Sunday, October 31, 2010

HALLOWEEN (1978) - the "Citizen Kane" of movies where a dude runs around stabbing people

here's James Rolfe's (the Angry Video Game Nerd) video review of Halloween

The slasher film started with Halloween, but, more to the point, it started with the success of Halloween. The movie was released in October of 1978, and by the time it was clear that this low budget film was a cash cow, tons of similar films were put into production. This wave of films, mostly released in 1980, constitutes the beginning of the slasher genre.

While there were precursors to Halloween (Psycho, giallo films, etc.), none of these had all of the conventions that the slasher films did post-Halloween. Also, the term was not coined until sometime in 1980 to describe what was clearly becoming a genre. Even films released in 1979 that were considered slasher films retroactively, like When a Stranger Calls and Driller Killer, still differed quite a bit from the films released just a year later.

I read a review of Halloween somewhere saying that it was like the shower scene in Psycho drawn out to feature length. While probably meant to be flippant, this is a pretty good entry point to understanding what distinguishes a slasher film from what is merely a story of some asshole running around killing people.

With Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock took a literary source and grafted it onto a series of cinematic set pieces. When Marion Crane checks into her room, the audience is still following the story of the character, through her point of view, just like the novel. Marion’s story ends in a barrage of stab wounds, just as the narrative is hijacked by a visceral cinematic exercise realized through a rapid series of cuts.

Halloween can be viewed as Psycho with the literary narrative ripped out and replaced with an environment, both in terms of location (suburbs) and spacial dynamics (some psycho just wandered into frame). Rather than watching a “story” of a group of young people being slaughtered, you are placed in their environment, and are forced to accompany them as they are being killed. It’s like the difference between hearing about a killer stalking someone, and being there to witness it yourself.

The opening scene is both the background story for the killer and a stalking scene that sets up the structure for the rest of the film. Its Halloween night in 1963, in some faceless suburb (the invented Haddonfield, Illinois). The narrative is basically that Michael Myers, an all-American kid, completely snaps, hacking up his sister with a butcher knife for no clear reason (and therefore, left up to the audience’s imagination). This conveys the idea of the innocence of a town being destroyed.

The entire scene is shot in an unbroken steadicam take, all in Michael’s point of view (not including the final pull out from Michael’s face). The camera glides along, prowling outside the Myers’ house. This creates the feeling of a precise, inhuman presence, existing in singular, exacting movements. If they had used a hand held camera, it would feel more human and naturalistic.

The fact that the scene unfolds in an unbroken shot allows the audience to keep track of the spacial dynamics throughout the scene. The young couple’s (Myers’ sister and her boyfriend) location is always clear in relation to Michael’s location, both in terms of the general area (second floor bedroom vs. living room) and in terms of distance. This helps to place the audience in the physical space; to feel as if they are being stalked themselves. The audience may try to plot how they would escape the prowling menace themselves, or how they would fight back.

Flash forward fifteen years, and Michael escapes from a sanitarium, driving off in a station wagon before his psychiatrist (Dr. Loomis) can complete his transfer. Michael apparently has spent this entire time locked in his room, sitting there in silence, despite Loomis’ attempts to reach him. Dr. Loomis facilitates the plot, providing exposition as he spends Halloween night looking for Michael. He also acts as the creepy soothsayer, warning everyone of impending evil.

Loomis is also the voice of scientific reason in regards to Michael. He tries to convince both the sheriff and a hospital official about the impending slaughter, but they both prove skeptical, despite Loomis being the expert on the subject at hand. Many of the ominous signs of Michael’s presence are blamed on the holiday itself, what with people trying to scare each other and engage in harmless pranks. This conveys the idea of a society that feels like it is safe from evil, and therefore content with the status quo (authority figures in later slasher films tended to be even more ineffectual).

The killer might be seen as a vitally important character in a slasher film, and they are, but mostly as a “cinematic intruder”, rather than as a character in a conventional sense. We can extract the importance of the killer’s identity by seeing how they are presented in these films. A mask is often used to hide the killer’s identity, as well as conveying the sense that the killer is a faceless entity, a boogeyman cipher. Also, there is usually a single scene that gives the killer some background (a motive or an identity). However, throughout the bulk the film, the killer is an autonomous killing machine. Their sole objective is that they kill. The vast majority of killers in slasher movies are interchangeable, except during the big finale reveal or the background scene.

