Talking Movies [Halloween]: John Carpenter’s Halloween

Starting life as the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, when people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off ghosts, Halloween is largely associated not just with ghosts, ghouls, and confectionery but also a long-running series of horror movies. Beginning with John Carpenter’s Halloween (Carpenter, 1978), the franchise is largely credited with birthing the “slasher” sub-genre of horror films and has endured numerous remakes and reboots and is one of the most influential films in all of horror.

Talking Movies

Released: 25 October 1978
John Carpenter
Compass International Pictures/Aquarius Releasing
Jamie Lee Curtis, Nancy Kyes, P.J. Soles, Donald Pleasence, and Nick Castle

The Plot:
On Halloween night 1963, six-year-old Michael Myers (Will Sandin) brutally stabs his sister to death with a kitchen knife. Fifteen years later, the now-adult Myers (Castle) escapes from his sanitarium to return home to the town of Haddonfield where he assumes the shape of a man, masked behind a stoic visage, and begins stalking babysitter Laurie Strode (Curtis) and her friends while his doctor, Sam Loomis (Pleasence), desperately tries to hunt him down before he can kill again.

The Background:
After being impressed with his work on Assault on Precinct 13 (ibid, 1976), producer Moustapha Akkad sought out writer/director John Carpenter to work on an idea he had for a horror film that revolved around a psychotic killer who stalked babysitters. It was Carpenter, however, who conceived of the idea to set the film on Halloween night and collaborated with long-term friend and colleague Debra Hill on refining the script.

Michael’s expressionless visage became an enduring icon of horror cinema.

Although the film’s low budget meant that Carpenter was unable to attract veteran horror actors Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee, he was able to cast accomplished actor Donald Pleasence, who was the highest paid actor in the film. Michael Myers’ iconic, expressionless mask was the work of Tommy Lee Wallace, who famously altered a mask of Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and Carpenter himself wrote the iconic score, which convinced producers of the film’s potential. This paid off at the time as a worldwide gross of over $63 million made Halloween one of the most successful independent films ever made, although Halloween was largely dismissed upon release for its graphic content and macabre narrative. Of course, the film is now regarded as one of the most influential movies of its genre and one of the greatest horror films ever made thanks to popularising the clichés of the slasher sub-genre.

The Review:
Halloween has, perhaps, one of the most iconic and chilling openings in all of horror cinema; shot entirely from a first-person perspective, the film builds a great deal of tension as we follow an unseen character on a tour of the Myers house and brutally stab Judith Myers (Sandy Johnson) to death. It’s quite a long sequence but it effectively establishes a foreboding and unsettling ambience as the anticipation build and builds to a gruesome finale and, right as we’ve taken in the sight of Judith being stabbed to death, it’s dramatically revealed that the perpetrator was small child with an inhuman, unflinching look etched on his features. The randomness and brutality of this opening act is all the explanation we really need for Michael Myers in this first movie, where he’s portrayed more as a force of nature (evil in the shape of a man) than an actual person.

Loomis is horrified when Michael gets loose and determined to track him down.

Of course, nobody sells the horror and menace of Michael Myers more than his doctor, Sam Loomis, who is vehemently opposed to Myers being transferred from his facility and of the unwavering opinion that Michael is evil incarnate and a significant threat to all of those around him. Having worked with Michael over the course of fifteen years (eight spent trying to reach him and another seven spent committed to keeping him locked away), nobody knows Michael (whom Loomis refers to as “It” rather than “him”) better than Loomis and he is horrified to find that Michael has managed to escape. Fully aware that Michael will head straight to Haddonfield to kill again, Loomis’s first priority is to illicit the help of Sheriff Leigh Brackett (Charles Cyphers) but, while the Sheriff indulges Loomis, he remains incredulous since they find little evidence of Michael’s presence, all of which simply gives Loomis further excuse to exposit the danger that Michael poses through a series of outbursts.

Laurie might be quite unremarkable to begin with but she proves herself capable by the finale.

