This review of John Carpenter’s horror classic “Halloween” is one in a list of 27 Great Movies That Made Going to the Movies Suck, a concept thunk up by Mike at You Talking to Me?. Visit his blog (click the link or the header) for the complete rundown of films.
The Boogeyman is a concept that transcends cultural differences. It is part of the human subconscious, this frightening being that stalks us and preys at the precise moment when we are the most vulnerable, when we least expect attack. There are thousands, probably millions, of conceptions of this evil and mysterious creature, but in 1978 a then-small potatoes director named John Carpenter bested even our worst nightmares with Michael Myers. With gray coveralls and a $2 rubber mask, Carpenter created a killer who was everywhere and nowhere at once — and left an indelible mark on the horror genre.
Key to the success — “Halloween” became one of the highest-grossing independent films ever — of Carpenter’s cheaply made masterpiece of scare is the harmonious convergence of elements: a formidable murderer; a spine-tingling score; undeniably human characters; and a focus on psychological terror. The character of Myers (Tony Moran) delivers the goods because he is single-minded in his vision: he wants only to kill. His mask renders his face expressionless, his mouth immobile. He never speaks, and this makes him purely terrifying. Carpenter smartly underscores Myers’ appearances on screen with a spare musical score, written by Carpenter, that relies on just a few quavering notes to play our fear like guitar strings. None of the other characters — including Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), Michael’s baby sister and intended victim, and Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) — get such distinctive treatment. They are Anypeople, and they remind us that evil does not distinguish. Michael Myers breaks them down by playing with their minds, existing at the edges of their vision — note the masterful hedge scene and his appearance outside Laurie’s classroom — popping up and vanishing as if at will. Here Carpenter lets our imaginations do the heavy lifting. There is little blood, and almost no gore, because Carpenter understood what his copycats did not: the real psychological damage is something viewers must do to themselves.
“Halloween,” like many a successful film, inspired innumerable sequels and prequels (thanks to tireless producer Mustapha Akkad), each more disappointing than the last. “Halloween” and “Halloween II,” gore aficionado Rob Zombie’s latest entries in the canon, miss the mark entirely by wallowing in entrails and unnecessarily convoluted plotlines. (“Halloween II” actually included supernatural visions in which Myers’ mother “spoke to him.”) Carpenter’s masterpiece also sparked the 1980s horror craze, populated by such inspired but less effective characters as the hockey mask-wearing Jason Voorhees of the campy “Friday the 13th” series, a mute fellow with mommy issues, and Freddy Kreuger of “Nightmare on Elm Street,” a child killer with knife-capped fingers who made the dreams of teens his hunting grounds. Both franchises devolved into camp (mostly self-referential when the sequels reached double digits) and lacked the bare-bones approach that made the 1978 “Halloween” such a marvel.
Still other horror directors misinterpreted Carpenter’s aims and turned them into a new genre composed entirely of dead teen-agers (including the “I Know What You Did Last Summer” movies), though “Scream” had some luck spinning these clichés — unwittingly popularized by “Halloween” — into pop-culture humor. And still the wannabes missed the mark Carpenter hit so blatantly. They failed to see that all the viscera in the world can’t beat a man in a mask, a walking, talking embodiment of our worst fears, who is both human and immortal.