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A Clockwork Darkness

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Subjectivity, Hawks, and Halloween

Erich Kuersten

By now there have been so many horror blogs and horror magazine writings, academic deconstructions, and Scream-style post-modern riffs that the slasher cycle of the early 1980s grown in a botanical garden of cinema, analyzed and appreciated from every angle, largely by adults who grew up bathed in the films when they reran nonstop on late 80s cable; and it all stems from Halloween (1978). Due to my self-indoctrinated guilty feminist streak and general anxiety (it was tough falling asleep in the suburbs after seeing even commercials for things like Terror Train), I was very disheartened during the original slasher cycle; as of this writing I've seen Halloween only four times over my entire life and each time in a different visual format: first, it played in my mind's eye, back in 1978 when it was first in theaters and creating a huge terrified buzz in my elementary school cafeteria. Since the kids who saw it were the uncouth bullies with no parental supervision, I associated it--and the entire ensuing cycle--with them, lowbrow savagery. When it debuted on prime time TV it was (of course) pan, scanned, edited for content, with new material inserted to pad the running time that changed the meaning of the whole film. Still, I had to leave halfway through, running upstairs to read DC war comics for protection. My dad laughed at my cowardice.

It wasn't until college that I saw the original version-on VHS, still panned and scanned--as at last I was immune to slasher fear through whiskey. Once afraid only of murderers I was growing up to be afraid only of cops.

And now, just this past Tuesday, sober, on a big widescreen Sony TV, I saw Carpenter's original Panvision frame, and the film's reputation as a true classic was forced upon me, like a wet willie. Now you find me rushing to the table with my bucket of bloody notes, a mere 35 or so years late.

First, it's important to note that, while labeled a horror director, John Carpenter has never made another film remotely like Halloween, though he did write the script for the first sequel (and the third, which doesn't count since it's entirely unrelated). If he'd directed the first sequel it might have been great, but Carpenter is a stubborn iconoclast who has never chased the cheap bucks that might have come with just banging out rote slasher films. Thus, Halloween stands alone as a modern film classic that might be sidestepped by some of the snobbier critics (like myself) due to its unseemly progeny and Rob Zombie remakes. But now that I'm old enough, and sober enough, and humble enough, and have gone so very long without ever being stalked by a killer, and HD widescreen has come to pass as I longed for even back in 1978, I can watch this movie and feel fear but a manageable type, pleasant goosebumps rather than skeeved-out puritanism. And here's a few things I've discovered which the imitators missed (with a few exceptions), that made the first film so awesome, tricks and narrative strategies that perhaps future Halloween sequel makers can employ to horror cinema's universal benefit

1. Perspective: Carpenter's gift is such that he can generate maximum uncanny dread from just a series of long shots down tree-lined suburban streets, shots we take for the killer's POV, even when he can't possibly be there. Unlike similar killer POV shots by a lot of his imitators Carpenter holds these perspectives for a long time, following Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) as she walks to and from school, from vanishing point to vanishing point. Today, I'm sure, producers would give Carpenter shit for these kind of 'nothing happening' shots. Speed it up, man, they'd cry, or the easily-distracted teen audience's cell phones are going to start lighting up! All they expect from such a film is that a guy is in a mask with a knife chasing girls around, so that's the formula they go with and only then wonder why their films aren't 1/10 as scary as Halloween. Here, as the trick-or-treaters move like reflections of headlights slithering along the porches and front bushes after school, as willowy Laurie winds her way forward into the evening of babysitting, time seems to slow down in anticipation of some terrifying event. It's this inexorable but slowed-down suburban effect most horror directors can't seem to match in their own work. Only one other director understands this: Brian De Palma, as in Carrie (1976).

2. Leaking Darkness - The edges of Carpenter's screen are always either black or tending towards darkness, bleeding through and erasing the difference between the screen and the dark of the theater, or the room where you're watching the film (see it in the dark for max. results). The darkness of the screen makes for many places to hide, and the potential victims seem always about to be swallowed up in the inky fog. The early scene of the nurse and Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) driving to the asylum is so dark it seems like any minute the blackness will engulf them. Eventually we in the audience can begin to think the screen extends off the screen and into the theater or living room darkness. Since it's too dark to see the edges of the screen, how do we know where it ends? On pre-widescreen TV the slasher was boxed in by pan-and-scan but now that digital cable has helped us literally widen our screens, Carpenter's masterly Panavision rectangle is back, there are no edges to stop Michael Myers from flowing out of the movie like a nightmare baby into the bathwater darkness all around us.

