Wednesday, 13 November 2013

13 - More Than One Good Scare

I’ve made a few references to the original Halloween being one of the greatest horror films ever made. This is mainly because it is.

I’m not a big fan of the entire series – I’ve seen 4 and 5 twice, 6 maybe once, and never seen 8. As such, today’s entry will be about the films I’ve seen the most – the loose “trilogy” of the original Halloween, Halloween II and H20.

I don’t know when I first saw Halloween, but I know when I picked up a video copy – it was not too long after seeing Scream in the cinema. The video was second-hand, had a very grainy picture and was in completely the wrong aspect ratio. Didn’t care, loved it. 

You can't write a piece about the Halloween films without mentioning how good John Carpenter's score is. John Carpenter's score is amazingly good.
The characterisation is so strong, you really feel like you know Laurie, Annie and Lynda (Totally). The cast is kept to an absolute minimum – there are only three main teen characters, and less than twenty speaking characters in total – giving a greater focus on them all. On the whole, it’s Laurie’s movie, and while Jamie Lee Curtis gives a great performance she’s not the ultimate final girl she’s often painted as. That said, it’s unfair to judge her by those that came after, and the great final girls of slasherdom all build on her example. While we’re busting misconceptions, let’s put pure innocent Laurie to one side too – she’s less sexually active than her friends because she has trouble attracting men, but she has her eye on a guy so the thoughts are definitely there. Also, while she coughs on the joint she doesn’t seem surprised at the offer or unwilling to accept it. 

If we’re talking about great performances, we have to talk about Donald Pleasence. Bluntly, some of the dialogue he’s got to recite here would floor lesser actors, but he manages to make it sound glorious. His delivery of lines like “Death has come to your little town, Sheriff.” make Dr Loomis one of my favourite characters in horror. He is the template for what is referred to in Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon as the Ahab*, and is absolutely the inspiration for Robert Englund’s performance in that film.

*(Excluding the actual Captain Ahab from Moby Dick, obviously.)

Then there’s Michael – or, more correctly, The Shape. I like him best as he is here –patient, curious and a little playful. While he has a lot in common with the boy from Crystal Lake, Michael’s style of pursuit is completely different to Jason’s. Jason will follow you and catch you. Michael has no need to follow you, he knows he’ll catch you soon enough – he’ll even let you go if he thinks it’ll lull you into a false sense of security. He’ll even taunt you a little – remember his daytime appearances in front of Laurie? That extends into the playfulness too – can you imagine Jason with a sheet over his head? 


Moving on to Halloween II, and while Rick Rosenthal is a more than competent director, it’s still clear we’re in lesser hands here. Carpenter the writer is also not firing on all cylinders – Loomis’ dialogue is not as sharp here as in the original, for instance, and there are moments where it shows in Pleasence’s performance (though overall he’s still brilliant). Despite this, and a few other minor concerns, it’s still the best of all the sequels.

The death of Ben Tramer seems a little overdone, and also brings to mind the question of what kind of mask Michael is supposed to be wearing. In the real world, it’s a Shatner mask painted white with enlarged eye holes – but the presence of another person in the same mask shows that’s not what it was in the movie reality, so what was it? I’m going with the idea that it was a bad batch of Shatner masks made with the wrong coloured plastic, packaged up as generic “Scary Face” masks and sold out as cheap peg-filler to convenience stores instead of being thrown out.

On the other hand, there are some brilliant murder set pieces, with Michael managing to kill off most of the introduced hospital staff – though, given how empty the place is (like a lot of movie hospitals), they’re probably overstaffed anyway. The swift silent death behind glass of Budd the ambulance driver and the subsequent drowning of Nurse Karen is particularly good (though one wonders why the water didn’t do the same to Michael’s hand as it did to her face). I’m also impressed by the death of Nurse Jill, partly because Michael manages to lift up an entire adult woman on a small scalpel, but mostly by the way her clogs pop off as she pops her clogs.

The revelation of Laurie as Michael’s younger sister undermines a lot of the power of the first film – the idea of a killer who fixates on a group of girls at random and hunts down the one that got away simply because she got away is a lot stronger than the idea of him hunting her because of an unmentioned family connection. It also raises the question of where Laurie was on the opening Halloween night, and why, if she was put up for adoption for her protection, she ended up being adopted by parents only a few streets away who actually deal with the sale of her old family home – surely, if the authorities want to keep her safe, she’d be sent far away?

In the end, it’s just a good slasher movie. Not a step up from the original like Friday the 13th Part II was from the first, nor as big a step down as something like Freddy’s Revenge or even Michael’s next three big screen outings. I don’t really rate them, or the Jamie/Thorn storyline(s), so I’m going to skip ahead to H20.

Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (terrible title) was directed by Steve Miner, the man behind the aforementioned Friday the 13th Part II. I first saw this one in a sneak preview screening at the Prince Charles Cinema in London, and loved it. My enjoyment has faded a little since then, but I still think it’s pretty good.

Curtis’ performance as Keri Tate/Laurie Strode convinces, her full medicine cabinet and her alcoholism a believable outgrowth of the traumatic events of the first two films. Pleasence’s absence is clearly felt, though I’m still not sure whether it would have been better to bring in someone else as in a similar role to replace him – possibly his daughter Angela as a daughter, Samantha Loomis? The opening pan around Nurse Chambers’ office would have worked so much better if they’d actually used Pleasence’s dialogue from the first film instead of giving it to another actor to read.

An early movie appearance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (then probably best known for 3d Rock from the Sun) shows his screen presence – I’d have like to see him and Josh Hartnett swap roles. There’s nothing wrong with Hartnett ‘s performance as such, but he smirks where Gordon-Levitt would’ve smiled. The importance of Curtis’ character to the plot means that the adult characters are given something approaching equal screentime with the teens, with good performances from both Adam Arkin and LL Cool J. 

Whilst not quite up to Carpenter levels, the spooky stalking appearances of Michael Myers are effective. Like the original, the bodycount is low but the death scenes work well, with the kitchen sequence a particular standout – they get some good use from the dumbwaiter, and Michael’s knife is almost comically oversized. The lifting up of Arkin’s character on the enormous knife is a little closer to believable than the similar moment with the scalpel from Halloween II.

Then there’s the end sequence. Laurie and Michael’s chase through the school is possibly the best part of the film, though Laurie’s theft of the coroner’s van certainly comes close. By the way, Laurie has looked into those eyes many times, and had there been anyone else in the mask they would’ve tried to take it off rather than just feeling to see that it was still on. That was Michael in that mask. He’s dead.

Except, he’s not, of course – after all, you can’t kill the boogeyman.

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