Movie review: “Halloween” (1978)

halloween michael sits

“Does anyone live here?”

“Not since ‘63, when it happened. Every kid in Haddonfield thinks this place is haunted.”

“They may be right.”

The first glimpse of daylight, a commodity that will prove both precious and fleeting, comes at the 11-minute mark of Halloween, as director John Carpenter finally sets his scene in the sleepy town of Haddonfield, Illinois. Leaves rustle and blow down the tree-lined, kid-dotted sidewalks of suburbia. The sky is seriously overcast, but still can’t help feeling like an improvement, or an oasis. This comforting and innocuous first look comes on the heels of three consecutive sequences – an ominous, slow developing close-up, a shocking murder, and a nerve-rattling escape – justly famous in the annals of horror history, and though the differences that separate Halloween from the many progeny it would either directly spawn or spiritually inspire are both myriad and blinding, even in pitch darkness, its images linger longest and make the most impact, so it is there that almost any straight analysis should begin. The aforementioned close-up is of a lit jack-o-lantern, plain but capably made, not scary in the least but nonetheless…unsettling. Beside it, the opening titles practically bleed off the screen against a flat black background, simple, rounded typeface with pronged ends that exists in a quick succession of three colors – yellow into orange into red – before quickly fading and giving way to the next. Behind it unfurls Carpenter’s iconic piano theme in 5/4 time, jittery, unrelenting, each key an aural pinprick to the attentive listener. The synths augmenting the piano swell as the camera continues to pull in, slowly, inexorably, until it is so close that only the pumpkin’s large left flickering eye is visible. Then the candlelight is snuffed out, Carpenter’s directorial credit appears against the darkness, and, as a card announcing “Haddonfield, Illinois. October 31, 1963” fades first in then out, a rough chorus of children’s voices booms an echoing, sing-song incantation:

Black cats and goblins and broomsticks and ghosts / Covens of witches with all of their hosts / You may think they scare me and you’re probably right / Black cats and goblins on Halloween night / TRICK-OR-TREAT!

Halloween 1When the two-story gray Victorian first comes into view, it’s not entirely clear what the audience is seeing. Certainly, the camera seems to move, first toward the front porch and then along the side of the house, with a sense of purpose generally uncommon in all but the most and least seasoned directors. We hear faint voices emanating from the distracted teenaged couple inside, and, also, breathing? When it stops to surreptitiously peak into the living room window – “We are alone, aren’t we?” asks the boy, to which his paramour responds, “Michael’s around someplace.” – it becomes clear that the eavesdropping camera doesn’t merely represent a human perspective, it has a human name. That is also one of the last times Halloween will regard Michael Myers in terms of his humanity. The point-of-view shot was already an established if seldom used part of the horror filmmakers’ toolkit, of course – the scenes of John Williams-scored undersea buffet line recon in Jaws are my first memories as such in modern horror – but Halloween would make it commonplace. With mounting dread and not a little disorientation, we see Michael, through his eyes, slip inside the back door of the house and fumble through the silverware drawer for a carving knife as big as a Special Forces machete. As Michael (and the viewer) hides just out of sight, the teenaged boy hastily descends the staircase, pulling on his shirt after what must surely qualify as the shortest trip to second base in the history of making out, telling the girl he’ll call her tomorrow and exiting stage left. The camera mounts the narrow stairs and begins Michael’s slow climb toward the girl’s bedroom. Along the way, upon noticing a clown mask face up on the floor, we see an arm reach out to grab it. The other hand, presumably, holds the knife. We do not wait long for confirmation.

