by Steve Habrat
If you are looking for seriously scary horror movie, look no further than John Carpenter’s independent 1978 slasher classic Halloween. If you want to be reduced to a quivering ball of flesh, this is the film that will do it. Trust me. Considered an “immortal classic” by critics and horror fans and celebrated as the most successful independent feature of all time, Halloween is the film that practically wrote the slasher rulebook and showed us all how teen terror was done. Spawning countless imitators, a slew of lackluster sequels, and two good but not great remakes, Carpenter delivers a film surging with a threatening atmosphere and a movie monster so iconic and terrifying, a small glimpse of Michael Myers makes most people slightly uncomfortable. While most of the terror is milked from the borderline supernatural antagonist, there is plenty of unease in that iconic theme, the one with the frantic and paranoid synths that announce the arrival of the boogeyman. And then there is Jamie Lee Curtis as the virgin heroine, the one who is always just narrowly making it away from the relentless evil prowling the shadows of suburbia. And how can I forget that terrifying last shot, the one that is followed by a series of shots of suburban homes sitting in silence as Carpenter visually suggests that this terror can happen in any home, on any street, and in any living room. I think you get the idea.
Halloween begins on October 31st, 1963, in Haddonfield, Illinois, with a young Michael Myers (Played by Will Sandin) returning from a night of trick r’ treating, grabbing a butcher knife, and the brutally murdering his older sister, Judith (Played by Sandy Johnson). Immediately after the murder, Michael’s parents arrive home and discover what he has done. The film then speeds a head to October 30th, 1978, with Dr. Samuel Loomis (Played by Donald Pleasance) making his way to Smith’s Grove Sanitarium with nurse Marion Chambers (Played by Nancy Stephens) to pick up Michael Myers and take him to a court hearing. Upon their arrival, they discover the patients of Smith’s Grove have broken out of their rooms and are wandering the grounds. In the confusion, Michael steals a car and speeds off towards Haddonfield. With Dr. Loomis is hot pursuit, Michael steals a pair of coveralls and a Halloween mask, arms himself with a butcher knife, and returns to his childhood home. Meanwhile, nerdy high school student Laurie Strode (Played by Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends, Annie Brackett (Played by Nancy Kyes) and Lynda Van Der Klok (Played by P.J. Soles), gear up for a night of Halloween shenanigans with their boyfriends. As Michael prowls Haddonfield, he encounters Laurie and her friends and he proceeds to stalk them into the evening. As night falls, Dr. Loomis and Sheriff Leigh Brackett (Played by Charles Cyphers) race to track down Michael before he can claim several new victims.
In my humble opinion, Halloween unleashes the most terrifying psychopath killer ever to grace the screen next to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s Leatherface. Michael silently peeks out from bushes and appears outside of Laurie’s window only to disappear in the blink of an eye. He remains in the shadows, waiting for the proper moment to lash out at his teenage prey, which he enjoys toying with before they meet the end of his knife. After one death, Michael carries the body of the victim from the backyard around the side of the house and up the front porch steps. It’s an unsettling image made all the creepier through the otherworldly background noises lifted from the 1951 science fiction classic The Thing. Through the spacey sound effects, Carpenter hints that Michael may not be human at all but a supernatural force sent to disrupt the peaceful and sleepy order of suburbia. None of our characters are safe as the settle in with popcorn and beer to enjoy scary movies and hook up with their doomed boyfriends. If the otherworldly screeches and whistles aren’t enough, wait for the scene where Lynda’s boyfriend Bob leaves to grab a beer, only to bump into Michael lurking in the shadows. After horrifically killing him and then examining the body (wait until you see that head tilt), Michael fittingly disguises himself as a ghost wearing Bob’s glasses, enters the bedroom where Lynda is waiting, and then strangles her to death. A ghost going in for the kill, only to disappear into the dark like he was never there at all. That, my friends, is why Michael is scary as hell.
