Horror films have been around since the beginning of cinema, but the real development of what they could become started in the 1970’s. The high point of the last century in horror came in 1978 when John Carpenter directed a film that would go on to become one of the biggest and best independent films of all time — Halloween. On first glance, this may just look like another tedious slasher flick, but on closer inspection, one will find that it’s brilliant. Halloween is terrific because of many numerous factors, all of which come together to form a perfect scary movie.
While Halloween was a groundbreaking film, the horror genre had been around for some time. It really took off in the 1930’s, with such classics as Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Bride of Frankenstein. These films were received with unsurpassed terror by audiences at that time; audiences just loved them. They did very well at the box office, and therefore, horror became a phenomenon. The genre began to disappear in the 1940’s and 1950’s, but Alfred Hitchcock gave it a rejuvenating shot with his 1960 masterpiece Psycho, in which a fully nude woman gets stabbed in a shower. The movie gave birth to a new kind of horror film — the slasher flick. Another horror film made in the 1960’s worth mentioning — George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead — marked the beginning of the independent filmmaking movement. Shot on grainy black and white video, it looks like it was made for pennies, yet it works as a supremely terrifying and thought-provoking horror masterpiece.
Horror films were getting more and more sophisticated, and in the few years before Halloween, there was a splurge of smart horror pictures. The decade that really changed horror was the 1970’s, because there had never been such a vast selection of well-made, scary films in any previous decade. The first breakthrough was William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, a masterful look into the life of a young girl who becomes possessed by the Devil. It was remarkable because for the first time, a horror film was recognized by both audiences and critics alike, and was even nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. It proved that horror could be much more than just a secondary genre that merely scares individuals, but instead one that can reach all ages and offer ideas about humanity.
The next big horror film was Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Like Night of the Living Dead, it was shot on a shoe-string budget but was all the more terrifying because of it. The film has a documentary-like quality to it that makes it feel authentic, especially considering that none of the actors in the film became recognizable names. 1975 brought Steven Spielberg’s Jaws to the nation’s attention, and it was a breakthrough for horror because it marked the beginning of the summer blockbuster movie, a big film with big names and a big budget that would be considered a cinematic event. While certainly more accessible to a movie-going audience than Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Night of the Living Dead, it still brought subtle horror and terror in the most heart-pounding of ways. The final major horror film that came along before Halloween was Brian DePalma’s classic, Carrie, which brought together a strong script based on Stephen King’s novel and powerhouse actors who would ultimately make the film even better. Carrie works so well because the title character is developed in a sophisticated manner so that we sympathize with her when everything starts to go wrong.
Halloween, however, would prove to be the pinnacle film of the genre. The film, directed, co-written, and co-produced by John Carpenter, has a fairly simple plot: the movie opens with a young boy named Michael Myers killing his older sister Judith on Halloween night in 1963 in the town of Haddonfield, Illinois. The late Donald Pleasance stars as Dr. Sam Loomis, an intelligent, obsessive individual who treats Michael in a psychiatric ward for fifteen years. One night, when Michael is to be taken to a different mental institution, Michael hijacks Loomis’s car and heads for his hometown — Loomis follows close behind. Meanwhile, in the seemingly peaceful town of Haddonfield, Halloween has arrived, and Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, in her film debut) is looking forward to a night of babysitting and carving jack-o-lanterns. Her best friends Lynda (PJ Soles) and Annie (Nancy Loomis) are outgoing, confident, and beautiful young ladies, as opposed to Laurie, who is more of an outcast who never seems to fit in.
Throughout the course of her day, she begins to see an ominous figure with a white mask and overalls on outside windows and beside bushes. She begins to think she’s hallucinating when no one else sees what see sees. Later that night, Laurie, finally getting a break from babysitting and goes to the house across the street thinking there might be trouble, only to find the bodies of her two best friends. She is attacked by Michael, but he is shot off of a two-story balcony by Loomis, who arrives just in time to save Laurie’s life. Michael disappears into the night, as Loomis looks down to see his body gone.
The actors in the film do a superb job at being ordinary; they act like real people who are really talking and are vulnerable in any given situation. Donald Pleasance plays his role as if he doesn’t have a lot going for him in his life. He portrays Loomis as somewhat of a lost soul who is completely swept up in Myers, as he has been seeing him every day for fifteen years and knows that there is something deeper inside of him that the world doesn’t wish to see. He gives the performance a subtle intensity that never draws too much attention to himself. It’s interesting to note that Pleasance starred in nearly two hundred films, yet his most memorable character has become Dr. Loomis; even more shocking is that he only worked on Halloween for six days.
