Some movies are just special. There is really no rhyme or reason as to why. But some movies just trigger us. They ignite a love for film, a love for genre, a love of emotion and experience. And it is different for all of us. For my wife, it is seeing Debbie Reynolds dance and sing in Singin’ in the Rain. For a close friend of mine, it is the romance of Cary Elwes and Robin Wright in The Princess Bride. My love for film is just a little bit darker, and I can remember it as soon as I hear the opening notes of the score.
Halloween, in my mind, is a classic in every sense of the word. I can already hear the complaints. I have had numerous conversations about how it is overrated, simple, and just a slasher. I could not disagree more with these statements. It is not great “for its time.” It is not amazing “for a horror movie.” It is not phenomenal “despite the effects.” It is great, amazing, and phenomenal regardless of comparison. I firmly believe that you can see, in John Carpenter, a master of his craft at work throughout the runtime.
Honestly, even if I were to only watch the opening scene of the film, I would be completely satisfied. It gives us that ever present theme, and opens with a known Halloween image, the jack-o-lantern. This decision immediately puts us in the frame of mind necessary for a horror film. But most importantly, this introductory scene, which features a first-person view of the vicious murder of a teenage girl by young Michael Myers, sets the entire film into motion as well as pointing the finger at the voyeuristic audience. The removal of the mask to reveal the small boy is inherently shocking. Many horror fans, myself included, sometimes root for the killer. The guilt of rooting for this killer should be palpable. But even after that squirm inducing moment, we are informed that there is more to fear than our own conscience. Carpenter tells us that there are no reasons, there are no motives. This is something that, in my mind, was Rob Zombie’s biggest error in his remake. The scary part isn’t the killing. The scary part is that there is no reaching Michael. Plus, there is no reason for his murderous streak. The terror of the average white family from the suburbs producing a sociopathic killer hits home in the creation of this villain. As Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) says, “I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply, evil.”
But the most important creation of Halloween is not its killer (and we’ll get to that), it is the creation of a girl to root for. Much has been made of the final girl trope, and that is certainly here. This is, of course, one of the first, and probably the most well-known of the final girls. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is immediately relatable. She is a good friend, she studies, she is nervous around people she is attracted to, and most importantly, she is smart. It is important to note that although she does not have sex (like every final girl), she clearly has desires. She is not innocent, which can help dismiss the idea that the film is misogynistic or purely sadistic. Curtis gives a performance for the ages, and even watching it now, you can see why she became a star in the coming years. A horror film is not always the easiest place to show off your acting chops, but this role is played with a reality and a grace that one would be hard pressed to find, regardless of genre.
Of course, the one thing that most Halloween movies in the franchise have in common is Michael Myers (Nick Castle). Here he is credited as “The Shape” and that only furthers the anonymity of the suburban killer. As I think back to my first viewing, decades ago, he immediately frightened me. He is not Freddy, who is constantly throwing verbal barbs before attacking. He is not Pinhead, who plots and torments his victims. He is unstoppable. He will never stop coming for you once his sights are set. This lack of emotion and plodding nature is more unnerving than any line of dialogue. Scream all you want, hide in the best possible place. Michael Myers is coming. Certainly, the hulking stature of Castle adds an extra bit of terror. Even if he didn’t have his knife, that is not the guy you want to mess with. More importantly though, Carpenter masterfully holds back the reveal of Myers. For the first half of the film, we get only glimpses. We see a shadow leap over Dr. Loomis’s car in the early moments. We do see him walk through the neighborhood, but clever camera angles never show us the reveal until the scariest possible moment. These glimpses put us firmly in the perspective of Laurie, never knowing if what we are seeing is real or just at the edges of our overactive imaginations.
What makes this a classic is not just the killer, and not just the heroine. It is the ability for Carpenter and his co-screenwriter Debra Hill to mix tone expertly. When you watch a horror movie, you expect blood, maybe a cool score, and enough victims to kill. Rarely do you get comic timing as well. Now, it can be argued that besides Laurie, all of these characters are almost too stupid to live. This is true, which bonds us to Laurie even more. However, there is a series of kills involving a couple, one in a kitchen, and one in a bedroom, that are seared in my memory forever. After his first kill in the kitchen, there is a wonderful, almost childish moment as Michael stares at the body, almost not knowing what to make of it, as it balances on the wall, pinned by his large knife. The successive moment, with Michael in a ghost sheet (another stereotypical Halloween image), is honestly hilarious, until it becomes terrifying. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, these moments would stand out as glaring misuses of humor. But here, it is just right. Carpenter knows how to make this work.
Halloween, like many successful horror films, has spawned numerous sequels and remakes. To my mind, none has approached the success of the original. This is not a big surprise, as most don’t. But there is something special about the original, and there is a reason it has stayed in the public consciousness. It was even selected for preservation by the United States Film Registry in the Library of Congress. I’m sure Carpenter never had this level of success in his mind when he created this on a shoestring budget. But his talent, passion, and dedication are on display here and it has influenced those in the genre for better or worse. The slasher genre is nothing if not prolific. I only wish that more of these films gave us a heroine like Laurie to get behind. Like many others I’m sure, Halloween ignited my love of film and I will forever be grateful.
Featured Image: Compass International