your movies more.) Shocks as content—the junior-high equation trembles, previously secure elements threaten to swap sides. What Eisenstein theorized about cinema goes for writing, too: words as shocks; shocks arranged in a certain sequence. Words call up images and the images recur, mutate, cross-refer as the words extend in linear space and the reading experience extends in time. “Content” is not content; “the meaning” is not a concrete certitude cunningly buried so that one may have the pleasure of a civilized, mental version of hide-and-seek, stripmining through “the story” to get to “the themes.” “The meaning” is only one more piece of material, as deformable by the operation of the artistic sensibility as the sea is by the pull of the moon’s gravity. Content is what happens, from moment to moment, and then in the suspended moment that is one’s life within the aesthetic life-system the artist has created. And content is at the beck of style.
[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.