I particularly love how Ponty opens his review discussing the impact of music in film. Horror soundtracks now seem to be riddled with clichés, like sustained dissonant chords and screechy violin glissandos. But John Carpenter and others were composing actual music that sounded creepy without resorting to silly gimmicks. What kid doesn’t sit down at the piano this time of year and try to pick out that theme?
Well, I won’t give much more away; it’s an excellent, lovingly-crafted review.
With that, here is Ponty’s review of 1978’s Halloween:
Quite a few years ago, in my young carefree days, I went on holiday with a couple of friends. I was in my late teens and it was the first time I’d been abroad so, predictably, off we popped to one of the Canary Islands for one of those tacky, debauched 18-30 jobbies. Not tacky or debauched for me as I spent the most part of it immobile due to serious sunburn but on one of the few days I made it out without seizing up, we spent an afternoon at the beach. The sun was shining and the water looked so enticing, glistening under the glare of a persistent sky so I stripped down to my swimming shorts and sauntered into the water.
Now, anyone who knows about those sorts of resorts will know that during high season, even the shallows are packed with people and I wanted a little peace so I swam out a little further, then a little more and by the time I’d stopped swimming and turned around, the people were no more than tiny specks on white sands. I reckon I was a good half mile, if not more out and I’d achieved what I wanted. Apart from the gentle lapping of the waves, there was total peace. I lifted up my legs and flipped on my back, eyes half open, loving the serenity of it all. And then I heard it.
Der-dum. I looked around. Nothing. The sea was still. Nothing on the horizon or in my close proximity and yet, I couldn’t help but feel uneasy. Der-dum. And again. I dropped my legs and looked beneath me. The water was clear but deep and unless I dipped into the water and swam down, I knew I wouldn’t be able to see anything. Not that it would help if I did. Nevertheless, I figured it might be a good chance to return to shore and the familiarity of people and sound so I broke into crawl and high-tailed it back to the shallows.
Now, the whole point of this long winded story is to highlight the power of music in film. I know what happened – the quiet drew in on me and my brain started to act out. In this case, by playing the Jaws (1975) theme. I doubt I am the only person who has found themselves in deep water and heard that tune and was freaked out by it. Certainly enough to get the hell out of dodge. I remember being out in the middle of a lake in Norway and hearing that tune in my head. I also recall thinking how stupid it was. I mean, come on, you’re not going to find a great white shark out in the middle of a lake, but the peace, sometimes it makes you think crazy thoughts and so it was with me.
Jaws isn’t alone in having a backing soundtrack that scares the hell out of me. The Japanese flick, Ringu (1998), with its scratching violins also makes me wary. It lifts the hairs on the back of my neck in a way few things do. Music is a powerful tool in horror films and though the soundtrack for my next choice doesn’t make me soil my drawers, it still has an effect on its audience. For one, it is memorable. Whereas Jaws scared with brass and Ringu with strings, Halloween (1978) relies on keys; piano for the main, with keyboard electronics backing it up, and everyone remembers that theme, as much as they remember the theme for Jaws. For me though, it is the soft notes John Carpenter uses in the incidentals – steady shots of the neighbourhood – that I love the most. In this small town where nothing really happens, the soundtrack indicates, as much as the tone and general narrative for the movie, that something could. And boy does it, in spades.
Halloween had to go on this list. Tina and I watch it every year; this film opens the scare fest we usually have on October 31st. Apologies to those who thought my long winded segue would take me onto Jaws. I’m sure that film will feature on my honourable mentions (Ringu, too) but Halloween is my guilty pleasure. It doesn’t feature Oscar winning performances and it’s not unique but it has all the tools a good horror should have and more. It was also a low budget movie, costing just over $300k to make and pulling in nearly $50m, proving that you don’t need big bucks to make a great film, just a good story, a decent director, and actors who know what the hell they’re supposed to be doing. There are a ton of low budget movies that could have taken a leaf out of Carpenter’s book and didn’t. Win some, lose some.
For those who haven’t seen this film, Halloween begins with the brutal murder of teenager, Judith Myers, who is killed by her 6 year old brother, Michael. 15 years later, as Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is preparing to babysit on Halloween night, Michael escapes from the mental institution where he has been since he killed his sister and is now hell bent on returning to Haddonfield, followed closely by his psychiatrist, Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) who believes Michael should remain incarcerated forever. What is it he says? Michael has ‘the blackest eyes…the Devil’s eyes.’ That monologue still gives me chills.
Anyway, Michael does return to his home town and mayhem predictably ensues, as he sets about killing Laurie and her friends.
There are several reasons why this is my favourite Slasher movie. There are many films in the Slasher genre that I love – the original Nightmare on Elm Street (1984; though the last one, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare , with its metaverse, could give it a run for its money), Black Christmas (1974), Dead Man’s Shoes (2004), F (2010) and Ils (2006) – but Halloween, for me, has all the right ingredients. It even pays homage to earlier incarnations like Peeping Tom (1960) and Black Christmas by showing the opening murder through Michael’s eyes.
