Carpenter's classic still stuns at 35
Saturday, October 26, 2013 8:03 PM
Why do people - some people, at least - like scary movies?
Simple. It's the same reason people like roller coasters and haunted houses: Because it gives them a thrill.
With Halloween less than a week away, now is the time of year when horror films start creeping into theaters and popping up on TV late at night. It's also a time when many folks pick through their DVD collections and pop in their favorite fright flick.
At the risk of sounding like the old man telling kids to stay off his lawn, I should say this: Horror films today just aren't as good as they used to be.
Sure, there are some exceptions (this summer's "The Conjuring" was excellent), but for the most part, today's scary movies come up lacking when compared to the fright films of yesteryear.
Here's why: You can't just crank up the score and slather on the fake blood and think your movie's going to be scary. Gore isn't scary, it's just gory.
Elements that make a horror film successful - i.e. "scary" - are suspense, tension and atmosphere.
John Carpenter's 1978 film "Halloween" has all three of those elements in droves, which is why I continue to assert it is the finest horror movie ever produced. Please note I am talking about the original "Halloween," not one of its many sequels (some of which have merit) and certainly not director Rob Zombie's absolutely dreadful 2007 remake.
If you prefer Rob Zombie's remake of "Halloween" to Carpenter's original, I'm concerned for your mental well-being. You should quite possibly be shipped off to an island where you won't bother anyone, where you can live in peace with people who liked New Coke and voted for Michael Dukakis in 1988.
WHAT CARPENTER CREATED 35 years ago with "Halloween" is, simply, a masterpiece.
The plot has now been copied, mimicked and outright ripped off so many times it's become cliché: A mysterious, hulking, wordless madman in a mask lingers in the shadows and stalks baby-sitters and other mischievous teens on Halloween night in a sleepy, Midwestern town.
However, the films that attempted to imitate "Halloween" - "Friday the 13th" and countless others in the last three decades - never seemed to quite understand what it was that made "Halloween" great: Style. Restraint. Tension. The unknown.
"Halloween" is not a bloody film. Carpenter knew what the audience DOESN'T see actually can be much scarier than what it DOES see.
Filmed in just a month with a budget of about $300,000, "Halloween" essentially was an independent film. It features a breakout performance from a young Jamie Lee Curtis, the Scream Queen of the late 1970s and early 1980s who went on to a respectable career as a leading lady.
Of course, the on-screen heartbeat of "Halloween" - the original, as well as several of the sequels - was veteran character actor Donald Pleasence as Dr. Sam Loomis, the psychiatrist tasked with finding the villainous Michael Myers and ending his Halloween-night rampage.
The balding, soft-spoken Pleasence, who died in 1995, is an unlikely screen hero. He was very much the everyman, and he is the audience's surrogate. He's as scared of the Boogeyman as we are, and he wants to put an end to it.
While the acting is strong, particularly for an independent film made on a shoestring in the late 1970s, what really makes "Halloween" sing are the production elements.
Aside from writing and directing the film, Carpenter also composed the score. I firmly believe it is the spookiest piece of music ever put on wax. Carpenter does more with a piano than most big studio composers can do with an entire orchestra at their disposal.
I'm certainly not the first writer (though I am perhaps the least talented) to heap praise upon John Carpenter. It's praised that is deserved, mind you, seeing as how Carpenter directed perhaps the most amazing run of horror and sci-fi films anyone has ever seen.
From 1978-87 he directed, consecutively, "Halloween," "The Fog," "Escape from New York," "The Thing," "Christine," "Starman," "Big Trouble in Little China," "Prince of Darkness" and "They Live."
What many casual fans might not know is Carpenter's secret weapon was famed cinematographer Dean Cundey, who served as director of photography on most of those films.
Cundey has a way of lighting a film that puts the viewer right up there on the screen. In "Halloween," for example, he casts shadows in all the right places, turning a quiet, leafy, residential street - one that looks a lot like the street you and I live on - into an unnerving chamber of paranoia, with menace lurking just beyond the light.
I've gone on long enough now about a 35-year-old movie many of you have likely seen before. However, I'm betting there are more than a few of you who haven't had the opportunity to see Carpenter's masterpiece on the big screen.
Well, you now have that opportunity.
The 1978 original "Halloween" is set to play at Greenwood's REI Cinema 10 a couple of nights this week. It will play at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Wednesday and 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Thursday.
Sure, you could stay at home and pop in a DVD. Or you could see the film the way it was meant to be seen: on a huge screen in a dark theater with an audience sharing the experience.
In a related note, I hope everyone has a safe and happy Halloween. Don't get too scared and don't eat too much candy. (In fact, just send all your peanut butter M&M's to my house.)
Trainor is the senior staff writer at the Index-Journal. Contact him at 943-5650; email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter @IJCHRISTRAINOR. Views expressed in this column are those of the writer only and do not represent the newspaper's opinion.