In the many years since John Carpenter’s Halloween has come out, many sequels may have come by under its name but it is with good reason why the original still finds itself standing strong even as the roots of its story may have been imitated by many. No matter how overly elaborate the imitators may present themselves to be, John Carpenter’s Halloween still reigns supreme because of how its simplicity even manages to set up something far more frightening underneath everything else. Even as an age of horror films defined by massive splatters of gore may have come along the way, it’s easy enough to see why John Carpenter’s film still overshadows many – for it didn’t only pave the way for many filmmakers to follow when working in the slasher subgenre. But it isn’t only the horror genre where Carpenter excels with Halloween, because what it accomplishes on a budget of only $300k is absolutely impressive because of how tightly woven it is from first frame to last.
We open fittingly with the background being set up for our own villain, although soon enough that is where we come back to his hometown of Haddonfield in order to meet the teenage babysitter Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, in her debut film appearance). She’s not too different from many other teenagers you would meet, although come Halloween night there is a looming presence of evil that continues following her around. Yet this much is all that is necessary in order to craft the perfect horror movie, because it already sets up an atmosphere that feels just like an environment that you would already be so familiar with amidst a small town setting. It’s the perfect template for where a good scare can come about, because every small detail in Halloween feels almost like an area where you would recognize, and the film works its way under your skin right from there.
Carpenter is a genius when it comes to setting up the atmosphere for his works, because even the most ordinary settings can already be made to feel so suspicious thanks to the way in which Carpenter frames them – whether it be from the POV shots that emphasize Michael Myers’s perspective or the recognizable theme music. But something that I’ve always loved about what Carpenter is working with is the way in which he crafts Michael Myers, because the film doesn’t treat Michael Myers’s own downward spiral into his killing spree in the same way that we would come to recognize many serial killers would descend into this sense of madness. Instead, we see Michael Myers as being a form of inexplicable evil that takes on any way, shape, or form – which gives him the fitting title of “The Shape.” His presence alone highlights an impending sense of doom that would be coming one’s way, but it’s also something that’s so anonymous which is where the roots of one’s very worst fears can come about.
There’s also a looming sense of doom that comes about from the way in which the film plays with the idea of an urban legend – from the way in which the children pass on a tale about the “Boogeyman.” But because of the film’s straightforward narrative, where we know about how fifteen years in the past, a six-year-old boy killed his older sister with nothing more than a kitchen knife, there’s a more haunting feeling presented here. It’s haunting because you already feel that this is an area traumatized by something terrible that occurred so long ago, but the children have found a way to take this tragedy and keep the haunting effect it has left on Haddonfield by making it into a Halloween staple for them. But it’s so clear that everywhere one looks, the warning that Michael Myers is looming around only keeps living from one generation to another.
Yet even in the film’s most intense moments, you still find that every character interaction feels so natural. Sometimes interactions feel stilted, but it also captures the very awkwardness that comes forward on Halloween night especially when it is a holiday that has always been so dedicated on scaring away the unsuspecting. And it’s still not the word that one would use to describe a character like Laurie Strode, who remains the best character that Jamie Lee Curtis has ever brought to the screen for good reason. Curtis’s performance is one that feels damaged by the fright but even in that vulnerability you find that there’s also a quality to her that even makes her feel relatable in a sense. But you don’t see her as being any ordinary “final girl” as popularized by the slasher genre, because Carpenter and Hill create a work where you feel so close to her own struggle.
Something that I’ve always found myself amused by is the purpose that Donald Pleasance’s character of Dr. Loomis has to offer for most of the film. He stands outside a place that has haunted Haddonfield for so long, they choose not to think about it. But that’s the sort of anonymity that evil can present itself as, it can still look like such an ordinary person and yet it remains unstoppable. Halloween isn’t simply a film about confronting this evil, it’s a film that shows the very ways in which it continues to manifest over many different forms. But it is never something that you can really predict the more it looms around. Even in this film’s simplicity that’s one thing that makes Halloween ever so distinguishable, because you only find yourself haunted even by the familiarity of the setting – as if John Carpenter really needs far more in order to keep scaring people on Halloween night after all these years. But that is how you make a perfect slasher film on the spot, and Halloween achieves so much more.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Compass International Pictures.
Directed by John Carpenter
Screenplay by John Carpenter, Debra Hill
Produced by Debra Hill
Starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasance, Nancy Loomis, P. J. Soles
Release Date: October 25, 1978
Running Time: 91 minutes