Donald Pleasance

John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978)


There’s no way around it. I’m getting old.

Of course, I kind of already know that but, lately, a series of cinematic arrows have been whizzing in out of the blue, as if to remind me of the fact. Apparently, it’s been twenty years since The Big Lebowski. Hell, it’s been thirty since Repo Man! And now, somehow, John Carpenter’s Halloween is celebrating its 40th anniversary. Can this be right? I mean, for God’s sake, I remember seeing it for the first time so vividly. It was back in… yep, sure enough. It was in 1978.

I saw it at the Odeon in Gants Hill. I was twenty-seven years old, my first novel had been published a year earlier, and I was just getting settled into my long and heady love affair with cinema. I’d read a review in New Musical Express that seemed to suggest that this low-budget horror movie was something worth catching up with.

Which turned out to be an understatement. Halloween blew me away.

It’s still one of most successful independent films of all time and certainly the most imitated, initiating a whole cavalcade of We-Know-What-Your-Babysitter-Did-on-Friday-the-Thirteenth pretenders, none of which have the wit or sophistication of the original, and all of which make the cardinal mistake of substituting gore for suspense. Even the eight or more sequels that came trotting gamely along in the film’s wake fail to measure up to their illustrious progenitor. (Okay, so I’ve a bit of a soft spot for Halloween 3, but only because it has nothing whatsoever to do with the source story.)

Halloween starts on October 31st 1963, when six-year-old Michael Myers takes his trick-or-treating a little too seriously and kills his sister. We cut to 1978, when Doctor Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) sees an adult Michael escape from the institution where he’s been held ever since that fateful night. Loomis heads off in hot pursuit, knowing where Michael will inevitably be headed: his home town of Haddonfield, just in time to celebrate his favourite night of the year, and where he has some unfinished business. There, young Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends, Annie (Nancy Loomis) and Lynda (PJ Soles), are about to experience the longest and most traumatic babysitting session of their lives.

Even after all these years, the film holds up superbly (although, now transferred to digital, Dean Cundy’s gleaming Panavision widescreen shots have lost a little of their brio. What I wouldn’t give to see it projected on celluloid again!). But that’s really my only quibble. Carpenter’s no-nonsense direction is still exactly what’s needed and, if some of the tropes now seem predictable, you have to remember that in 1978, we were seeing them for the first time ever. Those voyeuristic steadicam shots along deserted streets; the perfectly timed jump-scares; the killer who seems to be dead but just won’t stop moving – oh, and of course there’s Carpenter’s wonderful soundtrack, featuring that theme tune, the same one that now, converted to a ringtone/alarm, wakes me every morning of my life. Yes, that’s how much I adore this film.

Interestingly, we’re only days away from David Gordon Green’s reboot of the same name, which is ditching all of those dodgy sequels and picking up forty years after the events of the first film. Jamie Lee Curtis is returning to the role of Laurie Strode, who has, apparently, been waiting for Michael’s return all these years. Will it be in the same league? Or even close? I seriously doubt it, but I’m ready to be pleasantly surprised.

For my money, Halloween may just qualify as the greatest horror movie of all time – it’s certainly in my top five. If it comes to a cinema near you, grab the opportunity to watch it again on the big screen – which, as Carpenter observes in the preceding interview, is easily the best way to see it.

Oh yes, one other thing. In 1984, I interviewed Nick Castle for his film, The Last Starfighter. In Halloween, Castle plays Michael Myers, the deadly presence behind that creepy William Shatner mask. When we said goodbye, I shook hands with the man. A thought flashed through my mind. I am shaking hands with ‘The Shape.’

Some things you never forget.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Wake In Fright



This neglected morality piece by Director Ted Kotcheff, originally released in 1971, gets a timely rerelease on DVD and shows us parts of Australia that the guide books would doubtless prefer to skip. Young teacher John Grant (Gary Bond, looking uncannily like a young Peter O Toole) sets off from a remote town in the outback with the intention of spending his summer vacation with his lady love in Sydney. Driven to boresom by his current job, from which there seems no escape unless he can buy himself out of his contract, he is relishing six weeks of freedom. But the trip incurs a one night stopover in Bundanyabba, a bustling little township where drinking and gambling seem to be the residents’ full-time occupation.

John bumps into local copper Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty) who shows him ‘the sights,’ most of which seem to involve the imbibing of copious amounts of alcohol and he also encounters Doc (Donald Pleasance) a former man of medicine, now a full time drunk. Before very long, John finds himself drawn into a local gambling craze, where people bet large amounts of money on the toss of two coins. At first, he wins and starts to see a possibility of a way out of his financial problems… but almost before he knows it, his luck changes and he finds himself drunk, broke and reduced to begging off the locals for his board and lodging…

Wake In Fright barely got noticed on first release and it’s easy to see why. Its unsympathetic illustration of the outback aussies as a race of drunken halfwits wasn’t going to make any friends in Australia, (particularly when helmed by a Canadian director) and his unflinching depiction of the ‘sport’ of kangaroo hunting, utilising genuinely harrowing footage, must have had the animal rights lobby all stirred up too. Throw in an ending that’s about as bleak as a wet weekend in Morecambe and it’s little wonder that this didn’t put bums on seats in ’71. But with the gift of hindsight there’s much here to admire, not least the performances of Gary bond and the late, lamented Donald Pleasance, who offers yet another in his gallery of grotesques. As a salutary warning to avoid the excesses of alcohol, it’s powerful stuff that was probably years ahead of its time.

Give it another shot. But be warned. If you were planning to go Walkabout in the outback thss year, you might find yourself rethinking the whole thing.

 4 stars

Philip Caveney