This may come to a shock to some, but until last night, I had never actually seen John Carpenter’s Halloween all the way through. By that, I mean that I’ve seen every scene, but never in one sitting, and probably not in sequential order. When you factor in that my best friend is an uber-fan of this film, it makes even less sense from the outside looking in. Let me explain. I’ve tried — and failed — many times to watch this movie over the years. I would start it, and I would invariably fall asleep not even 15 or 20 minutes into it. I’ve actually used this film to end a streak of insomnia from time to time, back in the days of VHS.
That sounds really bad, doesn’t it?
Over the recent years, I’ve expanded my appreciation of films, applying to them the same standards of understanding that I would use to better appreciate any kind of art form. But even then, some things you just can’t overcome, which included a general boredom when it comes to the character of Michael Myers and the films of John Carpenter as a whole. Something about either of these separately just doesn’t resonate with me. My go-to reason was simply that Myers doesn’t impress me. When you look at the obvious, he’s a mere mortal in a cinematic world of supernatural monsters. Freaking yawn. But then, so is Norman Bates, and nobody (least of all, me) questions Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho. If you ask any monster kid from any generation, they’ll all tell you that Michael Myers is the spiritual inheritor of everything Norman Bates set into motion nearly two decades before. More than that, even though The Texas Chainsaw Massacre hit screens four years before Halloween, Halloween is often sited as the beginning of the slasher subgenre. I see it as some of column A and some of column B, depending on which slasher movie you discuss after this point. Since then, obviously, slasher films have become far more supernaturally-oriented, but the idea of it was always anchored in the notion that true horror comes from the most familiar things all around you. It’s not really the way I lean when I seek out monster entertainment, but it’s a concept I can respect. Thank you, Mr. Hitchcock. When you consider the “Satanic Panic” of the 70s with films like The Exorcist and The Omen, something mortal and understated seems laughable by comparison. As the saying goes, the least likely is the most dangerous.
A funny thing happened last night. I decided I needed to figure out if the “reasons” I was turned off by it had anything to do with the movie itself, or if it was perhaps residual from my past experiences and preferences. It’s been a lot of years since I’ve tried to watch this. But I came home from work, made some dinner, and sat down specifically to do just that. And you know what I discovered? I learned that, much like so many things in my life, the steps I’ve taken through the years to appreciate things paid off. Halloween isn’t that great of a movie, an opinion I still stand behind. But it’s not a bad little movie either. It’s a low budget thriller, yes, and it’s got some cheesy dialogue (like pretty much any horror movie you can name), but it really does have an element of “classic” in it that makes it greater than the sum of its parts. I walked away from it after the end credits rolled thinking that it was a good little movie. I wish I’d given it a fair shake years ago. I may need to revisit some of Carpenter’s other movies just on account, seeing as how he and I share an interest in some of the same goofy classics.
The plot of Halloween is about as straightforward as they come. On the night of Halloween 1963, young Michael Myers dressed up in a clown costume and stabbed his sister to death with a kitchen knife. Since then, he’s been in maximum lockup under the psychiatric care of
Ernst Stavro Blofeld Dr. Sam Loomis. Fifteen years later and convinced that Myers is evil incarnate, Dr. Loomis is on the quest to see to it that Myers never again sees the light of day, following procedures that will ensure he’s never released. He picks a craptastic rainy night to take Myers into custody to transfer him for his hearing. The inmates of the sanitarium are already loose, and in the distraction, Myers takes the car.
From there, Loomis tracks Myers back to the fictional town of Haddonfield, Illinois, where it’s believed Myers will return to his family home, which has been derelict and empty since that night. When teenager Laurie Strode drops off the key so her father can sell it, she becomes the target of Myers’ attentions, and he proceeds to stalk her, systematically killing off her friends on Halloween night.
