This week on Midnight Screenings, I’m looking at the two finest films from one of my favorite modern horror directors, and one of the men who brought midnight cinema to the mainstream: John Carpenter.
Halloween was writer-director-composer-producer-fanboy John Carpenter’s introduction to the world of the cinematic masters (befitting his name, he probably is a carpenter too for god’s sake). It is, above all else, a master-class in pure style as well as a reminder that in horror, filmmaking skill and raw dread drive the narrative rather than the other way around. It’s economical, ruthlessly efficient, and spare. There’s a sense that every shot holds a purpose, and that Carpenter knows how to stage his camera for maximum impact. The film feels planned, rigorously so, and ruthlessly composed to a point bordering on obsession. It’s a masterpiece of slowly unnerving tension that builds at just the right amount throughout – every image adds to the film, and edits don’t so much transition as ransack the previous shot and take control. It’s fitting that its creator bears the last name of a craftsman – this film is all ruthless, clinically potent, monstrously well-constructed craft. If, in fact, he did hold the profession of his surname, this would be an oak chair assembled guerilla style and with little funding or time (the film was shot on an extremely meager budget), but which would bear the love and care of someone who truly loved woodwork and put every ounce of his skill and passion into making that one chair. That it would be most appropriate as the devil’s throne is just the other half of the fun.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. There is after all a plot to the film, and some readers may wish to know it. In the early 1960s young Michael Myers kills his sister on Halloween night while dressed up in costume, and 15 years later he escapes from an asylum and returns to his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois for reasons we don’t yet know, and don’t much matter. While there, he stalks teenager Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her two best friends, Annie (Nancy Loomis) and Lynda (PJ Soles) and goes on a murderous rampage. All the while, Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance), a righteous avenger of evil masquerading as Myers’ psychiatrist, also knows he’s out and about and attempts, before it’s too late, to track him down. And that’s about it, really. The narrative is threadbare, and as I’ve written before, that’s about as ideal as it gets for this kind of film. It allows for a director of such skill as Carpenter to set up the pieces quickly and efficiently and concentrate on what he does best: terrifying us.
The film unfolds at a note perfect clip. Early on, we get unnervingly mundane material as Laurie and her friends prepare for a night of sex, drugs, and (in Lorrie’s case), babysitting. But even here something’s up, and we know it even when they are hopelessly clueless. Visually, Carpenter slowly introduces us to Myers as a character. We see him early on, almost from the beginning of the film’s present-day, but only in glimpses. We catch him from odd angles, looking up above at his legs with his face out of view, or so far off as to not render – often the camera positions itself behind or next to him so as he to give us something approximating his perspective while he still nonetheless partially blocks the camera. The effect, of at once being Michael Myers and still being slightly distant, is disconcerting.
And it’s all the more unnerving when views in comparison to the opening tracking shot, from Myers first-person perspective as a child, which gives us the gaze of a fun-loving child on Halloween and then forces us to do nasty things with it. We don’t see the child from another viewpoint until after his horrible act is done, giving us no recourse for who we are viewing, no ability to distance ourselves form them, until afterward. It is cinematic-audience-implication par excellence. And when we consider how we often do not truly have Myers’ exact perspective later in the film, but only one slightly away from him, the effect is to establish that we no longer can know him or be one with him because, having committed murder, he’s no longer human and knowable. He’s an enigma, not a person.
If the build-up works, the fuller views of the character are no less horrifying. As soon as we do see him in full, he’s wearing a mask, the most effective of all horror movie masks for its elegant simplicity. It’s literally the face of emptiness, drained of all emotion, stark white and with no features: a William Shatner mask painted white! I always said something was wrong with Captain Kirk, and the filmmakers clearly agreed.
Knowing the film to have kick-started the ’80s slasher-fest phenomenon, viewers today are often most surprised by the bloodlessness of the original Halloween. When Myers kills, he doesn’t aim for bloodiness. He’s simple and to the point, and that’s what makes him so effectively creepy. He stalks his prey, but we get the sense it’s not because he’s waiting for a filmmaker’s cue; it’s because he has to wait for the right moment to kill. He’s not interested in showmanship (although at one point he does literally don a ghostly sheet over his form, in one of the film’s clever bits of self-satire). At one point, he picks up someone and literally goes for the gut. He doesn’t aim for anything fancy. He just stabs him in the stomach, quietly and with nothing to save us other than the unescapable silence of the scene (which doesn’t exactly attempt to serve the aim of saving us). As he leaves the teenager hanging on the wall, he stops for a second to observe his work and moves on. In this silent, faceless, amused, even confused, image of Myers, we have all we need to know about him. As mentioned, Carpenter takes minimalism to heart, and it’s perhaps never more-so true than here.
