Friday, June 30, 2017

John Carpenter Revisited: HALLOWEEN (1978)

Art by Darick Robertson
Is there anything left to say about John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN? 

This film has been endlessly analyzed over the past four decades, despite the fact that it is a relatively simple film.  At least, it appears simple today—at a point in time when John Carpenter’s cinematic language of suspense has been adopted by pretty much every horror filmmaker on the planet.  That’s why it’s so easy to watch HALLOWEEN now and see it as a bundle of clichés: the killer POV, the misdirection, the cheap shocks, the formulaic story of ten little Indians (so to speak), the un-killable killer, the final girl, the find-the-dead-bodies routine, the twist ending, etc. etc. etc.

And yet somehow HALLOWEEN has still managed to endure better than most—if not all—of the films that have tried to replicate its success.... because somehow Carpenter’s film managed to capture—or become—the essence of every misfit’s favorite holiday.  Is it even possible to think about Halloween today without thinking of Michael Myers, or without hearing Carpenter’s pulse-pounding score playing in your head?  I don’t think so.  HALLOWEEN has become more than a movie; Carpenter’s film is a cultural phenomenon.  What that means is that a scrappy little indie film—made by a group of friends over the course of 20 days and nights, on a budget of approximately $300,000, nearly forty years ago—is carrying a hell of a lot of baggage.  So when I sat down to re-watch it this week, I couldn’t help wondering what it must have been like to see it in the fall of 1978.

John Carpenter remembers that his most famous film wasn’t an overnight success.  In fact, early reviewers were as brutal as Michael Myers.  The filmmaker told Fangoria magazine in 1986, “At first, it only got bad reviews.  Terrible, horrible reviews!  All the popular press in this country thought it was stupid and not scary.  And then, it finally caught on.  They released it again the following year, on Halloween of course, and it became a success.”  The filmmaker has pointed to one review in particular—by Tom Allen in The Village Voice—that changed the fate of the film.  Allen compared HALLOWEEN to Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO and George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, as well as Mario Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY (1960), Jack Clayton’s THE INNOCENTS (1961), and Terence Young’s WAIT UNTIL DARK (1967).  In short, he proclaimed it a modern-day classic… and suddenly everyone else started viewing (and reviewing) it that way too.

Carpenter has not been shy about citing his own influences and making his own comparisons to other films.  In the “text” of HALLOWEEN itself, there are nods to FORBIDDEN PLANET and THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, genre movies that stimulated the filmmaker’s own imagination.  Carpenter has also acknowledged that the opening sequence in Orson Welles’ TOUCH OF EVIL (a long, uninterrupted tracking shot) provided the inspiration for the opening sequence of HALLOWEEN.  He has acknowledged PSYCHO as the “granddaddy” of HALLOWEEN, freely admitting that “the Hitchcock suspense thing—showing the bomb and you can get much more suspense than surprise” is the main principle behind the movie.  (Sidenote: If you don’t know what this means, you need to read Hitchcock/Truffaut.)  He has also acknowledged the influence of Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA and DEEP RED, and—somewhat surprisingly—the 1973 adaptation of Michael Crichton’s WESTWORLD.  Yul Brynner’s killer robot, it turns out, was the inspiration for Michael Myers.  (This reminds me of the way that Philip K. Dick defines “android”… but that’s a line of thought for another day.)

Yul Brynner in WESTWORLD
A few years ago, when I had the opportunity to interview Carpenter, I asked him about the possible influence of RKO producer Val Lewton.  Specifically, I had in mind the “bus scare” scene in CAT PEOPLE (1941), with its expert misdirection and emphasis on sound design, and also an elaborate scene in Lewton’s THE LEOPARD MAN (1943), where a little girl runs home at night, pursued by a leopard that has escaped from the local zoo.  The girl pounds and pounds on the locked door of her home, crying out for her mother to let her in…. but her mother, who doesn’t know anything about the escaped leopard, takes her sweet time getting there.  Surely, I thought, this sequence must have been the inspiration for a scene at the end of HALLOWEEN, where Laurie Strode pleads with Tommy to unlock the door before the boogeyman gets her. 

Carpenter flatly denied that THE LEOPARD MAN was an influence on HALLOWEEN.  Furthermore, he said that he does not like Val Lewton movies—because he regards the scare scenes as “cop-outs.”  (Oh, you should have heard me protesting with the modern-day master of horror.  “But but but…”  I’m a Lewton fan, you see.  But nevermind.)  Carpenter has repeated his reasoning in many interviews, often using a scene from Vincente Minnelli’s film THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL as talking point.  In that movie, Kirk Douglas plays a Lewton-esque producer named Jonathan Shields, who is preparing to make a movie about killer cat people.  In a moment of insight, Shields decides that instead of dressing up actors in silly cat costumes, it would be better to simply avoid showing the monsters onscreen, and leave audiences in the dark—because “the dark has a life of its own.” 