There are holes you can drive a Mack truck through, let’s be honest, and perhaps some of the many sequels address them. I don’t know because I’ve not seen them, but I will likely do so and engage in learned conversation with my friend before and after the fact. To hear him tell it, Halloween II picks up right where the first left off, and Halloween H2O is the only other one in sequence that deals with the story. Everything else is either off the rails or deals with a supposed “copycat” killer, also called Michael Myers. He’s certainly not the first fan I’ve heard say things like this, so there must be something to it. Even so, if you take the movie at face value and don’t overthink it (which I’m prone to do), the idea of a mortal boogeyman makes perfect sense.
Credit where it’s due, most of the fear comes from a sheer presence attack of a hulking man in a faceless mask who’s seemingly around every corner and hiding in every shadow. There are a number of wide shots where characters will talk, and he’ll be there in the background. That’s the kind of thing that will haunt a normal person. Then you factor in the facts that Myers has no dialogue, is seemingly unstoppable, and is freakishly strong… these are the traits that make a monster. It’s a formula that worked well enough to copycat not only in the Halloween franchise, but also in its most recognized knock-off, Friday the 13th. Substitute a hockey mask and a machete for the original latex mask and kitchen knife, and you’ve got another instant icon that would likely have failed if not for the fact that Jason Voorhees became an immortal juggernaut while Michael Myers remained as mortal as they come.
I think there are three things that make this film work. The iconic mask and the soundtrack are the two most would consider. Carpenter scored the movie himself, and it’s perhaps the most recognizable piece of horror music ever composed beyond the infamous shower sequence from Psycho. The mask is, to my never-ending fanboy delight, a costume prop merchandised in advance for a movie that was, at the time, still in production. It’s an Admiral Kirk mask from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, painted white to eliminate the Shatneresque features and make it stand out in the shadows.
The third, and probably most important element, that makes this movie is the Hitchcockian techniques employed by Carpenter. Contrary to what most people think they see, Halloween really has a minimum of violence and gore. The rest is filled in by your imagination, much as it is in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. There’s a notion that maximum creativity comes from extremely limited possibility. The less you have to work with, the better it becomes in the hands of an artist. Halloween serves to illustrate the point quite nicely. Its staying power in the public consciousness is proof of that. It’s preserved by the Library of Congress and is continually shown in theaters across the world every year.
The cast is another element that can’t be dismissed out of hand. Jamie Lee Curtis made her theatrical debut here, and as we all know, she’d find stardom from there. The lion’s share of the casting money went to character veteran Donald Pleasence, who was best known to American audiences (and to me) for being James Bond’s nemesis Blofeld in You Only Live Twice. He was Carpenter’s third choice.
Who were the first and second choices? Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, both of whom declined due to the low pay. My geekbumps just got geekbumps. But then, you already know what a fanboy I am when it comes to those two. This was new knowledge for me, and it was something I took into account while watching this time around. Even though the role is minor, these are the kinds of things that change perception and make me ask, “What if?” Pleasence is no Cushing or Lee, but he does make maximum use of the screen time he’s given. He is the only voice of authority to be found.
I’d be lying if I said that the legacy of Cushing and Lee doesn’t help to fill in some gaps in appreciation for me. With the era of Hammer Horror’s golden days pretty much behind at the time of this release, and the “Satanic Panic” those Dracula films inspired also becoming somewhat ubiquitous, it’s just that much easier to see why the age of the slasher cemented itself at this point in history. In some ways, Cushing and Lee not appearing here helped that along. The torch was passed. One of the many lessons I learned from Cushing and Lee over the years is that less is sometimes more. When everything is flashy and over-the-top, it helps to bring things back to basics with presence and performance. This is what Pleasance brought to the screen, this is what Curtis brought, and this is what Halloween brought as a whole. It’s easy to see this movie now as not only the successor to Psycho, but also as the successor to Hammer and its “show us the monster” policy. But do you see what you think you saw? These ideas translate to a new generation, and at that time many young filmmakers were taking center stage. For me, Lucas and Spielberg dominate this era. John Carpenter’s name rightfully deserves to be known for the same reasons. It’s safe to say it will be.