Saturday, November 1, 2014

Review: Halloween (1978)

Halloween (1978)

Rated R

Score: 5 out of 5

Having just watched Halloween again for the first time in way too long courtesy of its theatrical rerelease (which seems to be becoming a tradition with this film), I can say, without hesitation, that it is an unimpeachable masterpiece. Even after so many slasher flicks over the next decade and the one after put their own twists on the formula -- summer camp, dream stalkers, killer dolls, a kid who's seen too many slasher flicks -- few have quite managed to top this, the film that didn't quite start it all but which still sent the genre into the stratosphere. If The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was the granddaddy of the slasher movie (and Psycho its great-granddaddy), Halloween was the daddy. And remarkably, it's a film that still holds up almost perfectly today, even with its lack of gore by any objective standard, thanks to both its rock-solid suspense and the fact that it actually takes the time to create interesting characters who we want to root for before killing them. After thirty-six years, it's still hard to go wrong with Halloween.

John Carpenter and Debra Hill kept it simple, but sweet: fifteen years ago on Halloween night, a little boy named Michael Myers (no, not the one who thinks he's horny, baby) murdered his older sister Judith and got sent away to the loony bin. Fifteen years later, he escapes while being transferred to another hospital, returning to his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois to kill again. In hot pursuit is Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance), the psychiatrist at the mental hospital who struggled in vain to try and fix him, before simply giving up and throwing away the key to Michael's cell, declaring him to be evil personified. Meanwhile, a trio of high school friends, the bookish Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and the more outgoing Annie (Nancy Loomis, no relation to Dr. Sam) and Lynda (P. J. Soles), are hanging out. Laurie and Annie are babysitting kids across the street from one another who just got back from trick-or-treating, while Lynda crashes the party with her boyfriend Bob hoping to have sex. Little do they know that a silent masked killer credited as simply "The Shape", who the kids identify as the boogeyman, is prowling the neighborhood...

It's that simple. While the sequels made all manner of revelations about Michael and his relationship with Laurie, this film didn't need much more than "crazy person on the loose, hide your kids and lock your doors!" And what makes such a straightforward plot work so well is the amount of investment we get in the characters. Laurie is the blueprint for a decade's worth of horror movie heroines, the token "good girl" who's more interested in her grades than in smoking pot or getting laid, but both Jamie Lee Curtis' performance and the writing give her more layers than just that archetype. We actually do see her try to smoke a blunt, only for her to start wheezing on it while Annie puffs it with ease, a scene that says a thousand words. And when she gets down to business, she not only screams with the best of them, but she manages to display both toughness and vulnerability as she fights back against Michael. Annie and Lynda, too, are a bit smarter-written than the usual slutty slasher victims, with Nancy Loomis and P. J. Soles both giving them some fun personality. Annie especially was quite lovable as she's singing her little song while grabbing the keys to her car. Finally, Donald Pleasance brings gravitas to Dr. Loomis, a role that, in the hands of a lesser actor, writer, or director, could've easily been throwaway. However, he helps bring the film together, as a man who's deathly afraid of Michael, having known him personally for years -- and given what a towering figure of authority he is in the film, that's saying something. When he says he's terrified, you better believe that there's something bad out there.

Furthermore, unlike in many later slasher films, the slow pace (Michael doesn't start killing until more than halfway into the film) means that the decisions the characters make, decisions that would be stupid in any other slasher, make logical sense, as they don't know that there's a killer on the loose. It's this that allows the film to build up a Hitchcockian style of suspense, as these girls are going about their ordinary lives as teenage girls ignorant of the serious peril they're in until it's too late. Sure, Laurie claims to have seen a man in a white mask prowling the neighborhood, but they think she's crazy, and at least one scene gives us reason to believe that she might indeed be cracking under the stress of her schoolwork and her job. It's interesting to watch this side-by-side with Rob Zombie's remake to see just how much difference pacing can make -- the remake rushed through the events of the film at breakneck speed (mainly in order to cram in its backstory, which this film told ably in a few minutes without so many rednecks and F-bombs), and it suffered dramatically for it.

Rest assured, though, when Michael finally does strike, he does so with speed and brutality. The quantity of blood here pales in comparison to the films that followed in its wake, but Michael, played by Nick Castle under the mask, more than makes up for it with his presence. Even before he gets down to action, he's always watching, from the shadows and from behind the bushes, his blank mask being absolutely unnerving by any objective measure. It's more than just a look, though, as he shows when he effortlessly strangles his victims or pins them to a wall with only a kitchen knife. By the time he just refuses to go down at the end, I've already bought into Michael as an unstoppable monster. And of course, the music did my already frayed nerves no favors. There's a reason why the theme song gets played at parties every Halloween -- it, as well as the other tracks that John Carpenter himself wrote for the soundtrack, helps the film dig under my skin that much deeper. Its simplicity, each song using only a few notes repeated, makes it even more effective, turning it into the drumbeat of Michael's march to your doom.

The Bottom Line:

Really, this score was a foregone conclusion. Not only is Halloween an important film historically, but even today, it's still a horrifyingly effective one that works precisely because of how simple and straightforward it is. A true classic that stands the test of time.

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