Halloween: A Groundbreaking Film
Halloween was, and still is, a classic horror movie for three simple reasons: originality, flattery, and durability.Upon its release in 1978, Halloween set a new standard for horror movies, proving that it was possible to create genuine chills without excessive amounts of blood, overpaid actors, or a gigantic budget. Using innovative camera work, shadows, and creepy music, a new monster materialized. They took one of mankind’s most primal fears, the mythical bogeyman, and inserted it into Anytown, USA. A killer who can’t be understood or reasoned with, who never speaks or acts even remotely human – THAT was both refreshing and terrifying.
Halloween was the film that earned Jamie Lee Curtis the infamous title of “Scream Queen.” She plays Laurie Strode, the virginal protagonist. Curtis effectively conveys the feelings and aspirations of a shy, insecure teenager. It is hard to believe that Curtis would develop into a well-known actress often considered a sex symbol. An image very different from the awkward, gawky character she portrayed in Halloween.
The film opens with a long, single-shot introduction that takes place on Halloween night, 1963. A young Michael Myers watches as his older sister, Judith, sneaks upstairs for a quickie with a guy from school. After the boyfriend has departed, Michael takes a knife out of the kitchen drawer, ascends the staircase, and stabs Judith to death. The entire sequence employs the subjective point- of-view, an approach that writer/director John Carpenter returns to repeatedly throughout the movie. Only after the deed is done, do we learn that Michael is only a child. The bulk of the movie takes place fifteen years later. Michael confined to an asylum for the criminally insane, escapes on the night before Halloween. His doctor, Sam Loomis, actually refers to Michael as ” pure evil” and ” it.” The doctor is convinced that Michael is no longer human. Loomis, believing Michael to be the embodiment of evil tracks the killer back Haddonfield, his birthplace. From there, Loomis races against time in attempt to locate and stop the escapee before he starts again where he left off in 1963.
Michael’s primary victims are Laurie and her two best friends, Annie and Lynda. Throughout the film, Michael is shown gradually closing in on the girls, until, in the final act, Laurie is involved in a face-to-face fight for her life. Much has been made of the fact that the key to survival in Halloween is being a virgin. The three girls who have sex with their boyfriends (Judith Myers, Annie, and Lynda) do not survive their encounters with Michael. Laurie, who has nothing to do with boys, does. Carpenter has stated that this was not a conscious theme, but, ever since Halloween, the standard for slasher films has been that sexual promiscuity leads to a violent end.
Another important element of Halloween’s success is our ability to identify with the trio of female protagonists, and Carpenter establishes a rapport between the audience and the characters by employing intelligent, realistic dialogue and placing the girls in believable situations. For Annie and Lynda, the most important thing about Halloween night is finding a place to have sex with their boyfriends. For Laurie, it is making sure the kid she’s babysitting is having a good time. Annie and Lynda are blissfully unaware of their danger until it is too late, but Laurie recognizes her danger. Meanwhile, if Michael represents “pure evil,” Sam Loomis is the avenging angel. He is the voice of reason that no one listens to, and, in the end, he is the cavalry coming over the mountain, gun blazing.
Nick Castle plays Michael (who is referred to in the end credits as “the Shape”) as an implacable, inhuman adversary. Because he wears a painted white Captain Kirk mask, we only once (briefly) see his features, and this makes him even more frightening. He kills without making a sound or changing his expression, and his movements are often slow and zombie-like. Carpenter is exceedingly careful in choosing the camera angles he uses to shoot Michael. Before the climax, there is never a clear close-up-he’s always concealed by shadows, shown in the distance, or presented as otherwise obscured. This approach makes for an especially ill fated villain. Michael’s origins and his connection to Laurie are not revealed. He remains an enigma, and the lack of a clear motive makes his actions even more terrifying.
Halloween is one of those films where the attention to detail is evident in every frame. While there are many memorable moments, three scenes stand out above the rest. The first is the long, unbroken opening sequence where the young Michael wears a clown mask and murders his sister. Often copied, but never equaled, this scene was unique for its time and reminiscent of Psycho’s shower murder for its effect. The second also occurs early in the movie, as Michael escapes from the asylum during a rainstorm. To this day, I find these the most chilling three minutes of the movie. Finally, there is the scene near the end where Laurie is banging on a locked door while Michael approaches slowly and inevitably from behind. It is a credit to Carpenter that, no matter how many times you have seen the movie, the tension at this point still mounts to an insane level.
Despite being relatively simple and unsophisticated, Halloween’s music is one of its strongest assets. Carpenter’s disharmonic, jarring themes provide the perfect backdrop for Michael’s activity, proving that a film does not need a symphonic score by an A-line composer to be effective. Carpenter’s composition, one of the horror genre’s best-recognizable tunes, can bring chills even away from the theater. Try putting it in the tape deck when you are alone in the car sometime after midnight on a lonely country road, and see if you feel secure.
Halloween has been imitated in all ways possible. Because of its title, Halloween has frequently been grouped together with all the other splatter films that populated theaters throughout the late-1970s and early-1980s. Besides the six other movies that bear its name, it spawned an entire genre: the slasher flick. However, while Halloween is rightfully considered the father of the modern slasher genre, it is not a member of the Halloween sequels. Some of these slasher flicks were good, and many were not, but all of them share a common ancestor. This is not a gruesome motion picture; surprisingly there is little graphic violence and almost no blood. The final body count in Halloween is exceptionally low, but the terror quotient is high. Halloween is built on suspense, not gore, and initiated more than a few of today’s common horror/thriller cliches. The ultimate success of the movie, however, encouraged other film makers to try their hand at this sort of enterprise, and it didn’t take long for someone to decide that audiences wanted as many explicitly grisly scenes as the running length would allow. By the time Halloween’s sequel was released in 1981, the objective of this sort of movie was no longer to scare its viewers, but to gross them out. More recent movies (such as Scream) even pay homage to the film that started it all. In any case, Halloween remains the first entry of its type.
Some movies age badly, their special effects or plots made ridiculous by the passage of time and the changes in society. Halloween will never have this problem, because it just is not that heroic or grand in extent. It could happen anywhere in America, anytime – the 1950s, or the 1990s. Due to its simplicity, it will not age badly, and it will still be scary for many, many years to come. This type of impeccably constructed motion picture burrows deep into our psyche and connects with the dark, hidden terrors that lurk within. Halloween is not a perfect movie, but no recent horror film has attained this magnitude. Likewise, John Carpenter has never come close to recapturing Halloween’s artistic or commercial success, though he has tried many times. Halloween remains untouched-a modern classic of the most horrific kind.