The Movies Made Me Do It: Confessions Of A Film Actor (Issue #1)
HALLOWEEN, 1978, R — October 31st. The festival of Samhain. When the veil between the living and the dead is thinnest. Trick-or-treaters. Ghost and goblin costumes. And it’s dark outside. Channeling all of that, we see an opening image of a flashing jack-o-lantern against a black backdrop. Creepy, orange block font opening credits roll. The camera zooms into the pumpkin’s eye socket. The candle extinguishes. The music…
All of this happens before the film even begins. If there ever was a way to immediately set tone and precision for a horror film, this is it. And for those of you — lol — who have never seen Halloween, it gets better: what follows is one of the simplest yet sickest openings in this genre. Spoiler alert: a four minute unbroken shot — thank you, Steadicam — of an unseen figure, watching a couple inside a house, only to enter, grab a knife, continue upstairs, slip on a mask, go into the bedroom, until…we learn it’s a six year old kid.
This was the scariest film I had ever seen, as a kid, before I had even seen it. Just the cover art on video boxes in Blockbuster and the late night commercials on TV gave me nightmares for months. There was nothing more terrifying than a dark figure, wearing a white, emotionless rubber mask with black eyes, and stalking you with a big, sharp knife. The boogeyman began to manifest in my bedroom closet, patiently waiting to strike. The score burned into my mind as well as the millions who saw it. I even remember discovering how to play the unforgettable theme on the piano. Da-duh-duh, da-duh-duh, da-duh, da…had to step back for a second. Scared myself.
Today, the film still holds up as a low budget, legit exercise in style and suspense. I’m usually partial towards independent horror films that hit a nerve and make a profit, so I will try to review objectively. But this movie’s still got it. It’s a lean, mean 91 minute machine, with no time wasted in setting its precedent then building the suspense. For a film that cost a mere $325,000, it looks pretty sleek by today’s standards. Some dialogue is definitely dated — “Can I get your ghost, Bob?” — but the relentlessness of its killer, and that spooky, supernatural ending — did he disappear? did he get up and take off? WTF happened to him? — still gives me and fans the creeps.
Complaints about the film today?
It spawned the never-ending slasher genre, which flooded the 80’s film market with diminishing returns. Film buffs will also argue that Halloween owes more than a bit to earlier 70’s shockers like Bob Clark’s Black Christmas, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and even Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left. I’ve even heard some film students point out lighting similarities between Halloween and George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead or Dario Argento’s Suspiria. And let’s not forget the granddaddy of all knife movies…you know, the one with the shower. If you want some fun trivia, characters’ names in this film are the same as in Psycho.
On the other hand, Halloween is not like a lot of other bloody, copycat slasher films — most knew the words but not the music. This film relies on anticipation and shocks rather than dismemberment and gore, although it’s funny that director John Carpenter himself admitted his movie was “True crass exploitation. I decided to make a film I would love to have seen as a kid, full of cheap tricks, like a haunted house at a fair, where you walk down the corridor and things jump out at you." Today’s younger audiences may get frustrated with it’s deliberate pacing and rather low body count. And let’s not forget the now cliched horror tropes: don’t drop the knife, don’t open that door, and don’t get chased upstairs.
Bottom line: this film was a big reason for why I got into performing. Because horror is so primal, it always seemed like a great place to start as an actor. Another note: aside from a mad crush on Jamie Lee Curtis, the sole surviving babysitter, this film boasts an eerie, committed performance by British vet Donald Pleasance, who plays the hero psychiatrist. For all the remakes and reboots in this franchise, he remains the quintessential Dr. Sam Loomis. His speech about Michael Myers as his patient is kinda old-fashioned — long take monologues in film seem way less common now — yet it’s also completely grounded and underplayed: “I spent eight years trying to reach him…and then another seven to keep him locked up…”
Revisiting the film last year, I kept thinking: all these actors must have had a blast making this. And the guy playing the killer? Carpenter was right when he told him, “Don’t act.”