Slashers & Serial Killers in Review: Halloween (1978)
Starring: Donald Pleasence, Jamie Lee Curtis, P.J. Soles, and Nancy Loomis. With Nick Castle and Tony Moran portraying Michael Myers.
Written By: Debra Hill and John Carpenter
Directed By: John Carpenter
Synopsis: On Halloween night of 1963, six year old Michael Myers brutally murders his seventeen year old sister, Judith. He was sentenced to a mental hospital but on October 30, 1978 he escapes and a string of murders begin in his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois.
“Halloween isn’t just a good story; it’s a film that demonstrates an unprecedented understanding of it’s very media. It’s a story that could only be told cinematically, a true folktale for the 20th century and beyond. Light, shadow, silence and good sound form into an experience both tangible and transcendent. It’s a wholly immersive work of art, a rare instance of pure cinema. Like it’s antagonist, it will never die.” -Stef Hutchinson, taken from the 35th anniversary Blu-Ray.
The world of horror cinema, some would argue (myself included) that cinema as a whole was changed with the release of John Carpenter’s Halloween. His third film, following Dark Star and another classic film Assault on Precinct 13, gives us a very simple but harrowing tale of a teenage babysitter being stalked and attacked by an unknown assailant on Halloween night. I don’t think there is a more well-known genre film out there. Between this and Tobe Hooper’s 1974 classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the film industry was forever changed. Filmmakers have always tried new and inventive ways to produce great, evocative, and fresh films for the audience and it seems that the mid to late 70’s proved to be a fertile ground to build what would eventually be called the “Golden Era” of horror.
I would like to preface my thoughts on the movie with going ahead and spoiling my opinion- I absolutely love this film. Without Halloween, I don’t get to be the person I am today. This film is for me what Star Wars is to it’s fans. Halloween is something that I grew up with and my earliest memory of seeing anything horror. Granted, my earliest memory is hazy but I clearly remember the visual of Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) leaning up against the bedroom doorway as The Shape came up behind her. Carpenter’s use of lighting and shadows with the slow, determined walk of The Shape blending into the shadows. My earliest memory is seeing Michael just behind Laurie after sitting up and simply looking at her. It was utterly terrifying, adding to that his determined walk as he came behind her, attacking her in the final moments of the film.
As I sit here, trying to determine what is important enough to place in this review of Halloween, I have my 35th Anniversary Blu-Ray sitting to my left. The simple cover design adding to the mystique of the film, a simple profile of The Shape’s iconic mask blending with and coming out of shadows. If I look over the top of my laptop, I can see Jamie Lee Curtis walking down a sidewalk singing “I wish I had you all alone” on my TV. What can I say about this foundational film that would have any impact? The simple fact is that I have no new information about this movie. All that I can do, which is the point of this review is to tell you my honest opinions on the film as exactly that- a film. Is it enjoyable? Is the story worth the time you invest to watch it? How is the acting? The cinematography? How about that classic score? Is Halloween the greatest film ever made?
So, lets answer these questions then. Is it enjoyable? YES! However, I will say that for a newer audience, as in the high school kid who is attached to the latest iPhone, may find the film boring at parts. There are some lags in the film where they may think that nothing is happening. I would have to say that the film needs to be viewed in a completely cut-off sort of way. There is a scene in the film in which the two young children who are being watched by Laurie Strode are watching movies and we hear the phrase “Lock your doors, bolt your windows,”- this is the ideal starting point for watching John Carpenter’s Halloween. Turn off the lights, get yourself a drink and your favorite snack, close yourself off from the outside world and immerse yourself. The use of the Steadicam in this film was chosen for a reason. It guides you through, like an omniscient presence through the town of Haddonfield. The camera is also a character itself and to be able to appreciate this film on the level it deserves to be, all of your attention needs to remain on the screen. I know, it’s blasphemy to even consider not having your phone in your pocket or next to you but trust me, it is worth it.
The next question we ask- is the story worth the time you invest to watch it? The story is very simple, the filmmakers set out to make it that way. Rather than focusing on the plot, they put the focus more on how the story would be told. This is a modern-day fable and they nailed it! The story itself is actually kind of vague, leaving more questions than answers. That is the magic of Halloween though, this is a film that has enough of a story that it sucks you into it but at the same time you feel like you’re not being told a story. It feels like you are watching a day in someone’s life. A good story is one that takes you away from your everyday worries and struggles and Halloween does exactly that.
The acting in the film is surprisingly good, if you take into consideration that most of the cast was virtually unknown at the time. With the exception of Donald Pleasence in the role of Dr. Sam Loomis that is. Each actor does their job and delivers a solid performance that adds depth and realism to the film. While watching, you feel like you actually know these characters in some way, like they are long lost family members or friends.
Please correct me if I am wrong with this, but in talking about the score of the film, I believe it was said at one time that before the iconic Halloween theme was added to the film, Carpenter had screened the film and gotten negative results. If memory serves me correctly, critics would tell him that the film just isn’t scary and that it needed something. Enter the classic music, composed by Carpenter himself. The score sets the ominous mood and serves as a great tool of manipulation. It is one of the most haunting pieces of music and has become immortalized in the pop culture. I know my default ringtone for every phone I’ve ever had has been this iconic theme. It plays in stores around the Halloween holiday and is easily one of the most recognized scores to the mass public.
Lastly, is Halloween the greatest film ever made? As a lifelong fan of the genre and specifically the slasher sub-genre, I would say that it is the most important- along with Tobe Hooper’s iconic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It is arguable whether the film is the greatest, but in all honesty, no it is not the greatest film. I may be a die-hard fan and yes this film is the reason that I am who I am today, but when looking at movies and reviewing them, you have to be honest with the audience and more importantly yourself. I know that I will continue to watch this film and champion it for the rest of my life. This film plays numerous times a year at my house and is almost on a constant rotation during the month of October. That doesn’t make this film the greatest film ever made though. Like I said, parts of it lag and for a film to be the greatest film ever made it would have to keep you completely entertained no matter what generation you are a part of. I know when my children are old enough to watch this film, I will show it to them and hope that they find the same enjoyment in it that I do but in all honesty, they might not like the aesthetic of a 70’s film or be able to put their phones down for two hours. The greatest film ever made would bridge the gap and do just that, it would make you stop whatever you are doing to watch it.
At the end of the day, Halloween is an amazing work of art that has made an impact and changed the way that we view films. It paved the way and created genre standards. Halloween deserves it’s spot in the pantheon of horror and will forever hold the place it has. I cannot give this film a higher recommendation. If you haven’t seen it, you need to do so immediately. If you have, go watch it again and celebrate the tremendous moment for the horror genre that it is.
Rating: 5 out of 5
Joshua Macmillan is a lifelong horror fan. He grew up in Texas but currently resides with his wife Audree in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Joshua has published articles on the award-winning horror website Dread Central while working on his fiction. Joshua is currently working on his first novel and is also working on a couple of screenplays and a graphic novel with his twin brother, Jeremy. When he is not writing or at his day job, he can be found at home relaxing or at the local movie theater taking in as much horror as humanly possible.