83 – Halloween:
So how about Halloween huh? An ancient Celtic festival where people believed the barrier between the mortal world and spirit world was at its thinnest – nowadays an evening full of costumes and candy for the kids, costumes and cocaine for the adults. Halloween has always been my favourite holiday and it’s not hard to see why. If you’re a lover of the supernatural and the like, an entire evening celebrating it is like a theme park. As you’d expect, a lot of horror stories are set on the holiday. But a young filmmaker called John Carpenter was surprised when he developed a low budget film about Halloween babysitters being murdered – that the title had not been used before at all. So he eagerly slapped ‘Halloween’ on his latest baby, hoping it’d at least make back its $320,000 budget. Little did he know it would gross $35 million, spawn seven sequels (and a further two rebooted movies) and launch an entire genre. Although Friday the 13th deserves some of the credit, Halloween is the film you can thank for the fact that there’s even a slasher subgenre at all. When watching it, you should also bear in mind that many of the scenes and tropes which are now cliché were in fact invented by this film. But let’s have a look and see how it compares to other more polished slashers that we’re used to today.
We open rather simply – with a shot of a jack-o-lantern in shadow, accompanied by the movie’s iconic theme. It was composed by John Carpenter himself on his own keyboard (in just three days). He’s said he can’t read or write any notes himself; he just plays it off his ear. And he jokes “thankfully, I’ve got a pretty good ear” The film’s music is simple and effective.
We’re now taken to Haddonfield, Illinois in 1963 and it’s of course Halloween night. We get a POV shot from young Michael Myers, who watches his sister Judith fooling around with her boyfriend. Once the boyfriend leaves, Michael goes upstairs and stabs Judith to death. I want to point out how effective this scene is – within the context of a 1970s audience who wasn’t used to slasher films yet. We have no idea whose POV we’re in at first and we don’t know who is watching these teenagers. And all of a sudden, the girl is brutally murdered. The reveal that the murderer is a little boy was probably horrifying for the film-going audience too. In a modern context, the scene is shown from the perspective of the killer (a la Peeping Tom) and the murder takes place mostly off-camera – the clown mask’s eyeholes preventing us from seeing the knife stab Judith. There’s minimal gore and the horror is only implied – which is precisely why it works so well. Needless to say, a lot of the imitators missed the point. However, there’s a rather unintentionally hilarious shot when the parents discover Michael with the knife. Just look at his mother’s reaction.
Fifteen years later, Michael is now in an asylum and we’re introduced to his doctor Sam Loomis and an attending nurse Marion Chambers. Loomis is played by Donald Pleasance, who before this movie had been typecast as various slimy villains (unless you watched The Great Escape of course). The role was turned down by Christopher Lee, who later called it one of the biggest regrets of his career. Dr Loomis was the only character to appear in all of the Halloween sequels until Donald Pleasance’s death in 1995. He warns Marion that Michael is incredibly dangerous and should not be taken lightly. This is demonstrated when they arrive at the hospital and see all of the patients wandering around the grounds. Michael climbs on the roof of the car and drives off, leaving Marion and Loomis behind. There’s an obscure novelisation that explains that Michael somehow knows how to drive by watching Loomis whenever he drove him anywhere. We then return to Haddonfield, where it’s now Halloween. And we meet…
Laurie Strode, played by Jamie Lee Curtis. The daughter of Hollywood stars Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, this marked Jamie Lee’s feature film debut. She became a star overnight and to this day is affectionately touted as *the* ‘Scream Queen’. Although these days she’s beloved for her comic timing, Laurie is sort of the vanilla one in her group; Jamie Lee Curtis would joke about how boring she was. But Laurie’s shy innocence makes her the perfect victim – and exactly the sort of girl you’d hope would survive a serial killer. Back at the asylum, Dr Loomis is playing the ‘I warned you’ card to his superiors, and somehow knows that Michael will be heading for his hometown.
Laurie is in class when she catches someone looking at her from across the street. When she looks back, he’s gone. Cut to a totally unnecessary and cringey scene in an otherwise fine film – where a bunch of bullies tease Laurie’s babysitting buddy for that night. Poor little Tommy Doyle has to endure the horrible taunts about *shock horror* the boogeyman!
These kids can’t be younger than ten and I assure Mr Carpenter that in my area at least we stopped believing in the boogeyman at age six. Thankfully the lousy attempts at bullies walk off, and we then see that Michael Myers appears to be stalking Tommy too. Elsewhere, Dr Loomis finds an abandoned car on the side of the road and a naked body – implying Michael picked up some new threads.
