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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.