2020 Scarecrow Psychotronic Challenge Day 31: Halloween (1978)

31. I REMEMBER HALLOWEEN: Something from the Halloween franchise or anything with trick or treating in it. You did it! Another successful challenge achieved. Now you can stuff yourself with candy and listen to The Misfits.

Last night, Becca and I headed out to the Riverside Drive-In to see a double feature of The Thing and the original Halloween. While it’s impossible to see it as if you’re seeing the movie for the first time — it’s so pervasive in nearly every facet of my life — I wanted to watch it and wonder, “Why does it continue to work so well?”

For me, the biggest reason why it works is that we actually care about the girls. Beyond just Laurie Strode, Annie Brackett and Lynda Van Der Klok feel like people we actually know. When the moments that The Shape menaces them occurs, we’re been with them for the good part of an hour. The film doesn’t rush into the murder and even takes its time — despite a spartan running time of 91 minutes that feels way shorter — to get there, doing everything in its power to tell us that whomever Michael Myers once was, now he has become an inhuman killing machine that everyone should fear.

Credit for that is due to not just Carpenter and Deborah Hill’s script, but for getting Donald Pleasence on board as Dr. Loomis. When he becomes frightened of the killer, speaking in hushed tones of “the blackest eyes; the devil’s eyes” we know that there’s not going to be any stopping this killing machine.

The moments that have become tropes today, like Michael sitting back up when he should be dead, the ending that isn’t really an ending, the teens getting slaughtered by a killing machine — they weren’t necessarily invented here. But they were perfected and commercialized by this film. I’d site films like A Bay of BloodPeeping TomPsycho and Black Christmas* as proto-slashers** that set up the form. But this is where every studio in Hollywood — and around the world — saw that you can take a concept, throw some effects at it and make a lot of money. The results vary, of course.

Not many of them have the mind and soundtrack wizardry of Carpenter on hand, nor the eye of Dean Cundy guiding the camera.

The little moments of this movie are why I love it so much. The moments where a hedge of bushes holds more menace than every horror movie that will come out for the next five years. The usage of “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” which is in itself a strange song, one of the few pop songs that I can think of that outwardly worships death. The casual way that Annie smokes a joint versus the difficulty Laurie has with it. The perfect ending, as the body of The Shape is gone but his presence hangs upon every street of Haddonfield. And the knowledge that every time leaves blow across the screen, Carpenter and his crew had to gather them up in plastic bags, not wanting to waste the rare fall foliage that they’d brought to make this midwestern movie in the middle of California.

Watching this again for what has to be a hundredth or more time on a drive-in screen under a full moon, the night before Halloween itself, it just felt right. How odd that a grubby little movie that was untraditionally released would find itself a tradition, something that people like me turn to for comfort in uncertain times? Halloween has gone from a movie I feared — it kept my father awake all night it unsettled him so much — to a film my wife uses to chill out and relax to.

* Indeed, in a 2005 interview, Black Christmas director Bob Clark stated that Carpenter had asked, “Well what would you do if you did do a sequel?” Clarks’s answer? “I said it would be the next year and the guy would have actually been caught, escape from a mental institution, go back to the house and they would start all over again. And I would call it Halloween. The truth is John didn’t copy Black Christmas, he wrote a script, directed the script, did the casting. Halloween is his movie and besides, the script came to him already titled anyway. He liked Black Christmas and may have been influenced by it, but in no way did John Carpenter copy the idea. Fifteen other people at that time had thought to do a movie called Halloween but the script came to John with that title on it.”

**I realize that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre also pre-dates this film, but that thing is a force of nature all its own. Nobody can even come close to making a movie like it, not even Tobe Hooper. It was lightning in a bottle, shot in an abattior smelling shack in the dead heat of the Texas sun, as close to a perfect horror film as you can find.

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