Wednesday, February 20, 2013

John Carpenter: Halloween

I'm always amazed with Halloween. Here's a film that I could easily write about from memory, yet I was glad to give it another viewing for this retrospective. I found myself pulled into it yet again. I wrote about Halloween a couple years ago for the great blog Wonders in the Dark as a part of their Horror countdown. My dilemma then revolved around two assignments I had: write about Alien and write about Halloween (the two are natural companions, actually, despite the former taking in place in space). What does one write about such films? How does one approach a film that has been written about ad nauseam? I feared that anything I wrote would sound silly since so many better than me have covered those great films. What was there left to say? Well, the truth is nothing. There’s nothing left to say about a lot of films, but that doesn’t mean we are less thrilled by them and that we cease talking about them. So, let’s talk about John Carpenter’s magnum opus Halloween.

As any horror fan knows by now, Carpenter borrowed most of what’s famous in Halloween from sources ranging from the obvious (Hitchcock, the most cribbed man when it comes to terror) to the unheralded (Bob Clark, director of Black Christmas), but never once does his film feel like a mere copycat, an aping of better material. No, Halloween even today some 30 years later, still feels fresh and the product of a true auteur—something that is wholly “A John Carpenter Film.” As you will see me say countless time, Halloween has never been the seminal, brilliant film that it is because it could lay claim to firsties. For me, the film is still effective (not necessarily scary, but it’s damn sure effective), and it’s still fun to watch and talk about because of how it takes its influences and creates the quintessential and perfect slasher film out of them. It’s one of my favorite films, regardless of genre; it’s the king of a subgenre that I unabashedly love. So allow me to ask for your forgiveness now since I’m about to wax poetic (and no doubt ramble) for the next, oh, 4,000 words or so.

I don't mean to be snide here, but come on, people, do I really need to a plot synopsis? There can’t be anyone that’s reading this that isn’t aware of Halloween’s premise. It’s as recognizable a horror premise today as Psycho. So you’ll forgive me if I just bypass the plot synopsis and move into talking about why the film is arguably the greatest horror film ever made, it’s influence on the genre, the film’s that no doubt influenced Carpenter, and how it was the catalyst that really cemented the notion of Carpenter as a true American auteur.

It’s true that Halloween’s greatness isn’t wrapped up in the fact that it was “the first" (even though many people try to claim it as the first slasher movie). It can’t be because it simply isn’t true. It's still important, though, to understand just what inspired Carpenter's film. So allow me the indulgence of a brief horror history lesson here. Halloween owes a lot to the Italian giallo (the stalking, subjective camera to be specific) as well as Hitchcock’s Psycho (one of the reasons why he wanted to cast Janet Leigh’s daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, in the lead role as Laurie Strode). One moment from, in particular, from Psycho really struck a chord with Carpenter: this is where Martin Balsam's Det. Arbogast walks up the stairs of the Bates residence when Norman Bates rushes into the frame, seemingly out of nowhere, to stab him and send him tumbling down the stairs. It happens so quickly and there’s nothing to suggest that this moment is about to happen (the bird’s eye shot tips Hitch’s hand a bit): no ominous music (that famous Bernard Herrmann score doesn’t kick in until Bates is in the frame), no false scares, nothing.  Carpenter has stated that this got him thinking about Halloween and The Shape and the film’s thesis: that if he could establish that the killer could emerge out of nowhere, then the audience will begin to believe that the killer is everywhere.

Halloween owes a lot to Hitch, to be sure, but Carpenter’s films owes more than people realize to a lesser known, still totally unheralded and underrated film: Bob Clark’s fantastic Canadian slasher Black Christmas. If you follow my Summer of Slash series on this blog, then you know my fondness for Canuck horror, particularly their take on the much maligned slasher subgenre. They’re a different breed of slasher which is almost always more about the tightening of the audience’s nerves than the unsettling of their stomachs (read: more focus on characterization and unnerving the audience rather than cardboard cutout characters designed merely to be killed in various Goldbergian ways). Canadian slashers have always stood out as being more consistent (and tolerable), on the whole, than the American slasher film (I hate to cut this part of our discussion short, but if you want to read a little more on Canadian slashers, click here. I apologize in advance for the shoddiness of some of those older posts).

