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Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 22: Halloween (1978)

halloween1Director: John Carpenter

Writer: John Carpenter, Debra Hill

Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence, P.J. Soles, Nancy Loomis,  Nick Castle, Peter Griffith, John Michael Graham, Bryan Andrews

Plot: In Haddonfield, Illinois, 1963, a 6-year-old boy named Michael Myers inexplicably murders his older sister on Halloween Night. Michael is sent to a mental institution where, for 15 years, Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) attempts to treat the boy for his psychosis. Eventually, Loomis surrenders, believing the boy to be beyond redemption, and turns his efforts towards containing the monster that has grown up to become a brute of a man. On October 30, 1978, Michael (Nick Castle) escapes from the institution and begins a trek back to Haddonfield.

The next morning, the day of Halloween, high school senior Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) drops off a package at the old, empty Myers house as a favor to her realtor father (Peter Griffith). She and the child she babysits, Tommy Doyle (Bryan Andrews) relate the legend the Myers story has become, unaware that a now-masked Michael is watching them. Laurie and her friend Annie (Nancy Loomis) encounter Annie’s father, Sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers), who informs them about a break-in and theft of a Halloween mask from a store in town. Loomis recruits Brackett to help him both in searching for Michael and in keeping his presence in town a secret.

That night, Annie and Laurie are both on babysitting jobs until Annie drops off her charge with Laurie and Tommy across the street so she can spend the evening with her boyfriend, only to return to what she thinks is an empty house. Naturally, it’s not. Soon afterwards, Lynda (P.J. Soles) and her boyfriend Bob (John Michael Graham) come over and find the house empty, seeing a free reign for some amorous activities of their own. Instead, they simply give Michael two more victims to add to his count. Still-nervous Laurie, across the street, decides to check out the unnaturally quiet house, only to find Michael’s victims, including Annie laid out in a gruesome tableau beneath the stolen headstone of Judith Myers. Laurie screams, tries to flee, and winds up taking a tumble down the stairs to escape Michael. Hurt, she staggers across the street to protect the children, but Michael follows her. In the final scenes, Laurie and Michael engage in an incredible cat-and-mouse game for her life, until finally she sends the kids out to seek help, drawing Loomis’s attention. He arrives just in time to save Laurie, shooting Michael and sending him falling from the window. A shattered Laurie asks Loomis if it really was the Boogeyman. Loomis confirms that it was… as he looks out the window and sees that Michael is gone.

Thoughts: Not the first “slasher” film, of course (we’ve already discussed at least two others that fit in that category), John Carpenter’s Halloween is truly the one that created the template future slashers would follow. In a simple 20-day shoot, on a shoestring budget, Carpenter gave us the synthesis of the mysterious figure, the slow build-up of one death after another to lead to a final confrontation, the use of the killer as some sort of karmic punishment for teenagers that get wrapped up in the evils of sex and drugs and alcohol, and of course the Survivor Girl in Jamie lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode.

Carpenter also uses visual tricks to great effect. The long opening scene is a single-take shot, all from the point of view of little Michael, as he watches his sister with her boyfriend, waits until she’s alone, and makes his first kill. The audience doesn’t even realize it’s a point of view shot for the first minute or two, until we see Michael’s little clown-clad arm reach out and grab the kitchen knife. Once he puts on his mask, our vision is impaired and reduced to a pair of small eye-holes, which covers up just enough of the brutality of his sister’s murder to make it all the more horrifying. He bookends this at the end of the movie, after Michael’s disappearance, with images of the empty rooms and exterior of the house where the rampage took place. Although we don’t see Michael again at this point, the idea that we are again looking through his eyes strikes you immediately.

For pure horror atmosphere, Halloween is undoubtedly one of the greatest films ever made. Some of the earlier slasher prototypes – here I’m specifically thinking of Last House on the Left and Texas Chainsaw Massacre – spent a good deal of time on mundane or even goofy nonsense before delving into anything horrifying. Halloween starts with a murder, and although it’s some time before Michael kills again, there’s a pervasive feeling of dread and terror that lasts throughout the film. Carpenter also composed the movie’s theme, which has really become an iconic piece of scary music, right up there with the themes to Psycho and Jaws.

