Halloweenrecommended viewing

Suburban dystopia
★★★★
☆
Released: 
1978
Director: 
John Carpenter
Starring: 
Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence, PJ Soles, Nancy Loomis
The Setup: 
Maniac returns to small Illinois town and starts a'killin'.
Discussion: 

I had seen this movie twice, a few years ago, and in each case did NOT see what the big deal was. Of course, by then the plethora of horror movies this film inspired had made me inured to this film's achievements and inventions, so of course it seemed boring and unexceptional. It's important to remember going in that the Friday the 13th series began two years after this film was released, and A Nightmare on Elm Street six years later. So this one can justifiably lay its claim to be among the most influential films in horror. I was re-energized to see it [in fact, rather crazed to see it] again after seeing the recent Rob Zombie remake, as I found that suddenly I had a lot of fairly affectionate memories for it, and I wanted to examine the original in comparison to the remake. The remake seemed misguided on its own—but compared to this, it seems even more misguided, but I have to respect that Zombie decided to attempt something else entirely, rather than just magnify what's already here.

Okay, to the movie. We open with the famous Halloween theme, composed by John Carpenter himself, which he gets a lot of credit for. Well, that's good, but it's hard not to notice that for the most part, throughout the movie, it consists of single notes on a piano being plunked a few times. Nevertheless, it's effective. We then begin outside a house. The camera is from the killer's point of view, as we watch him looking in on a teenager and her boyfriend fooling around, then heading upstairs. He comes in [this is all one long tracking shot] through the open back door, grabs a knife [all the hands we see in this scene are those of co-writer and producer Deborah Hill], heads upstairs, dons a mask, and butchers his sister! I like the POV shot in which he watches his sister get stabbed, then apparently spends a while looking at his hand as it stabs. Anyway, he wanders outside, people pull up and pull his mask off and—he's a six-year-old boy! It's also hard for us to remember now that this would have been quite a surprise to audiences back in the day. This sequence, six minutes here, is expanded to 45 minutes in the Zombie version, adding a lot more victims in the process.

Fifteen years later, we join Dr. Sam Loomis, played by Donald Pleasence, as he arrives at this mental hospital in the middle of the night to appear at some hearing on Michael, the kid from the beginning. Loomis makes it abundantly clear that he doesn't think Michael should ever be released. Why this whole review board is gathering in the dead of night is not explained, but just go with it. As Loomis and this nurse approach the sanitarium we see all these white-suited figures wandering in the rain, and it's pretty effectively creepy! Loomis gets out, and the nurse is attacked by a patient—it wasn't until the guy got in the car and took off that I realized that THIS was Michael. THIS was his escape. The whole thing was handled in a very creepy and evocative manner, in contrast to the elaborate break-out and multiple-killings scene we see in the remake. Just seeing that car peel out and keep receding into the distance said much more about "escaped mental patient" than all the guard deaths in the new film—not to mention how wonderfully evocative to see all these wan mental patients wandering around in the rain.

So, 12 minutes in, we arrive in Haddonfield, Illinois. Now, part of the reason I was so keen to see this movie is that I remembered there being a lot of stuff about the horror of these big, safe, friendly suburban neighborhoods, but I didn't recall exactly HOW MUCH there was. In many scenes we get these Kubrick-like wide-angle compositions that just show a street or house as it is, letting its perfection and absolute normality make it somehow seem as if something is very, very wrong. I would love to ask David Lynch if this film was anywhere in his mind during the creation of Blue Velvet, as they are very similar neighborhoods with senses of underlying horror—oh, and they both also feature a famous suspense scene in which a character hides in a closet with a louvered door. I bet this one did influence Blue Velvet somewhat.

Anyway, so we meet Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode. She has to drop something off at the old Myers house, unaware that Michael is watching her from just inside the door. She is going to be babysitting that night, and meets the kid she's going to be taking care of. She goes to school, where she sees someone across the street staring in at her. You'll notice that while this is going on, the teacher is talking about how we can't escape our fates. After school, Laurie meets her friends Annie, played by Nancy Loomis, and Lynda, played by P.J. Soles, the irritating one with the baseball cap in Carrie. Annie razzes Laurie about never going out with boys, and Laurie says "Guys think I'm too smart." Notice how Laurie gets a little sad and introspective after saying this—that's part of what makes this movie different. Walking alone, Laurie is watched by Michael. One thing I didn't remember from previous viewings is the sound of Michael's panting breath, which adds a lot to the creepiness here. You'll notice that Laurie is singing "I wish I had you all alone, just the two of us," as he watches after her. You'll also notice that in here is a jump scare that is still somewhat effective, because it isn't accompanied by a deafening musical blast.

