Director: John Carpenter
Starring: Donald Pleasence, Jamie Lee Curtis & P. J. Soles
Review Author: Shaun
Back in 1978, John Carpenter had a great idea for a horror film. After directing Assault on Precinct 13, Carpenter was approached by financer Moustapha Akkad about directing a film about teenagers being stalked by a psychopathic killer. The budget was definitely bigger then Carpenter’s last picture and he agreed to do the picture if he could get his name above the title.
Halloween has frequently been grouped together with all the other splatter films that populated theatres throughout the late-70s and early-80s. However, while Halloween is rightfully considered the father of the modern slasher genre, it is not a member (the Halloween sequels, on the other hand, are). This is not a gruesome motion picture, there is surprisingly little graphic violence and almost no blood. Halloween is built on suspense, not gore, and initiated more than a few of today’s common horror/thriller clichés. 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.
Halloween was the film that earned Jamie Lee Curtis the infamous title of “Scream Queen.” She plays Laurie Strode, the virginal protagonist. Curtis’ capable interpretation of the gawky, awkward Laurie is frequently overlooked in analyses of the movie and its genre, but she effectively conveys the feelings and aspirations of a shy, insecure teenager.
The film opens with a long, single-shot prologue 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 grade-schooler.
The bulk of the movie takes place fifteen years later. Michael, confined to an asylum for the criminally insane for more than ten years, escapes on the night before Halloween. His doctor, Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance), believing Michael to be the embodiment of evil, tracks the killer back to his hometown of Haddonfield. From there, it’s a race against time as Loomis seeks to locate and stop Michael before he starts again where he left off in 1963.
An 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’s making sure the kid she’s babysitting is having a good time. Annie and Lynda are blissfully unaware of their danger until it’s too late, but Laurie recognizes her peril. Meanwhile, if Michael represents pure evil, Sam Loomis is the avenging angel. He’s the voice of reason that no one listens to, and, in the end, he’s the cavalry coming over the mountain, gun blazing.
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 dons 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 to be the most chilling three minutes of the movie. Finally, there’s the scene near the end where Laurie is banging on a locked door while Michael approaches slowly and inexorably from behind. It’s a credit to Carpenter that, no matter how many times you’ve seen the movie, the tension at this point still mounts to a palpable level.
Despite being relatively simple and unsophisticated, Halloween’s music is one of its strongest assets. Carpenter’s dissonant, jarring themes provide the perfect backdrop for Michael’s activity, proving that a film doesn’t need a symphonic score by an A-line composer to be effective. Carpenter’s Halloween main title, one of the horror genre’s best recognizable tunes, can bring chills even away from the theatre. Try putting it in the tape deck when you’re alone in the car sometime after midnight on a lonely country road, and see if you feel secure.
Overall, this is a perfect horror movie that will live the test of time when it comes to slasher films. We see movies for a lot of reasons. Sometimes we want to be amused. Sometimes we want to escape. Sometimes we want to laugh, or cry, or see sunsets. And sometimes we want to be scared. I’d like to be clear about this. If you don’t want to have a really terrifying experience, don’t see “Halloween.”