We’re bearing the end of Oct-horror-ber (pretty good, right?) and I have gotten in a lot of horror movies. A lot. Way more than I ever really expected to. Time hasn’t run out yet, however, so why not help wind down the scariest month of all (after April) with the grand-daddy of slasher movies, John Carpenter’s Halloween.
I have seen Halloween before of course, but now I’ve had the excellent opportunity to watch the movie on the big screen. Being born in 1989, I missed the film during its initial 1978 release, but what better time to correct that injustice than on Halloween Eve-Eve 36 years later?
Everyone knows the story of Michael Myers, a young boy who stabs his older sister to death on Halloween 1963 for indeterminate reasons. His psychiatrist, Dr. Samurl Loomis (Donald Pleasence) says it’s because Michael is pure evil, which makes it all the more upsetting when Michael escapes from a sanitarium in late October 1978 and returns to his hometown.
Michael (Nick Castle, playing “The Shape” of Myers) spends the rest of the film in a jumpsuit and white mask, quietly stalking high school student and babysitter Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) seemingly for the crime of approaching his old house on the morning of Halloween. There is more to this relationship but none of it is revealed here – you’ll have to look to the sequels for that. Instead we just watch as a man with a strong hatred for nudity and a preternatural ability to creepily appear in-frame brutally and systematically murders a bunch of teenagers, including Laurie’s friends Annie (Nancy Kyes) – a terrible babysitter – and Lynda (P.J. Soles) and Lynda’s boyfriend Bob (John Michael Graham). The only person who fully escapes Michael’s wrath? Annie’s boyfriend Paul, possibly the only one in the bunch who deserves to die as he is grounded for spending the previous night egging houses and soaping windows. What a dick.
It all comes to a head in the house of Tommy Doyle (Brian Andrews), the young boy Laurie is watching on Halloween, because his parents are too cool to stay in on October 31st. Laurie, Michael, and Dr. Loomis all converge in a final confrontation that has been ripped off and referenced ever since. In fact the whole movie feels a little played out now. On a rewatch it looks like a generic template on which every other franchise has been built, and that’s because it is. John Carpenter invented a sub-genre of horror with this film, and the silent, merciless killer instantly became a Hollywood trope. So much so that Wes Craven felt it was ripe for subversion six years later in A Nightmare on Elm Street. The vocal Freddy Krueger is a response to the Michael Myerses and Jason Vorheeses of the world, and the resourceful heroine Nancy is a reversal on weak and foolish scream queens like Laurie.
But Halloween spawned a movement for a reason. Even now, after years and years and multiple viewings, Halloween can still be effective. The repetitive, but insistent score immediately evokes a creeping terror, and Carpenter employs jump scares economically, without making them feel cheap. The cinematography by Dean Cudney is similarly strong, particularly the opening long take which moves around the Myers’ house and then inside and through it, all from the perspective of a child. There’s artistry there, regardless of subject matter.
Halloween is one of the few true horror classics of the last 40 years; not only is the film good, it is important to the history of the artform, though plenty of pretentious cinephiles might disagree (and I can be pretty pretentious myself). How many movies can boast so many achievements? Launching a franchise worth millions? Breaking a talented movie star (Curtis, who already feels 40 here)? Making Los Angeles look like a small town that actually experiences autumn? Those are all noteworthy and impressive accomplishments, especially the last one.