Monday, October 21, 2013

Retropolis: Halloween & The Midnight Movies

The great Jim Dietz returns with another terrific guest spot here in the Halloween Retrospective.  This was originally published last week on Jim's blog, but he slid it my way to be an inclusion in this retrospective.  And thank you, Jim for that.  This is a great look back at his experiences with midnight movie revivals and his first taste of John Carpenter's Halloween.

Lets set the way-back machine to the early 80s for just a bit, shall we? Cable TV was just starting to get a foothold into American homes (at least in the lower-class to middle-class suburbia where I lived at the time) and the Beta/VHS war was just starting to divide the home entertainment market and VCR sales. HBO was a pay cable channel that showed boxing, football and maybe 8-12 movies a month shown in rotation (which is why I have seen “Moonraker” and “Futureworld” about 500 times a piece) and the opportunity to see uncut films not formatted for TV, edited to death and/or riddled with commercials.was not as omnipresent as it is now. There was a time before even your toaster ran Netflix and Hulu, kiddies.

In that milieu was pre-teen me, whose first experience with truly being totally entranced by a film had been the original Star Wars (and while I know its acceptable Geek Parlance I still chafe at having to refer to it as “Episode IV: A New Hope”). Before Star Wars, movies had just been movies to me; a commodity to be consumed, enjoyed and mostly forgotten about. After Star Wars, I realized that movies could be a transformative experience, something that could change your fundamental perspective by viewing them. As Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi had said in that very film, I had “taken my first step into a larger world”. Moreover, I started getting obsessed over how the movies were made and found magazines like Starlog and Prevue that showed the behind-the-scenes nuts-and-bolts of special effects and explained what directors and cinematographers and screenwriters actually did.
I’m not going into the sordid details behind it but there was a long time in my upbringing when I had a lot less supervision that I probably should’ve, and I was always a big guy so even at 12 or 13 years old I was over six feet and 200 lbs so I looked older than I was. Our family moved a lot from town to town as my dad was in construction so when we landed in Coral Springs FL it was yet another lower-middle-class suburban subdivision in a series of suburban subdivisions and , as was my modus operandi, I sought out the local library, the record store, the comic shop and the movie theater. In this particular town it was an 8 screen multiplex at the local mall.

Now in those dark pre-Internet days kiddies, some movie theaters would pad their weekend receipts by playing what are known as “repertory” movies; older movies with replay appeal, what are known now as “cult movies” but were better known then as “midnight movies”. Rocky Horror Picture Show was the progenitor and best known of these movies but as the phenomenon grew across the nation, more and more fringe and underground culture movies made their way to the midnight screening circuit. “Eraserhead” was an early midnight feature, as were a lot of concert films (Pink Floyd in Pompeii, The Song Remains the Same, Monterey Pop), foreign films (El Topo, The Holy Mountain, Satyricon), horror movies (Dawn of the Dead, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Maniac) and movies too goofy, arty or weird to be seen elsewhere (Fritz the Cat, Wizards, A Clockwork Orange, Mondo Cane, etc.)
The unique aspect of these movies, which usually were scheduled on Friday and Saturday nights, was the social factor. At the multiplex in the suburban wasteland of Coral Springs FL, the midnight movies were where teens could go and stay out late, the default social scene. Kids would surreptitiously drink and smoke some weed with friends in the parking lots beforehand, gather into groups depending on what movie they were there to see and who knew who and go see movies that their parents would not approve of. Imagine Dazed and Confused in a mall parking lot, with each clique defined by cinematic proclivity. I made some friends there in my own geeky awkward way. It was my first exposure to most of these movies, and certainly my first time seeing them in a theater on a big screen. In a weird way the midnight movies were my first film semiotics class: we’d watch the film together in a communal experience and then discuss our impressions of the film afterwards, arguing meaning or subtext or pointing out flaws or mastery.
This was the setting for my first viewing of John Carpenter’s Halloween.

