Once you hear it, you can never forget it. It seeps into your brain, claiming permanent space for itself. It lingers, it haunts, it unsettles, it unnerves. It may go silent at times, sometimes for years, and then suddenly, it returns, reminding you of its chilling, ever lurking presence. Try as you may, it never really goes away.
The scariest thing about John Carpenter’s Halloween isn’t the story, as well crafted as it is, nor is it the villain, a mute, heavy-breathing masked killer, as memorably smart, vicious and creepy as he is. It’s the music. Carpenter had all of three days to write and record the kind of score that would bring out the terror and shock depicted on screen. On such a tight deadline, he created one of the greatest series of movie themes of all time.
Although Halloween is not a perfect film, the music sure is. In every scene where Carpenter’s notes are present, none are wasted. In such an incredibly short period of time, he managed to figure out exactly where each of his spontaneous compositions would make a considerable emotional difference. He got it completely right. Talk about perfect placement. Imagine every one of those scenes working without that music. You can’t, can you?
Ordinary small-town sequences featuring characters just walking down the street are transformed into something far more sinister, the music representing the hidden menace the town of Haddonfield is not expecting to encounter. The observation of young trick-or-treaters making out like bandits during the afternoon as Carpenter’s score foreshadows the coming, violent disruption to enjoyable, comfortable routine.
On Halloween night, 1963, a young boy in a clown costume quietly observes his older sister as she briefly canoodles with a fellow teen paramour. Once they take things upstairs, the child makes his move. He slips inside from the back, grabs that knife from the kitchen drawer and lingers silently in the darkness. Suddenly, his sister’s lover has second thoughts about fooling around. He’s soon down the stairs and out the door. Opportunity.
The boy calmly walks towards a life-changing experience. He finds the clown mask her boyfriend was wearing laying harmlessly on the ground and puts it on. His breathing now laboured, he finds her topless calmly singing to herself as she combs her long, flowing hair. He approaches. In a matter of seconds, she is dead.
No explanation, no motivation, no reason. Six-year-old Michael Myers doesn’t need any justification for his brutality. He just needs victims.
Fifteen years later, having spent the rest of his childhood in an institution, he’s got an upcoming court appearance. He never makes it. His longterm psychiatrist Dr. Loomis (a perfectly cast Donald Pleasance) is on his way to see him on October 30, 1978. Driven to the Smith’s Grove facility on a miserably rainy night by a skeptical nurse who doesn’t understand why he has such a low opinion of his patient, they are shocked to see several patients wandering around outside in the dark in just their hospital gowns.
Loomis gets out of the car to investigate and someone suddenly leaps on top of the roof, jostling, through a now open door window, with the startled nurse who eventually gets out herself. And just like that, Michael Myers is free and Haddonfield, a small town where everybody knows everybody, doesn’t know what’s coming.
The idyllic tranquility of this place is a perfect hunting ground for Myers. No one knows that danger has moved in. And because it’s Halloween, he easily blends in wearing that blank, white mask. Oh sure, when a little boy accidently runs into him outside the school yard, he becomes wide-eyed and entranced. And when he suddenly hits the brake on his stolen car after a teen girl openly mocks him on the sidewalk, it’s noticed.
But Myers is ever calculating, ever cunning. You only see him when he wants you to see him. There are no accidents. There are no mistakes.
One of the great pleasures of Halloween is the Myers character himself. He is God in this story. Once he takes a personal interest in you he is in complete control of your fate. At any instantaneous moment, he can squeeze or choke the joy right out of you. But he’s never rushed. Long before he cuts you or strangles you, he targets you. He familiarizes himself with your daily routine, secretly spying on your most private moments, figuring out the best time to attack. During the day, he’ll drive around in that stolen car following you and you won’t even know it. When he wants to make his frightening presence known, he appears. And just as suddenly, he is gone. For a man who often moves very slowly, very deliberately, it’s stunning how fast he really is.
Myers is an absolute master of psychological torture. Consider what happens to Annie (Nancy Loomis), one of several teenagers he selects for extermination. She’s babysitting a little girl in the neighbourhood. While talking on the phone to close pal Laurie (the excellent Jamie Lee Curtis), Myers is seen outdoors watching her from just outside the kitchen. At one point, he yanks a hanging flower pot to the ground which is mostly ignored. Then he yanks another.
Already annoyed with the little girl’s dog who won’t stop barking (she’s not the only one), she accidentally spills her drink on her clothes in the midst of all the distracting noise. This means she needs to go to the laundry room to wash them. But the machines are not in the house. They’re in a separate property in the backyard. While there, she finds herself locked in. She yells out to the little girl but she’s watching The Thing From Another World (a very good film, by the way) and can’t hear her. So, Annie tries to squeeze herself out through a very tight window but she gets stuck. At one point during this part of the scene, Myers can be briefly seen and we think she’s done for.
The little girl takes a call from Annie’s boyfriend and goes to retrieve her. Myers has since disappeared and the kid unlocks the door from the outside. A thankful Annie pleads with her to keep this embarrassing moment to herself. That leads to a very big laugh just moments later.
Annie finally talks to her boyfriend and once again, there’s Myers now observing her from the other side of the house. But just as quickly, he is gone. But not for long. When Annie makes a fateful decision to leave the little girl’s house, God is waiting for her.
