Release Date: October 25th, 1978 MPAA Rating: R
Director: John Carpenter Actors: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence, Nancy Loomis, P.J. Soles, Charles Cyphers, Kyle Richards, Nancy Stephens
he camera slowly zooms in on a glowing jack-o-lantern face during the opening credits, while director John Carpenter’s self-composed synthesizer music presides. It can be interpreted as hokey or representational of the manner in which audiences are intended to digest the coming frights. Either way, “Halloween” is one of the first, most memorable, and undeniably influential slasher movies of the ‘70s. It spawned countless sequels, remakes, and copycats, as well as providing effective clichés for low-budget horror moviemaking, and is now considered an absolute classic of the genre. It’s arguably more iconic than actually entertaining or scary.
In 1963, on Halloween night in Haddonfield, Illinois, six-year-old Michael Myers reenacts the shower scene from “Psycho” on his naked teenaged sister (grooming herself in front of a mirror in the nude, presumably like all adolescent males envision young women of the time to do). He’s committed to the nearby Smith’s Grove insane asylum until (coincidentally) October 30th, 1978, when he manages to escape. His doctor, Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence, taking his role seriously but disbelievingly), knows that the deranged convict will journey back to his hometown for bloody revenge. So it’s not surprising when Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, the daughter of Janet Leigh) is shadowed by a tan station wagon, and an eerie, white-faced, black-garbed stranger randomly appears in her yard, behind shrubs, and skulking around the neighborhood. Once night falls, the real terrorizing begins, as Laurie babysits young Tommy (deathly scared of the boogeyman, he serves as the obligatory kid that nobody believes) and Sheriff Leigh Brackett (Charles Cyphers, who repetitiously sneaks up on his cohorts) tries futilely to track down the murderer at large.
Anticipation is built up in an excruciating manner as dimwitted characters stumble about, oblivious to the knife-wielding maniac hovering just behind them. Stalking is drawn out, along with the actual attacks (how many minutes does it take to strangle a girl?), many of which are now weirdly humorous or downright silly. Myers famously moves very slowly, can take a beating (including bullets!), disappears into shadows, and remains unnoticed even in broad daylight. But most importantly, he keeps coming back – especially when Laurie drops her guard.
The camera is a voyeur, encouraging the audience to join in on the invasive eavesdropping. The opening scene is filmed through Myers’ mask, frequent over-the-shoulder angles are used, and peeking through windows and doors are routine perspectives. There are also plenty of first-person points of view, shots of Myers standing in the background behind unsuspecting characters, and people jumping into frame to scare their targets despite certainly being in full visibility of the actors. And, as if to fulfill the quota for teen thrillers, some nudity makes its way into the picture.
Further tricks include only showing Myers from the neck down for as long as possible, to hide the now recognizable visage (infamously crafted from a cheap Captain Kirk mask); overly conveniently locked doors and obstacles to trip over; painfully near misses (the culprit driving out of sight right behind the doctor); verbal descriptions of grisly imagery; sudden, loud noises; and a crystal-gazing clip of Howard Hawks’ “The Thing” (which Carpenter would remake in a few years). From a technical standpoint, the sound mixing is off, the dialogue is plain in the best spots and juvenile the rest of the time, the supporting actresses are terrible, the body count is surprisingly low, gore is practically nonexistent, and the handheld camerawork doesn’t always feel natural. But Curtis (in her film debut) was a wise choice. She’s not only the most skilled of the distracted female victims, but her sympathetic nature and slightly more sensible outlook on self-defense and coping makes her a stronger survivor. If it weren’t for her largely agreeable presence, the villain would have been the only character to cheer for.
– Mike Massie