Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Robson: Halloweens

(TODAY'S GUEST: David Robson is a San Francisco-based cinephile who blogs at The House of Sparrows. We asked him if we could cross-post his film-by-film look at the Halloween series - he instead gave us a slightly expanded [and, he assures us, profanity-reduced] version seen below. You can find him on Twitter, where, among other things, he's a reliable participant in our Friday Movies Chats.)

--The first film is a masterpiece, of course.

John Carpenter had copped to the influence of Howard Hawks with Assault on Precinct 13, and it's interesting to think what Hawks would have made of this assignment. The thing revolves around its mythic antagonist, youthful sister-killer turned embodiment of ultimate evil Michael Myers, and as realistic and well-realized as the town of Haddonfield, Illinois feels, it is but a setting for a highly formalistic exercise in suspense. The build on the movie is just incredible, from the horrific POV prologue to Michael's modern-day escape to the introduction of Haddonfield and its teenaged residents to Michael's slow creep among them until, finally, night falls and the killing begins. More than thirty years on it remains absolutely fresh and involving, and impossible to skip by on television without being absorbed into it anew.

Credit to the two lead performances: Jamie Lee Curtis is a completely relatable heroine, filled with recognizable neuroses. Her reactions to the mounting terror around her are nothing but believable. Laurie's arc grows richer with each viewing: among other things, knowing what she goes through in the final reel gives significant weight to her assurance to her young charge that "I'm not going to let anything happen to you." Believe it. Donald Pleasance is at the other end of the innocence spectrum, the sole voice of reason and experience that goes under-heeded until it's too late. Though Michael's an imposing and menacing presence throughout, it's the terrified intensity that Pleasance brings to Loomis that makes the threat real. And dig the little arc of Loomis' stakeout of the Myers place - scaring off the kids from behind the shrub, then seconds later getting a scare of his own from the sheriff's hand. Perfectly executed comic miniature.

Add to all of this the film's substantial musical accomplishment (with Carpenter himself providing the most recognizable and insistent horror movie theme this side of Jaws), plus the invaluable contribution of director of photography Dean Cundey (whose work on this immediately catapulted him into prominence) and you've got a pretty terrific little horror film. Given the quality of the film, plus the insane box office it reaped back (after such a minimal investment) during the first years of the franchise era of American filmmaking, it was inevitable that its forumlae would be copied. And that sequels would follow.

--Halloween 2? Not so good. Mired in an unnecessary deepening of the bond between Laurie and Michael, the film is too much a by-rote slasher. One can't help but be a bit disappointed that the movie abandons both the abstraction and the realism of its predecessor to follow the template of its imitators. There's a sense of fatigue, here - even Pleasance, whose pronouncements gave the first film real weight, is just firing them off over his shoulder, like he's trying to get to the pub at the end of the shoot. Perhaps in response to the growing popularity of the Friday the 13th films, a bunch of gore effects were added outside Carpenter's involvement - the film plays a bit better without them. As to the film's invocation of Samhain (and Pleasance's surprising mispronunciation of same), it pretty much captures the movie's overambition (in explaining too much) and half-assedness.

--Halloween III: Season of The Witch was a GREAT idea, trying to spin the title into a Michael Myers-less franchise of Halloween-related tales, guided by many members of the original creative team (particularly Dean Cundey, and Carpenter himself present as producer and composer). The story of a sinister plot to unleash a pack of Celtic demons upon the world through a toy company's mask promotion is, um, more than a little muddled, but Cundey's gorgeous photography and some spirited performances more than make up for any problems at the plot level. Special mention to Daniel O'Herlihy, who's on the record saying he didn't think much of the material but that he had fun making it anyway. It shows.

--Halloweens 4-6 were quickly ejected by many fans from continuity, but hold up as a watchable (if over-complicated) trilogy of low-rent horror films that nonetheless have their own pleasures.

For one thing, the credits sequence for Halloween 4 is one of my favorite cinematic depictions of autumn:

They're more entertaining than 2, on the whole, and are mainstays on cable television these days. I must admit that when one of them rolls onto television on my nights in, I wind up watching through. The triptych involving Michael's pursuit of a niece (while being pursued, in turn, by Sam Loomis) while a weird cult starts to manifest around him is undemanding but engrossing. Donald Pleasance takes it very seriously, which helps to no end. He clearly felt a bizarre kinship with the series, stating at one point that as long as Michael kept coming back, Sam Loomis would necessarily be there. Halloween 6 was among his final films, and is, sweetly, dedicated to his memory.

