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Haunted Sideshow

Dustin Putman

Dustin's Review
Halloween  (1978)
4 Stars
Directed by John Carpenter
Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasance, Nancy Loomis, P.J. Soles, Charles Cyphers, Brian Andrews, Kyle Richards, John Michael Graham, Nancy Stephens, Arthur Malet, Mickey Yablans, Brent Le Page, Adam Hollander, Robert Phalen, Sandy Johnson, David Kyle, Will Sandin, Tony Moran, Nick Castle.
1978 – 93 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for violence and brief nudity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 2008.

Laurie Strode:
Well, kiddo, I thought you outgrew superstition.

Whenever people find out that I am a film critic, the same question is always asked: "What is your favorite movie?" Time and again, my answer is the same: "Halloween." How could I possibly begrudge or ignore its significance in my life? After all, it is the one film, above all others, which I can confidently attribute my lifelong love affair with the cinema to. "Halloween" is the reason I am such an ardent supporter and defender of the horror genre. "Halloween" is the reason I began penning personal capsule reviews on my clunky DOS computer in 1990, still not even ten years old. By God, "Halloween" is the very reason I work a full-time job, and yet still dedicate the majority of my spare waking hours as an online film journalist who might as well be getting paid in peanuts.

I originally reviewed the picture exactly ten years ago, in 1998 (my old review can be found here). A 16-year-old kid with a lot to still learn about writing, critical deconstruction, and processing his thoughts on the page, I read that archive review now and shudder. To be sure, I feel the same way about "Halloween" as I did then, but there's no denying that the film deserves a more articulate, fully-formed discussion on why it is the classic that it has deservedly become, and why it has cemented such a lasting impact.

Made with ambition, enthusiasm and passion in the spring of 1978 on a shoestring budget of $320,000, writer-director John Carpenter (2001's "Ghosts of Mars") and co-writer Debra Hill took a simplistic premise that could have gone the way of trashy exploitation fare—a boogeyman stalks babysitters on Halloween night—and turned it into cinematic gold. Along with 1974's "Black Christmas," "Halloween" is the film most responsible for creating the slasher genre and coining the conventions—POV shots of the killer, jump scares, the "Final Girl"—that filmmakers to this day, thirty years later, still latch onto. Were the picture not well-made, it would be but a footnote in history, and subsequent copycats (e.g., "Friday the 13th," "Prom Night," "Silent Night, Deadly Night"), satirical treatments (e.g., HBO's "Tales from the Crypt" and the "Scream" series) and spoofs (e.g., "Student Bodies" and the "Scary Movie" franchise) would cease to exist. Year after year, generation after generation, "Halloween" endures and garners new fans for one very straightforward reason: no slasher picture before, or since, has been better. What Carpenter and Hill captured was lightning in a bottle.

The unforgettable prologue deceptively appears to be one unbroken shot (for the uninitiated, see if you can spot the cut). On Halloween night, circa 1963, an unseen presence lurks outside an idyllic suburban home, spying on a teenage girl and her boyfriend as they head up to her bedroom. Moving inside the house via the backdoor, a butcher knife is pulled from the kitchen drawer. Lingering out of view, the camera watches as the boyfriend says his good nights and exits. Heading up the stairs, a mask lying on the floor is picked up and put on. The teenage girl, sitting nude at her bureau as she combs her hair and sings quietly to herself, comes into frame. Before she has time to react—"Michael!" is all she gets out—a knife plunges multiple times into her chest before she collapses to the floor. The POV of Michael Myers hurriedly runs down the stairs and out the front door just as a car pulls up. Confused by what they're seeing, a man and woman pull the mask off to reveal their six-year-old son, staring blankly into the distance as he still grasps the bloodied murder weapon. A crane shot of the parents staring down in shock at their knife-wielding child follows—a chilling tableau frozen in time.

Fifteen years later, on Halloween Eve, Michael escapes from his home at Smith's Grove Sanitarium, much to the chagrin of long-term psychiatrist Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence). Returning to his old neighborhood in the bucolic town of Haddonfield, Illinois, he narrows his sights on three high school friends—reserved Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), caustic Annie Brackett (Nancy Loomis), and bubbly cheerleader Lynda van der Klok (P.J. Soles). With Laurie and Annie setting off in the evening to babysit across the street from each other, and Lynda and boyfriend Bob (John Michael Graham) arriving later to make good use of an empty bedroom, the girls have no way of knowing how close they are to mortal danger.

