Halloween terrifies me. I've seen the film at least eight times now, and it doesn't matter if I'm catching the last ten minutes on television, or off with the creepy POV that starts the film - I am an absolute wreck by the time it's over. It's one of those films that defines how we take in the art form, because there's none of the dark humor of De Palma or Hitchcock on display. It's an hour and thirty minutes of highly tuned craftsmanship designed with the sole purpose of making you feel absolutely terrible.
It's why Halloween is one of my favorite movies, but less so the sequel. Halloween II continued the long night of terror in a sequel that was filmed three years later with the creative team in the process of leaving the franchise. For years I thought that Halloween II was a pretty good movie until I finally sat down to watch it from start to finish. Turns out that the last thirty minutes of Halloween II are excellent, but there's a streak of cruelty and flash that forms an unhealthy concoction in the movie.
So I set about to figure out just why Halloween is so much better than the seven films that follow it, and why barely anyone else has been able to capture the same horrible feeling I get watching the film. Starting with the story, Halloween has just enough vague details about what caused Michael Myers to kill his sister to get our imaginations running. Later films in the franchise would, to similar or lesser effect, give Myers more motivation via back story or through convoluted mystical elements. Now he's just a kid who killed his sister one night, and returns to the sleepy town to continue where he left off. That lack of reasoning gives his attacks an added chill, because actions are done without reason they are lacking consequence and conscience, two things Michael will never display.
John Carpenter, despite the chaos that eventually unfolds onscreen, lays hints and details of the night to come through hints and details. The introductory credit sequence opens with that pumpkin and it's smile, while that killer theme (also composed by Carpenter) plays in the background. I love the dynamics of the music, with the higher-pitched keys looping that intense melody while the drone blasts the lower-end. But the visuals are just as unsettling, starting with an innocuous little pumpkin and its goofy smile, as the camera pulls closer and closer, eventually forming the vague outline, or The Shape, of the man who will haunt the night.
Then we continue into the night, dropped straight into the POV of someone with labored breathing. The shot lasts for almost four minutes as the stranger maneuvers through the house, watches a boy and his girlfriend go upstairs, and then we see a hand grab a knife, go upstairs, get a hint of recognition from the topless girl, and then cringe as the knife plunges down. We never see the knife make contact, Carpenter doesn't have the same penchant for gore that the later films will have, and he let's our minds do the heavy lifting.
Hitchcock did something similar years ago with perspective in Psycho, but Carpenter takes a more active approach in forcing the audience into the stranger's perspective by having a mask over the screen. None of us would like to imagine that we're capable of stomaching a murder like this, but wearing someone else's face? That is more likely, and something that Rob Zombie would revisit years later.
When the killer is revealed to be a kid, that's when we find that all bets are off. The heavy breathing and brutality of the act make us think that someone older is responsible for the crime. But the details are there, the height and perspective, no matter how much our brains my want to think otherwise. So from this point on we know that there is nothing sacred, that the kid that's being teased at school, or the jokester who may dress up as a clown, can do something like this.
The film eventually picks up from Laurie's perspective but continues cutting back to another mysterious stranger watching a kid. Now we know what kids are capable of, and that this feeling of being locked behind any kind of bars might be good for them, so what is this person capable of now that they're older?
Carpenter is constantly creating scenes that anticipate where the danger is going to be coming from, but without being too obvious in signaling it. In the first image of this article we see Michael's face descending from the darkness. While it seems the obvious place for the scare to take place, Carpenter already alluded to the threats from the dark as a bunch of patients in an asylum suddenly appeared outside in total darkness.
Also look at the construction of this scene. Laurie is coming home from school with her friends. She has been getting the feeling that someone is following her and thinks that she has spotted a figure a few times. Carpenter frames the scene so that all the strong lines of action lead toward the top-left of the screen, right where Michael eventually appears with a car. If he had filmed the girls walking straight on there wouldn't have been this unconscious sense of anticipation that something is going to appear there - and when Michael speeds in and stares at the girls it's the realization of a nightmare that is constantly glimpsed at the corners.
This approach even works in the darkness that constantly tries to overwhelm the last half-hour of the film. The scariest moment is after Annie's boyfriend is killed and, wearing a crude sack of a ghost costume and his glasses, Michael comes into the room and regards her like another insect. All lines in the room point to Michael, but even the negative space, like the darkness at the right foot of the bed, is leading to him. So even before the creaking of the door unsettles us the frame is ready for his arrival.
Carpenter also makes sure that color is not absent, even in the dark. All of his victims are in shades of red and stand out against the darkness. Michael, and Laurie, are both in dark blues that are still prominent in the absence of light. Later entries in the franchise confuse terror with actual darkness, resulting in a muddied image (H20 is the worst example of this). But Carpenter understands the importance of making sure that the colors are still strong, just not to the point where they paint the sign of "obvious victim" as the night goes on.
