John Carpenter's Halloween
I was going to publish this on Halloween, but it turns out I will be out of town, so here it is a day early...
Here’s a piece I did for one of my editors whose local theater screened it as part of their "flashback" series a couple weeks ago. I decided to go full spoilers on this, so if you haven't seen it, beware. Plus, if you haven't seen this yet... shame on you. Anyways, enjoy this review/analysis/essay on John Carpenter's horror masterpiece.
Back in April 1978, John Carpenter and his producer/co-writer Debra Hill set out to make a simple horror film on a shoestring budget of $320,000. Little did they know that their project would turn out to be one of the most successful independent films of all time and that they would change the way people look at horror movies in general. It would also go on to be called one of the greatest horror films ever made.
The story is known to most people, even to those who have never seen the film before. On Halloween night in 1963, young Michael Myers murders his sister for no apparent reason. Because of this, he is committed to a psychiatric hospital under the care of Dr. Samuel Loomis (Donald Pleasence). At first, Dr. Loomis does what he can to reach the boy, who appears to be in a catatonic state, but Loomis soon realizes that this boy is something different altogether. Behind the boy's eyes, he sees nothing but pure evil, an evil that must be kept locked up at all cost.
Fifteen years later, Michael breaks out of the hospital and steals the car that Loomis was using to pick him up for a court appearance. Loomis can only assume that Michael is attempting to return home to Haddonfield, Illinois where he had murdered his sister all those years ago. Meanwhile, we meet the other key characters of the film who reside in Haddonfield. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), Annie Brackett (Nancy Kyes), and Lynda van der Klok (P.J. Soles) are best friends who are trying to put together their plans for that night, which just happens to be Halloween.
Laurie's plans involve babysitting a young boy named Tommy (Brian Andrews), while Annie, who also has babysitting duties nearby, and Lynda want to spend time with their boyfriends. Throughout their preparations for the evening, Michael keeps a close watch on them, planning what his next move will be. Evil has returned to Haddonfield and now it's up to Dr. Loomis to stop it before it's too late.
Michael Myers is one of the single most iconic characters of horror cinema, one that is recognizable even if you never seen the movie. His trademark white mask (a William Shatner/Captain Kirk mask spray painted white) is known just as well as Jason Voorhees's hockey mask or Freddy Krueger's sweater. Throughout this film and the several sequels that followed, you’ll notice that he's a slow, stalking type killer, never in a rush to kill his victim.
This is in stark contrast to the others I've already mentioned. I've always seen Jason as being a faster villain whereas Freddy is fast, but likes to take his time when it comes to his victims (or rather the directors of those films like to allow enough time for the viewer to fully appreciate the dreamscape). My point behind all of this is that having Michael's approach be slower than normal allows the tension to build much better than if he was to simply rush at his victim.
Taking an example straight from "Halloween," there's the famous scene after Laurie has discovered the bodies of her friends, and consequently, Michael has discovered her. In an attempt to escape, she rushes back to Tommy's house across the street only to discover that she has forgotten the keys. Michael slowly begins his trek across the street while Laurie bangs helplessly on the door, trying to get Tommy to come downstairs and unlock it. Carpenter takes this time to cut back and forth between the two as Michael slowly gets closer and closer. There's enough tension there to be cut with a knife.
"Halloween" is also famous for setting the standards for slasher films even to this very day. Many people say that Hitchcock's "Psycho" is the very first slasher film, but I'm talking about in the sense that we know them most famously (Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, etc.). The influence of “Halloween” can be seen in each and every one of those films, from the use of masks (Freddy's burnt face can be seen as such) to the stalking method.
Now what is it that makes "Halloween" so great as to sit with the best of the best? For me, it's the amazing sense of mood and atmosphere that Carpenter is able to create through the use of lighting, camera angles, and especially his infamous score. No other horror film I can recall has such a big impact while barely doing a thing to achieve it. When most people think of horror films nowadays, they tend to think of buckets of blood or seeing people being killed in gruesome ways, but back in the 60s (Night of the Living Dead), 70s (The Exorcist), and 80s (Friday the 13th), horror movies didn't need all of that to be effective.
I want to go back to Carpenter's score for a moment because that's really an essential part of what allows him to build such an amazing atmosphere throughout his film. It's also another element that most people will recognize whether they've seen the movie or not. The melody of the main theme is unmistakable and tends to send shivers down anyone's back. I recently read a story where, for Halloween, someone’s neighbor wore the Michael Myers mask and had the theme playing in the background while simply standing at the end of their driveway. Young kids who had never even heard of the film were creeped out enough to stay away. I can only imagine their reaction if they had actually seen the film.
Carpenter also opens and closes the film in an incredibly unforgettable fashion. The opening scene is a famous shot from the POV of young Michael (age 6) as he watches his sister and her boyfriend making out before they retire to her bedroom. Eventually the boyfriend leaves after which Michael ascends the stairs to find a clown mask that he places on his face, minimizing our view to two round holes. We witness the murder first hand and follow as Michael calmly walks down the stairs and out the door to find his parents arriving home.
It's not only famous for being done as a POV shot but also in that there only appears to be one cut in the entire four-minute sequence (when he puts the clown mask on). IMDB claims that there are two more after the murder, but after several repeated viewings of the section, I still only notice the one cut, though it is rather hard to see through the two small holes that we are given to witness his departure from the house.
The ending of the film is equally memorable. After the final events play out between Michael, Loomis, and Laurie, Loomis notices that Michael has disappeared. On the soundtrack all we hear is Michael breathing in his mask while shots of several locations inside and outside of the houses are shown, as if to tell us that Michael could be anywhere and that this is not the end by far.
As we are led to believe throughout the film, Michael may have been a human at the start, but that night back in 1963 something changed in him. It's never truly explained what made Michael this way, and this is something else that makes the film and the character so effective. There's no explanation for his evil. He kills his sister for some unknown reason, then, after 15 years, he goes back to Haddonfield for a murder spree, again for some unknown reason. He is simply, as Carpenter himself put it, "a force of nature that won't stop." Most of the other icons of horror have their reasons (Jason witnessed his mother's murder, Freddy was burned alive by the parents of Elm Street), but Michael is just pure evil, plain and simple.
It's a sad fact that horror films just aren't made this way anymore. Filmmakers always think they need to go way over the top to get the scares they desire (I'm looking at you "Saw" franchise), but more often than not, they end up failing because they’re forgetting that horror isn’t about being grossed out, it’s about being scared or thrilled. Over 30 years ago Carpenter and his crew proved that sometimes a minimalist approach is the best way to get to those scares. Sometimes all it takes is a simple story, a creepy score, and some low lighting to allow the viewers’ imaginations to race in wonder at what lies in the darkness. 4/4 stars.