Halloween ★★★★★


The holiday of Halloween is more than just a night of candy and harmless pranks. As consumerist tendencies grow and expand financially, Halloween has become not only a celebratory day of the internal desire to change and shift, but a gigantic season in and of itself. Costume stores open as early as late July and decorations are everywhere, appearing in Grocery stores and gas stations just as much as the local retail shop. As a result, the mood of autumn and the spooky turn into the Halloween season comes as early as late-August. I’m not complaining. Halloween allows for a specific and almost indescribable aura to enter the air, floating and observing as it alters neighborhoods and triggers something with the intricacies of small-town America.

Obviously, the ambiance of Halloween differs from other societal staples such as Christmas or Easter, as it is a holiday of sinister tone. Unlike the seasons of those mentioned days, many cities and towns go through autumn like it’s a sort of last hurrah; frantically planning, partying and socializing before the snow comes in and the days are snipped to a fraction of the dog days of summer. It is as if society follows the lead of the trees as they drop their leaves and scatter across the chilly night.

And yet, it is this messy juggling of autumn air and brisk horror tales that provides such a potent energy to the season of Halloween and its days of startling eeriness. Trick or treating, dressing up in costumes, jumping out behind bushes, carving pumpkins; these traditions will continue to flourish as the basis for a time of the year that is all about embracing the darkness and turning off the lights.

John Carpenter’s Halloween is the only film (Trick ‘r’ Treat comes close, but only stylistically) that effectively captures both the quiet beauty and terror of the titular holiday, contrasting darkness and light, silence and blood-curdling cries, and the pure and the immoral from the opening Jack O’Lantern flicker to the final disembodied intake of air.

Halloween is a film of traditional, atmospheric, spontaneous, hair-raising, and phantom qualities. It is, without a doubt, the finest horror film ever committed to celluloid, and one of the greatest films ever made.

Here’s why...

Right from the beginning frames of Halloween, paired with Carpenter’s iconic score, an ever-present feeling of history and ritual permeates from the screen. A slow zoom into an eye of a happily grinning Jack O’Lantern immediately establishes a theme of enchanting institution within a small-town setting. Carpenter has always been interested in what arrives and what follows, with The Thing being a prime example of his fascination with paranoia and the sense of being vulnerable. In Halloween, a literal chant becomes the echoing theme of the film’s uncanny flirtation with innocence and evil:

Black cats and goblins and broomsticks and ghosts, / Covens of witches with all of their hosts / You may think they scare me, / You're probably right / Black cats and goblins / On Halloween night / Trick or treat!

This chant, joyfully announced by a group of anonymous children, is the key in a film that doesn’t necessarily have a lock. John Carpenter obviously aims for visceral thrills and terrifying scenarios, but it is the way these thrills are presented that hold significant, influential, and masterful weight. The particular phrase “you may think they scare me/you’re probably right” reveals the intentions behind Carpenter, which are as internal as film-making can achieve: confronting the fear that the viewer holds within.

It’s funny because as the modern age is exposed to Carpenter’s masterpiece, the message is wildly missed. Phrases such as “not scary” and “boring” seem to pop up more frequently than in years past, which could be matters of expectation, but it feels more like a great miscalculation of Carpenter’s intent. Halloween isn’t something that will terrify most of modern viewers, and that’s only because of a desensitized generation, but it certainly will force an audience to empathize with its characters and its setting. John Carpenter takes a traditional setting, one with a “haunted house” a single high school football team, minuscule problems (“I forgot my chemistry book!”), a tightly-knit community of babysitters, friends, family, children etc. and unleashes evil into a town of slumber.

It is this upending of traditional expectations and grounded reality where a majority of the scares are unearthed. Our main band of characters, a trio of high-school girls, are going about their lives with a sense of boredom and predictability. Their moods match the conventions and practices of Halloween, with an example being that two of the girls, Annie and Lynda, are excited to hook up with their respective boyfriends. No one, except for Dr. Loomis and the Sheriff, are aware of the presence that is roaming through their little town.

The titular holiday is going on as usual, and it is full of customs that are individualized and personal to these characters. The opening chant (which in and of itself is a unique piece of small-town detail) is just the beginning in regards to tiny tidbits that bring unexpected vitality to the story. The first violent act, which consists of a young Michael Myers killing his sister, follows a quick (and I mean QUICK) sex scene between Judith Myers and her boyfriend.

It’s the first of many clichés and practices that are upended and demolished because of The Shape. Watching scary movies, reading sci-fi comic books, eating popcorn, carving pumpkins, trick or treating, scaring others, hooking up with a girlfriend/boyfriend: It is these traditional Halloween acts and “rituals” that showcase Haddonfield, Illinois (where the film is set, but not shot) as a town in a state of dormancy. Never changing, stuck in an endless cycle of treats, tricks, and fake horrors.

