Darkest Hour stands apart from more routine historical dramas.
The Myers house: October 31, 1963
Through the side window, the teenagers make out on the couch.
Boyfriend grabs a clown mask.
From Robert C. Cumbow:
(An excerpt from my book, "Order in the Universe: The Films of John Carpenter"):
Following the main title shot-a slow track-in on a leering jack-o'-lantern-the opening sequence of Halloween is a spectacular tour-de-force, a four-minute single take that builds up to the brutal murder of a teenage girl in a quiet home in a quiet neighborhood in quiet Haddonfield, Illinois, on Halloween, 1963. The take ends as the murderer's mask is removed and a shock cut reveals the clown-suited killer to be the victim's six-year-old brother. The camera stares, then backs off, becoming a 15-second crane shot up away from the silent, blank-faced boy holding the bloody knife as his parents look on, questioning.
Thereafter, as in "Jaws," the shift to subjective camera often deliberately signals the presence, or possible presence, of the beast. In addition to imputing guilt to the audience, the subjective camera also serves the purpose of concealing the killer's identity in the crucial opening scene. The subjective camera technique was taken up by "Friday the 13th" and the raft of "Halloween" imitators that followed and became such a convention that it was parodied in the opening to Brian De Palma's "Blow Out" . But it became a convention for a purely utilitarian reason -- preventing us from seeing the killer's face -- and acquired the unfortunate side effect of creating a sadistic woman-killing persona as the point of audience identification, something many critics and viewers reacted against.
The teens have gone upstairs. Lights go out.
Around back, in through back door and into the kitchen, where The Intruder picks out a knife, then heads through dining room and into the parlor.
Loverboy puts his shirt back on, his task having been accomplished in record time.
The Intruder picks up a clown mask and puts it on.
Sis screams, collapses.
The "Psycho" knife movement.
Back down the stairs and out the front door, where a car is pulling up.
The first second of the reverse shot: Dad removes the mask and reveals the killer: "Michael?"
The long take that begins "Halloween" works for several reasons: First, the unmounted camera, steady though it is, wavers just enough to keep us unsettled, off balance, vulnerable to shock even if slightly prepared for it. Second, the shot establishes the motif of the subjective camera as the killer's point of view. Third, and most important, the shot draws us into the action by a point of view that is unedited. Had the opening sequence been presented conventionally, as a mounted sequence of shots, the viewer's mind would become an editor's mind, classifying, comparing, and relating the shots to assemble the story -- in other words, a mind participating in the creation of the work and therefore more conscious of it as a work. The single take suppresses the artistic detachment that comes from mental montage, creating instead a direct involvement that-like real life -- we are unable to edit. The impact, in other words, is visceral, not intellectual.
The strongest precedent for Carpenter's long-take opening to "Halloween" is found not in the annals of horror film but in the spectacular single-shot opening credits sequence of Orson Welles's "Touch of Evil" -- a crane shot that begins on an extreme close-up, then pulls back to a cityscape, tracks the movements of two different sets of characters, and culminates in one character's reaction to an offscreen explosion. Both of the opening two shots of Halloween are grounded in the same technique: The first shot concentrates on setting a scene, building suspense, and culminating in shock. The second shot, because it is a crane shot, is a more direct descendent of the Welles shot, but it is shorter, simpler than the Welles shot, beginning close and ending high and wide, without the comings and goings and focal changes of Welles's "Touch of Evil" opening. Moreover, it establishes the ground rules under which, for the remainder of the film, Carpenter will switch from subjective to objective point of view, from killer's eye to director's eye.
The crane shot up and away, dwarfing the characters in the context of their surroundings, is a shot potent with emo-tional impact, and most commonly used as an end title shot, as in such diverse films as Jacques Demy's "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," Michael Cacoyannis's "Zorba the Greek," and Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West." [And Polanski's "Chinatown," followed by LaRue's "Polynesiantown"! -- je] It was also used to great effect by Alan Pakula in the mountain-of-work library research scene of "All the President's Men."
But the second shot of "Halloween," though as powerful in its way as any of these, is most remarkable if seen as a reversal of Hitchcock's celebrated crane shot in "Young and Innocent," moving from high and wide over an entire ballroom of dancing couples to come to rest on the extreme close-up detail of the twitching eyelid of an onstage musician-the killer, as it turns out, masked in black-face. Carpenter, by contrast, begins on the unmasked face of his killer and pulls away to set the boy with the knife in the anomalous context of his quiet middle-American neighborhood.
JE: Great stuff, Bob -- thanks again! It struck me, while reading your description and looking at the shot itself, that Carpenter is also referring to the birth of the modern slasher movie in 1960, with the release of both Michael Powell's "Peeping Tom" and Alfred Hitchock's equally shocking "Psycho." When you write that the Steadicam POV shot became a horror movie cliche, "creating a sadistic woman-killing persona as the point of audience identification," I was reminded that this is precisely the goal of Powell's childlike, sadistic killer, who stabs his victims with the sharpened, phallic "third leg" of his camera tripod while they scream in terror, looking into his lens. All the better to replay their deaths -- in long, fluid, unbroken takes -- over and over again in the privacy of his dark and demented personal cinema.
Certainly Powell's Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) is a fraternal (if not identical) twin of Hitchock's Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). Carpenter pulls a clever switcheroo on the famous "Psycho" shower scene in several ways:
- Instead of Hitchcock's meticulously cut-together shot fragments, Carpenter does the whole thing in a single fluid take -- while mimicking some of Hitchcock's effects: the girl engaged in a grooming ritual, the victim screaming into the camera, the image of the knife being raised and slashed without ever showing blade-flesh contact, the naked body on the floor...
- Unlike "Psycho," which holds the revelation of the killer's identity until the climax, "Halloween" tells us who the killer is in the very first shot. Michael's sister mentions he's "around somewhere" when she's downstairs with her boyfriend, and she screams his name as he's stabbing her. At the end of the shot, before the unmasking (and reverse shot), Michael's father also says his name.
- The killer is also a boy, who begins his murder spree by catching a relative in a sexual situation (and probably exhibiting some repressed, forbidden desire for her). For Norman, it's his mother (the theory being that he may have initially killed in a frenzy after coming upon her and a lover in bed); for Michael, it's his naked sister in her room (remember that significant glance over at the rumpled bedclothes just before he attacks her).
Stop watching movies made by assholes. It'll be OK.
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