Just as Dr, Loomis states, Michael Myers is “purely and simply evil”, reinforcing the idea that Myers is a boogeyman, and not a human being that murders because of some motive. He has an identity and a back story, however slight, but this has little correlation to the role Michael Myers has in the film. The opening of Halloween is more important for the fact that it establishes a killer and sets up the inevitable return to the original spot of the murder. The idea that there is a killer on the loose, lurking in the shadows, is planted for purposes of creating suspense. If the Michael Myers back story were completely excised, his role in the bulk of the movie would remain virtually the same.

Usually, there is also a big reveal at the end, and the killer is suddenly given an identity and a motive. Whether they were human or not, or had any sort of motive, doesn’t change how they affect the film’s characters and the environment they are intruding in on.

Laurie Strode walks to school like any normal morning, except that she stops at the old Myers house to leave a key under the mat for her father, a realtor. Young Tommy warns her that it’s a “spook house”, but Laurie is much more practical than this imaginative child, and just laughs it off. This creepy house, and the accompanying story of the murder fifteen years prior, functionally creates an urban legend within Tommy’s mind, and resultantly, the audience. Most viewers can identify with this idea, as many a neighborhood fostered a creepy story or a strange old house, not to mention all of the standard folk horror tales that you hear in your youth (like the hook killer, for example).

The knowledge that Laurie, our heroine, lives near the decrepit Myers house immediately sets up a feeling of unease and helps create suspense. Michael also walks into frame two separate times during this scene, alerting the audience that he is stalking the neighborhood. This also sets up a paradigm where the frame, normally following characters in their suburban setting, can be infiltrated at any time. This puts the audience on edge, as they know Michael can suddenly invade the cinematic space.

During the course of the day, Laurie becomes more and more suspicious that someone is following her, often dismissing it (after all, it is Halloween night, where people are wandering around wearing creepy masks). It isn’t until the third act when she stumbles upon Michael’s makeshift lair filled with corpses that she becomes fully aware of the situation. This separates it from previous murder mysteries where the character suspects a murder and ends up investigating it. Here, she is a passive heroine, going about her everyday business while suspecting that something may be afoot. She is not exactly a virginal heroine, but is more shy and aloof, as she needs to be receptive of the various warning signs of Michael’s presence while the world around her remains blissfully unaware.

When day finally turns to night, Michael dumps his station wagon and heads on foot, as if he was previously casing the neighborhood, and is now ready to go to work. Michael engages in some prolonged cat and mouse antics with Annie, eventually strangling her in a car. He stabs Lynda’s boyfriend and stares at his corpse, quixotically tilting his head. He then descends on Lynda wearing a ghost sheet and glasses, tricking her into thinking he’s her boyfriend, before strangling her with a phone cord.

While the ghost dress-up gag may be seen as Michael’s humorous side, the important thing is that it operates as a cat and mouse scenario. We can formulate motives for his few behavioral quirks, but most of the time, he is an inhuman cipher that stalks and kills, and should remain defined by his cinematic role. Michael does not kill for moral or sexual reasons, and therefore differs from earlier, more human boogeymen in horror films, who tended to be based on real life serial killers or psychopaths.

Laurie finally suspects something is really wrong and walks across the street to Annie’s house. The scene cuts between Laurie and her point of view as she moves cautiously towards potential doom. By this point, the audience has been conditioned to expect Michael to pop into frame. This time, nothing happens, and this helps build tension as she enters the house and searches it in the dark (Michael has cut the power line, another slasher cliché that is used to amp up suspense).

Laurie finally finds Annie’s body lying in an upstairs bed, and thus begins the climax that the film has been building to. The bedroom is Michael’s de facto lair of bodies, a device present in most slasher films in one way or another. The other two corpses pop out at Laurie as she is trying to stumble out the door (resulting in two more shock scares). She collapses, terrified and exhausted, next to a dark doorway, and we see Michael’s white mask slowly appear within the frame, surrounded by total darkness. This is extremely effective, and is sort of the slasher equivalent to the mirage scene in Lawrence of Arabia.

