During the silent film era, early filmmakers had to rely primarily on cinematography and mise-en-scène to establish setting and mood in order to engage the audience. Naturally, with the advancement of technology, films became more developed and complex, adding dialogue and making actors’ delivery and performances more important. But through all the developments of the film industry, one factor remains the same: a film must have great cinematography; and, a good cinematographer can make, or break, any film, especially on the independent circuit. John Carpenter knew this when gathering his crew for a small independent film titled Halloween, now historically preserved as one of the greatest films in history, and he chose a man who would end up changing not only his own career but Carpenter’s as well—that man is Dean Cundey.
Dean Cundey is a noteworthy cinematographer in film history. His work includes some of the most impressive film franchises ever made, including the Back to the Future trilogy, Jurassic Park, Apollo 13, and the first three Halloween films. His knowledge and execution of framing, lighting, and mise-en-scene are rivaled by very few in film. His vision of using the Panaglide Steadicam was essential to the success of the Halloween franchise. The Panaglide was new at the time and helped Carpenter and Cundey achieve a smooth moving POV (point of view) shot. The POV shot is used in order to create the feeling of placing the audience themselves in the film, and did just that—as Rick Worland, in his book The Horror Film, writes, “Halloween popularized one of the most controversial visual elements of post-1968 horror, a subjective camera prowling through streets and houses that puts the audience into the optical point of view of the killer.” (Worland 101). Cundey’s success with the Panaglide in Halloween allowed him to continue utilizing long tracking shots throughout the next two installments in the franchise, Halloween II and Halloween III: Season of the Witch.
While Halloween III: Season of the Witch (directed by Tommy Lee Wallace; 1982) may not have the famed killer Michael Myers from the first two installments, it tried to start an anthology series of original supernatural stories and step away from Michael. Dean Cundey compensated for a lack of body count in this Halloween anthology with beautiful imagery and meaningful shots. Right from the start (after the opening credits), we are shown a dark scene, a wide shot lit mostly by the moonlight, with a few street lights illuminating portions of the road. The shot is fairly straightforward, even plain, but the simplicity worked very well in establishing a new chapter in the franchise, creating a sense of claustrophobia in open spaces. The film follows up these slightly longer shots with a barrage of quick cuts when the action picks up. These shots are dark and lit only by the moonlight as well, but the framing of the opening scene as a whole is breathtaking – especially during the car fight scene.
The El Camino is the one car in the entire junkyard that appears to be in good shape, and it is placed directly in the center of the frame with the only light coming from behind it, and with the actors positioned in front of the car. The night sky only takes up a quarter of the screen, adding to the color simplicity of this beautiful shot. There is no dialogue in the scene, so the actors must portray their emotions (and in the case of the men in suits, lack of) skillfully, while the cinematographer, camera operator, and director work together to create a story without using any words.
The scene ends with Harry running away to the back of the junkyard, which is filled with scrap metal and cars. There are two lights with blue hues covering the entire scene, reminiscent of both John Carpenter’s The Fog and The Thing (which released four months prior to Halloween III). The end of this scene is a staple of 1980’s horror/sci-fi, and the framing and slight tilt is a signature of Dean Cundey’s work. We blur out of the junkyard and pan up to the night sky, and the darkness is only broken by a flash of lightning and the sound of thunder, which, to this day, still catches spectators off guard.
The gas station scene follows the excellent opening scene expertly. Before the power goes out, there is barely any light illuminating the scene. The infamous “Silver Shamrock” commercial appears on the television and irradiates the room in a green glow; every time this occurs in Halloween III, something terrible happens. In this case, the power goes out, and the gas station attendant, Walter, becomes paranoid at what he hears outside. Every window that he peers through, Walter ends up in the center of the frame; that framing is not accidental. The shadows and blue hues continue to battle to cover the entire scene. Again, the only lighting is from moonlight in the sky, leaving shadows on Walter’s face, as well as over the entire scene as he slowly creeps around the gas station. The main lubricant sold at the gas station is “Pennzoil,” and their slogan is “Safe Lubrication”: a clever touch to showcase the word “safe” all around the building during this suspenseful scene. The audience knows that everything is definitely not safe.
When Walter is first grabbed, there are so many shadows throughout the short struggle that we cannot see who, or what, the attacker is. When it is finally revealed that the man is Harry from the opening scene, the shadows disappear from his face. The end of the scene shows Walter driving Harry in his tow truck with yellow work lights piercing the black sky. After the truck is out of frame, a man steps into frame from the right and only takes up a fifth of the frame, maintaining mystery and suspense. The mere sight of someone stepping into the frame can invoke a chilling effect, and, again, proves that dialogue does not need to drive every scene in a film; instead, demonstrating how framing and lighting can directly enhance a story nonverbally.
