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The Test of Time: Halloween (1978)

10.17.2013by: Ryan Doom

We all have movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? So…the point of this here column is whether of not a film stands the test of time. I’m not gonna question whether it’s still a good flick, but if the thing holds up for a modern audience.

Director: John Carpenter
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasence

With it being officially Halloween season, it’s time examine the grandest, perhaps the most influential horror/slasher film ever created. Ok, so that declaration sounds as if I’ve already made up my mind about this one, but that’s yet to be determined. Last time out I claimed that “78’s Halloween undoubtedly remains classic horror,” but that doesn’t mean we can’t dive back in and determine if the flick holds up over 35 years later under the Test of Time.

Under the examination: Halloween.

Actually, it’s been a few years since I’ve sat down and watched the entire Halloween in a darken room. This time, two virgins (to the movie) joined me who aren’t really horror fans. Their reaction? They mocked hairstyles, dialogue, and stupid character actions, but when the shit got real they reacted in ways the movie was designed: they jumped when they were supposed to, shrieked when they were supposed to, and each walked away agreeing that it was better than they thought. However, for the hardcore horror fan, well, we’ll get to that…

THE STORY: The film boasts one of the greatest horror openings ever as we have a POV murder of a nude, big boobed teen by a clown-costumed young Michael Myers. Flash forward 15 years to the small town of Haddonfield, Illinois. Here, dorky teen Laurie Strode prepares for yet another lackluster Halloween by babysitting while all her friends get their freaky sex on. Unlucky for her, Michael decided it was time for some fresh air and escapes the night before Halloween and makes his way to Haddonfield, killing folks along the way back home (though he does have time to pick up that classic William Shatner mask). Since Strode plays the usual helpless teen, it’s up to Myers’ shrink, Dr. Loomis, to save the day.

WHAT STILL HOLDS UP: For the hardcore horror fan, John Carpenter's only directed Halloween remains tops. Now obviously a 35-year-old film it’s not going to feel as fresh as it once was, but neither does Hank Williams or Columbo. However, just because some sounds or styles look old doesn’t mean that something has lessened. If it's good, it'll remain timeless and will forever be worth revisiting...which is what Halloween is. 

The most striking element out of the film still comes from the music. Carpenter’s score has been played so many times (hell, I hear it in ring tones frequently this time of year) that you’d think its impact would be loss, but nah…shit still sounds great. Sure, he might rely on it perhaps a bit too much for those "scare" moments, but it’s still such an iconic score and he uses it to its fullest. Try to watch the movie without the sound sometime and those stalking sequences, where the synthesizers kick, and you'll quickly realize how it makes the movie so good. Just as much as any other part of it.

Now some might disagree, but I still love the pacing of a 70’s movie. Everything takes its time here. There’s an escaped psychopath on the loose and no one seems to give a damn. Granted, the town fails to understand that Myers will keep going back to kill for 35 years, but still the lack of panic is an interesting contrast to every other Halloween. Hell, even Michael isn’t in a rush to kill. He could have easily knocked off Laurie and gone about his day, but he decides a good old fashioned stalking was in order. Make up your mind, Mike.

Speaking of which I also really dig Nick Castle’s approach to Michael Myers aka The Shape. As the sequels continued and the years ticked on, Myers finally kept hitting growth spurts. But here, he is small, thin, and remains in the shadows. And that's what really works. Consider Carpenter’s own view on him: “To make Michael Myers frightening, I had him walk like a man, not a monster.” And that’s truly what created the monster. He looks so damn average. Plus, he’s barely in the film, popping up behind bushes, trees, and windows. He’s basically a peeping tom dressed in a mechanic’s onesie,  Oh, and the best kill scene has to be Myers' first seen kill as an adult. It’s happens when Laurie’s friend, Annie, gets into her locked car and realizes that her windows are fogged up. She streaks her finger across the glass just as Myers strangles her to death.It's plays brutally real.

WHAT BLOWS NOW: I’ve actually shown Carpenter’s breakthrough film to several of my classes over the years (I teach at a local college) and the reaction has always fascinated me. For one, most of the younger generation know this movie via Rob Zombie, so when they watch a movie from 1978, well, they don’t get it. Most often find the pacing too slow, the characters too clichéd, and the violence not violent enough.

For the modern horror fan (especially those who don’t give a shit about old stuff), the very thing that I think is great about Halloween will probably bore them: the pacing. The movie takes its sweet time getting anywhere, and if someone has only seen the sequels or the reboot or other slasher films, a dragging pace and story might not have the same effect that it once did.

The intensity also isn’t yet cranked to the level of the sequels. (In the film’s defense, it’d be impossible to create that intensity considered no one knew who the hell Myers was). In reality not a hell of a lot happens in Halloween in comparison to what came later or even in slasher films in general. The story is painfully thin. Sure, we get actual character development in Laurie and her friends and we get plenty of Dr. Loomis shouting his paranoia at anyone who would listen, but the lacking of Myers, or a story thicker than a notebook, makes the movie feel nearly like a distant cousin of what was to come.

Rewatching it, I think the most outdated element out of film comes from the dialogue, which at times is just horrific. “Was that the boogie man?” Laurie asks at the end. Loomis replies, “As a matter of fact, it was.” Or take Loomis' later rant: ”You’ve got to believe me, Officer, he is coming to Haddonfield…I know him! I’m his doctor! You must be ready for him…if you don’t it’s your funeral.” Yuck.

As for the violence, well, it was 1978. What do you want?

THE VERDICT: Despite the dated elements and techniques used, I don’t see how any horror fan, hell, movie fan could not consider Carpenter’s Halloween a true classic. First, setting a horror film around Halloween and using the constant set-up of “the boogie man” is f*cking brilliant. Laurie has to constantly remind the kids that “there’s no such thing” as the boogie man, only to have it come for her. This movie launch an entire genre that just won't die. Dive back into Carpenter’s world and no one will be disappointed.

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