31 by 31 Challenge #31: HALLOWEEN (1978)

@craiggors

“I met him, fifteen years ago. I was told there was nothing left; no reason, no conscience, no understanding; not even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, of good or evil, right or wrong. I met this six-year-old child, with this blank, pale, emotionless face, and the blackest eyes…the devil’s eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply…evil” -Dr. Sam Loomis

Michael Myers. Perhaps the single greatest icon of the horror film. His debut appearance as “The Shape” in Halloween (1978) saw the beginning of a new era in the genre . The film established John Carpenter as a cinematic genius, established the “rules of horror,” and kickstarted the slasher film sub-genre that reached somewhat nauseating heights in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Halloween has since become a staple of not only horror culture, but pop culture in general and still frequently places in the Top 3 or 4 horror films of all time from diehard fans to Fangoria to AFI.

October 31, 1963, in the quaint, all-American suburban utopia of Haddonfield, Illinois, an unseen figure watches a teenage girl engage in a “romantic dalliance” with her boyfriend. The viewer is placed in the figure’s mind, the camera moving as his body moves, the screen his vision. We move into the house where both a large kitchen knife and a ghoulish clown mask are acquired. Then, now peering through the hollowed eyes of the mask, we move up the stairs and into the girl’s bedroom, where she sits at her makeup table. She turns, and is stabbed repeatedly. The assailant is revealed to be six-year old Michael Myers (Will Sandin), and the victim, his older sister Judith (Sandy Johnson).

The now famous opening sequence of Halloween, inspired in part by the opening crane shot in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958),was not the first moment where a filmmaker put the audience into the eye of a maniac, but it become one of the most well-executed and well-known. It’s unsettling, even now, to watch and become an unwilling participant in the first of many Michael murders. And this is just the beginning of a relentlessly suspenseful film with a tight plot and an energetic pace. Fifteen years after Michael stumbles onto his front lawn to greet his parents with a bloody knife and a blank face, he escapes from Smith’s Grove Asylum, where he has sat, without speaking. His psychiatrist, Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance), tracks him back to Haddonfield, where Michael (Nick Castle) begins to stalk a trio of babysitters, none of them aware of the danger that has inserted itself into their community. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) proves the only one resourceful enough to fit back against this faceless and pursuant evil.

Halloween became one of the most profitable horror movies of all time, a well deserved but surprise success given that it had a budget of about $350,000. This attracted the attention of a number of filmmakers and studios who began to mimic Halloween and thus the slasher film became its own out of control vehicle, dominating horror well into the 1980’s, though none were near as skillful and inoffensive as their muse. As a scare machine, Halloween is virtually flawless. Carpenter’s memorable score alone has been known to send chills down people’s spines, even if they haven’t even seen the film. The tension is always high, and makes use of pantomime scares made possible by the Panavision format, a somewhat rare indulgence for a low-budget film at the time.

Everything from the set pieces to the neighbors pulling down the blinds and shutting out the lights as Laurie runs from house to house showcase Carpenter’s technical and visual flair. Michael Myers does not only stalk the streets of Haddonfield, he stalks the imaginations of the viewers, a villain so cold and brutal there is no way he won’t imprint himself on the psyches of anyone who watches him do battle against the wily Laurie Strode. Speaking of which, if Michael is the quintessential horror movie villain, it should be noted that four of every five horror fans will name Laurie Strode as the greatest horror movie heroine of all time. Jamie Lee Curtis was cast in the movie as the ultimate tribute to her mother Janet Leigh legendary star of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), and she remains the reigning scream queen of the horror genre, having belted her way through this and other great classics such as The Fog (1980), Terror Train (1980), and the original Prom Night (1980).

Given that Halloween is looked at as the birth of the slasher sub-genre (though truly the genre has origins in the splatter films of the 1960’s, Italian gialli films, and Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974)–among a few other lesser-known sources), it must also be looked at as the beginning of the “rules of horror” that equate sex, drugs, and partial nudity with death. And turning your back on the seemingly dead killer with unreal physical abilities is also a big no-no. This formula was adopted wholesale by later slashers, and has been something that both Carpenter and Halloween have come under fire for–Michael kills his sister after watching her fornicate, and strikes down several other teens either after sex or while preparing to have sex, but the virginal Laurie survives.