School is now over and we meet Laurie’s friends Annie (Nancy Loomis) and Lynda (PJ Soles). Since this movie was made before the 1980s, the cheerleader Lynda is the nice one. And if you’ve seen PJ Soles in Carrie, you’ll know that she has a habit of stealing many of the scenes she’s in. She does so here by giggling and dropping the word ‘totally’ into all her sentences. Producer Debra Hill recalls going to a showing of the film, and a group of people happily saying “totally” whenever Lynda did. Annie meanwhile is the grumpy one of the group, bummed that her boyfriend has been grounded for the time being. Laurie ignores this as a car comes around the corner – and she recognises it as the same one that was parked at the school earlier. After saying goodbye to Lynda, they think they see Michael standing behind a bush – but of course there’s nobody there when they look a second time.
Jamie Lee lets off her first scream at the twenty-four-minute mark, when she bumps into Annie’s father – Sheriff Leigh Brackett (Charles Cyphers). He rattles off the movie’s famous line “it’s Halloween. I guess everyone’s entitled to one good scare” before Laurie gets to walk home. The uneasy feeling isn’t helped when she again thinks she sees Michael standing in her garden and gets an ominous phone call. The second one at least turns out to be Annie saying she’s on her way to pick her up. Dr Loomis stops by the Haddonfield cemetery and discovers that someone has stolen Judith Myers’s headstone.
Laurie and Annie stop in town when they see Annie’s dad – with the news that someone broke into the local hardware store. They curiously only stole a couple of Halloween masks, a rope and some knives. Dr Loomis arrives just as the girls leave to put the police on alert. In the car, Laurie and Annie decide to talk about boys. Laurie admits to having a crush on a Bennett Tramer.
Laurie will be babysitting Tommy Doyle, while Annie will be down the road with Lindsey Wallace – and the camera angles indicate that Michael is watching their every move. Meanwhile, Loomis and Brackett go to the rundown Myers house – and there’s evidence that someone has been there recently. Loomis warns Brackett not to underestimate Michael; he gave up on trying to help him years ago when he realised that the boy was nothing but pure unfiltered evil. What’s particularly interesting about Michael Myers is how little we actually know about him. All we can go on is what we know he’s done, and Dr Loomis’s words about him. He has no distinct personality or motivations; his actor Nick Castle was told to play him as a “soulless killing machine” – and it’s that very reason he’s so terrifying. One of the things Rob Zombie’s reboot missed the boat on was the fact that Michael is a mystery. We never know why he’s going around killing these particular people (at least not until the sixth movie chalked it up to a Celtic curse) and that is what makes him effective. As there is so much we don’t know, our minds allow us to fill in the blanks. And in a horror story, much of the scaring comes from our imaginations.
Tommy spies Michael standing outside the Wallace house, but Laurie is too distracted on the phone to Annie to notice. Michael quickly dispatches the Wallace dog Lester as Annie spills butter all over herself, allowing her to spend the rest of her screen time in nothing but a blouse. The Wallace family keep their washing machine in a room in the garden, where Annie goes to wash her clothes. The door closes and locks on her, and little Lindsey is too busy watching TV to notice her babysitter’s predicament. Annie tries to climb out the window all the while Michael is watching her. If you’re savvy on slasher films, you’d expect Annie to pop her clogs here. But instead Lindsey comes to get her with the news that her boyfriend Paul is on the phone. In wrestling, this is what’s called a hope spot – where the audience gets a brief moment of relief before the conflict resumes. This is all in the name of tension and it keeps you guessing as to what Michael is actually going to do with these girls.
Annie’s boyfriend Paul (voiced by the director himself) says his parents have gone out, leaving him free to come over. Annie takes Lindsey over to the Doyle house to dump her on Laurie while she plans to have some sweet Halloween hijinks. I didn’t realise how crappy a thing to do that was until years later. I mean, I’d be incredibly pissed if I trusted a girl to watch my daughter and she took her to someone else’s house so they could fool around – not to mention that Annie already promised that Lynda and Bob could do the same in the house. It’s perhaps after this revelation that Annie finally meets her end when Michael ambushes her in the car. There we have another classic slasher movie touch; after teasing us with a lot of slow build-up to other apparent death scenes, the first actual death comes out of nowhere. Again, the gore is kept to a minimum – and Annie is merely strangled at first before getting cut with the kitchen knife.
