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Halloween (1978) – Carpenter countdown #5

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Having seen Assault, a Jordanian financier offered to put up the money for Carpenter to do another film – the whole $320,000 budget was what he spent per day on his 'real' films. The producer wanted a story about a killer stalking baby-sitters, which Carpenter and then partner Debra Hill started to write, then the producer suggested a good time to set it: no-one had ever done a film on Halloween before…

Concept: "Boo!"

Halloween 1963. In a long fluid point of view shot, someone looks into a window to see a teenage couple making out. They go off to have sex upstairs, and the viewer goes around to the back of the house, getting a big knife from the kitchen. The boyfriend is already leaving (that's teenage boys for you!) and the viewer goes upstairs where he picks up a clown mask, and, through the eye holes, sees the girlfriend brushing her hair. She recognises him as 'Michael', and is stabbed to death. Michael goes downstairs, out the house, and is met by the girlfriend's parents. They recognise him too, his mask is taken off and, for the first time we see who it is: a six year old boy, still holding the bloody knife that's killed his sister.

Fifteen years later, on the night before Halloween, Dr Donald Pleasence is driving in the rain to collect Michael for a hearing. He is determined that he never be released. But Michael has other ideas, and as the car arrives at the hospital, they see patients wandering around and before long Michael aka 'The Shape' is on top of the car, then driving it away. The next day, Jamie Lee Curtis ('JLC') is walking to school. Her father is an estate agent, and is finally selling the Myers house, scene of the killing fifteen years ago, and wants her to drop something through its letterbox. Guess who's inside? The boy she will be baby-sitting that night is bullied at his school by some other pupils, who tell him that the bogeyman is going get him. They then run off, and one runs – 'boo!' – into a figure we know is this film's bogeyman.

The Shape starts following JLC and her two friends. Then he starts killing them…

What's good: The camera work. One reason for using Panaglide was that it was quicker (and so cheaper) than setting up dolly tracks for all the camera moves. The result is beautifully fluid and Dean Cundey's cinematography is, as ever, wonderful. Carpenter's use of the 2.35:1 widescreen format is, again, masterful. Comparing it with the 4:3 'pan and scan' version ('Academy' ratio as used on ordinary TVs) shows the huge difference between the two – there are far more places for the 'boo' to come from in widescreen. It not only looks better, but is scarier too.

The music. Famously, he showed the film to an executive before the music was added and it didn't work.

The script. Combining humour, both light (PJ Soles' use of "totally") and dark (JLC's "I'll kill you if this is a joke" while Soles is being strangled in the middle of a phone call), and the trademark 'let's skip over the messy details' (how could The Shape drive 150 miles, having been locked away since he was a small boy? "He can't drive a car.." "He was doing very well last night!") it builds tension like few other films as well as containing some great lines: "It was the bogeyman", "As a matter of fact, it was". The ending's great too.

The cast. Few actors could 'sell' evil like Donald Pleasence, and Jamie Lee Curtis does caring, embarrassment, thinking and screaming well. Nick Castle's mime work as The Shape is also excellent.

What's not so good: The budget shows in the little things – it was shot in California in the spring, not the Midwest in autumn. So there's an occasional palm tree in shot, the deciduous trees have lots of green leaves, and the few fake brown leaves on screen had to be gathered up each time for reuse in other scenes. One reason the body count isn't higher is that having more actors with speaking roles would have cost more.

Music: Another one of the classic scores, done in just three days. Based on a 5/4 rhythm taught to him by his father, the main theme is disturbing right from the start because, compared to the vastly more common 4/4, it has 'too many notes'.

Miscellany: Although one of the frequent comments / complaints is that 'it's shot the from the killer's point of view (POV)', actually only the initial killing is POV and that's necessary to conceal who it is doing it until the reveal. It's far more common to be 'over the Shape's shoulder', and lots of the 'boo!'s are due to the Shape appearing in the frame, something that's obviously not possible with POV.

There are lots of references to friends and influences in the character names. Sam Loomis is, of course, the name of Janet Leigh's boyfriend in Psycho, Michael Myers was Assault's UK distributor, Leigh Brackett was a screenwriter for Howard Hawks, including working on the Rio Bravo Carpenter had just updated etc etc.

Until the unscary headache that was The Blair Witch Project came along, this was the most profitable independent film ever.

When NBC bought the US TV rights (for twelve and a half times what the film cost to make) as well as wanting various cuts (a view of one of the women's panties, the Shape being shot, that sort of thing) they wanted it to be longer. So during the making of the sequel, extra footage was shot, including a nod to the twist in that film (JLC is the Shape's sister, gasp, no matter how silly it makes some of the first film). None of it adds anything positive and the best bit is knowing why JLC has a towel around her head in the new scenes: they needed to hide her new hairstyle.

Overall: Everyone should see this, unless they have a serious heart condition and can't survive being scared.

As by the author being talked about in one of JLC's classes, in this film Fate is personified. The Shape has no lines, just simple actions. In Jaws, Great Whites are described as only swimming, eating and making baby sharks. The Shape doesn't even make babies, just stalks and kills. Why does he do this? Unlike the awful remake, there's no reason given: he's just evil and nowhere is safe. Apart from the wonderful Donald Pleasence, Jamie Lee Curtis is the only one smart enough to realise what's going on, which is why she survives rather than her boy-obsessed friends who don't even notice when The Shape is in the same room.

The 'slasher' films that followed had to rely increasingly on splatter effects and wiping out entire classes of teenagers. That's because most of them are nowhere near as good at raising the tension, then keeping on raising it some more. In this film, it's the tension that goes to 11, not the gore or the body count. And as director, co-writer and composer, that's down to Carpenter. There's a line from him in the 25th anniversary edition that it "got me branded as a horror director .. but, hey, I got to become John Carpenter. How cool is that?"

TL;DR Better than all of its sequels, the awful remake, and virtually all of its imitators

Film: 5/5
DVD: 4.5/5

There are lots of different editions. The one I have is an Anchor Bay release which looks great (new transfer approved by Dean Cundey) and sounds great (5.1 mix from the original music and dialogue and effects tapes). It also has a second disc with a version with the scenes added for the US TV version (although, fortunately, it doesn't lose the stuff that was cut) and the opportunity to see how much you miss in 4:3, plus a short documentary and various trailers etc.

The 25th anniversary edition, also by Anchor Bay, has a commentary track with him, Debra Hill and Jamie Lee Curtis, but it's clearly edited together from three separate sessions. It's quite thoughtful and there's a very good point from JLC that at one point she throws away the knife that the Shape has been using not because her character is stupid but because she's repulsed by it. There's also a 87 min look back on the history of the film (expanded from the shorter one above) which is worth watching, along with a look back at the locations now plus assorted smaller stuff. But but but the picture has been noticeably changed in colour, including lightened (apparently it was approved by Carpenter rather than Dean Cundey) and isn't as good as mine.

The DVD I think I have, the 2003 '25th' DVD, Blu-ray, and the best version of the soundtrack:

Written by Ian

June 24th, 2011 at 8:59 pm

Posted in Cinema,Countdown,DVDs

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