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Criticwire Classic of the Week: John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’

Criticwire Classic of the Week: John Carpenter's 'Halloween'

Every now and then on the Criticwire Network an older film gets singled
out for attention. 
This is the Criticwire Classic of the

Dir: John Carpenter
Criticwire Average: A-

Halloween” wasn’t the first slasher movie (films like “Bay of Blood” and “Black Christmas” came before it), but it is the film that revolutionized the subgenre and perfected it. The film takes a simple formula – mad slasher escapes from mental hospital, stalks and kills unaware babysitters – and turns it into a master class in directing, with John Carpenter keeping the audience hyper-aware of every sound, of every shift in tempo in his moody score, of everything that’s in the frame, and of what’s lurking just outside of it.

The film opens with an astonishing four-minute shot that looks through the eyes of murderer Michael Myers, but Carpenter wisely avoids repeating the killer POV for the rest of the film. Instead, he patiently tracks back and forth down streets and through kitchens, foregrounding our heroines as they remain unaware that a killer is right behind them. It’s a tactic that’s more frightening than the average jump-out-of-nowhere approach – the jump moments are from a more clearly-defined space, and frequently the viewer can see what’s going to happen just before it happens. It also has the effect of turning the audience into helpless voyeurs on the side of the victims, constantly shouting out unheeded advice.

That’s something that separates “Halloween” from its countless imitators. While some might see the sex = death fixation that plagues slasher movies, Carpenter turns sex into less of a cause and more of a distraction for his heroines. Like the suburb they inhabit, their sexual interest is seen as normal, with even the virginal Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) coming across as more timid and frustrated than pure. And while Carpenter’s followers turn the clearly doomed supporting characters into one-dimensional types, the director makes sure Laurie’s friends are memorable, fully fleshed-out and outright fun to spend time with, their banter worthy of Carpenter’s cinematic hero Howard Hawks. They’re people, not dominoes waiting to fall, and that makes their peril fare more frightening.

More thoughts from the Criticwire Network:

Matt Donato, We Got This Covered

John Carpenter achieves horror through simplicity in his indie-slasher smash hit Halloween, scaring audiences with technical prowess and proper filmmaking, building Myers’ legend through camera angles and tension. Read more.

More thoughts from the web:

Derek Adams, Time Out London

John Carpenter doesn’t put a foot wrong in this seminal hack ’n’ slasher. From the opening scene of young psycho-in-the-making Michael Myers greeting his parents with bloodied knife in hand to his inevitable return to wreak more havoc a decade later, ‘Halloween’ ticks every box. The opening sequence is a masterclass in how to unsettle nerves. Utilising the then new Steadicam system, Carpenter was able to give us a perspective from the killer’s point of view. To say it ups the creepiness to new heights is an understatement – it’s watch-from-behind-the-sofa terrifying. Read more.

A.A. Dowd, The A.V. Club

Carpenter is always watching, his camera creeping in on the actors at all times, and this gives the mundane events of the first half—in which Laurie and her doomed girlfriends wander around town, chatting about boys—a charge of perpetual unease. “Halloween” is hardly the first slasher movie…But in its purity of execution, its absolute efficiency as a scare machine, it remains the pinnacle of the subgenre. Read more.

Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times

It’s easy to create violence on the screen, but it’s hard to do it well. Carpenter is uncannily skilled, for example, at the use of foregrounds in his compositions, and everyone who likes thrillers knows that foregrounds are crucial: The camera establishes the situation, and then it pans to one side, and something unexpectedly looms up in the foreground. Usually it’s a tree or a door or a bush. Not always. Read more.

Eric Henderson, Slant Magazine

Every scene exploits the dynamics between good versus evil, day versus night, obliviousness versus alertness. If “Halloween’s” plot seems perilously thin, it only serves to accentuate Carpenter’s direction—along with his legendary, minimalist synth score—as the main attraction. He’s less a storyteller here than a poet of violent intent. Read more.

Matt Singer, The Dissolve

The film credits Nick Castle, who played the adult Michael Myers, as “The Shape,” and for much of the film, that’s all he is; a nearly abstract figure of menace who appears, then almost immediately disappears, from the backgrounds of shots. The nine other movies in the franchise (so far) add reasons for Myers’ madness—familial revenge, druid curses—but Carpenter understood that the character was at his scariest as an unexplained force that can’t be reasoned with or stopped. Read more.

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