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Saturday, 31 October 2015

A love letter to Halloween (1978)

I'll let you into to something of a dirty little secret of mine, though I'll do it only if you promise not to tell a soul. Promise? ......... I'll take that silent response as a 'maybe'.

My secret is this. When one considers that I've been a horror hound since I was a mere pup and that I've been well and truly drenched in the blood of the genre (metaphorically, at least) ever since, it may come as a surprise that I I've never really felt much of an affinity of the whole Halloween/trick or treat/dressing up thing. I just find the time of year just a little tedious and cliched. I know, its a shock and I'm not too sure why. Maybe it's because I don't like the gentrification and watering down of the horror genre that the mainstreaming of horror seems to have. I suppose that it also could be that I'm simply being selfish horror snob and don't like the idea of Mr & Mrs Suburbia dressing themselves and their kids up for yet another zombie themed party with suitably themed food and drinks....oh lordy, give me strength.

No, I generally avoid it all........... well except for one personal tradition that I enjoyed every year on this date for many, many years - and that is to make sure that the last thing I do on All Hallows Eve  before going to bed is to watch a certain classic horror film that has more than a passing relation to the whole damn thing.

Halloween (1978) is one of those few movies that has well and truly morphed from being just a cheaply made independent film. Instead it has weaved its wonderfully wicked way into being arguably the seminal example of the horror slasher genre. Not only that, but in the process the film's big nasty bad guy has himself become part of of wider cultural and public consciousness. But more of that poor misunderstood chap in a while.

I was too young to see the film when it it first came out - besides which, I was still completely under the spell of a certain film that was set A long, long time ago in a Galaxy far, far away. It wasn't until a few years after Halloween's release, when video was working it's wonderful magic and letting us poor souls who had missed out the first time, to catch up on what for many regard as the classic era of horror film making - the 1970's. As it turned out, the very first time I experienced Carpenters work of cinematic genius took the form of me and two friends sitting in front of a small TV on a spring evening in 1983. To say it had an immediate impact would be an understatement. We didn't speak for the entire 91 minutes running time......and we slept with the light on that night. Halloween quite simply scared the crap out of me. To be honest, it still does.

Now I know that any self respecting horror film lover knows the plot backwards, but indulge me (yet again) - because, well you know, I just can't help myself.

The story first begins on Halloween in a small Illinois town in 1963.  A young boy, Michael Myers, witnesses his older teenage sister and her boyfriend kissing in the living room. After seeing the two teenagers sneak up to his sisters bedroom he puts on a clown mask, takes a butcher knife out of the kitchen, and waits until the boy leaves before entering her room and stabs her over and over again until she falls down dead. He then walks downstairs and wanders outside with the knife still in his hand. Michael's parents, who have just arrived home, pull off the clown mask that Michael is wearing, to reveal the angelic looking face of the young boy.

This opening scene is a masterpiece of film-making. Designed to look like a continuing single tracking point of view shot, it means that the audience is only slowly aware that something terrible is about to happen. 

The genius of Carpenter was that he knew that for most people the true horror would not be the violent bloody murder, it would actually be on seeing the boy's face for the first time after he has butchered his sister. It is not the face of a monster, it's just a normal boy........he simply has one or two issues.

Some fifteen years later on the day before Halloween, Michael's Psychiatrist Dr. Samuel Loomis (a masterful performance from Donald Pleasence), arrives at the sanitarium in which Michael has been institutionalised. However Michael has managed to escape - and we know where he's going don't we? Yes that's right, the poor misunderstood soul just wants to pay his old hometown a little visit for old times sake. And what does any homesick young guy do on his way home? Well Michael breaks into a small store and steals a Halloween mask, a rope and a knife. Ahhh, we've all been there........

The following Halloween day, a young high school student Laurie Strode (played by Jamie Lee-Curtis) continually sees the mask-wearing Michael around town. Of course, this being a horror film, it has to follow one of the golden horror rules - Nobody but nobody believes her.  

That night, Laurie is babysitting a young boy while at the same time her friend is doing the same with a young girl. When her friend gets a call from her boyfriend to go and collect him to brings the girl to the house where Laurie is babysitting. But on her way to pick up her boyfriend her friend is killed by Michael, who was hiding in the back of her car. Meanwhile back at the original house another couple of Laurie's friends sneak in and head to the bedroom, where they have sex.  What a mistake to make!!! Another golden rule of poor films - Never, but never have sex....because if you do you'll die a bloody painful death. (That's a top health tip for you kids reading this out there - don't have leaves more for us older folks)

The boy is  well and truly skewered on the wall with a kitchen knife, then Michael strangles Laurie's friend with a telephone cord as she talks on the phone with Laurie. Feeling worried, Laurie heads over to the house to investigate……. Don't go in there Laurie!!!!!

The production of the film has itself gone down in movie folklore as It was made on a shoestring budget of only $320,000 and shot over just 28 days in 1978. In fact, the money to make the film was so tight that the main female lead (Jamie Lee-Curtis) was only paid $8000. There wasn't even enough money to buy a real mask for the Michael Myers character so instead a cheap William Shatner mask was purchased for a dollar and a film assistant was put to work with some left- over false hair and white spray paint to make a few adjustments. The money saving didn't stop there as the fake paper leaves used to simulate the late Autumn falling leaves had to be collected by one of Carpenter's minions after each shot in order to be re-used later in the movie.

At the last count, the film has so far grossed over $70 million worldwide to make it the most successful independent film ever.

Halloween is a genuinely seminal film which provided the blueprint for numerous copycat slasher movies, which in turn became gorier and gorier as the years progressed (not necessarily always a bad thing!). However, I feel the last word on the power of Carpenter's filming is that contrary to popular belief (and the conservative film critics), the level of blood and gore in this film is remarkably low. In fact he only blood seen is when Judith Myers is killed, on the body of the man Michael killed for his clothes and on Laurie's hand and arm after escaping from Michael. It is actually the emotional power of the casts performances that drives the film - Curtis is especially convincing as the scream queen turned plucky survivor (strong women being a recurring theme in many of Carpenters' films). A masterpiece.

An often overlooked contribution to his movies is the music that Carpenter (the vast majority of which he wrote himself) provides for each production. Forced to write his own synthesiser music due to budgetary constraints in his first few movies Carpenter quickly realised the importance that music can provide. He's never content to let musical score simply accompany a film to fill the odd silence and occasionally add something to the overall effect. Instead the music often acts as a principle character in the story. 

The likes of Assault on Precinct 13 (the score for which was written in a staggering three day period), Halloween (where he produces arguably his most iconic slice of movie soundtrack) and Escape from New York would all be far the poorer if Carpenter hadn’t taken the real care and passion to intimately wed the music to the complexities of the narrative. There times when if it’s done well, the musical score is pushing effortlessly along the action and tension rather than the opposite way around. If that wasn’t enough, much of Carpenters musical output stands very much on it’s own merits as being decidedly listenable in its own right.

So tonight I will put up with the trick or treaters, the middle class suburban 'horror' themed parties and the chance that the vastly inferior Rob Zombie remake might be shown on TV instead. I will sit myself down and spend 91 minutes with my mate Michael while I listen to his problem of just being a little misunderstood.


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