Michael slices Laurie’s arm, causing her to fall off the banister and down to the first floor. She escapes to the house next door and screams for help, but her pleas are ignored. She then bangs on the door to Tommy’s house and screams at him to unlock it as Michael approaches. This scene, with Laurie desperately trying to find help and being ignored while an unstoppable presence stalks her, has a primal, dreamlike feel. I think many of us have had similar nightmares where we are running for our lives from some force, desperately and unsuccessfully trying to find help. The pared down nature of the film creates more of a primal, subconscious effect, similar to a nightmare (as opposed to a conscious narrative).

Laurie stabs him in the neck with a knitting needle, and Tommy tells her “you can’t kill the boogeyman”, and Michael pops up again just in time. While Laurie has remained skeptical and practical throughout much of the film, Tommy’s young mind is much more impressionable, perceiving Myers as a mythic boogeyman, which is correct in the context of the film. She stabs him a couple more times, and, assuming him dead, she cowers in the doorway again. Similarly to the mask appearing in the doorway effect, we see Michael lying down in the background, out of focus and supposedly dead. He slowly rises from the dead to attack Laurie yet again.

Laurie briefly unmasks Michael right before Loomis shoots him numerous times, and he falls off a balcony. Loomis looks down off the balcony and Michael is nowhere to be found. It is now clear that Myers is functionally inhuman. The film closes with several pillow shots of the neighborhood, married to the sound of Michael’s heavy breathing. This conveys the notion that Myers represents the evil that lies dormant in any “innocent” town, perpetually lurking in the shadows.

Michael’s survival and escape back into the neighborhood conveniently sets up the sequel, which is a direct continuation of the first film (though Carpenter himself said that he didn’t originally plan to do a sequel). While obviously not on the level of the original, I think Halloween II is a very good sequel that elaborates on the original (moving it to a hospital and adding more murders), while trying to keep a similar tone. It also takes place later the same night, as if it was the second half of a mini-series.

John Carpenter’s structural use of framing can be compared to Sergio Leone’s. For example, in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, when Goldie and Tuco are walking along and bump into a huge army camp, they don’t notice it until several soldiers and their bayonets enter the frame. In Halloween, Myers intrudes on a character’s space by entering the frame, not by being in their vicinity necessarily, or by being seen.

Since the film is cinematically spare, stripped of literary content, the structure becomes more important than the meaning, like the difference between a statement and a photograph. Rather than presenting the story of a town that Michael intrudes as a character, the world is the very frame itself, and Michael’s intrusion is a tactile, visceral force.

P.S. BAM! The final (number 11) in the lazy baker series of horror movie reviews. I decided to post my boring breakdown of Halloween, instead of the usual smartass tomfoolery you might expect. An exceedingly obvious choice for this particular holiday, but appropriate nevertheless. I didn't include any clips or stills because I figure every "normal" person has seen the film a couple of times and knows what I'm referring to. I might add some stills of certain shots I refer to later on. Whatever yo.

P.P.S. HAPPY HALLOWEEN! Try not to die from alcohol and/or tootsie roll abuse. That's all the wisdom I have for you at this time.


  1. "John Carpenter’s structural use of framing can be compared to Sergio Leone’s."

    Wow! I have never seen that comparison before but I see what you mean! Carpenter's use of framing is unreal and he really shows it off in this film.

    Another thing that always strikes me about this film is that Carpenter has Michael initially stalking Laurie and her friends during the day and is even visible in a few shots! Pretty ballsy stuff in a genre where the killer traditionally hides in the dark, using the shadows to sneak up on unsuspecting victims. But there is something really unsettling about seeing Michael observing Laurie and her friends from afar.

  2. @J.D.

    Yeah, Carpenter has admitted that Leone is a huge influence. I don't know how conscious it was, but that motif where Myers is unseen by the characters as long as he remains out of frame is something that Leone did first (I believe). In the interim years, it may have been used in Italian genre films (giallos and other Spaghetti westerns). Now it's not too uncommon to see in horror films, due mainly to Carpenter's influence, but also via Leone through Italian horror films (if that makes sense).