First off, I’m going to highlight John Carpenter’s direction and the music composition which, incidentally, Carpenter also wrote. From the opening scene, tracked through Michael’s eyes as he moves to kill his sister, every frame was carefully managed and constructed for maximum effect. The dark and stormy night at the sanitarium when Michael escapes, the car’s headlights flashing briefly over the escapees as they wander aimlessly in the rain. The establishing shots of Haddonfield in the daylight and the peace and tranquility of suburbia. The distance shots of Michael’s masked face as he watches Laurie or the over the shoulder shot when Laurie deposits the keys at the old Myer’s place. The tracking shot of Michael as he stalks Tommy, the kid who Laurie will be babysitting. I could go on and on but each frame, every moment, was thought out, to maximise tension or, at least, give you, the audience, an overview of the character, the plot and the imminent danger our characters will find themselves in.
One of my favourite scenes in this movie was Carpenter’s homage to the long take (a shot where multiple things happen without cuts or edits) where Laurie and her friend, Annie, drive up to the front of a store – recently robbed by Michael – and engage in a conversation with Annie’s father, who is the chief of police. As they drive away, Dr. Loomis shows up to speak to the chief, who asks him to wait a moment, and as Loomis’s back is turned, the camera looking at the street behind him, we see Michael’s car move out of a junction and away from him into the distance. I say homage because it wasn’t exactly a long take but several things do happen at once towards the end of this clip – Annie and Laurie driving away, Loomis’s arrival and Michael driving off behind him. You can’t buy shots like that. It requires a superb director who knows all the tricks of the trade and more. And to use this in a low budget film? Wow.
You’d think that because I’ve watched this film several times, it no longer has an effect on my constitution and that’s where you’d be wrong. There are moments that still make me jump, even when I know it’s coming, and there are also moments that make me skittish, like the scene where Laurie is chased back to the house where she’s babysitting by Michael; her frantic attempts to get Tommy to open the door as Michael edges ever closer still make me bite my fingernails, even though I know what will and must eventually happen. By this time, Carpenter has ditched the delicate notes and really slams those keys, adding synthesizer for dramatic effect, all of it mirroring the footfalls of potential victim and stalker.
Despite saying that the acting is nothing to shout home about, Jamie Lee Curtis puts in a great performance in what was her first starring movie role. She is more than credible as she goes from shy and bookish to resilient yet terrified; you feel her fear and you spur her on. For once, a slasher movie where you actually want the hero/heroine to succeed.
I can’t say enough good things about the prolific Pleasence and even in this small movie, his moments are worth watching. He cajoles, through his nervous yet potent speeches about the threat facing Haddonfield, the chief of police into helping him catch Michael and shows up at the end right when Strode needs him. ‘Was that the boogeyman?’ Strode asks, through tears, to which Loomis pronounces, ‘you know, I think it was.’ Brilliant.
While this film references earlier classics like Psycho (1960), Peeping Tom, and Black Christmas, it is also referenced itself in later films like Scream (1996), when a frantic father urges his wife to find help at the MacKenzies, thus highlighting Halloween as a marker in the slasher genre. And it deserves to be. Carpenter’s latter films, like Vampires, were diabolical but film fans – certainly horror fans – should remember the classics he brought us. The remake of The Thing (1982), which I rate as better than the original, Escape from New York (1981), The Fog (1980) and Halloween. They should be on everyone’s shelf.
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As we come up to Halloween again, we have yet another franchise instalment to look forward to – Halloween Kills (2021). I watched a trailer for it the other day and laughed when the elder Laurie proclaims, ‘I thought burning him would kill him.’ Please. In the countless sequels that have followed the original masterpiece, Michael has been burned, stabbed, shot and even beheaded and yet he returns, like thrush to a Hollywood celebrity. The only way I’ll be satisfied that this franchise is over is if Laurie and the denizens of Haddonfield throw him into a woodchipper, gather his grisly remains and launch them into the stratosphere. This franchise didn’t need sequels (though I can’t fault its direct sequel too much since it follows on immediately after the events of the first) but it should have remained at that. Just two. We’ll probably watch this film, because we’re suckers, but I’ll bet everything I have that Michael will be repeatedly butchered – a la Murder on the Orient Express – by the townsfolk of Haddonfield which will be as useful as catching a runaway freight train with your bare hands. He’ll lie there for a bit and then he’ll be back for sequel number stupid. If money wasn’t the big definer, Halloween would have stood alone and the test of time would never have diminished its greatness. That’s my feeling anyway.
(NB: I’ve found out in the interim that Halloween Kills isn’t the last of the franchise. It seems Halloween Ends (2022) will be. How many sequels have we been treated to with ‘end’ in the title only to find another 2 or 3 following? I guess my wish to see Michael in the woodchipper will have to wait until I’m nearly dead.)