Halloween (1978) – John Carpenter

Ok so since it’s October, I’m going to run through all of the Halloween films (including the Rob Zombie remakes) and give you guys the definitive list of the best and the worst. I’m going to try to do one every day or so. I’ll probably do some sort of ranking at the end too. Halloween has always been my favorite horror franchise. The first of the series, (and the only one directed by John Carpenter) came out in 1978 and was, arguably, the first proper “slasher” flick. Though it’s fairly tame in terms of blood and guts, even for it’s time, it’s got that John Carpenter charm so it’s dark and brooding and creepy and it doesn’t have to rely on gore to scare you. Most importantly, it’s got that famous Halloween music. You know, this music. By the way, that music is written by John Carpenter himself. (He loves to score his own movies: Prince of Darkness and The Fog) And everything is lit and shot so well, the whole thing just oozes scary.

The pacing is great as Carpenter slowly builds the scares for the audience. We frequently see the mysterious masked man (Michael Myers) lurking off to the side somewhere and just staring at characters without their knowledge. It really gets into your head and you start to wonder if there’s somebody staring at you from out the window or even in the room with you. The first film in the series is great because it’s so simple. There’s no reference to some of the larger overarching plotlines of the rest of the Michael Myers saga. It’s unclear whether Carpenter had these plotlines in mind during the first film. I’m thinking not; it seems like he retrofitted the storylines when he wrote the sequel.

Like I said, the plot of the first movie is pretty basic. We start off with a long tracking POV shot of through the eyes of Michael Myers as a 6 year old boy. He slowly stalks around his house and after his sister enjoys roughly 30 seconds of hot sex with her boyfriend (who promptly leaves), Michael kills his sister with a big butcher knife. Fast forward 15 years. We meet Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance). He’s a psychiatrist who’s been treating Michael in an asylum since the murder. He’s convinced that Michael is pure evil and must never be let out of the mental hospital. Just then, he breaks out, steals Loomis’ car, and returns to his childhood house in Haddonfield, which is also the town where Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) lives now.

So it’s Halloween night and Laurie and her high school friends have plans to either babysit neighborhood kids or to bang their (boyfriends or both). Don’t worry, they’re all of legal age; they’re well into their late 20s or 30’s. (Illinois standardized tests be holding everyone back.)  Loomis tracks Myers back to Haddonfield and tries to find him before he starts killing again. Of course, he’s too late and Michael starts carving up the babysitters like a bunch of goddamn Thanksgiving turkeys. Well, wrong holiday but you get it. Of course, we’re all aware of the rules you must follow to survive a horror movie: Stand up straight, don’t drink, do drugs, have sex, or say anything like “I’ll be right back.” We basically know who’s going to die and when. Laurie decides not to take all this murdering lying down and she fights back, stabbing Michael about the face and neck with a series of non-lethal weapons. Well, at least she tried.

I’m not going to spoil the ending, though I’m sure you wouldn’t be reading this blog if you haven’t seen this one. Just go watch it. It’s fantastic. Halloween is consistently ranked among the all time scariest movies. It’s the slow building of suspense combined with the utter mystery as to why this little boy just snapped and became a soulless killing machine.

Lets talk about why Michael Myers is such a great killer. A big part of it is thanks to that mask of his. The face in the mask isn’t inherently scary. It’s not angry, or deformed. It’s just blank. Something about that cold emotionless face just staring at you from a distance or remaining blank while he’s stabbing you with a huge butcher knife is really kind of disturbing. And the sound of Michael breathing heavily through the rubber mask will echo in your head and haunt you long after the movie is over. Fun fact: Due to the low budget of the film, the mask is just a Captain Kirk (Star Trek) mask with some white spray paint and some minor DIY alterations. Michael’s black eyes peering out from that white mask will forever be one of the greatest images in the history of horror.  He never runs but he’s always following you. That calm, cold, relentless presence of his is hard to understand and it’s just really unsettling.