Let’s just get it out of the way: it surely isn’t some kind of coincidence that John Carpenter’s film feels an awful lot like Bob Clark’s. Both films open with a subjective camera to give us the POV of the killer. Unheard of at the time (except in Italy, but it certainly was the first time it was used in North America), it’s an extremely effective technique, especially in Black Christmas where we follow the killer from the street, to the terrace, to him climbing up the side of the house, and finally into the house via attic window where the killer stays throughout the entire film (never to be caught, mind you). It’s made even more impressive since this was in 1974 — two years before the steadicam would be introduced to film sets (a special camera rig was created for this shot). Even though Halloween’s Panaglide shot is prettier and more cinematic, it’s not nearly as visceral as the opening of Black Christmas.

Both films also use the old “Maniac on the Loose” storyline. Both the killer in Black Christmas and in Halloween have escaped from insane asylums, and they (who are both nameless, by the way*) both stalk their victims in what seems like a totally arbitrary way; there’s no motive in either film for why the killers do what they do (which makes all the more eerie). Both films also end on an ambiguous note. Neither the killer from Black Christmas or The Shape from Halloween is killed at the end of the film. So we have this overwhelming sense of doom — a sense that evil is omnipresent and will never die; it just keeps stalking and terrorizing people — is found in both endings. True, Black Christmas has a litany of red herrings (the one thing Halloween’s economic storyline thankfully doesn’t have time for, nor do I think Carpenter is interested in) since at times it’s more about that than concerned about being a stalk-and-slash movie (another film it definitely inspired was Fred Walton’s When a Stranger Calls and all of the other “THE CALL IS COMING FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE!!!” movies).

Black Christmas was inspired by an urban legend called “The Babysitter and The Man Upstairs,” and this idea of using young women (Carpenter wanted his girls to be teenagers whereas Bob Clark uses actors like Olivia Hussey and Margot Kidder as college students) in peril was certainly one of the intriguing elements to Halloween producer Irwin Yablans, who approached Carpenter about making a quickie horror film on the cheap entitled The Babysitter Killers**. The basic premise was simple enough: a killer stalks and kills babysitters. But it wasn’t until Carpenter and writing/producing partner Debra Hill took the idea and wrote what would become Halloween that it became a profitable idea***. Despite being very popular and profitable in Canada, Black Christmas was only a mild success in the states thanks to a botched campaign by Warner Brothers who bought the rights and decided to release the film under the alternate title Silent Night, Evil Night (which makes it sound too much like the banal 1972 British snooze fest Silent Night, Bloody Night) before pulling the film altogether. Still, even though Black Christmas wasn’t a hit here in the states, it made enough money in Canada that Clark was asked to do a sequel of sorts.

This is crazy for a couple of reasons: one, sequels to horror movies (especially low-budget horror movies) just weren’t done back then. It wouldn’t be until the financial success of Friday the 13th that studios would think, “Hey, we should make more of the same because it will equal more money.” Secondly, Clark wanted nothing to do with the sequel. Because of this fact, he told John Carpenter (the two were working on a script for Warner Brothers) what his sequel would be about if he were to make it: the film would have the killer from Black Christmas get caught, escape, and stalk and kill some more. And he would set this sequel around another holiday: Halloween. Carpenter and Clark have remained amiable toward one another; Clark continues to insist in interviews that he wanted nothing more to do with the horror genre (he had made Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things and Deathdream prior to Black Christmas) and gave the idea to Carpenter, but that Halloween is purely a John Carpenter movie — there was no cribbing going on according to Clark. There are just too many similarities for one to completely dismiss the idea that when Carpenter reworked the screenplay for The Babysitter Murders, he didn’t have Clark’s premise on his mind.

If we only spend time talking about the similarities between the two films, then we lose sight of just how gifted both Clark and Carpenter are and how great their respective films remain. As I mentioned earlier, Halloween’s greatness has never been because anyone ever thought it was the first at doing something. So as we now move to why Halloween is still so damn great and so perfect, allow me to invoke slasher guru Tim Brayton:

“Of course, the mere fact that Halloween does not invent but aggregates influences doesn't mean in any small way that it's not a brilliant aggregation. Making a film that a virtually perfect expression of existing idioms is barely less an achievement than inventing those idioms in the first place, and this film is by all means virtually perfect.”

