Today, January 16th, is John Carpenter’s birthday. It may as well be a national holiday as far as I’m concerned. John Carpenter, film director, writer, editor, producer, composer, actor, and musician, is considered a patron saint and a spirit guide around these parts. It’s hard to choose just one movie out of his incomparable filmography to celebrate the occasion, so let’s watch more than one. Where to start?
Many of his fans see THE THING as his masterpiece and I would not take a moment to disagree. Fans of visionary action films might choose ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, fans of sociopolitical sci-fi go with THEY LIVE, romantics prefer STARMAN, savvy devotees opt for ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, or THE FOG, or PRINCE OF DARKNESS, or IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS… It’s a colossally cool catalogue stacked with wonderful deep-tracks. Personally, I could watch BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA any time of day or night. But maybe we’ll start with the movie that conquered the world, HALLOWEEN.
John Carpenter’s classic slasher film is both the spiritual heir to Hitchcock’s PSYCHO and a monstrously influential masterwork in its own right. In PSYCHO are the seeds of the slasher genre, but HALLOWEEN opened the floodgates. It also happens to be better than pretty much any comparable movie that followed it or attempted to walk in its workboots.
What distinguishes Carpenter’s movie? Several things:
1) The layer of mythology that Carpenter applies to a fairly simple story about a masked psychopath, a legend delivered in ominous phrasing and hushed panic by British actor Donald Pleasance as the haunted Dr. Sam Loomis (he talks about Michael Myers the same way that Quint talks about the Indianapolis in JAWS),
2) the instantly-lovable, steely, sweet, believably-terrified performance from Jamie Lee Curtis,
3) the clear, elegant and merciless photography by superstar DP Dean Cundey and the tangible sense of autumnal atmosphere that Carpenter and his crew gave to their fictional Haddonfield, IL (played here by springtime Pasadena, believe it or not),
4) the eerie unknowability of Michael Myers and that horrifically indistinct mask, which innovates even as it invokes a history of horror films, including George Franju’s EYES WITHOUT A FACE, and
5) Carpenter’s simple score, with that unforgettable piano refrain and the pitch-perfect way that the sweeping synth sounds are layered on. I don’t know if you could make such a sparse, effective score today. Most movies insist on a broader orchestral palette. Carpenter had the intelligence and the confidence to do more with less.
Speaking of music, though, and having seen the movie so many times that I’ve had plenty of opportunity to ponder the most absurd and remote minutiae, I’m obsessed with one strange notion. Let me conjure the scene in question:
Dr. Loomis is yelling at the guy in charge of the asylum for inadvertently allowing Michael Myers to escape, and he mentions that it’s 150 miles to Haddonfield, where Michael Myers is planning to go, in order to commit some horrendous acts of evil. Michael has terrorized a nurse and stolen Loomis’ car. Right? Okay.
Here’s my question: What kind of music does a Michael Myers listen to while he’s driving a 150-mile road trip in a beige station wagon?
It being ’78, my guess is Steely Dan. Although maybe he listened to that cassette tape of “Don’t Fear The Reaper” over and over again, like pre-game hype music. I’m sure Rob Zombie has different ideas. How about you? (Feel free to volunteer them in the comments below.)
HALLOWEEN is available right now on Hulu Plus or just about anywhere you look. Really, it should be a bookend on any serious film fan’s horror shelf. Watch the trailer below to get in the mood, and check out the poster gallery, featuring art from the American release, the Spanish-language version, the Asian market edition (maybe my favorite), and scariest of all, take a look at what the Germans did with it.
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