Halloween (1978): A Masterpiece of Tension and Horror

halloween-original

    John Carpenter is one of my favorite directors of all times and this is partially due to him not only being a great director but being an amazing writer and composer too. The original “Halloween” that spawned a franchise is living proof of this. I was originally going to do a comparison of the old “Nightmare on Elm Street” with the remake, but I wanted to take a risk and watch a movie I knew would be good versus the almost always crappy quality that comes with most remakes (though the Original “Nightmare” is terrible too so mostly I just wanted to watch something good). Suffice to say, I’m glad I did. This is a movie that is a classic for so many reasons that I look forward to going into more detail on, later in the review.

      “Halloween” was directed and co-written by John Carpenter while being co-written and produced by Debra Hill.

      The story starts with 6 year old Michael Myers killing off his teenage his sister in 1963. Fifteen years later he escapes his asylum when he takes advantage of a storm and the asylum preparing to bring him to court to go to trial. From here he returns to his original home and begins to kill again, leaving it up to Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) to stop him.

The Pros: The World – The world of “Halloween” is fascinating because it is like ours but also not quite like our world. Myers isn’t all human it is implied and the reaction to him escaping is downplayed from the beginning showing people in authority in this world don’t actually care that much about risks or most people…with the exception of the Dr. We see this in our world and sometimes it is worse or better but it still exists completely in the Universe Carpenter and Hill created.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is gorgeous as the light of fire from pumpkins or the light from a lamp that can quickly go dark, putting our characters into a dark shadowy world where we see enough to get the humanity of the victims or the inhumanity of the monster. The film is gorgeous and captures how open environments are where you are safe from the monster and closed environments when the monster hunts.

The Soundtrack – Carpenter created a beautiful and iconic score that I plan on using for my own writing. The film reminds me most of “Psycho” as there is an overlay of tension that pervades it and feeds into the silence when silence is used.

The Writing – The writing is fantastic! Our characters are real and sympathetic and very much who they are, Loomis is a Dr. who knows Myers and is paranoid because of it, the teenagers are different levels of free within themselves and their relationships or bound by their duties and responsibilities and all of them care about each other even as they do the crappy things teens and people sometimes do to each other. The writing in this is golden and illustrates showing rather than telling.

The Characters – As I said in the writing segment, most of the characters feel fully defined and real and it makes them compelling even as you know they are going to die as they play into the tropes and the types of people that Myers kills (sexually active teens like his older sister when hew as six). The dimension they have, even if it is only a little showing them both as selfish and selfless, gives the story shape.

The Teenagers – The teenagers are selfish and selfless and manage to feel like real teenagers, not adults playing teens, which is a lot to say of any film, but especially horror films that have bland stilted teens who are there to die. Here they exist as characters rather than props.

The Kids – The kids are there to show the mystery and terror of Halloween as it is one of them who notices Myers and calls him the bogey man. They also end up protecting the main teen protagonist Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) as she is babysitting and isn’t going over to the party house where Myers is slowly killing off her friends.

Dr. Loomis – Pleasence does a fantastic job as Loomis and isn’t the traditional hero as is unable to save most of the teens and only saves Laurie because she’d fought Myers prior, slowing him down and sent out the kids for help. He’s human through it all and you get why people don’t trust him as he is overly frank and sounds paranoid.

Michael Myers – Myers is one of my favorite monsters in cinema now. From the beginning he is messed up kid with sexual hangups and targets those because of it. It’s established from the beginning he doesn’t have humanity but there are elements of humor to him too, such as when he dresses up as a ghost or reacts to the environment around him. He’s threatening and as far as we know unkillable, but he is still defeatable and he’s better because of it.

The Theme  Music – The theme music is as iconic as “Jaws” and captures the beauty and tension of the this film so well. It is simple and accomplishes so much, which is a great analogy for the script and direction. You don’t need complex or big to scare or tell a great story.

Halloween and the Holiday Theme – The theme of Halloween is huge as that was when the first killing happened and in it the trick or treat theme as one could easily see the ones who are killed after having sex getting the trick after the treat they’d shared. It is those who are already cautious and ready for the trick (Laurie and the kids) who survive. Also the theme of masks and fear are big too as Myers panics when Laurie tries to pull off his mask when he is trying to kill her.

The Art of Tension and the Slow Burn – Myers doesn’t start killing immediately, there is a slow build up as he stalks the teenagers and hunts and gets to know his old home and town again. We have him breathing deeply and him always being far enough away to disappear but close enough to get our protagonists creeped out. This makes when the killings finally happen as we see him always out of site and isolating his quarry all the more suspenseful and scary.