3. Hitchcocksmanship
a) Sound- The viewer's relation to the image onscreen when watching any movie is generally a dream-like narrative immersion; unless there's a distraction or the film really sucks then chances are we're completely absorbed. This absorption is something Carpenter deliberately disrupts. The muffled voices of Laurie and her friends talking far away from our (killer) POV is a very unusual strategy. We can understand what they're saying but also we feel uncomfortable, like we're not supposed to hear --usually we either hear or don't --not this hazy in-between, so we feel like we're eavesdropping (1).

b) Vanishing Point of View (VPOV) When we are in Myers' POV watching Laurie and friends from far away it's scary but we know they're safe due to our distance from them (Myers has no rifle or crossbow). Once we lose his POV and are in, say, Laurie's bedroom, we can't be sure when we'll be seeing through his eyes again and that in itself becomes scary (as long as we're seeing through his eyes he can't sneak up on us). Hitchcock's Rear Window is an example of how to exploit this sudden loss of distance: after we've been seeing the killer in the window across the courtyard for most of the movie, his sudden entrance into the Jimmy Stewart's apartment is truly shocking--a bit like Samara crawling through the TV in The Ring, as is the suspense of seeing Grace Kelly, who we've seen all through the movie in the comparative safety of the apartment, suddenly vulnerable, having moved within the screen onscreen.

Expounding on this concept, Sheldon Hall notes in his essay "Carpenter Widescreen Style" that we may see some of what Myers sees but we never see Michael see.
"(W)e are often positioned along or beside Michael but we are denied the reverse angle cut which would show us his reaction if he were not wearing his mask: the necessary pre-condition for empathy as both Hitchcock and Carpenter have noted."
"We are however given just such a reaction shot when positioned with Laurie at the several points where she becomes aware of being followed. At these moments --such as when Laurie watches as the car Michael is driving passes her and Annie (Nancy Loomis) and comes to a momentary halt, or when she looks out from her bedroom window at Michael standing below--suspense derives in part from the fixed distance between Laurie/the camera/us and Michael: she is not close enough to identify him clearly, to recognize or dispel the threat, and the camera does not close the gap. A variation of the device is Carpenter's manipulation of the distance of the camera from Laurie and her friends. It does not always stay with them as they traverse the sidewalks of Haddonfield, but will sometimes hold a fixed position as they walk into the shot's depth. In refusing to be prompted into movement, to be motivated by the action happening before it (as is customary in classical cinema), the camera's objective autonomy suggest Michael's subjectivity even in his absence, and again increases our anxiety for Laurie. (3)
4. Hawksian Seige Dynamics
Like myself, Carpenter is a devotee of director Howard Hawks, and most of Hawks' films concern the dynamics of group action with the camera in medium shots. This allows us the perspective of one of the people in the group and we feel a sense of belonging and courage in the face of great odds and danger. In his 1951 The Thing (shown on TV within the Halloween mise-en-scene), Hawks' use of overlapping dialogue makes the action flow too fast for us to think or critique, only react as we would were we there (3). We are with the good guys every step of the way; we never see what the men under Captain Hendry's command don't. There are no monster POV shots and we're never left alone with any one character. We feel connected and competent, so when they begin to display fear and anxiety it infects us more easily than if their group inspired no initial confidence. Even the "Winchester Pictures" logo in the beginning, with the crossed rifles denotes a kind of rock solid safety - strength and solidarity in firepower, frontier-style. But soon enough that image burns away as the title "The Thing (from Another World)" blazes through in unholy light. It's surely no accident that even in the early 80s when I was still too young, alienated, and spooked to watch Halloween, I loved and had seen the The Thing dozens of times. Even now it always works its magic, but within the mise-en-scene of Halloween, The Thing is metatextually swallowed by the darkness, as if a third screen barrier suddenly slammed down between it and the two kids watching it (in separate houses) and we viewers watching it in our own dark living rooms. The classic overlapping dialogue momentum of Hawks' film becomes trapped in the slower-than-time amber terrarium of Carpenter's mise-en-scene. It seems like even this 'comforting' sci fi film is slowly being swallowed up by the suburban melting clock of alienation and immanent threat.

To achieve this harrowing effect, Carpenter takes the sense of courage and strength inspired by the Hawksian 'group under seige' and reverses it, so we're seeing through the lone outsider's--the thing's-- eyes. Instead of the feeling of security we get from a Hawks film--the belonging to a group of brave men with a a shared code of ethics--we're utterly isolated. Instead of being able to rely on a shrewd group captain (who heeds our suggestions) we're ignored; instead of being safe inside the fort looking out, we're outside the fort, looking in.