When Michael isn’t busy stealing the show, Curtis and Pleasance do a fantastic job with their little corners of Halloween. Curtis is the ultimate scream queen as the uptight Laurie, the poor, incorruptible soul who is the unfortunate target of pure evil. She is immensely likable and vaguely sympathetic, constantly making us wish she would just let loose a little bit with her friends (she sort of does in a scene where she shares a joint with Annie). When it comes time for her to flee from Michael, she smartly fights back when she can, even nabbing Michael’s knife at one point and jabbing it into his ribcage. And then we have Pleasance as the grim Dr. Loomis, who is constantly reminding us that Michael isn’t a man at all but evil on two legs. I dare you not to get chills when Loomis and Sheriff Brackett stumble upon a mutilated dog and Loomis murmurs, “he got hungry.” I seriously think that Pleasance gives the best performance in the film. You also can’t help but love Soles and Kyes as Laurie’s free spirited friends. Kyes is especially entertaining as the mouthy Annie, who is constantly pushing Laurie to ask out her crush.
With a creepy monster in place and superb acting from everyone involved, its up to Carpenter to deliver on the iconic scares and he sure is up to the task. The opening sequence of Halloween, in which Carpenter’s camera acts as the POV of young Michael as he makes his way up to his sister’s room, will have your arms covered in goose bumps. This scene appears to be one continuous shot but Carpenter actually expertly masks a number of cuts within the scene. It is a sequence that I’m sure Hitchcock would approve of. And how about that end chase? The one that has Laurie locked in a closet with Michael hacking his way in as Laurie frantically looks for something to arm herself with. Hell, Carpenter creeps us out in broad daylight as Laurie shuffles home from school, only to be silently pursued by the Shape. Halloween does have a number of minor flaws that really show as the years pass. Some of the dialogue is dated and if you look closely in one particular scene, you can even spot a few palm trees. And then there is that fact that Michael has been locked up since he was a young boy but yet he knows how to drive a car. And I still think that Tommy Doyle (Played by Brian Andrews) is sort of an annoying character as he constantly babbles on whines about the boogeyman. Don’t worry, you’ll be too freaked out to even notice these goofs. Overall, Carpenter’s Halloween is a massively influential horror film that refuses to be topped. It ranks as one of the scariest films I have ever seen and it is a triumph of independent cinema. If you are one of four people out there who have never seen Halloween, do yourself a favor and add it to your movie collection. Good luck getting Michael Myers out of your head.
Halloween is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
In the stretch of films that John Carpenter made from 1978 to 1982, Escape From New York may be my least favorite of the films that also included Halloween, The Fog, and The Thing. It is these four films that are perhaps the most prolific films of his career (I should also throw in Assault of Precinct 13 and Big Trouble in Little China) and all have their own respectable cult following. Escape From New York is probably his most eccentric film in this stretch, one that broke the horror mold that he was falling into. Escape From New York ventures into science fiction and action territory (Carpenter explored science fiction with his debut film Dark Star in 1974) and the result is a fairly mixed bag of masculine 80’s clichés, inconsistent action sequences, and sputtering suspense. Still, I am willing to forgive in most of these areas but the one that really hurts is the lack of a suspenseful atmosphere that I feel Carpenter did so well. He would return to form, thankfully, in with his 1982 science-fiction chiller The Thing. There would be some magic found in Escape From New York, this first pairing of Carpenter and Kurt Russell, a match made in badass heaven.
Escape From New York invites us into a dystopian world where, in 1988, crime rose 400%, causing the U.S. government to construct a giant wall surrounding New York City that turns the greatest city in the world into a sprawling maximum-security prison. The year is 1997 and Air Force One has crashed into the dangerous streets of the prison, streets that are crawling with psychos and criminals. The President (Played by Donald Pleasance) was on his way to a three-way summit meeting between the U.S., China, and the Soviet Union for a discussion on nuclear fusion, a meeting he is desperately needed at. Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Played by Lee Van Cleef) enlists the help of scowling ex-soldier turned criminal Snake Plissken (Played by Kurt Russell), who is facing a life sentence behind the city walls. Hauk tells Plissken that if he retrieves the President in twenty-four hours, he will pardon Plissken of his sentence. Plissken reluctantly agrees and travels into the grungy wasteland where he finds himself facing a relentless army of bloodthirsty criminals who all want him dead. Along the way, he runs into some old acquaintances and faces off against the sinister Duke (Played by Isaac Hayes), who plans to use the President as his key to freedom.
