John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978)
You know, the term ‘classic film’ is thrown around a hell of a lot. There’s a great deal of times where it is simply not justified. People jumping the gun the second a film is released, and saying it’s one of the all time greats. Let’s see how it endures after 10, 20, or even 30 years. Directors also get this treatment. For example, Rob Zombie. The man, in my brutally honest opinion, has yet to make a decently watchable film, but so many people hail him as some messiah because he makes dirty, ugly films. It takes more than simple visual style to make you a good, let alone great director. So, if you ask me who my favorite genre director is, who I feel has had the best run of things with the most diverse body of work? I would say John Carpenter. The Thing, Prince of Darkness, Big Trouble in Little China, They Live, In The Mouth of Madness, Vampires, Escape From New York…. all favorite films of mine. He demonstrates a brilliance in everything he does – writing, directing, producing, and music composition. When it comes to Halloween, there’s nothing quite like it. Every other slasher film in the world goes straight for the gore. After the years and decades have passed, filmmakers seem to have lost sight of what is truly scary in horror. It’s not shock gore, cheap jump scares, or splatter films with ten thousand gallons of blood. Taking the time to adequately build up an atmosphere of tension and suspense seems to become a dying art among the mainstream horror filmmakers. I’m not going to turn this into a comparison to other films, I’m going to tell you exactly why this film has remained a justifiable and certified classic for over 30 years.
If you aren’t familiar with the film’s plot, I’ll give you a lean and mean version. Michael Myers, fifteen years ago, murdered his sister on Halloween night. Afterwards, he was put into a psychiatric sanitarium, overseen by Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance), but on October 30th, 1978, he escapes back to his hometown of Haddonfield. Come Halloween, he is stalking a group of teenage girls for reasons unknown. Among these is Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), a sweet, caring, and decent girl. Loomis himself is in pursuit, fearing for what might indeed happen with Michael loose. After fifteen years of treating the young man, Loomis is convinced he is purely and simply evil. Someone without conscience, compassion, humanity, or any grasp of good or bad, right or wrong. In clinical terms, a sociopath. Donning a pale white mask of blank expression, Michael proceeds to methodically kill people throughout Halloween night. Can the evil be stopped before too long?
You talk about film direction? This should be shown to every aspiring filmmaker. Even if they are not interested in the horror genre, this film gets everything right. Music, cinematography, staging, acting, tone, pacing, editing….the list goes on. Certainly the most impressive and crucial technical element is Dean Cundey’s high caliber artistry as the film’s Director of Photography. Before Halloween, I don’t think any film had been shot in this fashion. The beautiful, genius composition is the main element which crafts the horror so effectively. You could take a still from about every scene, and you’d have something special and effective. The composition creates striking images that serve the tension and terror. How Michael seems to materialize out of the darkness just before slashing Laurie around the 76 minute mark is beyond known words to describe that brilliance. Don’t forget all the steadicam work. Very impressive for a film of this scale, and it adds so much to the production values. Even these days, the lower cost ones will cost you around two grand, and back in ’77, they were brand new technology. How shots glide from one place to the next, in and out of rooms, panning ever so smoothly around the action – it is masterful. Where now, everyone’s gotta shake the camera so much, it makes you puke, it is a breath of fresh air to see filmmakers shooting a film like this. Slow reveals, shots pushing in, pulling out, and oh lord….the gorgeous lighting. Lighting creates atmosphere. Subtle fills and key light. Patterns across the walls and ceilings. It helps to direct the eye, and envelope you within a certain mood. Dean Cundey is a masterful cinematographer, and continues to showcase his artistry to this day. He would also work on Carpenter’s The Fog, Escape From New York, The Thing, & Big Trouble in Little China.
