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Review: Halloween, 1978 – By Michael Marshall Smith

I recently got in touch with Michael Marshall Smith (author of Spares, Only Forward, Straw Men and more – check out my interview with the man himself) to see if he wanted to contribute to the 31 Days of Horror. He was more than happy to so passed me along this wonderful review he did for the classic John Carpenter film, Halloween. Before you ask MMS has not seen the Rob Zombie remake.

Director: John Carpenter
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence, Tony Moran

“Is the theme from Halloween inherently scary, or is all music that sounds like it now scary just because it reminds us of Halloween?” Discuss.
Da da-da da da-da da-da da-da…

There’s just something about those American horror movies of the 1970s, something warped and implacable and insane. They’re stained with a nervy cultural nihilism neatly captured in Adam Simon’s subtle documentary American Nightmare: a sense that the dream is over and all bets are off. You realise you are in the hands of storytellers who do not have your best interests at heart, who — like a drunk driver or rogue cancer cell — have no idea of what a happy ending is, never mind how to safely guide you there. Films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Last House On The Left and George Romero’s zombie trilogy share something else (as did the work of literary running mates Ira Levin and Stephen King) – the eschewing of horror’s traditionally gothic trappings for the unsettlingly domestic and mundane. They brought hell to the doorsteps of people like us, to where we lived in both physical and emotional terms: they showed us that horror happens to people who wear jeans. The greatest of all these films, and the platonic ideal of horror movies, is John Carpenter’s Halloween.

Released in 1978 and co-written with Debra Hill, Halloween was Carpenter’s third feature-length film, following the stoner sf spoof Dark Star (co-written with film school buddy Dan O’Bannon, who went on to script Alien) and the seminal urban paranoia-fest Assault on Precinct 13. Though Carpenter has produced other classic horror — his remake of The Thing (a snatch of the original features in the background in Halloween), The Fog and Prince of Darkness — Halloween knocks the nail most firmly on the head.
The story is brutally simple. The script that became Halloween was titled ‘The Babysitter Murders’, and that’s what it’s about. Weird kid kills, is locked away for years, and escapes to kill again. He murders babysitters.

That’s all s/he wrote. There’s no big mystery, no interlocking set of puppet suspects. There’s just a sociopath who kills, and kills again.

You never quite know why he does this, thank god: over-explanation kills horror stone dead. You don’t know why some people get fatally mugged, either, or slip off the curb in front of a oncoming car. Death isn’t plotted or rationalised in real life — it just comes and gets you, and then goes and gets someone else. Horror movies succeed best when they reflect the negligent whims of our trickster gods, rather than playing faux-intellectual games with audience expectation. Whenever I watch a new horror movie, I’m hoping it will be something like Halloween. I’m hoping it will not start with yet another slow pan down the front of a high school, and feature only the kind of teenagers to whom you hope something very nasty will happen, and soon. I’m hoping the chills will be real, rather than ironic, and that the director will not substitute gore for visceral resonance.

I’m hoping most of all that it will make use of silence, rather than filling every minute with thrash metal in the hope the soundtrack will push the budget into the black. Which brings me back to my original question:

Da da-da da da-da da-da da-da…

When is the world at its most scary? When it’s dark. Since the forerunner of our species hoisted itself out of the oceans and decided to have a crack at surviving on this new-fangled dry land, we’ve been locked into a fundamentally diurnal existence. Day is our time, not night. At night we can’t see stuff, and this freaks us out. When deprived of the effective use of vision, we are forced to fall back on hearing. Our ability to interpret noises. Sound is key to effective horror, and in Halloween Carpenter demonstrates a genius in using the natural textures and sounds of real life. He doesn’t resort to hectic cutting or self-conscious dolly shots, trying to bludgeon or wheedle a response out of his audience. When Carpenter’s soundtrack is silent, it’s not the sign-posted tension of a-boo-is-coming: it’s just quiet, like the world often is. Movies in the 1970s were often more spacious in their soundscapes — watch Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid again sometime, and notice how eerily and effectively quiet it is – and so Carpenter can’t claim sole credit for use of aural white space.

But he does get the credit for this:

Da da-da da da-da da-da da-da…

Personally, I think you could have played that music to a caveman thirty thousand years ago, and he’d have decided now might be a good time to go back to the cave. I have it as the ringtone on my mobile phone. Always have, from as soon as I could dictate how the bloody thing rang. When people hear it, they always look up. Sometimes with a smile, sometimes with a sideways frown that is not quite one of irritation. It could be simple recognition, of course. It must be, after all, the most memorable spooky soundtrack of all time: only The Exorcist can compete, and it shares a very similar structure — though Tubular Bells’ fugue-like roll is more like something you’d hear from a gothic music box, and less redolent of pure anxiety. Maybe I’m being fanciful — chances are onlookers are just wishing the fucker with the bleating mobile would hurry up and answer it — but I believe they look up because they understand that this sound, that music, means that they should beware.

Inherently scary too, I believe, are Carpenter’s camera and editing choices in Halloween: the blank long shots and the eerie medium long shots, a point of view which seems laced with lack of affect.
Someone is watching this town but not comprehending it on anything more than a visual level.

He sees stuff, but just does not get it.
These are streets.
That is a house.
That girl is a thing I could kill.
More than this I do not understand.

The timings of these ponderous slices of incomprehension correlate exactly to the theme music’s structure, which progresses in marching measures rooted by a stately climbing bass, and is yet lent a persistent off-kilterness by the inner clusters of triplets, with their uneven and yet oddly compelling emphasis. The shrill hammering of the three basic pitches is unsettling in itself: it is also unsettlingly relentless in the way it is used. (This is something you’ve got to be careful with, however. Whoever scored Eyes Wide Shut evidently thought that merely repeating a piano motif confers a mesmeric quality. It doesn’t. It can also make you want to go round and slam the piano lid down on the composer’s fingers. More than once.)

When the Halloween theme kicks in again, you hear it with a kind of anticipatory dread, an arrhythmic dread.

Oh Christ. Here we go again, you think. That thing I was scared of earlier?

It’s back.

This is the essence of horror, of life and death. Show the audience something bad. Let it appear to go away. Bring it back. Don’t promise them it will go away again. Ever.

And then fade that scary music up.
Review first published in CINEMA MACABRE, ed. Mark Morris, PS Publishing 2006.


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