In Halloween Hawksian framing (middle range, waist-up) does occur in some key scenes, as in the shot below where Nancy and Laurie flank the kids watching TV inside the room. Though we would hope they'd be aware of the onrushing menace, the dialogue is instead focused on boys and constantly interrupted by the ringing phone, requests from the kids on the couch, and the TV itself. It could almost be like a Hawksian comedy--Monkey Business or Bringing up Baby instead of a siege movie, because like Katherine Hepburn in Bringing up Baby, Nancy natters on as a self-absorbed but well-intentioned flake while as her fussy paleontologist, Laurie tries to mask her sexual reticence. In neither movie is there a reason for the characters to think there might be a devouring 'shape' of man or leopard coming to claw them up while they dawdle at the lip of chaos (to use the iconography of BABY -- see more on that here).

The fundamental difference between Hawk's comedy and drama is this awareness. The characters in The Thing know that a Myers-esque 'shape' coming to get them, so they're able to crack jokes, to take a 'whistling in the dark' approach to drama. Hawks' comedies occur when the the characters are oblivious to the coming monster/shape or they think there is a danger when there's not. When a hero knows he's in danger the courageous thing to do is treat it like a comedy, and in comedy, to treat it like a drama. In Halloween, the heroine thinks she's in in a Hawksian comedy (so plays it as drama), however it's we who know she's in danger (to be played with comedy). This variation occurs only rarely in Hawks --in Scarface when Guido answers the door of the honeymoon chateau he shares with Tony Camonte's sister and at the climax of Bringing up Baby wherein Susan brings in the killer leopard to the jail, thinking she has the tame one. In each of these examples our slight advance knowledge generates mounting dread. The build-up to the rampage in Halloween is like one of those moments stretched to 70 minutes.

Now that I'm able watch Halloween over and over as I used to The Thing it becomes more and more apparent that Michael really loves Laurie Strode (the way Susan really loves David in Baby) and just likes scaring her, chasing her around, letting her stab him with hangers and sewing needles, and of course killing all her friends as biblical payback for their surrendering to mindless hormonal desires instead of making popcorn and watching The Thing with her on Halloween, as he or I would have. And it's no accident that like Marlon Brando at the end of Last Tango In Paris, Michael is shot right at the moment his mask comes finally off and the invincible boogey man is revealed (for all his automaton shambling) to be just a disturbed boy man who looks like Mark Ruffalo.

After all, just as we are powerless to change the events onscreen, so too are we powerless to stop our friends from leaving us (or at least seeing us a lot less often) when they start a romantic relationship, we can only moan in despair when Laurie continues to drop the butcher knife near the possum-playing Michael, who, for all his menacing stalking, is intimidated or enthralled by Laurie's resilience. Clearly Michael also relates and sympathizes with little Tommy after he's bullied and threatened by kids at school. As they run away one of them bumps into Myers and looks up, aghast, then runs away and we're meant to grasp a subtextual sense he's temporarily playing avenger of disrespectful pumpkin smashers. And if Laurie can't get away fast enough when he's chasing her, Myers slows down his inexorable shambling approach, and goes around to the side window rather than following her in the front door. For all his evil he's playing a game. His stabs miss or near miss even when he has plenty of time to aim. His complete silence dictates we can only determine his evil by his actions, which are too systematic to be sexually sadistic. They can only be read as elements instead of play.

6. Fear of Maturity - I know of a lot of people who resent having to grow up and face the wearying demands and pressures of adulthood, myself included. All actions have consequences, and for someone as emotionally arrested as Michael the consequences add up only to bodies for disposal and use in creepy tableaux. He seems to have a point, as sexual excitement over boys so overwhelms these three friends that it shuts out all the warning signs coming their way --and they're quite frankly, obnoxious. To them the world moves according to their hormonal drives, and nothing can be out of the ordinary or threatening if they have a boy on their mind. While we may watch Laurie's friends being unknowingly stalked and think, 'ah they get what they deserve,' for being so blinded to danger, we think it in the way parents will accuse their own children of lying when its a truth they don't want to believe, so we're already beginning to 'earn' Michael's attention just by daring to not sympathize. Annie especially makes such sympathy hard, never quelling her monotonous bossy tone and ignoring the danger signifiers. The dog tries to warn her, but she refuses to even look down at it to see which way it's looking --she can only presume it's barking at her since she's unable to conceive of anything not being about her. Later when she hears a potted plant crash on the porch, and then the yelp of the dog being strangled, all she can presume is the dog is getting laid.

