John Carpenter’s 1978 slasher, Halloween, is as finely tuned as a sports car. It’s a beast – a slinky feline-type-beast – rather than a screaming chimera. Slow-burn menace and creeping fear weighs in over blood-and-guts carnage. The lack of gore and splatter, in fact, might surprise modern audiences, so engineered towards unease and terror the film is designed. It’s a very classy picture with what is today a standard-issue scenario.
Halloween, first and foremost, wants to scare silly and not repulse you with the flesh-and-tissue destroying repercussions of Michael Myers’ use of a shiny blade: the excessive violence of Halloween’s sequels only highlights the original’s golden and even graceful reputation. Make no mistake: Carpenter’s breakout flick is the epitome of screen terror.
Thirty-six years on, Halloween's treatment of suspense remains undiminished and the expression of mood and, more importantly palpable anxiety, is ageless. Carpenter’s clever dolly shots and widescreen photography often places The Shape on the edge of the frame. The effect of this framing provokes a feeling of being watched, whether it’s literally possible from such an angle or not, and builds the film on a clash between an ordinary suburban home and the same locations after dark.
Laurie Strode’s neighbourhood and the town of Haddonfield, Illnois (actually shot in Pasadena, CA - during the summertime!) seem unexceptional in every way possible. Yet what looks fine in the daytime becomes a kingdom of shadows as the sun goes down. It must be said, though, the daytime scenes possess an eerie ambience of their own. Carpenter further hangs his movie on a sense of isolation, both aesthetically and thematically because authority and parental figures sit on the periphery of the action. This goes, too, for Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleseance). The shrink is tracking escaped mental patient Myers (played by Nick Castle) and acting as the sick man's personal historian and indirectly addressing the audience - in the suggestion Myers is more a mythological creature than man. However, he doesn’t really have a major role to fulfil, beyond doling out this key exposition and thematic subtext, until the film’s very last moments. Loomis is no longer convinced Myers is at all human.
Halloween takes place in the everyday world. Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis, in her debut screen appearance)and her school friends hang out and put up with babysitting duties while the folks are away. It's the perfect opportunity for Michael Myers to ply his trade. They smoke dope and talk about boys, and some have sex. Given Myers seems not too keen in this side of human nature and pleasure, several characters meet his wrath.
It’s absurd – to the point of being comic – that a man wearing an inverted William Shatner mask and a tatty boiler suit can creep around avenues and homes (and in one scene even driving a stolen car) without being spied or captured. But this is where the meeting between the everyday and nightmare occurs, and exactly why Halloween is so damn effective. Carpenter reiterates, too, this clash between realities in the final seconds of the film, via shots of an empty hallway, a house, a deserted street. It tells us: “This could happen in your own home. Sleep tight.”
Laurie and little Tommy (Brian Andrews) see weird things, but nobody else does. It fringes on ‘Boy Who Cried Wolf’ territory and provokes pantomime-like cries of ‘He’s behind you!’ The plot is simple and streamlined. For a film that has been described as possessing a conservative message towards sex before marriage, Halloween possesses a structure we can equate to, perhaps, boorish sexual congress. The first act (base) is all foreplay (Myers teasing characters and the audience) and the third (it skips the traditional second, because it's caught in the moment of murderous passion) goes for full penetration and the joys and sensations of cinema. Carpenter’s astute and razor-sharp technique means the film doesn’t, do pardon the express, ‘fuck around’.
Michael Myers’ mission, once he escapes the loony bin, is to ‘reimagine’, a word often banded around in Hollywood today but here takes on ghoulish significance, the night he killed his sister, Judith. Unfortunately, to complete his piece of performance art/ritual, he needs fresh victims. (Thomas De Quincey, the British writer, once proposed that murder was a form of art.)
After Carpenter and Debra Hill wrote the sequel, the message Myers imparts to Laurie becomes something quite different and more personal. If we disregard entirely the other movies then what Myers does is create a gruesome spin on the tableux vivant – though very much lacking the vivant aspect. Michael has finally come home to relive that night and here’s what he’s got to say on the matter.
Halloween is packed with startling imagery and memorable sequences, from the off. The slow-zoom to a jack-o’-lantern as Carpenter’s chilly theme blasts away. Sam Loomis’ car headlights capturing escaped patients in the pouring rain. Myers appearing wrapped in a sheet wearing the glasses of the guy he just killed, or the insidious moment where he leans out of the shadows right behind a distraught Laurie! These moments achieve the most sublime chills.
The film is, pretty much, made up of carefully crafted set-pieces from beginning to end, and strung together to work like a music score with crescendos, peaks, refrains and sudden stops. At times, it swaps graceful and skilled riffs for bludgeoning power chords. Often imitated and rarely bettered, Halloween is without doubt as classic an American picture as can be imagined.
Thomas De Quincey: On Murder Considered As One Of The Fine Arts
Halloween Movie Location: MovieLocations/Halloween