That’s from Tim’s review of Halloween, and he says it better than I could ever hope to. So, what is it then that still makes Halloween so watchable, so effective, and so perfect? What I love about Halloween really boils down to what can be ascertained from these three images:

Let’s start with the first image: From the onset, Halloween is an example of minimalism executed to perfection. The opening credits is nothing much — just a slow zoom on a jack-o-lantern against a black backdrop, and the title of the film. But it’s that score. There’s just something about its odd rhythms that seems completely distressing; it really gets under your skin.

It helps to know that Carpenter’s father was a musician, and that Carpenter was in a band in college. One of the things that distinguishes Carpenter from other filmmakers (again, making him an auteur) is that he composes a lot of his films. His scores are almost always brilliant exercises in minimalism, and even though I claimed that I think his Assault on Precinct 13 score is better than Halloween’s score, the latter is certainly more memorable. And it’s memorable because of Carpenter’s decision to play the theme in an unconventional rhythm. Most compositions are in 4/4 time, but Carpenter’s haunting score was in 5/4, which gives it an appropriately eerie, “something’s off” kind of sound to it. Carpenter conceived this odd theme when he received a pair of bongo drums for Christmas, and his father was teaching him the difference between 4/4 time and 5/4 time. So as he practiced 5/4, he was essentially playing the Halloween theme and just applied it to the piano. The score ranks up with some of the most memorable in all of film (I would say that for the average film-goer that knows their stuff but isn’t obsessed with the horror genre, it’s as recognizable as Friday the 13th’s theme but not quite as recognizable as something like Jaws or Psycho). A composer called it the modern chopsticks, and that his beginner students were so excited they could play it because of how simple it is. Simple, sure, but it’s also cleverly effective; it works as well as it does because of its simplicity. George Romero says that Carpenters music woke him up to the fact that you don't have to be manipulative in an expansive way with your soundtrack.

The opening to Halloween is one of the most iconic and memorable opening credit sequences in any horror film. And it’s all so basic. It’s an opening that still triggers in my mind the unrelenting terror (similar to how unrelenting the action was in Assault on Precinct 13) I’m about to watch unfold over the film’s brisk 90 minute runtime. Even for a horror buff as jaded as me, I’m always amazed at how effective the minimalist components of Carpenter’s film are—how they continue to pull me in in spite of 30-plus previous viewings. Halloween is a film that still makes me clench my fists in anxiety, and the opening of the film, and that famous theme that accompanies it, triggers a Pavlovian response to find something to clutch for the next 90 minutes.

The second image is a perfect example of how Carpenter expands upon the idea he introduced in Assault on Precinct 13 of placing horror and terror in broad daylight and using the widescreen format to his advantage. In that second image, we see The Shape standing by the hedges. Seems simple enough. But Carpenter is really smart in how he uses the width of his Panavision frame, the setting of the neighborhood, and the use of daylight to evoke more fear than could possibly achieved had he made the film a grimy, grindhouse horror film. Carpenter’s reasoning for this was to make the film look more elegant (it had a mere $300,000 budget), but he also loved the “rectangle,” as he calls it. Carpenter thinks that Cinemascope, Panavision, widescreen…whatever you want to call it is what film should be.  Once again we see the Hawks influence here as Carpenter employs a similarly “invisible” camera and simply observes what’s happening in medium or long shot, rather than rubbing our faces in it. It really is amazing when you think about the successful horror films of that era like The Last House on the Left and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and what made them unique as horror films. I’m not saying that a successful horror film can’t rub your nose in it, but what makes Halloween so re-watchable and accessible to non-horror fans is that Carpenter made his cheap little horror film look like a legitimate, elegant studio picture; he totally understood the notion that close-ups — claustrophobic horror aesthetics — seldom equals “great horror movie.”

