It starts with the music, which rises as the screen fades from black to reveal the sinister orange glow of the credits and a leering jack o’ lantern. The rapid, staccato piano notes indicating an oppressive force at work; relentless and unforgiving. John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) is about all of these sensations and more; concrete vibrations that have echoed through the halls of horror, resounding from time to time to remind audiences of its lasting influence and potency.
By now, most know the story of how Halloween came to be and the landmark it truly is. How producer Irwin Yablans approached Carpenter about doing a horror film after seeing his Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), and wanted it to revolve around babysitters; how the film was initially panned by major critics, and then re-evaluated once it started to become popular; how it ended up making over $70 million worldwide at the box office against a $325,000 budget, making it (up to that point) the most successful independent motion picture of all time. These are the facts; but the real reach of Halloween is its influence on the horror world, and more importantly to me, how I viewed horror then compared to now. And when I say “then”, I mean I saw this film in a darkened theatre at the age of eight.
The plot is evergreen by this point: It’s Halloween Night, 1963, and little Michael Myers kills his sister Judith in her room after she’s had sex with her already departed boyfriend. Cut to fifteen years later, and institutionalized Michael is to be transferred to another facility by Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence, in the role originally offered to Christopher Lee), but Michael steals the county car first and heads for his hometown of Haddonfield. We meet Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends; regular teenagers getting ready for that night’s Halloween festivities (in this case, babysitting). Once the darkness falls, Michael begins his reign of terror in the place it started fifteen years ago.
It was the fall of 1978 and my brother Jeff, six years my elder, was babysitting me. I had seen the trailer several times, but didn’t think I’d be able to witness the film. (Although even by this point, our parents were pretty liberal with our viewing habits.) We were bored, and Jeff, on the spur of the moment, told me we were going to see Halloween. I hurriedly threw on my jacket, and out the door we ran. Our town of Estevan, Saskatchewan was not unlike Haddonfield; tree lined streets and a sense of security (at least when you’re shielded as a kid) permeated every block that spewed forth from the Souris Valley. We arrived on foot fifteen minutes later at the Orpheum Theatre, Estevan’s sanctuary of cinematic glory. Jeff somehow convinced the manager that we were locked out of the house and had nowhere to go until our parents returned. (This was tricky, but it worked; NOBODY locked their doors back then.) We missed the beginning of the film, instead fumbling for our seats as Laurie dropped off the keys at the Myer’s decrepit manor. (On a side note – who would buy that thing?) We didn’t care; Jeff and I were swept up in the proceedings despite the lack of backstory presented to us stragglers, and also proving how well Halloween still works with as little or no context available.
We left the Orpheum some seventy minutes later, mouths agape and nerves engaged. That walk home was even more brisk; the pace was increased to seemingly match our heart rate like some organic Fitbit. And of course, once we reached home, the fear amplified; creaks, doors closing unexpectedly, every sound turned up to ten in our frazzled minds. I never did ask Jeff how he danced with the fear; I can only speak to my own experience. Much is made of Michael Myers representing Death; but for me, he stood for the Unknown. If you’re lucky enough to come from a stable home environment, life is filled with absolutes as a child. Present parents, friends to play with, routines and rituals that define who you are at that moment. Death was not an absolute for me at the age of eight (although my aunt had died when I was six, I had pushed that from my mind), or even an idea to wrap my head around. Michael Myers represented a temporary break in my reality chain – “who is this monster destroying the citizens of Haddonfield” and after several viewings, “where can I get that mask?” – a shiny blade piercing my bubble. But Death? It never occurred to me. As the real world caught up with my horror outlook later on (I lost both grandfathers when I was ten), Death on film became an ever increasing reminder of mortality.
All the baggage that Halloween has accumulated over the years – it led to a slew of inferior imitations (true; but it wasn’t the first slasher, it was merely the purest example of the form to date), it lags by today’s standards (false; the pacing is deliberate and calibrated for suspense that slowly coils around the viewer unexpectedly), and no motivation for the killings (because there’s no such thing as senseless murder?) – are ultimately left by the roadside because Carpenter’s intent was simple: to terrify us. It’s the purest of motives in the horror film, and at its core, what we hope it will achieve. Halloween stands apart in Carpenter’s best work because of a lack of politics; one only need look to Assault, Escape from New York (1981), The Thing (1982), or They Live (1988), for his personal views on societal injustices and fears. To quote Sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers), “It’s Halloween; everyone’s entitled to one good scare.” This is Carpenter’s mission statement for Halloween, except he exceeds that quota within the first fifteen minutes.
Cinematographer Dean Cundey is the main contractor for building Carpenter’s spook house. His widescreen compositions promise evil right outside the frame; or, even worse, it’s there and we’re not even aware until it’s too late. Michael seemingly appears from the shadows ready to strike; a fearful specter relentless and unblinking. As Loomis confirms to Laurie at the film’s conclusion, he was The Boogeyman.
And he was my Boogeyman. I never glommed onto the Universal monsters until much later in life; the sympathy, the pathos felt for (and by) these misbegotten creatures isn’t present in Michael, who instead stands as a distillation of dread. For kids of my generation, Michael, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Krueger were the Aurora glow in the dark model kits that we stared at, unblinking, across the room in the middle of the night. I guess if you can choose your heroes, you can pick your villains.
How does Halloween sit with me now? Well, the fear is certainly gone, replaced by the day to day struggles (and joys) of adulthood. After watching it (and half watching it, to be honest) countless times, I just marvel at the precision of its construct. Thrillers rely on timing; a hard thing to accomplish, and no you can’t count throwing a cat by a window as suspense. The scene must be set, which Carpenter does masterfully once Michael hijacks the county car and races headlong towards his destiny. Carpenter and Cundey set their stage; establishing shots of the homes to be violated, and conversations between the teenagers that ring true with the aimless depth that friends have with one another (natural presences like Curtis, P.J. Soles, and Nancy Loomis certainly helps). Carpenter needs to still the waters before he can splash around, and there’s placidness to the school scenes – until Michael shows up. Because Carpenter doesn’t give us a full reveal for a long time (once in town, he briefly stops a schoolyard bully outside of class, and the screen only shows Michael’s bottom half and the bully’s startled expression), the viewer is thrown as to his true dimensions (and intentions). As the film nears its finale, we see more of the full, shadowy Michael and the terror truly becomes realized. This is the Jaws (1975) ploy; except that was done out of budgetary necessity, whereas Carpenter purposefully gives us bits of Michael to toy with our senses.
For a new viewer, how will Halloween play? It’s hard to say. So many horror films have come and gone in its wake, that a jaded perspective is almost guaranteed. But a true horror fan would (and should) be interested in what preceded Scream (1996), any of the Friday the 13th’s, or any “teens in peril” flicks, just as much as they should be interested in what films influenced Halloween, such as Psycho, Peeping Tom (both 1960), and Black Christmas (1974). But none are as ruthless as Halloween in execution, and Carpenter doesn’t ease his grip until the music fades away. I’ve long ago reconciled that the fear is gone. However, it’s always comforting to catch up with old friends, and my Boogeyman is never too far from the shadows.
Halloween is available on Blu-ray from Anchor Bay/Scream Factory as part of Halloween: The Complete Collection.
[Editor's Note: Congratulations to Scott on 100 installments of Drive-In Dust Offs! Your passion for the genre oozes out of every article. Combined with your skills as a writer and a thought-provoking analysis of each film, I anxiously await each article as much as any Daily Dead reader.
To celebrate, we're giving away the Halloween Blu-ray collection. Learn more here: