Amazing early test footage for Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ captures the thrill of innovation

Plain and simple, I love this.

Part of what I love about movies is the language of cinema. Not just the stories being told or the people telling them, but the particular use of camera and editing and music and effects and sound… the way all of that comes together to create and capture emotion and energy and action and ideas.

There’s a film coming out later this year that I’ve seen that is such an amazing explosion of new visual language, of unfettered visual invention, that I feel like any review we do right now will only be half the story. Some films leave a huge thumbprint on film history because they do something that immediately enters the vocabulary of every other filmmaker working, something that is just added to the tools that are used to tell visual stories. It’s got to be amazing to be part of something like that, and I suspect that most of the time, you don’t even realize it until later.

Today, there’s a four and a half minute silent video online that is nothing but camera tests of people walking around, and yet, looking at it, I am struck by just how much you can sense the excitement of the people shooting these tests because they know that they have this brand-new thing to play with. I’m talking about the Panaglide tests shot by Dean Cundey and Ray Stella for John Carpenter’s “Halloween.”

If you have never seen “The Shining” or “Halloween” or “Wolfen” or “Days Of Heaven,” and you were to watch them now for the first time, I’m sure you’d find plenty to like in all of them. Chances are, though, they wouldn’t feel revolutionary to you, and that’s something we lose when films are watched out of the context of their original release window. The invention of the Stedicam and the Panaglide (competing systems that basically did the same thing, stabilizing a camera that could be worn by an operator for completely mobility) pushed filmmakers to rethink the way they thought things, and I can say that when I saw “Halloween” theatrically, I was way too young, and the film’s creepy, fluid, voyeuristic style really worked on me in a way no other scary image ever had. The same was true of “The Shining.” There was something otherworldly about the feeling of exploring the Overlook, hovering along behind Danny or stalking Wendy or crowding in on Jack as he loses his mind.

What I find most exciting about this test footage is watching them think about scenarios that would be too frustrating to shoot using conventional dolly track and then test the equipment. Even without sound, you can feel the energy of the camera work, and you can see it on their faces. I’ve always thought that Dean Cundey was a key ingredient in Carpenter’s early work, and this is a lovely memento of a moment when the two of them were gearing up to change the way horror films were shot. No small order, but they just seem happy to be playing, no idea just how big an impact they would have with their work within a few short years.

Thanks to Brad Miska, the first one to post this footage yesterday. He got the heads up from Billy Kirkus, who evidently owns the footage. Don May, Jr., owner of Synapse Films and a tireless scavenger of genre movie history, did the transfer, and this is evidently just one small part of what Kirkus has.

I hope someone gathers all of it and puts it out. It’s not every day you can see someone just start to develop the language that will end up defining 40 years worth of genre movies, and there is real historical value to this stuff.