I was a young lad of 12 or so and was, as I said, oversized and looking much older than 12, and my experience with horror movies in general had been Saturday afternoon Hammer Horror flicks on our local UHF channel and the occasional Roger Corman product. I had never been truly scared by a movie before beyond the occasional jump-scare and certainly never so creeped out by a film that its story stuck with me well into the night. When my Midnight Movie friends remarked that they wanted to see “Halloween” I played it off as if it was nothing, although I went into the movie with almost no idea what I was going to see and also, as I said, had almost no experience with horror movies beyond Peter Cushing outwitting Christopher Lee’s Dracula or Vincent Price bemoaning the fall of the House of Usher. Horror was something that happened somewhere else, off in Europe or in the distant past.
   ”Halloween” was nothing like that template I had to work from. First off, Haddonfield looked just like my own suburban wasteland, doubly so in that Carpenter shot the movie with California sitting in for suburban Illinois so those palm trees in the background were just like the palms that dotted the yard boundaries in Coral Springs. Next, the horror in the original Halloween wasn’t some supernatural being or some ancient mystic curse; it was simply a man in a mask with a very large knife and an overwhelming need to kill. That was way too believably realistic for my 12-year-old mind. Also, in the most psychotic way possible, Michael Myers was judging and punishing his victims for moral lapses, for doing things he deemed that they shouldn’t be doing (drinking, smoking, casual sex) and that too was a little too close to my world for comfort. At that point in my life the plausibility of “Halloween” is what made it scary. This was a world I recognized and this was a monster that could be real. “Halloween” brought horror home for me.
The part of the film that still stays with me the most is the opening sequence seen through a young Michael Myers eyes. Carpenter literally puts you behind the mask of his serial killer, letting you see the world from his POV. We watch helplessly as his hands, from this perspective our hands, put on the mask, pick up the oversized butcher knife and brutally stab his sister to death. The first person perspective really personalised the experience and up until that point I had never seen that in a movie before. When Michael’s parents come home and the camera whips around after they remove his mask, he is revealed not to be a deformed or deranged-looking maniac but rather an almost angelic boy. This mixture of unsettling use of perspective punctuated by ironic juxtaposition is still one of my favorite sequences of all time.
But it’s just a slasher flick, right? Something else to keep in mind is that Halloween in many ways was the first slasher flick and kicked off that craze in 80s horror movies and later what became a subgenre of its own. And, as is often the case, the imitators miss what makes the original special and focus on the wrong aspects to emulate. Halloween didn’t work as a film because its killer was immortal or because its killer had a sick moral code or even because of the gore and violence factor, all elements seen over and over again in the slasher flicks that copied it. Out of necessity of a small budget Carpenter kept his story smaller and it made the fear believable rather than taking his concept over the top, the same kind of seemingness of reality George Romero had tapped into with his first two zombie movies. Michael Myers was fictitious but Halloween was street level and had a verisimilitude that eluded its many of its imitators.
Walking home from the multiplex that night two-beers-drunk I started to hear the atmospheric soundtrack Carpenter had put to his movie. Whether it was the hum and whirr of dozens of home AC units or my imagination I’ll never truly know, but I suspect it was a bit of both. Every shadow reminded me of the shots of when Michael would be shown only a bit at a time, an arm here, a dark shape behind the wheel of a car there, a dissolute shape that would be gone upon second glance. I was for the first time experiencing actually being scared not only by a movie itself but also the ideas of that movie staying with me, the reaction any truly great horror movie inspires in its audience.
That night I raced home as quickly as I could, let myself into the house and was up most of the night second-guessing shadows or random suburban noises. That was also the night I truly became a fan of horror movies, The next week at the midnight movies I sat down for my very first viewing of the original “Dawn of the Dead”, which is fodder for a whole different column, As much as Star Wars had opened my eyes to what film as a medium could do, “Halloween” opened my eyes to how effective and fun horror movies as a genre could be, and I have been a fan ever since.
You can find more of Jim's work on the HHWLOD Podcast Network and his blog at The Taylor Network Of Podcasts.  There's a ton of great shows there to listen to during your workday, workout, hangout.  Check it out!  I seem to be a big fan of the IchaPod Cranecast personally :)

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