While other slasher films emphasized blood for the sake of blood, here we have a film that understands the power of raw filmmaking prowess in simple, brutally effective images of immense, trancelike power. Carpenter knows that the more he teases and restrains, the scarier it is. Thus, when Laurie finds herself alone, knocking on a door to get into a house, Myers moves up with the inhumanly slow forcefulness of a glacier. We get the sense that he doesn’t need to move quickly because he has her where he wants her. The film’s most famous shot, with Laurie assumingly having beaten Myers, crying in front of him, keeps Myers in the background for a long time, too long for comfort. Our tension builds, and we expect something loud or violent to shock us and break the tension. All we get is Myers sitting up, turning his head to face her, and standing. He’s methodical, above all else – he doesn’t give us catharsis, and he moves like an inhuman enigma with no passion whatsoever – and that’s frightening.
And through all this, we have Carpenter behind the scenes pulling the strings like a ruthless madman. I would call the film painstakingly naturalistic if it wasn’t for the highly European, almost Lewton-esque tracking shots and sense of on-and-off screen space it became famous for, which instill in the film a sort of flowing quality far distant from most other horror films of the time and which see Carpenter having studied Italian giallo well. Elsewhere, he certainly knows his way around a ruthless edit, making damn sure he cuts at precisely the right moment to enhance the tension and elsewhere to hold the camera for an uneasily long time before a cut we desperately want to console us. As mentioned, his skill with negative space, where he has Myers half in view and half out, or just off to the side of the frame even when we know he’s there, is also excruciatingly effective. To this effect, he also makes especially expert use of the camera rack, a technique where the camera changes focus mid-shot to render what was once clear distorted and what had been distorted or blurry now clear. He often shoots Myers with a lack of focus to render him more an enigma than a clear presence, but the rack is always there threatening to reveal him once again, to expose him and reveal, painfully, that he’s just as mysterious and unknowable even in full, clear view.
While I’d love to champion Carpenter’s visual acumen at length (and already have), even more deserving of praise is his own hand-crafted score. The famously repetitive main theme is shockingly effective in its jarring tones and oppressively monotonous, clinical decay– the kind of song that gets under your skin and refuses to leave. It signaled a great boon in ’80s B-movie synthesizer scores, many of which were effective but none of which captures what Carpenter does here. It’s hard to imagine the image of Myers walking slowly toward Laurie or her fighting him off in a closet without this positively ruthless theme backing it, and Carpenter proves adept at manipulating the theme throughout the film to make it more subtly clawing or jarringly challenging, especially when he begins it and slowly adds in those ominous low-tones that could make the devil look into the backseat of his car to see if someone was there. And if the theme wasn’t enough, Carpenter’s skill with negative sound-space when he emphasizes a blackened silence or Myers’ slow, heavingly quiet breaths is awe-inspiring.
All this craftsmanship aside (and the film is essentially pure craftsmanship), Halloween is also notable for its sympathy toward its protagonists, something lost in many subsequent horror films. These three women are everyday teenagers, and Carpenter sees them as such. They drink and have sex, but not comically so as would later become the case. When Myers stalks them, we aren’t “rooting” for him to kill them. The misogynist, even perverse joy audiences find in later films where a male killer stalks, plays with, and kills weak, stereotyped females is thankfully absent here. Instead, we have three real people, with personality and care put into their actions, who aren’t inhumanly strong but who aren’t passive victims either.
In the dead of night, Myers is and can be anywhere, even when we don’t see him do anything explicitly unhuman until the film’s very end. His enigmatic omnipresence is best captured in the film’s closing shots. Loomis, having shot Myers and seeing him fall down to the grass outside the house, walks up to the railing to look at his kill and sees nothing but shadow. We see absence, the absence Carpenter had manipulated masterfully throughout the film, an absence which we always knew would give way to the presence of horror soon enough. We then get a number of still images of the house and neighborhood, within which Carpenter brilliantly turns the tables: we expect Myers to show up but the film doesn’t give it to us. And we realize it’s the absence that is the horror because Myers has lived in the absence throughout the whole film. He could be anywhere, and thus the scariest shot of all is of a stairwell interior, partially covered in shadow of course. This is a film filled with scary, unnerving images stacked on top of each other. But it’s the shadows at the end that prove most chilling. He’s a faceless horror, a facelessness that gives him his ubiquity and his elemental, ever-present haunt. He hides in the evil urges of Carpenter’s quavering camera, making play with the fringes of the lost limbo of suburbia painted in white-hot light on the shadows of a shriek cut short. He exists, above all, in the empty space, in the unknown, in the film’s sinister-purposed shadowplay. This is shadow Myers could occupy, or perhaps more accurately, shadow that is Myers himself, or at least the thought of him. Thoughts that stand quietly, staring with sinister purpose. And they stay sinister until the bitter end.