Jamie Lee Curtis is wonderful in her first movie role because she, like Pleasance, doesn’t overdo the performance. She creates a protagonist who we want to see beat the bad guy because she displays human qualities throughout the movie that everyone can relate to, and she partakes in everyday events, like going to school, babysitting, and chatting with her friends about boys. Curtis has gone on to maintain an honorable career that includes such films as A Fish Called Wanda, True Lies, and Freaky Friday, and she has to owe it all to the start — Halloween.
Many of the supporting actors are terrific as well, and they all contribute performances that make the movie even better. Charles Cypher, as Sheriff Brackett, is the straight man to Loomis’s more obsessive personality. He sits back as Loomis rambles on about Michael and doesn’t really care, but he listens anyway. It isn’t a showy performance, but it’s necessary in order to give the character of Loomis someone to discuss the antagonist with. Nancy Loomis, as Laurie’s friend Annie, acts so naturally one would have to look closely to find any flaws in her performance. Like everyone else in the film, she isn’t going for an Oscar; she merely has to act like a normal funny teenager, and she pulls the part off perfectly.
Possibly the most memorable performance of the film is by PJ Soles, who plays Laurie’s other friend Lynda. She is the crazy girl of the group, one who is always busy with boys and dances. It’s memorable because it’s flashy, but it’s also a sharp performance because Soles knows the character inside out — she played a similar character in Carrie. The final performance of mention, one that doesn’t get a lot of credit but ultimately makes the movie really work, is that by Nick Castle, who plays Michael Myers. The manner in which the villain is presented in a horror film makes or breaks it, and the sheer apathy that Myers displays through his blank visage gives the movie its terror. Particularly noteworthy is the manner in which Myers looks at his victims. He turns his head to the left and then to the right, almost as if he’s analyzing a piece of art.
When Halloween first premiered in October 1978, it was passed off as a cheap-looking thriller, but when more and more people started to praise the films, those who had called it cheap looking started to hail the amazing cinematography of the film. The most significant shot of the movie is its first. The opening five minutes of the movie is all one shot, as we, the audience, become the killer. At this point, Michael is only six years old, as he roams throughout his house, eventually killing his older sister Judith. The opening is great not just because it’s one gloriously innovative long shot, but also because it immediately puts the audience into the mood of what’s coming.
The opening shot also started a new trend in horror movies that would come thereafter of putting the audience into the mind of the villain, which before Halloween had never really been done before. The cinematography by Dean Cundey, who went on to shoot Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, is spectacular, giving the town of Haddonfield a polished look of vibrant fall colors. A particularly memorable shot is a rather simple one — the camera sits still in the middle of a street and a single leaf hits the ground. This automatically tells the audience three things: the setting has changed from the psychiatric hospital to the small town of Haddonfield, the season is indeed fall (and the actual day is Halloween), and that the ensuing action will take place in a setting that doesn’t particularly expect any sort of horror.
The mastery of John Carpenter is that he never fully reveals the figure of Michael Myers until the last act of the movie. Before the final act, he is only seen in shadow, and in quick, ambiguous shots showing him behind windows and bushes. A particularly terrifying scene seems rather simple and ordinary at first — Laurie sits in a classroom and looks outside to see Michael standing in front of his stolen car. She turns back to look at her teacher for about three seconds, then looks back outside, only to see that he has disappeared. This is terrifying because it shows that Michael is a figure that can be lingering anywhere, and one doesn’t exactly know where he may be.
Also worth discussing is the way Carpenter keeps the audience in agonizing suspense at the end by having Laurie perform one of the longest movie walks in history. When she believes there might be something wrong across the street, she takes a very slow stroll across the street, into the backyard, and into the house. She proceeds to walk through a few rooms downstairs, then walks upstairs, down a long hallway, into the main bedroom. All of this takes about five minutes, and it’s emotionally draining because the audience never knows when the killer is going to strike. Carpenter knows that fear in watching a horror film comes from what the viewer doesn’t see, and he uses this strategy to great effect throughout the entire movie.
Halloween started a strange phenomenon with excessive nudity in horror films. Those who haven’t seen Halloween in a long time believe there is a lot of nudity in the film, but there really isn’t. There is just a single shot of a woman’s breasts in the first scene, plus some breast shots of PJ Soles later on the film. The 1980ss saw a resurgence of films with nudity that didn’t add anything to the films but caused many young adolescents to take a trip to the local theater. While Halloween may have begun the trend, the nudity in the film is necessary. The opening shot of Michael Myers’s sister’s breasts makes sense because she is about to take a shower, and her being killed naked shows vulnerability. The nudity with Soles is essential because she plays a character who would have sex with guys all the time and walk around naked. It makes sense with her character; therefore, it makes sense to have her naked. While it could be argued that a little nudity in every horror film is almost required, the nudity should have something to do with the scene or character, or else its only reason for its existence is to make horny young men shout “yahoo” in the theaters.
