Every so often, we look back at a movie that holds a special place in our life. This is “One from the Heart.” In a very special seasonal installment, Nick and Ryan reminisce about the horror classic Halloween.
Directed by: John Carpenter
Screenplay by: John Carpenter and Debra Hill
Starring: Donald Pleasence, Jamie Lee Curtis, Charles Cyphers
Running time: 91 minutes
Produced by: Falcon International Productions
Distributed by: Compass International Pictures
NICK: I can see it in the trees and feel it all around me in the Midwestern air…fall is with us. Because I’m such an original, and the trick-or-treaters will be at my door step in a week, I think it’s necessary to revisit an important artifact of the horror genre—Halloween (1978). Like it, love it, or hate it—you have to appreciate what Carpenter, Hill and their rag-tag crew of family and friends pulled off on a budget of a little over $300,000. What did they pull off? It’s certainly open to contention, but in my mind since its original theatrical run, Halloween has transcended the horror genre; it’s more than just a “really suspenseful and scary movie,” it’s damn good storytelling. Period.
A simple story, but creatively executed. And yeah, it was scary too.
RYAN: This is one of your favorites, Nick. I saw Halloween for the first time about a year ago. What really sticks out for me is how this “rap-tag crew” pulled it off. The movie itself is pretty simple. There’s a classroom scene, scenes of characters, walking, and of course the one-by-one murder spree. Really there aren’t that many characters or locations. No major grand finales or set pieces. Yet this movie, for what it is, seems nearly perfect. What do I mean by “what it is?” Well, it’s a slasher flick. Probably the father of them all. And Halloween doesn’t revel in the blood and gore. The fear and frights come largely from built-up suspense – not so much from jump scares o so common in today’s horror films.
NICK: Absolutely. While there’s some on-screen blood spill, that’s not what we walk away remembering. Unlike the Saw franchise, we don’t weigh and measure the film’s worth by the “creativity” of the kills. It’s too bad the Halloween sequels squashed that, but that’s really beside the point. The primary reason I keep returning to Halloween after all these years, and why it’s so high on my “favorites list” is because of its sense of atmosphere.
Here’s an honesty bomb for you; in my seventh grade history class I tried finding Haddonfield on a map of Illinois. Blame it partially on ignorance, but give credit where credit is due; the crew did an incredible job transcending the illusion of a crisp fall evening in the Midwest. If I, you, or the millions of viewers before us had sniffed out the lie, the film wouldn’t have made such a splash. Even knowing what I know now (the film was shot in Pasadena, CA) isn’t enough to take away from my love for what makes Halloween unique. If anything, it bolsters my admiration for independent filmmaking and making the best of minimal resources.
RYAN: Agreed. The fictional Haddonfield is about 40 to 70 miles south of where we each respectively grew up. Pasadena stands in well for Illinois, though it does seem oddly warm there for late October.
Let’s talk about the text of the film. It opens with a 4-minute long single take from Michael Myers’ point-of-view. In this scene, he watches his sister and her boyfriend neck, and they eventually have sex. Michael then stabs his sister to death. Carpenter has us, as viewers, literally take on Michael’s POV. In fact, Michael does a lot of watching, often from the shadows or obscured by some object.
NICK: We’re embodying The Shape. We are him. In that sense, we can’t escape from those flesh-and-bone ties. Certainly, people shield their eyes when they can’t handle the suspense any longer, but the aesthetic of the P.O.V. sequences are so strangely appealing to both casual viewers and Halloween fans alike that we go the metaphorical distance and glue our eyes to the screen that much longer. The onscreen violence, tame by today’s standards, seems heightened. In short, Carpenter’s uses of these P.O.V. sequences blur the boundaries between the film world and the viewers watching comfortably from their homes or the theater. Immersion.
A lot has been said about the famous 4-minute single take all from the perspective of six-year-old Michael, but we also get to see things from Laurie Strode’s (Jamie Lee Curtis) perspective. Immediately, the sequence where Strode and her friends walk home from school comes to mind. Via a Hitchcockian touch, Carpenter shows us that the girls see Myers (off-screen) behind a grass hedge, we cut to the hedge from the perspective of Strode, and back to a three-shot of the girls’ own distinctive reactions. So, throughout the entirety of the film, we are the cat and the mouse! Certainly this isn’t something exclusive to Halloween, but it works so damn well because it ramps up that slow burn until it becomes a full-blown sense of urgency (particularly at the end of the film as The Shape closes in on Strode).
RYAN: Nick, I’m glad you brought up blurring boundaries and immersion because it highlights a key aspect of analyzing film: spectatorship.
What is the role of the spectator? What is their relationship to the film? To characters? Typically, this falls into binary thinking, with totally passive viewers on one side and totally active viewers on the other. I tend to think viewers are more active than passive. That is, they are more discerning than they are simply engrossed and put-upon. As viewers, we come from particular histories, perspectives, and schemas. It’s not entirely possible to leave these behind while we view a movie or show. We do not enter as blank slates, and we don’t exit a viewing as a slate inscribed with the text (i.e. the film or show).
Carpenter and his cast and crew did an excellent job crafting this atmospheric world. The setting and characters are all very believable. But that immersion only goes so deep and only lasts for so long.
NICK: Well put. With that said, I wonder why, beyond relating to the environment and liking the “good guys”, my ten-year-old self was drawn to this story of horror. Surely, said reason(s)/schemas developed and expanded upon themselves as I grew up, but the question remains the same: why? The same query can be put forth for any viewer and any movie; I hope the first installment of “One from the Heart” kick starts others to consider their own relationships to the essential films in their lives. I know I will.
– Nick Fleming and Ryan Pumroy