In fact, Carpenter obviously draws on the history of Psycho in several places: his killer is obsessed with slaying women, particularly those of his own family; Dr. Sam Loomis is named after the John Gavin character from Psycho; Michael’s knife –his stance – echoes “Mother” and her weapon as she stalked Marion Crane; even his heroine is played by Jamie Lee Curtis, real-life daughter of Janet Leigh, who played Norman Bates’s most famous victim. I’m pretty sure the film’s original title was The Babysitter Murders (or) I Love Hitchcock. In a curious bit of pre-reflection, the babysitters and their charges spend Halloween night watching the 50s sci-fi chiller The Thing From Another World, which Carpenter himself would remake a few years later, and which we’ll actually discuss here in a few days.

Michael, in this film, is almost omnipresent. He’s an enormous, white-faced ninja, appearing at random times, able to pop up from virtually anywhere, and always, always watching. When you consider how relatively little violence there is in the film – the death scenes are few and brief – it’s amazing how effective Michael’s presence is at creating the overwhelming sense of fear. At the same time, there’s an odd sense of innocence to the character… or at the very least, confusion, like he doesn’t fully comprehend anything he’s doing. Bob’s death in particular demonstrates this: Michael pins the boy to the wall hard enough to leave him dangling there in his death-gurgles. As he’s dying, Michael tilts his head at him, almost quizzically, like a puppy looking at a stranger he can’t quite figure out.

Oddly enough, the family obsession isn’t actually that clear in this first film, except for the fact that Michael’s original victim is his older sister. There’s no reason at this point, though, to believe that his madness is anything other than a random killing spree. Halloween II, also written by Carpenter and Hill, is probably one of the all-time great horror sequels. It picks up immediately after the climax of this film and the entirety of the action takes place on the same night: Halloween 1978. If one views the two of them together, as if it was one long film, you get a richer story and uncover much more about the Myers family – namely the fact that Laurie was adopted by the Strodes and is, in fact, Michael’s younger sister. I have no idea if Carpenter and Hill were thinking along these lines when they wrote the original screenplay, but in the sequel they pull out a revelation that makes the earlier installment better by adding a totally different subtext. (Contrast that to the Star Wars revelations: no matter how much you love the original film or Empire Strikes Back, don’t you always feel a little squicky now when Leia plants a wet one on Luke Skywalker?)

As much as Michael Myers became emblematic of the horror movie boogieman, so did Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode come to embody the Survivor Girl trope – the one girl who remains (relatively) clean and innocent while all her friends are busy drinking, smoking (anything they can get their hands on), and engaging in lots and lots of teenage sex. We go back to the old Horror Movie As Morality Play idea, as these other teens are picked off one at a time, leaving only the clean, sober, virginal one to make the final stand against the killer. And truly, Curtis’s final stand is one of the best ever. She’s scared, but she’s also tough and determined, more so to protect the children than to protect herself. At every step of those final scenes, while Michael stalks her through the house, her first concern is to protect the kids, then herself. It’s a heroic stance that makes us sympathize even more than we would have originally (and the Babysitter Versus the Boogeyman idea is already one that wins her a great deal of sympathy from the audience). When she’s scared, you buy the terror on her face wholeheartedly. When she’s angry, you wouldn’t want to be the one to cross her.

And yes, like every horror movie in the history of ever, you’ve got those scenes where you want to just scream at her to turn around, dammit, he’s right behind you! But you usually say this while laughing, knowing the teenager is going to bite it and you’re really just there to see how it’s going to happen. This is one time where you really want her to turn around before it’s too late.

The series went off the rails with its third installment, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, which didn’t feature Michael at all. The idea was to try to turn Halloween into an annual Tales From the Crypt-style anthology series, each installment telling a totally different scary story. It’s not a bad idea and it may have worked if it wasn’t that Halloween II had already cemented Michael as the star of the franchise and if Halloween III wasn’t such a hot mess. Future installments never quite matched the original two, drifting Michael further and further down the road of the supernatural, which undermined what made the original so great in the first place. In the first two films, Michael is a terrifying figure because he represents a hidden dark side that could exist even in the most seemingly innocent person, a darkness that could erupt at any time and become the shadow in the window or the boogeyman behind the closet door. Once you make Michael the victim of a curse or a demon, you lose that. So go out and watch the first two Halloween films as part of your seasonal festivities, and ignore the rest.

From the terror in the house next door, tomorrow we’re going to the depths of deep space for perhaps the greatest blend of science fiction and horror ever made: Ridley Scott’s Alien.

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 20: Carrie (1976)

carrieDirector: Brian DePalma

Writer: Lawrence D. Cohen, based on the novel by Stephen King

Cast: Sissy Spacek, Amy Irving, William Katt, Nancy Allen, John Travolta, Betty Buckley, P.J. Soles, Piper Laurie

Plot: Slow-to-develop Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is a high school senior, the frequent scapegoat of her classmates due to her sheltered life and the oppressive nature of her mother (Piper Laurie). Carrie’s troubles are compounded on the day she gets her first menstrual cycle, without any idea what it means. The other girls torment her mercilessly, and Carrie is sent home. But along with the changes to her body, something is happening to Carrie’s mind as well. In moments of stress or anger, she finds herself moving objects without touching them. When her mother learns about the incident, she tells Carrie the “curse of blood” is punishment for sin and locks her in the closet to pray. The girls who mocked Carrie are given a harsh detention with the gym teacher, Miss Collins (Betty Buckley). One of the girls, Sue Snell (Amy Irving) feels guilty about tormenting the girl, and convinces her boyfriend Tommy (William Katt) to ask her to the prom. The ringleader, Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen), wants to get back at Carrie for her trouble, and convinces her high school dropout boyfriend Billy Nolan (John Travolta) to help her get a brutal revenge. Carrie agrees to go with Tommy, but her mother forbids it. Carrie lashes out wither powers, declaring that she’s going to go and sending her mother into fits of prayer. Billy and Chris, meanwhile, set up a bucket of pig’s blood above the stage of the gym, waiting for Carrie’s big moment. At the prom, Carrie unexpectedly finds a measure of acceptance from her classmates, who treat her as just any other girl – something Carrie has wanted all her life. Her joy is shattered when Chris springs her trap: she’s rigged the prom election so Carrie will win, and just as she comes up to the stage, the pig’s blood spills on her. Tommy is knocked unconscious when the bucket itself falls and strikes him in the head, and the audience erupts in laughter.

If you’ve ever watched a horror movie, you probably recognize this as the point where the students made a particularly stupid mistake.

The already-fragile Carrie snaps, locking the doors to the gym and setting it on fire, trapping everybody inside. When she leaves the burning gym, Billy and Chris try to run her over, but Carrie simply flips the car and causes it to explode. Returning home, Carrie cries to her mother, who now believes her daughter to be the product of the devil. Margaret White stabs Carrie, and Carrie uses her powers to hurl dozens of blades at her mother, killing her. Finally, Carrie destroys her mother’s house and kills herself in the process. The film ends with an image of Carrie crawling from her own grave, but it’s only a bad dream for survivor Sue Snell, whom one suspects will never have a good dream again.

Thoughts: I became a fan of Stephen King in high school, probably when I was about the age of Carrie White in the film, but I didn’t get around to reading his early works until many years later. In fact, by the time I actually read Carrie or saw the movie, I was already a high school teacher myself, so I think I have something of an odd perspective on the story. King was ahead of the curve when it came to depicting the victims of high school bullying becoming monsters in their own right (he explored a similar theme, sans the supernatural element, in his novel Rage), and these days when I see a kid in the sort of dire straits Carrie finds herself in, I feel particularly strong about trying to help them before it goes bad. Sometimes, though, you just can’t do anything.

It’s hard to see Carrie White as a monster, though. She lashes out, and she causes an incredible amount of death and destruction, but it’s hard to say that anyone else wouldn’t have reacted the same way in her situation. Her overbearing mother is a chilling creature, and would drive anyone mad.

Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie make the film, Laurie being cruel and sadistic, Spacek being a broken, shattered creature even when we first meet her, which makes those moments when Chris snatches away her brief moment of happiness all the more tragic. In fact, if Carrie’s rampage had ended with the deaths of her tormenters instead of spreading out to the rest of the school, the audience likely would sympathize with her entirely. The deaths would be understandable, if not entirely justified. But at that point, she can’t control herself. She gets her tormentors, but she also gets Tommy and Miss Collins, the two people who have never been unkind to her at all (even Sue, the lone survivor of the massacre, joined in on the initial mocking of Carrie at the beginning of the film). Sometimes you’ll see that the one person who treats the “monster” well is spared its wrath. Not so, in the case of Carrie White. By then, Spacek’s face grows hard and her eyes empty, as if she’s no longer even in control, just an uncontrollable force of nature being used to guide the chaos all around her to its horrific end.

Even then, though, she’s never as horrible as Piper Laurie in her final moments, walking towards her daughter with a bloody knife in the air, smiling with the confidence that she’s doing God’s work. The last moment of horror comes when Carrie slays her, pinning her up in a sort of grotesque crucifix that mirrors the unsettling one her mother forced her to pray under in the closet.

The story itself is actually very simple – I’m pretty sure this is the shortest plot synopsis I’ve written in weeks – but that doesn’t make it any less effective. Sometimes it’s those simple beats that hit close to home. We see the archetypes here – Carrie as the victim-turned-killer, her mother as the iron fist that squeezes until her child pops, Chris as the cruel one, Sue as the guilty party that tries to make good. We recognize all of the characters, and that helps us get into the story easily. There isn’t much of a backstory behind Carrie’s powers, but again, one isn’t really needed. She’s telekinetic, and at this particular time in the 70s that was something that was making the rounds of speculative fiction.

The film draws from interesting sources to create its mood. The musical sting we hear whenever Carrie uses her powers is inarguably reminiscent of the legendary shower scene from Psycho, for example. It’s Carrie lashing out, but the music brings Norman Bates to mind. Otherwise, the music is fairly unremarkable – perhaps even a little too soft and lyrical most of the time. It’s there to disarm you, of course, to prevent you from being prepared for the incoming horror, but it doesn’t really succeed.

The odd moments in the movie are when Brian DePalma works in a few moments of comedy, particularly as Tommy and his friends try on tuxedoes. For some reason that still doesn’t make any sense to me, he goes into fast-forward just for a few seconds, speeding up the conversation so the boys sound like the Chipmunks. It’s a bizarre moment that doesn’t fit at all with the atmosphere of the rest of the film. DePalma also works really hard to artificially draw out the tension. From the time Carrie steps on stage until the blood falls on her head we’ve got a long, protracted scene of Sue discovering the prank and trying to warn Miss Collins, all stretched out due to slow-motion and made a little more horrible by the lack of audio. He goes into split-screen at this point, alternately showing Carrie herself or various points in the gym as she begins to trap her victims. Strangely, the split screen works very well, allowing you to see more of the terror and give it a sort of real-time element. I’m reminded of the TV show 24 whenever it breaks this way, although whether the producers of that show were specifically influenced by Carrie, who can say?

The measure of any movie is really the way it’s remembered, of course. Carrie is still considered a landmark horror film, with echoes in every story of high school terror that came afterwards, everything from A Nightmare on Elm Street right down to The Faculty. Horribly, you can see the reactions in the real world as well, any time some high school outcast snaps under the pressure and turns on his classmates. How many times have you seen a story like that on television or in the newspaper that compares a real-world killer to Carrie White? Carrie should have been a simple little horror story. Instead, it became part warning, part social commentary, part prophecy. I liked it better when it was just a horror story.

We’ve spent most of our time on this project in America, mainly because I don’t really know the history of foreign horror enough to speculate on it. But there are a few foreign films with a large enough footprint to make it on to my radar. Tomorrow, we go to Italy, for Susperia.