  1. Is it scary: 9- Music, pacing, acting, lighting, everything in this movie works so well together to make it really scary.
  2. Originality: 9- There had only been a couple of slasher-esque films before this but Halloween really set the bar and created the slasher as we know it today.
  3. Blood: 3- Like I said, this one was pretty tame, even for its time. But Carpenter shows us that you don’t need a lot of blood to scare the hell out of us.
  4. Believability: 7–For the most part this was all pretty believable. Towards the end, when shit is getting intense, A couple of the characters do things (or don’t do things) that I didn’t quite believe. Laurie runs up the stairs and hides in a closet. Minus 1 point.
  5. Setting/Cinematography: 8- Carpenter does some great things here with light and shadows. Things are dark and creepy throughout the whole movie. I also like the idea of turning a quiet suburban community into a slaughterhouse.

Final Score: 36/50

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Prince of Darkness (1987) – John Carpenter

Buckle up, Bible-Belters. Get ready to be happy they’re teaching evolution in school. John Carpenter’s 1987 Prince of Darkness takes an interesting look at the gap between science and religion and attempts to bridge that gap using theoretical physics and creepy upside down camera shots. John Carpenter is a genius. He obviously put a lot of time and thought into setting this movie up. But I think his vision was too big to be a feature film. I bet his original cut of this movie was 4 hours long. You can just tell that some things weren’t fully developed. Prince of Darkness had a lot of potential, but it came off a little under-cooked because he tried to fit too much into it (just like his 1980 flick, The Fog).

The story is actually really interesting and ambitious. It’s sort of a study on the nature of good and evil. It makes you take a close look at the things you “know” about life and about our existence on this planet. Carpenter suggests that maybe there are things that are simply beyond our grasp in terms of scientific understanding. Most of the main characters are scientists and they encounter things that their education has taught them should be impossible. The problem is that this might be too lofty and philosophical to fit into a 2 hour movie. Don’t get me wrong, the movie is cool, and definitely creepy, but I don’t think it quite lived up to its potential.

The movie opens with the dude who played the grandpa in Three Ninjas (yeah, major throwback…) as a wise and spiritual physics professor giving a speech to his PhD students that basically says “the more you learn about the universe, the more you realize you know nothing.” He also stabs a zombie in the face with a chop stick at one point. He gets a call from Donald Pleasence who plays a wise old priest. The priest shows him an ancient cellar underneath an old church in a generic downtown metropolis (what?). There are some ancient relics and tomes there and a giant tube of green Jell-O that contains the soul of Satan or something. The priest senses that the evil force in the Jell-O is getting stronger so he calls the professor to come down with some students and colleagues to run some tests.

The evil Jell-O starts causing weird things to happen around the church. It drips upwards towards the ceiling and collects there instead of on the floor. Then all the homeless people around the church turn into zombies and barricade the doors so the science club can’t escape. All kinds of ants and roaches and maggots and worms start swarming all over the place. Every so often, the evil Jell-O squirts a frothy green load into somebody’s mouth and that person becomes an evil zombie of Satan. The crew starts dropping off and killing each other and getting up as evil zombies. One dude gets killed and then after yelling a creepy message of doom to the surviving team members, his body collapses into a pile of blood and cockroaches. Pretty gruesome. Also Alice Cooper shows for some reason and stabs a guy with a bicycle (what?). So the zombie horde tries to kill/assimilate everyone so they can bring evil (The Devil) into the world through some kind of liquid mirror.

Like I said, I feel like Carpenter had more in mind that probably got cut to keep the film from running too long. There are some odd character interactions and some pacing issues that I’m sure got introduced in editing. The characters make some odd choices that are a little hard to explain. But I think I can make peace with that stuff. The movie is actually pretty good, despite these structural flaws.

Of course, the movie has all the things we want from a Carpenter movie. He did the score himself and it’s perfect. He uses the latest in 80’s synth technology to really set the tone and give you that creepy feeling. It’s lit and shot perfectly. There are some great creepy shots and some pretty cool special effects. Nothing like The Thing though, but nobody was expecting that.