The first half of Halloween nicely establishes Myers’ disturbing pre-murder psychology. Unexpected appearances observed by puzzled residents followed by sudden vanishings, seemingly casual drives around the neighbourhood, round-the-clock surveillance. He gets away with it not just because they’re distracted by the holiday and the bustle of their daily lives but also because those who see him and then don’t see him become filled with doubts. (Is he even real?) Their uncertainty adds to their increasing vulnerability.
When Laurie spots him on Halloween afternoon suddenly popping out from behind some giant hedges, when she sees him staring at her from across the street outside her English literature class at school, both sightings jolt her out of the illusion of her comfortable existence. When Annie goes to talk to him behind the hedges, he’s nowhere to be found. When Laurie looks back out the school window after first seeing him standing beside his car, both have disappeared. (In that instance, isn’t it a bit of a contrivance that she wouldn’t hear him drive away? Automobiles are noisy, even ones driven by maniacs.)
At one point, after spotting him briefly just outside her bedroom window, she takes a call from someone who doesn’t say a word. She hangs up completely freaked out. The caller calls back and reveals herself to be Annie who had strangely decided to chew food into the receiver the first time around. “Obscene chewing”, indeed.
Later than night, while on her own babysitting gig, Tommy, the little boy she’s looking after, who’s obsessed with “the boogeyman” thanks to some jerky middle school bullies, spots him in the distance directly across the street from his window. (Fantastic camera shot, by the way.) By the time he draws Laurie’s attention to it Myers vanishes yet again. (Weird how she’s skeptical despite experiencing the exact same phenomenon earlier that day.) It isn’t until she hears another friend being strangled by a mysterious heavy-breather during another phone conversation that she becomes deeply concerned.
And that’s when Halloween really juices up the tension as Laurie makes some horrifying discoveries in the darkened house across the street and walks right into another brilliant trap laid by the man with “the devil’s eyes”.
It’s hard not to notice how many successive films have ripped off not just the premise of this movie (masked maniac going on a holiday-themed massacre) but also the beats and rhythms of the murder scenes themselves. But what they never succeed in duplicating, let alone topping, is the actual dread the Michael Myers character represents, the prevalent sense of disruption he brings to this once safe small town where nothing usually happens and the skill in which he annihilates the weakest of the herd.
While knock-offs up the gore, Halloween is noticeably restrained. It is our imagination that is violent more than any kill scenes depicted. Myers’ expressionless mask, like the ominous music, is perfect. Its absence of concern matches the character’s detached disposition.
Having a unforgettably strong villain like this is only half the battle. You also need an equally strong hero. Thankfully, Jamie Lee Curtis’ intelligent, sweet, shy, loyal, reliable and responsible Laurie fits the bill. We like her right away. We respect her goodness. (We like her more adventurous friends, too, plus the kids they’re babysitting.) And when she unwittingly places herself in the clutches of a very determined psychopath, we hope she prevails.
Halloween was famously shot in three weeks for just $300,000 with only one major star. You would never know it from how beautiful it looks. That credit goes to cinematographer Dean Cundey (Back To The Future, Jurassic Park). Look at that shot where Tommy sees Michael Myers in the distance through the window. Watch the camera as it slowly pulls back to reveal Myers standing in the living room as he silently observes Lynda and her bespectacled boyfriend necking on the couch. See what the killer sees during those fantastic steadicam POV shots, particularly the first one during the 1963 murder scene. Just superb cinematography.
Enough good things can’t be said about the late Donald Pleasance’s stellar performance as Loomis, the rightly worried shrink who finds himself mostly outmatched by a smarter, younger opponent despite his own vast experience and intelligence. During pauses in the mostly bloodless mayhem, his sharp conversations with Haddonfield’s incredulous sheriff shed just enough light on his history with the man who forever changes his life. He also gets a big laugh when he scares a bunch of curious kids away from the Myers house. You can feel the joy in his performance every time you see him.
Halloween, the theatrical cut, has held up remarkably well since that one time I saw the much longer and more sanitized TV version. But one thing that hasn’t is one key part of the ending. This idea that Myers can’t die because “evil never dies” is bullshit. Yes, he’s a highly sophisticated predator with incredible patience, precision, instincts and smarts and by God he can take more punishment than any other human being you could name. But despite Loomis referring to him as an “it” and “not a man”, he is a man, not an animal, which is why I’ve always been afraid of him, even now. To not acknowledge his damaged humanity is to lessen, in a small sense, the real threat he has always represented. Humans may be the scariest predators of them all but they are not invincible. No one is.
In retrospect, it’s also bit contrived that Laurie wouldn’t just keep repeatedly stabbing Myers during the two glorious opportunities she has to do so in the otherwise gripping third act. Instead, she just waits around, dropping her weapon, occasionally checking on the seriously terrified kids, leaving herself incredibly vulnerable as her relentless nemesis quietly rises to resume his assault.
I will say this for what happens after Loomis makes his shocking discovery. The use of that heavy breathing, which gets louder and louder as that hypnotic theme burrows itself permanently into your mind is most effective, one last scare just before the credits roll.
John Carpenter’s Halloween is easily the scariest movie I’ve ever seen, past and present. And while it is just shy of greatness, I now more than ever fully appreciate its stunning craftsmanship.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, October 9, 2015