It’s almost impossible not to read Escape From New York as a faint satire of the crime that ran rampant in New York City in the 1970’s into the 1980’s. The 1980’s and early 1990’s saw some of the worst of the crime. Escape From New York saw itself released in 1981, right in the midst of the flurry of crime and right at the start of the Regan Presidency. Escape From New York has a heavy military and police presence within the film, masked soldiers prowling the tops of the prison and helicopters swooping in to shoot and kill any prisoner that looks like they are attempting an escape. When the film is mirroring the uncontrollable crime of New York City and Regan’s focus on military expansion, Escape From New York is witty, cynical and, yes, tense in some respects. You do feel uneasy because you don’t really know the terrors that lie beyond those walls and there is the paranoia of war right around the corner. Even the early scenes, where Carpenter keeps many of the psychos in the shadows are a bit unsettling, but then he turns the lights on and allows the sun to come up to chase all those demons out of the shadows and into the sewers.
Escape From New York does do a good job at creating a dystopian world that is admirable in the attention to detail. While watching it, I could completely see this grungy vision of New York City being completely plausible for the time in which it was released. Plissken is warned not to venture into the subways or into certain parts of the city by its wary prisoners, the one’s with hints of good within them. Shadowy silhouettes scamper through the streets, evocative of homeless street dwellers calling the grime caked darkness home. The effects are also quite impressive, especially when you keep in mind that the film was made for a whopping six million, which by today’s standards wouldn’t get you far at all. At times, it is a bit obvious that Carpenter is filming miniatures and a sequence involving a glider tumbling down the side of the World Trade Center looks a bit dated, but outside of that, the film has aged very well.
Escape From New York would not be the classic that it is considered if it didn’t have Kurt Russell in the lead as Snake Plissken. Plissken is almost always as cool as a cucumber, his voice just above a whisper as he tiptoes around the littered streets with an intimidating machine gun. Plissken practically becomes the definition of the strong silent type, even when he is thrown in a wrestling ring with a gigantic brawler who is looking to pull Plissken’s head from his body. It was this film that revealed the peanut butter and jelly pairing of John Carpenter and Kurt Russell, Carpenter dreaming up perfect one-liners for Russell to mumble before he aims a gun or throws a punch. The writing would really take shape in The Thing, the film that contains one of Russell’s greatest one-liners, but Russell sure gets to have some pokerfaced fun here (Hauk: “Plissken? Plissken, what are you doing?” Snake: “Playing with myself! I’m going in!”). Escape From New York also features a few other Carpenter alums, Pleasance as the half-hearted President and Adrienne Barbeau as the curvy and dangerous Maggie. Harry Dean Stanton, who would go on to appear in Carpenter’s 1983 film Christine, has some fun as the shifty Brain, who betrayed Plissken in the past.
Escape From New York leaves the viewer wanting more and not particularly in a good way. I wanted more development of Isaac Hayes’ Duke, a villain we mostly only hear about and when we see him, he never really strikes fear into our hearts. Lee Van Cleef’s Hauk just jogs around from behind computer screens to a helicopter and back again. Stanton and Barbeau both seem to be having some fun in Carpenter’s wasteland, Barbeau overjoyed to be reunited wit her The Fog director, but their characters aren’t really elaborated on, only there to keep Plissken on his toes. Escape From New York belongs to Russell and he is the one who will lure you back behind the walls of the New York City maximum-security prison for repeat viewers. The film is also notable for its satire and political commentary, touches that elevate the film above a mindless science fiction/action throwaway. I would have liked the story to develop a little more, for Plissken to explore a little more of New York City and bump in to a few more baddies. Yet there is enough bloody action to keep us occupied in our visit to this nightmare world and, for those who have never seen it, it is worth seeking the film out to be introduced to the man that is Snake Plissken. I guess that is enough for me to recommend the Escape From New York. If only it had that signature tense Carpenter atmosphere but I guess a guy can dream, right?
Escape From New York is available on Blu-ray and DVD.