A must-watch classic
The 1970s were a period of major transition for the movie industry as creative control began a shift from studios to filmmakers. A new class of young directors like Spielberg, Scorsese, & Coppola would redefine the craft, eschewing the soundstage for on-location shoots & tackling more realistic themes & content. Old Hollywood productions like Universal Monster films, which drew from classic literature & relied on spectacle to impress were replaced by more industrious, low budget flicks like George A Romero's Night of the Living Dead, which in 1968 incorporated social themes & unknown actors, conveying a new sense of relatability to horror. This new movie-making formula set the stage for John Carpenter's feature debut, a low budget, independent horror flick called Halloween.
In truth, Halloween owes a great debt to Black Christmas, a 1974 film about a serial killer stalking a sorority house over Christmas break. Carpenter was influenced by the point-of-view camerawork, the focus on the vulnerability of teenage girls, & even the holiday setting. But while Black Christmas is increasingly being acknowledged as a horror classic, Halloween would make a much greater commercial impact. Black Christmas may have been handicapped by it's Canadian origins or it may have just been released too early in the '70s for a film about a serial killer to resonate with American audiences, but it set a tone that Carpenter would expand on & the genre would never be the same.
Of the film, Roger Ebert said, "'Halloween' is an absolutely merciless thriller, a movie so violent and scary that, yes, I would compare it to 'Psycho.'" And while this comparison is begged by Carpenter’s choice to cast Jamie Lee Curtis, the daughter of Psycho starlet Janet Leigh, as the lead, being compared by critics to Hitchcock for your first film is no small feat. But Halloween is itself no small feat. Carpenter & Debra Hill, an unknown filmmaking couple with no prior successes to speak of, Jamie Lee Curtis, plucked from nameless television roles like "Waitress" & "Girl in Dressing Room," & a passionate skeleton crew of multi-tasking filmmakers put together an economical film that--more by intent than necessity--succeeds on the virtue of restraint. What Carpenter took from Hitchcock is an understanding of psychology, which is precisely what makes the film so affecting.
In Halloween, a former child killer, convicted of stabbing his sister to death at 6 years of age, escapes from a mental hospital & returns home after 15 years to pick up where he left off. But the narrative only partly defines the film. The rest is mood & character. The pacing is itself menacing, relying far more on tension building than action. The soundtrack, written & performed by Carpenter, would be copied for decades. And the costuming, intentionally plain & featureless, is horrifying.
Still, underneath it all is heart.
Halloween endures because Laurie, Annie, & Lynda, the trio of protagonists, are fully fleshed out characters, courtesy of screenplay co-writer & producer Debra Hill. Their dialogue is genuinely believable. Their intentions are relatable. And you really want them to survive this nightmare.
"What's wrong? You're not smiling." "I'm never smiling again, Paul dragged me into the boys' locker room." "Exploring uncharted territories?" "Totally charted!" "No, we just talked." "Suuure, suuure."
As much as the movie intends to horrify the audience with a holiday massacre, it takes just as much care in establishing the victims, particularly Strode, who spends the first half of the film trying to sort reality from fantasy.
There's a scene where we find out that Laurie, despite having seen Michael Myers multiple times earlier in the day, has talked herself out of believing her own two eyes. Tommy, whom Laurie is babysitting, in the course of hiding behind the curtains to pull a prank, sees Michael carrying a corpse across the neighbors' yard. "The boogeyman's outside! I saw him!" "There's no boogeyman," Laurie says, "and if you don't stop it, I'm going to have to turn off the TV & send you to bed." Who hasn't told themselves, "There's nothing out there," more as hopeful thinking than empirical statement? Tommy ultimately defers to Laurie's judgment & ends his protest because it's oftentimes much more tempting to disbelieve your own experience, given the opportunity, than to confront of the horrors of what may exist in the shadows. The characters all want to ignore the boogeyman until it becomes tragically indisputable.
But a counterbalance to this passivity exists in the frantic voice of Donald Pleasence's Dr. Loomis, who gives the film a theatrical weight with his monologues but also gives shape to reality within the story. There IS a boogeyman. And he HAS returned to Haddonfield. The nightmare is reality. And untold horrors will take place unless we confront our fears. Loomis, as Myers' psychologist for 15 years, has transcended the wishful thinking. And in expressing so, he alienates everyone he comes in contact with. But his is ultimately the shrill voice that keeps us safe.
Just not before Michael wreaks havoc on his hometown.
For its time, as Ebert suggested, Halloween is gruesome. But not gruesome as we've come to know it--as a slasher flick, there's comparatively little bloodshed. And while Michael certainly toys with his victims, it's as much psychological as it is gory violence, stalking his victims & leaving the bodies to be found. The point of the film is not the body count, but instead the degree to which he is tormenting both the victims & the audience.
And in the end you’re left to consider how to deal this lingering sense of vulnerability. Who had the right attitude? Loomis as the overcautious lunatic? Or Strode as the passive victim? Is it worth re-ordering your life around a perceived inevitability that may never come to pass? Or do you simply take your chances? Later films would attempt to give a more definitive answer to this question, but it's this lingering doubt that is worth the price of admission.