Thursday, October 31, 2013

Horror Thoughts ‘13—Halloween (1978) ****

R, 91 min.
Director: John Carpenter
Writers: John Carpenter, Debra Hill
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasance, Nancy Loomis, P.J. Soles, Charles Cyphers, Kyle Richards, Brian Andrews, Arthur Malet, Tony Moran, Nick Castle

I read an article last week that questioned whether John Carpenter’s genre changing picture “Halloween” was still scary after 35 years. They tested this question by showing the movie to twenty-somethings who had never seen it before. The reactions were mixed. Some thought it was silly, some thought it was good, but not that scary, while others felt it was quite effective. In other words, they discovered nothing.

For my own part, I’m not so sure I ever thought “Halloween” was one of the scariest movies out there, and yet it has always been one of my favorite horror movies. It was one of the first movies I ever owned in the VHS era. That was after watching it for years on a VHS taped from television that had begun to warp and distort by the time I broke down and paid for a copy. I bought the first version ever to appear on DVD, one of the best DVD packages to be put together in the early days of the format by Anchor Bay. Now, Anchor Bay has done it again with the release of the 35th Anniversary Edition of the movie on BluRay. I couldn’t help myself. I bought it again.

This new digital transfer is absolutely stunning in its picture quality. It was one of the better viewing experiences I ever had with the movie, and that’s putting it up against a phenomenal amount of viewings. The film’s original cinematographer, Dean Cundey, personally supervised the transfer and the results are pristine. It was worth the price of the disc even though I already own it.

But, I’ve veered away from my original discourse. What makes “Halloween” such a classic isn’t the scares, although Carpenter and Hill were pretty much inventing the modern version of the slasher flick with its limited cast of characters that are picked off one by one in oddly original ways. What makes it last is its style. No shot is wasted, nothing within the frame of the picture is by accident, and Carpenter places so many details in the backgrounds that reward multiple viewings.

I also read an article recently that argued that John Carpenter was perhaps the most overlooked director in Hollywood. I agree that his name can be placed next to Spielberg, Coppola, Scorsese, and even Hitchcock to a good degree. His main problem with being overlooked in Hollywood was that he didn’t really work in Hollywood. Even the few movies he did within the studio system showed his mastery of the cinematic medium, but he thrived outside of the system, and was able to make movies like “Halloween” to prove it.

Notice the way Carpenter will move his camera to reveal an important clue to the plot. He uses the camera to place the audience in the heads of the characters. At one point Laurie Strode is looking out the window, noticing a man staring at her from the neighbor’s yard. The phone rings, causing Strode to jump. Carpenter’s camera then pans just slightly to the phone that was just out of frame. Why wasn’t it in frame the whole time? So we can experience the thought, “Oh, it’s just the phone, Silly,” in unison with the character.

“Halloween” is filled with moments like this, moments that to most go unnoticed, but add to the overall experience of the movie. Today’s slasher flicks lack much of this artistry, instead capitalizing on the obvious elements that Carpenter created, like the unique deaths or adding the sound of metal against metal whenever a blade is revealed. Today’s horror films shock the audience through sudden images and loud sounds, exaggerations of what Carpenter created with “Halloween”. And, often they descend into ridiculousness trying to top each other. I prefer the old fashioned notions of the artistic filmmaker crafting an experience as opposed to the factory mentality determined to disturb you through exaggeration.

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