Sunday, October 30, 2011

Some Good Old-Fashioned Halloween Fun w/ Michael Myers, John Carpenter and the Scream Queen Jamie Lee Curtis

The following is my contribution to The LAMBs in the Director's Chair #21: John Carpenter.

Although both The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the Canadian film Black Christmas precede it by four years, much claim can be staked on the proposition that John Carpenter's 1978 now-classic horror film, Halloween, was the starting point of the slasher genre that would erupt in the 1980's.  Of course Carpenter himself admits to being greatly influenced by Hitchcock's Psycho, the true sui generis of the genre, when making Halloween, so who the hell knows from whence the genre truly came.  What one does know for sure is that Carpenter's seminal slasher flick was a great, if not the greatest, influence on horror moviemaking lo these past thirty some years.  For better and for worse, Halloween gave the genre, from the giddy, gory slasher films of the eighties to the torture porn obscenities of today, its tricks and tropes and foibles and flaws.  It gave the Scream series its rulebook and Rob Zombie a career resurgence.  And then there is that creepy ass music - but more on that later.

I actually sat down to watch the original Halloween for the first time just this past week (yeah yeah, I know) and though the low body count kind of surprised me (at least in comparison to the slew of hawkish, low budget disciples that followed, Carpenter's film is quite low on violence and gore) I must admit to at least a certain amount of creeped-out narrative tension - but such a thing is Carpenter's forte after all.  The director's ability to surprise you with both what is around the corner and what is not, has always been a mainstay of his cinema - especially in his three greatest works, Assault on Precinct 13, The Thing and here in Halloween.   More than the eventual pay-off, which is by no means a slouch, it is Carpenter's knack of making us wait in heart-pounding anticipation not just to the veritable breaking point, but beyond, until we think we are safe at least for the moment, and then - BANG!!

Much like contemporaries Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma and Steven Spielberg, as well as more recent examples such as Richard Linklater, P.T. Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, Carpenter has always been a filmmaker greatly influenced by those who came before him.  So much so that Pauline Kael even (unfairly) criticized him for such in her scathing review of Halloween, saying "Carpenter doesn't seem to have had any life outside the movies: one can trace almost every idea on the screen to directors such as Hitchcock and Brian De Palma and to the Val Lewton productions".  It is in this homage making style that Carpenter has created his interesting, if not a bit uneven, oeuvre.  To go back to his great triumvirate of the director's early years - after Assault on Precinct 13, his urban-decay take on Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo but before his graphic, paranoiac retooling of the Howard Hawks produced The Thing, came Halloween, his most Hitchcockian film, and therefore his film with the biggest, and most classically inspired BANG.  

Not only does Carpenter name the master's Psycho as his biggest influence on Halloween (along with Night of the Living Dead, which incidentally was also an influence on the aforementioned Assault on Precinct 13) but he paid homage to that film in several other ways as well.   One of these ways was the naming of Dr. Sam Loomis, the obsessed psychiatrist played by Donald Pleasence.  Sam Loomis, as any fan of Psycho can tell you, is the name of Marian Crane's lover in the film.  The most obvious homage though is the casting of Jamie Lee Curtis as the movie's final girl, Laurie Strode.   Originally Carpenter had wanted to cast Anne Lockhart, daughter of June Lockhart, but due to scheduling conflicts she could not take the part.  This particular scheduling conflict was particularly fortuitous, for when Carpenter found out that another actress interested in the part was the daughter of Janet Leigh - Marion Crane herself - he had to have her for the part.  Starring in the short-lived TV version of Operation Petticoat at the time (the original film version coincidentally starred the actress's father Tony Curtis), the nineteen year old Curtis was the perfect pick for the film.  What better homage than casting the daughter of the master's Scream Queen as his own Scream Queen?

Playing the chaste babysitter who lives, while her promiscuous friends are slaughtered (a trope that would become a cliche of the genre, as well the joke behind Wes Craven's Scream) Curtis is the terrorized victim who in turn must be saved by Pleasence's Dr. Loomis (and yes, feminists have taken note) from the man in the mask.  Of course we all know that the man in the mask is actually Michael Myers, who at the age of six brutally murdered his teenage sister, and who has, fifteen years later,  escaped from the mental hospital to come home and terrorize those oh so slutty teens of Haddonfield Illinois.  On the subject of the virgin surviving while death comes to all those who have sex, Carpenter explains, "The one girl who is the most sexually uptight just keeps stabbing this guy with a long knife. She's the most sexually frustrated. She's the one that's killed him. Not because she's a virgin but because all that sexually repressed energy starts coming out. She uses all those phallic symbols on the guy."  Simple as that.

To make the terror all the more terrifying, Carpenter used P.O.V. shots when showing Michael stalking his prey.  The opening scene, where the six year old Michael is watching his sister and her boyfriend before stabbing his sister to death post-coitus (the guy of course gets up and leaves after sex, and is thus spared the violent end), is done completely in the point of view of the psychopathic child.  The ultimate stabbing is shown through the eyes of Michael's clown costume.  These P.O.V. shots continue upon Michael's return home.  We are put into the eyes of the killer and see what he sees (again, many are critical of this - stupidly claiming it breeds violence in children) and this makes it seem all that more terrifying.   Of course the thing that makes it the scariest, in my not-so-humble opinion, is that damn music.  Second in scariness only to The Exorcist's Tubular Bells, the film's music, composed by Carpenter himself, in rare 5/4 meter, is a simple yet haunting score.  It is enough to bring chills up and down the spine of, not just this critic, but pretty much everyone out there.

In the end it is Carpenter's prowess as a filmmaker that makes Halloween work as well as it does.  Beginning with his love of cinematic origins and history, and his ability to transform that love into his own work (this obvious Hitchcocko-Hawksian even sneaks in the original Thing From Another World as he has his characters watching said film on television) and continuing with the director's bravura stance on cinema (he brashly blows away a little pig-tailed girl in Assault on Precinct 13, so what is to stop him from doing pretty much anything to anyone in any movie), Carpenter created a genre masterpiece in his original Halloween.  The film would go on to spawn seven sequels, as well as a remake and even a sequel to the remake, none of which were directed by Carpenter, and become, for better and for worse again, one of the most influential films ever made.  Carpenter himself would continue with a later career that has yet to match his output of the seventies and early eighties (his most recent, 2011's classically-influenced The Ward, is definitely a step in the right direction though) but no matter what the future brings, his legacy will surely live on and on and on.

I have written about two other John Carpenter films recently.  The first is the director's second feature, Assault on Precinct 13, published elsewhere on this blog.  The second is a review of the director's latest work, his first picture in a decade, The Ward, published over at my review site, The Cinematheque.

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