Never before have I been more scared by a movie than when I sat down to watch John Carpenter’s classic horror picture Halloween. If films are to be graded by the scale of the finished product’s ability to accomplish the task of delivering and provoking a specific emotional response from the viewer, then you will find few movies as effective as this one. Halloween is a perfectly paced emotional punch to the gut that never backs off of its intensity, from the opening sequence through to the credits. One viewing was all it took to firmly entrench this on my list of all time favorites.
As one would imagine from the title, this film focuses on events that take place in the small town of
Today, the basic plot of the movie would not do much to raise eyebrows. It’s a story that we have seen in some variation over the last two-plus decades. All of the elements of a typical slasher film script are seen here: the unstoppable villain, the attractive young teenagers looking for a good time, the virginal heroine, the driven character in search of the villain whose warnings fall on deaf ears. So, with so many of these elements taken as commonplace in today’s horror films, why does this movie stand out? Well, this is the film (along with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) that all of its followers owe a debt to for establishing these conventions. Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and countless others have all tried to follow in its footsteps with varying degrees of success.
Simply being first is not what makes this movie great. Working with a tiny budget of $320,000 forced the makers to rely more on their wits than high tech effects to provide the scares. This is in fact a blessing to the movie. Watching other horror and slasher films would lead a person to believe that there may be giant pools filled with fake blood just off camera. Not so in Halloween. In fact, nowhere in this movie do you see the gore and violence that is typically associated with this genre. I can in fact only recall two scenes where we see actual blood on screen. This is not to say that the movie is not violent. When Michael dispatches his victims no punches are pulled, and the deeds are committed on camera. However, unlike the movies to follow in Halloween’s foot steps, the killings are not spectacles of the most clever way a human can be dispatched of with say…a salad fork. Michael assaults his victims the way any homicidal maniac would attack you should you happen upon them in your house late at night. Victims are strangled, or stabbed - simple, efficient methods with no pizzazz. The spectacle is not how someone is murdered, but that they are. Even the total body count for the film is low. By my calculation only five people and a dog fall victim to Michael; a number I found astonishingly low considering the reputation movies of this genre have for being bloodbaths.
Halloween’s noticeable lack of bloodshed is not the only thing that sets it apart from its eventual imitators. One particularly interesting decision made by Carpenter in telling the story was one to stage a good number of the scenes leading up to the climax in broad day light. Once Michael arrives in Haddonfield, he returns to his former house, which is where he first encounters young Laurie as she drops the keys to the property off for her father. As she walks up the front steps, we are treated to a view of her from the interior of the house over Michael’s shoulder as he silently watches her. As Laurie walks off, Michael actually follows her to the street and we watch over his shoulder as Laurie walks down the street singing to herself. After this fateful encounter at the Myer’s house we get to tag along with Michael and Laurie as they go through their day. We follow Michael as he stalks Laurie, and we walk with Laurie and her friends as she has near miss after near miss with her masked pursuer. In my opinion, this sequence draws its real power from the fact that it all takes place with Michael in full view at all times. Typically in slasher films, we don’t get to see the killer except as a moving shadow, or through a POV shot. Michael makes no attempt to hide himself. Laurie is even conscious of his presence throughout the course of her day. She sees him standing across the street from her school, looking up at her in her bedroom and even boldly stepping out from behind a hedge as Laurie and her friends walk home, only to disappear before anyone but Laurie can notice him. Michael’s behavior certainly goes a long way toward painting him as someone who is deeply and emotionally troubled.
The way in which Michael is portrayed at the start of the film establishes an excellent character who would quickly become a fan favorite. This fateful night in Haddonfield went on to spawn eight (soon to be nine) sequels, of which all but one (Halloween 3: Season of the Witch) would feature Michael as the villain/hero (depending on your point of view). The numerous sequels which follow this movie establish that Michael Meyers is a character outside of the realm of human experience. He becomes a supernatural force that cannot be killed. In the first movie however, we get no indication that Michael is anything other then an extremely disturbed, troubled and dangerous man until the very end. When Michael survives several point blank gun shot wounds and a fall from a second story balcony, the only indication we are given that he may be something more than human, is that Michael is capable of uprooting and moving his sister's grave stone by himself. The injuries inflicted upon him by Laurie: stabbed with a pair of knitting needles to the neck, poked in the eye with a coat hanger, and stabbed with a knife - all injuries from which a mortal could conceivably recover. Even Michael's physical appearance does not lead one to believe that he is something more than a man. He is actually rather slight in stature and build, certainly not an unstoppable monster. What makes Michael so terrifying is that despite these things, there is not a second of doubt that we are watching someone who has completely surrendered rational thought. Masked in a ghost white mask and a nondescript grey coverall suit, every action of his portends menace. He walks at a methodically slow pace, displaying no emotion at all. Whatever his origins, you quickly concur with Dr. Sam Loomis’s (played by Donald Pleasance) assessment that Michael is evil personified.
The final element of the movie I wish to address, which I think really goes the longest way toward making this an absolutely terrifying film, is the music. Composed by John Carpenter himself, the soundtrack to this movie is absolutely terrifying. It is an almost constant presence in the film. The music sets the tone perfectly, and then plays with our emotions, as we watch the film wondering, along with Laurie, where Michael is going to appear next. From the second the movie starts, we are never able to forget that Michael is there somewhere watching. The music is always there with us, too. The true effect of the music was demonstrated in a documentary I watched, where they played the class scene in which Laurie notices Michael standing across the street watching her. They showed the scene once with and once without music. Without the music, there really is nothing scary or creepy about the scene. However, once the music is added the scene becomes nerve wracking. Without its music, Halloween would not be half the thrill that it is.
I think it’s a shame that movies typically placed into the horror genre, and more specifically the slasher genre, are not often given their due in terms of the artistry that goes into them. If movies are in fact designed with the intent of provoking emotions from viewers, then Halloween should be considered as a master class in how to make people squirm in their seats. Even if you don't like horror films (admittedly, I am not a huge fan) this movie should be seen by everyone. I consider it a shining example of how an effective film should be made. Halloween is a classic film. I look forward to watching it again and being just as frightened.