John Carpenter’s masterpiece is the grand master of all horror films, the film which popularized the slasher genre, and a classic by all accounts. The film opens in 1963 on Halloween, when a young woman, after having sex with her boyfriend, is brutally stabbed several times by an unknown figure. Turns out, this is Michael Meyers, a small boy, who is then institutionalized, only to escape on October 30, 1978. Persued by his guilt-ridden and vengeful psychiatrist (Donald Pleasance), he returns to his childhood home of Haddonfield, Illinois, stalking the teenage girls and children of the neighborhood, waiting for his next attack. He finds such an opportunity in three babysitters (two are played by Nancy Loomis and P.J. Soles, of Brian DePalma’s “Carrie”). The third babysitter is Laurie Strode, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, a nice, virginal type who actually does what she’s hired to do – watch the kids. Meyers takes advantage of underage sex and drinking and sets about quietly on a homicidal rampage, resulting in a final face-off between Laurie and her attacker. What is amazing about this film is the general lack of actual blood and violence. Here, Carpenter makes innovative use of a 2.35:1 Widescreen frame, utilizing background movements, careful compositions, and the ever-roving Paniglide (manned by Ray Stella), an early version of a Steadicam, which gives the film a creepy, otherworldly feel even in the light of day. With a haunting score that Carpenter himself composed, the film fills you with a perpetual sense of dread; awaiting what must come is somewhat more terrifying than any actual result. This is a bonafide classic, not to be missed.
NOTE: The extended version runs 101 minutes, and it’s on DVD.
John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) is one of the very best horror films ever made. Fact. From its gliding Panavision/Steadicam cinematography (a rarity in the late seventies), to its terrifying villain who can appear seemingly anywhere at any time, to its astonishing narrative economy and iconic character archetypes, it was a forerunner of every slasher film and slasher film parody and slasher film cliche that has been canonized/imitated since.
Jamie Lee Curtis is Laurie Strode, the virginal babysitter in Haddonfield, Illinois who might not realize it (despite a rather foreshadowing classroom conversation about the role of fate in literature) but is nevertheless on a collision course with destiny in the form of an escaped mental patient, Michael Myers, who murdered his sister at the age of six on Halloween night and, 15 years later, is triggered off to escape and kill on Halloween night again.
Strode’s friends are a typical (though, at the time, relatively new) kind of cliche – the semi-slutty, pot-smoking Police Chief’s daughter Annie (Nancy Loomis from Assault on Precinct 13) and the totally silly and slutty Lynda (P.J. Soles of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and Carrie fame). It says something that they are the ones who live life hedonistically, refusing to lend any credence to Strode’s fears that some weird masked man is following them all day. Interestingly, it is mostly Annie and Lynda who have the Hawksian woman dialogue, while Strode seems to represent the Hawksian woman in her resourcefulness and toughness, although she’s scared out of her wits – and she doesn’t die like the others.
Finally, it appears that Myers is stalking Strode and only her pure, quasi-innocent wits and those of Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance of Escape from New York and Prince of Darkness and Polanski’s Cul-De-Sac) can stop him. But is Myers pure evil, the embodiment thereof, or simply a human monster? The film is ambiguous. On the one hand, Loomis seems to believe that, because he could never rationalize or comprehend what Myers did as a six-year-old boy, he must be evil. On the other hand, couldn’t he just be a human being with some parts missing? Notice the vacant look on his face after killing his sister on Halloween in the prologue or the kind of stunned but vacant look on his face after Strode removes his mask for a moment just before Loomis shoots him off the balcony in the final showdown. Are these the looks of pure, unblemished evil? Or are they the looks of someone who was long ago lost but could be found again?
If he is merely a lost soul, what are we to make of Carpenter’s masterful epilogue? As his stationary Panavision camera looks first through the house that Strode was babysitting in, and then around the neighborhood, finally resting on the seemingly empty Myers house with its ghoulish two top windows and a door and white paintjob vaguely resembling a gaunt skull, we are left to wonder – where did he go and is he still alive? He could be anywhere seemingly…
One of the notions that makes at least the original Halloween frightening is that Michael Myers might be evil, the Boogeyman, or simply a terrifying murderer, and no matter what, you can’t seem to stop him. This gets tiresome in the subsequent series of sequels, the less said about which the better.
What remains is Carpenter’s remarkable visionary direction, his film’s legacy as a progenetor of horror film tropes and cliches, and his astonishing economy of style, which is refreshing in today’s slash and jab style of editing and cinematography – that of the Saw films and the like.