October 28, 2011

That Halloween Spirit: a guest post by Michael West

Michael West is the critically acclaimed author of Cinema of Shadows, The Wide Game, and Skull Full of Kisses.  A life-long fan of all things horror and Halloween, he lives and works in the Indianapolis are with his wife, their two children, their bird, Rodan, and turtle, Gamera.  Fans can keep up with him and his writing by visiting his website: http://www.bymichaelwest.com

After reviewing Michael's Cinema of Shadows recently, I thought he'd be a perfect author to coax into writing a little something for the Monster Movie Marathon. Well, boy howdy, did he go the extra mile in writing a testimonial to Halloween and the monsters who revel in it. Enjoy.

That Halloween Spirit
by Michael West

I’ll admit it: I’m a creature of habit…of tradition, if you will. Every year, I must watch It’s A Wonderful Life and How the Grinch Stole Christmas (the original cartoon, thank you very much!) sometime on or shortly after Thanksgiving. Call me sappy, but it just doesn’t seem like the Christmas season unless I’ve seen those flicks at least once. The same is true about my beloved All Hallow’s Eve. Sure, I can carve a pumpkin and put graves in my front yard, but I’m just not fully into the festive spirit of the holiday until I watch some Halloween-themed movies.
If you look up the “Greatest Halloween Movies” on-line, you get a lot of wonderful lists.  But if you look closely, most of the films they talk about really have nothing to do with Halloween.  Oh, don’t get me wrong, they’re some great Horror flicks: The Exorcist, Dawn of the Dead, American Werewolf in London…all required viewing for everyone who considers themselves a fan of the genre, but by in large, they’ve got nothing to do with the holiday itself.  It seems, unlike Christmas movies, which are all set on or around December 25th, to be considered a “Halloween movie,” you just have to be scary.  
Well, I can (and do) watch scary movies all year long, so when October rolls around, I want something a little more, something specific to the season.  

First up has to be John Carpenter’s Halloween.  This film is terrifying from the very first frame. The camera slowly pushes in on a Jack-O-Lantern—the only light on an otherwise black screen. Names flash around the blazing pumpkin, and we hear music. Chilling music. Carpenter’s main theme is one of the most memorable in motion picture history and sets the stage for the terror that follows. After the last credit appears, we are welcomed to Haddonfield, IL. It is Halloween night, 1963, and the camera rushes toward an innocent looking house—beginning a single, continuous POV shot that rivals Orson Welles’ opening to Touch of Evil. We see what Michael Myers sees as he grabs a butcher knife from the kitchen, creeps up the stairs, and slips on a clown mask. We then watch helplessly through the eyeholes of the mask as he walks into his teenage sister's bedroom and stabs her repeatedly. His act of murder complete, Michael walks out the front door and onto the lawn where a man and a woman wait. They remove the mask and we see that this killer has been a six-year-old boy. 
Fast forward to October 30th, 1978. Myers is now an adult and must appear before the court. When his psychiatrist (Donald Pleasence) arrives to escort him, Michael steals the car and heads back to Haddonfield. He arrives on Halloween, finds three teenage friends to stalk—Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis), Annie (Nancy Loomis), and Linda (P.J Soles), and picks up where he left off 15 years before.
John Carpenter’s Halloween was a terrifying experience in 1978 and it remains just as frightening today. If you have never seen it in the widescreen format, however, you have never truly experienced it. Carpenter knows how to use the scope aspect ratio to the fullest. Characters will be walking or talking calmly in the foreground while something lurks off to the side or in the window behind them. Sure, the slasher films that followed have copied this technique, but none have been able to duplicate the artistry and execution Carpenter achieves here.
The writing in the film is also key to building suspense. Debra Hill and Carpenter have fashioned real teenage girls with strong friendships and real-life problems. We grow to care about them, and that makes the danger they are in far more palpable.
Acting is often the sore spot in a horror film. Not here. Despite the fact that Christopher Lee was originally offered the role, it is impossible to imagine anyone but Donald Pleasence as Dr. Loomis. He delivers Carpenter and Hill’s long soliloquies on the nature of evil with a soft voice that draws you in. Like Robert Shaw’s Indianapolis story in Jaws, you are riveted to every spine-chilling word. Pleasence also uses his eyes to great effect. They are always looking—always searching for his elusive foe. And Jamie Lee Curtis is perfect as Laurie. She is shy and vulnerable, but she is strong when she has to be. There have been countless “virginal” heroines in slasher movies. They are all trying to be Jamie Lee, and they all pale by comparison.
John Carpenter's Halloween is simply flawless. This is what every horror movie aspires to: atmospheric, fun, frightening, and relentless.  But as good as the film is, it isn’t really about Halloween, is it?  Sure, the holiday makes for a great setting, but like so many films on those Halloween lists, this movie could have happened at any time of the year.  
Not so with the third film in the franchise.