It’s a perfect use of the widescreen format — something that is rarely utilized in the horror genre — where we see the symbol for fear and terror at a distance, like a funhouse mechanism popping out of from behind something to give us a jolt. Like Laurie, we’re unsure of what we see as this figure just kind of slides back behind the hedges. It’s as if Carpenter is telling us that death is waiting for us behind any corner; it also quite literally is Carpenter telling the viewer that The Shape is specter-like as one of Laurie’s friends investigates behind the hedges thinking that it’s a pervert who has been harassing them. When she arrives and sees nobody there, Laurie is unconvinced that what she saw was a figment of her imagination. However there is no logical way that The Shape could have left the scene undetected.

This effect is used again when Laurie is inside of her room and looks out her window to once again see The Shape staring at her. It’s a creepy scene that seems dreamlike with how quickly The Shape emerges and the leaves the frame. The jumpiness — the coming in and out of the frame — adds to the supernatural, Bogeyman-like attributes of The Shape who seems to have no relation to time or space. One of the biggest clichés of the slasher subgenre is that the killer can stalk its victims at a slow pace, but always end up in front of them no matter where they’re running to. It made sense in the nightmares of Craven’s Elm Street films, but it certainly stuck out like a sore thumb in the Friday the 13th sequels; however, in Halloween it adds to the symbolism of The Shape as the personification of death — of something you cannot predict or stop or logically try and understand.

There’s also the moment at the beginning when The Shape escapes from the insane asylum.  The scene that stands out to me is when The Shape’s hand comes crashing through the window, and then the nurse runs out of the car, and Carpenter switches from inside the car (all we see The Shape’s hand, by the way) to a medium shot to show a black sky, the car, and the nurse in the foreground. That’s it. There’s this eerie emptiness to the shot. Carpenter has all this space available on screen, and I love that he refused to fill his 2:35 frame with superfluous imagery. It’s such a seemingly small thing, but that shot elicits such an unsettling and foreboding tone.

So, the Panavision is important to the film’s effectiveness at setting an appropriate tone and allowing Carpenter to play with his primary theme: evil is everywhere; it’s even lurking in the safety of our suburbs and in the periphery of our lives. So what else can we ascertain from that screenshot? Obviously the ominous The Shape stands in longshot and waits by the hedge, but you also have the setting of Haddonfield, Illinois. Haddonfield was obviously meant to represent some kind of idealized Middle America with this clean, empty streets and perfectly kempt lawns, but one thing that has always struck me about the setting is just how deserted the town is. Carpenter’s intent was purposeful by presenting Haddonfield as a ghost town because that is how he remembered his town as a kid — the loneliness and the bleakness was what Haddonfield had to represent for Carpenter; that’s where it all had to start. Carpenter felt that he could only introduce the unreal elements of the film (the aforementioned moments with The Shape in daylight; the ending) once he had established the setting as a real place that resonated with viewers.

One of the things that really stood out to me on my most recent viewing of the film is how the film starts with what we’ve been talking about — the day lit, Panavision framing of Anytown, USA being invaded by an evil that lurks in the margins of the frame — and as the film progresses, we begin to get claustrophobic along with the film’s characters because we notice that the wide open spaces are now becoming cramped spaces, like that of what is probably the film’s most infamous moment when Laurie fights off The Shape in the closet. Carpenter has stated in interviews that this is intentional: The Widescreen frame is now useless; the images and the space they inhabit is crammed into the frame. It's a brilliantly unnerving and displacing tactic by Carpenter.

The third image is similar to the second in that through a very quiet moment Carpenter is able to elicit great tension and terror. It’s probably the most used screengrab and talked about shot in the film, so I’ll keep it short: Laurie has just fought off The Shape, and stabbed him (it?) in the eye, causing him to fall over on the ground. Laurie rushes over to the children she is babysitting and tells them to run to the neighbors and call the police. Exhausted, Laurie simply collapses in the hallway and lets the evening’s events wash over her. It’s a short, quiet moment in an otherwise unrelenting film. But what makes the moment so wonderful is the restraint that Carpenter shows in having his camera stay at a medium shot on Laurie so that we see enough of her to get the emotion from Curtis’ great performance, but that we also see the body of The Shape lying on the ground behind her. A simple pounding of a piano chord later, The Shape sits up and turns its head and looks at Laurie.