We so frequently see science and religion being at odds with each other so it was refreshing to see a scenario where they actually rely on each other. The notion that humans will really never fully understand the universe is an interesting one. Carpenter wants to scare you; he wants to disturb you; but he also wants you to think about things in a different way. To be fair though, you just have to take some of the theoretical physics and advanced math jargon with a grain of salt. I am by no means a Stephen Hawking, but I have to quickly mention that the dialog in these scenes needs some work. That’s all. It’s just a minor thought. The movie was still fun and creepy as hell.

  1. Is it scary: 6- A cool idea that makes you think. It’s not just scary because of zombies and demons and maggots, it’s scary because it challenges the way you see things.
  2. Originality: 9- I’ve got to give it to him here. This was a very cool idea. I haven’t ever seen anything quite like it.
  3. Blood: 5- It was fairly bloody. I could have handled more. The gore all came towards the end too. The first half or so is just set up.
  4. Believability: 5. Ehh, I think it could have been more believable if some of the plotlines were allowed to develop further. I kept thinking “wait, why is he doing that” etc.
  5. Setting/Cinematography: 8- Classic Carpenter setting and atmosphere. Dark, grim and brooding. (As he frequently does) he makes you feel trapped somewhere with a menacing force that you don’t understand. There are some great camera shots and lighting too that really get the job done.

Final Score: 28/50

The Fog (1980) – John Carpenter

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Though I think this review might be met with some contention, I have to come right out and make the argument that The Fog is not a very good horror movie, or even a good movie at all. A lot of people love it and consider it a classic but I found it derivative, lack-luster and ultimately disappointing. This movie had a lot of potential, but I think Carpenter tried to accomplish too much. He sacrificed the basics in an attempt to pull of something bigger. I think he was trying to recreate something like Halloween, his previous and arguably his best film.

The problem is that Halloween was simple. You can boil the whole movie down to two elements: baby sitters and butcher knives. The Fog has got a complex plot, too many characters, and too much back story. Lets take the characters for example. First of all this movie comes fully loaded with horror royalty: We’ve got Jamie Lee Curtis back when she was hot and didn’t need yogurt to take a shit, and Janet Lee, the girl in the shower from Psycho. But along with them is a whole slew of other main/secondary characters with their own back stories and it just becomes too much.

The whole movie is tied together by the true main character (I guess). She’s a late-night radio host and she’s on the air as the fog rolls in and strange thing start happening around this quiet coastal town. Just about the time the fog rolls in, so does Jamie Lee as a mysterious and mysteriously promiscuous hitchhiker. She thumbs for a ride and starts skanking it up with some dude. So they cut to the next scene and they are just in bed together enjoying a nice post-coital conversation about their hopes, dreams and aspirations, AND THEN dude casually asks her what her name is. She ends up following him around as he tries to get to the bottom of the mysterious deaths of some fishermen. As far as I can tell, her character is utterly pointless, distracting, but she’s the most well-developed, which takes away from time that could have been developing other characters.

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Anyway, the other characters listen to and call in to the radio show and our DJ heroine offers them sage advice in a sultry voice. So the plot goes on and on and gets pretty convoluted. I’m not going to bother trying to give you a synopsis because it would be pointless. There’s a sunken ship, a 100-year old murder plot, a drunken priest, some stolen gold, a lost journal, and a leaper colony. I’m not joking.

Beyond the plot, one of the other problems is how the movie works within the established ‘rules’ of horror.’ It follows some of them but ignores others. You know what I’m talking about. Don’t answer the door. Don’t run up the stairs. Don’t be unrealistically brave and cocky in the face of obvious danger. Don’t have sex. Don’t drink or do drugs. Don’t be a priest (especially in the 70’s, the Padres of the world had it rough in 70’s horror, think about it) You get the picture. So some of these rules apply in this film, then though others seem to be setting you up, there’s no payoff. The body count is not nearly high enough.

