Sunday 27 July 2008

Halloween (1978)

Yep, it's Halloween and we're in Haddonfield, IL in 1963 and Michael Myers stabs his topless babysitter to death after her boyfriend leaves. Because I know the story well and yet it's been so long since I've seen this film, it was surprising to realise that there was a serious shock here. Michael walks out of the house and only when his parents turn up do we realise that he's a preteen kid. There are a lot of shocks here that only come with that sort of realisation because this became such an influential movie that we know what's going to happen from cultural immersion even if we don't remember the details from the film itself. Every slasher film ever made owes as much to this as it does to Bava's A Bay of Blood.

Needless to say, a murderous six year old kid who murders a girl in cold blood with a kitchen knife while wearing a clown costume gets promptly locked up in a psychiatric hospital. Fifteen years later, his doctor, Dr Sam Loomis, is driving a nurse to the hospital when he discovers that there are inmates wandering around the grounds in the rain. Michael Myers has escaped, and as the tagline suggests, this is 'the night he comes home'. Apparently he hasn't spoken a word in those fifteen years, and Loomis knows precisely what he's capable of. Very shortly thereafter, while Loomis is trying to persuade officialdom of the seriousness of the situation, Myers is back in Haddonfield stalking young Laurie Strode, played by Jamie Lee Curtis in her first film role.

Pleasence plays Dr Loomis as a serious man but one who is very worried, very scared and maybe a little oversure of what's going to happen. Then again he was proved right. He's as solid as you'd expect Donald Pleasence to be, and I wasn't likely to forget that. What I had forgotten though was that he's one of a very small number of adults in this film and none of them get a particularly large amount of screen time. Beyond Dr Loomis, there's the nurse in the introductory sequence, a victim, the voice of a teacher and Charles Cyphers as the local sheriff (named Leigh Brackett in tribute to the writer who died the year Halloween was released). And Michael Myers himself, of course, who is now the grand old age of 21 (or 23 according to the credits: they corrected their calculation for the sequel). Almost the entire film is taken up by kids and teenagers, as we only see one cop and nobody's parents.

Jamie Lee Curtis is surprisingly confident and seemingly established for her debut film at the age of 20. Pleasence has the lead but Curtis has by far the biggest part and it would turn her into one of the key scream queens. Depending on how you define a horror film, between six and eight of her first eight movies are horror films. Her next would be another for John Carpenter: The Fog and she'd return for Halloween II, the unrelated Halloween III: Season of the Witch, and, a full 16 years later, Halloween H20. There's another horror name here: P J Soles, who had dumped the pig's blood on Carrie two years earlier, though I tend to remember her best from Rock 'n' Roll High School, which isn't a patch on either of these horror films.

Michael Myers himself is played by Tony Moran, who slashed out a serious spot for himself in popular culture but hasn't done a lot else: his only two film appearances were both as Michael Myers, in Halloween and Halloween II. Amazingly he capitalised on such an iconic horror performance by appearing in episodes of The Waltons, CHiPs and something called California Fever, before retiring from the industry. Perhaps he was only in it because he's the brother of Erin Moran, Joanie Cunningham from Happy Days. Apparently he's a nice guy and he attends a lot of conventions where people say lots of good things about him, but he obviously doesn't want to get back in front of a camera.

As much as it's Tony Moran's portrayal that gets into all the clips, it's John Carpenter's film through and through. Early Carpenter is about as good as it gets in genre cinema, and this was only film number three. He made this after Dark Star and Assault on Precinct 13 and before The Fog, Escape from New York and The Thing (there's an early nod to The Thing here, as it's showing on late night TV for the kids, four years before Carpenter remade it himself). I probably haven't seen this since the mid 80s and was impressed at how well it stands up. The only real problem with it, beyond a couple of little continuity errors and gaffes, is the fact that it is so simple: there's almost nothing to the plot at all. Simple is certainly effective, but in this instance it makes the film appear more like a template that everyone else can use to make their own films. It is that definitive.

No comments: