In the process of crafting a simple tale of a masked killer stalking babysitters on Halloween night, director John Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey made a bold decision to shoot their seminal slasher classic, Halloween, in Panavision widescreen (2.39:1). Which, as you may have guessed, presents a wider image than the standard (1.85:1).
Those numbers tell the tale – aspect ratios are written as (width: height), so, for example, a perfectly square presentation would be 1:1. Using that information brings the filmmakers’ decision into focus. Opting for the Panavision widescreen was chosen to stretch the width of the image to more than 2x the height (again, 2.39:1).
This type of photography is generally used on adventure epics and blockbusters that want to capture maximum space to engulf the viewer and overload your senses, but horror tends to go for claustrophobic photography.
Think about films like Alien, Evil Dead, The Thing, and Night of the Living Dead. When the story takes place at an abandoned cabin in the woods, an arctic scientific outpost, a haunted house, a remote space station, or some creepy killer’s lair, the object is to make you feel trapped. It raises the tension and creates a sense of hopelessness or claustrophobia. Actions become much more desparate, and the act of freeing yourself from the entrapment becomes all-consuming.
But, when you move the location to the suburbs, an area geographically chosen by families specifically to increase personal space and feel more safe away from city crime, you have a killing ground with endless rows of homes and unprepared suburbanites.
Carpenter extrapolates horror from this setting by using that widescreen lens in the suburban setting of Haddonfield, which is an avatar for middle-America. The film provides scares through near-encounters, shadows, silhouettes, sounds, and the possibility that if you turn around there might be someone watching you through the window.
To accomplish this, Carpenter frequently paints the edges of the frame with an omnipresence of evil while also playing with the parameters of depth. Let’s take a look at a few screencaps:
Consider the image above. The protagonist, Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis), is unassumingly walking to school and in steps a mysterious Shape (Nick Castle) stalking her as Laurie shyly sings to herself (?), “I wish I had you all alone….just the two of us….”.
Notice the amount of space shown. Carpenter is setting the stage for later use of vertical space between characters. The distance between Laurie and the Shape is not close enough to elicit fear of an attack, and the antagonist remains static, so, voyeuristic fears aside, why is this so terrifying?
The images above, all from Laurie’s POV, are some of the more terrifying images from the film, yet they offer only the possibility (or perhaps the inevitability) of a threat. There’s an invasion threatening the sanctity of Haddonfield’s peaceful family neighborhoods. Carpenter places the threat within elements common to suburban living: hedge rows, sidewalks, backyards, a high school classroom, etc.
Look at the small amount of physical space the Shape takes up in these screencaps. He looks comparably tiny to the sweeping size of suburbia. Part of Carpenter’s brilliance is he doesn’t shrink the frame to make the viewer feel squeezed into a small space, he acknowledges and uses the vast amount of space within the milieu. By using not only horizontal space, but also vertical depth, he chooses not to shy away from the physical boundaries of the location, but instead he places fear within the expansive space of the setting.
Since these moments pictured occur during the daytime, one has to assume this is a preamble to what is to come once the sun sets.
Which brings us to the images above. These are shots that really display Carpenter’s mastery of staging and use of that wide frame. As the Shape stalks Laurie’s friend, Annie (Nancy Loomis), who is babysitting across the street from Laurie, the POV changes. Nancy does not see the Shape as Laurie does, so Carpenter and Cundey found ways to show Annie being watched and constantly in danger without her having any knowledge of the threat. This is a classic Hitchcock “there’s-a-bomb-on-the-bus” style of suspenseful storytelling, where the audience is aware of the danger but the character is not.
And we, the audience, are hyper-aware there is an impending danger through Carpenter’s painterly style of dressing the edges of the frame with an air of menace.
Typically, a shot of a character standing in the kitchen making popcorn or being stuck in a laundry room would not be suitable for widescreen photography. Each is a boring location with very finite space. But by increasing the horizontal and vertical space of the frame, Carpenter creates not only an area for the antagonist to inhabit, but he also increases the size of the metaphysical space in the viewer’s mind.
Once we see images of characters in small spaces being stalked by an entity outside of that space, we are reminded of the vastness of the world around these characters. We are then left to imagine all the places danger could occupy outside of those seemingly safe rooms.
So while Carpenter plays with spacial parameters within the widescreen lens to instill fear and a sense of foreboding danger, he also shows mastery in storytelling through widescreen techniques. Below is one of my favorite sequences in the film, for several reasons.
Just before nightfall, there’s one final scene that sets the groundwork for the remainder of the film. The first image above occurs just after Annie and Laurie have stopped at the scene of a burglary where Annie’s father, Sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers), is investigating. We see Annie and Laurie pull away from the scene in the red car, heading towards the rear of the frame. As they exit, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) approaches Sheriff Brackett in the second image above, moving parallel to but in the opposite direction of the car, causing a transference of action. Annie’s car is decelerating action (leaving the frame) and Dr. Loomis’ arrival is accelerating action (approaching the frame). Again, an excellent use of the entirety of the wide frame and a well choreographed mixture of elements.
As Loomis nears the sheriff, the camera turns to give us a normal, practical two-shot of the men speaking with the street intersection occupying background. The characters introduce themselves and engage in a brief conversation as Dr. Loomis asks for a few minutes of the sheriff’s time. Sheriff Brackett tells Loomis to give him ten minutes, to which the doctor is amenable.
During this throwaway bit of character interaction, Carpenter, again, goes to work employing that wide frame to add the element of danger.
Notice the empty space behind Sheriff Brackett not being used in the image directly above.
Now inspect that space behind Sheriff Brackett. As the men converse, a car appears behind them in the back corner of the frame. We recognize the car because Carpenter employs many signifiers throughout the film to alert the viewer that danger is near, and the “Official Use Only” station-wagon that Michael Myers steals in the beginning of the film is just one of those signifiers. It’s a bland car that does not stand out in suburban traffic, but is easily recognizable to the audience after Carpenter has spent plenty of time establishing the connection between the car and the antagonist.
As Sheriff Bracket exits the scene, the camera lingers on Dr. Loomis standing on the corner waiting to speak with the sheriff in more depth about the impending return of Michael Myers. The car lingers at the light for a moment as Loomis awkwardly waits, and when the light turns green the car pulls forward toward the camera and closer to Loomis before slipping away behind him, undetected, and heading in the same direction as Annie and Laurie. This is an example of Carpenter playing games with Dr. Loomis, using the margins of the frame to show just how unknowingly close he really is to Michael, while also feeding that sense of inevitable dread.
Without that widescreen lens, this scene is impossible to pull off in such a fashion. The scene begins with Annie and Laurie driving away after talking with Annie’s dad, then introduces Sheriff Brackett to Dr. Loomis, and finally it shows the presence of Michael Myers in plain sight but unnoticed, a motif Carpenter will revisit time and time again throughout the film. Just another reason to love John Carpenter and Halloween.