Directed by John Carpenter. 1978. United States.
HALLOWEEN is the worst example of the slasher film. Yes, you read that right. The worst. In a sub-genre known for violent and gory set-pieces, gratuitous nudity and a distinct lack of visual style, HALLOWEEN sticks out like a sore thumb. That it helped to give birth to the most derivative, crass, and uninteresting sub-genre in the history of sub-genres is slightly baffling and most definitely unfortunate. Too often HALLOWEEN gets lumped into the mix with the rest of them, rubbing shoulders with films like THE NAILGUN MASSACRE and NEW YEARS' EVIL, or it simply gets slammed for unleashing a tremendous wave of low-quality, high-trash imitators. HALLOWEEN may have started the big, dumb ball rolling downhill but it was through no fault of its own. Its most immediate imitator, Sean Cunningham’s FRIDAY THE 13TH, is the perfect example of a done for money, no-brains, all-guts slasher film that managed to ape the structure of HALLOWEEN but not its style. While HALLOWEEN is a very visual film, FRIDAY THE 13TH is much more visceral. While Carpenter took care in his construction, Cunningham simply pointed the camera. And while HALLOWEEN took the horror genre into the rarefied area of art, FRIDAY THE 13TH took it to the city dump.
In truth, though HALLOWEEN came first and screenwriter Victor Miller used the John Carpenter / Debra Hill screenplay as a guideline, FRIDAY THE 13TH is the true father of the 80s slasher film. HALLOWEEN is too visually sophisticated, too interested in atmosphere and the slow burn of suspense, to be easily imitated. FRIDAY THE 13TH, however, is the exact opposite. It’s a cheap gimmick, run over and over, in which cardboard characters are set up like nine-pins to be bowled over in increasingly gruesome murder sequences. It feels cheap and looks cheap, with its flat, uninspired setting and cast of less than talented nobodies, but it proved to be a good business model. Once the film hit it big in the theaters, producers quickly dialed in more of the same. During the next ten years, dozens of like-minded films poured into theaters, turning a sub-genre that started in greatness with HALLOWEEN and BLACK CHRISTMAS, with tendrils reaching even further back to PSYCHO and PEEPING TOM, into an embarrassing red splotch on the face of a genre that few respected to begin with. If horror was ghettoized before HALLOWEEN, by the end of the 80s it was roundly loathed.
Looking back now, we can see just how different HALLOWEEN is from the rest of the slasher sub-genre. Borrowing more from Hitchcock than the Grand Guignol, John Carpenter and Debra Hill created a film that is as artistically interesting as it is frightening. HALLOWEEN is a film that demands your attention. It is one of the most uniquely visual horror films of its age. Carpenter's use of the wide screen format allows for an all-encompassing feel. At times, the camera seems almost aleatory (though we can sense the supreme, almost obsessive control behind the framing) as Myers wanders in and out of the frame, sometimes in the background, sometimes in the foreground. The feeling of wide openness, even in the interior scenes, is important to the success of the suspense. Death can be anywhere. In maybe the films most famous scene, Laurie stands just outside a doorway after discovering the remains of her friends. Behind her, in the blackness, stands the killer, an off-camera light slowly raising its intensity, revealing his white mask in the dark. In the standard horror film, there would be a shock cut to the killer leaping from the doorway. In HALLOWEEN, this scene is played out slowly over a harrowing twenty seconds, allowing for the full immersion of its audience in the suspense. This is one of the key differences between HALLOWEEN and its imitators. While the standard horror film goes for minute-by-minute false scares leading up to a big, bloody money shot, HALLOWEEN earns its scares through pure visual mastery.
Even the final act chase scene is handled differently. When Laurie escapes from the house with Myers in full pursuit, she first runs to a neighbor’s house to seek help. When the neighbor merely ignores her pleas, Laurie breaks for the home she is babysitting at only to realize she has forgotten her keys. She manages to awaken one of the kids sleeping in an upstairs bedroom. Little Tommy Doyle slowly comes downstairs to let her inside as Myers calmly walks across the street, getting ever closer. The effect is of a reverse ellipsis as Carpenter stretches the sequence out beyond the time it should have taken to reach completion. As he intercuts between Laurie pounding on the door and Myers' walk across the street, the audience is given ample time to squirm. There's no frantic editing to convey tension, just simple cross-cutting and a pulsing, relentless score.
Often overlooked in the discussion of HALLOWEENs visual merits is Dean Cundey, Carpenter's frequent collaborator and ace Director of Photography. Awash in blues and deep blacks, The aesthetic on display here is pure haunted house. The vast majority of HALLOWEEN is set in darkness with only key lighting to emphasize important details in the scene. His consistent use of elaborate lighting schemes, not to mention his clever use of deep focus, helps make a $320,000 film feel much more professional.
This level of visual sheen helps make the sometimes ridiculous elements of the screenplay go down easier. For example, after Tommy lets Laurie inside - at the end of the aforementioned chase scene - Laurie crosses behind the living room couch to get to a phone. Once she realizes the line is dead, she moves quickly away only to turn and realize that the living room window is open. Myers has entered the house and is hiding behind the same couch Laurie just crossed behind. Closer inspection reveals the window is already open when Laurie enters the house and there is simply no way for Myers to have entered without being noticed. Thankfully, things are moving so quickly that we, the audience, never notice either.
Myers escaping from the mental institution by means of driving a car is never explained. We learn very early on that he has been institutionalized since he was six. This loose end is summarily dropped with the simple, ridiculous throwaway line "Maybe somebody around here gave him lessons". There's a break-in at a small store in the middle of town during the late afternoon (presumably by Myers as the contents stolen include "a halloween mask, some rope, and a couple of knives") even though Myers is seen much earlier on wearing his mask. I guess people in small towns ignore blaring anti-theft alarms for several hours. Most confusing is the geography of Haddonfield. Laurie is first seen leaving her house and walking down to the old Myers house to drop off a key as a favor for her father. It appears that the Myers house is only a short distance away. Later that day, Annie picks Laurie up to drive them both to their respective babysitting gigs, just across the street from one another, and it takes them a good bit to get there, day changing to night in the process. Myers follows them and parks across the street from where Annie is babysitting. Later that night, while staking out the Myers house, Doctor Loomis simply turns and looks down the street and sees the state-issued car that Myers used to escape the mental institution with. Problem is, it's not parked anywhere near where we saw him park it and, if it were really that close to the Myers house, why did it take so long for Annie and Laurie to get to their babysitting appointments when the Myers house was within walking distance from Laurie's own home?
The franchise that was built from HALLOWEEN is also problematic as it completely dilutes and irrevocably damages the story of the first film. In revealing Laurie as his sister, Myers becomes much less of an unknown. While many cannot separate that which came after HALLOWEEN and the simple text of the first film, doing so is a necessary step in fully enjoying Carpenter's film. As is presented in the original, Myers is simply a psychopath, obsessively fixated on a single moment in his life, the murder of his sister, Judith. When Laurie dropped the key off that Halloween morning, she unknowingly became his sister's surrogate. Myers is driven to re-create that moment again and again at any cost. By making Laurie the singular focus of the killer's attention, as the sequels have done, it's hard to go back to the original and justify the attention he seems to lavish upon Annie, the films first victim. Myers knows where Laurie is but decides instead to focus on Annie (maybe because she yelled at him earlier when he sped by?). That is hardly the kind of ruthlessly focused killer presented to us in the various sequels which continue this strain of the storyline. None of that jives with the notion of a killer whose chief goal is to add to his list of dead sisters.
Everyone else that is killed in the course of the film is killed simply because they wandered into his line of vision. Lynda and her boyfriend Bob aren't sought out. They simply crash his party. Bob is hung from his feet in a closet and Lynda is unceremoniously tossed in a cabinet, but Annie is placed on the bed before his only memento mori of the defining moment of his life, his dead sister's tombstone. Had Laurie not gone over to investigate, would Myers have eventually sought her out? We can't be sure. But you would think that Laurie would have had that spot on the bed reserved solely for her, his little sister.
The character of Doctor Loomis is surely convinced that Myers is the devil in the flesh, something the film gives no evidence of until its final shot. Loomis, when viewed through the lens of the entire franchise is the Van Helsing character, a man of good virtue who tracks the evil Villain in hopes of ending his reign of terror. But, for the vast majority of this film (if one were to view it as a singular entity) Loomis comes off more like Ahab, a man who has made a monster out of a whale. If Loomis appears as big of a nut as he claims Myers to be, it's for a good reason. We’re meant to be as wary of Loomis as we are of a ranting street preacher. But his character also serves a greater narrative purpose. His recollections of Myers as a child - "a blank, pale, emotionless face and the blackest eyes, the devil's eyes" - are important in that they re-enforce our fear of Myers. Doctor Loomis' description of Myers very accurately describes the killer's masked visage and not, as we see later on, his actual appearance. By describing the killer as "pure evil", by referring to him as "It", we begin to associate Myers with attributes not readily on display. He is, by himself, a masked nut job. But with the power and conviction of Loomis' words ringing in our ears, he becomes much, much more. He becomes, as Tommy calls him, the Boogeyman.
It's only in the final shot that we realize the truth behind the words of Doctor Loomis. Having been shot six times and fallen off a balcony, Myers apparently gets up and walks away. This is a clever trick on Carpenter's part. More than simply providing a launch pad for a sequel, it robs the audience of any closure. If Carpenter's true intention was to show that evil can and does exist everywhere, even in a small town just like yours and mine, then his ending is pure perfection. Having deprived the audience of the releasing image of the dead killer, Carpenter's film is all the more powerful. The evil is still on the loose.
HALLOWEEN survives to this day because of how elegantly it tells a simple story. The least offensive slasher film ever made, HALLOWEEN manages to walk the border between the boy’s only school of horror and the mainstream to become a film that is easily enjoyable by anyone who enjoys a good scary story. It's one of the few films that appeals both to the art house as well as the grind house, with a keen sense of cinematic style that continues to defy the years. Even now, some thirty years after its release, it feels fresh and genuinely rewards repeat viewings. No other slasher film comes close to touching its perfection in tone, substance and execution. In fact, it must be said that very few horror films since HALLOWEEN have managed to reach the very high bar Carpenter set way back in 1978. HALLOWEEN remains strong because it is strong. It deserves its place among the greatest of all horror films.