With horror movies being festive viewing in October the same way end-of-year holiday movies are festive viewing in December, it is no surprise that one of the most iconic horror franchises bears the name of the holiday in which it takes place: Halloween. The Halloween franchise has become a major part of what most people consider to be the typical slasher film over the years, complete with the mysterious antagonist, the surprise kills, and the down-to-earth protagonists. Now that an eleventh entry is on its way with David Gordon Green in the director’s chair (reviewed here), let us look back at the movie that started things off: John Carpenter’s 1978 original, simply titled Halloween.
If there is anything this movie knows how to do expertly, it is to make a strong first impression. Before we even see the opening credits, the very first things we witness are the opening notes to Carpenter’s piano-driven score on a black screen. Between the now iconic melody and the quiet ticks that further build up the ominous atmosphere, the music does a stellar job at conveying a sense of dread and atmosphere. Not long after we hear Carpenter’s music, a carved pumpkin softly illuminates and slowly approaches the camera as the credits progress. This also provides a wonderful introduction to the film’s overall vibe since the pumpkin is already a classic item associated with the holiday and it begins the running theme of motionless things staring at the viewer.
More impressively, the opening scene in which we see future serial killer Michael Myers – referred to as “The Shape” in the end credits – murdering his older sister on Halloween 1963 continues this heavy tone set up earlier. In addition to Carpenter shooting the scene from a first-person perspective, it is edited to look like one continuous shot, which further ramps up the slow-burn tension. Through these filmmaking decisions, the movie allows itself to show its main antagonist without providing tons of information about him until after the killing. In fact, it is only revealed that the knife-wielding child bears the name Michael Myers once the scene is over and the mask has been pulled off. The film has yet to reach double digits in its 90-minute runtime and it already makes a case for one of the most transportive openings in a horror movie.
Once Carpenter and Debra Hill’s screenplay jumps forward by fifteen years, the movie reveals itself to be two stories in alternation. One narrative involves Dr. Samuel Loomis (Donald Pleasence, delivering what is easily the film’s best performance) searching for Myers following the latter’s escape from Smith’s Grove Sanitarium. The other involves teenager Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, making a solid impression for her film debut) being continuously stalked by Myers in his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois at the same time she has to babysit children in the neighborhood. Functionally speaking, the Loomis scenes are there to legitimize Myers as a troubled individual while the Strode scenes are there to depict Myers as the local boogeyman. This is reinforced by the fact that many of Loomis’s lines involve backstory of his interactions with Myers while most of Strode’s interactions with the children treat Myers’s presence as the unassuming creepy stalker: threatening but not actively harmful.
Both stories are fine in their own right, but the dual narrative creates a serious issue with the storytelling, as it intends to establish Myers as two conflicting entities. This is because by the hundredth time Myers creepily stands off in the distance near Strode, it is firmly established that he is an actual dangerous figure as opposed to one that appears to be dangerous, as most boogeymen would be. When combined, the Loomis storyline gets interrupted by a plot thread with extremely bland characters – not to mention, supporting actors who utterly fail to deliver believable expressions at every moment they are onscreen – and the Strode storyline gets interrupted by a plot thread that confirms her fears before she experiences it firsthand that her stalker is a legitimately dangerous being. As such, more time is spent wondering how exactly Loomis and Strode will cross paths instead of engaging emotionally with what is happening.
Speaking of a lack of emotional engagement, four decades and change have made Halloween’s big scares feel rather quaint. While the frequent jump scares may have been genuinely surprising during its release, the build-up and payoff for many of them cannot help but feel telegraphed. Part of this is not the film’s fault since the slasher movie sub-genre has been deconstructed in minute detail in more recent films like Scream, but it is also hard to excuse Carpenter’s score for being as basic as it is. The title theme notwithstanding, much of the music takes presence in the form of loud noises whenever Myers assaults someone, which makes it too clear as to how the audience should feel. More importantly, it seems that Carpenter: The Director is love with Carpenter: The Composer so much that the movie is content with reusing two major cues to the point of monotony instead of the more sensible option to vary up the melodies. This egregious directorial decision is not a huge issue in the early sections of the movie, but it quickly becomes grating as it reaches its second half.
That said, enough of the film is effective as a mood piece that it comes close to compensating for how dated it is as an outright piece of horror. Carpenter’s choice to film many scenes through wide shots is wonderful at preparing the audience for any sightings of Myers, and director of photography Dean Cundey makes great use of the widescreen frame by providing ample amount of empty space in its shot compositions, therefore expanding the suburban environment in a subtle manner. It is difficult to judge the movie’s color palette because of how much it has varied across home releases – the Cundey-supervised 35th and 40th anniversary releases have de-saturated colors while previous transfers feature an orange hue for daytime scenes and a blue hue for nighttime scenes – but it manages to create a slight otherworldliness in the overall aesthetic regardless of approach towards color saturation and hue.
Halloween is most engrossing when it explores how children act during this time of spooky festivities, such as watching children dare each other to walk into a haunted house or witnessing a group scare a child that the boogeyman is going to get them, and it is a shame how the movie treats that as one of its lowest priorities. None of this is to say the film is a misfire, and I certainly would not want to trade its cultural impact for anything – modern horror classics like It Follows owe a huge debt to this film’s suburban setting and use of the widescreen frame. But for everything it has to offer as a terrific cinematic depiction of fear towards the boogeyman, this movie is an influential piece of horror cinema that I find myself appreciating from a distance as opposed to embracing with open arms like many people have done over the years.
Halloween is now available on Blu-ray and Digital HD.
Halloween – Fifteen years after murdering his sister on Halloween night 1963, Michael Myers escapes from a mental hospital and returns to the small town of Haddonfield to kill again.
Directed by John Carpenter, Halloween stars Donald Pleasence, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Nancy Kyes.