In a way, The Shape was sent to wake up the town, just as he did as a child. It was obvious from the opening sequence that Haddonfield had gotten comfortable, maybe even too comfortable. Michael kills her sister naked, as she had just been involved in the act of sex, but he doesn’t even need to unlock the door. It could’ve been anyone, just walking into a random home and stumbling upon another girl of the same type, one of the same promiscuity and eagerness. Carpenter’s film doesn’t condemn sexual behavior like many think, but it condemns the sense of security and shelter that many small-towns supposedly had back in the late-1970s. Traditions, whether they are related to the titular holiday or with typical teenage behavior, are a constant focus in Halloween, but it is Carpenter’s decision whether they stay innocent or are sliced to pieces.

John Carpenter has always been one that favors mood as a contrasting focus, one that works in tandem with character and the setting itself. Some have confused this as Carpenter favoring mood over those equally important aspects, but that’s just evidence of his landmark works (The Thing, Precinct 13, Prince of Darkness) flowing so well as a whole that it’s hard to view one singular moment as a definable characteristic. In Halloween, the one-of-a-kind and ineffable cinematography of Dean Cundey establishes a ghostly environment of contrasts. Haddonfield is a town of kind people and flourishing beauty, but also one of haunting secrets and buried pasts. Cundey evokes the surface “mirage” of Haddonfield with gorgeously soft imagery and gentle grays and greens, visualizing an intimate suburb that feels like every Midwest American city in existence.

It’s a miracle that Carpenter makes such a universal environment feel so distinct, and it’s a testament to his vision and Cundey’s cinematography that such a town works on a personal level. At night, Haddonfield becomes something else entirely. Just like any other environment, the dark instantly shifts details and geography to a point where recognizable areas are alien to a visitor. As visitors to Haddonfield, the gradual descent to nighttime has a distorted effect on the viewer. Our only connection to this hidden and mysterious place are the characters, and Carpenter lets evil run loose in a maze that he seems to know all too well.

It is in the eerie inkiness of the night where Cundey’s work truly shines, as his mixture of yellow/white, grey, and blue hues craft a dreamy potion of endless shadows and sudden movements. The concoction of hues each serve a dramatic and visual purpose, with appropriate steadicam moments being utilized (the main usage in the opening sequence) to further the intensity or calmness of a particular moment. When any yellow/white light is visible in a shot, it signifies exactly what it should: warmth fighting against the night. Whether it is a shot of the front porch of the Doyle residence, a pumpkin flickering within the darkness on a step, or a lamp illuminating a living room; the coziness radiating from this hue signals a sense of safety from evil.

One of Cundey’s greatest strokes of genius (in a film full of them) is the continuous struggle between light and dark, with the middle hue of grey standing in the middle of it all. The final act of Halloween, while a perfect climax of character and story, is particularly impressive because of that very struggle. Particularly in the Doyle residence, the viewer can observe as light slowly loses to the hazy gloom outside. When Laurie (impeccably played by Jamie Lee Curtis) is desperately trying to get Tommy to let her back into the Doyle house, The Shape is deliberately heading towards her. Laurie is in the light, surrounded by the apparent safety of that warmth, but as she narrowly escapes and enters the house, she tells Tommy to go up and lock the door. She then turns off the light. She lets the darkness in. She lets the evil in.

These visual details work not only on a technical level, but within the realms of high-class suspense film-making. Light and dark each offer their own audience expectations, and as a result, Carpenter is able to toy with the viewer in various ways. One (of many) climatic moments is the closet scene, and the iconic accidental switch of the closet light-bulb (while also being a sly Psycho reference) is a defining representation of Carpenter’s culmination of light and dark. As the light goes on and off, we see The Shape in all his horror, and this time, light has become intertwined with the shadows. Later, as Laurie asks Dr. Loomis “was it the boogieman?” she sits against a wall in a state of trauma, bathed in moonlight. The warmth of light can no longer help her. She has encountered pure evil, and even in the light, she fears the darkness.

The original screenplay for Halloween, written by John Carpenter and Debra Hill (who was Carpenter’s girlfriend at the time), was one of split focus and discussion. While Carpenter mainly focused on the dynamics and behaviors of The Shape, Debra Hill wrote a majority of the teenage dialogue, and the results are both naturalistic and restrained, a tone that perfectly fits within the film’s world. Along with the low-key and authentic performances by Curtis, P.J. Soles, and Nancy Kyes, Halloween exhibits a relaxed and genuine tone of organic movement and style.

When the girls are walking home from school, the audience (with the help of the ghostly steadicam) is given an unrivaled glance into a typical conversation of their daily lives. With the camera tracking either behind or in front of the group, it is as if the viewer is walking along with them, silently stalking as cigarettes are smoked and upcoming plans are discussed. Not only does this style establish the feel of ever-present menace within Haddonfield, but it also propels both the image and story into a greater sense of empathy. Debra Hill writes dialogue that allow for flawed and human people, and Carpenter directs with the same sympathy for their personalities. When Bob and Lynda arrive at the house where Annie is supposed to be babysitting (she is dead at this point), Lynda shows genuine concern and interest regarding the location of Annie. It is only when Bob reminds her that they’re all alone in the house that they both return to their sexual desires. That is one of many examples of how Halloween was written with three-dimensional individuals in mind, and not douche-bro, boob-dangling cardboard cutouts.

