Late Monday Picks: John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’

This week’s pick is John Carpenter’s independent horror classic hit Halloween that held the record as the highest grossing independent film of all time. Halloween helped to usher in a new era of slasher films throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Carpenter’s use of camera angles, music, photography, and story help create one of the most frightening films of all time.

Carpenter sights many influences ranging from Howard Hawks, John Ford, and Orson Welles. Carpenter’s then girlfriend and producer at the time Debra Hill had a concept about a group of teenage babysitters stalked by a masked killer. The script was called “The babysitter murders.” Producer Irwin Yablans suggested the title Halloween. Carpenter and Hill reworked the script to have it occur on Halloween night, and changed the title to Halloween.

Graduating from USC film school in the early 1970s, Carpenter’s first big break was the action hit Assault on Precinct 13 which producer Irwin Yablans viewed at the Milan Film Festival along with financier Moustapha Akkad. Both men liked Carpenter’s style and approached him about making a film for them. Akkad fronted the film’s three hundred and twenty thousand dollar budget and Carpenter was given four weeks to come up with the film.

Carpenter cast a young inexperienced actress named Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode, the film’s heroine. Curtis had only played a few bit parts on a few television shows, but Carpenter had to cast her because of her mother Janet Leigh, who played Marion Crane in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.  Most of the cast was unknowns or were character actors such as Charles Cyphers (Sheriff Leigh Bracket), Nancy Loomis (Annie Bracket), P.J. Soles (Linda) and veteran British actor Donald Pleasence as Dr. Sam Loomis, the psychiatrist who hunts down Michael Myers.

As the film opens, Carpenter immerses you right into a hellish nightmare where a six-year-old boy brutally murders his sister on Halloween night in 1963. Carpenter’s effective use of the very first ever steadycam shots are frighteningly realistic as the young killer stalks his home and preys on his sister. A POV or Point of View shot takes us through the home as Michael takes a large kitchen knife from a drawer and proceeds upstairs to where his sister was engaging in sex with her high school boyfriend.

We see Michael’s hands as he puts on a clown mask and discovers his sister brushing her hair in front of a make up mirror. Michael stabs his sister several times and then flees the house. He walks through the front doors where his parents have arrived home to discover him standing on the street holding a bloody knife. Carpenter pans away with a high angle crane shot as the film then flashes forward fifteen years where Michael has been remanded to an institute for the criminally insane.

One of the film’s main heroes is Sam Loomis, played by veteran actor Donald Pleasence, who has arrived at the Smith’s Groove sanitarium to have Michael Myers transferred to a different facility across the state. When he and a nurse arrive on the night of October 30, 1978, Loomis discovers that there are inmates waking around at night along the hospital’s perimeter fence. The patients were let loose by Michael as a diversionary tactic to let him escape. Michael commanders the car, and escapes from the hospital. Loomis yells out that, “The evil has gone from here.” Loomis had spent over fifteen years trying to reach out to Michael and discover why he did the things that he had done. Later in the film Loomis explains to Sheriff Bracket (Cyphers) that Michael is evil incarnate and that is why he was locked up since he was six years old.

Pleasence’s performance is one of the great monster hunters of all time. America first encountered Pleasence in roles like in The Great Escape, Fantastic Voyage, and as one of James Bond’s greatest arch villains Ernst Stavro Blofeld in You Only Live Twice. Pleasence took the job for five days of shooting for just twenty thousand dollars. Carpenter approached veteran actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, but both men turned down the roles. Pleasence proved to be a better choice and played a phenomenal character.

Some of my favorite parts in the film have to do with many of the dark shots, which use Dean Cundey’s amazing dimmer light technology like when Laurie discovers the bodies of Annie, Linda, and Bob in the house across the street. The second shot is when Laurie is backed into a corner crying over the death of her friends.  The audience doesn’t know it yet, but Michael appears in the shadows behind her, as Cundey turns up the light to reveal the blank, emotionless face of Michael’s mask. Cundey would work on several other Carpenter films, and went on to work with other directors like Tim Burton, and designed the camera techniques for Steven Spielberg’s monster hit Jurassic Park.

One of the most iconic shots is when Bob (Linda’s boyfriend) goes downstairs to get a beer out of the kitchen and is pinned to the wall by Michael who thrusts a kitchen knife into him. Carpenter uses a medium shot to show Michael cocking his head right to left as he admires his handy work after brutally killing the doomed teenager.

One of the central themes in the film is that death is the result for those who engage in sex or drug use, a formula all to often used in many slasher films. This is why our heroine escapes a cruel death even though in one scene, she hits up a joint with Annie in the car before a night of babysitting. I guess a few hits aren’t really going to kill you?

Halloween became a smash hit when it debuted on October 25, 1978. It was made for over three hundred thousand dollars and grossed nearly sixty million worldwide. The success of the film spawned several sequels and a remake in 2007 from acclaimed rocker and filmmaker Rob Zombie.

Carpenter’s worked is copied, yet hard to recreate for a myriad amount of reasons. 1) He is a visionary director. 2) His writing and placement of his cameras is flawless. 3) His editing and continuity is unmatched. And 4) He’s John Carpenter that’s why.

Halloween is available on DVD and Blu-Ray disc through Anchor Bay/Starz Home Video and can be rented through Netflix.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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