Halloween: Remembrance of Boogeyman Past

31 Oct

You can’t kill the boogeyman

Indeed, as one character in Halloween says to another…especially when there’s money to be made from multitudinous sequels. Seriously, people love to be scared, and scared at the movies, especially. To borrow another line from another source, if the boogeyman didn’t exist, we ‘d have to invent him. The so-called boogeyman has been a Hollywood staple for years and years. Sometimes, the boogeyman was a monster , a vampire, a space alien, a psycho-transvestite, a demonic child, or a creepy, telekinetic teen. The exact manifestation was less important than the idea of an evil, seemingly invincible entity, and the feeling of powerlessness such a being triggers within us. Of course, once the hero wins, and the lights return, everything and everyone goes back to normal. Or do they??? Somewhere  after Psycho, after The Exorcist and Carrie yet before today’s gamut of s0-called “torture porn,” a little known independent filmmaker named John Carpenter helped usher in the “slasher flick” era. Oh sure, Tobe Hooper had already done his part with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as had George Romero with Night of the Living Dead, but Carpenter played to a much bigger arena, yet he didn’t know, he could not have known at the time, that his film would one day be hailed as iconic.

halloween

John Carpenter filmed Halloween in Pasadena, California in early 1978 on a paltry budget of approximately 300 grand, a meager sum even by 1978 standards. Keep in mind that such breakout hits as Rocky, 1976’s Best Picture winner, was filmed for what was at the time a comparatively modest one million, and that same year’s Carrie actually cost a bit more than that. Carpenter was not a complete unknown at the time as his resume already included Dark Star and Assault on Precinct 13. That noted, he has since confessed in at least one TV “making of’ documentary that he believed that, at best, he would have footage for a product reel with which to market himself when networking with studio personnel, producers, etc. To clarify, even though Carpenter co-wrote the film with his partner (the late) Debra Hill, who also produced, the Halloween film originated with producers Irwin Yablans and Moustapha Akkaad. Their idea was for a movie about babysitters being murdered. Carpenter and Hill took the basic premise along with a few notes from the producers and spun it into script. The finished film grossed in the neighborhood, so to speak, of 70 million dollars, a huge return of the original investment and almost unheard of at the time for an indie film, especially a genre picture that seemed almost exclusively destined for the drive-in circuit.

I’ll be perfectly frank. I remember reading about Halloween back in the waning months of 1978 when it first started attracting critical attention from the likes of the Village Voice after being dismissed initially; however, my recollection tells me that it didn’t actually play in Dallas until May or June of 1979. My old roommate and I saw it  during its opening weekened with another friend, a college student home from Austin, at the old Loew’s Quad Park Central where we were actually carded twice: once at the box office and then again by the crochety doorman who clearly enjoyed his power trip. I mean this guy was not in the mood for our smart mouths even though we were all 18 or older and had already shown our IDs to the cashier. Oh well. That wasn’t the worst of it.

The worst of it is that after months of build up, including multiple viewings of the trailer, I didn’t much care for Halloween. I was surprised by how predictable it was. Nothing about it surprised me, not really. Plus, I thought the pacing was, well, tedious. I saw the ending coming and groaned–loudly–at what I thought was dumb and inevitable. A few months later, my friend and I got the sweet bejesus scared out of us when we saw When a Stranger Calls starring Carol Kane, Charles Durning, Ron O’Neal, Colleen Dewhurst, Rachel Roberts, and the late Tony Beckley, so effective as the deranged killer, who died less than a year after the film’s release. Talk about the boogeyman. Yikes!  That was a scary one for my roommate and me. Indeed, we drove around for hours the night after we saw it, so afraid were we of returning to a darkened apartment without a ceiling light in the front room. Neither of us wanted to cross the darkened space to find the lamp. Ha!

Back to Halloween. For me, the thing that made Carpenter’s scary movie watchable was the then wonderful newcomer Jamie Lee Curtis, with only scant TV credits, whom I did not realize was the daughter of the the Psycho lady and the Boston Strangler, that is, Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis.  I thought Ms. Curtis was an exciting new talent, and learning more about her later served to deepen my appreciation. Even so, I quickly tired of her Scream Queen output: The Fog (another Carpenter offering), Prom Night, Terror Train, and even Halloween II. Luckily, Curtis eventually broke the typecasting mold and established herself as a commendable dramatic actress though her flair has always tended to be more comedic than anything. On the other end of the spectrum, I thought Donald Pleasance was a bit hammy, which for some people is very much the point. I was confused by P. J. Soles (also of Carrie) who at least redeemed herself shortly afterward with her full-tilt starring performance as Riff Randle in Rock and Roll High School.