While most might not take conscious note of Cundey’s work, everyone knows the value of Carpenter’s score. His themes have become legendary and iconic. No other film in the entire franchise has a score this prominent or effective. It drives so much of the film, creating a taut, nerve-racking strain of suspense. There is one theme that I call the “Stalking Theme” because that’s when you hear it. Michael begins to stalk Laurie through the Wallace house, across the street, and all throughout the Doyle home. This is a relentless theme which accurately and powerfully reflects the intentions of The Shape. I continue to firmly stand by my belief that Nick Castle was the absolute best Michael Myers. While the direction and camera work make the Shape truly effective, making Myers appear to move like a ghost – appearing and disappearing in a heartbeat – I want to specifically address Castle’s performance. Where later Michaels were more thoroughly rigid and mechanical in their movements, Castle brought a fluidity to The Shape. He moves like a man, reacts like a man, but has a quality which is simply unsettling. He’s creepy. He feels like a realistic homicidal maniac, but with a clear, calculating intelligence allowing him to stalk and kill at the most opportunistic moment. He’s not just running around like a nutcase, screaming and wildly slashing up people. He’s conscious of his actions, and acts deliberately. In addition, Castle injects a violent intensity to the role. He is relentless, and continues to come back with increased violent ferocity. It can tend to seem like he needs to kill Laurie, that he is compelled to make sure she dies. Compare how he strangles Laurie at the end to any other time Michael chokes someone later in the franchise. In those later instances, it’s very cold and empty. Here, there’s an apparent rage that cannot be satiated. Some twisted, unwavering obsession at work, it would seem. Michael actively and endlessly pursues Laurie. He is the living embodiment of death. He is inevitable and unstoppable. And yes, this specific mask adds so much that subsequent ones lack – it has very human features, but clearly, they are fabricated. He appears to have human features, but what he appears to be is not what he really is.
Speaking of performances, you would be hard pressed to find a substandard one here. Everyone fits their role just right, slipping into it like a finely crafted glove. Jamie Lee’s acting really shows what she was at the time – fresh, young, and eager. I would take her performance in this film over what she offered in Halloween H20. She showed genuine vulnerability, compassion, and emotional innocence here. The performances throughout this film just feel authentic, believable, and tangible. No one feels out of place or over the top. Everything is very grounded and honest. Charles Cyphers holds his ground as Sheriff Leigh Brackett, offering up a very real perspective against Dr. Loomis’ “fancy talk” about pure evil. You could see any small town Sheriff thinking and saying the same thing in reaction to such claims. All of the ladies really bring energy and life to their roles. The youthful enthusiasm, again, feels purely authentic. Makes a lot of the “teenage” performances of today seem flat and cliché.
As I say in reviews for the sequels, Donald Pleasence is the glue that binds the film together, and provides it with a weight and urgency it needs. His performance in this first film is more low key than his incensed sequel appearances. You can see Loomis’ fear surfacing as he speaks about his escaped patient. Michael frightens him down to his core, and it is his own fear which motivates him. He knows the hollow, emotionless, indifferent monster that Myers is, and cannot bare the thought of what will happen now that he’s loose. I believe, in the sequels, it drives him rather mad. His obsession is enhanced by the volume of bloodshed spilled by Michael, and is why he becomes so deadset and crazed later on. Pleasance demonstrates a real brilliance in this role. The dread and fear in his voice gives every last one of his words credibility which is so crucial to building up Michael to being more than just a mentally ill murderer. He is the boogeyman, a presence, an indomitable, elemental force that cannot be reasoned with or destroyed. The final look that Loomis gives, which came from Donald’s own brilliance, conveys to the audience, “I knew this would happen.” It does not shock him, only frighten him further. What he has believed all these years has been proven true – you cannot kill pure evil.
It is refreshing to watch the original film after weeding through the sequels. John Carpenter’s Halloween is like a revelation, and reminds me how none of the sequels measure up. It was never simply one element that made this film so great – it was every element. The cinematography is worthy of awards alongside the direction and music. The acting is, mostly, understated and firmly based in reality. Characters like Loomis and Brackett keeping cool heads instead of either going way off the deep end, or being complete buffoons. This film is an undeniable and justifiable classic. I can’t say it’s the most frightening film I’ve ever seen, that honor goes to The Exorcist (which I still can’t pull myself to watch again), but this film will keep you rattled and unnerved to significant degrees. While, I’m sure, there are minor technical gaffes here and there, it’s nothing that you will pick up in a casual viewing. No film is perfect in all aspects, absolutely, but what this is, is an excellent piece of cinema that should continue to endure for all time. There is no reason not to give this a full ten out of ten rating.