John Carpenter’s Halloween is often credited with inventing the modern slasher film. As such, it deserves its iconic place in the history of horror cinema, even if its impact has lessened over the years. Instead of remaining one of the most terrifying films of all time, Halloween has to content itself with being one of the most primal. It’s a distillation of the slasher film’s subconscious effect on the human mind.
The film’s plot, much like its filmmaking, is elegantly simple. On Halloween in 1963 the six-year-old Michael Myers kills his sister while dressed in a clown costume. He’s committed to a mental institution, but escapes on Halloween 15 years later dressed in a janitor’s jumpsuit and a plastic William Shatner mask. He heads back to his hometown Haddonfield and fixes his dreadful gaze on high schooler Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), stalking her and dispatching anyone who gets in his way.
With Halloween, Carpenter transforms a story as inherently trashy as a man with a butcher knife killing teenagers into something almost graceful. There’s not much explicit violence here and there’s practically no gore. Like Hitchcock, who he has obviously learned from, Carpenter is more interested in insinuating than showing. He’s a classicist at heart. His synthesized score, a few door creaks, and his roaming camera do more to insinuate terror than anything resembling a jump scare. The film is almost muted, other than the obvious horror of Myers’s murders.
The dialogue in the film is mostly businesslike, meant to fill the air between appearances of Myers. Exposition is only delivered by Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance), who all but says that Michael Myers is the grim reaper in his thematically-blunt dialogue. Character isn’t the film’s strong suit. Curtis’s Laurie is merely the final girl, the audience surrogate who survives and represents some kind of purity under siege. She makes the requisite dumb decisions necessary in the genre—the kind of obviously idiotic choices that really hold a film back (and maybe the whole genre). She’s our hero, but we don’t see the film through her eyes. We see it through the eyes of Myers.
The strongest aspect of Halloween is that it makes the viewer complicit in Myers’ violence. The film’s opening shot demonstrates this best. The shot opens on a nice suburban home. It goes to the window and sees a teenage boy making out with a teenage girl. They’re getting frisky and head upstairs for the serious stuff. The camera roves over to the door and then upstairs, following them but not too quickly. It passes through the hall and through a door before landing on the girl in her bedroom. She recognizes the camera. We realize we’re being placed in a character’s point of view. And just when we realize that, whoever it is whose eyes we’re seeing through puts a knife in the girl. We can’t look away. It’s too late. It’s as if we put the knife in ourselves.
Carpenter’s camera ushers us into horrible scenarios so slowly, we don’t realize their danger until we’re in the midst of them. It’s like that old saying about the frog in the pot of slowing boiling water. Myers moves equally slowly. He never runs. He never talks. We only know he’s a living being because of his heavy breathing against the inside of his mask, which provides a creepy underscore to the film’s horror scenes. The film’s vision is as single-minded as Myers’s.
Too bad it’s no longer scary. At the time, Halloween surely must’ve terrified audiences with its fresh vision of suburban death, but it’s innovation has now long become standardized. Credit must be given for pioneering the whole subgenre, but some of its successors have learnt from its atmosphere and upped the terror factor. Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street is more immediately terrifying and more dreamy, and, more recently, a film like David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows outdoes it in creating an atmosphere of constant dread. It Follows even manages to register heavily with three or four terrifying moments to boot.
Halloween is a very good film, but it’s no longer a terrifying one. It’s the first film of its kind to tell this kind of horror story about a maniacal killer invading the suburban sanctuary, but now that we’ve heard the story so many times, the original telling lacks the impact it used to have.
But it’s still important to give credit where credit is due.
7 out of 10
Halloween (1978, USA)
Directed by John Carpenter; screenplay by Debra Hill and John Carpenter; starring Donald Pleasence, Jamie Lee Curtis, P.J. Soles, Nancy Loomis.