Friday, February 18, 2011

Halloween (1978)

There's always a danger when you watch older films. Things have been copied and improved upon in more recent films, and the original one can seem stale, boring, or slow. There's also the matter of hype. People regard a film as a classic, they praise certain characters, they regard it highly as one of their favorites. So I was originally very excited to sit down and watch the original Halloween, but I left it very disappointed.

One of the things I noticed very early on and stuck with me throughout the entirety of the film is the way it is shot. The film opens with a killing scene. It's very slow and deliberate and not entirely shocking. We're seeing it happen through the killer's eyes and the killer happens to be wearing a mask, so we only see through the eye holes. While that in and of itself is very clever, it was ruined for me by the fact that the way we could see the knife through the left eye hole and the location of the victim meant the knife couldn't have possibly been making contact. I understand he didn't want to show the full on gore, but it sure seems to me you can make a choice to have the knife visible and yet still film it right. Similar things would happen later in the film, particularly in car scenes. The killer gets into a car alone, and it's a sort of police car, with a barrier between the front and back seat. The camera follows the killer into the car then films from the backseat even though we are supposedly seeing what the killer is watching. Again later two girls are driving to their babysitting jobs, and the camera is sitting in the backseat behind them even though there's no one in the backseat. Perhaps he was trying to create a sort of feeling of always being watched, but for me it just felt wrong.

This is also just an incredibly slow moving movie. Beyond the opening scene, there is no killing until 50 minutes in. Before that we get a lot of, well, I can't call it character development or story development - we follow Laurie and her friends around, and occasionally get a scene of Michael Myers' psychiatrist Loomis trying to convince the police that his patient is a threat. Even as the killing begins it's very slow moving, as no one realizes the first victim is dead, and it takes a while for him to kill the next two. When all the previous victims are finally revealed to Laurie, things can finally get suspenseful and we see some action - but just barely.

I was really expecting Laurie to be a much stronger character. She gets a lot of praise. Maybe I've just seen too many stronger final girls that came along later, but I didn't find her brave or clever. She takes brief stabs at Myers and then foolishly assumes he's dead without even bothering to make sure. Twice. I can understand the first time making that mistake, but after you stab a guy in the neck and he still gets up to come back at you, I think I'd be checking for a pulse the second time around. Especially since you didn't actually stab him in a vital area. Of course Michael Myers didn't stab Bob in a vital area and he died instantaneously, so maybe this movie exists in some alternate reality where hearts are in a different place.

I realize I'm nitpicking here and that may not be entirely fair. I guess my problem is that a lot of these little things were not issues with technology of the time, or perhaps that time period's trends and tastes - they're just off and they disrupt from the narrative for me, which was already moving at a snail's pace.

The way the movie ends, we were clearly being set up for a sequel. It's clear that Myers has a thing for Laurie in particular, but we're not told what. Loomis tells us a little about his history with Myers, but his decision that there is pure evil living inside Myers seems rash without knowing any further details. I couldn't help but think of the recent Hatchet series, where the first film ended on a cliffhanger and the second movie continued and gave us more back story on the characters. Perhaps if I had been able to watch Halloween and Halloween II back to back, I could appreciate this a bit more. It just seems like there were probably scenes in this film that could have been taken out to give us a complete story in one film instead.

As it stands, I can give this film respect for helping to launch a genre, I'm just a little surprised that it managed to inspire anyone.

So this is the part where I invite you to tell me how right or wrong I am. Is the first film generally regarded in a negative fashion, and I have to keep going to appreciate the series? Or is there something in this film that I'm missing? Is my characterization of Laurie all wrong? I beg of you to enlighten me.

12 comments:

  1. Watch it with the RiffTrax on. You're not wrong in that it has a horrible pacing issue - something that's corrected in Halloween II. As Mike et. al. put it, "This movie is nothing but parking!"

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  2. I personally love the pace of the film, the way it slowly builds up to the murders instead of spreading them throughout the film. Especially with the pulsing music and stark cinematography. And I don't think Laurie is either strong or weak. She's real. She's just a normal girl hit by one emotional shock after another and she freaks out, sometimes in a good way (fighting back), sometimes in a bad (not checking the body).

    I think, yeah, the problem of this film is the context of the genre titles that came after. This was an era were it was more about the suspense leading up to the kill than it was the style of the deaths itself, and it's simply been outdone time and again in the last three decades.