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The final thing I’ll talk about is the body count and the way it’s handled. Roughly half way through this debacle, things come to light which identify how many people are going to die. First of all, the number is not very high, and more importantly, at least half of them have already died. And we’ve got about 7 or 8 main-ish characters still standing so you know most of them will be fine. Anyway, lets get down to business.

  1. Is it scary: 4- Like I said before, this had a lot of potential but it wasn’t really scary. There were some parts that were a little creepy, but it really missed the mark.
  2. Originality: 5- I have to give some points here for the attempt at a complex and interesting story. And there is something to be said for the structure of having everything sort of come together and revolve around the radio broadcast.
  3. Blood: 1- and that’s because i’m being generous. During the unsatisfactory number of deaths, there was literally and precisely n0 blood. There was one shot of a slimy, maggot-infested zombie so I’ll be nice here.
  4. Believability: 6- Not only was the story over the top, but the acting and the way the characters interacted was tough to buy.
  5. Setting/Cinematography: 7- This might have been the one thing this movie got right.  It was dark, gloomy, and really creepy to look at. There are figures coming out of the fog but you can’t really see them. Well done, but not really enough to save this one.

Final Score: 23/50

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The Thing (1982) – John Carpenter

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John Carpenter’s classic sci-fi action horror has not only spawned a remake, but it is actually a remake of a 1951 film called The Thing from Another World. Carpenter’s adaptation really gets the job done using a mix of shocking special effects, isolation and paranoia. We’ve got classic creature horror getting compounded by some good old fashioned psychological horror and oh, did I mention, it’s gory as hell.

I mean this movie is fucked up. Without giving too much away, “The Thing” is an alien that can assimilate your body and create an exact replica of you. Though during the metamorphosis, or if the alien ever gets discovered, or just about any other opportunity it gets, it becomes a horrible, pulsating, bloody mess. The special effects are truly grotesque and terrifying. And needless to say, in 1982, there was no CGI. The puppetry and modeling they’ve done here is really amazing.

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Ok, so the plot goes like this. There’s this group of “scientists” and other crew members in an Antarctic research station (who from the looks of things don’t research much except how to smoke week, play pool, watch videos, and get wasted all the time…but that’s neither here nor there). They stumble across what appears to be the dismembered body of an alien that crash landed in Antarctica 100,000 years ago. Soon we find out that it wasn’t dead, it was sleeping, and now it’s pretty goddamn grumpy.

The team figures out that this life form can absorb and perfectly copy any other living cells. So the thing has been alone with several crew members and we’ve determined that somebody is probably infected, but we don’t know who it is. This is where the psychological horror comes in. Everyone is paranoid and angry and violent. Nobody trusts anybody, and as the bodies start to pile up, it just gets worse. Everyone is angry and tense and theres a lot of yelling and drinking. It would be like if somebody used up the last of the hair gel on an episode of The Jersey Shore, and they locked themselves in the house until they figured out who it was.

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Ok so we’ve got blood- loads of it- and paranoia. Also there is an intense feeling of isolation and helplessness. We’re stuck in Antarctica and there’s no communication, somebody has destroyed all forms of transportation, and there won’t be a rescue party for weeks. It’s just us and the thing, oh and did mention that there are flame throwers. Sorry, that’s crucial. There are flame throwers. Lots of them. Just in case you were getting worried, these guys use them. A lot.

  1. Is it scary: 9- The paranoia and claustrophobia along with the brutal creature effects make this one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen.
  2. Originality: 6- Well, it is a remake, so it’s tough to say it’s truly original, but this adaptation definitely takes things much further and there are some points in there for the special effects which really set the bar for future horror movies.
  3. Blood: 10- This movie is downright revolting. If you like it, you should seek professional help immediately.
  4. Believability: 7- Other than repeatedly choosing to split up when they know they are vulnerable in small groups, I think this one is pretty authentic and believable.
  5. Setting/Cinematography: 8- As I mentioned before, the setting adds a lot to the feeling of isolation and fear. The camerawork in unsympathetic to those who might be disturbed by what they see. It’s clear, up close and relentless.

Final Score: 40/50

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