In the sixth grade I spent the night at a friend’s house. Growing up I had been into Science Fiction, especially Star Wars upon discovering it, and had been pretty sheltered from anything that could be considered ‘scary’ by my mother. While at this friend’s house he had Halloween and Halloween II on Laserdisc (it was the 90s after all), and we watched them both. It was early October and Halloween was already my favorite holiday. We would wind up marathoning the entire series up until that point, with the rest of the films on VHS. I was sold. I thought John Carpenter was a genius. I loved horror movies. My mom was quite upset at me having watched some horror movies, but I got to go over to that friend’s house again and again and absorb tons of movies my mom was unwilling to let us see… but that first Halloween film… well, it meant something to me beyond it being a brilliant film. It was the first time I was able to really come to understand that I had seen darkness and I thought it was cool. I was a spooky kid that had finally figured it out. How do I impartially review a film that helped me figure out who I am? Well, I’ll try.
Halloween is a 1978 film written by John Carpenter and directed by Carpenter and Debra Hill; it is a low budget slasher movie that is generally attributed to popularizing the genre after the breakthrough hit The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Carpenter’s now iconic synth score, his subtle use of camera work, the building of tension until the climax, and its ability to show you the violence without going over the top all contribute to a masterful film that was unable to be replicated even by its own sequels, myriad they may be. This is the film that launched Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street as imitators, leading eventually to films like I Know What You Did Last Summer and the self-aware, sharp left turn known as Scream. The writing is tight, the acting is believable (if sometimes a little over the top), and the stakes are real.
Halloween mashes many of the ideas of previous horror films together into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Hitchcock’s final girl reaches its full realization in Laurie Strode, played by Jamie Lee Curtis in a fitting bit of horror and Hollywood lineage. The crazed killer, Michael Meyers, is the culmination of Leather Face from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Norman Bates from Psycho. Dr. Loomis, played brilliantly by the late Donald Pleasance, is part psychologist and part Captain Ahab, with Michael Meyers being his white whale. The film also shifts from rural horror to suburban horror, bringing the terror home to where people live in perceived safety. This subversion of the perceived safety of suburbia is a usurpation of the reasons behind white flight and is only one of the myriad deeper meanings this film possesses when analyzed in depth. Halloween is more than just a horror film; it is a film about societal norms and darkness in 1978.
The special effects in this film are all done on a budget, but you would never know how cheap this film was to make from the way it comes off. John Carpenter shows his brilliance at taking things that other directors would throw away and makes them look better. While Los Angeles makes sneaking appearances in the shot composition, even the autumn leaves seen in each scene are recycled between shots. The iconic mask Michael Meyers wears was a cheap William Shatner Halloween mask that had been doctored up to provide just an expressionless face for the killer to wear. The atmospheric visual storytelling shows Meyers rampage through Haddonfield, but also shows the Meyers is not just a shark. Meyers is smart, stealthy, and stalks his prey. The lack of backstory and development of Meyers is a strength of the film, causing his motivations to be unknown and unexplained. This intentional lack of
explanation makes the viewing experience of the original film that much better; it leaves it up to each audience member to interpret Michael Meyers for themselves. In an age of over explanation, instantaneous information, prequels, and sequels, Halloween stands the rigorous test of time to set itself apart from the schlock that followed it as a true cinematic classic.
This film is best enjoyed Halloween Night, in the complete darkness, with friends and family chewing on popcorn and candy corn, long after the Trick or Treaters have gone to bed. Turn your surround sound up, engross yourself in this classic, and have a nice bottle of Rolling Rock with it. If there is a light in the room, make sure it comes from a Jack O’Lantern and the Jack O’Lantern only. Happy Halloween everyone! I hope that this Halloween is not the night HE comes home.
Anyone who knows me knows I’m not a slasher fiend. I think it’s used to compensate for weak plot points that filmmakers don’t want to make up for by spending a little more on screenwriters. Halloween, to me, really birthed the slasher genre of the 1980s, and I must give it credit for really kickstarting 80s slasher gore. That being said, I find the film tiring.
My primary issue with the film comes from a sexual liberation perspective. The whores get killed off while the virginial Laurie is spared. Of course, Carpenter revokes this idea, telling Alan Jones, “The one girl who is the most sexually uptight just keeps stabbing this guy with a long knife. She’s the most sexually frustrated. She’s the one that’s killed him. Not because she’s a virgin but because all that sexually repressed energy starts coming out. She uses all those phallic symbols on the guy.” I’m going to go out on a limb and say Carpenter likely wasn’t thinking about phallic symbols when making the film, and his own issues with female sexuality probably came more into play when deciding who lived and died, but I digress. I personally just get annoyed with the trope that virgins are meant to be saved, which really ties back to the Hayes Code.
I also have issues with the weak character development. Given, this is made up for by the shit ton of sequels, none of which were directed by Carpenter, but there’s nothing really psychologically scary about a guy in a mask stabbing people. You’re there strictly for the gore. Pauline Kael, of The New Yorker, described the film in a much more linguistically pleasing way than I can in 1978, saying: “Maybe when a horror film is stripped of everything but dumb scariness—when it isn’t ashamed to revive the stalest device of the genre (the escaped lunatic)—it satisfies part of the audience in a more basic, childish way than sophisticated horror pictures do.” I have to agree with her. Halloween, for me, is rather sophomoric. That being said, I don’t find the film completely unenjoyable.
As I said above, the film does have its merits, and it’s not quite as gore heavy as it’s successors. It’s a great film to watch if you want to get scared without needing to follow a plot. Everyone who has sex is going to meet a grisly end. That’s the best (and only) marker for deciding who lives and who dies. It’s a film of it’s creators time, without the Hayes Code’s interference. Some reviewers, like Kael, tied it back to Hitchcock and De Palma, but I have to disagree. That’s giving Carpenter far too much credit.
I would pair this film with a grilled cheese sandwich and a blue-rare steak. You’ll get your cheese and your blood all in one meal.