SPOILERS > > >
So once night falls, Laurie and Annie go to their respective babysitting jobs, a few doors down from each other. Annie is babysitting Kyle Richards, sister of Escape from Witch Mountain's Kim Richards, and star of the horrid The Watcher in the Woods. Michael watches Annie as she spills the tiniest little amount of what we later find out is butter on herself, which requires her to remove all of her clothes, down to her panties, and run out back to the little shack in the backyard to wash her clothes. Soon enough Annie gets word that her boyfriend can meet with her, so she dumps the girl on Laurie to go make out with him. I read a review that was impressed with the way Annie goes out to the car, finds it locked, goes back inside to get the keys, but when she returns, doesn't notice that the car door is now open. Okay, I'll grant you that, but—if the car was locked, how did Michael get in anyway?

In here we've also been getting portentous announcements every few minutes about how very dangerous Michael is, how he is evil incarnate, and also that he didn't say a single word for the 15 years he was in Loomis' treatment, which makes you wonder—if he didn't say anything, how do you know he's so evil?

Anyway, soon enough it's time for Laurie to get menaced. She finds the bodies of her friends, then we have one of the best shots, one of the only things I remember from my first viewing, which is where Michael's face fades in inside the black doorway next to Laurie. He attacks, and Laurie ends up downstairs—I don't remember all the specifics, there's a lot of running from house to house. One thing I will say is that, especially when Laurie is running from house to house, she seems genuinely about to piss her pants with terror. Girl is FREAKING. And that's largely what makes it work. She ends up hiding in a closet, and when Michael breaks in, she freaks for a while, then makes a weapon out of a wire hanger, which she's not afraid to use. When he drops his knife, she doesn't sit back whimpering, like heroines in many later horror movies, she grabs it and stabs the fucker! That's our Laurie. Jamie Lee kicks righteous ASS in this role, and deserves every kudo she's gotten for this film!
< < < SPOILERS END

As a movie, it was much better than I remembered, although with a little more money and a little more time, they could have screwed that subtext into place and gotten a lot more resonances. Regardless, it stands up, which is nice to see. And I really liked all the suburban dystopia stuff. I was thinking that if I made the remake, it would be almost entirely about the suburbs, but then again, you could say that that's what this movie is about, and Zombie's version had the courage to go into a different direction. Then again, you could say a lot of things, don't make 'em true.

Anyway, let's pile on Zombie's remake for a moment. The remake makes Michael the main character and tells us a lot more about his lower-class upbringing. He kills his stepfather and sister, a bully at school, a nurse and various sanitarium guards before heading back to Haddonfield. In this one, ALL we know about Michael is that he killed his sister after watching her screw around with her boyfriend, and she's his only victim, until he comes after Laurie and friends. Ironically, having LESS information about him actually gives us a fuller understanding of his mind, as he seems to becomes homicidally enraged at seeing nubile young female flesh. His having only killed his sister and coming after the girls adds to this. In the remake, he kills anyone who was mean to him, which drains any resonance out of the second half, despite the addition of some family history originally delivered in Halloween II.

That's my main gripe, but there are sundry others. The absence of the scenes of suburban malaise rob the remake of the sense of larger significance this film has. Here, Laurie is a fully-developed character, and what we know about her makes what happens tragic—she has a hard time meeting boys, they think she's too smart. By the end it's her smarts that save her, although she's probably going to have some issues with boys she didn't have before. Her song about how she and a boy will be alone, and the talk of meeting one's fate in the classroom also conspire to give Laurie's journey a feeling of larger significance. In the remake, she's an annoyingly chipper happy camper who doesn't seem to have anywhere near the melancholy inner life that Jamie Lee puts into her Laurie.

I guess that's part of what makes this movie special—it has a lot of unspoken resonances, not necessarily fully fleshed-out, but sparse enough and offering enough hints that the viewer can fill in the blank spaces with not just one's own fears, but one's loneliness, melancholy, fear and excitement at fate and what it may bring. I'm a convert! Now I need to systematically watch everything Jamie Lee Curtis has ever been in. I might stop short, however, or reading her line of children's books, although I wish her every continued success, and do in fact want to give her a big hug.

Should you watch it: 

YES! What, are you fucking nuts!?!?

RELATED FILMS:
HALLOWEEN [REMAKE] is Rob Zombie’s “reimagining” of this film, with the first half devoted to the development of Michael Myers, and the second half straight remake.
HALLOWEEN II picks up right where this one left off, and continues the story of that fateful night, minus thoughtful resonance.