Friday, October 10, 2008

What Made Halloween Work? - Part 2 of a History of Horror...kind of

Was Carpenter building the perfect house, or laying it upon the perfect foundation?  

...what took place is a rarity for anybody who loves film, a movie that defies expectations so much that it becomes a religious experience.  While some people feel they see Jesus in a piece of toast and have their lives changed forever, I saw perfected horror in a television and followed the same belief.  I was shocked with Halloween's ability to elicit such strong physical responses – a pounding heart, sweaty hands and numerous jumps in my seat.  Carpenter had come to revolutionize the horror film through meticulous compositing of the frame, a technique that has remained to work for the past 30 years.

The technique can best be understood by first looking towards a few examples.  When Dr. Loomis and Sheriff Brackett are in the Meyer’s house walking cautiously up to Michael’s old bedroom Loomis approaches a window and is positioned frame right, leaving about 2/3 of the frame filled with the window.  Suddenly an object hits the glass.  The empty space caused the viewer to believe it was a simple medium profile shot (something they have seen time and again within television and other movies), yet it was all just a trick.  Another great example is the picture above, in which the the frame yet again leaves just enough enough breathing room to have Michael jumping out the back seat be unexpected and yet terrifying.  

            This shot is no different than a practical joke in which a person is lead into a dark basement and comes to be startled by a friend who pops out of the shadows.  The person who is startled is done so because of the preconceived notion that no one is downstairs, and thus the person should have nothing to worry about.  But since a dark basement is commonly a fear experienced during childhood transitioning into adulthood the “what if?” that our consciousness develops never stops.  Thus, to apply the analogy to Halloween, the basement represents the horror film, that is, the basement represents the potential fear of the horror film.  The composition represents the unexpected within the basement, that is, the unexpected in the horror film being viewed - the gore, pop-outs and antagonist.  Finally, the person who jumps out of the darkness would then represent the object of horror, that is, Michael jumping out of the shadows or the object hitting the window.  Thus combining all three of these elements, a potential fear for what is about to be seen with the unexpected occurrence of horrific objects within the film.  Carpenter developed this formula into an exact science.  Though it can be argued that films such as Black Christmas or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were the first true slasher films - a point that will be discussed soon.  

            My bewilderment over the fact that this film, having been released over twenty-five years ago when I initially saw it, was still able to make this formula work lead me to understand that it cannot simply be just those three elements, nor any other technical formulas – such as music or editing.  The reason for this fact is proven by looking towards how other slasher films such as Valentines Day, Black Christmas, Prom Night and so on adopted and adhered to the same principles and were not nearly as frightening.  It was not just the technique at all, but the story that came to revolutionize the genre. The idea of having the film take place during Halloween added a further eerie reality to the overall plot.  Halloween continues to be a creepy day in the life of any child, a day in which a strange brooding emotion permeates through the air.  Combining a marvelously constructed horror story, both in form and content, with an equally marvelously constructed eerie holiday combined into greatness.  New Years Evil, Valentines Day, Prom Night, and Black Christmas are films whose content is associated with more joyful holidays and thus are not nearly as effective regardless of the adoption of the particular techniques.  The idea of a murder spree on taking place on Valentines Day almost seems farcical in how much the two plot elements contradict each other - a day of love and a day of terror.  Another great example of this fact is evident through the success of Friday the 13th, an equally brooding day, and a movie that continued on for what will soon be nine sequels.  Personally I believe the films are completely lacking in substance, but it makes my point all the stronger in that regardless it still has been a successful series.

            The reason for this can be again observed through the basement analogy.  The dark basement is the day – either Halloween or Friday the 13th – and thus contains an underlying fear within it.  What these films provide is prevention for the imagination from developing its own individual, subconscious images associated with these days and rather provides them for the audience.  Michael and Jason are now direct and horrific manifestations of their fears.  They have come to replace the individually created images that most people commonly had to take. 

            Now in my opinion, Halloween has lost the eerie effect it once maintained as can be indicated by the fifteen or less trick-or-treaters coming to my door every year.  Its just no longer the holiday it once was.  Friday the 13th has also lost is eeriness and what was once a day of horror film marathons on the USA network has perpetuated itself into a day like any other.  It is my theory that it is because people had finally obtained sufficient images to associate with these days in the likes of humanistic characters like Michael or Jason and hence the imagination can no longer cause peoples’ subconscious to develop their own, unique fears - our individually manifested fears have become ubiquitous.  Literature or stories passed-on, while being effective in eliciting an overall terror, still maintained an individualistic perspective on what the subject matter could look like in a physical form, and nothing except pure visuals can provide a unanimous understanding of what particular horrifying objects can be - even novels who go deep into description provide ambiguity.  For instance, if I write a horror film script and it gets passed on between readers, they will each develop their own visual sense of what the content could become, but when the film is produced all of that individuality has now gone away in favor of one, particular image. Even if people try to recall their previously conceived notions, the new image cannot be overlooked. What I mean to get at is previously, before Halloween and Friday the 13th based films came out the fear we gained on these days was based upon the fact that no amount of description could totally get our fears across - whether emotional, physical or mental.  Hence, everyone was alone in their fears, unable to connect with anyone else.  These films created a sense of unity which has lead to a dilapidation of these holidays once strong sense of fear.

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