The cinema where I grew up closed in the mid 1980’s, as was the case in most Irish towns at the time (it would be almost 30 years before another popped up in its place), but that decline was met by the rise of the “video shop”. Maybe we were punching above our weight but at one stage my hometown had four video stores (and a roving Hi-Ace van that navigated a circuit of the outlying areas, the hinterlands of the Wexford video viewing landscape). Yes, while the cinema-going interest may have declined where I grew up, there was without doubt still plenty of people who liked the “movies”.
I was one of them. I love film, horror in particular and I remember keenly those Friday evening trips to the video shop to pick out a movie, ignoring my father’s best efforts to steer me towards the kid films as all I wanted to do was stray into the horror section and drink in with my eyes all the video box sleeves with their grotesque chainsaw killers or mutant monsters. From an early age all I wanted to do was watch horror and for the most part I was successful, but to my eternal shame I was a teenager before I got a chance to watch John Carpenter’s Halloween, and even then the only reason I saw the film was because it came free on VHS with the October edition of either Total Film or Empire.
My only experience of Carpenter’s work, at that point, was Starman and Big Trouble in Little China, but I had heard of Halloween from an older friend who was a diehard Carpenter enthusiast. I felt practically ashamed I had never seen Halloween and so, trying to save face, never told him such and instead just listened to him extolling the innumerable virtues of Carpenter and his opus. I felt I knew the film inside out from those conversations so when it landed on my door step in a cyclophane wrapper I felt it in some way providential, I was about to have my Halloween moment.
And what a moment. John Carpenter’s Halloween (as opposed to anyone else’s Halloween) became then (and still is now) one of my favourite horror movies and it forms the kernel of my love of the slasher movie genre, or at least the slasher movie genre when played by the rules that John Carpenter invented.
At the time, 1978, John Carpenter had only one student film, Dark Star, and one professional film, Assault on Precinct 13 to his name the latter, the latter being critically lauded in Europe but a total flop in America. Approached by producer Irwin Yablans with an idea to make a horror film about a guy killing babysitters, Carpenter accepted and decided to make Halloween as if it was a student film, so tight was the budget and such was the risk that Carpenter posed as a film maker at the time.
This makes Halloween even more remarkable as it is filled with some of the best cinematography of his career (Dean Cundey please take a bow). This is seen in the numerous tracking shots and long takes, from the opening murder which ends in a wide, high angle shot of Myers house to Laurie’s running back and forth from house to house after her first true encounter with Myers. The opening panaglide shot of the murder of Judith Myers from the POV of the child Michael Myers is masterful, pre-empting Kubrick’s equally famous Steadicam shots from his 1980 opus The Shining. That opening sequence (the precursor to Steadicam) allowed audiences experience the murder through the eyes of the maniacal character. The ethereal, dreamlike quality of the camera work only heightens the insidious nature of the crime committed, especially considering the unmasking reveals the knife wielding killer to be a 6-year-old boy; a child, the very personification of what should be innocence and light is in fact the embodiment of pure evil.
Yet looking at Halloween too deeply could be a mistake, taking away from the beautifully distilled terror it presents. It’s an uncomplicated movie – an escaped psychopath with a large knife stalks and kills a group of teenagers. That’s it. There is no elaborate backstory or an attempt at explaining the motivations of Michael Myers, none bar the opening scene of Michael murdering his older sister. This is what makes it a genuinely effective and affecting chiller.
John Carpenter, in an interview with CraveOnline, said, “At it’s very core, the force of evil is man. This guy Michael Myers is human…and there’s not really much of an explanation as to why he’s doing what he’s doing…it’s just black evil coming to a small town.” He returns to Haddonfield on this Halloween night as it is his home, simple as. The tagline on the poster says as much with five simple words, “The Night He Came Home.”
Michael is returning to where he came from, to the house where he murdered his sister and after 15 years in a mental institution his only or over-riding impulse is to kill again. His reason for choosing Laurie Strode? She appears on the doorstep of his childhood home and nothing else (well, not if you are only concerned with this film and not the slew of cash in sequels which attempted to create a myth around not only Michael Myers but also Laurie Strode). His only reason for pursuing Laurie’s circle of friends is their association with Laurie, and his relentless pursuit of them is what makes it so disturbing. And his reason for murdering his sister in the first place? Well, as Dr. Sam Loomis so effectively says, he’s just “purely, and simply…evil” and as such is reason-less. So much of Halloween is left open ended or unexplained and that is why it’s so interesting and absorbing a film. Without motivation nothing is explained and thus leaves the audience jarred or on edge from the get go. As film reviewer Roger Ebert said about Halloween at the time, “(it) is a visceral experience – we aren’t seeing the movie, we’re having it happen to us. It’s frightening.”
Considering how the slasher genre evolved in the years after Halloween, one of the elements (probably driven by a lack of budget) that makes Carpenter’s original stand out is its lack of blood. For a slasher film, the distinct lack of blood is refreshing. Much like Spielberg in Jaws, trying to squeeze scares out of sound and editing techniques due to a mechanical shark shaped void in his film, Carpenter used sound design and camera work to elicit scares from his audience. The rattle of leaves and the rush of wind through the trees, the fragmented soundtrack and the floating POV of Michael Myers all contribute to the truly eerie feeling Carpenter cultivates during the relatively short running time of 90 minutes. His constantly moving camera (remember, panaglide/Steadicam was only in its infancy at this time) makes the audience feel just a little disorientated or unsettled, heightening the suspicion that Michael Myers hides behind every corner or in every dark room.
His framing of the film uses the screen to the maximum, deliberately placing actors on the far right and far left of the frame to subconsciously suggest to the audience that something is going to happen in this big blank area of screen. Often nothing does, but when “The Shape” (as Myers is credited in the film) appears it is truly unsettling and jarring.
One of the tools that Carpenter used so expertly was the location – suburban America. The killing spree happens in a quiet neighbourhood and as Sheriff Bracket says to a nervous Dr. Loomis, “…do you know what Haddonfield is? Families, children, all lined up in rows up and down these streets. You’re telling me they’re lined up for a slaughterhouse?” This isn’t a horror film set in a creaky old mansion, or a castle filled with vampires or an isolated farm house. This is a quiet suburban neighbourhood, where its most infamous son is returning to visit. The killer is a man. He’s not a creature or a demon, just a man, one who embodies pure malevolence. It is this attack at suburbia and its quiet streets that really unsettles. Those could be your streets. The man in the boiler suit could be anybody.
We only glimpse the adult Michael’s face for less than two seconds in the entire film. This may be Carpenters masterstroke as the faceless killer means we can project any image we want on him, he could be anybody or anything. But by glimpsing his face we know that he’s human and this makes him truly chilling. As Dr. Loomis says, “I watched him for fifteen years, sitting in a room, staring at a wall; not seeing the wall; looking at this night, inhumanly patient, waiting for some secret, silent alarm to trigger him off. Death has come to your little town Sherriff…”
Also, don’t forget the era Halloween was made in. Halloween was released only a few short years after the end of the Vietnam war, American society had changed. Young men returned from war different, affected by what they had seen and experienced. The mood of the nation had turned, the Cold War was deeply entrenched in the American psyche and veterans were pilloried and turned upon by their fellow Americans. Halloween reflects this, the returning monster, the fear in small town America and the changing of society.
As mentioned above, Halloween was in many ways a student film, with cast and crew members filling several roles. Tommy Wallace served as the production designer and co-editor of Halloween while Carpenter himself wrote, directed and scored the film. Like most of John Carpenter’s films, The Thing being a notable exception, Carpenter himself is responsible for the score. The Halloween theme music (second only to the Tubular Bells of The Exorcist, in my opinion) is one of the most recognisable pieces of horror movie music out there. The relentless thumping beat and the sharp zing of synthesisers really captures the random, malevolent movements of Michael Myers and while I stop short of calling anything “nerve-shredding” there is a certain anticipation created by Carpenter’s music that very few other horror films have been able to capture or define, an anticipation literally has the viewer on the edge of their seat.
