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No. 27: “Halloween” (1978)

“Death has come to your little town, sheriff. Now you can either ignore it, or you can help me to stop it.” ~~Dr. Sam Loomis

During his tender, formative years someone in a mask scared John Carpenter witless, I believe, and that experience was the seed that grew into “Halloween,” the little low-budget horror film that became a genre classic. Or maybe Carpenter knew enough about the collective unconscious to know that some disguises — the kind that make human eyes seem like gaping black voids — dig up those feelings we really meant to keep buried forever. Whatever the reason, Carpenter turned that $2 rubber mask into the living, breathing embodiment of the Boogeyman, an iconic figure that still, more than 20 years later, puts a lump in our throats.

Of course, there’s more going on in “Halloween” than a lumbering, hulking escaped mental asylum patient Michael Myers (Tony Moran) stalking and killing teens in his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois (though that alone could be the stuff of nightmares). The terrifying beauty of “Halloween” is the way Carpenter constructs his film as a total experience where the sounds and the sights work together. Some of the film’s most effectively scary scenes are the ones where the music and the visuals blend together almost seamlessly. Michael’s escape from the asylum, for example, combines the spare, haunting “Halloween” theme-of-sorts — composed by Carpenter himself — with dark, claustrophobic, rain-drenched footage of free-roaming patients hovering around a car, slipping on and off the hood like ghosts. It’s a brief scene done very simply, but one that threatens to put down roots in our psyche.

“Simplicity,” in fact, functions like the watchword for “Halloween,” from the effects to the props (found or adapted or made on the cheap) to the storyline and characters. The opening scene, with the camera peering out from what appears to be a Halloween mask, leads in with a vicious knife attack that leaves two teens, a boy and a girl, dead. Minutes later the killer is revealed to be Michael Myers (Will Sandin), barely six years old and still dressed in his Halloween costume. Carpenter’s first-person camera work in these crucial first moments offers up a promise of chills, and as the plot progresses “Halloween” does not disappoint. Later Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance), Michael’s psychiatrist, arrives in Haddonfield with news that he’s escaped, headed no doubt back to his hometown to finish what he started. The sheriff (Charles Cyphers) doesn’t believe a 23-year-old could be worth so much trouble; Dr. Loomis knows different. He’s seen the “pure evil” behind Michael’s eyes, and he won’t soon forget it.

Chances are Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) will have years’ worth of therapy material as well, considering her meetings with Michael — and the ones where he lurks the background, unseen — produce some of  the film’s most harrowing moments. Flash to the shot of Michael watching Laurie from a window outside her high school classroom, then another with him lurking behind a bush only to disappear when her friend (Nancy Kyes) tries to confront him. He disappears so quickly she can’t be sure he was there at all, and we start to doubt our eyes, too. There and gone — that’s the genius of these clips. Carpenter stages shot after shot this way, building toward a series of climactic scenes (all best experienced live, not killed with detail) brilliantly shot and framed with that insomnia-inducing music. The film begins and ends with this music for this reason; it’s intended to leave a lasting impression.

The characters also leave an impression, though not because they’re well-rounded or carefully developed; the exact opposite is true. Everyone — even Dr. Loomis and Laurie, the only people we get to know — falls neatly into a type: the promiscuous teen-ager, the good girl, the clueless adult. This lack of definition makes “Halloween” that much more elementally scary because individuality doesn’t matter; Michael Myers, pure evil itself, doesn’t happen to certain people or types but to everyone. In Carpenter’s small, $320,000 film, the Boogeyman is inescapable, and he puts a fear of Michael Myers in us that extends far, far outside the reaches of the screen.

14 Responses

  1. Best Opening Sequence ever
    Best Opening Credit Sequence ever
    Best Music ever
    and thats just five minutes in! breathtaking stuff and still scary today

    • Totally (so creepy looking through the mask holes)
      Just hearing the opening strains makes me want my mommy

  2. I watched “Halloween” for the first time when I was stationed at Fort Hood, in 1979. A friend had cable hooked up to his black and white television and that’s how I saw it. It was actually 1987 before I saw it in color. That being said, I thought the B&W medium contributed greatly to the suspense.

    May have set psychiatry back a few decades. Not sure what Hippocrates would have thought of Dr. Loomis’ cure.

    • Darn … now I wish I’d seen it in black-and-white. I bet that ratcheted the creep factor up on past 11.

      The thing that always amazes me, that never gets old (even after yearly viewings since, oh, 1990) is how Carpenter accomplished so much with a $1.98 mask, some coveralls, a knife and a killer who never says a word. No special effects, no showy sets or costumes or props. “Halloween” is nothing if not a reminder that the scariest films are the simplest ones.

  3. One of the great horror classics. It will probably the reboot treatment within a few months given the current craze 😦

    • I believe I heard on an interview with John Carpenter that Moustapha Akkad plans to keep making “Halloween” movies until he’s up to “Halloween 20” or the like. Way to ruin one of the scariest horror movies ever made there, Mr. Akkad. I had some hope after I saw Rob Zombie’s first attempt at a remake — it was Daeg Faerch was way freaky. But with sequels I always think the director should make a movie that feels … necessary. And I haven’t seen a “Halloween” spinoff yet that I didn’t sit through thinking “this movie didn’t need to be made.”

  4. Wow. I have never seen this, strangely I’m not embarrassed to say that since so many people seem to love it. But horror is not my genre.

  5. I don’t know if it’s me, but seeing the other mediocre Halloween sequels made me not appreciate this movie when I saw it. It was a shame. I was kinda bored with it.


      (Sorry. I get a little worked up when I think about how unfaithful all the sequels are to the spirit of the original film.)

  6. Hhahahah I remember when I first saw this when I was a kid, and I was so taken back by the first scene but the rest is so great!

  7. You know my feelings on Halloween and how throughout the years it has remained not just one of my favorites but a film I consider to be one of the best made. I’ve been in love with the horror genre for some years now, and I can honestly say that if it weren’t for this film that wouldn’t be the case.

  8. […] films were given that name. Clark hit heights that later directors (excluding John Carpenter, whose “Halloween” emulated Clark’s film and improved on the score) couldn’t reach. This did not stop so, […]

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