The beauty and horror of this sequence are intermixed and indivisible. There is, first, the impressive skill and requisite technical/compositional audacity that somehow made Carpenter confident he could get away with starting his movie with an eerily effective, seemingly unbroken, four-minute point-of-view shot in which his audience surrogate walks half the exterior of the Victorian, enters, then navigates four rooms, a staircase, and an upstairs hall, changes perspective dramatically upon donning the clown mask, commits murder most bloody and foul, and backtracks down the stairs, out the front door and up the sidewalk to where a car is just pulling up. We have seen the murder through the cunningly imagined eyeholes in Michael’s mask – that was our hand raising and lowering the knife over and over; that was our hot, tortured breathing reverberating within the mask; that was, we will later confirm, our sister, Judith Myers, left lying prone on the bedroom floor in a pool of her own blood – but the true shock comes when the mask is suddenly removed and third person perspective heartbreakingly restored, to reveal Michael Myers, a disheveled, confused-looking but otherwise all-American six-year-old child dressed in ¾ of a harlequin clown costume, gingerly holding out to his side a knife almost bigger than he is, as if it is the only thing helping him maintain his balance. The synth score emits a sustained howl in protest and the camera, once so gut-level and insinuating, pulls increasingly back, as Michael’s flanking parents stand by frozen in disbelief, his father clutching and staring at the clown mask as if searching it for clues, his mother a disconcerting blank slate. Truly, there is no other more appropriate reaction.

Fifteen years pass in the blink of an eye, and a nondescript station wagon barrels down a lonely, rainswept road on a dark and stormy night right out of a storybook. Inside the car, the subjective camera remains, this time alternating focus between the two passengers – Dr. Samuel Loomis (played by English gravitas generator Donald Pleasance in the role that would define the second half of his career), and the overworked shift nurse driving him to Smith’s Grove Sanitarium – occasionally lingering on an in-cabin detail or switching to a first-person view of the semi-vertical rain as it is cut by the onrushing headlights. Loomis, we learn, is supervising the now-grown Michael Myers’ transfer from Smith’s Grove to another facility in preparation for a court hearing, and is not only insistent on taking precautions with his care more in line with an uncontrollable, bestial predator, but seems to disavow the notion that Myers is even human to begin with. “Don’t you think we could refer to ‘it’ as ‘him’?” suggests the nurse. “If you say so,” he replies, evenly. The camera’s selective POV continues as they approach the main gate, distracted instead of focused, restless, noticeably on edge. Loomis is fully aware of his waiting patient’s dread potential, and supplies icy, matter-of-fact answers to the nurse’s every compassionate entreaty. He is humorless, pitiless, and businesslike*, and something more elusive. He is overmatched, and not a little desperate, even though he strides to conceal it, even as he enjoys the ostensible upper hand. Like so many aspects of Halloween that later mutated into camp, crap, or rank idiocy through the introduction and inevitable dilution of sequels, the good doctor would become a font of wild-eyed overacting in his twilight years, but here, in a car ride that was already a stewpot approaching full boil, he is invaluable at establishing the gravity of the situation. It is inevitable that Michael Myers must, and does, escape, and not even purely for story-related reasons. Loomis paints him, in the car and during later discussions that take on the feel of a soliloquy**, as something almost too primal, and evil, to possibly be contained.

*I inexplicably encountered a snake in my apartment hallway at approximately 5am the other Sunday, which is to say I stepped on it, barefoot and unsuspecting, in the dark, on my way to the bathroom. Surprised to the core of my being, my mind reeled with the implications of this stealth home invasion and raced with improvised methods by which I might remove the animal, ranking them theoretically in order of safety, speed, and simple utility. In the not insignificant time it took to steel myself to finally catch the snake, I, of course, accomplished some semi-frantic internet research. I emerged 95% reassured that I was dealing with a garter snake variant whose name now escapes me, though the nagging remaining 5% was convinced it was a copperhead. Seriously, the website pictures were conclusive enough to narrow down the suspects to a pair, but no further. So, even as I felt fairly secure I was dealing with a large-ish garter snake, I treated it like a copperhead, which is to say I understand in some small way how Loomis felt on his way to Smith’s Grove. There’s nothing like the potential of a deadly animal to wonderfully focus one’s attention.

