Sunday, October 14, 2007

Welcome to Haddonfield

You know a horror movie is great when you can't pinpoint just what it is about it that scares you. It's one thing to have the villain jump out of the shadows and startle you, but it's quite another to fill the viewer with a constant sense of dread and uneasiness. Halloween does this better than almost any other horror movie, and it's due in no small part to the fact that John Carpenter was behind the camera.

Working on a tiny budget, Carpenter's horror movie would have no special effects, frightful sets or gruesome villains. For his most terrifying element, Carpenter turned to a place we've all seen: Anytown, U.S.A. Instead of having characters trapped in the dark surroundings of an unfamiliar hell, Carpenter focused on everyone's fear of their privacy being invaded. In the fictional Haddonfield, Ill., where Michael Myers "comes home," we are given a seemingly ordinary town with no shortage of peace and quiet -- and that's what makes it so scary.

Outside of a brief scene at a school and in the downtown area, our experience in Haddonfield takes place exclusively in a safe-as-can-be American neighborhood with unobstructed sidewalks, groomed gardens and not a stoplight in sight. But it's what the neighborhood lacks that creates a sense of unease and isolation.

Outside of the corps characters and a few random trick-or-treaters (who are never a focus of the lens), there are no other people on the sidewalks. If you take out the main characters, we see no other cars on the street, except for one far in the background. All of the houses are large with landscaped yards, but none of them seem to be occupied. It's Halloween, but the neighborhood is largely asleep, with no decorations outside of jack-o-lanterns. Best of all, the whole place is completely silent -- you don't hear so much as the wind howling.

With this design of the world in Halloween, Carpenter gives us a surrounding that is familiar, but also isolated. There is never any point in the movie when our characters feel like anyone else can help them, with no one else in sight, much less a passing police car. Carpenter also plays with our expectations of a horror movie, by giving us some of the biggest scares in broad daylight. You can argue that the scariest part of the whole movie is Laurie's walk home, wondering what could be lurking behind that hedge? And if we're this scared now, what could he have in store for us when the sun goes down?

Halloween as a holiday presented Carpenter with a myriad of scary possibilities, especially through the eyes of the children Laurie babysits. For children, what other time of the year are you most vulnerable to monsters? Although Halloween never directly focuses on the terror visiting Tommy and Lindsey, we can only assume what's going through their minds during a night when they took in television viewings of The Thing From Another World! and Forbidden Planet. Both movies, science fiction in genre but with a healthy dose of horror, contain an alien juggernaut pitted against scientific minds. Before their awful night is over, the children will witness a creature of seemingly infinite strength and durability crash into their house and clash with adults who are just as frightened.

Halloween helped set the stage for a decade of slasher movies, but none were able to duplicate the everyday fright of Carpenter's classic.


Anonymous said...

Great post and analysis of what makes this movie so scary. The scene in which Tommy looks out the window and sees Michael carrying a body is excellent. From what I recall, there is no music in that scene. Just silence and the "boogyman" carrying his victim.

shahn said...

i love this film. what makes me love it even more is the backstory i heard about the one bag of autumn leaves they had to scatter for outdoor shots and would scramble to recapture for the next take. thinking about a film with that small a budget and with that level of dedication makes me appreciate it all the more.

Adam Ross said...

Steven -- Thanks, and that's another great scene, especially how we only see the silhouette. We know what Michael's doing, but Tommy just sees a strange figure walking, and his frightened mind fills in the rest.

Shahn -- I haven't heard that story, but it doesn't surprise me. Thanks for visiting and introducing me to your blog, nice work.

samiwankenobi said...

You captured, in your ever-poetic words, exactly my own thoughts on this film! I always say that blood and gore don't scare me, and they don't. What scares me is suspense and the "invasion of privacy" point you made in your review. What average American doesn't fear their greatest threat invading their home, their relationships, their 'reality'? The fact that this film is not set on a ghost ship, in an asylum or a haunted castle is precisely what motivates it into our phyche. If you're not safe in your own home, surrounded by everyone that you always imagined would protect you, where are you safe? Nowhere. And therein lies the point of "Halloween", at least for me. Thanks for your insightful review. THIS is why we're best friends!