Tuesday, August 31, 2010


John Carpenter's "Halloween" (**** out of ****) qualifies as both a trick and a treat.

First, the unlikely notion that an independently-produced horror movie made for a miserly $320-thousand could amass $75-million dollars and remain popular twenty-two years afterward constitutes quite a trick. Incidentally, Carpenter took twenty days to shoot "Halloween." Second, not only did "Halloween" catapult newcomer Jamie Lee Curtis to stardom {she reigned as the 'Scream Queen' in a spate of "Halloween" knock-offs, like Paul Lynch's "Prom Night" (1980) and Roger Spottiswoode's "Terror Train" (1980)} but also it spawned six sequels and two remakes of varying quality. Naturally, none surpasses the consummate skill and artistry of Carpenter's seminal slaughterhouse saga. Arguably, if Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" carved out a new sub-category for slashers among 1960s' horror movies, "Halloween" hacked out a niche in cinematic history when it revived the genre. According to producer Irwin Yablans, "Halloween 2" appeared primarily because scores of "Halloween" clones came out and coined considerable box-office success. Second, "Halloween" suffices as a treat because it focuses on far more than gratuitous blood & gore. Essentially, the film dwells on the cosmic issue of 'Evil' and Man's inability to combat both Evil and Fate as entities at work in our Universe.

Carpenter directs with commendable restraint considering the genre. Anybody who pans "Halloween" as tawdry and exploitative misses out on what elevates this minor chiller above its clones and makes it worth watching beyond the usual cursory viewings. Although it depicts savage violence, "Halloween" spills pints rather than buckets of blood. If you're counting, three females and two males perish. He doesn't rely on sophisticated special effects or ghastly prosthetic make-up appliances. He generates tension, suspense, and nerve-wracking horror by deliberately pacing the action and doling out shocks and surprises. "Halloween's" stark narrative simplicity propels it to its slang-bang ending. Carpenter and co-scenarist Debra Hill surgically pared down the plot to its absolute essentials. They relate a story with a beginning, middle, and an ending in straightforward fashion. Indeed, characterization remains deplorably one-dimensional, but the cast is convincing enough so it really doesn't matter. Moreover, they play roles that wouldn't experience radical growth over a 24 hour period, unless they wind up dying. Michael personifies Evil from start to finish. After he escapes from the Illinois State Hospital, Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance of "You Only Live Twice") sounds the alarm: "The evil has gone from here!" Fate deploys Michael as an instrument, and Fate allows Michael to thrive with impunity in the end as the only truly phantasmagoric character.

Essentially, "Halloween" is a thriller with a monster for a killer. The horrific elements of Michael's villainous appearance and his supernatural qualities make this a chiller. Visually, Carpenter links a classroom discussion of Fate to Michael as the killer sits parked outside Laurie's school in a station wagon. Laurie notices the station wagon parked across the street from her school and spots the same station wagon later when her friend and she are walking down the street. However, Laurie doesn't lay eyes on Michael for the first time until she sees him in broad daylight standing on the sidewalk by a hedge. Furthermore, nothing superfluous clutters up the narrative, clocking in at a lean, mean 92 minutes. One scene depicts Dr. Loomis advocating Michael's prolonged incarceration in a mental institution. Of course, the squeamish should watch "Halloween" in the company of somebody responsible, since the film concerns some unsavory themes, such as a murderous juvenile, a lunatic on the rampage with a blood lust nothing except death can quench, and the security of hospitals charged with keeping these maniacs locked-up behind bars. The irony of a psychiatrist who totes around a revolver with a gun permit and acts like a vigilante who shoots first and ask questions afterward represents still another topic for discussion.

Carpenter and Hill confine the action to three acts. They set up the characters efficiently enough, introducing Michael first, then Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence of "The Great Escape") and his nurse Marion Chambers (Nancy Stephens of "Russkies"), and finally Michael's victims. Laurie Strode, Annie Brackett, and Lynda van der Klok comprise the trio of high school girls/victims that Michael sets out to slaughter. While Annie and Lynda are sexually active sirens, Laurie is the "Girl Scout" of the group. She doesn't have a date for the school dance and is either shy or afraid to ask a guy out. She fits the classification of a sexually repressed girl, a character who typically survives the slasher because in a sense she reflects elements of his own repression. Once Michael makes the 150 mile drive to Haddonfield, the plot concerns when the characters converge on Lindsey Wallace's house where the murders transpire. Quotable dialogue reverberates throughout this slickly made white-knuckled thriller. During a telephone conversation, Laurie learns Annie has spoken to a guy the former has a crush on, and Laurie's responds: "Are you fooling around again? Well, I'll kill you if this is a joke." Despite a number of flaws and flubs, "Halloween" has managed to withstand the ravages of time. One big question the original left blank dealt with Michael's apparent obsession with Laurie Strode. "Halloween 2" accounts for this mystery in a way that "The Empire Strikes Back" would alter Luke Skywalker's destiny. Ultimately, Michael epitomizes Evil incarnate as the inexorable catalyst in horror movies, just as the Terminator evokes a similar quality in science fiction.

"Halloween" adheres to several horror movie conventions. First, mankind can vanquish Evil with a capital E in battles but cannot altogether conqueror it. Generally, the best horror movies provide closure of the worst sort. The heroes may survive, but so too may the villains. Sure, the improbable ending with a villain recovering not only from a fall from a balcony but also six bullets weakens the credibility of "Halloween." Nevertheless, successful horror movies require larger-than-life monsters, and Michael attains a legendary status at fade-out by being able to waltz away with six slugs in him. Happily, Donald Pleasance's Dr. Loomis doesn't react with either surprise or alarm at Michael's resilience. Bullets cannot stop Michael because he possesses supernatural qualities. Little Tommy refers to Michael as the 'Bogeyman' and assures Laurie that nobody can kill the 'Bogeyman.' At fade-out, Laurie asks Loomis if Michael were the 'Bogeyman,' and he affirms that fact. No, you don't have to watch "Halloween" only during the actual holiday itself to appreciate this seasonal chiller.