Again, Carpenter keeps his great scare moments in the background or in the periphery, utilizing to great effect the space within his widescreen frame in giving us a horror film that isn’t gory or gratuitous, but unrelenting to the point of almost being unbearable on our nerves. I can imagine a slew of other filmmakers (Tobe Hooper, for example) wanting to get the camera so close to Laurie so that we could, you know, feel her terror, and then pulling back to reveal that The Shape was indeed not dead. I think Carpenter’s tactic is more effective at evoking a true Hitchcockian mood of unrelenting tension.

I might as well wrap this up by saying this: these are just a few of the reasons why I think Halloween is still the greatest horror film ever made. Halloween is the best example of just not just what a slasher film can be but also what a horror film should be, and as much as I don’t care for Tobe Hooper and his Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the two films — despite their wildly different approaches to the aesthetic of horror — share a lot in common. The one thing that still makes those films stand apart from all of the slashers and low-budget horror films that they influenced is that they leave a lot to the imagination. There’s little bloodshed in either film (especially Hooper’s, which gets a bad reputation as gorefest merely because the word “Massacre” is in the title), and in Halloween almost everything is implied. Carpenter understands that true horror doesn’t derive from who can show the most realistic killings or who can make the bloodiest film, but it comes from the simple things — the implied terror that is lurking in the peripheries of our life, and waiting for us in the dark.

This philosophy of filmmaking — emphasizing the unseen terror — makes one think that Carpenter is a big fan of Val Lewton. However, Carpenter really disliked Lewton, calling him “so overrated.” Carpenter felt that if you had someone being scared by nothing that was in the frame then you were copping out. He complained that in Cat People it’s just a woman in a pool screaming; that there’s nothing scary about that because there’s nothing in the frame. Carpenter feels that if you had a good enough scare or a good enough monster, then you should show it (In one interview for the BBC series “100 Years of Horror,” Carpenters says, “Jurassic Park by Lewton would have been terrible; it would have been nothing!”). Carpenter and Hill have said in numerous interviews that they didn’t have the budget to do what they wanted to do, so they had to revert to seeing and not seeing and using other kinds of tricks to elicit tension. This makes me question why Carpenter thinks Lewton is “so overrated” since it seems that this is one of the primary reasons Halloween is so effective. However, once Carpenter and Hill did have a budget with their next collaboration, The Fog, we’ll definitely see that it would have benefited them to go with the Lewton approach.

There’s really no need to get into the elements of the slasher that became cliché after Halloween and the countless carpetbagger producers that now felt compelled to throw their hat into the slasher ring. We know how Halloween popularized the following conventions: sex=death, the Final Girl, the killer not really being dead (opening things up for a sequel; however, Carpenter’s purpose for this was purely thematic since no one was making sequels to low budget horror movies back then), music stings that hit every time the killer was stalking someone (although Pyscho kind of had this, although it was more when Norman Bates was killing someone),  and the camera taking the point of view of the killer (although, again, this was done prior to Halloween in various gialli and slashers like Black Christmas, it’s fair to say that it was popularized by Carpenter). And we know that Halloween has spawned so many lesser imitators. It’s hailed as the first slasher film, and yeah, Halloween has a bit of a false mythology as the little film that created the whole subgenre, but Like Tim’s quote above, whether Halloween is any good or not isn’t dependent upon it being the film that established all of these things. It’s great and perfect and regarded as the classic that it is and that so many subsequent slashers aspired to be (both artistically and financially) because it’s so great and perfect in the few ways horror films are.  

*I’ve always been aware that the character we would all come to know as Michael Myers in subsequent films was only referred to as The Shape in the credits of the first film. Then, I read this a few years ago: In Tim Brayton’s review cited above, blog visitor Garrett dropped this bomb:

“Fun little fact since you, like I, hate the sister-angle: in the film, the killer is referred to as "Michael", "The Shape", "pure evil", etc. "Judith Myers" is mentioned and so is the Myers house. The words "Michael Myers" however are NEVER said.

Therefore, Halloween never establishes that his name is Michael Myers or that he and Judith are siblings. When the parents come home, the father says "Michael?" and lifts off his mask, but there's no indication that he's their son. It would be totally reasonable to assume they were Judith's parents. Or even Michael's picking him up.