Fear In What Isn’t Seen – Rarely do we see the killings happen, it is always out of sight and quickly and usually done in the dark. This adds mystery and terror and us reading whatever we want into Myers. He is the unstoppable and large threat who we see is capable of anything (as established at the beginning) and may not be human. We fear him because of not only what little we see but because we don’t see so much except only what little we are shown.

The Killer’s View – Tied into fear in what isn’t seen is seeing the world through Myers’s point of view. We get the monster in his heavy breathing and in how he acts like an animal, but we know he is human. He is a monster in the stalking as we know what is coming and from the beginning this is someone who acts and is a threat.

 Elements of the Monster – Breathe, size, mask, simple elements (stabbing and strangulation) and obsession. Both the physical and mental aspects of Myers are what make him so terrifying.

Great Use of Horror Tropes – Sexually active folks get killed, responsible and taking care of the kids and fine…why this works in this film though is we see Laurie getting more isolated. She wants to be with her friends and they want to be with her, but she can’t and as Myers picks them off in different ways we see her isolation grow. She’s in a place she’d rather not be having to be responsible as her friends are doing what she wants to do. Ironically it saves her but it also her curse, she hears her friend die over the phone and see how Myers displays the bodies when she finally goes over when the kids are asleep and is greeted by a nightmare she has no control to end.

  The Cons: The Sheriff and the Other Doctors – These are the guys who are antagonistic towards the Doctor and useless as characters. They are the only stock characters in the film and the only reason I won’t rate this film as perfect as the very least they could have been was not annoying since they weren’t helping at all.

    This is a movie that is not only a great horror film (easily one of the best of all time) but is also an all around great film because it does what every film needs to do but doesn’t…it shows rather than tells and it does it through camera work, editing and dialogue. This seems simple but it is something most horror films and other movies as a whole miss. A monster isn’t scary because it looks undead or is a cannibal, a monster is scary because you don’t know what it will do, except you know it will be something terrible. I wish more movies would remember that as this movie had me on the edge of my seat and was rewarding from beginning to end. Debra Hill and John Carpenter are clearly a dream team and Carpenter is one of my Top 3 favorite directors  and this film captures so many of the reasons why he is. Check this film out if you haven’t, chances are you won’t regret it.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10

Escape from L.A. (1996): Tearing Down the Machines

Escape From L.A.

    John Carpenter is easily one of my favorite directors at this point. “The Thing” is one of my favorite films as are both his “Escape” films. “Escape from L.A.” is better from “Escape from New York” in my opinion because the characters are more memorable and everyone has more agency, it also is much more of a protest too as we see Snake do much more than troll the President to finally end this film. All of these things make it the stronger film with the only thing being less being the cinematography.

     “Escape from L.A.” was directed by John Carpenter who co-wrote it along with Kurt Russell and Debra Hill with Debra Hill and Kurt Russell also being the producers behind the film.

     The story is in 2000 after a huge Earthquake has turned L.A. into an island. A theocratic President blames L.A.’s sins for this and turns it into a prison Island to put all the “undesirables” from the United States. Things come to a head when Cuervo Jones, the leader of the Shining Path seduces the President’s daughter Utopia in order for her to steal a Super Weapon which is transported to L.A. as Cuervo Jones plans the conquest of the United States. Snake is brought in again to stop him as he is infected with a super-virus giving him only 10 hours to complete the mission.

The Pros: The Premise – The idea of the Earthquake making things worse since the last film makes sense, as is the rise of theocracy in the United States as people would be seeking stability and blaming of “the Other.” We’re already seeing that blaming of the other right now with how the Syrian refugees are being seen here in the States as fear takes over rationality. In that way what brings about the premise hits very close to home.

The World – The World is factionalized with the Third World on one side fighting for revolution with Cuervo as their leader and the President on the other seeking to uphold the status quo of inequality. Both are dictators though as they each silence dissent in the same way.

The Themes – The themes are about getting back to the base of what it means to be human. Are ways of escaping that base humanity and seeking to control others (the President and Cuervo) or ourselves (the Plastic Surgeon and mutants) runs throughout the film as it is only when Utopia and Eddie work with Snake that there is any chance for things to change as either side winning is the loss of freedom for all.

The Action – The action is once again solid as we see Eddie, Hershe and Snake to an air assault on gliders against Cuervo and Cuervo taking out Snake when Snake is taking out his men in the first car chase is really good too.

