Overview: A man, who as a child was institutionalized for killing his sister, escapes his mental hospital to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting group of suburban teenagers. Compass International Pictures. 1978. Rated R. 91 minutes.
Why It Still Works: Thirty-five years later, Halloween continues to thrill, and its longevity boils down to three components: characters, style, and music.
Low budget, independent horror films tend to recruit the bottom of the barrel actors, something Halloween largely managed to evade. The film can attribute much of its lasting success to the brilliantly cast Jamie Lee Cutis (Laurie Strode). The flawlessly executed heroine steers clear of defaulting to damsel in distress. She’s an ordinary, average, could-be-me type of gal. Donald Pleasence (Dr. Sam Loomis), delivers a scene-stealing performance as our boogeyman’s perfect foil, though his likability is compromised by his slow, poor judgment and ultimate incompetence. The favorable reading of the iconic serial killer Michael Myers can be attributed to his ambiguous origin. He is not the oddly likable Hannibal Lecter; he is not a man in possession of the fascinating logic of Se7en’s John Doe; he isn’t pitiable like the disturbed Norman Bates. Michael Myers is essentially just the ultimate predator stalking his prey. He has no motivation, rhyme, or reason. There is simply no identifying with this villain.
By seamlessly transitioning from point-of-view shots to panning widescreen shots, director John Carpenter demonstrates precision in every scene. He ensures his audience isn’t witnessing a massacre but experiencing it. The palpable tension is so flawlessly executed that some of the most terrifying scenes are those in which nothing at all happens.
Perhaps what makes Halloween most successful is the theme music. Because the leitmotif is so inextricably tied to Myers himself, those few piano keys insight instant suspense. Those basic notes have haunted our culture ever since. The perfection lies in the simplicity.
Let’s Talk About Sex: The promiscuous—or let’s just say the sexually active—must die. This wasn’t always a given. Halloween helped launch rules (that became clichés) of slasher films: sex equals death, virgins live, the killer can’t be killed, characters are always blissfully unaware of their surroundings, and you can count on there being a victim who willfully hides in a dead end. (Really? You actually chose to hide in the closet?) The virginal, innocent of heart are the only ones capable of defeating pure evil. Or, in following suit with the most superficial view of Halloween, sex serves as an easy way to preoccupy victims (you lose peripheral vision post-coitus, right?) and a glimpse of boobs never hurt anybody.
Forgive me: Halloween is an absolute classic and essentially a disaster. If you diagram it, it falls apart. Compared to the standard of its predecessors (and many of its successors), it crumbles. If it wasn’t one your first horror films, you may just not get it. Gore-blood-gut seekers will be ultimately disappointed. After all, you’ll see more blood in pubescent boy’s first beard shaving attempt than the entirety of the film.
Deconstruct Halloween all you will, it remains a horror film progenitor, credited for the slasher subgenre. (Whether or not this is actually true is perfectly debatable, however, it undeniably popularized the genre allowing me no reservations in justifying that the credit can be retroactively fit to Halloween.) The true brilliance in this film lies in its Hitchcockian principle: suspense trumps gore. Violence is easy. Suspense is skill. For that alone, it has secured its place as one of the most iconic horror films of all time.