Halloween (1978) Review

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Halloween (1978)

Dir. John Carpenter

Starring – Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence, Nancy Kyes (Loomis), Tony Moran.

A six year old boy named Michael Myers is locked away in a mental institution for murdering his sister on Halloween night. Fifteen years after the incident, Michael Myers escapes from the institution to return to his home town of Haddonfield, Illinois and bring death and terror to the quiet community.
“What’s the Bogeyman?”

Well, just where on earth do you begin with ‘Halloween’? So much has been written about without question THE definitive slasher film that it seems difficult to know exactly what to say to offer any different perspective. However, one thing that separates this article from any other is my very fond…if that’s the right word, own personal recollection of how I first encountered ‘The Shape’. Blessed with incredibly liberal parents, in the very early development stages of my obsession with horror, I was handed the special lenticular edition DVD,  and I can still recall the elicit chill I got when I first saw the mixed image of the now famous hauntingly blank face coupled with a butcher’s knife that turns into a pumpkin.

Whilst I can not exactly remember when it was I first watched ‘Halloween’ for the first time, what I do remember is being absolutely petrified. I was completely absorbed in the gripping narrative and my nerves were in shreds from the unrelenting menacing pacing. Augmented by one of the most spectacular and since continuously ripped-off endings, ‘Halloween’ leaves you cold, shivering and for the next few days checking around every corner. Since that intense first viewing, Halloween instantly became one of my favourite films of all time and one I watch religiously every October 31st.

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I am sure that very little of what I am about to say in my appreciation of this masterpiece of the genre hasn’t been said or thought of before but it remains an honour and a privilege to be able to share just how much this film means to me and just why I and so many others uphold it with such regard.
Let’s begin with the man or rather ‘The Shape’ himself, Michael Myers. Just whispering the name to yourself is enough to give your body a quick tremor, a simple name yet one still capable of instilling fear. At the very beginning of the film, as the viewer we are literally seeing thing from Michael’s point of view, a highly disturbing trick that immediately creates a sense of unease and dread. After we a physically made to feel as if we have taken part in a grisly murder ourselves, the film completely pulls the carpet from under you as the screen quickly switches to the third person perspective and we see that the kill was in fact a child. With such a heavy-hitting introduction, it was safe to assume that absolutely all bets would be off to even attempt to predict what was going to happen next.

Not letting the feeling of complete dread abide for one minute, Carpenter racks up the fear-factor even higher as we jump fifteen years into the future and witness Michael’s psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) being accompanied by a nurse in a car on a dark and stormy night to transport the now adult Michael to a court hearing. Seeing the rather lax approach to inmate security, panic instantly sets in as a figure is suddenly seen to run across the car’s roof and then promptly steal the car and drive away. If we can forget for one moment all the sequels that came later, (except for II, III and H20) the truly terrifying aspect of Michael Myers is that he has absolutely no motivation for what he’s doing. All other slasher icons such as Freddy or Jason have a mantra firmly in place but with Michael, there is no rhyme nor reason and this is precisely what makes his continuously illusive presence in the film that much more frightening.

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Arguably, the film’s greatest lines go to the fantastic Donald Pleasence on the subject of this total lack of motivation, “I met him, fifteen years ago; I was told there was nothing left; no reason, no conscience, no understanding; and even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, of good or evil, right or wrong.”
It takes no poor upbringing, bullying or murderous mob to provoke the human Myers to commit these acts, he is just pure, concentrated evil. No other horror film has ever been able to create such a character of complete remorselessness before or even since.
The reason why both the credits and Carpenter himself refer to him only as ‘The Shape’ can be seen in the fact that until towards the grand finale, Michael is only glimpsed from a distance, or obscured standing in the far corner of the camera. Whilst hardly a muscle-bound colossus, Myers still strikes an imposing figure with a hidden unearthly strength that’s covered up by the seemingly unimposing boiler suit. The key focus of the costume and the element that defines Michael as the product of nightmares? THAT mask.

To think that this iconic image very nearly didn’t happen, when the film was originally entitled ‘The Babysitter Murders’ and the mask was to be a less than impressive ‘bloody clown’. As legend has it, due to the production’s extremely tight budget, the options were the clown mask or a mask of sci-fi legend, William Shatner. The film crew took the latter option, turned the mask inside out, painted it white and the legendary blank, emotionless and heart-stopping visage was born.

One of the most surprising things about ‘Halloween’ is that considering the sheer levels of dread it is able to conjure up, there is hardly any blood visible throughout. This is entirely down to that fact that even in the relatively early stages of the ‘horror’ genre being born into what we know and love today, Carpenter realised that subtly and what we think we see are infinitely more impactful and disturbing than lashings of grot and intestines. Myers is a silent killer, using his trademark butcher’s knife for the majority of the small body count of five (and a dog), never saying a word, lurking in the shadows and using no morbid puns after his latest dispatch.

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One of the more understated scary moments for me is the scene were Michael appears in the doorway in a bed sheet, wearing Bob’s glasses. Now on paper this sounds like the most childish attempt at a scare ever (didn’t stop Parasnoremal Inactivity though did it?), and yet there’s something quite terrifying about the idea of a child under a sheet pretending to be a ghost being so perverted in this way. All Michael needs to do is stand there completely motionless and it is testament to Carpenter’s unholy brilliant power to frighten that this simple moment remains devastatingly chill-inducing.