The Soundtrack – Shirley Walker and John Carpenter do a great job of keeping the sci. fi. feel from the last film in the soundtrack while adding a much more apocalyptic feel as well as everything is bigger and more desolate than before.

The Characters – The characters are all compelling, whether they are antagonistic or not and I anytime any of them appeared I wanted to see what choices and decisions they would make.

Taslima – Is a small role but shows Snake the fearful on the Island. She speaks for the vulnerable and is super trusting too. At one point her and Snake escape from the Surgeon and his plastic surgeon mutants before she is eventually killed. Valeria Golina did a great job as this minor character.

Brazen – Michelle Forbes (Ro Laren from “Star Trek: TNG”) is awesome as Mallory’s second-in-command as we see someone who is calm and collected and is always looking towards the bigger picture.

Commander Mallory – Mallory is a true believer unlike is predecessor and at one point tries to kill Snake until he realizes he was played out he had played Snake with Snake only appearing as a hologram before taking away all power from the world. He felt threatening too and we see him force the President to stay and face the consequences of making the weapon. He isn’t a coward. Stacy Keach does a great job.

Utopia – Utopia starts out as one dimensional but becomes a full character over the course of the film as we see her realize that Cuervo is just as corrupt as her father, leading her to helping Snake fight back and escaping along with him, only to be sent to the electric chair by her father. She is a character who is trapped and is only freed when all the power around the world is shut down for good by the Super Weapon when Snake activates it.

Map to the Stars Eddie – Eddie is a double crosser who in the end chooses Snake after he sees that Cuervo cares nothing about him. Steve Buscemi did a great job as the quick talking salesman whose tape about L.A. is used to mock the President when it is played at the end. He is comedic but is a schemer who you end up taking seriously. He doesn’t make it out of L.A. as he shoots Cuervo but Cuervo fires the rocket before dying forcing Eddie to jump out of the helicopter.

Cuervo Jones – Cuervo is a great enemy. He is the dictator of L.A. and is connected to the oppressed as a symbol around the world. He is brutal though and cannot see past himself. He doesn’t dehumanize his enemies like the President but he is just as brutal and corrupt as he even turns on his allies. Georges Corraface did great.

The President – The President is the worst of the Religious Right as all racial, religious and political minorities are sent to L.A. He is brutal and clearly is a functioning dictator in the United States, though he was elected as the timeline doesn’t tell us anything different. He is a true believer like Cuervo as we see him willing to sacrifice his daughter to death for having been with the enemy. Seeing him literally lose power and get mocked at the end was rewarding. The guy was a great antagonist. Cliff Robinson was awesome.

Hershe – Is a transgender heroine and also Snake’s ex-partner. It is she who gives Snake the air support he needs to stop Cuervo and get the weapon. She thankfully manages to escape to the mainland and is off the copter before the troops arrive to take Snake. She is a great leader and the only faction standing against Cuervo and his corruption. Pam Grier played my favorite character in this film.

Snake Plissken – Snake is back and is a much better person in this! He doesn’t threaten people nearly as often and we see him go from setting out to kill Utopia to protecting her pretty quickly. He also does more than just troll and chooses to take away power from both Cuervos Revolutionaries and the President, both who are fighting with the same mentality of silencing all opposition and using murder as the way to enforce will upon the world. Snake isn’t a hero but he does the action that changes everything before he disappears once again.

Okay: The Cinematography – There are a few moments where green screen use is obvious and took me out of the film a little bit, the most glaring example being when Snake is surfing the largest wave. It’s an odd statement to say but this film is much more cartoony than it’s predecessor but it works and fits the tone.

    This was a great film with only certain cartoony moments in regards to cinematography as the only real downside. The characters are much more colorful than in “Escape from New York,” and Snake is more sympathetic as we see him act for more than just himself on multiple occasions. The antagonists are good too with the Socialist Dictator Cuervo on one side and the religious theocratic President on the other. Both are extreme sides of fanaticism that are rejected by Snake in the end when he makes the decision to take away their abilities to control and destroys the machine that’s been using him during this film and the last one. John Carpenter did an amazing job creating these two film and I can see how they inspired the character of Solid Snake and the world of the “Metal Gear” series. I highly recommend both the films.

Final Score: 9.5 / 10

Escape From New York (1981): Trapped in the Machine

Escape From New York

    “Escape from New York” and “Escape from L.A.” were stories I was only really familiar with through the game series that they helped inspire. Solid Snake was drawn from the ex-soldier and protagonist of this series Snake Plissken. Both of them are isolated soldiers forced into situations of their control and must race against time to complete the mission and save themselves. The biggest difference is the “Metal Gear” series is much more sci. fi. based while the “Escape” series is more dystopian and apocalyptic. Suffice to say I really enjoyed “Escape from New York,” and consider it a favorite film even though it does have some obvious problems that I will go into.