Carpenter also sets the camera up with one technique that is hard to capture in screencaps. The camera hardly moves when it's giving us information from the perspective of Dr. Loomis or one of the girls. But in the beginning of the film the fluid POV matches that of Michael, and continues when Michael returns to the town. The only other person who gets the tracking POV as well is Laurie. While the connection between the two isn't made explicit until the next film, the unease of Laurie's travels is felt because we know there is a connection with her and Michael through the movement of the camera.
The economy of Halloween is also stellar. This isn't a film where the corpses pile up into the double-digits. Aside from the opening attack, it is almost a full hour before any of the other murders take place. And stop here for one moment to answer this question:
How long does Laurie's struggle against Michael last?
Before I recorded these notes, I would have said half an hour. But from the moment Michael appears in the same frame with Laurie, to his exit thanks to Dr. Loomis, the entire struggle only lasts 10 minutes. Part of the reason it feels so long is that there are no cheap theatrics, Jamie Lee Curtis doesn't try to fill the scene with any unneeded emotion, it's a pure desperate struggle with her using every tool that she can to get rid of Michael. All the while Carpenter pounds us with the soundtrack and allows the quiet to settle in and lull Laurie, and us, to a false sense of safety before continuing.
I've written at length about the technical craftsmanship and how that is effective, but I do not want to ignore the screenplay fashioned by Carpenter and Debra Hill. The event of Halloween are so lean that there is no room for any extra scenes, but there are two excellent aspects of characterization to it for Dr. Loomis and for the other teens. Dr. Loomis serves as a narrative shadow of the overdone psychiatry that ends Psycho. There is no answer to the problem of Michael, and Dr. Loomis' quiet exasperation in search of an answer triggers one more level of panic as this is a problem that can't be logically explained away. I also like that the other teens aren't stereotypes and don't fit into easy labels. It makes the horror of the situation that much stronger as they are up against something that can barely be defined when they are having problems like awkward first sexual experiences.
All of these aspects that make Halloween so strong are pretty much absent in the sequel. Halloween II, made three years later, is one of the most mean-spirited films that I have ever seen. It delves into torturing its characters instead of releasing an unstable horror, and engages in a level of cheap theatrics that don't enhance the terror. Then it follows all that up with a half-hour of pure terror that almost single-handedly redeems the film.
But for that first hour, the film now under the helm of director Rick Rosenthal, plays pale homage to the techniques of the original. The POV shot returns in the opening scenes but Rosenthal makes the crucial mistake of making it a POV that is following Myers around, not in a reflection of his gaze. The threat of Myers is less ominous when we can see him the entire time and also makes it feel like something that we can walk away from. Michael is trapped in the frame, but the camera chooses to go along with him.
This distancing leads to some other questionable acts of violence in the film. The first caused me to erupt in a full belly laugh when a stranger, dressed in a similar mask as Michael, ignores Dr. Loomis' screams to stop and the masked man is struck by a speeding cop car that rams into the poor guys and then explodes in a giant fireball. This sort of pyrotechnic work is at odds with the attempts at continuing the voyeuristic horror of the first film.
The second moment is when Michael, during his attack on the hospital that Laurie is recovering at, finds a couple having sex and after killing the man burns the woman's skin off with boiling water. That's a painful enough end, but Michael keeps bringing her head back out so that we can see the makeup work of her skin dissolving. I can appreciate the technical aspects, but this is a torturous side of Michael that has not even been hinted at. All of his actions are deliberate, and this kill seems designed to showcase her breasts again while she gets dowsed repeatedly. I don't understand the accusations of misogyny against the first film, but this murder lends some credibility to that idea for the second.
Yes, the film does eventually get much better when Laurie begins her second struggle with Michael. The frames aren't nearly as well thought out, and one scare literally involves a cat jumping from behind the door, but the image of Laurie hobbling around a place where she thought she could be safe is a dire one. It also helps that the script, penned again by Carpenter and Hill, keeps Laurie's tenacity and creativity in the grips of horror. I wonder what the film would have looked like had Carpenter decided to return, but there is one visual that I absolutely love because of its logical flow through. One of the male aides has a crush on Laurie and finds Michael's handiwork in the form of a nurse who has bled out on the floor. The man slips and cracks his head, leading to a concussion that he later dies from when it seems he may be able to drive Laurie away.
That kind of direct cause and effect is terrifying, using the natural fragility of our bodies and the indirect pain of Michael's killings to complete the nightmare. Those moments, while few, keep Halloween II from being too much of a mess. The series wouldn't return to this kind of horror for almost two decades, and would take some interesting detours in the coming years.