I don’t ever want to watch Halloween again, and I can’t imagine watching any of the sequels; nonetheless, time and multiple viewings of a “Making of” documentary has helped mellow my distaste.  Oh sure, there’s something problematic with the narrative as teens in sexual situations are murdered while the most virginal character of all pretty much emerges intact. Moralizing much? Of course, in retrospect this dynamic can also be seen as a metaphor for unprotected sex during the early days of AIDS (which was just about to hit the public consciousness), similar to the revisionist take on William Friedkin’s once lambasteable Cruising which galvanized gays in early 1980.

Still, the simplicity of Halloween‘s premise approaches genius: a masked killer attacking baby sitters and their boyfriends in an otherwise sleepy little neighborhood on Halloween night. The story itself works–at least in theory–because it hits audiences on a primal level, every babysitter’s nightmare. (All the more reasons why the ever more convoluted sequels, not necessarily endorsed by Carpenter, seem almost like a violation.) Add to that Carpenter’s gifts for maximizing his resources while working on such a limited budget. Even with such considerations, the director still manages a tricky opening shot that begins across the street from the childhood home of  villainous Mike Myers, circles from back to front, enters the house, and travels up and down a set of stairs–with at least part of that tracking shot viewed from the perspective of someone wearing a mask. That this had to be achieved  as low tech as possible is amazing enough.What else amazes is that the crew had to work hard to manage all the lights and to maintain the illusion that the Meyers’ house was well appointed and not just a dilapidated two storey mess, which it was. According to some reports, if the camera had been allowed to shift in almost any direction. viewers would be able to see what a mess the house really was, but that’s not the case. What about that reworked Captain Kirk mask that hides the killer’s identity? Cheap but genuinely ghoulish. Also noteworthy is Carpenter’s now spinetinglingly familiar score, so effective at setting the mood. No wonder  it’s frequently used in movie trailers. Also, again, how resourceful of Carpenter to serve as both director and composer? So, yes, on some levels the movie is incredibly smart though the rushed shooting schedule resulted in a few technical or continuity errors, one being–as pointed out in the documentary–a shot of a palm tree even though the story is set in Illinois.

Still, even with the late blooming adulation and the impressive grosses, Halloween did not make much of an impact at that year’s Saturn Awards, per the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror films, snagging exactly one nomination: Best Horror Film. It lost to Wicker Man, btw [1]. Nothing for Carpenter’s direction. Nothing for Curtis or Pleasance though Carpenter clinched the “New Generation” award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association; however, Halloween endures just as the boogeyman endures. In the years since its release, the movie and its sequels have generated ever more frightening gobs of money. It also holds the #68 position on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 scariest movies. Furthermore, the Library of Congress has weighed in, elevating Halloween to “classic” status by virtue of including it in the National Film Registry among films of cultural or historical import. Not bad for a low budget horror quickie that even the director thought would more likely end up as part of a product reel than as a viable feature release.

We all know that Curtis surely went on to high profile roles in Trading Places, A Fish Called Wanda, True Lies (Golden Globe winner), and Freaky Friday while Carpenter’s career is full of fits and starts. He enjoyed a nice run with Escape from New York and guided Jeff Bridges to an Oscar nomination for 1984’s Starman. I personally enjoyed 1983’s Christine, from the Stephen King novel, but, alas, it’s been a few years since Carpenter has directed a well received big budget feature film, and I don’t  know that he will ever get another chance based on his spotty track record, but he’ll always have Halloween. The boogeyman is now and forever bigger than his maker.

Scary.

Happy Halloween, John.

 

[1] Other movies in contention for Saturn awards that year include Heaven Can Wait, Superman, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Magic, The Boys from Brazil, Coma, The Wiz, Capricorn 1, The Fury, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Piranha, Disney’s The Cat from Outer Space (starring Ken Berry, Sandy Duncan, Harry Morgan, Roddy McDowall, McLean Stevenson and a whole troupe of recognizable comic veterans), and Ralph Bakshi’s animated attempt at Lord of the Rings.

Link to  Halloween: The Inside Story documentary (on A & E) at the IMDb :

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1706681/?ref_=ttco_co_tt

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