I am a big John Carpenter fan and always have been. “Halloween” was the movie that finally put him on the map in Hollywood, and it took everyone by surprise.
Now what is there to be said about “Halloween” that has not already been said? It has been discussed ad nauseam in many circles. Even Carpenter must be sick to death of talking about it all the damn time. Granted, he did take the time to record a new commentary track with Jamie Lee Curtis for Anchor Bay’s 35th anniversary edition, but when the 25th anniversary edition came out, that just had the same commentary track from the Criterion Collection laserdisc. In all fairness, it’s a great commentary track, but back then it was understood why he wasn’t as willing to talk about the movie all over again.
We all know the story by now, and it is in large part due to the countless (not to mention endless) imitators who rushed to create their own psychotic killer once they saw how much “Halloween” had made at the box office. At the time it was released, it was the most successful independent movie ever made. Made for about $300,000, the movie ended up grossing over $50 million. “Friday The 13th” would have never existed without “Halloween,” and that one is much more responsible for the numerous clichés we see in slasher movies of this type.
What I love about this movie, and why it still retains much of its power to scare to this very day, is how down to earth it is. All of these characters, the three teenage girls, the little boy Laurie Strode babysits, the bullies who destroy Tommy’s pumpkin, the sheriff and even Dr. Loomis come across as very relatable. The way the script is written and the actors directed, these characters easily remind us of people from our own lives we grew up with. The only character in the whole movie that is NOT down to earth is Michael Meyers who is a killer who seemingly (in the first movie anyway) has no motive for why he does what he does. As the movie goes on, we barely see him as a person at all, and he comes across more as a force of evil that cannot be stopped.
That’s what makes the movie so damn scary. We have all at one time or another lived in a town like Haddonfield, a small town where families can raise their children in peace (or so it would seem) and the problems they face pale in comparison to what big cities have to deal with. The parents see small town life as a home away from reality, but for their children it is reality. It is all they know. So when something like multiple murders occur there, it threatens to define the town above everything else it is known for. Was there anything else interesting about Haddonfield before young Michael Meyers took a knife to his sister when he was only a boy?
I also love the way this movie was shot. Working with Director of Photography Dean Cundey, Carpenter creates truly unnerving visuals of a killer lurking in the shadows. One moment Michael appears in the frame, and then the next thing you know he is gone. He could be anywhere and there is no escape from him. How does one escape from evil in this day and age anyway? One of Carpenter’s main themes with “Halloween” is how evil never dies. It is a force that is always with us whether we like it or not, and it is just around the corner…
One of my favorite shots in the movie is where little Tommy is fooling around with Lindsay as they watch Howard Hawks’ version of “The Thing.” While Tommy is doing that, he sees a man carrying a lifeless body from the garage to the front door. The bullies at school kept warning him that the boogeyman is coming, and unfortunately they are correct (by coincidence mind you). It is one of the creepiest images from the movie and one that always stays with me. Don’t you wonder what your neighbors are up to while all this is going on?
The other brilliant thing about “Halloween” is the way it is edited as it was cut in such a way where you cannot be sure what will happen next or when Michael will appear next. The best example of that is when Laurie Strode is running away from Michael. At that point you are in her shoes as she desperately tries to escape the madman who murdered her friends while wearing that William Shatner mask. The editing plays with your emotions beautifully. You want her to escape, but you soon feel as helpless as her as she begs for Tommy to wake.
The moment where she is at the front door of Tommy’s house, screaming for him to let her in, is one of the scariest scenes I have seen in any movie. It intercuts with her banging on the door while we see the Shape approaching her, and Carpenter brilliantly succeeds in literally putting us into her shows. Like her, we are begging for Tommy to unlock the door to where we want to yell at the movie screen, TV set or whatever device you are using to watch this horror classic.
And who can ever forget the music? Carpenter’s score for “Halloween” ranks among the greatest and scariest movie scores ever done. I would put it up there with Bernard Herrmann’s score for “Psycho.” Carpenter’s work on film scores has been done mostly in a minimalist style, very much unlike the bombastic orchestral scores from composers like John Williams. After all these years, the main title for “Halloween” is a piece of music I never ever get sick of listening to. The music succeeds brilliantly in heightening the ever growing tension that never lets up even after the movie has ended.
The final shot is unnerving and utterly perfect in the way Carpenter shows how evil never dies. We see images we have become familiar with as they were shown throughout the movie, and now they have the stain of evil on them. We never find out where Michael is or what he is up to (not until the sequel anyway), and the point is that at this point he could be anywhere.
This is definitely one of my all-time favorite movies, and the recent 35th anniversary edition Blu-ray reminded me of how I never get tired of watching it. Jamie Lee Curtis is great here as Laurie Strode, the only one who is the least bit observant about what’s going on around her. Then you have P.J. Soles and Nancy Loomis as Laurie’s so-called friends who frolic around, completely unaware of the killer stalking them from a distance. And then you have Donald Pleasance, and his Dr. Loomis is a character that pretty much came to define the latter half of his character. He is unforgettable here as sells us on a lot of dialogue that could have come off as ridiculous if the wrong actor was cast in the role.
Many say that “Halloween” originated that everlasting cliché of how teenagers who ended up having premarital sex and did drugs were the first ones to get killed off. In the Criterion commentary, both Carpenter and the late Debra Hill make it abundantly clear that they were not trying to lay any sort of judgment on these characters. Religion was not intended to shoved down our throats by anyone involved with this movie. These characters don’t get murdered because they are being naughty. They get killed because they aren’t paying attention to what is going on around them. Laurie Strode, on the other hand, is always very suspicious of her surroundings.
Then of course there came the sequels, which went from good to god awful. I actually enjoyed “Halloween II” even if it is a rip off of the original. I admired the fact that they tried to go in a different direction with “Halloween III: Season of the Witch,” but the audience wasn’t expecting a Michael Meyers-less sequel so it flopped. “Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Meyers” was technically well made even as it descended into the clichés of the typical slasher movie, and once you got past that it proved to be worth watching. But don’t even get me started on “Halloween: The Curse of Michael Meyers” because that one (the theatrical version anyway) was god awful. They tried to explain why Michael is evil, but evil can never really be fully explained unless you want to take the threat of it away.
John Carpenter’s “Halloween” will always remain the best of all the so-called slasher movies in my humble opinion. There is no way anyone can top what he did with that movie, and that’s even though Rob Zombie’s take on Michael Meyers was better than people give him credit for. It has reached such a high level of praise in the ever growing pantheon of movies that duplicating its power to shock audiences is extremely difficult to pull off. The fact that it still has the power to unsettle generations of audiences is a testament to Carpenter’s brilliance as a director, and its amazing success led him to make many other great films that stay with us long after the end credits have finished.