Revisiting Haddonfield: John Carpenter’s Halloween

Sometimes, with a film as iconic as Halloween, the process of writing even an informal piece on my blog can feel like an uphill battle. It’s a cliché, but honestly, what hasn’t been said about Halloween, its cultural impact, its iconic soundtrack and the tropes it spawned? What can be added to the conversation? When I thought of revisiting Haddonfield, it was more so that I could pay attention to the parts of this series I’ve ignored, or possibly not given a fair shot, but you have to start off with one of the most influential horror films of all time to get there.

This line of thinking took me to my own personal experience with the film; even though when I’m pressed I never think to list it as one of my favorites, there’s no way it doesn’t rest solidly in my top fifteen play counts for films, if not higher. I watched it for the first time as a child, and routinely beyond that (I have watched it at least the past four Octobers). While over that time the element of surprise has faded, what makes it so special is how entertaining and atmospherically creepy it remains even after I know all of Myers’ moves. Beyond this, I still do genuinely feel like there’s so much to dissect in its short run time that I pick up on something new, and brilliant, in the filmmaking each time I watch it. Even after finishing watching it last night, I got excited at the possibility of returning to this after it was all said and done to do a more detailed analysis of what I picked up last night.

What’s most interesting, to me, is the way in which John Carpenter uses the camera and forces perspectival gaze to manipulate the pleasures inherent in an horror film.  There’s enough work out there on the body genres, so I don’t necessarily want to weight this post down with that, but suffice it to say rather simplistically that viewers go into horror films with set expectations that they will be terrified at the same time as their blood lust is satiated. In order to accomplish both of these, Carpenter uses the camera to create a gaze which views the film unfolding from the point of view of the characters through the course of the film, either in explicit POV shots or in over the shoulder shots that present the act of watching. However, he shifts the perspective multiple times from Michael to Laurie and back again in order to give audiences both the blood they desire and the feeling of terror. The film, of course, sets up this technique with that famous opening sequence in which Myers murders his sister; interestingly, the camera is kept high enough above tables, furnitures and characters that its inferred eye line suggests a fully mature antagonist, only to be completely shattered when the mask is removed and he is revealed to be a child.

POV and over the shoulder shots remain an essential, recurring factor after this sequence, however, as Carpenter presents the events of Halloween both from the eyes of the serial killer and his main target. It goes without saying that those that align with Laurie are the ones that encourage the fright aspect; the spectator is the only other character that has any sense of Michael’s whereabouts other than Laurie, who appears mad to her friends, which creates a sympathetic relation. The viewer, too, sees Michael appear and disappear near bushes and in the garden. The most affective POV sequence of hers, though, is predicated on a fear of the known; late in the film, we have seen all of Myer’s murders and know that her decision to go over to the house and discover what is going on is not in her favor. However, the POV shots make us helplessly partake in Laurie’s actions and sympathize with her all the more. Interestingly, after Laurie uncovers what is going on and the audience has the same level of knowledge as her, Carpenter chooses to switch back to the third person, instead using depth of field and the scanning of the background for Myer’s consistent returns (to which Laurie is oblivious) the primary cause of fear.

Of course, none of this is exactly revelatory; as an audience we are most likely asked to have sympathy for the final girl in any slasher film. All the more interesting, however, are the myriad of first person shots that align with Michael, always accompanied by his signature breathing. Watching these sequences reminded me of a Q&A with Ti West I attended earlier this year, in which he was talking about how he attempts to have the presentation of violence in his horror films deviate from the norm as he attempts to not sensationalize these acts, noting that all too often a part of the audience is encouraged to root the chainsaw wielding maniac to get those gory kills. In the case of Halloween, Carpenter seeks the exact opposite; in fact, one of the things that makes Myers such a highly effective villain in this installment is his presentation as a force of evil with no discernible motive other than to terrorize his old stomping grounds. As a character, Michael is a completely blank slate, only propelled forward by the audience’s willingness, wonder, and most importantly desire, to see the actions that will come. What this achieves is to make the audience complicit in his actions; as viewers, we don’t need any revenge to sympathize with because we are in our seats for the explicit purpose of watching blood spill. And we are so often involved in the act of stalking and killing that the spectator’s gaze (and what it causes) becomes one of the primary villains in the film. Where this thread evolves to brilliance, is in the final point-of-view shots, in which Carpenter pairs Michael’s breath over a set of suburban shots. The valance of this sequence is twofold: on a diegetic level it reminds us that Michael Myers is still lurking somewhere out there, but on a thematic level it suggests that this kind of evil is present in all of the suburban spaces we take for granted. It’s a strikingly powerful moment.

Another note of importance about this film is the degree to which Carpenter places it in the lineage of great films that preceded it. I’m sure the most obvious shout out is to Hawkes’ version of The Thing, a film he would later remake, but this time the biggest parallel I picked up on I never spotted before is that between Halloween‘s beginning and M (Lang, 1931). Both films use the same technique, as they start with children singing a song that both trivializes the danger that is incoming, but adds to the creepy atmosphere of the film. Whether intentional or not, its certainly interesting to think of how the children in each film act as the predictive harbingers of a threat to which the adults are naively unaware.

As a more personal (and fun) anecdote to end on, this viewing also got me to think a lot more about sound. I think it’s pretty apparent how important sound is in the process of scaring an audience. When you discuss Carpenter and the iconic scores he’s crafted throughout his career, it seems like a pretty simplistic and obvious thing to say that sound is important to creating a frightening atmosphere. I realized the degree to which I take this for granted as I watched my pet rabbit’s ears twist and turn the whole film; its certainly not scientific evidence, but they were always on high alert and raised during the scariest moments. It’s amusing to think of how sonic cues can effect us to the degree that even an animal, with no knowledge of whats passing on the screen, can infer from music and silence what’s supposed to be scary. I think on this viewing my favorite part of the score was the precise piano that accompanied Myers’ continual returns, as it perfectly complemented Laurie’s obliviousness with a sense of dread. But every part of the score is pitch perfect in a way very few soundtracks are, and it evokes exactly what the images need.

There’s no real basis for comparison right now as I’ve just begun, which leads to a slightly shorter post, but I do think its amazing how timeless and entertaining this film still feels. It’s one of those films that truly deserves all of the praise and hype its garnered since its release, and its a brilliant piece of filmmaking by a master of horror who understands how to use sound and image together.

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