CINEMA CLASSICS: Halloween (1978)

We revisit the night he finally came home. Happy Halloween, Michael Myers. 

Who made it?: John Carpenter (Director/Producer/Co-Writer), Debra Hill (Producer, Co-Writer), Compass International Pictures.

Who’s in it?: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence, P.J. Soles, Charles Cyphers, Nancy Kyes, Nick Castle.

Tagline: “The Night HE Came Home.”

IMDb rating: 7.9/10.

“The idea was that you couldn’t kill evil, and that was how we came about the story. We went back to the old idea of Samhain, that Halloween was the night where all the souls are let out to wreak havoc on the living, and then came up with the story about the most evil kid who ever lived. And when John came up with this fable of a town with a dark secret of someone who once lived there, and now that evil has come back, that’s what made Halloween work.”

- Debra Hill

John Carpenter’s Halloween has one of the greatest openings in horror movie history. We are introduced to the ultimate “evil kid” in the most blood-curdling way imaginable. Through cold, unblinking eyes we witness a monster’s first kill – his own sister. The film implicates us in the act and the line between entertainment and voyeurism is instantly blurred. It’s a virtuoso bit of low-budget craftsmanship, and the first indication that Halloween isn’t a cheap and schlocky fright machine but a finely-tuned depiction of evil incarnate. And that evil has a name: Michael Myers.

On paper, the film sounds as uninspired as the imitators it spawned. In the sleepy suburban community of Haddonfield, Illinois, unsuspecting teenagers Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis), Lynda (P.J. Soles) and Annie (Nancy Kyes) are pursued by the “Boogeyman.” Myers has returned to his old stomping grounds with a massacre in mind. With this simple set-up, Carpenter ushered in a new sub-genre for the ailing horror landscape: the Slasher Movie.

The clichés we now take for granted are present and correct: a group of promiscuous high schoolers get laid, drink, smoke pot, and die in increasingly vicious ways. While Myers wasn’t the first freak in a mask – Leatherface got there in 1974 – he established what a screen serial killer could be. His image is more iconic than the title itself. The credits refer to him as “The Shape” and that’s a perfect description; Myers isn’t quite bound to our reality, appearing whenever you least expect it. There’s also the matter of his uniform: a grimy boiler suit and a Star Trek Captain Kirk mask painted white. No, seriously.

Released at a watershed moment in American cinema, Halloween stands tall as the classiest slasher movie ever made. It has often been cited as the first, although that’s not entirely accurate; the roots were laid as far back as Psycho (1960), which exerted considerable influence on Carpenter. The shadow of that classic looms over the picture, personified by leading lady Curtis, the daughter of Bates Motel victim Janet Leigh. It’s a credit to Halloween that it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Alfred Hitchcock’s magnum opus.

However, the plot and style of the film owe the biggest debt to Bob Clark’s brilliant Black Christmas (1974), which centred on a sorority house terrorised by a prank caller. Like Halloween, the picture was naturalistic and raw, yet showed restraint in its murder sequences. It was also the first to use the “Killer P.O.V.,” as well as a murderer that is more a force of nature than a flesh and blood mad man. Carpenter merely refined and perfected the template, creating what one critic called “an accidental masterpiece.” That isn’t too far off the mark.

Carpenter had only directed two films prior to this. The first, Dark Star (1974), was a micro-budget student project co-written by Alien creator Dan O’Bannon. The sci-fi comedy didn’t land an audience when it was finally released, but Carpenter was congratulated for his shrewd use of limited resources. He eventually broke out with siege thriller Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), one of the hallmarks of his career and a textbook example of high-tension cinema. It drew the attention of independent producer Irwin Yablans and financier Moustapha Akkad, who wanted Carpenter to make a movie about a psychotic killer stalking babysitters. He accepted, promising them that he could shoot the film on a tight four-week schedule on an even tighter $320,000 budget.

The film that became Halloween went through two permutations. Carpenter began writing with his then-girlfriend Debra Hill, producing a script called “The Babysitter Murders.” It was actually Yablan’s suggestion to change the title and set it on All Hallow’s Eve, completely transforming the film’s potential. The writers retooled the screenplay, with Hill concentrating on the dialogue between the girls, and Carpenter focusing on the efforts of Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence), Michael’s psychiatrist and the film’s unlikely hero. Pleasence gave Halloween a recognisable name to put on the poster, after attempts to cast Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing fell-through. He was an inspired choice for Loomis, a weird old man who has made it his personal mission to kill Myers. His principal function is to provide the exposition and back-story, but the veteran actor makes the role a vital component to the movie and infuses it with some respectability.

