A few months back, I sat in a crowded theater on opening night of My Bloody Valentine 3D. As I was sitting there waiting for the movie to start, it occurred to me that I was the only one in the audience who was old enough to have seen the original in the theater. All of this reminded me how I felt about slasher films as a teenager, which is basically the same way I feel about them now: I love them — and yet I hate them, because there are far too few good ones. I went to these movies hoping to be scared but the TV ads usually frightened me more than the actual movies. The aforementioned original My Bloody Valentine (1981) turned out to be kind of lame. Even the ultimate ’80s slasher movie Friday the 13th (1980) didn’t scare me all that much. Sure, I jumped at the end like everyone else when Jason’s corpse came out of the water, but the ending still made no sense whatsoever.
The problem for most of these movies is that the bar had been set tremendously high by John Carpenter in 1978 with Halloween. Shot on a reported $320,000 budget, Halloween raked in $70 million worldwide and spawned a wave of slasher film imitators that lasted most of the ’80s.
Previous to Halloween, Carpenter had made Dark Star (1974) and Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). Dark Star began as a USC film school project shot on 16mm, a very funny black comedy sci-fi tale about hippies in space who are on a mission to destroy unstable planets. Assault on Precinct 13 is a tense low-budget action flick about a police precinct under siege by a street gang seeking retribution, in which cops and prisoners have no choice but to fight side-by-side to fend off the attack.
So what makes Halloween succeed on a level that its later imitators could never quite match? To be fair, Halloween was in many ways the first of its kind so many elements that would later become clichÁƒ© (such as camerawork from the POV of the killer, teenagers being murdered after having sex or a “boogeyman” killer that won’t seem to ever die) weren’t clichÁƒ© yet. But the true reason for its success is the level of filmmaking. First, the screenplay by Carpenter and producer Debra Hill got something right that very few of its imitators ever did: they created likable, believable characters — so when they die, you actually care. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is not your typical screaming, cowering female horror film character. She’s resourceful and smart (except for that bonehead moment near the end where she drops the knife). It’s an important lesson for all you horror writers out there: when you make your victims intelligent and have them react like normal people might react, you make your movie scarier.
Another reason is the overall pacing of the film. Carpenter along with editors Tommy Lee Wallace and Charles Bornstein create tension by having long stretches in which no one is murdered, yet characters are alone in vulnerable situations. Contrast that with the Friday the 13th films in which every single time a character is alone, you know they’re going down — fun at first, but after a while it becomes too predictable to be scary. But what Carpenter does is create suspense: we know the killer is out there and we know something is going to happen, but we don’t know when it’s going to happen, and so when something finally does happen, everyone jumps.
A third reason is the composition of the frame. Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey (who went on to shoot Back to the Future and Jurassic Park) generate tension using long shots with lots of shadows and minimal lighting. The killer is seen lurking about in the background, framed in doorways or in windows, wearing his creepy white Halloween mask (made from a Captain Kirk mask that production designer Tommy Lee Wallace found in a mask store). Sometimes they pan away for a few seconds and then pan back and he’s no longer there, which only puts the audience on edge even more. There’s a particularly eerie shot of the killer framed within the see-through curtain of the laundry room, quietly stalking the person inside — which turns out to be another one of those moments where you think something’s going to happen, but doesn’t. Another cool shot is of Laurie hidden in a closet, the way the shadows shift across the inside of the closet when the killer moves by outside.
Also very impressive is John Carpenter’s music score, which has become so iconic over the years that just a few measures of that opening piano is enough to make the hairs stand on end. A secondary theme associates itself with Laurie Strode as she begins to notice a figure is repeatedly watching her. About two-thirds of the way through the movie, a third theme emerges when things really start to get serious, a driving piano rhythm that weaves its way in and out for the rest of the movie. All very simple, yet incredibly effective. With only a few exceptions, notably The Thing and Starman, Carpenter has composed the scores for virtually every one of his movies.
The Rick Rosenthal-directed 1981 sequel Halloween II was again written by John Carpenter and Debra Hill and is unique only in the sense that it takes place on the same night and begins immediately after the events of the first film. Other than that, it’s just another run-of-the-mill slasher flick, though definitely better than most of the competition.
After Halloween, Carpenter continued to put his stamp on cinema with such great films as The Fog (1980), Escape from New York (1981), The Thing (1982) and Starman (1984). Regular readers of this column are probably aware that I am a fan. In a previous column I used Escape from New York as an example of great low-budget ’80s cinema. I also talked about The Thing (perhaps Carpenter’s masterpiece) in a list of ten great remakes. Even though Christine (1983) was not a very good adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, I still very much enjoyed Carpenter’s take on it. Big Trouble in Little China (1986), a favorite among my fellow Carpenter fans, didn’t really do much for me but I keep telling myself I should see it again. While I’ve never personally found his later work as great as his early stuff, that doesn’t matter. Those first eight films are one hell of a great way to kick off a directing career.