It's a safe presumption we've all had babysitters, and from there no small jump to presume we've all had to deal with the sudden arrivals of horny boyfriends, anxious to take advantage of a temporarily parent-free space. Maybe we've taken such advantage also ourselves, but that's generally at a less formative time. As kids our budding crushes on this older but not yet adult babysitter are dashed by this coarse brute's arrival unless he's cool and lets us smoke pot or see his tattoos. Our youth means, however, we can't stop the boyfriend coming over, home-invasion-style and we can't stop getting old and having to one day get a job. Michael terrifies us because he represents an alternative too dark to consider consciously. We can just disappear down the rabbit hole of insanity, killing, or just lying and stealing and wandering the Connecticut wilderness like Susan Vance in Bringing up Baby. Those are really our only two choices. Michael's smart, in a way, in his rejection of that path, and finds affinity with all those who share that rejection, who are alert to the real boogeyman as opposed to those too in heat or otherwise self-absorbed.

7. Tele-Cocooning - Even Laurie is guilty of this social ill. While on the phone with Annie she ignores Tommy's boogeyman sighting because she's appalled after learning Annie told some boy Laurie liked her. Look at the awesome way Jamie Lee twists her eyes up and twirls her hair in a mask of concern and anxiety over Annie's matchmaking gambit, which causes her to miss the sight of the Myers across the street and so dismiss Tommy's anxiety the way her friends have dismissed hers earlier when she spied Michael peering behind bushes. It's as if Annie's move has dragged Laurie against her will over the line into vulnerability to attack, and Tommy's afraid as his main line of defense, Laurie, is now as blind as her friends.

Imagine if Captain Pat Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) was so wrapped up in the issues with Nikki (Margaret Sheridan, above) that he ignored the danger in The Thing? If he just told his men and the scientist that they were hallucinating and not to bother him as he sweet-talked her? The world would have ended in 1951. That's maybe why Carpenter's remake is all men. We just aren't as strong multi-taskers as we used to be, at least not in the movies. Men can't navigate a woman and a monster at the same time anymore.

8. Open Non-Ending - The Shape is in the theater!
And so it is we're left in the movie with a continuing sense of the eternal threat, our first experience of a human killer who can come back to life time and time again, who is supernaturally unstoppable. All horror movies after Halloween would now end this way, with some very last minute realization of more danger to come. The menace wasn't halted anymore, just killed. 9. Meta-Textual Anxiety:Creatures like the Tingler and the Blob used to ooze off the screen around under the William Castle electrically-wired seats of 50s teenagers. Now Samara crawls from the screen in The Ring or we watch our own immanent death on TV in the latest Scream. It's only a matter of time before we turn around and see the window behind us is open.

And we were sure it was closed.

Better turn the TV on loud. Something nonthreatening from the desert island video collection -Forbidden Planet of The Thing to drown it out... if you've read this far I'm pretty sure you own both (if not you should) and know they can protect you from fear like few others. Left to its own devices, your imagination conjures ghastly threats in ever dark patch, but here in these films we are safe. The captain has established a guarded military perimeter, or we're high up in a well-armed B-17... with warm coffee up front, sir. They're comfort movies, reassuring. Distracting.

On the other hand, when both The Thing and Forbidden Planet are on the living room TV sets in Halloween that sense of security is used against us. Washed out images the kids are only marginally paying attention to, right outside the windows--gathering corporeality beyond their gaze -- the 'Shape' is coming. As it leaks into the surrounding darkness of the theater or your own living room, make sure your back is against a sturdy wall. Stay alert, with porch light on and guard dog, butcher knife, shotgun and/or baseball bat by your side, and keep watching... keep watching The Thing!.

1.1) Films like De Palma's Blow-Out and Coppola's The Conversation are the exceptions, but in both cases the eavesdrop aspect is central to the plot instead of incidental as it is here. 2. "Let's suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, "Boom!" There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: "You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!" - Hitchcock / Truffaut
3. The Cinema of John Carpenter, p. 71 (Wallflower Press, 2004)
4. Hawks' gave the directing credit on The Thing to his longtime camera man Christian Nyby, but its generally considered 'his' movie

NEXT: "A man who can only pout and a woman who can only sneer" - Re-Examining the Flaws of Edgar G. Ulmer's DETOUR

Click Here for "Death Driving Ms. Henstridge" my deconstruction of JC's GHOSTS OF MARS, from issue #1

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