John Carpenter also understands that with this naturalistic and almost ingenuous approach to character, a certain weightlessness and aura needs to feed into the characters wandering that very environment. A film with an unfocused sense of space ruins any attempt of providing an instinctive feel to the characters, as it likens the film to a magic act with all the tricks being revealed during the show. With Halloween, the previously-mentioned steadicam brings an immeasurable beauty to the material, and it truly is the only way to tell such a story efficiently and naturally. With such a voyeuristic take on a simple story, the image itself is heightened to a degree of both deception and matter-of-factness. We as an audience know of the evil lurking within the shadows, but Carpenter reminds us periodically of what the viewer is presently seeing, which is usually nothing. Shadows. A gentle breeze. An empty house. Someone else is around, but the borders of the frame can only be so wide.

Within this certain degree of experimentation and low-budget craft is a unique way of appreciating the pure spontaneity of film-making itself. John Carpenter made Halloween with an estimated $300,000 budget, and although Carpenter had verbally told Moustapha Akkad the entire film in terms of shots and sequences, it was still a small film being made quickly and on a whim. No moment in Halloween shows this more evidently than the opening POV murder sequence, which in spite of its petrifying suspense, is a lovely scene of low-budget construction. With its moment of lost focus (watch for the moment when Michael grabs the knife) and the couple glimpses of camera shadows, the opening of Halloween reveals a desperation to craft something monumental with minimal funding. It’s funny to imagine various crew members frantically lighting the inside of the Myers house as the POV steadicam slowly moves around the back, but when the sequence is in motion, there’s nothing else like it.

Even within its internal film-making qualities and out-of-this-world technical elements, Halloween continues to succeed because of its visceral terror and deep-rooted uncertainty. Carpenter’s film builds suspense unlike any other piece of cinema, mainly because it uses the knowledge the characters know (or don’t know) against an engaged audience. The widescreen compositions visualize bite size pieces of information that may or may not be important, and it is the anxiety that comes with the “what’s out there?” approach that gets under the skin.

Multiple moments, such as the infamous hedge sighting of The Shape or the slow reveal of his mask behind Laurie, revel in the contrast between the information of the audience versus the knowledge of the characters. Carpenter then twists perspective and image to better suit the particular scare or payoff. In the former example, Annie wanders up to the hedge where The Shape was sighted in order to confront him. The film switches perspectives from Annie to Laurie, building up suspense as Laurie slowly walks up to the hedge to meet, as Annie says, a guy who “wants to take you out tonight.” As the camera finally reveals that The Shape wasn’t waiting for Laurie and Annie was just playing a trick, the audience breathes a sigh of relief, but only momentarily, as it becomes clear that The Shape is still around, wandering around the confines of the frame.

Carpenter’s attention to detail in regards to foreground/background chills are second-to-none, not only because of their slow-build tightening, but because of his unorthodox approach to anticipation. Anne’s trip to the home Laundry Room, which is connected to the garage, is one of the finest sequences in Halloween. Although Carpenter’s foreground focus is on Annie as she desperately tries to clean a stained shirt, the true presence in this scene is The Shape. As an audience, it has been clear for several minutes that The Shape has been silently observing Annie doing various tasks: making popcorn, yelling at the dog, talking to her boyfriend etc.

However, Annie isn’t the sole viewpoint. The viewer also observes as The Shape kills the family dog as well as accidentally knocking over a hanging plant as he is watching Annie. Carpenter only commits to a single view in the opening murder and in the breathless climax as Laurie is trying to survive. Otherwise, the audience follows both The Shape and the teenager he’s stalking, getting involved with the victim but also having some sort of information regarding the whereabouts of The Shape. When Annie is stuck in the Laundry room, the audience is hoping that she gets out, but they’re also quickly searching the wide compositions for that iconic white mask, hoping that it isn’t hidden within the frame. Or does the audience hope to see him because the unknown is scarier than the visible? It’s a fine-line of audience expectation that pays off creepily well.

In a marvelous shot of countless others, Annie is crying for Lindsey to open the Laundry door, unaware that The Shape is watching from the back window. The expertise doesn’t come from just that shot, but from the beginning seconds where Carpenter blends The Shape’s “blank emotionless face” with the peerless white window curtains. It is only when The Shape slowly turns his head that he is revealed to be in the background. Waiting. Watching.

In reality, evil is always in the background. Haddonfield is a town that forgot about the real-life dangers of a greater society, and it is this presence (“death has come to your little town sherrif!”) that morphs into a phantom of tangibility and inkiness. The Shape standing still as the leaves blow by and children run to the next house for trick or treating is an astonishing image, but besides its potency, it visually shows the viewer everything they need to know about him. His one-track-mind is only topped by his upfront emanation as a source of the past. When he surprises Lynda with a ghostly sheet over himself (using Bob’s glasses as an accessory), it isn’t just a dark prank, but a complete manifestation of his true self. The legend of the infamous Judith Myers murder lived on in Haddonfield, but when that legend rises through the darkness to float through the various streets, kitchens, bedrooms, and hallways of suburbia once more, is it a reappearance or an unearthing of something newly unnerving?

Sometimes, a film can be both a trick and a treat. Halloween is undoubtedly both.

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