'Halloween' was a treat the sequels were tricks

The original, made 20 years ago, was stylish and suspenseful, and is still the best.

August 09, 1998|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

John Carpenter made "Halloween" as a 30-year-old kid with talent, ambition and guts - but hardly any money.

Which helps explain what makes it such a great film, a horror-suspense classic pieced together by a kid who knew nothing about test audiences or big budgets. It might also help explain why the six sequels that followed - including the newly released "Halloween: H20" - don't do the legacy proud.

Carpenter, who had only two feature films to his credit, got the "Halloween" gig after a telephone call from executive producer Irwin Yablans, who had come up with the central plot line, baby sitters being killed on Halloween night.

With financing from money-man Moustapha Akkad, Carpenter made his film - with the considerable assistance of Debra Hill, who produced "Halloween" and shared writing credit with Carpenter.

Filmed in only 22 days, on a shoestring $300,000 budget, "Halloween" has plenty going for it - not the least of which is a story line that's simple and scary as heck.

On Halloween evening 1963, in quiet, bucolic Haddonfield, Ill., young Judith Myers is killed by an unseen, knife-wielding assailant (the entire opening sequence is shot in one stunningly long tracking shot, letting us watch through the eyes of the stalker). Only after the deed is done do we find out who the murderer is: her 5-year-old brother, Michael, now standing zombie-like on the Myerses' front lawn.

Cut to 15 years later. Michael has been in pretty much of a trance ever since the murder, but on Halloween eve 1978, he breaks out of it with a bang. Escaping from a sanitarium (in a dimly lighted sequence that only heightens the chilling effect), Michael heads for home, pursued by his psychiatrist, Sam Loomis (not coincidentally, the name of a character from "Psycho"), who realizes his patient is neither deluded nor deranged, but rather pure evil.

Thus Michael and Loomis (Donald Pleasance, in a role that would define his career) set out for Haddonfield, where three unsuspecting teen-agers (P.J. Soles, Nancy Loomis and newcomer Jamie Lee Curtis) are about to have their lives changed in some seriously shocking ways.

Although "Halloween" has been maligned as one of the first slasher films, the truth is, there's surprisingly little on-screen violence and almost no blood. Rather, there's almost constant suspense, heightened by both Carpenter's careful use of the wide-screen format (you never know what will appear in which corner of the film frame) and the purposefully languorous pace.

Not that "Halloween" is a perfect film. When Pleasance gets into the histrionics, it's eye-rolling time (in his narrative accompanying the 1994 laser-disc version of "Halloween," an invaluable source of information on the film and the filmmakers, Carpenter says Pleasance admitted to never quite understanding his character).

The film also helped begin a regrettable horror-movie trend of having young, attractive, sexually active young women as the victims, with only the good, virginal girl (in this case, Curtis) smart enough to make it out alive.

Still, there's no denying the style Carpenter brought to "Halloween," an innovative and personal touch lacking from most of its successors. And it didn't end with the writing and direction; Carpenter also wrote and performed the score, including the eerily minimalist theme that has been a part of almost every sequel.

It's unfortunate that Akkad, executive producer for the franchise, didn't leave well-enough alone. None of the sequels has come close to the level of artistry and innovation displayed in the original.

Carpenter knew when to stop. His association with sequels four, nTC five, six and seven has been limited to use of his characters and theme music. He wrote "Halloween II" grudgingly, primarily as a way of earning some money from his creation ("Halloween" was phenomenally successful, earning an estimated $65 million, but Carpenter claims to have seen little of that money).

"I sat down to write the sequel," Carpenter says on the "Halloween" laser disc, "and I realized there's no story there." The first film, he says, "works, and we should all leave it alone. ... There's been four or five [sequels], and I believe there's gonna be a sixth. That's kinda sad."

Capsules of the "Halloween" films:

* "Halloween," 1978 - A 5-year-old boy kills his older sister, then, 15 years later, returns home to enact even more carnage. The masterpiece. (Director John Carpenter, starring Donald Pleasance and Jamie Lee Curtis.)

* "Halloween II," 1981 - A silly sequel, in which more people are killed and we find out why bogey man Michael Myers is after poor Laurie Strode ... she's his younger sister! (Director Rick Rosenthal, starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasance.)

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