Directed by: John Carpenter
Distributed by: Compass International Features
Written by Alexander Reams
John Carpenter’s “Halloween” has long been a staple in households during the month of October, credited with jump-starting the (presumed dead) slasher genre. The mood of a horror film can make or break it, “The Last House On the Left” is an example of failing to cultivate the atmosphere necessary for an effective horror movie. On the flip side, Carpenter clearly understands the importance of mood beginning with the opening scene of “Halloween,” his employment of a continuous POV shot from the opening shot outside of a house, to entering and grabbing a knife and a clown mask, to the brutal first kill. Once the mask is revealed Carpenter pulls back the curtain, a child did this, not an adult, the most shocking reveal of the film. A child killer, 6-year-old Michael Meyers (Will Sandin, later portrayed by Nick Castle during the majority of the film).
Sometime later, we are introduced to Dr. Samuel Loomis (Donald Pleasance, the heart of our story) who comes upon the Illinois State Mental Hospital and sees patients wandering around everywhere. While he goes to check the gate, his companion, a nurse, is attacked and thrown from the car, by who? Well, that’s the thing, his face is obscured, but it’s clear what Carpenter wants us to think; it’s Michael. This introduction to our co-lead (Loomis) is simple, but effective. Carpenter was able to accomplish one of the most impressive things about independent film; taking very little (around $325,000) and turning that into a small minimalist film that feels massive. Every slice that Michael deals out is felt through the celluloid and the speakers. A testament to the mastery that Carpenter displayed even in his early films.
From here we are introduced to someone who is still one of the most iconic characters within horror cinema, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), a high schooler and babysitter, who just so happens to gain the attention of our lovely serial killer and is given a night that sticks with her 40 years later in 2018’s “Halloween” (according to the current “Halloween” trilogy, the only actual sequel to “Halloween” (1978), despite having 7 sequels). When I first watched “Halloween” I was dumbfounded to find that this was Curtis’ debut performance, her presence on screen is powerful, even something as simple as walking with Tommy Doyle (here portrayed by Brian Andrews, later portrayed by Anthony Michael Hall in “Halloween Kills”) she exudes power that is complimented by her sincerity and compassion. Supporting Curtis’ Laurie Strode are Lynda Van Der Klok (P.J. Soles), Annie Brackett (Nancy Kyes), and Lindsey Wallace (Kyle Richards). After all the introductions, we are back to the looming dread, the knowledge that Michael is coming, we see brief glimpses of him, once behind a hedge–while Laurie is walking with her friends Annie and Lynda, and again when Laurie is doing laundry and Michael is watching her from the clotheslines outside. We know what we saw, and Laurie knows something is off.
The ensemble all brought something unique to their characters, Loomis’ disappointment that he hasn’t ended Michael, Laurie coming to the realization that she might die tonight, the kids screaming as they see Laurie beaten and bloodied, all work together to provide an emotional undercurrent that keeps the audience on their toes. This is not the usual quality of acting that is found within the slasher genre, typically, it’s blood first, character later, but Carpenter reversed the order and made a horror film that leans on fear and dread. It’s interesting to reflect on the state of horror cinema at the time compared to now, nearly 45 years later, multiplexes are flooded by the mouse house and the studio that makes Tom Cruise movies. That a tiny indie film from 1978 still dominates the cultural zeitgeist is a testament to its quality and influence.
Curtis’ Strode is a female lead that stands near the pinnacle of pop culture icons, 1978 was a time when female leads were often relegated to stereotypes, and bringing a female perspective into the script through co-writer Debra Hill was seen as a bold move. Often forgotten within the “Halloween” universe is the contribution and focus on women. Women in horror had often been relegated to bait for the killer or used solely for gratuitous nudity, let’s not forget “Scream” was nearly 20 years away, “Alien” and “Aliens” hadn’t been created yet, the closest comparison would be “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Though “Massacre” didn’t have the mainstream effect of “Halloween,” it was the first notable appearance of the “Final Girl”. A concept where the last surviving character in a horror film is the young female who has abstained from the debauchery that the rest of her party engaged in.
Once the murders begin, the kill count is not as high as one would expect, and that’s by no mistake. Some of the most popular slasher films don’t have a high kill count, and they don’t need to. “Child’s Play” has 6, “Scream” has 6, and Carpenter’s original like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974), just 5. And that is because Carpenter and Hill understood that the more people die on screen, the less effective and devastating it becomes. Carpenter gives the few and far between deaths to characters that have an emotional motivation for other characters. The death of Judith Myers is what set off the events of the film, the death of the mechanic provides Michael with his soon-to-be iconic uniform. The final death, while a relatively unimportant character, is the lead that finally gives Laurie an idea of what is going on, instead of confusion and shock she channels fear and determination.
With “Halloween” Carpenter avoided many of the issues that plague horror directors, his film not only plays every Halloween but is a movie that employs a female lead who outsmarts the killer while being both likable and relatable. Complimented by his own brilliant score that employs a time signature made to make the audience uncomfortable. Carpenter wears multiple hats as the director, co-writer, and composer. His sound echoes through the pantheon of cinematic greatness, a piano repeating a melody in 5/4 time accompanied by a substantial, but not overwhelming bass and harpsichord countermelody. This sound not only sets the tone for what I call the “horror renaissance” (a step away from the traditional monsters, with a focus on character work instead) but also John Carpenter’s masterwork, it plays during the 2-minute opening credit sequence then simplifies to just piano as Carpenter begins to get into the first incident of the film. This theme presents itself throughout the entirety of “Halloween,” dissonant chords are a favorite of Carpenter, and his spine-chilling theme not only opens but closes the film, after all the chaos and madness the theme returns, asking the question we’re all wondering without saying a word: “Where did Michael go?”