Reader’s Choice Halloween Review: Halloween (1978)
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.
And the winner is…
Hello boys and ghouls,
Hope you’re enjoying the Spooktacular and all the creepy posts you’ve seen so far. I encouraged you all to choose the horror film you want reviewed and that is exactly what you did. The film you chose is John Carpenter’s immortal classic Halloween. So, be prepared to have Michael Myers knocking on your door on October 31st. Enough small talk, lets have another quick word on Halloween safety and then its back to the horror reviews!
Black Christmas (1974)
by Steve Habrat
If you feel like taking a break from all the holiday cheer of the Christmas season, pop in director Bob Clark’s subtle and ominous Black Christmas. You won’t regret it. Well, maybe you will if you are watching it alone at night with nothing but a Christmas tree lit and no one else at home to keep you company. One of the more muted horror films of the 1970’s, Black Christmas is all about sounds, creaky halls, dimly lit bedrooms, faint holiday tunes emitting from radios, soft cinematography, heavy breathing, and some of the most abhorrent and creepy phone calls ever made. You will also find it hard to believe that the guy who made this also went on to make that other holiday classic A Christmas Story and the teen sex romp Porky’s. Miraculously never conforming to a typical slasher flick, mostly from the addition of the hard-boiled detective striving to solve the baffling disappearances, phone calls, and deaths taking place around a mostly deserted sorority. It’s a left of center choice to watch around the holidays because, lets face it, who really wants to get lost in a horror film during the most wonderful time of the year? Isn’t that what Halloween is for?
During a boozy Christmas party one evening, a strange man wanders around a sorority home, ascends a trellis, and climbs into the attic. Soon, a strange phone call interrupts the party and Barb (Played by Margot Kidder) grabs the phone to provoke the vulgar call. Turns out, this is not the first time this sorority has received an enigmatic call like this. The call is all heavy breaths, strange moans, and graphic threats aimed at the girls. This must all explain why the caller has earned himself the nickname “the moaner” amongst the girls. At first, we are lead to believe that this is one of the girl’s boyfriends pranking the skittish chicks but Clark plays this straight and it’s a little too effective when we learn that it’s for real. Soon, one of the girls, Clare (Played by Lynne Griffin), meets a truly grisly demise while she packs her bags to leave for a trip home. The next day, Clare’s uptight father Mr. Harrison (Played by James Edmond Jr.) arrives to take her home but her absence begins to frighten him. He goes to the sorority housemother Mrs. MacHenry (Played by Marian Waldman), Clare’s boyfriend Chris (Played by Art Hindle), and the pregnant and conflicted Jess (Played by Olivia Hussey) to help him locate his daughter. As they team up with the police and a dead body is discovered in a park near the sorority house, the eerie phone calls grow more disturbing and the body count begins to rise.
It’s really quite a shame that Bob Clark didn’t stay in the horror genre because this man is really on top of what makes a film scary. While Black Christmas has plenty of gore to spare (Not the type you’d find in Saw, mind you), mostly everything is oblique. A hook goes through one person’s head but it’s heard before we get a shadowy glimpse of it; another is stabbed do death with a phallic-looking crystal unicorn head. It’s a symbolic rape sequence that I’m sure impressed Hitchcock. Even the killer, Billy, is rarely shown, only once do we get to briefly see his face, but it is concealed with crafty shadows and one beam of light revealing a lone wild eye. We are consistently put in the killers POV, which is actually even more chilling than just seeing him lurk around the sorority house. I found myself filling in his thoughts, what he looked like, and constructing my own monster in my head. I also painted in the gore with my own imagination, with very little help from Clark. He doesn’t underestimate his audience and kudos for that!
Clark also makes glorious use of sound in this film, having the killer call the girls and make gargled sexual threats, perverted groans, and lisping whispers, efficiently making your skin crawl. The effective is enhanced by the juxtaposition of faint Christmas tunes calling in the background. The first time we actually see the girls get a call, the camera never cuts away from the girls. Instead, Clark slowly pans through the group of girls as they huddle around the phone and listen, repulsed by the sounds, their eyes conveying the hope that this is truly just a group of boys playing a prank. In all frankness, I hoped the first call was a prank too, just due the vulgarities uttered to the girls. The big reveal about the phone calls is carefully handled, a demented reveal that would give anyone home alone the willies.
Black Christmas offers up an abundance of rather complex characters for a slasher film. The heroine here, Jess, is pregnant and has decided on an abortion. She seems like a driven gal, one who refuses to be controlled by any dominating and controlling male force, especially her seemingly sophisticated but volatile boyfriend. She is with out a doubt a product of the Feminist Movement. She rejects pleas of marriage and shows more interest in furthering her education and career than dropping out and raising a child. The housemother Mrs. MacHenry is a sneaky alcoholic who apparently never married and the lush Barb seems to be following in her footsteps. She would rather have an independent love affair with a bottle than a man. Barb is also extremely off putting and direct, two traits that make her hard to root for. She has a shocking disinterest for figuring out what happened to her sorority sister and would rather crack open a can of beer than be bothered to really help anyone. The inclusion of Mr. Harrison as the old-fashioned conservative father was also a nice touch to all these empowered women. He is portrayed as a nerdy, timid, and stern man who needs these stronger women to lead him along.
Black Christmas was remade in 2006, but it made the inevitable mistake that all recent horror films do and tried to give everything a longwinded explanation, sucking all the fear out of the premise. In 1974, there is no explanation for why this is all occurring. Perhaps this is the film that inspired John Carpenter to unleash Michael Myers on the horror genre. It applies the same stationary camera shots of empty hallways, darkened bedrooms, and quite snowny neighborhoods where ordinary people live out their lives. Evil can be anywhere and strike at any moment. Even the police can meet grisly ends without a seconds notice. It has the same faceless killer who could very well be the boogieman. I also found myself drawn to the patient storytelling and the way Clark lets the terror unfold almost naturally. Maybe more prominent that we are willing to admit and an overlooked gift to horror, don’t be afraid to unwrap the gift of Black Christmas come the holiday season. It’s a gift that will keep on giving. Fear, that is.
Prevues of Ghoulish Coming Attractions…
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