       John Carpenter wrote and directed the film while it was co-wrote by Nick Castle and produced by Larry J. Franco and Debra Hill.

   The story begins in 1988 when there is a 400% increase in crime leading to the United States turning Manhattan Island into a high security prison. It is in 1997 and Air Force One get’s hijacked and crashed into the prison that is Manhattan forcing the New York Police Force to send in Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) to rescue the President and save the tape that is needed for the Peace Summit with the Soviet Union and China. From here Snake is in a race against time as he is infected with capsules that will kill him in 22 hours unless they are removed.

The Pros: The Premise – The premise of society falling apart leading to a tyrannical government rising in the United States is fascinating, especially as we see how the disregard for life of those who aren’t among the privileged has decreased drastically. Whether it is Snake having the capsules put into him that give him a death sentence unless he completes his mission or all the rules that you see the moment you come in, as well as the fact that all those entering Manhattan Island have the choice to commit suicide rather than going to Prison. The disregard for life it at it’s height.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful. It is dark and shadowed and captures the feel of being trapped extremely well. Everything is hidden, which sets up how we don’t see what happened to the President until much later in the story and we don’t meet the Duke of New York until later in the story either. Dean Cundey and Jim Lucas did a great job.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is very 80s and it works. There is a tense synth feel that pervades the film which captures that this is supposed to be a future really well. John Carpenter and Alan Howarth did a great job.

The Action – The action is extremely solid. Whether it is Snake having to fight against his dying body and different crooks or facing off against the Slag in a bat fight in the Duke of New York’s arena or finally racing across a mined bridge being chased by the Duke…every action scene moves the plot forward and establishes the strength and guile of our hero or the motivation of those around him.

 Maggie – Maggie is the girlfriend of Brain who was once Snake’s partner but ran away. She comes to Brain’s defense but also sees the bigger picture too as she and Brain help save the President from the Duke. This leads to the Brain eventually dying and her using the last of her energy to try and kill the Duke. She was a great character and gave us a picture of someone making it in Manhattan. Adrienne Barbeau did great.

Brain – Harry Dean Stanton is great as the double crosser who eventually comes to stand by his friend. He’s smart and that is what keeps him alive as we see him outsmart both Snake and the Duke on multiple occasions and in doing so keep his head. He does eventually die on the bridge and can’t make it out but he makes possible Snake and the President’s escape, saving Manhattan from being bombed by the mainland.

Duke of New York – Isaac Hayes (Chef from “South Park”) is a great villain. He is a guy who is confident who sees himself as number one. He’s rose through the ranks of the prison to the point that he owns it now and just wants to get revenge on the world that put him there. He nearly succeeds too, only being stopped by Brain and Maggie when they change sides and help Snake free the President.

Snake Plissken – Snake is a bitter ex-convict who also served in the army at one point. Among the people he is seen as a bit of a folk hero and most people in Manhattan eventually recognize him. He’s ruthless but has a good heart as we see him go from threatening Brain and Maggie to trying to use all he can to help them escape. He’s pretty anti-authority too and we see him give cabbie’s tape to the President, embarrassing him on live television before China and the USSR while Snake himself destroys the tape that the government was going to use. His story is resisting the machine even as he is forced to be a part of it. Kurt Russell does a great job.

Okay: Bob Hauk – He is the guy who injects Snake with the capsules forcing him to race against time. He believes in Snake and has a respect for him as at the end he asks Snake if he’d like to join his team.

The Cons: The President – He’s a tool and wasn’t all that memorable. He wasn’t bad but he wasn’t written with much depth as we see him dismiss the lives that were laid down so he could escape and him cringing everytime he is threatened.

Romero – Romero just looks crazy but we never get why the Duke made him his second in command. Because of this he is just kind of there.

   This story has great world building, but I didn’t feel as attached to the characters as I did in “Escape from L.A.” I think a big reason for this is a lot of what the story does is world building and tone setting. It is “Alien” to “Aliens” and in both cases in order to experience the world we don’t have the time to really grow attached to a lot of the characters. It is still a film I’d recommend to anyone who loves a good dystopian or apocalyptic story and it sets up “Escape from L,A” and the story beats “Escape from L.A.” will use really well.

Final Score: 9 / 10