More noise than signal


Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

John “Johnny” Carpenter takes his first stab at out-and-out horror off the back of the incredible Assault on Precinct 13, which has to be in with a shout of being the world’s best sophomore directorial effort. Halloween teaches us that psychopathy starts at a very young age, with a prologue where young Michael Myers stabs his sister to death. He’s condemned to a sanitarium under the watch of Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence), for what was meant to be a long time, but Myers manages to escape. On legal advice I am at this point obliged to clarify that we are not talking about Canadian funnyman Mike Myers, or at least the becoming-less-funny-with-every-passing-yearman.

Loomis deduces that he’s likely to be heading back home to Haddonfield, Illinois and heads off there, trying to convince Sheriff Leigh Brackett (Charles Cyphers) both of Myers intents (not good) and sanity (not present). Meanwhile Myers has found a natty boiler suit and pale white mask combo that really brings out the crazy in his eyes, and sets about looking for targets near his old home. He settles on Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her two best friends, Lynda van der Klok (P. J. Soles), and the Sheriff’s daughter Annie (Nancy Loomis).

Annie and Lynda are more of the free-spirited, adventurous types, with Laurie being rather more straight laced. Both are Annie and Laurie are engaged as babysitters for Halloween night, but Annie convinces Laurie to pull double duty so that she can run off with her boyfriend. Later on, Lynda will show up with her boyfriend looking for a location for some adult funtime, and well, those aforementioned horror movie rules from Scream are very much in full effect.

That’s a rather reductive recap of the plot, but in essence there’s no narrative arc other than Myers stalking, tracking and killing his prey, with Laurie being the only one to survive thanks to her own bravery and a timely intervention from Dr. Loomis and his handgun, but, of course, you can’t truly kill the evil that Loomis believes Myers to be, leading to the run of increasing dismal sequels and remakes.

It’s easy to be a little glib about Halloween, because in a great many ways it became the template for every slasher film that followed it, certainly more so than Chainsaw Massacre, to the point where you eventually needed something like Scream to point out just how codified the genre had become. That might make Halloween the most influential film on this list, even if it’s one that might on paper be the one that’s aged the most due to it’s slew of imitators.

That’s selling it very short, though, as Halloween remains one of the most effective slasher movies there is. Carpenter has a great sense of how to build tension, through the camera movements, the framing, and yes, of course, that soundtrack. Carpenter’s naff little riffs somehow some build far more tension than an orchestral score could, not just in this film, but the others he’s composed for.

Innovation might be overselling it, but the use of Myer’s point of view was certainly not common in the genre at the time and this does a great job of bringing an audience closer to the action, and almost putting you in his shoes. I’m sure there’s a few people hoping that VR takes off to enable a new form of cinema that will put us even closer to the action. I’m not completely sure if that’s a positive trait we’re encouraging in humanity.

For a relative unknown at the time Jamie Lee Curtis puts in a compelling performance and manages to pull of that rarest of feats in the genre, being a protagonist that you actually quite like and hope doesn’t wind up on the wrong end of a blade.

While I don’t think I’ve ever found this particularly scary, I enjoy this film a great deal. Carpenter is one of my favourite writer/directors, and this is one of the six or so films of his that I really love (Assault on Precinct 13, The Thing, Escape from New York, The Fog). Most of the rest at worst I don’t mind, and we’ve all agreed not to talk about Ghosts of Mars.

So, yes, this in many regards feels like the ur-slasher, but even if the genre feels oversaturated and played out now it’s certainly worth looking again at the original that’s been photocopied so often.