This year a fellow movie blogger and I decided to find a horror franchise we weren’t all that familiar with and watch in its entirety. There were a few possibilities but in the end we settled on the Halloween series; mainly because there are a good number of films in the franchise and neither of us had seen that many of them. Personally, I’m of course familiar with the original, but other than that have only seen Halloween H20 (years and years ago) and the Rob Zombie remake/reboot from 2007.
It’s often difficult to revisit a hugely influential piece of art through a fog of imitators. John Carpenter’s seminal 1978 movie Halloween wasn’t exactly the first slasher film, drawing influences from a few earlier movies, but it’s the one that innovated and popularised the template so many subsequent movies drew from, or just shamelessly ripped-off. I hadn’t seen the film for many years but remembered still finding it hugely effective when I first saw it as a teenager, and was interested to see how it held up now.
So first things first, there are inevitably a few minor aspects to Halloween that haven’t dated all that well. Obviously some of the fashion and hairstyles are firmly stuck in the seventies, and may seem a little comical to today’s teens. But there are a few other things; an early conversation Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) has with a couple of her high school friends contains some rather poor and unconvincing dialogue, with Curtis really being the only teen actor to give a decent performance. While most of the practical effects still work fine, there are a couple that betray the extremely low budget the filmmakers had to work with. There’s also an exchange in which Dr Loomis (Donald Pleasance), a medical professional who’s worked with Michael Myers for fifteen years, offers his scientific diagnosis of the boy’s condition as being “evil!”
Really though, these are minor quibbles and none especially detract from the intense experience of watching Halloween as a whole. The genius to it is its simplicity; while I’m sure it wasn’t Carpenter’s intention at the time, now it’s as if someone took the slasher formula and distilled it to its very bones.
The setting is an everyday one; a suburb in Illinois. There are only a handful of characters, not a large group so one could be picked off every few minutes. The killer uses no elaborate methods, just a large knife and he menaces mainly by staring or walking towards people, robotically emotionless. Time is not wasted on an origin for him, instead introducing him via the still shocking opening point-of-view shot, as he murders his sister before the audience sees that he is a child. What happens to him subsequently is easily conveyed through Dr Loomis’s dialogue, with Donald Pleasance bringing an undoubted air of respectability to the film (though admittedly I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like if original choice Christopher Lee played the role).
A lot of the scares still work very well too; Laurie’s discovery of her friends’ bodies is an exemplary sequence of perfectly timed frights. It’s also more restrained than I’d remembered with no particular moments of excessive gore or cruelty. This attitude is reflected in the iconic theme tune composed by Carpenter himself; a simple, repetitive keyboard number that sets the tone perfectly, though I have to admit I thought it was a little overused in the film’s earlier half.
There are some aspects to Halloween that in retrospect, appear to buck some of the trends present in its imitators. A masked Michael Myers is seen very early on, and a lot of his initially menacing stalking is done in the day time. We’re not being asked to fear what he might look like but what he might be capable of. His invincibility remains just ambiguous enough that one couldn’t definitively call Halloween a supernatural horror movie too, and the ending is rendered all the more chilling by our lack of certainty on this.
I do wonder what it would have been like to see this movie in the cinema when it first came out, and it’s easy to see why it had a profound effect on many who did. Revisiting it again now, it may still be the gold standard for the much-maligned slasher sub-genre, and is still an essential film to see for any movie fan.