Carpenter has defended this pattern as being a realistic portrayal of how teenagers behave. Laurie survives less because she is a virgin than because she has less to distract her as the ill-fated Lynda (P.J. Soles) and Annie (Nancy Kyes). In fact, the characters in Halloween are fairly well-drawn and sympathetic, almost nothing like the mindless drones that populate the abundance of Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street sequels. We care about the characters in Halloween because we are given true insight into their lives. 

Even for all of it’s realism, the film never loses that eerie emptiness that hangs over the streets and seeps through the glowing pumpkins, turning the whole town of Haddonfield into a menacing neverland. As the film progresses, Michael Myers becomes less the archetype of an escaped lunatic and more the sinister boogeyman so feared by the film’s two child characters, Tommy (Brian Andrews) and Lindsey (Kyle Richards). Though not as blatantly obvious as the sequels, something about Michael rings of a supernatural indestructibility, and there is no better evidence of this than the haunting final montage.

The much beloved Donald Pleasance, who would collaborate with Carpenter on several future projects after Halloween, delivers his lines with an admirable, albeit creepy, elegance, and gets at the heart of why we so fear The Shape–his pure, unsaturated evilness. There is something deeply frightening about a monster not the product of a dysfunctional family or warped society, but one who is filled with a malice and a darkness that cannot be reasoned with or explained.

It is this fear that slowly crawls over the viewer as they take in Halloween, elevating the movie to heights beyond babysitter murders and inefficient police backup. As the film ends, cutting from empty street to empty house to empty school, the heavy breathing of Michael growing louder and deeper in our ears, the audience is left with the sensation that Tommy may have been right, and thus wonders, what if? What could happen on Halloween this year, the night when the barriers between the living and the dead are thinnest, and we enter a world not of our own–a world of masks, knives, and ominous shapes?

Halloween

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #12: BODY BAGS (1993)

@craiggors

When compiling a list of great horror anthologies, Body Bags is an oft yet criminally overlooked contender, which is mind boggling if you’ve ever seen it, or even if you just glance at the film’s roster. Directed by John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper for Showtime, and featuring a veritable who’s who of early 90’s celebrities and horror icons–including cameos by Wes Craven, Sam Raimi, and Tom Arnold–the film was meant to be a creepy-story-of-the-week TV show to compete with HBO’s massively successful Tales From the Crypt (1989-1996). After filming only three episodes, however, the show was canceled, and the segments were compiled into Body Bags, leaving us all to pine for what might have been.

John Carpenter plays The Coroner, a wise-cracking cross between the Crypt Keeper and Beetlejuice, who welcomes the viewer to the county morgue and introduces each of the three tales while drinking formaldehyde and searching for the most grisly and mangled bodies he can find. Despite only popping up between segments, Carpenter absolutely steals the show as The Coroner, and framing the stories as explanations for how these bodies ended up in the morgue is clever and fresh. Carpenter’s clearly having a blast in the role, and his energy translates well, making it just an absolute blast to kick back and enjoy Body Bags.

Carpenter directs the first two segments, “The Gas Station,” and “Hair.” In the first–which is set in Haddonfield, Illinois–a young woman (Alex Datcher) working the late shift at an isolated gas station/mechanics is plagued by strange visitors and unnerved by news of an active serial killer in the area. David Naughton, Wes Craven, and Robert Carradine all drop by at one point or another and the whole thing makes for a wonderfully tight and tense mini-Halloween. “Hair” is equally fun though more goofy; a body horror morality play featuring Stacy Keach as a middle-aged man obsessed with making sure he doesn’t go bald and willing to go to great lengths to keep a full head of hair. David Warner and Sheena Easton round out the players in this icky yet charming little terror fable.

Then there’s the fantastically nutso performance of Mark Hamill in “Eye,” the third and final segment directed by Tobe Hooper. As a baseball player that loses an eye and has it replaced with the eye of a deceased serial killer, Hamill goes all in and brings a few moments of genuine dread to the otherwise campy piece. There’s a twisted sense of glee in watching Luke Skywalker descend into madness in such an unsettling fashion, and the ending is appropriately bloody for a serial killer story.

Carpenter has stated that he never thought of himself as a talented actor, and so ceased casting himself in roles. Watching Body Bags, it’s a shame to think of what might have been if he had at least stuck with this particular character, and if Showtime had more faith in their Crypt-copycat. As with many things in life, and in the horror genre, fans must wonder what-if, but at the very least we have this taste of what should have been, a solid entry in the body of work of not one but two horror legends. Now, bag that up and take it with you.

Body Bags

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror