John Carpenter’s Halloween is a movie that is often cited as the birth of the slasher movie, but if you step back and break down the classic 1978 psychological horror film, it soon becomes clear that the numerous sequels and the movies it inspired are what gained it the slasher title, rather than the tense, low-budget, almost bloodless original. As we approach the night of ghouls, ghosts and the boogeyman, and with Halloween Kills currently carving up the box office, there seems no better time to take a look back at the unlikely masterpiece, which was directed by a man who, at the time, had no desire to make a horror movie.
As a child of the 80s, I vividly remember visiting the local video store where, while my parents were occupied waiting on the guy behind the counter trying to locate whichever family friendly film I had chosen, I would be happily perusing the covers of the videos in the horror section. I was fascinated by the images of Freddy and Jason, movies like Critters and Return of the Living Dead Part III, and a movie called Halloween, which at first glance seemed to be just an image of a carved pumpkin, but then when you looked closer, you could see that the final piece of the picture was actual a man’s hand holding a knife. Written to side was the tagline, “The night he came home.”
The ambiguity of the disembodied hand, combined with the mystery of who “he” was played on my mind for years until I saw the movie for the first time. Revisiting Halloween over three decades after seeing that image for the first time, I can now appreciate how John Carpenter built the entire story of the movie on that ambiguity and ensured that no sequel or remake would ever be able to replicate it in the same way.
The film opens with the credits where we hear for the first time the unnerving theme music, written by John Carpenter, which consists of a constant and relentless clicking sound as its backbeat, a spine-tingling piano melody, the strings and bass which come in and build to a crescendo before returning to its simple origin and repeating again. The theme goes on to be used throughout the movie, almost in homage to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, coming in whenever danger is near and setting you on edge for something bad happening.
In the opening scene, we are given a first person view of a brutal murder. Through the eyes of the killer we see the events unfold gradually, until there is a knife flying through the air, a girl being stabbed repeatedly as she screams and a bloodied corpse left on the floor. Except, part of that is all in the mind, as we never actually see the stabbing itself, only the action of the knife sweeping back and forth, the sounds of the attack and the very brief glimpse of the aftermath. Yet, if anyone asked if you see someone being stabbed in that opening sequence, you would describe the most brutal scene imaginable, mainly because Carpenter was careful to pitch it so perfectly that you imagine more than you see. What we do see however, is the reveal of the child who has committed the murder; Michael Myers.
Following a time jump of fifteen years and the introduction to psychiatrist Dr. Samuel Loomis, played by the brilliant Donald Pleasance, and the escape of Michael Myers from the Smith’s Grove Sanitarium, Carpenter does what can never be done by anyone else in the Halloween franchise – he builds to the reveal of Michael Myer’s masked face. Once you see the iconic mask, no one can pull off that kind of reveal again. When Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis in her first movie role) drops keys off at the Myers house, we get a partial shot of the back of a head inside the house, then a moment later we see the arm of someone in garage overalls watching Laurie walk in away in a shot that lingers just long enough to become almost awkward to continue watching. Subsequently we see young boy Tommy being followed by the same overall wearing figure, and this time we get to see a glimpse of his chin, which appears to be strangely white and almost like it is a mask, but we see nothing more than that. Only then do we begin to see Michael Myers in full, fleetingly seeming to follow Laurie wherever she goes, appearing behind bushes, behind a fluttering line of washing, in a shadowy doorway, but never for long and only long enough to make you think that this time something is going to happen. But it doesn’t. And that is where Carpenter’s Halloween succeeds where many of its sequels fail. Similar to what was seen decades later in the Saw franchise, a tight, tense first movie, which builds on a simple story and keeps you expecting the horror and violence that never quite comes until the final act, the increasing bodycount and bloody deaths seen in the subsequent entries is what has over time turned Halloween into a slasher movie.