As one of the original “Final Girls” of slasher cinema, Laurie is, honestly, not all that spectacular a character but that’s kind of the point. The main crux of Halloween’s horror is that it takes place in a normal, everyday, boring suburban environment filled with normal, unextraordinary people and Laurie pretty much embodies that. Sure, she smokes a little weed at one point and has the hots for the elusive Ben Tramer but she’s a much more responsible and level-headed young woman than her friends Annie Brackett (Kyes) and Lynda Van Der Klok (Soles); she’s generally more of a bookworm and takes her duties as a babysitter much more seriously than  her friends and seems much less interesting as a result. However, as unremarkable as she seems at first, Laurie really comes into her own once all of her friends are dead and she’s left at the mercy of Michael Myers; here, she really comes into her own as she’s the only one of Michael’s victims to have the gumption to actually fight back as, while she does become an emotional wreck at times, her quick thinking and adaptability are key factors in keeping her alive.

Annie and Lynda are far more frivolous and carefree characters compared to Laurie.

Like Laurie, Annie and Lynda also do a bit of babysitting to help supplement their income; however, unlike her, they generally use this as a good excuse to hook up with their boyfriends and pay the price as a result. Annie, the Sheriff’s daughter, is the clumsier and ineffective of the three as she spills butter all over herself and is happy to simply let Lindsey Wallace (Kyle Richards) watch The Thing from Another World (Nyby, 1951), but is a bit of a rebel as she smokes pot behind her Dad’s back. Lynda, meanwhile, is a total rebel and a complete airhead as she cuts out the middleman completely and simply spends her night have sex with Bob Simms (John Michael Graham) and spouting her catchphrase, “Totally!”, at every opportunity.

Michael stalks Laurie throughout the day, seemingly appearing and disappearing at will.

Each of them fall victim to Michael Myers in some way, shape, or form; Myers’ reputation in Haddonfield has become something of a neighbourhood legend as the kids believe his house is haunted and taunt Tommy Doyle (Brian Andrews) over his fear of the “bogeyman”, but very few seem to be aware of what happened all those years ago and even fewer mention Michael by name. He spends the entirety of his day first making his way down to Haddonfield (inexplicably fully able to drive, despite fifteen years in confinement), acquiring his now-iconic mask, and stalking Laurie. While Tommy runs across Michael at one point, the only one of the girls to constantly stop Michael stalking them is Laurie, who is disturbed at his ability to seemingly appear and disappear at will, but his presence is quickly felt by all three girls when night falls and he begins his killing spree in earnest.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Of course, one of the most horrifying and memorable aspects of Halloween is John Carpenter’s iconic score; a simple few notes of a piano are enough to send a chill down the spine as Michael suddenly appears onscreen or looms into view, always seen from a distance, the neck down, or bathed in shadow with only his mask standing out against the pitch darkness of night. It’s a fantastically simple and effective score that is perfectly used to build a sense of dread and tension and, by the conclusion, ramps up significantly to reflect Laurie’s growing fear and desperation as she frantically tries to escape from Michael’s wrath.

Halloween is surprisingly light on kills and favours mounting tension over gory effects.

Of course, few films are perfect and Halloween has a few dodgy moments; as chilling and effective as the opening shot is, the angle and perspective of the young Michael’s attack is a bit awkward (it looks like he stabs Judith in the stomach or leg but the blood is splashed over her ample bosom) and Haddonfield is very green for October. Compared to many of its sequels and contemporaries, Halloween is also relatively light on the gore; Michael wields a massive kitchen knife, which he uses to cut Annie’s throat and stab Bob through the stomach, but he also heavily relies on his brute strength to choke, strangle, and manhandle his victims. The body count and use of gore is quite low and limited but it actually adds to the film’s terror since it’s all very subdued and realistic rather than relying on gruesome and over the top effects.

Michael popularised the “silent, masked killer” trope whose motivations are vague, at best.

Michael is the forefather of all the hulking, masked, silent killers who came after him; while Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) proceeded him, he was a far more mentally unbalanced and animalistic killer, whereas Michael is like a force of nature. Eerily silent and ominous, he stands perfectly still and watches his prey with all the patience in the world and every movement is premeditated and efficient, almost like a machine; at the same time, he exhibits a curious nature, cocking his head like a dog as he watches Bob choke to death on his own blood, and slowly, deliberately turning his head towards Laurie after sitting bolt upright from her assault.

