Halloween (United States, 1978)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

In late 1978, a small horror film opened in Bowling Green, Kentucky (before moving on to Chicago and New York City) that would change the face of the genre. Initially dismissed by many serious critics as unworthy of attention or praise, the motion picture looked headed for an oblivion where it would never make back its small, $300,000 budget. Then, months later, Tom Allen's insightful and complimentary essay appeared in The Village Voice. Suddenly, critics began to notice that there was more to this film than initially met the eye.

Because of its title, Halloween has frequently been grouped together with all the other splatter films that populated theaters throughout the late-1970s and early-1980s. However, while Halloween is rightfully considered the father of the modern slasher genre, it is not a member (the Halloween sequels, on the other hand, are). This is not a gruesome motion picture -- there is surprisingly little graphic violence and almost no blood. Halloween is built on suspense, not gore, and initiated more than a few of today's common horror/thriller cliches. The ultimate success of the movie, however, encouraged other film makers to try their hand at this sort of enterprise, and it didn't take long for someone to decide that audiences wanted as many explicitly grisly scenes as the running length would allow. By the time Halloween's sequel was released in 1981, the objective of this sort of movie was no longer to scare its viewers, but to gross them out.

From a shock-and-suspense point-of-view, Halloween is the rival of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. With only a few arguable exceptions (such as The Exorcist), there isn't another post-1970 release that comes close to it in terms of scaring the living hell out of a viewer. Halloween starts out in a creepy fashion with a brutal murder, and never lets up from there. Every frame drips with atmosphere. Who cares that it was filmed during the spring in California instead of during the autumn in fictional Haddonfield, Illinois?

Halloween was the film that earned Jamie Lee Curtis the infamous title of "Scream Queen." She plays Laurie Strode, the virginal protagonist. Curtis' capable interpretation of the gawky, awkward Laurie is frequently overlooked in analyses of the movie and its genre, but she effectively conveys the feelings and aspirations of a shy, insecure teenager. It's hard to believe that the actress would develop (in more ways than one) into a woman whose sexual appeal would drive pictures like A Fish Called Wanda.

The film opens with a long, single-shot prologue that takes place on Halloween night, 1963. A young Michael Myers watches as his older sister, Judith, sneaks upstairs for a quickie with a guy from school. After the boyfriend has departed, Michael takes a knife out of the kitchen drawer, ascends the staircase, and stabs Judith to death. The entire sequence employs the subjective point-of-view, an approach that writer/director John Carpenter returns to repeatedly throughout the movie. Only after the deed is done do we learn that Michael is only a grade-schooler.

The bulk of the movie takes place fifteen years later. Michael, confined to an asylum for the criminally insane for more than ten years, escapes on the night before Halloween. His doctor, Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance), believing Michael to be the embodiment of evil, tracks the killer back to his hometown of Haddonfield. From there, it's a race against time as Loomis seeks to locate and stop Michael before he starts again where he left off in 1963.

Michael's primary victims are Laurie and her two best friends, Annie (Nancy Loomis) and Lynda (P.J. Soles). Throughout the film, Michael is shown gradually closing in on the girls, until, in the final act, Laurie is involved in a face-to-face fight for her life. Much has been made of the fact that the key to survival in Halloween is being a virgin. The three girls who have sex with their boyfriends (Judith Myers, Annie, and Lynda) don't survive their encounters with Michael. Laurie, who has nothing to do with boys, does. Co-writers Carpenter and Debra Hill have stated numerous times that this was not a conscious theme, but, ever since Halloween, the standard for slasher films has been that sexual promiscuity leads to a violent end.

Nick Castle plays Michael (who is referred to in the end credits as "the Shape") as an implacable, inhuman adversary. Because he wears a painted white Captain Kirk mask, we only once (briefly) see his features, and this makes him all the more frightening. He kills without making a sound or changing his expression, and his movements are often slow and zombie-like. Carpenter is exceedingly careful in chosing the camera angles he uses to shoot Michael. Before the climax, there's never a clear close-up -- he's always concealed by shadows, shown in the distance, or presented as otherwise obscured. This approach makes for an especially ominous villain. Subsequent Halloweens delved more deeply into Michael's origins and his connection to Laurie, but, in this one, he remains an enigma, and the lack of a clear motive makes his actions all the more terrifying.

Another important element of Halloween's success is our ability to identify with the trio of female protagonists, and Carpenter establishes a rapport between the audience and the characters by employing intelligent, realistic dialogue and placing the girls in believable situations. For Annie and Lynda, the most important thing about Halloween night is finding a place to have sex with their boyfriends. For Laurie, it's making sure the kid she's babysitting is having a good time. Annie and Lynda are blissfully unaware of their danger until it's too late, but Laurie recognizes her peril. Meanwhile, if Michael represents pure evil, Sam Loomis is the avenging angel. He's the voice of reason that no one listens to, and, in the end, he's the cavalry coming over the mountain, gun blazing.

Halloween is one of those films where the attention to detail is evident in every frame. While there are many memorable moments, three scenes stand out above the rest. The first is the long, unbroken opening sequence where the young Michael dons a clown mask and murders his sister. Often copied, but never equaled, this scene was unique for its time and reminiscent of Psycho's shower murder for its effect. The second also occurs early in the movie, as Michael escapes from the asylum during a rain storm. To this day, I find these to be the most chilling three minutes of the movie. Finally, there's the scene near the end where Laurie is banging on a locked door while Michael approaches slowly and inexorably from behind. It's a credit to Carpenter that, no matter how many times you've seen the movie, the tension at this point still mounts to a palpable level.

Despite being relatively simple and unsophisticated, Halloween's music is one of its strongest assets. Carpenter's dissonant, jarring themes provide the perfect backdrop for Michael's activity, proving that a film doesn't need a symphonic score by an A-line composer to be effective. Carpenter's Halloween main title, one of the horror genre's best-recognizable tunes, can bring chills even away from the theater. Try putting it in the tape deck when you're alone in the car sometime after midnight on a lonely country road, and see if you feel secure.

The final body count in Halloween is surprisingly low (the immediate sequel, Halloween 2, rectified this matter, but that's another story), but the terror quotient is high. This is the kind of impeccably crafted motion picture that burrows deep into our psyche and connects with the dark, hidden terrors that lurk there. Halloween is not a perfect movie, but no recent horror film has attained this pinnacle (as evidenced by the plaudits heaped upon it in Wes Craven's recent Scream). Likewise, John Carpenter has never come close to recapturing Halloween's artistic or commercial success, though he has tried many times. Halloween remains untouched -- a modern classic of the most horrific kind.

Halloween (United States, 1978)

Director: John Carpenter
Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasance, Nancy Loomis, P.J. Soles, Charles Cyphers, Nick Castle
Screenplay: Debra Hill and John Carpenter
Cinematography: Dean Cundey
Music: John Carpenter
U.S. Distributor: Compass International Pictures
Ranked #78 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 1:33
U.S. Release Date: 1978-10-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1