In 1978, John Carpenter‘s second major film, Halloween, was released and, through word of mouth and the screams of audiences everywhere, it went on to become the highest-grossing independent film of all time (for a while).
40 years later, the film still manages to be as effective and intense as it was when released, even if a lot of the methods it employs have become the oft-replicated tropes of slasher movies everywhere. Why was it so innovative and how is it so effective? The answers are things I still look for every single October, and even other times throughout the year.
Carpenter is one of my all-time favorite directors, and I usually say his 1982 film The Thing is my favorite of his, but Halloween is easily a close second. I think it’s a perfect horror movie. It sets things up, ratchets up the tension, and builds to a crescendo that still has people on the edge of their seat. No, it’s not as gory as all the Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, or other such “knife movies” that came after it, but it’s not trying to be a gorefest. It’s trying to be a simple story of three girls being stalked by a murderer in a mask for seemingly no reason at all. The sequels added a backstory and a blood relation between Michael Myers and Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), but as far as this movie was concerned, he was just “The Shape.”
The Shape as a creation is one of the better conceits of the whole endeavor. It makes Myers both a person and a cipher. We see his POV in the film’s opening scene, where he puts on a clown mask, gets a knife, and kills his post-coital older sister, only later revealing that he is, indeed, just a child. Many years later, we get from his rightfully scared psychiatrist Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) that the boy is purely and simply evil. Nothing is going on behind those eyes, and he has become obsessed with Halloween night and reliving is previous murder. Every scene with Loomis and his attempt to convince the Haddonfield police chief (Charles Cyphers) that “Evil has come to your little town, Sheriff.”
While all of this is happening, we’re seeing him, a man in bland coveralls and a stark white mask (yes, we all know it’s a modified William Shatner Star Trek mask) following high school girls, one in particular who did nothing more than walk up to the his old house and be seen by an escaped lunatic. He’s not doing anything for a while except just stalking (which is immeasurably creepy) but because of Loomis, we know that he is the very embodiment of death.
To contrast all of that evil and death, we have three very realistic and relatable high school girls. This was the benefit of having Debra Hill as Carpenter’s producer; of her many, many contributions to the early films of Carpenter, she wrote the teenagers with dialogue and scenarios that are completely believable. They’re babysitters, they have boyfriends, or want boyfriends, they talk about silly things, they smoke pot and hide it from their parents – everything the teenage audience could relate to. Laurie specifically is smart and supremely likable and a little bookish but a truly good person. She doesn’t just run away when a murderer is chasing her, having already killed her friends; she goes back to see if her charges, Tommy Doyle and Lindsey Wallace, are all right. A heroine we can believe in.
In terms of the more technical, Halloween is a masterclass in low-budget filmmaking by Carpenter. He makes do with what he has, which is not a lot. He’s aided by the great cinematographer Dean Cundey, with whom he made all of his best films (in my humble opinion) and they do everything in their power to make a guy following girls look as scary as possible. They do this by playing with the Shape’s placement in the frame. Sometimes he’s in the foreground with the girls in the background; other times he’s waaaaaaaay in the back while the girls, or Loomis, are in the midground. Laurie seems to be the only one who can see him for awhile, but he’s always there, disappearing almost as quickly. This is a great way to ensure the iconic and mythic nature of your villain. He doesn’t say anything, he doesn’t have any facial features, he’s truly just a wandering ghost.
As the movie goes on, and it gets to be night time, the Shape and how he’s shot get even more ghostly. He stands in the shadows and in some shots you can’t even see him unless you look really hard. His white face, though, gives him away. One of the film’s most amazing shots is when Laurie is standing in a darkened kitchen after falling down the stairs. There’s a dark doorway next to her. Slowly, the Shape’s face comes into light and we know he’s right there. This was such an easy trick. It’s just putting a light with a dimmer switch above the Shape’s head and slowly dialing it up until he’s visible onscreen. It’s beyond effective and always elicits a scream or at least a gasp.
This deep focus photography in a widescreen format works especially well at the end when Laurie runs away, repeatedly stabbing or otherwise incapacitating the Shape, only for him to get back up and continue pursuit. The best usage of this is when she hides from him in a closet which has nothing more than a slatted wooden door to keep someone out. Naturally, he finds her and yanks the light on, making him enormous and monstrous in the frame. She stabs him in the eye with a wire hanger and when he drops the knife, Laurie stabs him in the abdomen, causing him to fall and presumably be dead. She tells the kids to go get help and she catches her breath on the doorjamb as we see in the background the “dead” Shape sit bolt upright and turn to face her. It’s one of the greatest scares in cinema history.
And even all of this wouldn’t work without the music. This is a film that is entirely dependent on the soundtrack to build the tension. Carpenter wrote the synth keyboard score reportedly very quickly, but it’s incredibly effective throughout. From the distinctive, 6/4 time, high-pitched theme with low rumbling undertones, to the driving, percussive march to the finish with the Shape’s pursuit of Laurie, to the stings and squeals that punctuate scares and near-misses, the score is fairly sparse, but it’s all important. The movie without the soundtrack would be boring; the movie with the soundtrack is perfect.
Halloween is a movie I’ve seen probably close to 30 times at this point, and each time I discover something new. While it doesn’t “scare” me the way it once did, I’m still amazed by how much it continues to affect me and make me anxious and has me predicting when the scare’s going to come, and almost never being exactly right. While most of its tricks were ripped off whole cloth in subsequent slasher outings, Carpenter, Hill, Cundey, and the rest of the cast and crew achieved something none of the rest can boast: they did it all first. It’s not old hat if nobody did it before you. It’s new hat! It’s getting to be that time of year when I break out one of my three Blu-ray copies of the movie and experience The Night HE Came Home yet again. John Carpenter’s Halloween truly is a cut above the rest.
Images: Compass International