October 31st 1978... The Night He Came Home!
John Carpenter's 'Halloween' is a daunting film to write about. When discussing the history of horror cinema, few films are as seminal. 'Halloween' is a foundational text for the slasher, informing many of the genre's now-standard tropes. It has spawned countless imitators, using the film's simple premise as a blueprint. And despite a litany of middling sequels and reinventions, none have been able to disrupt the original's legacy. One only needs to see promotions for the umpteenth franchise entry, 'Halloween Kills', to understand that Michael Myers is all but immortal on screen. With a film of such stature, it can be a challenge to fully encapsulate the extent of its influence. But what I can state is that from the moment I saw 'Halloween', I was caught in the trance of Haddonfield's boogeyman.
On Halloween night several years back, a couple of friends and I saw 'Halloween' at Sydney's Blacktown Drive-In. I spurred them on because it seemed like the perfect time to finally see what I'd heard was a horror classic. Shortly after the film began, my friend's car battery died, meaning we couldn't hear the film's audio through her radio. We had to sit on the tables of the venue's retro diner, hearing the sound pierce through the speakers as we sat in the dark amongst a sea of cars. It was suitably eerie. And later, as the film reached its end, we managed to start the car up and get back on the road. My friends were fairly bored by the whole experience, but I was enraptured.
The film revolves around Michael Myers (Nick Castle), who, at six years old, murdered his 17-year-old sister. After 15 years confined to a mental health facility for the criminally insane, Michael has escaped. With the anniversary of the murder approaching, Michael charts a course to his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois. On Halloween night, he sets his sights on Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, 'Knives Out') and her school classmates as his next victims. And while Michael's psychiatrist, Dr Samuel Loomis (Donald Pleasence, 'You Only Live Twice'), searches for him, even he cannot prevent the pending massacre.
The atmosphere of 'Halloween' got under my skin. The film is immaculate when it comes to generating discomfort. From the opening moments when we're greeted by a smiling Jack-o-lantern and Carpenter's creepy theme, it made me instantly uneasy. Think when the hair on the back of your neck stands up or when your shoulders shake involuntarily. 'Halloween' isn't frightening because of its level of gore and carnage, but rather because it makes you question the security of your surroundings. And when the security of day slowly makes way for the dangers of night, a monster can make his presence felt.
That monster being Michael Myers, the killer dressed in a boiler suit and deformed William Shatner mask. Michael is the prototypical horror villain. You cannot hope to reason with him; he is devoid of any humanity and thinks only to kill. Carpenter leans into the sentiment that perhaps Michael is something other than man. This is notable when Dr Loomis refers to Michael as "it" rather than "he". To Loomis, Michael is pure evil in a way no human could be, and that mythic quality has made him stand out amid an endless list of cinematic killers.
In the film's end credits, Michael Myers is listed as The Shape, tying into that sense of mystique. As of this moment, we will never know with great certainty whether Michael is mere flesh and blood or something more. The canon of the sequels is too optional to make a conclusive statement. But while that ambiguity persists, he is lurking in the shadows. He could be on any corner or in any house. And as his heavy breathing engulfs Haddonfield, we never know when he'll strike. This near-folkloric depiction has proven Michael everlasting.
'Halloween' isn't frightening because of its level of gore and carnage but rather because it makes you question your ambience. And when the security of day slowly makes way for the dangers of night, a monster can make his presence felt.
But looking beyond iconography, the craft of 'Halloween' is beyond compare. As a piece of direction, the film is a masterclass. John Carpenter is a superb director of the camera, and in 'Halloween', his choices are pitch-perfect. For large portions of the film, the shot of choice is often a wide tracking shot covering something mundane. They remain unbroken for so long that it feels voyeuristic. And that does wonders for inducing anxiety, because we know who could be watching. Carpenter takes that idea even further, at times placing us directly in Michael's point of view. It sounds simple, but the results are remarkably effective. Choices like these make us silent observers, and Carpenter never allows us to escape from his grip.
Slashers can be viewed as lowbrow due to their at times lurid nature, but 'Halloween' is an intelligent slasher - and that intelligence sees the film overcome its issues comfortably. The film had a limited budget, but Carpenter understood the power of suggestion could be just as ghastly as visible gore. Additionally, while the dialogue and casting could be patchy in places, allowing the seasoned Donald Pleasence to do a lot of the heavy lifting proved a wise choice. As was the stunt casting of Janet Leigh's daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, as the film's lead, who became an iconic scream queen in her own right.
'Halloween' was able to use limited resources to its advantage, and for what it accomplished, it's still widely viewed as the definitive slasher. 1974's 'Black Christmas' and 1976's 'The Town That Dreaded Sundown' explored similar themes, but 'Halloween' arguably perfected them. It still feels like a force of nature, eliciting something both subtle and primal. It gets in your bones, and notwithstanding its faults, it's rightfully a touchstone of horror.
It's hard to do justice to a title like 'Halloween'. The film changed the landscape of its genre irreversibly and has inhabited our cultural lexicon for over 40 years. As I near a thousand words, I feel as though I've only scratched the surface. 'Halloween' is a significant work and one that I love to revisit each October. It's being screened at my local theatre on Halloween night, and I'll more than likely be there to see the boogeyman prowl the dark suburban streets once more. After all, on Halloween, everyone's entitled to one good scare.