In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key movie scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.
I’m not someone who scares easily, either at the movies or in real life. A couple of years ago, though, I had an experience that genuinely frightened me, to the point where I was on edge and looking nervously over my shoulder for days afterward. The main road between the freeway and my house is a single lane in both directions for several miles, and I got stuck behind a slowpoke one night, driving home around 3 a.m. So I passed the car on the left—not obnoxiously, just in a standard “this has been fun but I’ll be moving on now” sort of way. I don’t believe I even glanced at the driver, much less made a gesture or anything. Nonetheless, he apparently took it as some kind of personal affront. Though he’d been doing 45 in a 55 zone, he started tailgating me, repeatedly revving his engine. Then he followed me all the way to my house, to which I was moronic enough to lead him—the very last thing one should do in that situation. I parked and dashed inside, and when I peered out the window, there he was, idling his motor across the street, his face obscured by darkness and his driver-side window. He sat there for 10 minutes or so, then finally drove off.
Nothing ever came of this incident (unless his revenge plot has a mighty long fuse… in which case, you know, bravo). The guy achieved what he likely wanted, which was to make me worry for a while that he might come back and trash the place, or worse. But I vividly remember, while it was happening, being reminded of John Carpenter’s Halloween—in particular, of the opening section in Haddonfield, which is basically one prolonged and unnerving stalking episode. Michael Myers eventually gets down to stabbing and strangling people, but he spends the first half of the movie just following Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) and occasionally other folks around, keeping his distance. There’s something uniquely unsettling about the sensation of being followed (which is put to spectacular use in the forthcoming indie horror film appropriately titled It Follows), and Halloween is unrivaled in building eerie tension from the specter of a figure who’s constantly present and staring, no matter where you go. Early on, even attempts to confront Michael Myers fail, as he’s waiting for nightfall to make his move. The following scene is a classic example:
Because Michael Myers (it seems wrong somehow to just call him “Michael” or “Myers”) will be following the young women throughout this sequence, notice that Carpenter’s camera never follows them. Right from the first shot, it’s pulling them along from the front; every time they walk past it, it immediately stops, letting them go. There’s only one exception to that rule. Carpenter does follow Laurie, Lynda (P.J. Soles), and Annie (the almost surreally annoying Nancy Kyes) for just a few steps at one point, as they cross the street, before Laurie stops and turns around, exclaiming “shit!” and saying that she forgot her chemistry book. It seems more likely that she unconsciously sensed that she was being followed, however, since it’s precisely at this moment that Michael Myers enters the scene, driving the car he stole from the asylum. Even if we don’t recognize the car, we know immediately that it’s him, because Carpenter’s iconic Halloween theme music kicks in (and then disappears when his car rounds the corner). That score adds a great deal of foreboding atmosphere, but the sequence would arguably work without it.
The car makes Laurie nervous because she’s seen it before: In an earlier scene, Michael Myers was standing beside it across the street from her school, looking at her through a classroom window. That’s why she quickly dismisses Lynda’s suggestion that some cute classmate of theirs might be the driver. Part of what makes being followed unsettling is that it’s frequently unclear whether it’s actually happening or whether you’re projecting your anxiety onto harmless strangers. When I was being followed by the car I’d passed on the single-lane road, it wasn’t until I actually arrived at my house with him still on my tail that I knew for sure he didn’t just happen to live somewhere not far from me, as I’d been fervently hoping for about a mile and several shared turns. Here, Michael Myers keeps showing up around Laurie, but he never quite does anything that would confirm he’s stalking her. His car drives right past the girls, albeit slowly, and while he stops when Annie yells her lame pseudo-insult (shut the fuck up, Annie, seriously), that’s plausible behavior from some normal person who’s just been taunted. He drives off again, and the threesome continue on their way, with Carpenter’s suddenly fixed camera watching them walk into the distance for 20 long seconds, their dialogue all but drowned out by another one of his creepy themes.
Though Halloween is set the fictional Illinois town of Haddonfield, it was shot primarily in Pasadena, not that far from Hollywood. Carpenter found suburban streets that look very middle America, though, and as this sequence continues, he films the actors in long shot, from a fair distance, getting as much of the neighborhood into the frame as possible. Since we now know perfectly well that Laurie is being stalked by a killer—we can hear the music, after all, even if she can’t—our eyes instinctively scour each shot for any sign of Michael Myers, expecting to see either him or his car emerge from behind a tree or a corner. (It Follows is almost entirely predicated on this paranoid Where’s Waldo? exercise, with the twist that viewers have no idea from scene to scene what the threatening person looks like.) It’s only when the camera moves into position in front of the women, pulling them again and letting them dominate the frame, that the creepy music stops and the audience can potentially relax for a moment. So much of Carpenter’s genius in Halloween involves manipulating viewer alertness via visual and aural cues, which set rules that he can later violate to startling effect. The entire first half of the movie is all about rising and falling tension.
No sooner does Lynda head into her house than Michael Myers suddenly appears again, ahead of Laurie and Annie, out of the car now and standing next to a large row of shrubbery separating two adjacent houses. The character’s famous mask is at its most effective by far in this first film’s early scenes, during which he’s only seen at a distance (or, when closer to the camera, with his head either out of frame or turned away from the lens). It’s very clear that something is horribly amiss with this person’s face, but it’s hard to tell exactly what’s wrong, if you don’t already know that he’s wearing a modified mask of William Shatner as Captain Kirk. (For those who don’t know: Yes, that’s really what it is.) Annie, who has no particular reason to feel fearful, and is also an idiot, runs over to confront him, only to find that he’s vanished. It seems a bit odd that Carpenter shows this right away—the more suspenseful approach would be to maintain Laurie’s point of view, putting us in her shoes as she warily approaches to see if this mystery man really wants to ask her out on a date. But generating suspense in that way would mandate that the camera follow Laurie, and Carpenter doesn’t want to do that. We stay with Annie, knowing that there’s nobody behind the shrub, and watch Laurie walk toward us. Only Michael Myers follows her.