If you’ve seen THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, you know that Shields is mostly being a cheapskate bullshit artist.  Val Lewton was not a bullshit artist, but he did make his movies cheap—which is one reason why he avoided showing the monsters.  I don’t think Carpenter really faults him for that decision; he just thinks that, if you’re going to make a monster movie today, you have to deliver a monster.  (More on this when we get to THE FOG….)

But back to THE LEOPARD MAN, for a minute.  After being contradicted by the man himself, I can only see the differences between the door scene in Lewton’s film and the door scene in HALLOWEEN.  First and foremost, in THE LEOPARD MAN, we do not see the monster coming.  In HALLOWEEN, we do.  Carpenter is playing this scene for suspense by showing us the bomb (so to speak) before it goes off.   Also, the two scenes end on very different notes.  (I suppose that any viewer who was familiar with THE LEOPARD MAN before watching HALLOWEEN for the first time must have been doubly concerned for Laurie Strode.   No spoilers here.  Go watch the movie.  It’s a good one… no matter what John Carpenter says.)

So I’m prepared to accept that Val Lewton was not a conscious influence on HALLOWEEN.  Mainly because, again, John Carpenter has been so forthcoming about other influences.  He names German Expressionism, for example, as the dominant stylistic influence on HALLOWEEN.  That may not mean much for some viewers, but it inevitably conjures some specific images in the minds of older horror fans.  For me, it evokes memories of the surrealistic sets in THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI and the shadow on the stairs in NOSFERATU—dark dream imagery.

John Carpenter defined German Expressionism in conversation with biographer Gilles Boulenger by contrasting it with Russian montage (see Sergei Eisenstein’s famous “Odessa Steps” sequence in THE BATTLESHIP POTEMPKIN).  He said, “In the Russian montage you can create excitement.  Shot right, it’s easy to do.  German Expressionism [in contrast] can give a sense of loneliness, melancholy, or brooding but it can also—and I never figured out why anybody hasn’t seen it—be used for suspense.” 

Carpenter goes on to talk about how his filmmaking hero Howard Hawks used German Expressionism to that effect in the films CEILING ZERO and ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS.  In both cases, he explains, Hawks used long takes to express the anxiety of people waiting for planes to land.  Carpenter concludes: “And to me that is much more compelling than the fast-cutting [of Russian montage], which will be to cut back and forth to sweaty faces.  In this film, it’s very slow and leisurely.  To jump ahead, I in fact used German Expressionism in HALLOWEEN.  That is the way I created suspense.”

This makes me think me of another Hawks film that Carpenter has discussed in interviews—the film that I chose to pair this week on my double-bill with HALLOWEEN.  That movie is the 1932 version of SCARFACE.  For anyone interested in analyzing the style and technique of HALLOWEEN—especially the opening sequence—I think SCARFACE is as instructive as TOUCH OF EVIL.  Carpenter probably thinks so too, although I’ve never heard him say it.  This may be as close as he’s come: “Critics mention the one-take, moving camera style of Ophuls and Welles but somehow never get around to the amazing one-take opening of the original SCARFACE.”  That opening sequence includes several shots that are echoed throughout HALLOWEEN.

Comparing compositions - SCARFACE (1932) and HALLOWEEN (1978)
Silhouettes in SCARFACE and HALLOWEEN
Shadows (and a sense of imprisonment) in SCARFACE and HALLOWEEN
The German Expressionist style, as it’s defined today, is certainly in evidence in the Hawks movie—in its use of silhouettes and shadows, its sense of imprisonment and claustrophobia, and its depictions of irrational violence.  German Expressionism seems to be, above all, about creating a distinctly unnatural and intensely unsettling emotional reality.  And the achievement of that effect is exactly what makes HALLOWEEN more than a bundle of clichés, then and now.

Final thought: Since I mentioned Vincente Minnelli’s THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, I should note that Tom Allen’s tide-turning review of HALLOWEEN also compares Carpenter’s film (a “study in warm colors, dark shadows, and ceaselessly tracking dollies”) to another of Minelli’s films, MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944).  In particular, Allen points to “the expressive possibilities” of the Halloween sequence in that film.  Check it out:

Meet Me In St. Louis - halloween mischief from Webb on Vimeo.

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