Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Most Sincere Pumpkin Patch of All

Let’s celebrate a 29th Anniversary this year. Next year we’ll be awash in 30yr celebratory DVD editions OF John Carpenter’s Halloween; everyone will be talking about it, so let’s beat those fair weather fans to the punch. Oh yeah, there’s also this other film out now calling itself Halloween. They bought the title, plot, and music.

But they didn’t buy us.

Seriously, after giving a right pasting to Rob Zombie’s remake a few days ago, I thought I might help to set the Karma right by talking some about the original. Made in 1978 by a cast and crew with little experience and even less money, using perhaps the most worn genre cliché (masked killer stalks young girls), and broke all box office records for an independent film. The plot is so well known, and so frequently ripped off, that it hardly bears repeating. Young Michael Myers, for no discernable reason, dons a clown mask and brutally stabs his older sister to death on Halloween night. Years later, just before being transported for a hearing by his psychiatrist Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance), Myers escapes, steals a car and heads back to his home town of Haddonfield. Meanwhile, three High School students, Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis), Linda (P.J. Soles), and Annie (Nancy Loomis) prepare for their various Halloween evening activities. For Linda and Annie it means going out with their boyfriends (or at least trying to), and for Laurie it means yet another night of babysitting. But Michael Myers had different plans for everyone.

Honestly, no quickie paragraph can even begin to express the importance of this film. No one - and I mean no one - shoots like Carpenter. Using the 2.35 Panavision frame (for only the second time) he expertly uses compositions to generate suspense, focusing your attention on the someone in foreground, only to slowly reveal the featureless, silver mask worn by Myers almost as if hovering in mid-air somewhere amid the background detail. The effect, particularly in a scene that finds Annie locked in a tiny laundry room, is breathtaking. Feeling that a more experienced actor would be needed to counter the young cast, Carpenter and producer Debra Hill offered the role of Dr. Loomis first to Christopher Lee, and after he turned it down, to Pleasance. A veteran character actor, memorable in films both big budget (The Great Escape) and small (Deathline) he was also a notorious scene stealer, adept at every method at an actor's disposal to focus attention to himself. These slightly hammy tendencies were well harnessed by Carpenter, converting this to a form of eccentric gravitas that was just right for the role. The casting of the teenage girls was also spot on, with all three leads coming off like real people instead of the screeching stereotypes that most male screenwriters came up with. As the daughter of Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, you would have thought that Jamie Lee Curtis would have turned in the most affected performance of the bunch; feeling like her lineage ought to be enough to carry her through the part. But her ultra-naturalistic performance as Laurie is a near miracle. Instead of a stereotype, Curtis gives us a real person – one whom we believe had a life before we meet her in the film – and invests us so completely in Laurie’s survival that we are breathless watching her run from Myers.

The decline of the modern American slasher film began when audiences started to root and applaud for the killers. After the first Nightmare on Elm Street film back in 1984 we were awash in wisecracking killers that invited audience identification. The killers were also invariably better written than the victims (try to find even a hint of warmth in even the best Nightmare on Elm St, Friday the 13th, or even Halloween sequel). Horror cinema got another kick in the gut from a good movie in 1991 when Silence of the Lambs made everyone into an amateur profiler. All of a sudden, we had to know all about the ruined childhoods and the mental deformities that turned men into killers. Halloween works because we know nothing about Myers; until Carpenter had to pad the film for television and give himself a clothesline to hang a plot on in part 2, there was no relationship between Michael and Laurie or her friends. The idea that he was just walking down the street, saw them coming the other way and said to himself “Look at those three – I think I’ll follow them around all night. Probably kill ’em too” is a terrifying concept, and that’s all you need. When Loomis runs around telling people that Michael is “Purely and simply evil”, he isn’t kidding. Look at the credits for Halloween; there’s an actor playing “Young Michael” for the first scene, another plays “Michael Myers Age 23” for the split second that his mask is off, and yet another playing “The Shape”. For the vast majority of the film, the adult Michael Myers is played by Nick Castle, a musician and friend of Carpenter who utilizes robotic yet somehow graceful body movements to suggest the killing vessel that Myers has become. After Castle left the mask behind (to a directing career that includes the Damon Wayans horror fest Major Payne) the role has been filed with a parade of stuntmen who were obviously given no more complicated direction than “Walk over there – now grab her - now break for lunch”

And though certainly not for children, there is almost no blood on-screen. At some point (I’d say right around his Village of the Damned remake in 1995) Carpenter just seemed to give up. I saw him speak at a Lincoln Center event several years ago, and while it was fun to actually get to see him in person, he seemed like a man who had lost any fire he once had for filmmaking. While I hope this isn’t the case, his output, including two Masters of Horror episodes that were dismal even by that series’ standard, and his newly acquired habit of poring buckets of blood on the screen to conceal his own lack of enthusiasm doesn’t bode well for a late career comeback. Rob Zombie’s miserable, life-hating remake did little but draw attention to what Carpenter did right 30 years ago and that’s what we should be celebrating. Some may complain of a slow pace - I’d hate to hear what they’d make of Psycho – but the film moves like Myers himself; quick when he needs to be and deliberate because he knows exactly what he’s doing.