**Loomis and skeptical but competent local sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers) later explore the Myers house together while Michael is out on the prowl. Standing in Judith’s bedroom and bathed in moonlight, desperate to make his colleague truly understand their quarry, horror’s quintessential hype man delivers perhaps its most memorable monologue: “I met him fifteen years ago. I was told there was nothing left. No reason, no conscience, no understanding, and even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, good or evil, right or wrong. I met this six-year-old child, with this blank, pale, emotionless face and…the blackest eyes. The devil’s eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up, because I realized what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply…evil.” Pleasance’s measured and dismayed cadence, with its precise points of emphasis – “emotionless,” “devil’s eyes,” “evil” – chilled me to the bone the first time I heard it, and maintains that power to this day. Mic drop, doctor.

All this occurs in those initial eleven minutes in the dark, during which Halloween descends on its viewer and covers him like a shroud. Carpenter sets the prevailing mood, and announces his intentions and abilities with dramatic flair. He stages an almost incomprehensibly intimate murder, frankly implicates his audience in it, turns the screw and upends expectations with the reveal of the killer, who he subsequently establishes, despite appearances, as not human but, rather, a force of evil, perhaps even a force of nature. Then he unleashes him. Carpenter turns a monster into a child and back again, and, in two economical steps, creates a wider, lasting mythology and makes the viewer acknowledge its potency with only technical know-how, theatrical exposition, and minimal prodding otherwise. Only then does the sun finally, mercifully, rise. Haddonfield in the daylight has its points of interest. The fugitive Myers has returned to his shuttered and dilapidated childhood home, the kind of rotting residential husk that schoolkids trade grim stories about and dare each other to enter while out messing around on Halloween. He takes an obscure but immediate interest in young Laurie Strode, a shy, bookish, teenaged babysitter (played by Hollywood royalty Jamie Lee Curtis in her first role) when she dares breach the sanctity of the Myers house’s front porch to drop off a door key for her realtor father. Myers watches her from just inside, his breathing ragged beneath a freshly stolen new mask. Soon the house will receive other visitors. Soon he’ll make other calls. The fictitious Haddonfield is the type of cloistered, tree-blanketed suburb in which people walk everywhere, or at least it was in the late 1970s. Carpenter’s anamorphic widescreen frame contains one exquisite, meticulous composition after another, and this second, sunlit movement of the film unfolds as a series of revealing medium to long shots, flowing and gliding not just to indicate movement but also to imply that implacable forces are out there, waiting, and have numerous places to hide. When night falls again at the 35-minute mark, this time permanently, these lessons will be put into practice.

Even if the referential (some would say cutthroat, others cannibalistic) nature of the larger horror genre ensured it’d never quite be able to stand alone, Halloween still stands comfortably apart, and the distance separating it from its legions of thieves and well-wishers isn’t so much a gulf as a chasm. It is distinguished, first and foremost, by its abiding, nigh unbearable, practically punishing, sense of patience. Carpenter clearly internalized many Hitchcockian principles of suspense, and steeps the film in instance after instance of audience knowledge withheld from his characters as a reliable way to generate the most scares and general unease possible. Myers, as presented, is almost as much ghost as man, and he haunts the edges of frames and creeps forward into view while the world of Laurie and her babysitter pals (seriously, Annie…turn around!) spins around him, oblivious to the threat he presents until it is exactly too late. There is certainly a tinge of the supernatural to the diligence and borderline omniscience with which Myers stalks Laurie, who crosses his path or catches his eye in so many contexts – he watches her from across the street outside her classroom window, trails her in the station wagon stolen from Smith’s Grove, lurks behind a hedge ahead of her, and stands outside her bedroom window amongst the hanging laundry in her backyard – only for him to instantly disappear, that she becomes credibly convinced she’s seeing things. It all ties nicely into the “bogeyman” concept that Laurie’s hyperactive young charge Tommy Doyle later introduces, and that Carpenter is only too agreeable to endorse and explore. None of this is successful without the film’s total commitment to pacing, which has the effect of making things feel claustrophobic even in open spaces and imparts on the proceedings a pervasive sense of creeping dread, which comes to a head at just the right moments, as whenever Myers finally reveals himself, or Laurie decides, against her better judgment, that she simply must investigate the house across the street.