"Halloween" is what happens when every element that goes into the filmmaking process works out beautifully, both separately and collectively. Aesthetically, stylistically, thematically and subjectively, the experience of watching it is mesmerizing and immersive. Atmosphere is painted upon every shot like a work of art. The holiday of the title, rarely, if ever, rendered with such palpable care and dimension as it is here, sumptuously exudes from the frames. Pumpkins, decorations, silly pranks, trick-or-treaters, old scare flicks on television, dead leaves blowing in the chilly breeze—all of these things and more are incorporated into the proceedings to signify the one-of-a-kind mood that comes with October 31.

The plot, as unpretentious as they come, melds the everyday with the unthinkably horrific. A carefully observed, authentically written teenage slice-of-life wrapped in a threatening box, Laurie, Annie and Lynda are portrayed as average, likable girls, worrying about getting their hair done for the dance and whether or not a classmate they have a crush on likes them back. As they go about their everyday lives, with Annie making popcorn for herself and little Lindsay Wallace (Kyle Richards), Laurie carving jack-o'-lanterns with babysitting charge Tommy Doyle (Brian Andrews), and Lynda gallivanting with Bob, the viewer gets to know and identify with them. Tragically, they are not made privy to what the audience knows: that a psychopathic killer wearing an expressionless white mask is lurking outside their doors or right around the corner, waiting for his moment to pounce and forever change the course of their fates. Meanwhile, Dr. Sam Loomis teams up with Sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers) and returns to the scene of the 15-year-old crime. As they wait in the broken-down house where Michael killed sister Judith—a place now known as "the spook house," as Tommy calls it—in the hopes that he will return, Dr. Loomis describes in greater depth who Michael was, and what he has become: "purely and simply evil."

The ensemble cast is effortlessly charismatic and naturalistic, all the performances working on the same level and on the same page. Donald Pleasence, a late veteran actor whose career would have a second life through his recurring turn as Dr. Sam Loomis, brings authority, dignity, and vulnerability to his role. He is a man who once cared for Michael, who can't help but feel as if he still shares a bond with him, but who has grown wearisome because he now knows that there is no way of getting through to him. In her very first screen appearance, Jamie Lee Curtis (2003's "Freaky Friday") is perfect as Laurie Strode, unaffected and soft-spoken until she demonstrates why she earned the title as reigning "Scream Queen." The fear she exhibits in the breathlessly paced, tautly ingenious climax feels real, mimicking much of the anxiety that the viewer is going through while watching it. As Annie, Nancy Loomis (1980's "The Fog") is sarcastic and dryly humorous, ideally keying into the kind of person who always has to have the last word. And, as the energetic, sexually uninhibited Lynda, P.J. Soles (2005's "The Devil's Rejects") is "totally" an utter delight for every second she is onscreen.

The cinematography by Dean Cundey (2006's "The Holiday"), making brilliant use of the steadicam and a lush 2.35:1 widescreen format that doesn't waste one inch of the frame, is intoxicating. A character in and of itself, the camera treats the backgrounds of shots with the same care as it does the foregrounds, with Michael Myers imposingly capable of showing up anywhere, at any time. Even in the most innocuous of scenes, Michael's presence eerily looms over the happenings. Also of crucial note is the excitingly creepy, unshakably memorable piano leitmotif found in the score by John Carpenter (billed in the end credits as the Bowling Green Philharmonic Orchestra), as emblematic of the holiday as the film itself. Carpenter exquisitely implements just a few choice piano keys to construct one of moviedom's most perennial compositions. Blue Öyster Cult's "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" adds pitch-perfect flavor to an early scene between Laurie and Annie as they drive to their babysitting jobs, twilight falling upon Haddonfield.

Violent but never gory, "Halloween" is a masterwork of sheer, unadulterated suspense, blanketing low-key, tastefully layered humanity in an identifiably peaceful setting with the kind of darkness that can, and does, exist in the real world. Classy, intimate and exceedingly tense when most of the later derivative slasher releases became low-rent, gruesome-for-gruesome's-sake freakshows, the film has the power and skill to remain as uncompromisingly scary and haunting today as it no doubt was in 1978. To call "Halloween" merely brilliant isn't giving it enough credit. As a horror film and as a historical milestone that single-handedly shaped and altered the future of an entire genre, it's downright transcendent.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman