Where would the horror industry be without John Carpenter’s Halloween? The slasher subgenre had existed in horror films prior to Halloween, most notably with 1974’s Black Christmas, but going back as far as 1960’s Psycho if you want to get extra technical. Halloween, though, is what put slasher films on the map. With a story as simple as the day is long, this movie is never-the-less one of the most ground-breaking horror films of all-time. I don’t even want to try and imagine a world without Halloween, because that would be truly frightening.
In 1963, a normal young boy named Michael Myers (Will Sandin) killed his sister one Halloween night, seemingly at random. Fifteen years later, Michael (Nick Castle) has grown up and escaped from the Smith’s Grove Psychiatric Hospital to return to his home town of Haddonfield, Illinois. Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance), Michael’s psychiatrist, is hot on his trail, but he may be too late. As night falls, Michael preys upon the teenage girls of suburbia, including one Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis).
The plot of Halloween is about as cut-n-dry as you can possibly get, leaving you to anticipate a film of very little substance. But that’s where Halloween truly triumphs. John Carpenter basically adapts the old bedtime story of the escaped mental patient stalking the suburbs; an urban legend that may be thin on the surface but loaded with instant recognition to the point of being ingrained into the popular culture. Carpenter squeezes all the story he needs out of this tale of “the Boogeyman” and not a drop more.
You may think that still sounds dull or cheap, but I’ll point you in the direction of the various sequels to Halloween, all of which try to pump in multiple ill-conceived origins for Michael’s insanity, none of which are more satisfying than the matter-of-fact reason presented in this first film: He’s just plain crazy. I’ll take that over “determined to kill his whole family”, “Curse of Thorn” or “abusive redneck father” any day of the week.
Carpenter’s genius can’t be understated, as he basically takes a plot synopsis of “Boogeyman’s gonna getcha! Booga booga booga!” and works some serious magic with it. Carpenter’s use of light and shadow has always been one of my favorite things about his flicks. At least during his early career, Carpenter liked to keep things really, really dark, with pale moonlight being used to highlight what’s important or simply provide some excellent misdirection. Halloween is the best example of this effect, as Michael materializes in and out of the shadows like a grim, haunting specter. You’re never quite sure where he is or where he’s going to pop out (unless you’ve seen the film six dozen times, like I have), with the sight of him oozing slowly out of the darkness being a truly memorable one.
Carpenter employs some other tricks beyond just lighting. If you watch the opening scene of the movie you’ll notice that it is a single, extremely long take. From the moment the title credits end to the point where young Michael is unmasked, there isn’t a single cut, with everything being filmed from Michael’s perspective. I can’t begin to imagine how much of a pain in the ass that was to achieve, as there is so much going on during that long take, all coming down to perfect timing and zero screw-ups. It all feels so natural, though, you’d almost think you’re watching some psycho’s home movies.
And who can talk about John Carpenter’s Halloween without mentioning his infamous theme. Apparently, it’s derived from a bongo drum beat… which isn’t so scary, when you think about it. Still, the theme is as simple as the plot, but just as memorable and satisfying. Carpenter also employs one of my favorite effects from his early career: electronic sound effects. To highlight something the audience should be paying attention to, whether it be headlights turning on or somebody sitting up and turning their head, Carpenter accentuates the moment with a single, blaring, out-of-the-blue keyboard noise. It’s incredibly weird yet effective and a trademark of Carpenter’s early work.
As limited as the cast is, they’re all pretty convincing. Jamie Lee Curtis was twenty when this film was made, and to be honest, she doesn’t exactly look or sound like a high schooler. She still provides a memorable performance that’s landed her recognition as one of the greatest scream queens in history, but yeah, wasn’t buying the teenager angle. Laurie’s teenage friends, Annie (Nancy Loomis) and Lynda (P.J. Soles), are fine in regards to their quality of acting, but can become rather irritating as characters (Lynda’s incessant use of “totally” being especially grating). Then you have Donald Pleasance as Dr. Loomis, providing that extra smidgen of class the film definitely needed. Believe it or not, Pleasance had an accomplished acting career spanning two decades before making Halloween, but the character of Dr. Loomis would go down as his most memorable and beloved performance (a performance he reprised for four more movies, too).
Then you’ve got Michael Myers, AKA “the Shape”. He’s played by three different guys in this film. Firstly, there’s Will Sandin, who plays Michael at age 6 for the opening sequence. Then you have Tony Moran, who plays Michael for the extremely brief unmasking sequence at the end of the film. It’s a very well done moment, with Moran’s grotesquely bland features being disturbing in their own subtle way. And lastly but hardly leastly, there’s Nick Castle, who plays Michael throughout the bulk of the film. His presence is quite imposing, though his performance may seem rather ho-hum now due to the metric ton of imitators that would come afterward. Just remember, every time you see a seven-foot tall masked lunatic walking slowly but surely after their prey, it all started here.
Michael’s ghostly, featureless mask (which is, as I’m sure you all know by now, a customized William Shatner mask) really makes the character. Michael’s mask is one of those things that a lot of the future installments in the franchise would have a hard time reproducing, resulting in a violently fluctuating success-rate in that regard. Michael was originally going to be saddled with a clown mask, which I’m sure would have been creepy in its own way, but nothing can beat the iconic mask we all know and love.
Like the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which is often mischaracterized as being absurdly gory, the original Halloween is incredibly light on the red stuff. Michael strangles two victims, while the ones he does stab have all their vitals obscured by the soupy darkness. Honestly, if it hadn’t been for a boob or three, Halloween would probably only rate a PG-13 by today’s standards.
Halloween was a classic as soon as it was released, paving the way for the modern horror industry as we know it. Dracula, Frankenstein and The Phantom of the Opera are hailed by critics as indisputable pieces of legendary horror cinema. Give it a few more years and I believe that Halloween will be hoisted up right alongside them (if it hasn’t been already).
If you want to add this solid film to your vaunted collection, you can pick Halloween up from Amazon for less than $5 at this point.