Second, as mentioned before, Halloween is a challenging and invigorating film from a visual standpoint, given Carpenter’s mastery of widescreen shot architecture and penchant for striking imagery memorably deployed. He is aided immeasurably to both ends by Dean Cundey’s fluid, subtle photography, rich with not simply turning colors but the palpable feel of autumn, and which, in its use of then nascent/now irreplaceable Steadicam technology, broke real ground within the industry. Witness the long, expert tracking shots along a length of chain-link fence as little Tommy Doyle is bullied at school (one of his tormentors has a particularly satisfying close encounter immediately after) then makes a scuffling walk home he only believes is solitary, or the cruel beauty as Tommy, from his position of relative safety across the street, accidentally notices Myers carrying Annie’s body around the side of the Wallace house from the garage to the front door like a bride approaching the threshold. Less immediately obvious but no less crucial is the film’s relatability, with its small town Midwestern setting and trio of appealing lead actresses (only Curtis is credited as being “introduced” by the film, but Nancy Loomis and P.J. Soles, with only two significant cinematic credits between them at the time, are similarly refreshing young presences), buoyed by Carpenter’s investment in the feel of the former and, with producer Debra Hill writing their dialogue, the authenticity of the latter. Unlike later movies that tended toward treating the killer like a one-man show, Laurie is Halloween’s clear center, both in terms of narrative thrust and audience sympathy. Curtis, Loomis, and (despite her pseudo-comic reliance on the descriptor “totally”) Soles are all effortlessly engaging performers, fun to actively root for. Halloween even embraces the mood, magic, and mythos of this very peculiar and fascinating holiday with a warmth and seriousness that its direct successors – each of which, you’ll recall, contains the word “Halloween” in its name – at best pay lip service.

To hear Carpenter tell (and retell) it, this was all a sublime accident. The iconic mask, which has gotten progressively worse with almost every new iteration, was not some generic ghoul but a repurposed Captain Kirk mask, with teased hair, widened eyeholes, and a bone white paint job to better reflect the void at the heart of its wearer. The tight budget encouraged director to moonlight as composer, to unforgettable effect, and never allowed the production to even sniff heartland Illinois, instead substituting the suburbs of South Pasadena, CA, almost convincingly. The SoCal sidewalks run riot throughout with crisp, scattered, multi-colored leaves, while the trees in every background are conspicuously green. Carpenter’s merry band consisted of a couple dozen early twenty-somethings and one distinguished English theater vet who made his name in the West playing Ernst Stavro Blofeld to Sean Connery’s James Bond. He was just trying to make a modest horror movie about three babysitters being stalked by a killer on Halloween night, one which the world initially met with a shrug before providence stepped back in with a national reappraisal. I bring these bits of trivia up not to dwell on Halloween’s shortcomings, but in part because I realize my boundless/breathless unalloyed praise of the film so far might imply I don’t think it has any. To the contrary, I recognize Halloween has its flaws. It’s just that I could not possibly be less troubled by them. I first encountered Halloween at the still young but no longer tender age of fourteen, two months before I officially became a video pirate, recording it off of WGN television on its namesake night. Several twists of fate ensured that that version of the film, which even in its raw, edited form, still had a profound impact on me as both a lover of horror and a cinephile, would serve only as a baseline comparison piece for subsequent versions I would see, each of which would deepen the underlying connection while neatly highlighting a different aspect in which Halloween outpaces both the competition and its own children:

