Release date: October 25, 1978
Director: John Carpenter
Jamie Lee Curtis,
Brian Andrews and
John Michael Graham
On a cold Halloween night in Haddonfield, Illinois in 1963, six year old Michael Myers brutally murdered his teenage sister after she had sex with her boyfriend. Michael is then locked inside Smith's Grove Warren County Sanitarium where he is placed under the care of Dr. Sam Loomis who is the only one who sees the pure evil within the soul of Michael. In October 1978, Michael escapes from the sanitarium. After witnessing the escape, Dr. Loomis heads back to Haddonfield where he knows Michael will kill again on Halloween night. Michael begins stalking three teenagers, Laurie Strode and her friends Annie and Lynda. With the help of the town sheriff, Loomis hunts for Michael and hopes to put an end to his grisly murder spree.
There’s something about John Carpenter’s Halloween that sparks a fear of things we can’t see, of shapes that move through the darkness. That’s why Michael Myers, an escaped mental patient on a killing spree, is referred to as “the shape”. The shape could take any form, any face – notice that the killer spends almost all of the movie in the now famous Shatner mask. What we are talking about is Michael being an embodiement of evil, and how creepy it is that we are not able to easily detect this manifestation because it’s lurking beneath the surface of things that are supposed to be familiar and safe. Halloween takes place in small town Haddonfield, Illinois, which is a perfect backdrop – Carpenter uses it to peel away the layers of suburban utopia and show us the hidden dark side.
Halloween is a masterpiece of mood. It "steals" a few things from Bob Clark’s great horror flick: Black Christmas (most obvious is the killer-Point of View shots) and like Black Christmas, it registers low on the gore meter but is very high when it comes to suspense. Using the theme of Halloween as the setting, Carpenter is enabling us to remember our childhood fears. He remembers how cool it was to go trick-or-treating as a kid, and watch scary movies (The Thing from Another World is one of them – this would be remade by Carpenter a few years later), and he remembers what it was like to be a teenager, dealing with school, dating, and even babysiting, as poor Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is asked to do. Then he scares us by putting that cult of childhood under threat.
Halloween is so influential that while it is paying tribute to movies before it (Hitchcock, for example – that’s why Donald Pleasance’s character is called Dr. Loomis named afte a character in Psycho), it is creating its own genre and trapping its actors in that genre at the same time. Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street wouldn’t be movies without Halloween, Curtis wouldn’t be referred to as the ultimate scream queen, and Donald Pleasance (who I think does as good a job as curtis) wouldn’t have forever been typecast as the unbalanced but determined shrink.
Halloween begins as mental patient inmate Michael Myers escapes from the hospital and returns to his hometown where, years before when he was a boy, he put on a creepy mask and violently killed his sister. After years of failed treatment, Dr. Loomis has decided that Myers is "pure evil", and follows him to Haddenfield. The first thing Myers does is dig up his sister, and then he proceeds to kill the teenagers who are close to laurie, usually the teens who stray from the “path” (sex, usually much like the friday the 13th films). With the sex/death paradigm now established, selfless and well-behaved Laurie (with the sole exception of a scene with her smoking) will of course become the surviving character. And even though the killer ultimately disappears (after a chilling and epic finale) there is some catharsis in that the adult authority has finally wised up and realized that the kids were right all along (“That was the bogeyman,” exclaims Laurie, to which Loomis replies “As a matter of fact, it was.” before he goes outside expecting a body instead finding nothing but an imprint of a body on the grass - no longer "was" but still is).
There are so many dissertations on Halloween out there, but one that has always stayed with me was that Myers represented not so much evil as the entropy of an uncaring world (according to some people their are "funny" ways people can die - in real life), and that as Laurie “comes of age” she must now deal with the new dangers in her wider world. Taking into account that the babysitters of the movie, whether having sex or not, are still worried about the welfare of the children they are supposed to be taking care of, I think that these views are close to the mark. It’s too bad that all children must eventually grow up.
None of this would be so engaging if it wasn’t for Carpenter’s mastery of scope and music. The famous, creepy piano theme is all his, and there are scenes in the film that make excellent use of foreground information along with some interesting steady camera movement. Many shots in it are iconic – I am particularly thinking of the scene where our killer pins a victim to the wall with a knife, then tilts his head to the side, studying his work. He then chokes the victim’s girlfriend with a cord from a phone while wearing the previous victims glasses over bed sheets. There’s something so strange and even scary about it. Thirty years after its debut, Halloween is still superior to almost anything in today’s horror cinema. It’s amazing that a film with such a simple storyline, not a lot of gore, and decent budget can communicate so much and with elegance. This is the landmark movie.
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