The film pivots to an almost entirely dialogue driven scene, balancing the conversation-free first six minutes of the film. The interior scene is meant to establish that our main character Dan (Tom Atkins) has a family and is trying to impress his children. There are very few camera movements in the tight space, and lighting is basic 1980’s living room yellow lamp lighting. The performance of Tom Atkins mixed with the simple, yet effective, shot selection creates the perfect vibe of the film. The scene then transitions to a hospital setting, showcasing fluorescent hospital lighting bouncing off white walls and white floors, creating a sense of safety from the darkness and shadows from the first two scenes. You can still see darkness outside the doors at the end of the hallway, but the audience feels safe in the white, brightly lit hospital. There are few camera movements in this scene, but a few tracking shots down the long hallways prove to be a subtle and effective addition to an otherwise “relieving” scene. A decent amount of this hospital scene is repeated shots, or rather, one long take cut with different angles in order to extend the scene somewhat naturally.
The recurring theme in Halloween III is the “Silver Shamrock” commercial, which again disrupts the calm scene. Harry’s gurney is wheeled down the hallway and stops right in front of an empty room, which begins playing the commercial, waking Harry. He begins to tell the hospital staff that “They are going to kill us!” as the background music and commercial music dies down, only the dialogue pierces through the silence. The audience is supposed to assume that it is the men in the suits that are doing the killing but have no definite answer—the true horror of the film. Rather than coming outright and saying what the danger is, instead, directors often
“rely on what scares us to make their movie. In a time of silent movies, directors relied upon makeup and low budget technology to put fear in the heart of its audience. Through obscuring the vision the audience had through shadows or mist, they were encouraged to let their imagination wonder, and come to their own conclusions as to what the evil was. Mystery in the horror genre can grab all of our attention to the end. What is it that we’re jumping for?” (Moore 1)
What people can create in their own minds can be much more terrifying than what can be shown on screen, a reason why some books are scarier than their film adaptations. The audience finds out later that it is not the men in the suits that directly cause the horror in the film, but their thoughts and fears grow throughout the film until that very moment when it is revealed.
After the scene with Harry, Dan walks down a hallway, and as he exits around a corner, the camera slightly tracks backward until a man in a suit is in the frame. Half of his body appears in the open hallway, lit by the many fluorescent lights, and the other half is covered in the shadowy darkness of the empty hospital room. A few seconds later, we get two great shots of two separate empty hallways, the silence causing audiences to creep forward in their seats. We receive a low angle shot of the man in the suit’s legs walking towards the camera, and then we return to the shot of the second empty hallway and catch a glimpse of the man walking out of frame. Even though the man is out of frame, the filmmakers hold the shot after he exits for a few seconds, letting the tension build. This small shift in seeing the empty hallway to seeing the man, our only known antagonist, walking down that same hallway creates suspense like no other—we are supposed to be safe. After that, we cut back to Dan in a staffroom, turning off the lamplight, and the camera pans as he lies down on the couch. The only lighting is from the hallway outside the room, and even though we can barely see Dan, the shot is simple, yet artistically done. Even though Dan is relaxing, the audience cannot relax knowing that the man in the suit is still prowling around the hospital.
Throughout the opening sequences and the rest of the film, Halloween III is considered Dean Cundey’s best work. Strong static shots with subtle pans and tilts, slow tracking shots that complement the performances of the actors, and framing, lighting, and elemental colors that tie every shot together, showcasing the eerie environment and pleasing the eye. Halloween III has always been a dark horse in the horror genre, due to Halloween fans disliking the absence of Michael Myers. However, if you are a film fan, especially a horror film fan, observe it from a different perspective than a Halloween sequel. In other words, film fans and horror fans should judge this film for what it is—a hybrid of sci-fi, thriller, slasher, satire, paranoia, whodunit, and pure 1980’s horror filmmaking. The cinematography by Cundey and performance of Tom Atkins create a gem in cinema history and a film that encompasses the Halloween holiday.
Nic Christian is a senior at Lewis University, majoring in Aviation Administration with a minor in Business Administration. He is one of the hosts of Slash ‘N Cast horror podcast, and a producer at the Retro Redux Entertainment production & distribution company. His favorite films include Carrie (1976), Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986), and Whiplash (2014). Nic loves to share his love of the horror genre through video content, as well as independent filmmaking. You can catch him every day of the week on the Slash ‘N Cast YouTube channel, or bi-weekly on the Make Every Death Count show found wherever you listen to podcasts.
Make Every Death Count – https://anchor.fm/slashncast
Moore, Michelle. “What Makes Horror Films Scary?” Close-Up Film. N.p., 27 Oct. 2018. Web. 08 May 2019. <http://www.close-upfilm.com/2018/10/what-makes-horror-films-scary/>.
Worland, Rick. The Horror Film: An Introduction. 1st ed. Malden, MO: Blackwell, 2007. Print