    As for the backstory, while part 2 does fill in some of those blanks, the film was not originally made with a sequel in mind. You were never really supposed to know why Michael did what he did, why he targeted Laurie, why he killed his sister in the first place. I actually quite like that ambiguity as it makes him a much more unpredictable force. The sequels kinda ruin that.

    Oh, and other than part 2 and H20, you can skip the rest of the sequels. 4 is okay, but 5, 6, and 8 are terrible. They try to take the story down wildly different paths and fail miserably. While 2 and H20 have some issues (especially 2), they can be tied to the original to make a decent little trilogy.

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  3. I think there is a lot in this film that you are missing, but you can't be blamed for it.

    For me, this film stands head and shoulders taller than the other two points of the trilogy (those being Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm street, respectively). And, oddly, some of the things you point out as flaws are what actually make it work better as a horror film than its siblings.

    One of this movie's core differences is the way the antagonist is portrayed. Unlike most movie mosters from our more current era - indeed, in start contrast to the way the Rob Zombie "reboot" portrayal of selfsame antagonist - Michael Myers is, in all ways that count, simply not human. He is more akin to a hurricane or tornado; a dangerous force of nature tearing shit up in its path, but wearing a human suit. This is established right out of the gate, from the movie's first moments, where he appears to be a little boy but some some shit that little boys generally don't do, and for no reason we can see.

    This portrayal is only reinforced as time goes on, wherein (as you've already pointed out somewhat) he takes damage that - no matter his size or constitution - _should have_ either killed him, or reduced his mobility so dramatically that he'd no longer be a threat. IIRC, he got about six inches of coat hanger _shoved in his eye_, and this caused him to take a fifteen second floor nap from which he awakens, pulls the hanger out without so much as a sigh of pain, and continues his hunt with neither his movements or his eyesight appearing to be at all affected. He punches through walls, appears to have limbs broken but not really, slices, dices, juliennes, but at best is only momentarily slowed at any given point in the film.

    Adding to this force-of-nature portrayal is the stark and conspicuos _lack_ of any sort of real explanation. Dreadfully incomplete hints are dropped - sparingly - and often create more questions than they answer. Not unlike rain or wind that just won't stop, bad shit is happening in the form of this quiet killer seemingly simply because it is. As a bonus, it helps the viewer share the perspective of the victims, who also have no idea what is going on, and when they find out, have no idea *why*.

    About the pacing and overall lack of violence, I see things exactly the opposite. Pacing first: this type of pacing is something I haven't seen in a horror movie in ages, which is why I can't say I've seen many good ones in about as long. This movie acutally has the ability to create and build genuine dread. The first 50 minutes simply get one worried, watching all these young people be themselves, with the occasional flash of $hulking_killing_machine lurking about. Then, finally, the first kill, which is quick and sudden and somewhat loud. Now worry turns into genuine concern; we don't just _think_ there might be a problem for these folks in the near future, we know there _is_ one, and we know they remain completely unaware of it. Now, when we see them frolic and fuck and drink and do stupid shit that kids do, we're not just worried that what they're doing might not be the best idea; we're sure of it, and their normal acitivites now become uncomfortable to watch.

    (cont'd)

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  4. The general lack of violence, or number of violent scenes, is also something I veiw as a plus. Sometimes less really is more. When I watch this film, every one of the violent scenes has an impact. They are well-crafted, each one being worse in that flinch-inducing way than the last, but so few and far between that the achilles heel of the modern torture por... her, "horror movie" - a little thing I like to call "desensitization" - never occurs. It's been a long time since I've seen the film, so I admit to not being able to do the following right now, BUT: if I watched the movie right now? I can guarantee that, for at least a couple of weeks afterwards, I could tell you the details of every violent scene in the film. I couldn't do this with Saw or Jeeper's Creepers five *minutes* after the closing credits.

    Having. Said. THAT; I will now say this:

    I don't expect you will ever be able to enjoy this particular film, and I can explain why in a single vernacular word: "dated".

    Anyone who knows anything about any kind of art at all knows that at least one thing is true about it: art doesn't happen in a vaccum. *When* it is created is as important as what the creation is.