You could actually (and I heard the original audience did) watch Halloween as if Michael isn't a member of the Myers family at all, but rather, a child that Judith was supposed to be babysitting.

Which would certainly fit in with his eagerness to stalk BABYSITTERS (not his other sister) -- that he's drawn to killing Laurie when she drops off the key because she's with Tommy and talking about the plans for that night.” 

Crazy, no? I never thought about it that way. 

**The book John Carpenter by Michelle Le Blanc and Collin Odell has been a handy resource for this particular entry. I’m sure it won’t be the last time I refer to it during this retrospective.

***I highly, highly recommend Adam Rockoff’s essential Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film for more on the behind the scenes of Halloween (as well as other slasher films), especially if you’re interested in how this $300,000 movie went on to make 75 million. So, yeah, if you’re a demented person like myself, and you’re obsessed with the slasher film, you owe it to yourself to get this book.


  1. This is fantastic. I really enjoyed reading this. I've been looking for a way to write about my own love for "Halloween" that would be insightful and interesting, and now you've made that task so much harder for me :). Cheers.

    1. Thanks, Lee! I appreciate that. Trust me, I've read numerous takes on Halloween, and I was always convinced that I had nothing to say about it. But here we are. Obviously I found something to say about it, and I'm sure you will, too. Thanks again for checking this out.

  2. Beautiful piece on one of the hardest movies that a person could set themselves to writing about. Especially your dissection of the use of widescreen; I don't think I'd ever thought about its use here in such a comprehensive way. Brilliant stuff.

    1. Thanks, Tim. I'm still thinking about the comment that Garrett left on your blog. Like you, I'd never really thought about it like that before. And, yeah, the use of widescreen is so striking to me each and every time I get pulled into Halloween. Carptenter's film or Argento's Suspiria is the film I end every Halloween horror fest with, and with both of those films (very different in how they evoke elegance) there's almost always something new to discover even though I'm aware of all the beats. It was that way with the widescreen stuff. I was always aware of its effectiveness, but I just recently started to realize how Carpenter takes the frame and shrinks it considerably by film's end. Anyway, thanks for checking this out. I appreciate the kind words.

  3. "Both films open with a subjective camera to give us the POV of the killer. Unheard of at the time (except in Italy, but it certainly was the first time it was used in North America) . . . "

    It certainly was not. 1971's Blood and Lace opens with a POV hammer attack.

    1. Anon: I was unaware of the Blood and Lace opening. I have the movie at the top of my Netflix Instant queue...I guess I should have watched it before writing this! Hehe. Thanks for the correction. I will assume, though, that Blood and Lace did not have an opening like Halloween or Black Christmas where the subjective camera moves? Is it just an attack with an hammer from a subjective POV, or does the camera move with the attacker?

  4. It's quite similar (if I recall correctly) to the Black Christmas and Halloween openings, complete with moving camera, if far less artfully done.

    I think anyone can forgive you for missing this minor movie. While it does have a certain little grubby appeal (stick with it), the most shocking thing about it is seeing Seinfeld's Uncle Leo in a major role.

    1. Wow. In an odd connection, Uncle Leo was in Carpenter's TV movie Someone's Watching Me!. Once I have some free time, I'll watch Blood and Lace; I have this weird desire to see every movie that even slightly resembles a slasher.

  5. I like how you talk about Carpenter "placing horror and terror in broad daylight and using the widescreen format to his advantage." I think this is what gets me every time about HALLOWEEN. That Carpenter doesn't always rely on the dark to make us scared or uneasy. That whole bit early on where Michael is basically stalking Laurie and her friends out in broad daylight is very unsettling, esp. how he just pops up out of nowhere only to then disappear... or follows her in the car he stole. It puts us on edge right from the get-go because we now see that the protagonists are not safe even during the day.

    1. Thanks, J.D.! Sorry I'm getting to this so late. I think I may have accidentally deleted the email alerting me to this comment. Yeah, setting the horror in the daylight is such a seemingly simple thing, but it's so effective. He does the same thing with the little girl's murder in Assault on Precinct 13 -- a moment like that really unnerves the viewer from the outset.

      Thanks for checking these entries out!