Over forty years on, John Carpenter’s Halloween remains the ultimate experience in relentless, terrifying horror cinema.
Discussing John Caroenter’s 1978 film Halloween is, in many ways, rather pointless exercise. I mean, are there really people who haven’t seen the film at least once? And unlike with certain other classic titles, I’m not going to go out on a limb with a contrary opening about this film. Halloween remains a near perfect horror movie – a film that set the template for the modern genre in a way that few other movies have, and even now remains a classic example of the genre.
In fact, Halloween seems even more a perfect example of scares and tension than ever, thanks to the endless series of ever more pointless sequels, reboots and reinventions – especially those that have tried to expand the story and characters, or make unnecessary stabs at social commentary. Add to those the countless imitations that emerged in the early 1980s and beyond, and you might expect the film’s thrills to be diluted by over-familiarity – but if anything, all these other films have done is make the original seem even more impressive – a no-nonsense, stripped down horror movie that has no pretensions and simply gets on with the job of scaring the living daylights out of the audience with admirable skill.
Carpenter’s film works brilliantly because it doesn’t try too hard to make sense or develop its plot – something that would bog down the second film in the series and has made the more recent revivals near unwatchable. In this film, Michael Myers is a little kid who hacks his sister to death one Halloween night and then, as an adult, escapes from his mental hospital and returns to his home town of Haddonfield – a classic American small town of picket fences and white houses – to pick of several victims who are at once completely random and very specific. He’s chased by psychiatrist Donald Pleasence, who does a great line in warnings of apocalyptic evil, and in the end it turns out that yes, Michael really is something more than human – the embodiment of evil. The Boogeyman. Notably, he has no reason for his killing spree other than simply to kill. This is to the film’s credit – why do we need explanations or motivations? Let’s just get on with the job of terrifying people.
Now, if you feel inclined to pick at the film, then of course, a lot of the narrative makes very little makes sense. The film itself acknowledges the anomaly of a man who has been institutionalised since childhood being able to drive, and the sense that he is somehow specifically stalking Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode and her friends only really makes sense within the context of the first sequel, where she is unnecessarily revealed as his sister (Carpenter’s own version of the equally clumsy ongoing family revelations of the Star Wars films that the original Halloween series can concurrent with). But as Carpenter admits, that certainly wasn’t the plan at the time. So why Michael Myers picks off three best friends – in different houses across the small town – is entirely illogical, other than the fact that it works withing the context of the film.
But that is the movie’s strength. Because not only do you not think about these plot holes, but the film never attempts to fill them in. The obsession with horror films today is to give the often one-dimensional characters entirely unnecessary and unconvincing back stories, but Halloween doesn’t waste time on any of that, because it doesn’t have to – if the audience is worried about plot holes or back story in a film, it’s because that film hasn’t grabbed them by the throat and pulled them, screaming, into the alternative universe that the film takes place in – but Halloween is so relentlessly creepy and then such a rollercoaster of scares that it gives us no time to think about anything else until much later – and by then, it doesn’t matter.
We meet Laurie, Annie (Nancy Loomis) and Lynda (P.J. Soles) without any context other than the fact that these are three teenage friends – Annie and Lynda the more ‘promiscuous’ of the three by virtue of having boyfriends that the sleep with, something that would see the film attacked by some critics as introducing the idea of women being punished for being sexually active. There’s a slight point to those arguments in this film more so than in later slasher movies like Friday the 13th (where, contrary to popular belief, the victims are pretty evenly split between men and women), though it doesn’t really hold up when you consider that allegedly virginal Laurie is hardly let off lightly. She might survive – and certainly becomes the template for the Final Girl – but that’s not for want of trying on behalf of Michael. I’m pretty certain that Carpenter wasn’t making any moral judgement on sexually active teens so much as setting up a classic heroine – quiet, sympathetic, already possibly a bit of a misfit – for the audience to root for. And interestingly, all the girls feel very real – thanks to very natural performances, decent dialogue and allowing the characters to all be pretty likeable (pay attention, modern film makers!), these three not only feel more human than many of the more developed characters in later films, but you also feel more of a sense of shock when they are killed.
In essence, the slight, paper-thin and back-of-a-napkin storyline is what makes Halloween work so effectively. Carpenter strips the film of any pretence, trims away the fat and cuts straight to the chase. This is pure spook show thrills, building tension and atmosphere and unleashing a monster who is frightening because he is so unknown. In fact, I’d say the scene at the end where his mask is briefly pulled off to reveal a deformed face (again – why? He looked totally normal as a kid) is the only mistake, because really we need to see the infamous white-faced William Shatner mask as the genuine face of Michael – or The Shape, as he became known. He doesn’t need to be human at all. He’s a killing machine, as dead-eyed and cold as the shark in Jaws. This is where Rob Zombie’s remake upset so many fans, with it’s back story that humanises the killer (though much of Zombie’s story in fact came from the Halloween novelisation, stripped of its supernatural hints). Turning Michael Myers into a human psycho is a mistake – he is The Shape, a figure of pure malevolence who can’t be killed. That’s why the film works, because it presents someone who has become more than human, the personification of evil. And it doesn’t for a moment bother to explain why or how that happened.
By stripping the film down to nothing but fear Carpenter makes Halloween one of the purist horror movies ever made. But doing so successfully takes a lot of skill, and this is a masterclass in terror cinema. Carpenter’s direction allows scenes to develop slowly, the creepiness to build organically and the shocks to be introduced at exactly the right time. His slowly moving camera and his exceptional soundtrack – one of the most iconic and perfect horror film scores ever recorded, bolstered by well chosen rock tracks like Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear the Reaper – make every scene feel as though there is something slightly off, even when nothing is happening. By allowing Michael to appear as a figure in the background in the first half of the film, half seen by Laurie and the audience, he builds the sense of dread long before anything actually happens. That these scenes still work after God knows how many viewings of the film, as well as the slew of mostly terrible sequels and decades worth of imitations and ‘tributes’ – not to mention the inevitable degradation of Michael as a scary figure through endless satires, cosplay costumes and toy lines featuring the character – is a testament to how brilliant the movie is.
Halloween is still a tense, gripping and scary experience, even when you know what is about to happen – while the element of surprise has gone, we can still admire the potency of those scenes and in anticipating the shocks, we can now revel in their audacity and skill. Repeated viewings act as reminder of just how good the film is – a masterclass in horror filmmaking – indeed, filmmaking full stop – that definitively proves both that less is more, and more is never enough when it comes to scaring the wits out of the audience. It’s hard not to think that it has all been downhill for the genre since this point.