It’s Halloween, everyone’s entitled to one good scare.
Why We Love It
This film scared the poop out of nearly everyone who saw it. If it didn’t scare you when you were a kid, you probably grew up to be a serial killer (in which case the movie initially played like an instructional video for you). With October gently nipping at our heels, I feel it’s the perfect time to celebrate the genius of this horror classic. Halloween reinvented the slasher film even as the genre was in its infancy. John Carpenter created a landscape of pure terror that feels inescapably tangible. Nothing in this film resides outside the realm of possibility and the honesty of the violence is striking. Carpenter took a simple story about a madman stalking babysitters and turned it into not only a legendary horror film, but one of the most successful independent films of all time. Actually, one of the greatest elements of Halloween is its simplicity.
Take the music for example. That piercing, synchopated theme ensares your attention from the first frame and unsettles your senses. What is essentially three notes played on continuous loop, the Halloween theme became inextricably linked with a feeling of impending doom. In what was to become a trademark of Carpenter’s films, the bare-bones Casio score lends itself nicely to the unassuming, but still wholy terrifying masked killer. The chase music is pulsing and, again, consists of very few notes but you can’t help but inch all the way to the forefront of your chair when you hear it. Halloween creates suspense from subtle, disharmonious chords in a way that few other films have been able to replicate.
Simplicity is also the key ingredient of the overall atmosphere of Halloween. Carpenter discovered a remarkable weapon in the horror arsenal: stillness. The scariest moments of the film are the scenes where we see Michael Myers, from a distance, standing motionless in shadow. So many of the eeriest scenes in the film are when the audience is made aware of his presence in slow, nearly imperceptible reveals. He is almost serene in his stillness as he observes his would-be victims while the audience gasps in fear for the fates of these characters. The simple stillness builds anticipation and suspense effortlessly and gives the film an expressionistic flavor. This stillness was actually honed in Carpenter’s previous entry, Assault on Precinct 13, wherein crowds of gang-bangers silently gather and use their unmoving numbers to proclaim their intentions. This stillness would actually become a staple of Carpenter’s work (Halloween, The Fog, and even Prince of Darkness). If nothing else, look at the opening sequence. As young Michael tracks through the house, he doesn’t make a sound and the house has the unnerving calm of an empty building. When his parents remove his mask, he doesn’t move; no emotional release or indication of regret.
Michael Meyers is a horror icon for a reason. His otherworldly focus on his targets simplifies the predator/prey relationships in slasher films. His mask, to become part of horror movie gospel, is a testament to the brilliant simplicity of Halloween. There is nothing obviously scary about its shape; arguably a dull visage. But there is a sense of ambiguity in this stoic, pale mask that echos the emotionlessness of the psycho underneath. He does not utter a single word throughout the whole film, but the mere hint of his breathing just out of frame is enough to illicit a standing ovation from the hairs on the back of your neck. I think the contrast of the stark white mask against the dark sea of night is what really sets Myers’ appearance apart from the other classic madmen. It’s such a simple wardrobe choice that allows for this seemingly disembodied face to haunt the corners of any shot.
Beyond the simplicity, another thing to really love about Halloween is its cast. Donald Pleasence is utterly fantastic. He juxtaposes the quiet, subtle terror with an unchecked intensity. He is the mouthpiece for why we should all fear Michael Meyers as he pleads with us to comprehend the evil in him. For every silent head tilt we get from Meyers, Pleasence provides an hysterical portent of doom and the balance it strikes is perfect. Pleasence hams it up just enough to narrow the struggle of good and evil down to these two characters. Halloween also marks the feature film debut of scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis. Curtis is perfect for the role in every way. She is believable, vulnerable, and charmingly naive. She actually succeeds where so many other actresses in horror films fail in canonizing the girl-next-door persona. We love her and therefore we fear for her. The tension in the climax is tantamount to the relationship Curtis is able to establish with the audience with her honest reactions and her vulnerability.
One of the other things that really sets Halloween apart is the violence. Sure, violence in horror films is, and has always been, par for the course. But Carpenter makes the conscious choice to leave most of the dirty details of every dispatch to the audiences’ imagination. The knife strokes happen during cutaways and even the most heinous shot of the film (wherein the boyfriend is pinned to the wall with a butcher knife) is filmed wide-angle in a darkened room. I am a firm believer in the idea that the implied will always be more terrifying than the explicit. Carpenter gives us the necessary tools to construct our own nightmares. A good example of this is the fact that we never learn the origin of Michael’s evil. We get no explanation for his murdering his sister; he is simply colored as pure evil. The mystery of his motives provide for our assignment of a mythical quality to our killer.
Moment We Fell In Love
The opening scene where we discover the creation of our monster. The long, methodical shots as young Michael stalks his own sister offer no relief from the dread. As he places the discarded clown mask on his face, an ironic choice given the grizzly nature of his intent, we are locked in. We see this act from his perspective, literally through his eyes, and the entire spirit of the film is captured in that moment. It is arguably the greatest instance of murder-by-toddler ever captured on film.
Halloween is not only my favorite horror film, but one of my absolute favorite films of all time. My father introduced me to the filmography of John Carpenter from a very early age and I garnered a deep-seeded love and respect for his work. What I really love about this film is that it has stood the test of time and, at least on a personal level, evolving degrees of scrutiny. As a kid, the movie just frightened me to my core and became the inspiration of my most vivid nightmares. But as I got older, and began thinking critically about film, I discovered new reasons to love this movie.
This film may have borrowed from a number of other sources (Hitchcock, Orsen Wells, and Dario Argento) but it establishes its own voice early and has become the standard by which so many subsequent horror films would be judged. Halloween offers little in the way of extravagance, but the simple, visceral nature of the terror is what makes it a transcendent experience. The script is so basic, but through a careful application of shadow and stillness, of honest characters and cautionary themes, Carpenter was able to elevate the text to something altogether exemplary. Watch this with the lights off, no matter the date on the calendar.
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