Horror, which over the years of history has turned from a legitimate source of entertainment into a cheap thrill in the public eye, is a genre I love. In terms of film, I love it for two distinct reasons separating any experience I get from a horror movie – If it’s not a good movie, I get honestly a great sense of cynicism tearing it apart from how it does not work, looking inside and figuring out how it represents the horror culture in the end to what always looks like its final grave. But then, when you find a real diamond in the rough, a real gem, something legitimately scary. Then you’re going to get somewhere with finding out how it makes your hair stand, your skin crawl, then you’re going to watch reactions after finding out and discover to your joy… the trick still works.
For the next 31 days, I will be giving a day by day review of select horror films in all of the spectrum, from slasher to “Gates of Hell”, from Poe to Barker, from Whale to West, from 1919 to 2014…
This is the 31 Nights of Halloween.
If we are going to be fair about this, we will have to recognize that at least a handful of horror films have been made that are way better than Night of the Living Dead. Hell, maybe even more than that – I don’t know fucking everything.
But the one thing one can’t deny is how Night of the Living Dead served as a gamechanger for horror cinema from the moment it was released into the USA. It is pretty much founded in the being the center of subtle horror that encompasses a space on-screen and leaves audiences dreading the brutal violence to come, and the affront of the violence when it is finally presented to us at random points of the film where the audience isn’t ready.
Night of the Living Dead is the single most essential horror film in cinema history and I will fucking fight anybody who tries to make a claim otherwise. No, seriously, you got some other shit to say, how dare you disagree with me, bro? Try saying it without any teeth.
However, when it comes to films that perhaps prove to have stood the test of time better than Night of the Living Dead itself, one has to notice how the majority of modern horror films coming out today are either slasher films or heavily informed by slasher films. A fable-esque obsession with making a simple tale of bad things happening to people who don’t deserve it or don’t want it to happen, escalating more and more into the worst. That basically sums up the type of story Halloween provided for audiences to be disturbed and affected by (even if Halloween did not invent that story, much as little of Halloween is in fact original itself.)
I don’t think I personally am eloquent or intelligent enough to say all that there is to say about Halloween and Night of the Living Dead (and in the end, hasn’t pretty much everything been said about them?) but my major focus is to showcase how these two films are, in the end, the most groundbreaking hallmark horror films of cinema yet.
And what makes it all the sweeter, they were both heavily independent projects.
For instance, the story of Halloween‘s inception comes from the fact that Moustapha Akkad, the executive producer for the film (and later the entire series until his death in 2005), was producing a film and extremely dismayed at the expenses of the film in consideration of the results. John Carpenter, then a little filmmaker who adored Howard Hawks and had a few features under his belt (namely the very Hawksian Assault on Precinct 13) told Akkad he could probably get a movie made for $300,000 (convincing Akkad be showing that AoP13 was made in fact for $100,000).
And so Carpenter went about making a film for as little as possible but the effect is still enormous. For all its inexpensiveness, Halloween does not very much show. Sure, it’s heavily minimalist, but it’s definitely not a real-life product looking like Black Dynamite and the like.
How Night of the Living Dead came about is a story that elicits surprise akin to the film, considering its legacy after the fact. Commercial filmmaker George Romero decided to finally take a shot at making a feature length film and really wanted it to be horror. That’s the only thing that drove him… the fact that the movie had to be a goshdarned horror flick.
After building up a budget around 100,000 dollars, and then messing around with various random drafts of different stories, Romero happened to read Richard Matheson’s vampire apocalypse novel I Am Legend and began involving a lot of elements in a story about the most horrifying thing he could think of monsters to do: eat people. This ghoulish idea of living corpses that only return for the nourishment of human flesh came out of the imaginative mind of Romero and so with all of that settled, he went about to make his feature film…
For the lowest price tag possible. That is, in black and white, with a singular setting of a house and a graveyard for the entirety of the film, some non-actors in the scene and from there, use the script and the cinematography to elicit an atmosphere of dread.