Carpenter has said in interviews that he showed Halloween, a finished version but without music, to an executive, and after the screening, she said that there was absolutely nothing scary about the movie. Later when he showed the film to the executive with its final score, she immediately apologized about her initial comments and claimed that she had been scared out of her mind. This example shows not only that music is important to films, but that music is extremely important to horror films. The chilling and haunting score of Halloween gives the movie another dimension that redefined in the late 1970s how to score a terrifying motion picture.
John Carpenter scored the film himself over the course of just six days, and after a short but stressful shoot, it’s astonishing that he could’ve scored the movie at all, let alone create one of the most memorable horror movie scores of all time. The key to its success is its simplicity. Carpenter uses a small handful of musical instruments to create ten unique songs that make up the soundtrack of the film. At times the score merely consists of Carpenter hitting one note on a piano over and over again, and it’s astonishing how effective it is. The irony is that if Carpenter had been granted some more time to put his score together, he probably would’ve put more effort into the already perfect score and lessened the impact of the music. What remains in the movie now is a timeless piece of work that is even a delight to listen to on its own.
It can be argued at this point that Halloween is one of the best horror films of all time, but what makes it the very best is that it’s a much deeper movie that one might take it to be on first viewing. The film features all sorts of involving ideas about the nature of evil, mostly in the scenes involving Dr. Loomis. The most obviously stated idea that Halloween demonstrates about evil is that it can never die, that evil is an invisible force that lives on forever. Michael Myers has the invisible force inside of him, and therefore, he is unable to die. In the last fifteen minutes of the movie, he is poked in the neck, stabbed in the chest, strangled, shot six times, and catapulted out of a two-story window. And he doesn’t die…
One could argue that his unwillingness is die is merely necessary for the movie, because if he died with that stabbing in the chest, the movie would be over. There is also further argument to be made that Carpenter keeps Michael alive at the end of the film so that there could be a sequel. Carpenter has said that he never looked at the ending as a possible opening for a second Halloween but instead to show that evil can’t be killed. Another idea the film evokes about evil is that it is something that doesn’t evolve over time or hit a person one morning, but instead that it remains inside a person throughout his life and never goes away.
Loomis at one point talks about the first time he saw Michael, and he claims that the six-year-old boy had the Devil’s eyes, signifying that the boy was from the start of his life an evil being. Loomis goes on to spend seven years trying to get through to him and another seven years trying to keep him in the institution because he eventually realizes that what was living inside the boy was purely evil. Halloween is a marvelous film to start arguments about how evil comes to be within all human beings.
Halloween was a huge success, grossing over 60 million dollars throughout its first theatrical run, and it was followed by seven inferior sequels. The movie opened in two theaters in Kansas City, and the theaters were practically vacant the first weekend. The following weekend, twice as many people showed up to see the movie. The next weekend, four times as many people showed up. The film became a phenomenon and stayed in theaters across the country for over six months. Naturally there was sequel talk immediately, and the film was followed up three years later with Halloween II. While it did semi-well, the movie just didn’t deliver like the first, and it was deemed a disappointment by fans. The late 80’s saw the return of Michael Myers in Halloween 4, arguably the best of the sequels. The film brought the eerie cinematography and solid acting back in great form, with Pleasence especially at the top of his game. Halloween 5 was unfortunately rushed and came just a year later; it’s the worst entry of the series. It took another six years for Halloween 6, and by that time, the series had lost all of its juice.
The series needed a jolt by a certain mega-star — Jamie Lee Curtis. She came back in triumphant form in Halloween: H20, a superb sequel that displayed a much stronger Laurie Strode, as her character was hiding out in a posh Northern California private school. It was the most successful sequel, and it works so well because Curtis gives a bravura performance that one rarely sees in a horror film. The next sequel Halloween: Resurrection, which is notable because Laurie Strode is killed off in the first ten minutes, as Curtis reprised her role and at the same time got out of the series for good. The movie is simply average. While all the sequels have different positive aspects, nothing compares to the original, as nothing should. It’s been known for sequels to rarely ever surpass the originals, and it’s definitely true in the case of Halloween.
Halloween will forever be the quintessential horror movie. It’s slower than most other high-regarded horror films, but it’s important to spend some time with the characters in order to sympathize with them as they start getting killed off one by one in some of the most chilling and surprising ways. John Carpenter would go on to never make another solid horror film for the rest of his career, but at least he will always be the director of the very best — Halloween.