The Babysitter Murders, John Carpenters Halloween
HE came home for HALLOWEEN.
Running Time: 91 minutes
UK Certificate: 18
Country: United States
So tight is the stranglehold which John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ has on our culture that if you watch it for the first time, you will be convinced that you have seen it before, and if you watch it again, it will still seem as relevant as when it first came out in 1978. The daddy of all slasher movies, its formula has been mercilessly preyed upon by countless 1980s slice-and-dice imitations (‘Friday the 13th’, ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ etc.), fondly dissected by 1990 postmodern spoofs (‘Scream’, ‘Scary Movie’) – and of course its franchise of (largely inferior) sequels shows that that the bogeyman is still very real, with ‘Halloween 9’ due for release next year. Not bad for a film that cost a mere $320,000 to make – which is probably a lot less than the pricetag on the painstaking high definition digital transfer process which makes this new DVD print look and sound so superb.
In Haddonfield, Illinois (a fictional Anytown in the US), on the Halloween of 1963, six year old Michael Myers puts on a mask and stabs his sister to death in their home. In 1978, the adult Myers breaks out of an asylum, and comes home to Haddonfield on Halloween, pursued by his psychiatrist, Dr Loomis. That night, as bookish virgin Laurie Strode babysits while her not so virginal friends Annie and Linda are in the house across the road, heavy-breathing Myers starts his murderous campaign again, and it seems that the only thing coming between him and his selected victims is Dr Loomis – and a rather large knife.
‘Halloween’ laid the groundwork for the future of horror, with its steadicam point-of-view shots, its menacing keyboard riff (composed by Carpenter), its Hitchcockian ratcheting of tension, its jolting shocks (false and real), its naturalistic dialogue, its ominous atmosphere, its resourceful heroine and unstoppable killer. The film made a whole generation of filmgoers terrified of familiar residential streets, cosy domestic interiors, and pre-marital sex.
At the surprisingly bloodless heart of the film are two great performances. Jamie Lee Curtis made her cinematic debut as Laurie Strode in ‘Halloween’, and by transforming what is essentially an exploitation rôle into a believable, strong character, Curtis assured her reign as filmdom’s ‘scream queen’ for years to come. What made this throne her natural inheritance, and lay behind her casting, was that she is the daughter of Janet Leigh, the shower victim in Hitchcock’s proto-slasher ‘Psycho’, and star of ‘A Touch of Evil’ (which ‘Halloween’ evokes in its creepy opening four-minute single-take).
Donald Pleasance, on the other hand, brings a decided nuttiness to Dr Loomis, referring to his patient as ‘it’ or ‘the evil’, and seeming to relish crouching behind a bush in the dark and frightening children. Most boys at some point or other want to kill their sister, but Pleasance conveys the creepy impression that, under his 15-year supervision, it was only natural that Myers’ boyhood transgression would develop into a mature psychopathy.
The original, and one of the best, ‘Halloween’ cuts much deeper than its knife-wielding imitations.
It's Got: A heroine who is handy with a knitting needle and coat hanger, a masked killer into heavy breathing and dog eating, and a psychiatrist who seems as mad as his patients.
It Needs: Fewer sequels.
DVD Extras The real reason to get hold of Halloween - 25th Anniversary Edition is the new high definition digital transfer, which offers superb sound and an enhanced widescreen image (2.35:1), but there is also an exhaustive (and at times exhausting) range of extras on this two-DVD set. Highlights of the commentary include production anecdotes from director John Carpenter and producer-cowriter Debra Hill, and star Jamie Lee Curtis assertion that she is not a great thinker (and that such people usually have bad breath). The now common claim that the film has a conservative morality, where victims are being punished for their sexual promiscuity, is countered by all three - but not very convincingly. Disk 2 features a new 87-minute documentary called A Cut Above the Rest, which follows the films history, production and influence from conception to the present day. It is packed with interesting interviews (including one from 1978 with Donald Pleasance who fails to conceal his contempt for the project) and production trivia (e.g. the mask of the killer originally bore the face of William Shatner), and includes two scenes which were shot later to make the film long enough for NBC to televise. The documentary is, however, padded out with long sections from the film itself (some repeated more than once) and could easily have been halved in length. A second documentary, On Location - 25 Years Later, does not, strictly speaking, feature P.J. Soles and Debra Hill revisiting the original Michael Myers house (as the DVDs sleevenotes claim), but is no doubt the better for that. It is a snappy 10-minute tour of the locations in South Pasadena and West Hollywood which were made, against all probability, to look like a small Mid-Western town - accompanied by interviews and updates (Michael Myers house, e.g., has been restored and moved across the street, and now serves as a chiropracters office). There are also trailers; talent bios of John Carpenter, Donald Pleasance and Jamie Lee Curtis; a gallery of posters and stills; and a DVD-ROM section with screensavers and the original script. DVD Extras Rating: 7/10
Where many of its nastier, bloodier copycats have long since been carved and diced from our memory, John Carpenter's low-budget, genre-defining excursion into the slasher film's virgin territories is still very much alive and freshly frightening today. A monument to Hitchcockian suspense, it brings terror out of the gothic castle and into the suburban streets and homes where it belongs. A classic slicing of American life.