Before he became a film director, Giuseppe Colizzi served as Federico Fellini's production manager on "The Swindlers." The short-lived Colizzi helmed four of his six films with Terence Hill and Bud Spencer. Nevertheless, Colizzi belongs to a select handful of distinguished Italian western directors, such as Sergio Leone, Sergio Corbucci, Tonino Valerii, and Gianfranco Parolini--who imbued their oaters with an unmistakable aura of flair and style, doubling not only as director but also as writer. The first entry in an overlooked and underrated spaghetti western trilogy, Colizzi's "God Forgives, But I Don't" boasts the numerical distinction of pairing Hill and Spencer together for the first time after a foot injury forced lead actor Peter Martell off the picture. "Ace High" and "Boot Hill" followed. Hill and Spencer went on to achieve greater fame in Enzo Barboni's two "Trinity" features. Before Hill capitalized on comedy westerns and later modern day adventures, he proved himself as gunslinging Cat Stevens, a pistolero who found it just as easy to cross the line between good and evil as fire up a cheroot. Bronzed like a tawny Greek god with a deep masculine voice dubbed in by another actor and displaying admirable restraint in the stoic tradition of Clint Eastwood, Hill proved equally adept at portraying sober dramatic leads as well as lightweight, comic leads. Hill and Spencer are evenly matched by seasoned spaghetti western villain Frank Wolff who resembles Harpo Max with mutton chops.

"God Forgives, But I Don't" (***1/2 out of ****) seizes your attention from the start. A crowd in Canyon City awaits the arrival of a train at the railway depot with a brass band. The train trundles into the station, breezes past the surprised on-lookers, and crashes into a barrier at the end of the siding. A dead man with a bullet hole in his forehead tumbles out of a passenger coach when the door is thrown open. Colizzi presents a swift montage of bullet-riddled corpses and faces to highlight the enormity of the massacre. During the excitement, a wounded passenger stumbles off the other side of the train and flees without attracting attention. Eventually, we learn that the murderous outlaw chieftain Bill San Antonio (Frank Wolff of "A Stranger in Town") and his gang of despicable desperadoes held up the train and stole $100-thousand in gold.

Colizzi shifts the action to a poker game. Cat Stevens (Terence Hill of "The Leopard") looks as cool as ice as he gambles with a quartet of hard cases. A dispute arises over the conduct of the game and a brawl breaks out. Cat whips his adversaries with his fists but in the process trashes the premises. Cat's trademark gesture is pushing a cheroot up and down with his fingers. Later, Cat's friend Hutch Bessy (Bud Spencer of "The 5-Man Army") finds him at a remote waterhole and tells him about the MK&T train robbery. Hutch found the sole survivor of the train massacre. Before the passenger perished, he told Hutch about Bill San Antonio's role in the robbery. Hutch describes Bill's clever plan. The outlaws rode 150 miles to the halfway point between El Paso and Canyon City and then rode in circles to make their presence known at that point. The gang turned south, followed the river, and then galloped back to El Paso. They watched as the gold loaded onto the train and then bought tickets, and waylaid the train 20 miles from the Mexican border. After he robbed the train, Bill San Antonio had everybody on board murdered and sent the train onto Canyon City.

Initially, Cat refuses to believe Bill could have planned and participated in the hold-up. Colizzi flashbacks to a scene in a shack where Bill and Cat squared off against each other in a showdown after Bill's henchman Bud (José Manuel Martín of "The Savage Guns") sets the building ablaze. Cat guns down Bill and Bill's men allow him to leave alive. Later, they come after him and try to kill him. Meanwhile, Bill is never heard or seen again until the MK&T robbery. The bank took an insurance policy out on the stolen money and Hutch plans to find the gold and collect the insurance. He wants Cat to team up with him so they can locate the loot. Not only did Bill San Antonio not die in the fire but he also robbed the train. Garrulous desperado that Bill is, he explains what happened and why. The banker and Bill were in cahoots. When things got too hot, the banker recommended that Bill disappear for a spell. Cat sneaks into Bill's hideout one night, blunders into a trap, and gets strung up by his heels. Nevertheless, he manages to defend himself against his opponents. Hutch intervenes and they steal the $100-thousand dollars in gold.

Neither Cat nor Hutch has an easy time holding onto the gold while surviving Bill and his gang. Numerous shoot-outs occur with a take-no-prisoners mentality. Colizzi models loquacious Bill San Antonio after Eli Wallach's Mexican bandit Calvera from "The Magnificent Seven." Bill feels responsible for his cronies and wants to take care of them. Blue-eyed Terrence Hill has the stew beaten out of him and nearly drowns in one scene. Hutch displays his Herculean strength both in fistfights and in shouldering a chest packed with gold. The same friendly rivalry that characterized Trinity and Bambino's relationship in the "Trinity" appears to have been foreshadowed by Colizzi. The final showdown between Bill and Cat takes the shoot-out at the beginning to the next level. Good dialogue, rugged laconic heroes, grimy trigger-happy hooligans, atmospheric settings, Alfio Contini's impressive widescreen photography, and the scenic sun-drenched plains of Spain make "God Forgives, I Don't" a solid, satisfying saga, head and shoulders above the average spaghetti western.