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.





11 comments

  1. Kurt Halfyard

    God Bless William Shatner for being the source of Michael Myers visage.

    I totally agree with the 'anticipation of the event' is more important than the actual carnage. Didn't hitchcock say that he could make an entire film about a bomb not going off, but only a few minute short-film about a bomb going off. I'm paraphrasing of course.

    (heh. A quickie google search yielded the correct quote:
    http://www.6degreesfilm.com/features.php?id=16
    :Hitchcock once said: "The element of suspense is giving an audience information. Now, you and I are sitting here, suddenly a bomb goes off. Up we go blown to smithereens. What have the audience had watching this scene? Five or ten seconds of shock. Now, we do the scene over again, but we tell the audience there's a bomb underneath the table and its going to go off in five minutes. Now this innocuous conversation about football becomes very potent. They say 'don't talk about football, there's a bomb under there!' Then their anxieties will be as long as that clock ticks away. But, the bomb must never go off."

  2. Kurt Halfyard

    Even though there are some folks that really hate the film, THE RISE OF LESLIE VERNON borrows from Halloween more than any other film when it deconstructs all of the slasher-archetypes and cliches. It is a testament to how influential a films is when the 'parody/homage' comes along it starts to look a heck of a lot like a remake!

  3. I'd never considered the gaillo influence on Halloween. But it makes sense I guess.

    Validity of your comment aside Kurt, it merrits being said that Leslie Vernon is a piece of shit.

  4. I'd think Leslie Vernon was born more out of the Scream-success, but of course more than any other film (from what I have heard) it rips off Man Bites Dog.

  5. Kurt Halfyard

    Indeed, it does rip off the fine Man Bites Dog in structure, but in 'genre rules' I thought it had a much better grasp on things than Scream, because it was from the POV of the killer.

    I've never understood the vitriol directed at Behind the Mask by a number of folks…

  6. @Kurt Halfyard

    I think I said this before and you disagreed, but I swear the only positive reviews for this nonsense came from festivals. Every person who saw this in a normal theater / video hated it. Clearly some kind of mass hypnosis was pulled.

    @"I thought it had a much better grasp on things than Scream"

    Vern (who is something of an expert on the genre) does a fairly indepth comparison and comes to the exactly the opposite conclusion. His is the definitive flushing of this turd.

  7. I can see where Vern is coming from on a few points, particularly the naivate of the documentary crew (a shallow comment on the media perhaps, but it is a weak sally) but I can't see how anyone can fail to be entertained by Nathan Baesel or Scott Wilson at his ranch.

    I think the 'flip to slasher-movie' parts of the film are no scarrier than your average Friday the 13th Sequel, the film is first and foremost a black comedy. I cannot see how someone could fail to be entertained by Leslie's speech on cardio and the elaborate amount of hard work it is to set up the illusion of a killer stalking his prey. That is pretty darn funny stuff. The difference between that and Scream is in Behind the Mask you get the (aspiring) Killer's Point of View.

    Scream was clever, but ultimately too darn glossy for me.

    I thought Behind the Mask was sincere and witty.

  8. Fair enough Kurt. There's no accounting for entertainment I guess. I don't see how anyone could find any of that stuff funny. Especially in a film made a decade after they stopped making straight slasher films. But whatever.

    But I was referencing Vern's article because of a specific point you made. I think Vern pretty much destroys the film makers horror credentials. Specifically when he busts Leslie Vernon for "copying Screams answers on the test."

    And for this movie, I think that's a pretty damning criticism. It's not exposing or deconstructing the horror genre, it's repeating a bunch of stuff that's already been said.

    And I think comparing the final act to an average Friday 13th sequel is being generous. Not only are those scenes not scary at all, they're limp and a chore to watch. And it has nothing to add to the genre.

    I don't really get the significance of the killer's POV either. You're right Scream doesn't have that. Why is that important? What does it accomplish other than making it impossible to be scared by Leslie Vernon?

  9. I will speak up as one of those people who hated Behind the Mask.

    The performances were laughably weak, the 'mockumentary' was horribly executed, and the 'horror movie' ending was a forced 'twist' that was excruciating to watch.

    Inside jokes that were meant to be 'cute' had me rolling my eyes. The humour, for me, was way off the mark. I found nothing funny about it at all.

    Tonally, the film was all over the place. I understand the approach of getting to know this killer and then seeing his true colours fly (like befriending a wild animal only to have it claw your face off just when you thought you made a connection) but it just didn't work. Suddenly being forced to take this goofy guy seriously for the last twenty minutes was a huge mistake.

    The actual production was pretty uninspired. The cinematography for the 'mockumentary' tried way too hard to look 'verite' yet wasn't daring enough to take it all the way (like Cloverfield. It still amazes me that a studio actually let them take it as far as they did), and the horror movie stuff was way too high key and bland.

    Overall, the main idea that supports this movie reminds me of a student film pitch. Way too high concept. It soaks in self-indulgent horror references that probably went over the heads of the casual viewer but didn't dig deep enough for the true horror fan.

    I just can't believe how much praise this movie received.

  10. Kurt Halfyard

    @Jay "Suddenly being forced to take this goofy guy seriously for the last twenty minutes was a huge mistake. "

    This is the equivalent in Extras when you go from the 'finished' product to the mundane behind-the-scenes stuff that is exquisitely tedious and 180 degrees in tone/mood from the final product.

    I thought that was done smashingly well.

  11. Kurt Halfyard

    @Rusty: What does it accomplish other than making it impossible to be scared by Leslie Vernon?

    The film was meant to be a comedy of sorts wasn't it? The supposed virgin-girl going full on in the 'film' portion of the film even explicitly indicates that for the 'supposedly serious' portion.

    Kinda puts it in the territory of morbid comedy. That's where I'm coming from. I think.

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