After the Michael Myers storyline seemed to end with Halloween II, John Carpenter and producer Debra Hill had a brilliant idea to keep the series going.  They proposed creating a new stand-alone Horror story each year, every one of them centered around the Halloween season.  And so they tapped writer/director Tommy Lee Wallace to craft Halloween III: Season of the Witch.  Had the film been a success, we could have looked forward to a new and exciting Samhain-oriented Halloween movie each October.  But audiences came away angry, upset that the film was so different from its predecessors, and so we now get stuck with the latest Saw or Paranormal Activity as our only big screen options this time of year instead.  
For me, Halloween III: Season of the Witch has remained a perennial favorite because it is its own imaginative, original story.   And what a diabolical story it is!   A modern warlock, Conal Cochran (Dan O'Herlihy), plans to kill the majority of the world’s children with their own Halloween costumes.  His insidious plot begins, as insidious plots often do, with an advertising jingle: "Eight more days 'til Halloween, Halloween, Halloween. Eight more days 'til Halloween, Silver Shamrock!"  The infectious tune is repeated over and over, counting down the days in radio spots and television commercials, drawing children in like a Pied Piper to their doom.  O’Herlihy is amazing here, making Cochran swing naturally and effortlessly from grandfatherly to sadistic, but always remaining just plain creepy.  His speech on the true nature of Halloween is simply mesmerizing, and one of the best moments of any Halloween film. 

The film is visually striking.  Director Tommy Lee Wallace works with Carpenter’s long-time cinematographer Dean Cundey to compose wonderful anamorphic widescreen shots: the deserted town of Santa Mira, where Cochran’s mask factory, Silver Shamrock Novelties, is based; trick-or-treaters silhouetted on a hill at dusk, the lights of the city below; armies of robotic Silver Shamrock employees moving in like zombies from a Romero film.  It is all wonderful, atmospheric, and eerie stuff!  
In a homage to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the film builds to an open-ended finale, with actor Tom Adkins (The Fog) screaming to anyone who will listen, trying to warn them of the coming apocalypse; a bleak, chilling climax that may be another reason viewers were left cold upon its release in 1982.  Too bad.  I for one would love to have seen more entries in a Michael Myers-free anthology series.      
Speaking of anthologies, we have just enough time for one more Halloween-themed film, and in my humble opinion, I’ve saved the best for last...

Trick ‘r’ Treat isn’t just set on Halloween, and it’s not just about the day itself.  No.  Michael Dougherty’s directorial debut is a full-fledged love letter to the entire season. In fact, the movie is so full of Halloween spirit that it actually appears incarnate: Sam (short for Samhain, of course), a disturbing little villain (or is he the hero?) who, like the movie he stars in, is brilliantly conceived.
There’s really not much I can tell you about the plot of Trick ‘r’ Treat, as part of the joy of this movie is having it unfold before your eyes, like some cryptic puzzlebox you solve bit-by-bit as you go.  What I can tell you is that the movie deals with the rules of Halloween.  Like Cochran from Halloween III, Sam is here to remind us of the age old traditions that we seem to have forgotten along the way.  It features four intertwined stores, all taking place on the same Halloween night, and each one demonstrating the consequences of not following these traditions to the letter, and man…the consequences are steep!
Michael Dougherty deserves more praise than I can possibly give him here.  His writing is crisp, his characters instantly engaging, and his plots are tied together so effortlessly, so completely, that it truly is amazing.  And his eye for visual storytelling is every bit as good.  He fills every frame with so much atmosphere, you can actually smell the dead leaves, feel the late-night chill, and taste the candy.  
Trick ‘r’ Treat just gets better with each repeated viewing.  Details missed the first time around become clear, only adding to the awe you feel for Dougherty and his cast (including Anna Paquin, Dylan Baker, and Brian Cox, who modeled his look after photos of John Carpenter).and what they’ve been able to accomplish here.  I don’t think it’s too bold a statement to say that this may be a perfect film, and once you see it, I’m sure you’ll agree.
And there you have it boys and ghouls:  the ultimate Halloween trifecta.  So fire up the DVD player, light the Jack-O-Lantern, grab a bowl of candy corn, turn out the lights, and let the season begin!


  1. I love all the Halloween movies, except for Season of the Witch. I've tried to watch it a few times, but can never seem to get into it. I do have to say I hate the remakes too.

    I will have to check that second movie out though becuase I've never heard of it.

  2. Great post, Michael. I just saw Trick 'r Treat and fell in love with it. It really captures the fun and spirit of the holiday.