Directed by John Carpenter
Starring Donald Pleasence, Jamie Lee Curtis, & Tony Moran
The final stop on our throwback horror film tour is, aptly so, John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). Thought by many to be the quintessential film to watch on Hallows’ Eve, in the same way that It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) has become synonymous with Christmas. The film helped establish the idea of the teen slasher film, a sub-genre that Hollywood loves to revisit to this day, revamping it with a whole host of new gimmickry. It is very rare, though, that any of the modern waves of stalk ‘n slash films are ever able to hold a candle to the classics (The Gallows, anyone?). So what makes Halloween hold up as such an important piece of horror cinema? Let’s go back to the autumnal streets of Haddonfield, Illinois (actually shot in California in the spring) and explore the legacy of Michael Myers.
The plot of the film follows Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee-Curtis), a typical high school teenager trying to make some money by babysitting her neighbour’s kids, who starts seeing a mysterious masked figure around her street and outside by her house. It turns out that this menace is one Michael Myers (Nick Castle), a murderous lunatic who had been put away in a mental institution 15 years prior after the brutal murder of his sister on Halloween night. Now, just as the 31st of October is rolling around again, Myers has managed to escape from his captivity, much to the dismay of Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence), who had been documenting Michael’s unstable psychiatric state and is the only person who truly knows what horrendous acts he is capable of. Myers returns to his hometown of Haddonfield where he seeks to continue his craze of slaughtering innocent teens, with his sights set on Laurie and her friends.
The film was made on a very modest budget, which mostly works to its advantage (it often does in horror). The opening titles are laid over a simple shot of a jack-o’-lantern as the main musical motif slowly builds. John Carpenter composed the music for the film himself. The famous, high-pitched main theme came about from Carpenter wanting to write a theme in an irregular 5/4 time signature. The unconventional rhythm and chillingly soft piano key melody creates a theme that is appropriately spine-chilling, as well as being oddly disorientating. The score reminds me of Bernard Herrmann’s music for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, in that it brilliantly emulates the feeling of madness. The music feels like a spiral, not having a clear starting or end point; it feels like a dark descent into madness. It’s hard to think of another piece of horror film music that so successfully embeds itself into the brain and is instantly associated with feelings of dread.
The opening scene is a masterful example of well-choreographed, suspenseful staging. The scene is shot in all one take, with the use of the Steadicam. Yes, before Stanley Kubrick was lauded in 1980 for his innovative Steadicam work in The Shining, John Carpenter had used it first for a horrific point-of-view shot of a deranged killer creeping through a suburban house. Carpenter borrows a similar idea from Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), starting off the audience in the mind of the antagonist. The sequence is so well orchestrated that it comes as a genuine shock when it’s revealed that the killer is no more than a child—the young Michael, to be exact. The creative use of camerawork continues all the way through the film, with many disconcerting, lingering shots.
Jamie Lee Curtis gives a fine performance as Laurie. She gives the role a suitable likeability, making Laurie an intelligent, sweet, and slightly reserved teenage girl. In other words, the perfect heroine for a movie of this ilk. She stands in stark contrast to her more lively, promiscuous friends, Lynda (P.J. Soles) and Annie (Nancy Kyes).
If there is a problem with the film, then it’s in its dialogue. More specifically, it’s in its attempts at humour. The interactions between the three girls towards the beginning of the film, as they have a casual conversation about boyfriends, school and babysitting, seems incredibly awkward and stilted. Lynda’s penchant for saying the word ‘totally’ is an example of the script not letting an unfunny joke go. Then again, it results in a character that is thoroughly annoying, which I presume was the intended effect.
As far as the acting goes, it is Donald Pleasence as the fearful psychiatrist Sam Loomis who steals the show. Taking the role of the foreboding old man who no one listens to, Pleasence fills every one of his monologues about the unstoppable evil of Michael with appropriate dread and trepidation. It is the character of Loomis who builds up the suspense surrounding the film, communicating so much to the audience through a single nervous look in his eye, cementing the idea that Michael is not a man; he is a monster, one with no rhyme or reason.
When it comes to horror slasher villains, Michael Myers has the reputation of being one of the most influential. It should be noted, however, that he is not the first—that title belongs to Norman Bates from Psycho, a film that Halloween owes a huge debt to. In fact, Myers wasn’t even the first holiday themed killer to hunt defenseless teens on the big screen; 1974’s Black Christmas predates the film with its festive murders. Michael Myers was, however, the first slasher villain to set the long-standing archetype, due to the success of Halloween and its introduction of themes and ideas that have now become standard horror conventions. Many others followed this pattern, creating similarly iconic villains including Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and Ghostface from the self-referential Scream series.
Myers is not a frantic, energetic killer—he doesn’t showcase any of the odious wit and quipping of Krueger, and is all the more threatening because of it. At times, Michael’s actions make him still feel like a child, which is fitting considering his incarceration from a very young age. He acts very subdued, almost zombified, as he slowly wanders around the neighbourhood and towards his victims, like a lost soul rejected from the world. The only motive given for Michael by the film is that he is simply pure evil, that he is a deeply disturbed individual with no instilled morality. It is like he is an inhuman creature from a whole other world, viewing human beings as playthings he can torment and destroy.
Unfortunately, the enigmatic terror surrounding Michael is mostly dissipated in later entries to the series where the writers do attempt to explain his origin story and motivation in more depth, with awkwardly contrived results. And the less said about Rob Zombie’s 2007 remake, where the whole first half of the film is dedicated to Michael’s childhood, the better.
Carpenter gives his villain a supernatural edge, complete with superhuman strength and the ability to suddenly vanish from view. This approach leads to one of the most iconic shots in all of horror, one that has been referenced and parodied time after time. Laurie looks out her window to see Myers silently standing outside, staring back at her; she jumps back in fright, and when she looks back a split second later, Myers is gone. Having the killer act in such a ghostlike way creates a constant uncertainty amongst the audience, who are never really sure where he could be lurking in the shadows.
This is most emphasised in the film’s ending, where Myers disappears off into the night after Laurie and Dr. Loomis have supposedly killed him. The film ends with several shots of dark rooms and empty streets, as the sound of heavy breathing through a mask can be heard. It’s an unnervingly effective ending for the film, suggesting that Michael is still very much alive, omnipresent behind every door and in every window.
I find Halloween to be one of the most accessible horror films ever made. Its simple premise makes it very easy to be able to get into and enjoy; there is no convoluted setup, no odd gimmicks (those were saved for the sequels), just plain and simple stalk and slash fun. For me, even though I find Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) the director’s best work, Halloween still reigns triumphant when it comes to choosing a film for a dark, spooky October night. Sure, some of the dialogue feels unnaturally forced, and some more cynical viewers may find the teenage stereotypes and jump scare theatrics a little outdated, but the fact remains that Halloween created a lasting impact on the horror genre. For better or for worse, its legacy still influences modern horror today.
So whether you are staying in with a scary movie or going trick or treating, enjoy Halloween everybody! And remember, no matter what you’re doing, to always check the shadows; you never know who or what may be hiding in them.
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