Superhumanly strong, Michael shrugs off injuries and is relentless in his mission.

Seemingly impervious to pain, inexhaustible, and possessing superhuman strength (he’s able to life Paul clear off the floor with one arm), Michael is easily able to overwhelm his prey by taking them completely by surprise. He’s even got a flair for the dramatic and likes to toy with them as he dresses up like a ghost to get close to Lynda and goes to the trouble of stealing his sister’s gravestone and laying Annie’s corpse out before it for Laurie to stumble across (he also leaves the bodies of her other friends for her to find, which became a recurring trope in the finale of slasher films for years to come). According to Loomis, Michael is more like an animal, an inhuman perversion of a man, and we see this on numerous occasions, such as the revelation that Michael has been eating dogs for sustenance and the fact that that he’s fully capable of recovering from a coat hanger to the eye and being stabbed within a few seconds.

Though resembling a man, Michael’s exact nature (and ultimate fate) is left ambiguous.

Indeed, the only real proof we have that Michael even is a man is the fact that…well, he clearly is and he is heard breathing, which only adds to his horror as he simply stands, breathing deeply and heavily, and watches his prey. Loomis’s evaluation of Michael is that, somehow, all traces of emotion and empathy and humanity were stripped away and all that is left is pure malice and evil (showcased best not in the fact that he kills teenagers without a thought but also that he commits the ultimate sin by killing a dog!) Michael spends the entire film hidden behind an unsettling, expressionless mask; though we do get to see him unmasked for the briefest moment, it’s not an especially pretty sight and he quickly covers his face up again to reassume his true guise. The question of Michael’s supernatural nature is left ambiguous; he gets stunned and reacts to pain a few times and seems to be finished off by Loomis’ gunshots but, when he goes to check on him, Myers has mysteriously vanished and the film ends with his fate and true nature left uncertain.

The Summary:
Halloween is a classic piece of horror cinema that has stood the test of time purely through a masterful execution of its simple premise, an alluring and disturbing villain, and a chilling score. Michael’s evil is pure and uncomplicated in this original film; he is simply an inexorable and unrelenting force of nature who completely lacks anything in the way of humanity and empathy and lives only to kill. Michael’ motivations are a mystery, despite the theories and beliefs of Loomis, and are have little meaning anyway once his killing spree begins. While some of the performances are a little janky in retrospect, the film is elevated by Pleasance’s presence; he brings a real gravitas to the film and does a fantastic job of selling Michael’s threat and walks a fine line between paranoia and madness as his desperation to stop Michael, and warn others of his danger, becomes a frantic obsession.

Halloween birthed the slasher genre and remains a classic through its simple, but effective, execution.

Halloween proves that slasher films don’t need to be complicated by complex lore or problematic conspiracies and supernatural events and can be as simple as a masked madman slowly stalking and murdering teenage girls while shrugging off physical pain and, arguably, the Halloween franchise peaked with this influential original for that fact alone. The legacy and influence of Halloween cannot be understated as, without it, the slasher genre and popularity of masked, silent killers would arguably be very different or non-existent. It’s slower, measured pace and lack of gruesome gore may not be for everyone but Halloween set the standard for the genre, establishing all the now-cliché tropes, and changed the horror genre forever and, while subsequent sequels and a myriad of reboots and one of the most screwed up timelines in all of cinema can’t change how influential John Carpenter’s seminal original was.

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

What are your thoughts on the original Halloween? Do you think it still holds up today, especially compared to its sequels and all the other horror franchises it inspired? What did you think to Michael Myers’ portrayal in this film; did the vague descriptions of his motivations work for you or do you prefer horror villains to have a more tangible backstory? Which of the girls was your favourite and what did you think of Laurie as the final survivor? Did the emphasis on tension work for you or would you have preferred to see more gore? What did you think to Dr. Sam Loomis and his unique relationship with Michael? Which of the Halloween films is your favourite and why? How are you celebrating Halloween this year? Whatever your thoughts on Halloween, and the Halloween franchise, drop a comment below and have a spook-tacular Halloween!

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