Saturday, October 22, 2011

Halloween (The Original)

In 1978, John Carpenter was a very promising graduate from USC film school. He had directed a student film called Dark Star, which was pretty good – for a student film, and a praised low budget film called Assault on Precinct 13. He was developing a good reputation, but the major studios weren’t exactly breaking down his door. For his third feature, he and producing partner Debra Hill had written a script called The Baby-Sitter Murders, about a series of killings stretching over several days. The movie was budgeted at $320,000, half of which went to renting the cameras. Largely to save money by reducing costume changes, the decision was made to condense the action to just one day, and a certain date seemed perfect. So the movie’s name was changed to Halloween, and it was shot on a 21 day schedule in Southern California.

The movie is set in Haddonfield, Illinois, and opens with a flashback in which a small boy murders a young girl at Halloween. Jump forward a few years, and the now grown boy escapes from an insane asylum and heads back home, again on Halloween. Laurie (Jamie Leigh Curtis), Annie (Nancy Loomis), and Lynda (P.J. Soles) are getting ready for the holiday. Laurie and Annie are baby-sitting, while Lynda is looking for a place to be alone with her boyfriend. Michael Myers (actually identified as The Shape in the original) arrives to wreak mayhem, with psychiatrist Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) in hot pursuit.

Expectations were low for the movie, but it struck a nerve with movie goers, going on to gross the equivalent of $150,000,000 today. In those pre-home video days, it became customary to see it multiple times, and it stayed in theaters for months. (In the movie theater where I saw it, it was customary to turn off all the exit and other lights during the frenetic last fifteen minutes – regulations were a little lax in those days – and if there was a full house, a tall usher would put on a mask and walk down the aisle waving a fake knife. Good times.) It wasn’t the first slasher movie, but it largely gave birth to the slasher genre.

Since the movie was shot in the spring in southern California, everything is too green for late fall in Illinois, but the low-fi solution was to make a number of fake leaves, scatter them about for a scene, then gather them up and re-use them for the next. The ubiquitous pumpkins were also difficult since they were out of season, and gourds painted orange were substituted, which is why all the jack-o-lanterns look unusually squat. As most people know, the mask is a cheap William Shatner mask painted white with the eye-holes stretched. As he did in most of his early films, Carpenter did the soundtrack (recorded mostly in unusual 5/4 time) himself.

A personal note: Back when I and a friend were doing our late, unlamented horror podcast, we took the name from a line in Halloween, One Good Scare, which you can see on the poster in the previous post.

The two horror movies playing on TVs in the background are the original The Thing from Another World (which Carpenter would remake in about four years) and Forbidden Planet.

I read once that it is impossible for modern audiences to fully appreciate Citizen Kane, since the innovations in that film have been copied so many times in subsequent movies they don’t seem fresh and original any more. There is some of the same problem with Halloween. When it arrived at the theaters in October 1978, its use of camera angles and narrative, especially scenes shot from the POV of the killer were mostly new to audiences, but some of their impact has been blunted by dozens of inferior films mimicking them. Still, it is a tight, focused, suspenseful film, and as close to Citizen Kane as the slasher genre ever got. I think it holds up very well. One of the peculiar things is the movie was seen as shockingly graphic at the time, but there are only two brief scenes of blood, and if you took out a couple of topless scenes, it could probably be shown on prime time TV without complaint. Times change. Carpenter and the rest of the creative people knew they had gotten as close to perfection as that sub-genre would stand, and there would never be a need for a sequel.

1 comment:

Craig Clarke said...

Halloween the Citizen Kane of slasher films: thank you for putting my own feelings into words.

And I'm not kidding...