To prove this point, with the exception of the killing of a dog and the mechanic that Michael steals his overalls from, both of which are done off camera, the first killing by Michael on screen comes almost an hour into the 90 minute film and even then, the death of Annie in her car is mostly seen from outside and you do not actually see Michael cut her throat as Carpenter again leaves the blood and gore to your imagination. And this trend continues, even as the bodycount very slowly rises, we see no blood, no “injury detail” and in most cases nothing more than a knife movement and a sound, very much in the same way Hitchcock managed to make everyone believe they had seen one of the most brutal scenes ever filmed in the Psycho shower scene. Michael stabs one victim with a knife, pinning him to the door in a darkened room but the actual stab is off camera again, another victim is strangled with a phone wire in one of the only deaths that is seen up close and in full and only then, in the final fifteen minutes of the movie, does Carpenter finally deliver scare, after scare and multiple bodies in a seesaw of tension building and release, with his simple, nerve-jangling score always present in the background as he builds to a body falling from the ceiling, or the sudden appearance of Michael from a darkened doorway.
The final ten minutes see Laurie fighting for her life as she is pursued by Michael, screaming through the streets of Haddonfield until she makes it home with Michael right behind her. In the showdown that follows, Laurie stabs Michael with his own knife, which is ironically the closest we see to a knife actually being put into someone, but as we know the killer always comes back, and Carpenter uses the rule to set up the final scene and a moment that has been imitated in horror movies through the decades since. After slowly approaching from behind, as even in the final moments Carpenter doesn’t rush what he can take time over, Michael grabs Laurie and in the tussle his mask is pulled off and we see his face revealed for the only time in the movie, before he is shot by Loomis and falls from the upstairs window of the house to an assumed death. Of course, this is a horror movie and therefore the next time Loomis looks out of the window, Michael is nowhere to be seen and the movie ends with a montage of locations from the film, with Michael’s heavy breathing imposed over the top as Carpenter’s main theme kicks in and leads us out of the movie in the belief that Michael is out there and could be anywhere.
For those who have not seen the original Halloween for a long time, or at all, there are many notable things to be taken from it. In the first movie, there is no true connection between Laurie and Michael, as the brother/sister revelation is something that only came about in the sequel, which was the only other movie to be written by Carpenter and was supposed to complete the story of Laurie and Michael. However, anyone who has seen the 2018 reboot of the franchise, will have noticed that in this new trilogy, Laurie and Michael are no longer related, as it ignores everything after Carpenter’s original ’78 film, and even in a way alters the ending to say that Michael didn’t just vanish but was subsequently arrested and institutionalized.
However, while the new movies bring something different to the ball game, they still don’t do as much with so little as Carpenter managed with his movie. Halloween was made on a budget of around $300,000, and grossed $60-$70 million. Watching the film now, sitting it alongside some of its reboots and other “slasher” movies of modern times, which feel the need to deliver special effects, blood and increasingly gruesome on-screen deaths with the belief that it will make the movie scarier for audiences, stands as testament to the belief that horror movies built on increasing tension and not just an extreme body count can be far more effective and memorable, and don’t have to be laden with special effects.
For every Halloween movie that followed, Carpenter’s expert, slow reveal of Michael Myers ensured that sequels would never be able to just rely on that kind of thing again, and would have to succumb to the lore of horror films that says once you create a villain that becomes an iconic figure, you have to show that villain more and more, doing the thing they do best in more elaborate ways. In many ways, this is sad, because throughout every horror franchise, some great movie debuts have been lost amongst the slew of crowd-pleasing, almost pastiche, offerings that followed in their wake. It is probably best to end with the words of John Carpenter himself, who explained Halloween as “true crass exploitation. I decided to make a film I would love to have seen as a kid, full of cheap tricks like a haunted house at a fair where you walk down the corridor and things jump out at you.” And that is exactly what he did, but he did it in style and in a way that should remind any budding filmmaker that you don’t need a huge budget to make a really scary movie.
The original Halloween, and many of its sequels, is streaming on various platforms, and Halloween Kills is currently playing movie theaters and streaming on paid tiers of Peacock.
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