It should be remembered, however, that a vital ingredient to creating a truly scary horror film is a hero the audience can get invested in and empathise with. Quite honestly, despite some note-worthy peers in ‘Nightmare’s Nancy, ‘Scream’s Sidney and the Fitzgerald sisters of ‘Ginger Snaps’ etc, there is only one true Scream Queen and that is Jamie Lee Curtis in her debut role as Laurie Strode. The pitch-perfect antithesis to her antagonistic rival, the self-proclaimed ‘Girl Scout’ is a loving, caring and gentle young woman who your heart goes out to almost the second you first see her on screen.

A stereotype of lazy characterisation in the slasher genre is the extenuation of the ‘final girl’s ‘virginal’ qualities, especially when placed next to her more ‘free and easy’ friends. This is a stereotype that Carpenter is more than willing to buck, however, as not only are Laurie’s friends just as down to earth and she is, but Laurie herself is no ‘pure angel’, committing a total slasher-film no-no of smoking weed. Where ‘Halloween’ and Jamie Lee Curtis’ real strength in brilliant lead characterisation lies is to be found in the film’s peeping through your fingers climax.

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Most ‘final girls’ can often be found to be running around shrieking and in hysterical tears, not Laurie Strode, she is made of much sterner stuff and that’s exactly why we as an audience love her. Not only does she display unbelievable strength of character and affection to fight to save the children, but she faces one of cinema’s most terrifying boogiemen head on, stabbing him with a knitting needle and a coat hanger. A frickin’ COAT HANGER! If that doesn’t convince you of the awesome power of Laurie Strode then frankly you have no pulse and no business here.

Whilst a film’s score is not an area I often delve into, ‘Halloween’ has quite possibly the most iconic and chilling themes of all time (‘Exorcist’ disqualified for using a pre-existing song). The simple repeated notes that surge through the entire film in various forms become like a demented heartbeat and are able to create a sense of dread, catching you off guard, especially during moments where you think everything is alright and then brutally helping to ramp up the tension with what is being depicted on the screen.

The final piece of the puzzle into just what makes this film the tour de force of terror that it is can be found in director and writer and now firmly established horror legend, John Carpenter. Whilst it is much to the chagrin of Carpentites like myself to have to admit that ‘Halloween’ is not the first ever completely original slasher, piped to the post of course by Hitchcock’s classic ‘Psycho’ and Bob Clark’s phenomenal ‘Black Christmas’. The fact remains, however, that despite borrowing from old techniques, Carpenter wrote his own new rule book on the slasher and the horror film with the wonderful ‘less is more’ approach and there has been no other film to have stamped its mark on the genre and be the key influence to so many other horror films quite like ‘Halloween’.

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Carpenter has a disturbingly natural talent throughout his career for tapping into our collective subconscious, playing on our primal fears in ‘Halloween’s case of our childhood nightmare of ‘The Bogeyman’ and continuously capturing the feeling of a cold hand gripping your heart and not letting go until long after the hauntingly open ending. Not a single frame of ‘Halloween’ is wasted, the low-level lighting casting shadows everywhere and seldom ever does Carpenter relinquish the intensity, keep the tension quite literally on a knife’s edge.

The sad element to ‘Halloween’s legacy is the fact that there will quite simply never be another film like it. I hope I am wrong, but we live in a world now where audiences always demand answers, reasons and God help us, ‘happy endings’…then the pathetic telegraphed ‘stinger’. You have to wonder, given the current state of horror, just how ‘Halloween’ would be received if it was released today. More than likely, it would be criticised for being ‘dull’, tame for a lack of bloodshed and why oh why are there no jump-scares or bits of ‘found footage’? (Let’s not talk about ‘Resurrection’, eh?).

I feel that the best example to sum up the film’s ethos of ‘less is more’ is to be found, strangely enough, in the very opening title card. This may not make any sense but try and stay with me on this one, have you ever really looked at the pumpkin that the camera slowly zooms in on during the opening credits? I truly do not know if it is just me, but when I carved the same design for a recent Halloween, I’d never really noticed how deceptively disturbing it is.

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To all outward appearances, it is your basic Jack-o’-lantern, but if you really look closely, observe the odd scar going from the mouth straight to the nose, the hollow grin and most of all the eyes, much like the film’s antagonist, blank and emotionless yet with a terrifyingly remorseless fire hiding behind them. I have no idea if this was Carpenter’s intention, but for me, both the film and Michael Myers’ power to scare is summed up by this one haunting image that never fails to make to want to listen as hard as you can and hope that you do not hear the sound of heavy, mask-covered breathing nearby…

Verdict: Oh come on it’s a classic, there will never be another film like it. 10/10

PS. Please note that I have taken the high-road with this article and not made any reference to my feelings regarding Rob Zombie’s remakes…that is for another time…

Oliver Ryder

About Oliver Ryder

Ever since he saw 'The Nightmare Before Christmas' at the tender age of five, Oli was dragged into the wonderfully disturbing world of horror and has never looked back. He enjoys all things macabre, dark comedy, penguins and likes his coffee black just like his metal.
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