  • The WGN version, for reasons of operator incompetence, auto-recorded at 9:02 rather than 9:00pm. It would therefore be years before I realized that Halloween’s jack-o-lantern-adorned main titles even existed, let alone saw them, or heard Carpenter’s peerless piano theme in that context. That was predictably revelatory.
  • The WGN version contained no nudity, and, scant as it might’ve been in reality, the R-rated rental version was still a big deal to a sixteen-year-old in that respect. More interestingly, neither version contains a drop of blood, at least not that I can recall. This is in keeping with Carpenter’s emphasis on mood and suspense over carnage as the ultimate horror delivery system, precisely the sort of highly personal, outside-the-box thinking that Friday the 13th would blow directly to hell upon its release in 1980.
  • The WGN version, in a shameful concession to the times, was presented not in widescreen format but rather “panned and scanned”, a widespread practice that simultaneously compressed and blew up the picture so it would unnaturally fit a standard square television screen without the need for added black bars. Finally seeing Halloween in widescreen was an experience that for me stands second only to witnessing the original Star Wars trilogy unleashed. To be able to analyze and pick apart Carpenter’s marvelous visual compositions in all their glory was sublime, and awakened in me a near-maniacal need to collect widescreen films, which I indulged like an addict mid-plummet until the blessed advent of DVD. Pretty expensive hobby for a college student in those days.

Some things don’t change, of course, regardless of vessel or version. Quality is quality. Halloween remains one of my very favorite films of all time, regardless of genre, one which, by quick and dirty recollection, I have, over the course of my movie-going life, owned eight different times in three different formats. Almost every time I watch it, I come away with something new. Fluid and riveting, it does not bludgeon the viewer but, rather, steadily wears away his or her sense of wellbeing. With its prototypical climactic struggle between Myers and thoughtful, virginal “final girl” Laurie, complete with the dramatic unveiling of both Laurie’s dead friends and Carpenter’s staccato “terror theme”***, Halloween is, strangely enough, the vandalized Captain Kirk mask that, Helen of Troy-like, launched 1000 slashers (a good number of which I do enjoy), despite its counterintuitive insistence on atmosphere over mayhem, shadow over blood, creeping chills over jump scares, and diametric opposition to the lowest common denominator thinking that came to dominate if not define the subgenre almost immediately. It is a triumphant marriage of low-fi practicality and artisan craft, and excels in so many areas – mood, pacing, composition, score, photography, relatable protagonists, unforgettable killer – that other horror movies either pass barely or fail miserably, that, by virtue of its mere existence, it presents a near impossible challenge to the incalculable many that have followed in its wake. Stumble at all and you’re an amateur. Fall outright and you might as well stay down. If, on the other hand, you step gracefully, or thrive to any degree within the narrow parameters you’ve defined, that success might well call as much unfair attention for axe-grinding viewers like me to the Carpenter masterpiece as it does to your well-intentioned, well-executed, late period remix. You can neither beat Halloween outright nor optimistically hope to join it. At best, you can suck its blood like a leech, or cling to its hull like a barnacle beneath a cruise ship.

***Along with the immortal main title, Carpenter’s “terror theme” remains one of only two pieces of music I can play on the piano. This is no major accomplishment, given that it’s something so rudimentary, but it’s also no end of fun.

The Michael Myers of October, 1978 vintage will always be that implacable figure, that watcher, that nebulous killer, that shape, seen silhouetted through the slats of a locked closet just before he busts his way inside, or sitting up at the end of a violent confrontation and calmly turning his head your way, or an expressionless rubber face melting out of the utter darkness of an upstairs hallway, advancing slowly, just over your left shoulder, carving knife at the ready. Michael Myers towers and endures, because he is simplicity itself, evil personified, unstoppable, unforgettable, with the blackest eyes…and because, even bearing all that in mind, I still can’t help referring to “it” as “him”.

“Halloween” (1978) 4/4 stars

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