Halloween (1978, John Carpenter)

Halloween is a technical masterpiece. It’s absolutely spectacular to watch. Carpenter’s composition is fantastic, but Dean Cundey’s cinematography and the editing–from Tommy Lee Wallace and Charles Bornstein–creates this uneasy, surreal experience. The way Carpenter uses the wind in the film is probably my favorite, since he establishes it early on and keeps it going until the very end. It’s transfixing.

There are some great performances–Jamie Lee Curtis’s character arc is spectacular, Nancy Kyes is excellent. Donald Pleasence is solid and the film’s too good for P.J. Soles and (surprisingly) Charles Cyphers to damage it. Soles is just annoying, but Cyphers just can’t deliver his lines with the gravity Pleasence can–most of their scenes are together–and Cyphers comes off poorly because of it.

If it seems like I’m listing all the positives about Halloween, I am.

I first watched Halloween when I was eleven or twelve and wasn’t at all impressed (first, I was eleven or twelve and, second, I was watching a pan and scan VHS). In fact, I liked the second one more at the time (strangely, the same thing happened–around that time–with Jaws). A few years later, after I’d started to discover Carpenter’s other work, I went back to Halloween and came to appreciate it much like I did on this viewing. It’s a technical marvel.

But it’s got a weak plot.

The script’s strong–Debra Hill writes the female characters extremely well–watching Curtis at the end, it’s hard to think of any Hollywood film with such a strong female character until Aliens. Carpenter shoots every scene perfectly, but there’s something off.

Halloween, intended as a one-time picture, became the first horror franchise. Watching the film, even if one knows Carpenter didn’t intend it, he enabled that franchise. As the film progresses–it’s a perfectly paced ninety minutes–it becomes clearer and clearer the strongest point is Curtis and her reactions. Had the film centered on her experience, never making the bogeyman real until the end, it would have been a far superior film. It would have run only forty-two minutes, but it would be amazing.

The problem is how Carpenter shoots it. He relies entirely on his score to create fear in the viewer and it doesn’t work. The score’s effective and the theme’s good, but it doesn’t compliment the foreboding scenes. These scenes, with Carpenter shooting them matter-of-factly, are somewhat too well-made to be scary. They’re too visually beautiful. Carpenter lets his talent for composition get in the way of the story’s need to creep out the viewer.

He never even gets around to the weight of the film’s content. When characters die on screen, Carpenter doesn’t pause to give the viewer time to reflect. It’s an intentional move, but it’s a wrong one. The lack of emotional connection at that moment removes the viewer from the film and makes the artifice of the experience apparent.

Every time I start Halloween, just before it starts, I think it’s going to be better than I remember it. Every time, it’s about the same. For all the film’s successes, there’s a misguided creative impulse in the mix as well–and those successes can’t overpower it.

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