Of course, you can extoll the virtues of inventive camera work and an expert soundtrack, but if you don’t have characters you either love or fear then you really have nothing. As Laurie Strode, Jamie Lee Curtis reinvented the female character in a horror film as a hero – the girl who fought back. Laurie is the wholesome All-American girl. As she babysits her young charges she wears an apron and cooks for them, carving Jack-o-Lanterns and having fun, rejecting her friends advances to bunk off with them instead. As the full extent of Myers’s rampage reveals itself she fights for the kids she is babysitting, making sure they get out of the house safe and sound before she does. And yes, much has been made of the virginal aspect of her character in terms of her survival, a trope that has been played on in many of the numerous imitators, but that doesn’t do justice to her good nature, her pluck and her instinct.
Laurie Strode was not so much the “Final Girl” but maybe the “First Woman”. Strode was Jamie Lee Curtis’s first role and the combination of her fresh face and her enthusiasm made her someone to root for. Where subsequent slasher films, the Friday the 13th films in particular, made the female characters nothing more than fodder for the killer’s blade, Halloween made its Final Girl someone to shout for. Laurie Strode is likeable, intelligent and gutsy, the audience does not want to see her die. Mirror this with how the genre morphed into the torture porn of the 1980’s slasher movie, where audiences were enticed with the promise of deaths of escalating ridiculousness and sexual innuendo, and you have something truly special in Laurie Strode.
With the hero, you must also talk about the villain and Michael Myers is one of the greatest cinematic monsters ever created. The Shape (as Myers was credited) is faceless, he could be anyone. He could be your friend, your brother, your father. Also, he is motiveless (in the first film at least). He stalks random teenagers and kills without mercy. His lack of motive is the most unsettling or sinister element of his character. The fact that he is known as The Shape in the credits is evidence that he is human in name only. One of the creepiest parts of his iconic look is the mask he wears, but not because it’s a converted William Shatner mask. Virtually the entire film you never see his eyes, his eyes are constantly in shadow. The eyes are the window to the soul so if there are no eyes where clearly there should be eyes then can we surmise that he has no soul either? This theory can be seen in his incredibly elaborate deaths in each subsequent film and continuous ability to rise and appear in the sequels, attesting to a belief that he is a monster, he has no soul.
This notion is foreshadowed by Dr. Loomis in Carpenters original, when he said, “I met him, 15 years ago; I was told there was nothing left; no reason, no conscience, no understanding in even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, of good or evil, right or wrong. I met this…six-year-old child with this blank, pale emotionless face, and…the blackest eyes – the Devil’s eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up, because I realised that what was living behind the boy’s eyes was purely and simply…evil.”
The ending montage may stand as the most frightening aspect of the entire film, something that was not scripted and only created during the editing process. As Dr. Loomis looks out on the patch of grass where Myers’s bullet riddled body fell moments earlier, now strangely and preternaturally vacant, the film cuts to a series of shots of all the locations Myers had been to earlier in the movie. All very still and silent, all dark and mysterious and this suggests that Myers is everywhere. He could be anywhere. He could be anything. That is a chilling ending.
For me the slasher genre has never produced a film to better John Carpenter’s Halloween and though I am not clairvoyant, I can tell you that it never will. Some might even argue that Carpenter himself has never bettered Halloween but that I am not so sure of, for me The Thing is his greatest achievement. But let’s not argue here. May I suggest this, watch Carpenter’s original this October 31st. Turn off the lights, take the phone off the hook, maybe pop some popcorn and settle in as darkness falls. Just make sure your doors are locked and your windows are closed. This is the night He came home after all…