As the future “Scream Queen” and “Final Girl,” Curtis gives the audience an emotional connection to the events. She’s still the archetypal slasher movie heroine – good-natured, resourceful and virginal. The latter is perhaps the most important since every genre effort since has played into the notion that you must to be pure to survive. Laurie Strode earns her survival through guts and determination, however, turning the tables on her would-be attacker several times. I don’t think Carpenter was making a comment on amoral youth, but the film nevertheless introduced this convention.

The rest of the cast is a mixed bag, save for Nick Castle as Myers. He manages to make walking menacing, and Michael does a lot of walking… very slowly. It’s a wonder he ever catches up to his prey! But it’s a performance filled with great little touches, such as the famous moment when he admires his handiwork, tilting his head like a curious puppy. The childish nature of the gesture still chills me to the bone.

Although a relative novice at the time, Carpenter always understood the value of slow-burn suspense and Halloween is in no rush to off its protagonists. The familiarity of the slasher rulebook makes each turn of the plot perfunctory to modern viewers, but you’d be hard-pressed to pick a wasted moment. Mood is the key word here, and the director never lost his grip. Haddonfield as a setting certainly helps; a recognisable Every Town that doesn’t root the film in any specific time or place. The universe of Halloween is plausible in its banality and that makes it disturbing. You could almost say the same about the killings. There is no gore to be found. There’s some blood glimpsed on a knife, and a few grisly images, but nothing distasteful. The sheer force of the material allows you to fill in the blanks.

Dean Cundey’s cinematography is revelatory and a character in its own right. It must be difficult to make daytime sequences frightening, but he pulls it off with a muted colour palette that perfectly suits the autumnal aspect of the film. Like Michael, the camera almost stalks the protagonists, gliding through scenes unnoticed and with ease. Cundey was Carpenter’s greatest asset, giving him complete freedom with the widescreen frame. You’re always waiting for Myers to leap out of a dark spot, and the director was a master manipulator. From beginning to end, the film looks like it cost millions of dollars.

But the biggest success of Halloween is the score. Never has a film been transformed so completely by music. Carpenter screened an early cut without a track in place, and the reactions were disastrous. It simply “wasn’t scary,” they said. He would go on to compose the music himself, creating the simple, repeated bars and synthesised sounds that have become instantly recognisable. The score gives Halloween dread, suspense and energy.

Halloween went on to gross over $50 million in America, becoming a word-of-mouth smash. Until the release of The Blair Witch Project (1999), it was the most successful independent film of all time. Almost overnight, John Carpenter became a household name… and he only had himself to blame. His deal with Yablans dictated that he receive above-the-title billing and a percentage of the profits. He effectively branded the movie as his own and ensured that no one would ever forget him.

Very little has dated about this fine film. It may produce the odd titter or smirk, but Carpenter’s calling card is still a gripping sensory assault that will never lose its appeal. Revisits have not deprived Halloween of its ability to unsettle, and remains the absolute pinnacle of the slasher milieu. The fact that it was pulled off so artfully may the scariest thing of all.

Long live Michael Myers.

Best Scene

The opening is killer.

Useless Trivia

  • Myers was named after the European distributor of Carpenter’s previous film, Assault on Precinct 13, as a “thank you.”
  • Jamie Lee Curtis’ first film. She was paid a reported $8,000 for her efforts. Donald Pleasence was paid $20,000 for 5 days work.
  • Due to the budgetary restraints, the actors wore their own clothes.
  • The opening shot appears to be a single, tracking point-of-view shot, but there are actually three cuts. The first when the mask goes on, and the second and third after the murder has taken place and The Shape is exiting the room. This was done to make the point-of-view appear to move faster.
  • We see The Thing from Another World (1951) on the television in one scene. Carpenter would later remake it as The Thing.
  • Pleasence worked with the director again in Escape from New York.
  • Carpenter has a cameo as Paul, the voice of Annie’s boyfriend on the phone.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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