October Horrorshow: Halloween

Halloween, the granddaddy of all slasher flicks. Not the first, to be sure, but a film whose formula worked so well it is still being followed to this day in countless horror films, thirty years after it was produced. It also doesn’t hurt that, unlike many of the films it birthed and inspired, Halloween is well made.

One of John Carpenter’s earlier directorial efforts, Halloween is a showcase of Carpenter’s ability to make a movie with limited time and resources, something he has had to do throughout most of his career. The budget was so tight, supposedly, that many of the performers appeared on screen wearing their own clothing, there being little room in the budget for costumes. Carpenter made his own contribution to staying within these means by keeping things simple.

The film opens on Halloween night, 1963, in the fictional Midwest town of Haddonfield, Illinois. There, the audience is greeted with the spectacle of a small boy in a clown costume murdering his sister with a kitchen knife. Carpenter establishes the menacing mood of the film, particularly the night scenes, in this opening sequence. Shot from a first person perspective, little indication is given that we are looking through the eyes of child until a small hand reaches into a drawer and pulls out the gigantic knife that will shortly become the murder weapon. After the deed is done, the tiny killer is unmasked in his front yard by his horrified parents and the camera pulls back, showing shock not just on the faces of the parents but on the boy, as well.

We learn the identity of the boy in the next scene. He is, of course, Michael Myers. After a daring escape from an insane asylum, where he has been committed for fifteen years, Myers escapes and flees to Haddonfield, pursued by his psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence), a man who has no interest in treating or curing Myers, but instead wishes to see him locked away for life, due to his belief that Myers is evil personified.

From these two introductory sequences, the film moves back to Haddonfield in the present day, which happens to also be Halloween, 1978. Haddonfield is typical Americana, circa late 1970s. Carpenter and company couldn’t have chosen a more white bread suburb as a setting. The houses are perfect, the lawns are tidy, and the late October weather has been kind to the trees in Illinois, as they are all lush and green. Occasionally, a palm tree sways in the breeze in the background. Okay, it wasn’t filmed in Illinois, or during the fall, for that matter, but Carpenter is a skilled enough filmmaker that these little things amount to no more than foibles, not flaws.

So, what’s Michael Myers doing back in Haddonfield? There really isn’t any reason given, despite Loomis’s attempts to explain. If this is bothersome, just find comfort in the fact that Myers is a psychotic murderer who doesn’t need a reason to do anything, including beginning a new murderous rampage.

His targets are three lovely high school girls, Annie (Nancy Kyes), Lynda (P.J. Soles), and Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), the latter of whom inhabited her role quite well in her film debut. Two of the three are no angels, while the third, Laurie, is a bit of a Sarah, plain and tall, and is a bit of a bookworm. Anyone familiar with slasher flicks knows which of these three has the best chance of surviving the film.

Although Carpenter has stated it wasn’t his intent, Halloween is another of those films where horror is a bloody morality play, where the hormonally driven are also the most likely to see their lives end. Other films and franchises, most notably Friday the 13th, picked up on this to such an extent that teenage sex has become a form of ersatz capital crime in cinema.

After the film takes the necessary time to develop its characters, the fun begins with the setting of the sun on Halloween night. It is also here that Carpenter seems to feel the most comfortable as a director. Night has always been an element, a character really, in the best of his films, and Halloween is no exception. Carpenter makes the night actually look like the night, instead of an over-lit sound stage where audience and characters only pretend not to be able to see around them. Night is a place of shadows where things are hard to see, and where other, bad, things can find space to hide. Carpenter hides Myers in these shadows and springs them on his victims, and the audience, with unexpected regularity. Because Myers is rarely seen completely, Carpenter’s use of light, more than anything else in the film, contributes to its great sense of tension. When Myers does make his deadly appearances, they are good for some pretty decent scares.

Surprisingly, the film is almost devoid of gore, despite being made well after audiences had become accustomed to buckets of blood in horror fare. Carpenter’s intent appeared to be to menace and frighten his audience, not make them sick. Even if it turns out this was due to budgetary constraints, this doesn’t lessen the impact of the on screen deaths. Michael Myers cuts a terrifying figure, a monster that cannot be stopped by anyone or any thing. There doesn’t need to be a lot of eye-popping effects muddying that up and turning the film into a cartoon. That can be left to the sequels.

Halloween is an important milestone in the history of horror cinema, and credit is due to Carpenter. He had almost nothing to work with, other than an idea and his own skill. Carpenter has had an up and down career, peppering his resume with a fair share of dogs that look bad and, worse, feel lazy. Halloween is not one of them. Not perfect, to be sure, but it is Carpenter at his best.

There is one other thing worth noting about Halloween. Carpenter has a well-known affinity for classic horror films. In this film, there are scenes where old horror and sci-fi flicks are being played on televisions incorporated into the suburban scenery. More than once, Carpenter uses the creepy music and sound effects as backdrops to ramp up the mood when Myers flits in and out of shots. It’s a unique homage to filmmakers that he appreciates. In at least one instance, where some sounds from Forbidden Planet inch into the scene, it works better than Carpenter’s own iconic score. Oops.