Director: John Carpenter
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence, Nancy Kyes, Charles Cyphers, Kyle Richards, P.J. Soles, Tony Moran
Words – Oliver Innocent.
John Carpenter’s Halloween proved to be a huge hit at the box-office, establishing its young filmmaker as one of the top genre directors of the era. With its simple tale of babysitters stalked by a masked assailant Halloween took horror by storm. Thanks to its solid shocks, memorable score, and iconic villain, it’s now considered one of the landmarks of horror cinema.
Halloween marks itself out as something special right from the get go with an unsettling title sequence. The camera slowly moves towards a Jack-O’-lantern against a black background while showcasing Carpenter’s instantly recognisable piano and synthesiser-based score; a score that’s up there with John Williams’ theme for Jaws in terms of eliciting a sense of primal terror with a simple yet effective repetition of notes.
If the titles are an unsettling mood-setter then the opening scenes are an aggressive statement of intent. Forcing the audience to look through the killer’s eyes via a prowling POV shot as he murders his sister is a bold move but Carpenter pulls it off. The tension keeps building as the camera goes from voyeur to stalker and finally attacker, placing the viewer in an unnerving position. Carpenter doesn’t stop here though. No, even as you’re still reeling from the first kill he hits you with another shock as we discover the killer is actually just a young boy.
Cut to 15 years later and straight into another tense sequence as Myers makes his escape from a mental institution on a dark and stormy night. This is where we’re introduced to Myers’ doctor, Sam Loomis, expertly played by veteran actor Donald Pleasence. No stranger to over-the-top roles, Pleasence had already cemented his genre credentials playing a wild outback drunk in the nightmarish Aussie shocker Wake in Fright, and an eccentric police detective in London Underground-set cannibal slasher Death Line.
Pleasence draws on these earlier roles to deliver marvellously melodramatic lines such as “he had the blackest eyes; the devil’s eyes”. It is in this way that the character also acts as a device, passing his own fear on to the audience as he imbues Myers with an almost supernatural menace, elevating him to mythic status as a being of pure evil.
The audience finally gets some respite from the unrelenting tension as we’re introduced to Laurie and her high school friends. Although their ‘70s fashions and lingo may seem dated now, it doesn’t make them any less likeable. Especially when compared to the vacuous teens that would come to populate slasher films in Halloween’s wake. No, these are fun, vibrant characters who are full of life; something which gives their later fates even more poignancy and impact.
Playing lone survivor Laurie, newcomer Jamie Lee Curtis obviously made a good impression, quickly becoming the go to scream queen before breaking the typecast and emerging as a big Hollywood star.
Once darkness descends on the town of Haddonfield the tension rarely lets up. The last half of the film unfolds like a combination of nightmare and funhouse ride as Myers picks off the ill-fated teens one by one. It’s where Myers ceases to be a man and becomes The Shape. Donning a blank white mask, his face appears an emotionless inhuman visage. Further dehumanised by his silence, there’s simply nothing human to relate to. He’s a child’s nightmare made flesh; the monster lurking in the closet or behind the sofa, the archetypal ‘boogeyman’.
This section of the film is built around long drawn out build-ups punctuated by short, sharp shocks. The tense build-ups owe a debt to Alfred Hitchcock as Carpenter proves himself a more than worthy heir to the master of suspense’s throne. Utilising space and darkness to maximum effect, he frames scenes so there’s always an empty space The Shape can suddenly lunge out from or a dark corner where he can materialise.
The sudden jolts meanwhile are more akin to those found in contemporaries Jaws and Carrie, which saw audiences flying out of their seats with a disembodied head popping out of a boat and a hand thrusting from the ground, respectively. Unlike these movies where the big shock moments act almost like the icing on the cake, they are an absolutely integral aspect of Halloween, central to its success as a scary movie.
It’s the apotheosis of the jump scare-based horror movie, its shocks surprising, unrelenting, and utterly crowd-pleasing. It’s also a definite blueprint for much modern horror, particularly the propulsive jolts of James Wan’s Insidious and The Conjuring.
Halloween is a simple movie with a simple goal; to build tension and make you jump. That’s why it works so well. Lacking a high budget or special effects, Carpenter instead focuses on what he does have at his disposal – namely camera, lighting, composition, sound and music – and uses the weapons in his arsenal to maximum effect. It’s almost like Pure Cinema filtered through an exploitation popcorn movie.
This all culminates in a fantastically creepy ending where Loomis, after shooting The Shape numerous times until he falls from the top floor of a house, looks down only to discover the boogeyman has gone. It then cuts to a montage of places where the evil has been, scored by both The Shape’s signature heavy breathing and Carpenter’s eerie soundtrack.
For a film as jump scare-laden as Halloween, it subverts expectations by opting to forgo the then in vogue Carrie-style shock ending, instead favouring something far more unsettling. Good doesn’t prevail; the evil is still out there. In fact, it’s everywhere.