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*Also starring: P.J. Soles, Nancy Loomis, Charles Cyphers, Kyle Richards

Review by Jerry Saravia
No Rating Supplied

Just as the original "Psycho" sired the slasher genre, John Carpenter's "Halloween" solidified the genre that became more shock for your buck than genuine scares. Amazing that so few directors followed Carpenter's model - atmosphere to spare and a chilling sense of doom that none of the sequels or "Friday the 13th" films ever came close to capture. "Halloween" has its flaws, but it is a superb scare show - a triumphant exercise in style that dictates its substance.

"Halloween" begins with a young kid walking around the outside of his house, looking for his sister. He grabs a mask and a kitchen knife, approaches his sister's bedroom by walking up the stairs and finally stabs her. All this time, Carpenter shows us what this kid does from his point-of-view - a very subjective stance that comes from Hitchcock and, of course, the notorious "Peeping Tom," which showed the killer filming his subjects as he killed them. The kid is Michael Myers, who is admitted to a mental institution. Nearly a decade later, Michael is still in a institution, and his psychiatrist, Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance), is checking on him obsessively, aware that he is pure evil. During a rainy night, Michael escapes and drives away and now Loomis is in hot pursuit of someone he calls "inhumanly patient."

The story then shifts to October 31st, the celebrated day of Halloween, at the calm, homely town of Haddonfield, Illinois. We see a teenage woman named Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) walking to school with a young kid who believes in bogeymen. They make plans for the evening since Laurie will be babysitting him (the title of the film was originally "The Babysitter Murders."). Then we meet some of Laurie's friends, who are actively dating and dreaming of sexual escapades, yet Laurie is the lonely, straight girl of the trio. There is the brunette-haired Annie (Nancy Kyes), whose father (Leigh Brackett) is a local cop, and Lynda (P.J. Soles), the ditzy blonde who ends every sentence with the word "totally." They all make plans for the evening since Annie and Laurie are babysitting, and Lynda wants to bring her boyfriend over at one house. And in this town, terror awaits - Michael Myers is paying a visit to wreak havoc.

"Halloween" is almost monochromatic in its look - the scenes during the day are overcast and the nights are truly dark where silhouettes and shadows exist - perfect time for Michael to attack (in one scene, Michael kills a dog and offscreen, we hear it whimper). Carpenter uses the hand-held camera effectively to build the tension by choosing to follow the subjective nature of its characters. Examples of such moments are when Annie hears noises outside her house as she prepares to do laundry, the car that comes to a screeching halt when Annie shouts, "Speed kills," the discovery of the dead bodies by Laurie, and so on. Subjectivity is especially well-handled when Laurie walks across the street to the house where Lynda and Annie are supposedly, and this scene, accompanied by Carpenter's famously eerie electronic score, is a hark back to Vera Miles' similar walk to the Bates House in "Psycho."

What is particularly arresting about "Halloween" is that the characters are not killed immediately - Carpenter lets us observe these teenagers and who they are. The long takes of Laurie, Annie and Lynda walking home from school show us the daily activities and thoughts of teenage girls, oblivious to the unseen terror about to take place. Laurie is not as oblivious, and conveniently sees Michael Myers hiding in bushes, driving by, or standing by his car while she looks from behind windows. Lots of subjective shots throughout, and the suspense builds with a real pulse eschewing any of the gore or blood that would have diminished its overall power. These tree-lined avenues of Middle America hide something inexplicable and without emotion, and all Laurie can do is run and cry when she finds that this killer is after her (in a way, Laurie's escape from an unstoppable killer led the way to Linda Hamilton's escape from the unstoppable Schwarzeneger in "The Terminator") There's a terrifying moment where Laurie begs for help from a neighbor, and the neighbor observes and closes her shades, thinking it is a Halloween prank.. "Oh, my God! Help," shouts the helpless Laurie.

There is a stretch of Catholicism in "Halloween" emanating from its semi-Production Code morals (though the Production Code was eliminated back in the late 50's). The idea is that any teenager girl or boy who has sex or lustful thoughts is killed by Michael Myers. Laurie is the only survivor because she is still a virgin, though she may have lustful thoughts about a guy in her class. "So. You do think about things like that, don't you Laurie," says Annie at one point. The only thing Laurie does that may make her a member of this triad is that she smokes marihuana, yet has more interest in chemistry and studying than any of her friends do. Since this premarital sex-is-a-sin complex began in "Halloween," it became a mode for all rip-offs to follow. You have sex, and you will die, as indicated in the post-modern "Scream."

Back in 1978, "Halloween" was made for a low-budget and went on to gross millions of dollars making it the biggest independent film ever (initial reviewers panned it until someone from Variety spoke highly of it). It is a superb motion picture, reveling in its atmospheric, nocturnal pull guaranteed to give you some major shivers. Precisely, what makes this horror film so central to the genre is acknowledging that it is what you don't see that can kill you in the dark.

Copyright 1997 Jerry Saravia

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