John Carpenter probably is inspired more or less by George Romero’s work, just a teensy bit less than Howard Hawks. Both Halloween and Night of the Living Dead have focused all of their events on a singular location of a house. Both are pretty much terrifying day-in-the-life accounts. There is very little graphic violence in either film (I’d warrant to in fact say none, but I might be missing something). Which doesn’t mean they are less assaultive. Indeed, the majority of the effect of both Night of the Living Dead and Halloween is the moments of tense unsafe disquiet before a sudden assault of movement occurs to make people in the audience need to change their pants. I’m not as quite sure that they work as well this day and age as they clearly did back when they were first released (Halloween doesn’t scare me at all, I just love the movie), but the effect in the end is still outright unnerving to a heavy degree.
What stuns me even more watching these movies well after the fact is how their elegance comes from their simplicity in terms of story. Night of the Living Dead practically borders on plotlessness without falling into that trap, by just subtly adding more and more obstacles for the characters to overcome, but the main premise is simple: Barbara (Judith O’Dea) and Johnny (Russell Steiner), two siblings, are just visiting their father’s grave briefly to put a wreath their mother requested. Barbara is not comfortable with the area, Johnny is just reluctant to do the damn deed. A man approaches them both and attacks and kills Johnny, while Barbara rushes frenzied into a farmhouse where she is met with and saved by Ben (Duane Jones), who begins boarding up the doors and windows of the house. The two of them then discover in the cellar fellow inhabitants of the house – The Coopers (Karl Hardman, Merilyn Eastman, & Kyra Schon) and a teenage couple (Keith Wayne & Judith Riley). From there, we just witness a mix between a power struggle from the patriarch of the Coopers – Harry (Hardman) and Ben as to who knows what to do best, while bits of exposition as to the nature of the ghouls are provided by local news and radio, and a desperate struggle to survive the night and get what everybody needs.
It’s a very simple movie. But it’s also painstakingly serious about itself, from music giving a bombastic air to Duane Jones’ absolutely straight man performance, largely giving no room for humor, save for the opening with Johnny’s statements. Characters dismiss each other, get into shouting matches, all in near total darkness. These facets lend themselves to a very nihilistic atmosphere surrounding the movie – that there’s no hope (even despite the glimmers on the tv screen) and that all will be trapped and it’s going to be a long night, no matter what resourceful efforts are made.
Halloween in fact has a little bit more meat to itself – like the importance of character and cinematography (not to say Night of the Living Dead‘s cinematography is not brilliant – Romero provides brilliant soft lighting to the moments of blackness in the film, adding to the tease of hopelessness with the shadows and shines). It can be divided simply into a few small fractions of story events:
-Michael Myers kills his sister and is entered into a mental hospital.
-15 years later, he escapes and is pursued by one of the doctors, Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance)
-He stalks a woman in his hometown of Haddonfield, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), and begins obsessing over her friends.
But the movie is padded up with itself by some gloriously settling daylight photography of a dreamlike nature by Dean Cundley, also setting the stage for very cool comic-book esque nighttime scenarios, and the actors who lend the film a higher presentation of its simplicity. Pleasance practically chews up scenery (and to be honest, I don’t know him not to be a scenery chewing actor considering all I’ve seen him in), but ethics of mental health attitudes aside, he sells the belief that Myers is a complete personification of evil that must be stopped. Curtis provides a very innocent and unassuming presence as the victim of Myers’ gaze, and Nick Castle as Michael Myers… Well, you wouldn’t think there’s much one can do in a silent stalker role, but Castle does it all to freak me out. From tilting his head after a kill, to standing inhumanly still before a big kill, eventually you just get the feeling that he’s always there.
Ideally, we are moving on with the technical advancements in storytelling and moviemaking and movies are coming out sometimes better than and sometimes scarier than either of these two films. But, one of my early encounters with each film was back in 2010 when I was really excited to see them in a theater as part of a double feature with my friends (we came late though). And by the popularity, reaction, and legacy that the films have each left behind in their own regard, it is clear… Halloween and Night of the Living Dead are perhaps the most timeless entry into the horror cinema canon and certain to live on and keep their effect of immersing the world for two hours each into a little brilliant story.
For fuck’s sake, goddammit, next year, I’m just doing 13 horror articles for October. This shit was fucking exhausting.