    There are some works of art - particularly music, but also with film - that go on to be "timeless classics," enjoyable and relevant no matter the era (or, usually, enjoyable because relevance of time period is something of a non-issue. Take, for example, some of the most famous and popular bits of classical music... time period is somewhat irrelevant to the way the music sounds. And ANY story about Love or Death will never go out of style until humans stop loving or dying.)

    Other works of art CAN remain enjoyable, but usually don't... at least not without some effort on the viewer's part to keep in mind the correct viewing perspective.

    Obviously, Halloween falls into that latter category.

    We'll start with movie violence. With the Se7ens and Hostels and Saws and even modern reboots of the same movie, Halloween, and - so help me - Human Centipedes of today, there is no way I could expect a more modern, younger viewer to ever so much as raise an eyebrow to ANY of the violence in the original film. That shit came out in 19***78***, for fuck's sake. Back then, the Warriors - a film who's violence does not rise above being shot /once/, or tame battles in which baseball bats are weilded, but hardly ever connect with other human beings - was as violent and edgy a film as there ever was. In the over thirty years that have since passed, and especially in the last fifteen or so, the focus of horror movies has been plain and simple one-upmanship. Keep the violence coming, and the biggest paycheck goes to the guy who can think of the most creative and painful way to off someone fully frontally.

    Shall we continue with pacing? Yes, let's. I can sum this up with THREE LETTERS: ADD. That acronym _did not exist_ in '78, and now every third kid is hopped up on Ritalin. This has obviously affected our moviemaking - if every five minute block is not OMG exciting, ESPECIALLY in the horror/pschological thriller category, then the movie is a flop. With RARE (yet brilliant) exceptions, that is. Building dread is simply not a thing that is done any more; it leaves most modern viewers reciting the mantra of "TL;DW" in their heads.

    (cont'd)

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  5. I'd talk about other things, like budget (the movie, like most of John Carpenter's early works, was shoestring), but don't think I need to. The point is, *at the time*, the shit that went down in this movie was completely bang nasty. The original Halloween rests on the same laurels of time specificity that Ms. Pac Man and Alice Cooper sit upon, and if you can *possibly* watch the movie from the cultural perspective of a young person in the late '70s, it is amazingly terrifying... if not for what happens onscreen, then for everything that happens off and all the tense waiting around you have to do. Back then, the *threat* of being killed at all was still fear-inducing, and there's a lot of dark cloud overhead shit that goes on in Halloween... in fact, I daresay its the main element of fear.

    If, however, you want to see the *point* of Halloween's fear tactic (and, in essence, why it is hailed as a classic AND a trope creator) without attempting to watch the teevee from within the confines of a mental time machine, I humbly direct you to the direct spiritual successors of that film (or, at least, that TYPE of film): horror thrillers from the East. Archetypal films among those being The Ring or The Grudge (of which, the American versions will _do_, but the originals are better). After all, they are _essentially_ the same story, with the same storytelling techniques, differing only with only minor details: a traumatic past event creates unstoppable monster that cannot be placated, slowed, stopped, or reasoned with, and the story of the slow and deliberate hunt it goes on and the one person who, at some point in the middle, comes to awareness and conflict with this phenomenon. That same dread-inducing slowness of pace is there; the few brief flashes of violence are notable for both content and scarcity; and much of the terror is in your head as opposed to being onscreen.

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  6. Noel - first off, welcome to my blog and thanks for the comment!

    I agree with you that Laurie is a more real character. Something I often return to in fiction is that I like to be inspired by characters, particularly the hero or heroine of the story. So I guess I was just hoping for a little more heroism from her, and with any luck I'll be getting that in future films in the series.

    I guess the main problem I have with saying it's a product of the era is that you have Friday the 13th which came out two years later. That movie had so much better pacing and intensity and dealt with the silent killer perspective so much better. But perhaps the latter was the one that transitioned us from one era to the next?

    Knowing how I am, I will probably eventually watch all the sequels, but it's good to know ahead of time which ones to lower my standards for. :)

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  7. Gonzo, I just have one problem with your argument: ADHD and Ritalin don't work the way you think they do. I have ADHD. I was on Ritalin from the time I was 7 to the time I was 22. It doesn't jack up a hyperactive kid, it actually slows down their brain and makes them more aware. Despite my issue, HALLOWEEN still became one of my favorite films of all time when I saw it around age 14 or so.

