Monday, October 01, 2007

Horrorfest 2007 Report #2: The “Halloween” Triple Feature

It seems every Horrorfest produces some unexpected screenings. Often these screenings come from cable programming, like two years ago when I discovered the extreme spaghetti western “The Great Silence”. These unplanned excursions are often some of the best of the festival. I took an unplanned movie trek early in this year’s when I screened the first three films of the “Halloween” franchise back to back to back.

It was a pleasure to look at the original “Halloween” (1978) again after the disappointment of the Rob Zombie remake. Many of my differences with the new film were confirmed by watching the original again. I chose to watch the original theatrical release version rather than the longer “television” version, which includes scenes that were shot during the making of “Halloween II” (1981) for the movie’s network television premiere that same year. I had become more familiar with the television version since its debut on DVD, but I wanted to see what audiences in ‘78 would have experienced, to see if it was as effective without the added expositional scenes.

One of the most noticeable details of John Carpenter’s original “Halloween” is how many of the sequences involve point of view shots. The only point of view he ever gives the audience is that of the killer’s, Michael Myers. While Zombie puts the audience “in the head” of Myers by showing his evolution as a killer from childhood, Carpenter gives his audience no motivations for Myers’ horrific actions. Instead we are his eyes when he stalks his victims, most notably Laurie Strode through several daytime sequences. The result is a colder, more isolated impression of this killer, and more mysterious.

Without the developmental passages on Myers, Carpenter is free to take more time to develop Strode, her friendships and the entire atmosphere of the town of Haddonfield, Illinois. His shots are longer and more unforgiving for the audience. We have to think about what is happening, and he provides no answers other than a seemingly inhuman killer stalking and killing dogs and teenagers. Only four people are actually killed in his “present day” killing spree (plus his sister 15 years earlier) and two dogs. One murder is only revealed well after the fact. But the overall mood is more sinister, less depraved.

Myers himself comes from a respectable middle-class family. There is no motivation to kill anyone. And Haddonfield is the picture of suburban tranquility. The idea that this could happen in a middle-class suburban neighborhood is more frightening than the trailer trash atmosphere Zombie evokes. And all this helps to make Dr. Loomis’s claims that he knows this killer and what he will do on this evening seem more implausible to everyone around him. Loomis, as played by the always slightly mad-looking Donald Pleasance, is made to seem much less believable in his outrageous claims. The audience on the other hand is well aware Loomis is correct, creating an increased tension.

Zombie’s “Halloween” remake reveals that Laurie Strode is also Myers’ sister, a plot twist that Carpenter and co-writer/producer Debra Hill chose not to reveal until “Halloween II”. This helps both earlier pictures in that no motivation for Myers is provided in the original, but the sequel is given a reason to exist with the revelation of this important detail. Carpenter chose not to direct the sequel, tapping newcomer Rick Rosenthal for the task. Rosenthal’s sophomore effort, the Sean Penn prison vehicle “Bad Boys”, would prove to be his best output.

I think the sequel suffers from having a newcomer at the helm, rather than the master Carpenter. I hadn’t seen the movie since high school, from which I had remembered it almost as favorably as the original. It isn’t nearly as good, but I still enjoyed it. There are a great deal of logistical loopholes, but the spirit of the original is retained with a larger body count (and some more impressive breasts). While many of the death scenes seem to be reaching for more shock value than the original, I was always fond of what was done to the head nurse of the hospital. Her death is not seen, but when she is discovered by one of the EMTs, he slips in the puddle of her blood, providing a much more subtly disturbing shot than any of the other on-screen deaths.

“Halloween II” also has the best opening credit sequence of the series. Keeping the simple carved pumpkin shot from the original’s opening credits, the camera slowly closes in on the pumpkin as the credits list the writers and producers. Then the pumpkin splits in two to reveal a shadow shrouded skull for the director’s credit.

“Halloween III: Season of the Witch” (1982) is the bastard child of the entire series, however. In fact, it really is more like some kid of an entirely different race who shows up at the family reunion and insists that he is a blood relative.

Carpenter and Hill made it clear with “Halloween II” that they had completed their storyline for Myers and Strode, having finally revealed their secret connection, and by apparently killing off the referee Dr. Loomis. But with that sequel, the franchise had become a property for a major studio (Universal) and another sequel had to be rolled out as soon as possible. In fact, it was only a year later. This practice of pumping out an immediate horror sequel within a year has become somewhat commonplace today, but in ‘82 they hadn’t exactly refined the process.

Carpenter has never shied away from free money (I’ve read interviews where he claims the projects where all he has to do is extend his hand to grasp the check are his favorites), and with Loomis and Myers apparently deceased, Universal decided to “take it in a different direction.” And that is certainly what they did. How anybody could have thought a movie about Halloween masks that kill everybody when their wearers are submitted to a subliminal television signal that originated from a stolen Stonehenge rock was a good direction to go in should not have been given the keys to the Ferrari. Perhaps they were the same morons Spinal Tap hired to create their own Stonehenge set.

I actually had never seen this film before. It had been the only “Halloween” movie I hadn’t seen until Saturday night. People had warned me to stay away from it, and I believed them. It didn’t have Michael Myers; what was the point? But I thought maybe I should take a look at it, since it was included in a double feature pack from Universal with “Halloween II”. Well, let’s just say that I’m sure that is the only time I will ever see it. There are plenty of other “Halloween” movies that I will never watch again -- the Zombie remake is the ninth for the series -- but none that should be so universally (pun intended) avoided. That movie is bad, bad, bad, bad. Take my word for it.

I found this wonderful clip from Siskel & Ebert's "Sneak Previews" in 1980 where they discuss the difference between a good horror movie and a "freak show". I believe Ebert would say the same about horror films today.


Alan Bacchus said...

Great analysis Andrew. As you know I rewatched Halloween II again, and it is surprisingly good and reverant to these tone of the original. I saw Halloween III as a kid, and I do remember it as scary but when you're 7 anything is scary. I trust you that it probably sucks. Didn't Carpenter do the score though? Is that worth anything?

Andrew D. Wells said...

Again he took a score credit for the use of his original Halloween score, but again I believe Alan Howarth provided the music original to Season of the Witch. And Dean Cundy returned as the cinematographer. But with such a crap story, which Carpenter and Hill had nothing to do with this time around, no amound of talent could save this waste of film.

Anonymous said...

It's not "Umney's Last Stand", it' "UMNEY'S LAST CASE"
Get it right...!

Rob Umney