Friday Night Knife Fights: PSYCHO vs. HALLOWEEN (Part 2 of 3)

FRIDAY NIGHT KNIFE FIGHTS:  PSYCHO (1960) vs. HALLOWEEN (1978)
Featuring: Michael Arruda, L.L. Soares, Nick Cato, Pete Dudar, Dan Keohane, and Paul McMahon

(PART 2 of 3)

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  Welcome back folks, to another edition of FRIDAY NIGHT KNIFE FIGHTS.  This time, we continue with Part 2 of our battle of the iconic horror movies. It’s PSYCHO (1960) vs. HALLOWEEN (1978).

L.L. SOARES: Why isn’t Rob Zombie’s version HALLOWEEN (2007) part of the debate?

MICHAEL ARRUDA:   Come on!  This is supposed to be a serious debate.

L.L. SOARES: Okay, okay.

MICHAEL ARRUDA: So, which one of these two is the better movie?  That’s what our panel of Cinema Knife Fighters assembled here tonight plan to find out. So far, HALLOWEEN leads 2 to 0. Let’s see if it maintains its momentum this time around.

Okay, Round 3.    “Which film is scarier?”

I’ll start this one off myself.

I think HALLOWEEN is scarier, but not by much.  The last 20 minutes of HALLOWEEN, from the moment Jamie Lee Curtis decides to check out the house across the street, to the film’s closing credits, is among the most suspenseful last 20 minutes ever put on film.  I love it.  And there are lots of scary, make-you-scream-out loud moments interspersed throughout the movie.

PSYCHO, on the other hand, has the huge jolt, the shower scene, early on, where lead star Janet Leigh is killed off, shocking filmgoers who based on prior movie experiences, simply didn’t see that coming.  And it’s a frightening scene, even today.

And PSYCHO is also blessed with a suspenseful sequence towards the end, where Vera Miles and John Gavin go to the Bates Motel to solve the mystery, mistakenly believing that Bates’ sick old mother is the all-important witness they need to speak to regarding Janet Leigh’s disappearance, and of course, this sequence ends with the huge shock, the dramatic revelation, that Norman Bates is one sick dude.

I love how this sequence plays out as well, because the audience thinks they’re in the know, but they really aren’t.  Vera Miles is searching for the sick mother, who the audience mistakenly believes is the killer, when in reality, it’s Norman, who up until the end audiences viewed as a good guy.  It’s great stuff!

But when it comes to scares, HALLOWEEN is simply scarier.  The bulk of PSYCHO plays out like a drama and mystery—a superb one, at that—while HALLOWEEN is much more of a genuine horror movie.

“Hello? Myers residence.”

DAN KEOHANE:  I’m going with PSYCHO.  But you need to sit still and watch it. It pays off, so well, if you let the mood wash over you.

HALLOWEEN is more exciting, however, so you can be making out on the couch and look up for the scary bits without missing the point.

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  So, you’re saying that you need to pay attention to PSYCHO, but HALLOWEEN you can miss a lot of it but still enjoy its scary parts?

DAN KEOHANE:  Yeah.

L.L. SOARES:  Enough with the double-talk.  Which one’s scarier?

DAN KEOHANE:  I said PSYCHO.  (leans over towards LS)  “eeeh eeeeh eeeeh!”

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  Pete?

PETE DUDAR: I pass.

L.L. SOARES:  Is there a reason why Dudar is even here? He sure isn’t adding a lot to the conversation.

MICHAEL ARRUDA: Oh come on, stop picking on him.

PETE DUDAR: Yeah, you big bully.

PAUL MCMAHONPSYCHO may have scared the hell out of viewers back in 1960, but watching it with my parents when I was fourteen it had little effect on me. HALLOWEEN gave me icy “I-almost-wet-myself” terror, especially when Laurie Strode hides in the closet– perceived as a safe-haven by children everywhere—and Michael hammers through the slats of the folding door to get at her.

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  Yeah, that’s a great scene.

L.L. SOARES: Just don’t wet yourself here, okay?

PAUL MCMAHON:  I’m going with HALLOWEEN as the scarier movie.

The killer attacks! From PSYCHO.

NICK CATO:  While PSYCHO has a few tense moments (least of which is the iconic shower sequence), HALLOWEEN has an overall scarier tone, and holds up much better to repeated viewings.  Based on this, if I had to choose, I’d pick HALLOWEEN as the scarier picture.

