Monday, October 26, 2015

Halloween (1978)

3.5/4

Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence, Nancy Loomis, P.J. Soles, Charles Cyphers, Tony Moran

Rated R (probably for Strong Violence, Pervasive Terror, Sexuality/Nudity and Brief Drug Use)

"Halloween" might be just another low-budget horror flick gathering dust on the shelves of discount video stores (if it survived the next 40 years at all) had it not been for a complimentary review in "The Village Voice" by critic Tom Allen (for anyone who is curious, the review can be found here).  His writing caused critics and audiences to see this low-budget chiller for what it is: a terrifying horror film.

On Halloween night, Judith Myers (Sandy Johnson) is getting ready for bed after her date when she is brutally stabbed to death.  It is only when the killer is unmasked that we realize that the killer is her six-year old brother Michael (Will Sandin).

Fifteen years later, the Myers house has fallen into disrepair, and according to the local children, is reputed to be haunted.  Shy high school student Laurie Strode (Curtis) is getting ready to babysit, although her friends Annie (Loomis) and Lynda (Soles) have different ideas.  However, none of them have any idea of the terror that lies ahead.

You see, Michael has recently escaped from the mental hospital and is heading back home.  His psychiatrist, Dr. Sam Loomis (Pleaseance), is hot on his trail.  "I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized that what was living behind that boy's eyes was purely and simply...evil," he says.  But not even his vigilant guard can stop Michael from going on a killing spree.

The influence of Alfred Hitchcock in this film, specifically the movie "Psycho," is immediately apparent.  The spacious shots, the reliance on careful cinematography and meticulous editing are all in evidence.  More obviously, co-writer and director John Carpenter has replicated the feel of Hitchcock's work, but without seeming like a thief.  This film is all his own.  "Psycho" is considered the father of the modern slasher genre.  If that's true, and there's merit to that argument, then it's Carpenter who tweaked and refined it to the genre that we know of today.

As is often the case with new fads and trailblazers, scholars have offered their theories on why "Halloween" became so popular or more pretentiously, what it means (side note: I don't understand why people do this.  It's largely irrelevant and makes the person seem like a stuffy buffoon.  It can also cheapen the thing itself).  Because it gave birth to the "final girl" trope, some have called it "feminist" or a cautionary tale on teenage sexuality.  Carpenter and co-writer/producer Debra Hill have repeatedly denied this, saying it's just a horror movie.  That's the best way to view it.  Putting it into a context in which it doesn't belong not only robs it of some of its punch, but sets expectations in the viewer in which it can't, and shouldn't have to, reach.

There are those who would argue that this is a classic horror film.  I am not among them.  While it's true that it is undeniably frightening and gave birth to a number of slasher movie clich├ęs, there are some definite flaws.  For one thing, the acting is stiff.  Of the cast, only Jamie Lee Curtis seems real.  And while the film is definitely impressive on a technical level (especially the opening murder, which remains one of the most innovative scenes in film history), there is something distancing about it.  And the film seems to be all build-up; the film doesn't really get rolling until the final half-hour.

Nevertheless, "Halloween" does what it sets out to do: scare the living hell out of a viewer.  For that reason, I give this film a very enthusiastic recommendation.

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