The Films of John Carpenter: Halloween (1978)

John Carpenter’s 1978 horror classic, Halloween, is a rare mix of old and new, a film that pays homage to the Italian Giallo movies of the 60’s and 70’s while at the same time being credited with launching an entirely new horror sub-genre, the slasher film, which would reach the zenith of its popularity in the 1980’s.

On Halloween night, 1963, nine-year-old Michael Myers (Will Sandin) of Haddonfield, Illinois, murdered his teenage sister for no apparent reason. Since that time, Michael has been living in an institution for the criminally insane. His psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance), believes that Michael is evil incarnate, and hopes he will stay locked up forever, but the day before Halloween, 1978, Michael escapes. Dr. Loomis is convinced Michael will return home to Haddonfield to kill again, and plans to apprehend him before he has the chance to do so. Unfortunately, Michael is already in town, and has even selected his next target; teenage babysitter Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis).

Halloween, with its stylistic camera movements and memorable techno score (composed by Carpenter), has a lot in common with the Giallo films of Mario Bava and Dario Argento. In fact, Carpenter opens Halloween by employing a favorite giallo technique, the point–of-view shot, during which we witness the event that set Michael Myers’ life in motion; the murder of his sister, Judith (played by Sandy Johnson). In this prolonged sequence, seen entirely through Michael’s eyes, we peer through an open window, watching as Judith and her boyfriend (David Kyle) make out on the couch. When the two decide to go upstairs to share a more intimate encounter, Michael (with the audience in tow) enters the house, grabs a butcher’s knife, waits for the boyfriend to leave, then quietly walks upstairs to satisfy his murderous cravings. It’s a fantastic opening, one that not only sets the stage for what’s to come, but also provides a glimpse into the killer’s world by allowing us to see what he sees, even if the motives driving his actions remain a mystery.

Yet more than simply paying its respects to the past, Halloween blazed a trail for the future as well. Many of the elements which would define the slasher films of the 80’s are there for the taking in Halloween, including horny teenagers, gleaming blades and invincible masked psychotics. But this is where the similarities end, for despite sharing many characteristics, the very style of Halloween carries it to a higher level than its antecedents, setting a standard very few would attain. For example, unlike the typical slasher film, Halloween supports its shocks not with random bloodletting, but by way of an almost unbearable level of suspense. In fact, this suspense becomes so intense at times that the carnage which the film does contain, no matter how horrific it may be, functions as a sort of stress release for the viewer, for as Carpenter himself noted, real terror is not in the event, but the anticipation of that event. Nowhere is this more evident than in Halloween. The main protagonist, Michael Myers, is one of the creepiest characters to come along in the history of horror films, and it’s his uncanny ability to be anywhere (there are times when it seems like he’s everywhere) that keeps us on edge. Michael Myers never lets up, lurking around every corner, slowly emerging from every shadow. We catch on early as to why Dr. Loomis is so concerned: Michael Myers is pure evil, and will stop at nothing to kill those he has in his sights. While Halloween may not have been the first slasher film (according to some sources, that distinction belongs to director Bob Clark’s 1974 horrorfest, Black Christmas), it nonetheless dragged the sub-genre out into the light, resulting in a plethora of films (such as Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street), all of which (Halloween included) were immediately followed by a plethora of sequels..

Along with being a great film, Halloween is the point on the horror timeline where old and new converged, where the style of the past met the storyline of the future. How apropos that it is also among the best of both bunches.

Unfortunately, Carpenter’s follow-up to Halloween, the made-for-TV biopic, Elvis, starring Kurt Russell, is not currently available on DVD. So, for my next entry, I’ll move on to the film that followed that one, 1980’s The Fog. Look for it in two week’s time.