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Movie That Made Going to the Movies Suck No. 7: “Halloween”

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.

“Halloween” (1978)

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.

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.