--Speaking of which, there's also a strange cult surrounding the producer's cut of Halloween 6. I can't speak to the differences between the versions (though this post has been months in the writing, it was only ever intended to be a quick run-through), though I will say that, despite even this cut being a bit muddled (thanks to the film's insanely troubled creative history) there are a few noteworthy pleasures in 6 that make it more than worthwhile, including an engaging supporting turn as Tommy Doyle by Paul Rudd. Slasher movies are in such a rush these days to get to the confrontation between the killer and the Final Girl that most male characters are idiots or wimps who get quickly bumped off; Tommy is a little stronger and more resourceful than his counterparts, and Rudd brings humor and soul to the role. And the film culminates in a THRILLING fight scene between Tommy and Michael. Directed by Joe Chappelle, before his tenure directing THE WIRE.

--The oddly titled Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, like some horror fans, completely ignored the continuity of Halloweens 4-6 and returned the focus to Laurie Strode, seen struggling as a single parent while working as a teacher at a scenic prep school. Save for the omnipresent theme music, John Carpenter's touch is absent from this film, which has instead a Scream-like pacing and look; the cast is largely composed of attractive TV-ready young things (Laurie and her high school friends in the first film looked, acted, and FELT like late-70s teenagers). But happily the movie also has some of Scream's verve and wit, as well, with Adam Arkin scoring considerable points as Laurie's lovelorn colleague (the TV edit cuts a hilarious piece of dialogue he has with his students, where he cheerfully matches their wrongness with playful sleaze of his own). The film juices the duality between Laurie and her supernaturally evil brother (a confrontation through a porthole clinches it), and Jamie Lee Curtis plays the final reel like it's Medea or something, stalking her brother through the empty halls of her school, and indeed, her very consciousness.

--The rest of the franchise is sadly pretty crap - Halloween 2 director Rick Rosenthal was brought back to helm the profoundly ill-conceived Halloween: Resurrection, which begins with a well-paced but detestable prologue that dispatches Laurie Strode (and, by natural extension, Jamie Lee Curtis) from the series entirely. As if following the example of fans who have therefore decided to banish the film from memory, the rest of the film strives to be absolutely forgettable, with Michael stalking a group of kids filming their tour of his house as part of an internet reality show you know what just fuck this

-- Sad to say that Rob Zombie's reboot of the series just doesn't interest me a whole lot. There are worthwhile elements in each - Halloween fills in Michael's back story, functioning occasionally as an intriguing tale of a boy psychopath-in-training; and Halloween II has some fine images, including a beautifully harrowing shot of Michael crossing a windswept field on an autumn night. But I've long been frustrated by Zombie, a frustration only exacerbated by his Halloweens. He tries to make the movies his own and he makes choices, but they just don't gel - Laurie's driven to drugs & alcohol by her connection to Michael which, while reasonable, makes her a less effective or interesting heroine; and Loomis is made to be both compassionate towards Michael and ready to make a quick buck off of his intimacy (Malcolm McDowell connects to both qualities, but doesn't unify them believably - it's a tall order, mind you.) Zombie's Halloweens call up the things that I admire about aspects of his style (such his knack for capturing a very particular and very lively white trash patois and dialogue) while reminding me of all that I dislike about it (like putting that particular and lively patois in the mouths of damn near all of his characters). And all that stuff with the white horse in his second film was just fucking stupid.

Like any horror franchise, Halloween has its ups and downs, but Michael Myers remains an ideal boogeyman. His blank slate mask has had all kinds of motivation and fear projected onto it, and he's proved to be a durable (and, of course, indestructible) icon of the horror movie season. Even the least of his movies have this strange allure, and they remain among the most watchable and engaging movies you could watch this season. I know I'm far from alone in thinking that Halloween isn't Halloween without Michael Myers. Scary as he is, there's something comforting about seeing his "face" every October. Turn out the lights. Watch. Sleep afterward, if you can.

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