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Reel Dread
Don't Open the DVD Tray: Halloween

By Desmond Reddick
30 October 2006 — What is it that makes a Halloween movie? Not just any scary movie will do. You need something with atmosphere; something that will capture your imagination while you're stuck inside the house. A movie can really be ruined by continual pausing, but the experience can be enhanced if it is the right movie. A movie that makes one scared to be home alone can really get the heart rate going when the doorbell rings. Do answer the door, though. The kids have to get some candy once in a while right? And who wants to hose egg off of their front door at midnight? Not me.

Let me relate my discovery of the perfect Halloween film:

Back then I was an impressionable 10 year old taking a pre-Halloween stroll through the horror aisle at the local video store. Having seen the old Universal films, several vampire / werewolf movies and many slashers, I was no stranger to horror films. They were fun.

I had been scared by films before, but not the conventional ones: Psycho, Jaws, and Night of the Hunter all terrified me to no end. Just the thought of a psychopath in a mask stabbing young girls at a sorority house party made me laugh. They were silly that way. But a psychopath dressed as his mother stabbing girls while they showered? That is scary.

As I walked up the aisle I saw a film with a cover depicting a skull-faced pumpkin holding a chef's knife. How could I go wrong? Well, as any horror fan can tell you, a cool looking cover does not a good movie make.

Although the movie was already a dozen years old by that time, it opened my eyes to new depths of horror. John Carpenter crafted this little independent film in 1978, but packed it with enough isolation, terror and unrelenting despair to put today's filmmakers to shame. Halloween grabs you by the throat, and just when it lets go, offering a quick moment to catch your breath, it embraces you and quickly drives a knife through your chest plate.

In several interviews with Carpenter, he discusses that he and co-writer Debra Hill put the script together by thinking up scary scenarios (i.e. thinking a friend is trying to scare you by wearing a sheet, but it turns out it's not your friend at all) and stringing them together. This had all the makings of a piss-poor cookie-cutter film. The boogeyman, the haunted house, the escaped mental patient, the invincible silent killer: these had become horror clichés by the time Halloween was made, but Carpenter used them to stunning effect.

The camera work is haunting at times and dreadfully slow. Carpenter seems to allow things to unfold within the existing lens frame: Myers standing across the street from the high school in broad daylight just staring, the terrifying shot of Michael looking up into Laurie Strode's room from the back yard, the POV scene of young Michael Myers murdering his sister.

The timelessness of this film is challenged only by Night of the Living Dead. It very clearly takes place in the 70s, but it is not as self-aware as other films of the time. Friday the 13th is much along the same lines as Halloween — it is a revenge / slasher film centering on teenagers and their mysterious killer — but the dialogue makes it nearly unwatchable today, what with the then-hip lingo. Conversely, the quiet dignity with which Halloween carries itself keeps it relevant no matter how many years have passed since its release.

The casting was nothing short of brilliant in that the entire movie is filled with unknown actors except for genre veteran Donald Pleasance (as the haunted psychologist Dr. Loomis). The inspired piece of casting, however, was giving Jamie Lee Curtis her first film role. Previously unknown as an actress, Ms. Curtis is the daughter of Tony Curtis (probably best known for being in drag in 1959's Some Like It Hot) and Janet Leigh (definitely best known for being killed by someone in drag in the legendary Psycho). This film launched her career and brought her back for a number of its sequels.

To top it all off, Halloween features the simple yet terrifying theme composed by Mr. Carpenter himself. The haunting minor key expressed at the pace of a frightened beating heart makes it my favorite cinematic theme of all time. Its effect is only amplified by the sparseness of its use. If you hear it during the film you know you're in for a nerve-wracking scene.

Sixteen years have passed since I first saw Halloween, and I've watched it on Halloween night at least a dozen times since then. I'll be watching it this year and so should you. Bring this DVD home and watch the night he came home.

As an addendum I'll give a quick overview of the best of the Halloween sequels. Don't worry my friends, it's a short list:

- Halloween II: Filmed three years later, Jamie Lee Curtis returned to the role of Laurie Strode. This film begins one minute before the first ended, the way sequels should be. Just as terrifying and claustrophobic as its predecessor, the film is set in a hospital where Laurie is convalescing after her harrowing attack, while Dr. Loomis and the Sheriff look for Michael Myers. It is almost as good as the first, but suffers from coming second and the weak "Samhain" connection to Michael Myers. What? He's Irish and that's why he kills?

- Halloween III: Season of the Witch: A year later, the producers decided to end the Myers legacy with this sequel, but wanted to continue the films as an anthology-type series under the Halloween banner. Modernizing the child sacrifice aspect of Samhain, the focus falls upon an evil CEO. His company manufactures Halloween masks, masks which will melt the heads of millions of children when they hear the company's jingle on Halloween night. Why all these kids would be home watching TV instead if trick-or-treating is beyond me, but it's a fun little movie with a sci-fi / fantasy twist. Too bad they didn't adhere to this type of filmmaking. The movie bombed and a slew of awful Myers-fronted Halloween films were shat out over the next two decades. Curtis even returned for Halloween: H20 and Halloween Resurrection, but they're both stinkers if you ask me. Stick with these three and you won't go wrong.

That's all for me this fine Devil's Night my friends. Tomorrow is the big day and there's still enough time for a last minute trip to the video store. Just do me a favor: if there is steam on the windshield of your car, check the back seat before you get in. Happy Halloween!

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