L.L. SOARES:  You guys keep talking about the shower scene in PSYCHO, and sure, it’s great, but it’s not the only scary scene in the whole movie. There’s the great scene where Martin Balsam gets stabbed in the face. And the very end, where Norman’s voiceover, as his mama, says “They’ll say I wouldn’t hurt a fly,” is just creepy as hell the first time you see it. The way everyone talks, it’s like the movie just has one big, scary moment, and that’s not true.

But I have to go back to my argument about generational responses. When PSYCHO first came out, nobody had seen a movie like that before, and I’m sure it freaked a lot of people out. I remember when I was a kid and I first saw it on television, it had a real effect on me, especially that creepy ending about the fly.

But this one is difficult because I have to look at both of them and decide which one is scarier now. Which one holds up the best. And while I think PSYCHO is smarter, and better at delivering big as well as more subtle chills, I have to admit that HALLOWEEN holds up better as a solid, scary movie. Maybe because it’s not as smart—its triggers are more emotional. This round, I have to give it to HALLOWEEN.

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  Another round goes HALLOWEEN’s way, and it now leads PSYCHO, 3 to zero!  I have to admit, I didn’t see this coming.  I thought things would be closer than this.

L.L. SOARES: I still say, in some ways, this is a stupid comparison. Both movies are very important, and effective, in their own ways.

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  Would you rather we compare a great film to a dud?

On to Round 4: “Which film has the stronger cast?”

DAN KEOHANEPSYCHO.  No question. In fact, the script requires a strong cast because there’s so little else besides some cool, dark sets.

L.L. SOARES: PSYCHO, without a doubt. Not only are the main roles played by great actors like Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, and of course Anthony Perkins, who is unforgettable here; even the smaller roles are great, like Martin Balsam as Detective Arbogast. And there are even cameos by cool people like Ted Knight from the MARY TYLER MOORE show(1970 – 1977) as a cop toward the end, and Simon Oakland from THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) as a psychiatrist who gives a rundown at the end of what’s wrong with Norman. It’s just a great cast from beginning to end.

PETE DUDAR:  Pass.

L.L. SOARES:  This guy is really starting to get on my nerves. (to Dudar) Why did you even bother coming, anyway?

PETE DUDAR:  The free food.

L.L. SOARES:  What free food?

 PETE DUDAR:  You mean you missed the buffet?

L.L. SOARES:  I guess I was too busy preparing my answers!

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  I’m also going with the cast of PSYCHO.   You’ve got Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, John Gavin, and Martin Balsam, and they’re all great in this movie.   Perkins delivers one of the all-time great performances in a genre film.    His Norman Bates is creepy, unsettling, and yet he’s actually likeable at times.  It’s a terrific performance.

Janet Leigh is also strong as Marion Crane.  Vera Miles and John Gavin are less impressive, but Martin Balsam makes his brief stint as Detective Arbogast a memorable one.  The cast also includes Simon Oakland as Dr. Richman in a small role at the end of the movie. As L.L. mentioned, Oakland appeared alongside Darren McGavin in THE NIGHT STALKER movies and TV show, as Carl Kolchak’s boss, Tony Vincenzo.

The HALLOWEEN cast isn’t as strong on paper, with Donald Pleasance being the only established star in the cast, but they handle themselves well.  The best performance in the film is by Jamie Lee Curtis in her debut, but head to head, Perkins’ performance as Norman Bates is stronger than Curtis’ performance as Laurie Strode.

Donald Pleasance as Dr. Loomis in HALLOWEEN.

L.L. SOARES: Yeah, I don’t want to imply the HALLOWEEN cast is bad. It’s not. Everyone does a really good job in that one, too. I just think PSYCHO is that much better.

MICHAEL ARRUDA: Strangely, I wasn’t all that impressed by Pleasance’s performance as Dr. Loomis in HALLOWEEEN, as he comes off sounding like a crackpot. I actually like him better as the series goes along.  Nancy Loomis does well as Strode’s best friend Annie, and Carpenter favorite Charles Cyphers does a nice job as Annie’s father Sheriff Bracket.

L.L. SOARES: And don’t forget the great B-movie actress P.J. Soles as Lynda!

P.J. Soles as Lynda in HALLOWEEN.

MICHAEL ARRUDA: But Michael Myers is nothing more than a killer in a mask, a mindless monster, and he’s not on the same level as Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates.

So, in terms of who has the stronger cast, I go with PSYCHO.

NICK CATO:  Another hard one to call.

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  If it were easy, it wouldn’t be fun!

NICK CATO:  Perkins is amazing, as is Leigh in her brief role.

Jamie Lee Curtis set the stage for the babysitter in peril thing, and Donald Pleasance provided a smart and sneaky hero. I’m stuck on this one, too!

MICHAEL ARRUDA:   Can’t make a definitive call?

NICK CATO:  I’m afraid not.

PETE DUDAR:  See, I’m not the only one having a hard time here!

PAUL MCMAHON:  I’ve made up my mind.

MICHAEL ARRUDA:   What did you decide, Paul?

PAUL MCMAHON:  This one goes to PSYCHO, hands down.

Not only does it have a better cast—Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsam– but it used one of the most popular actresses of the day, Janet Leigh, in what felt like the lead role… and then killed her off at the end of the first act. Unprecedented for the time.

Donald Pleasance is great fun to watch in HALLOWEEN, and Jamie Lee Curtis shines in her movie debut, but they’re no match for the list of Hitchcock’s players.

PSYCHO.  No contest.

MICHAEL ARRUDA:   So, Round 4 goes to PSYCHO, which means Hitchcock’s classic finally gets on the board.  We’ve reached the halfway point of our contest, and after four rounds, it’s HALLOWEEN – 3, PSYCHO – 1.

On to Round 5.  “Which film has the better script?”

PETE DUDAR:  I’m going with PSYCHO.

L.L. SOARES:  The wooden dummy speaks!

PETE DUDAR:  Shut up!

I choose PSYCHO because in terms of story and characterization, PSYCHO wins hands down.

NICK CATO:  I agree with Pete. It’s easily PSYCHO. HALLOWEEN is a by-the-numbers stalk and slash film, whereas PSYCHO has more depth in its villain.

L.L. SOARES:  Well,I wouldn’t go so far as to call HALLOWEEN “by-the-numbers.” It does transcend its genre. It has a lot more there than most slasher films. But most of what works about it is visceral—more a mood and an emotional response rather than a powerful script. So, script-wise, PSYCHO is another level completely.

PAUL MCMAHON:  This is another tough one.

I’m going to say PSYCHO. It broke with a lot of conventions of the times and challenged the way stories were told. Though HALLOWEEN was the father of the unkillable boogeyman, spurring the likes of FRIDAY THE 13TH, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and other franchises, PSYCHO is the “mother” of all slasher films.  (laughs)

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  Good one!

PAUL MCMAHON:  So, which film has the better script?  PSYCHO.

DAN KEOHANE (looks at camera):  Eeeeh eeeeh eeeeh!

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  Hands down, PSYCHO has the better script.

To me, the weakest part of HALLOWEEN has always been the script by John Carpenter and Debra Hill, which comes as no surprise, since a lot of early Carpenter movies didn’t have the best scripts.  The story for HALLOWEEN is nothing to brag about.  It’s just a standard tale about an insane killer who attacks teenagers, and whenever it tries to explain the truth about who Michael Myers is and what his motivations are, it never makes sense.  It’s one of the reasons why Donald Pleasance sounds like a crackpot in this movie.  The lines he has to say are insane!  What makes HALLOWEEN the classic that it is, is the amazing directing job by John Carpenter and Carpenter’s music.

Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode in HALLOWEEN.

PSYCHO, on the other hand, has a phenomenal screenplay by Joseph Stefano, based on the novel by Robert Bloch.  As such, it has a literary connection noticeably absent in HALLOWEEN.  The PSYCHO story blows the HALLOWEEN story out of the water.  You have the whole Marion Crane storyline, followed by the mystery of her disappearance and the investigation into finding her, all interesting plot points in their own right, and I haven’t even mentioned the main plot point yet, the weird world of Norman Bates and his “mother.”

PSYCHO has a deep, rich, rewarding story that I seem to enjoy more each time I see it.  HALLOWEEN, as much as I like the movie, has just an average story.

Round 5 also goes to PSYCHO.  It’s now HALLOWEEN – 3, PSYCHO – 2.  Things are starting to get interesting.  Three rounds of questions still to come.

We’ll be wrapping this up next week. So don’t forget to check in for the conclusion of this month’s FRIDAY NIGHT KNIFE FIGHT!

L.L. SOARES: Y’all come back now, you hear?

© Copyright 2012 by Michael Arruda, L.L. Soares, Nick Cato, Peter N. Dudar, Daniel G. Keohane and Paul McMahon

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