Sunday, October 2, 2011

Director's Spotlight #1.1: John Carpenter's Halloween

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and why some of their films work and some don’t. This month, the director in question is Master of Horror John Carpenter, and the focus on his 70s and 80s horror films. First up, his 1978 breakthrough Halloween.

Grade: 97 (A)

John Carpenter takes authorship of his first horror movie from the opening credits: the title John Carpenter’s Halloween, the credits as director, writer and composer (his eerie main theme plays over the opening credits), and a shot of a Jack-O-Lantern, smiling, daring, flickering with light. Carpenter’s camera slowly moves into the eye of the Jack-O-Lantern, bringing us into the world of the film. There’s a reason zooms into the eye: film is a visual medium, and master genre filmmakers from Alfred Hitchcock to Brian De Palma have successfully turned viewers into voyeurs. Carpenter is no exception: an ardent disciple of Hitchcock, voyeurism is a key interest and theme throughout his work (indeed, one character shares a name with a character from Psycho while star Jamie Lee Curtis’ mother starred in the Hitchcock film). He’s a master of perspective, making every nook and cranny of his settings seem like characters born to betray the people inside them, all while forcing the viewer into the action, like a person thrust into a horrible situation and forced to watch something they can’t look away from. The justly famous opening sequence establishes this right away.

Haddonfield, Illinois. October 31, 1963. Judith Myers is an average teenage girl, fooling around with her boyfriend (who, I might add, does not last as a lover, something I find both hilarious and necessary for the action to continue). There’s someone watching, only we don’t see them. The camera acts as the eyes of this dispassionate voyeur. We see a child’s hand (actually producer/Carpenter’s then-wife Debra Hill) pick up a knife and a clown mask as the camera stalks to Judith’s bedroom. Judith brushes her naked whilst naked, yells at the unseen stalker, who clinically and coldly murders Judith and walks into the street before a parent removes the mask. It’s eight-year-old Michael Myers, Judith’s kid brother. He stares blankly into the camera.

October 30, 1978. Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) and a young nurse drive to the mental institution holding Myers. Loomis must take Myers to court for review; he doesn’t want to. He knows the truth about Myers, and he wants him to stay locked up forever. When they arrive, it’s clear something’s amiss. The patients are wandering freely in the cold, rainy night. Loomis leaves the car to investigate, Myers terrorizes the nurse and steals the car, and Loomis yells into the night with futility. “He’s gone. The evil is gone.”

October 31. Haddonfield. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis in her feature debut) is a shy, kind, intelligent young woman. She helps her dad drop a key off at the abandoned Myers house. She chats with the young boy she’ll babysit later that night. She goes to school with her friends Annie and Linda (Nancy Loomis and P.J. Soles), girls far more outgoing than she. They’re all likable girls, Laurie and Annie are pretty bright. But Laurie is the only one who pays attention enough to notice that there’s some weird guy following them around who disappears at the blink of an eye. Annie and Laurie are babysitting across the street from each other, and Linda will show up later. By the end of the night, Laurie will be the only one left.

A strength Carpenter’s film has absent from most of the slasher films that followed in its wake is that it develops its characters (something that seems simple enough, but tell that to Friday the 13th). Pleasence plays Loomis’ “I told you this would happen” speeches as a man whose experience with the killer truly frightens him. It’s easy to see why Nancy’s father, the local sheriff, thinks this guy is a kook. Pleasence’s theatrical tendencies work well to make him seem a little off compared to everyone else in the film, and his florid description of Myers (“the blackest eyes…the devil’s eyes”) stand out compared to the small-town folks he clashes with. But he’s no kook.  He wants to prevent Myers, a representation of pure evil to him and to the film, from doing the harm he intends. He won’t be successful, but his crusade is admirable nonetheless. In his final scene of the film, Pleasence told Carpenter he could play it two ways: “Oh my god” or “I knew this would happen”. Carpenter shot both and wisely chose “I knew this would happen”.  

Even better is Carpenter’s handling of the three girls. Their walk home from school tells us who they are and what they want in life. Linda is a peppy, daffy cheerleader prone to overuse the word “totally” (which is never not funny). Annie is the bad girl, snarkier than Laurie and more willing to live a little (she later smokes pot with Laurie, whose clear inexperience with the drug is hilarious). Laurie is intelligent and usually good-humored but timid compared to her friends. Their chemistry together sells their friendship even though they’re all very different people, and Carpenter’s script makes them more than dominoes ready to fall to the boogeyman following them.

Carpenter doesn’t look through the killer’s eyes again after the opening sequence. We occasionally see the street through the eyes of Curtis’ Laurie and the young boy she watches, but for the most part, the camera is us. We see these people. We like these people. We want to warn them about what’s going to happen. It’s easy to feel that hanging with Laurie, Annie, and Linda would be a lot of fun. And they’re not morons. Linda might seem a bit ditzy, but there’s a sense that she’s smarter than she lets on. Carpenter’s film was charged along with the other, later slasher movies with having a puritanical view of sex (the slasher trope that sex = death may seem to play here) and misogynistic violence towards women (again, sex = death). But Carpenter’s film doesn’t laugh at the characters’ death the way Friday the 13th and its ilk do. He’s far more empathetic and doesn’t share his derivative’s seeming contempt for their characters. The fates of Myers’ victims are sad and frightening, and they die not because they have sex but because they’re not paying attention to what’s going on around them. And why should they? It’s suburbia, and they’re safe. Except they’re not.  Halloween and other fine horror films of the era subvert the idea that small town U.S.A. is a safe, good-hearted place. There’s some darkness lurking underneath. The films’ final shots highlight this: this horrible thing that happened? It could happen anywhere. It could happen to you. Sweet dreams.


October 8: John Carpenter’s The Fog
October 15: John Carpenter’s The Thing
October 21: John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness
October 28: John Carpenter’s The Ward

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