Thursday, October 20, 2011


My favorite holiday of the year is Halloween. Before anyone reacts, I will say I love Christmas. But, I love Halloween. I love to be scared. I love attending haunted houses. The only thing I look forward as my children get older are when they are able to join me in my love of Halloween movies and activities.

As a child, my friends and I built a haunted house in our basement every year. We planned and built for weeks. My Mother’s profession was as a porcelain doll artist and the basement her workshop. Doll heads and parts on shelves in the semi-darkness is pretty bloody scary. We needed very few decorations. My basement scared most of my friends just as is.

Every year, I scan the channels for Halloween shows and movies (with Netflix, perusing my favorites is so easy). I have two categories of movies, those I watch with the kids (no easy task finding that these days) and those I watch late at night.

As you can guess, Halloween is my favorite Halloween movie. It is a late night movie, not yet consumable by my children. This film came out in 1978 and is directed by John Carpenter, written by Carpenter and Debra Hill, starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasance.

The film starts out in 1963, where six year-old Michael Myers snaps and kills his older sister. The family sends young Michael to a mental institution, where he does not speak or move for fifteen years. During this period of Michael’s non-activity, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) determines Michael is pure evil. I’m not sure how Loomis came about this diagnosis, but I will forgive a few plot holes if the ride is worth the suspension of disbelief. I don’t believe anyone saw Halloween and expected to see character development similar to Citizen Kane.

Back to the good doctor’s diagnosis, on Halloween in the present day, Loomis will petition the state to lock Michael away for the rest of his life. As they come in the front entrance, Michael overpowers them and drives away in their car (okay…I don’t know how a man in a catatonic state since age six can drive a car…but I’m willing this last time to forgive these hole, because the characters wondered the same thing on screen).

Michael goes on a rampage, he stalks and kills random people until he goes up against Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), who has the hapless job of babysitting on Halloween. Laurie, the good girl bookworm, doesn’t engage in any of the other vices or bad activities as the other unfortunate victims. This story seems a cautionary tale, as if a virtuous life will save you from the boogey-man. We find out in Halloween 2 that Laurie is Michael’s sister and this rampage was not so random after all.

Killing Michael Myers is no easy task. Stabbing him in the chest and eyes will not kill him. Shooting him and knocking him off a balcony only annoys him. Okay, that’s cool. I’ll suspend disbelief on that point. Adds a little bit of panic factor when he’s in the room with a character we like. But, at some point, I need to know some information. What happened to Michael to make him this way? We don’t learn any of that in the initial installment of Halloween.

This movie remains a vivid memory in my mind. I did not see the film in the theatres. I believe if I saw it there, it would not be as frightening. I saw Halloween in the fall of 1979 on HBO, when my friends Bruce and Keith came over to my house after a Friday night high-school football game. Because we watched in my dark family room, and the scariest parts of this film were set in a normal dark house just like mine. The experience was far more terrifying at home. At any moment, Michael could pop out of a room in my house and that would be the end.

The most memorable moment came after the movie. Bruce and Keith lived just a few blocks from my house, and my parents went out for the evening. The only way to get home was to walk home. On a normal night, a walk of two blocks at midnight in my neighborhood caused no concern to anyone. But, not this night. I watched from my room, Bruce and Keith sprinted home as fast as their legs would carry them.

This film impacted us after viewing. Greatness is a funny thing; Halloween was not blessed with an incredible plot or phenomenal writing. In fact, the stiff dialogue was forced. John Carpenter made this movie for $325,000, a bargain even for 1978. For us, the movie lived on after the final credits. For weeks after the viewing, I paused before entering a dark room. I looked out my window at night hoping not to see someone standing in the street watching.

Even though critics panned the film as too violent, the movie contains little blood and gore.

Three things come to mind when I reflect on this film.

  1. The setting for the street in the fictional town of Haddonfield, Illinois was actually a street close to Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. The setting looked and felt like fall in the Midwest. You could almost smell the burning leaves in the crisp air (even though filming occurred in the spring).
  2. The images of jack-o-lanterns. From the movie poster to the opening credits, the image the orange pumpkin glowing yellow through the slit eyes and toothy grin endures. The hue of the film just screams Halloween to me.
  3. The music. With no budget to work with, instead of an orchestral score, John Carpenter composed and performed the moody soundtrack music using a piano and a synthesizer. The main theme is an uncomfortable piece of music, written in 5/4 time with ominous chords swelling along with the piano. The texture and rhythm of the music makes the listener off kilter and on edge. Thirty years later, even listening to a bar or two of this theme brings back the mood of the movie.

Like any successful movie, Halloween spawned sequels and remakes. Despite the lower quality of each successive installment, many of the sequels give me the same feel – and perhaps because of the music and fall setting.

  • Halloween II – 1981 – Just more of the same, just with more violence and gore. Written by Carpenter and Hill, this story picks up immediately following the events in Halloween. Carpenter handed directorial duties to Rick Rosenthal. The primary milestone for the sequel is the realization that Laurie Strode is Michael Myers little sister.
  • Halloween III: Season of the Witch – 1982 – Carpenter wanted to use different Halloween themes throughout the series, rather than just Michael Myers slashing people to death. This movie attempted to start a new line, as the film has no connection with the prior two films. This is not necessarily a bad direction, if only number 3 executed better. The plot centers on a Halloween mask manufacturer called Silver Shamrock. Each mask embeds a computer chip with a fragment of Stonehenge in order to invoke the magic of the Gaelic tradition of Samhain to kill all the children (I know, I don’t understand either).
  • Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers – 1988 – I remember little about this movie, it contained so few remarkable aspects, except the setting, which still made me feel like the fall in the Midwest (this film they also filmed in the spring). The plot revolves around the daughter of Laurie Strode, who died (but we find out in a later film she lived and faked her death). Anyway, Michael returns to kill the little girl, after surviving the explosion at the end of number two. But, he’s been in a coma ever since. The only true shock appears at the film’s end, where the little girl dons a mask, picks up a pair of scissors, just like Michael all those years ago, and brutally stabs someone to death.
  • Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers – 1989 –