    The perceptions of kids has nothing to do with amping up the pace and wilding out the deaths in horror movies, it's the studios and producers trying to constantly one up each other in a bid to grab audience's attention. They forget that SCREAM can be even more powerful with simple yet brutally realistic stabbings than SAW is with its elaborate booby traps.

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  8. I think you've hit the nail on the head, Syrin, in that HALLOWEEN was a transitional film. FRIDAY THE 13TH and slashers that follows started the trend of trying to out shock one another with deaths instead of realizing that it doesn't matter how a person that dies, but whether or not we care about them first that leaves any impact.

    I'd also recommend giving BLACK CHRISTMAS a watch some time. It predates HALLOWEEN by 4 years, yet shares many elements, and, in some ways, is even more similar to what slasher films would become while still being more of a drawn out suspense flick.

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  9. G - I will hopefully respond in a way that will not force me to comment via multiple entries. :)

    I'll admit I love a good fast paced movie. Fight Club ranks so high on my personal list because of its damn near constantly changing pace. I remember distinctly the first time I really sat down to watch a movie made before I was born. It was The Graduate, and me and my best friend at the time were both struggling with it. I still enjoyed it though. Since then, I've watched a lot of movies from the dawn of film forward. I'm used to being able to recognize when a movie is made and how that will effect the pacing of the narrative.

    It's just that in this case, I still felt it moved too slowly. It started out much stronger as we followed Laurie on her way to school, then home again. It was about the time that Annie picked her up and throughout most of the babysitting job that I really didn't see why we were taking so long.

    Any time we spend getting to know Annie and Lynda (and in his smaller role, Bob) seems to be just stressing how annoying and snotty they are. Look, they smoke! Look, they're really mean to Laurie! Look, they like to have sex! All of this, I felt, played into the more modern trope of wanting to watch these kids die rather than us having any kind of sympathy when they did pass.

    I thought his killing of Annie was well done and had a lot of impact. It was drawn out and certainly made you uncomfortable. From there unfortunately, I didn't feel like the deaths had much emotional weight.

    If you really want to make me feel dread, don't just go slow.. make me care about these characters in such a way that I don't want them to die.

    In the absence of caring, I start thinking about things like this:
    If Michael Myers is being inhabited by this force of evil that cannot be contained - what is taking it so long? Why does it spend so much time watching Annie in the laundry room or watching Lynda and Bob have sex? Why does he follow Laurie to her house only to not attempt to kill her until much later?

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  10. NoelCT: I didn't make any assertions as to how Ritalin *works*. My understanding of the term "hopped up" is that it means "on some kind of drug", but not necessarily that the drug in question is actually an upper. I've heard more than one person use the term in reference to sleeping pills, which I really doubt makes one hyperactive.

    Besides, the whole point of that paragraph was to point out that, in general, the attention span of the average person has decreased to the point where it has changed our filmmaking. None of my point was contingent on an accurate analysis of the disorder.

    "I guess the main problem I have with saying it's a product of the era is that you have Friday the 13th which came out two years later. That movie had so much better pacing and intensity and dealt with the silent killer perspective so much better. But perhaps the latter was the one that transitioned us from one era to the next?"

    More like trope maker vs trope codifier, IMO. Though some people would probably categorize Halloween as an ur examle.

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  11. Despite the fact I list Halloween as my favorite horror flick and one of my very favorite movies, I can see where you're coming from. And I think you make a good point about Laurie, as we occasionally build her up as the strong woman ala Ripley in Aliens, but she's really just a survivor.

    To me the film works because I really buy into Dr. Loomis' ideas that Michael is "pure evil" and/or The Boogeyman. Loomis sets the tone for Michael just before the escape scene, and its his pleas for help that really made me fear Michael the first time out. The movie really strips away the human side of Michael Myers and makes him a force of nature (which is alluded to in Laurie's classroom scene discussing fate).

    But there's always different strokes for different folks. If you're looking for an uptempo horror, this certainly isn't it.

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  12. There definitely is no humanity in Michael Myers. I guess I'm just used to my "pure evil" being a bit more.. snarling and growling type rather than deathly silent. I definitely seem to lean more toward Freddy when it comes to the big three of the slashers. Given that my main previous horror experience was Stephen King novels, that makes a lot of sense.

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