Plenty of people have interpreted Michael’s murders as some kind of social commentary on the bad behaviour of teenagers. After all, Judith Myers is killed after fooling around with her boyfriend when she supposedly should have been watching her brother. Annie is likewise killed after she plans to dump the kid she’s watching on her friend, so she can bring her boyfriend to do it in someone else’s house. Carpenter has denied that this was the intention, and he and Debra Hill were very annoyed at the common ‘Death By Sex’ trope that became a staple of slasher movies. In the context of this one, according to Carpenter, the teens only get killed because they’re too focused on getting off with each other that they don’t notice Michael coming. The numerous imitators instead focused on the idea of killing teens (particularly girls) as punishment for having pre-marital sex. But this particular trope didn’t take off until the mid-80s. Even the first imitator Friday the 13th has Alice Hardy implied to have an affair with her boss, she smokes weed freely with the others, shows up in a bikini and is on the verge of stripping – and she still survives to the end.
No one notices Annie’s disappearance – except possibly her boyfriend Paul waiting at home thinking about all the sex he’s absolutely not having tonight. Tommy spies Michael carrying Annie’s body outside, but Laurie is still sceptical. Dr Loomis meanwhile has been waiting outside the Myers house hoping he’ll catch Michael. Sheriff Brackett is just as sceptical as Laurie, not knowing that his only daughter just became the next victim. Lynda and her boyfriend Bob arrive at the Wallace house as planned, Lynda getting in four instances of ‘totally’ for good measure. They’re not suspicious at finding the house empty, but rather take advantage of this opportunity. After a quick call to Laurie to check on Lindsey’s whereabouts, they head on upstairs.
After they’re done, Bob goes down to the kitchen to get some beer. And Michael pops out of the pantry and stabs him to death. He makes short work of Lynda too, strangling her with the phone cord while she’s about to call Laurie. Elsewhere, Loomis comes across his stolen car and guesses that Michael is nearby. But Laurie has been spooked enough to go across the road and check out the house.
After finding downstairs dark and empty, Laurie goes up to the bedroom. And we now get our iconic slasher movie scene where the Final Girl discovers the bodies of her friends. Annie is laid out on the bed, surrounded by candles and Judith Myers’s headstone. Bob has been left hanging up somewhere so that he swings down in front of Laurie at the right time. To further torture the poor girl, the closet door pops open to reveal Lynda. How the laws of physics caused that to happen isn’t important – because we now get the equally iconic moment of Michael approaching Laurie from the dark.
Laurie is able to get into the kitchen and breaks open the door to escape. No one takes any notice of her screams for help, showing that this movie was made before the age of ‘stranger danger’. Laurie struggles back to the Doyle house and bangs on the door for the children to wake up and help. But once Laurie is inside, she realises that Michael must have climbed in through the window. She’s ready for him this time and stabs him with a needle. She goes upstairs to comfort the children – but Michael attacks again. After locking the children in their rooms, she hides in the closet. Michael quickly breaks through the wood and Laurie attacks him right back with a wire hanger.
Michael appears to be dead, but even so Laurie tells Tommy and Lindsey to run down the street to the McKenzie house. Being terrified children, they run outside screaming – which alerts Dr Loomis. This is quite lucky, as Michael has regained consciousness and tries to strangle Laurie. Loomis shoots him out of the window, where he lands on the lawn outside. But when he goes to check, the body is gone. The script called for Loomis to look shocked, but Donald Pleasance instead suggested his face should say ‘I knew this would happen’. Thus the movie ends on a chilling note that Michael is still out there.
Words can’t really describe what a smash hit Halloween was. The filmmakers were in shock at how well it did. The critics in its first run mostly panned it as another generic B-movie. But one glowing review began comparing the film to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and praised Carpenter’s directing. More good reviews followed, as did reports of audiences screaming their heads off in theatres. Anxious to capitalise on the success, we got numerous imitators that set themselves on particular holidays – Friday the 13th, My Bloody Valentine, New Years Evil, Happy Birthday To Me, April Fool’s Day etc. Halloween popularised and codified so many formulas of the genre that it now seems like one of the most clichéd movies ever – due to being copied and parodied so many times. But even watching it now as a horror buff, John Carpenter’s great tension and suspense is still pulled off so well. I’d been a bit dismissive of the movie for years, despite loving it in my teens. But watching it back for this review convinced me that it should belong on my list. Jamie Lee Curtis became a star – and was typecast as a horror movie Final Girl for the next couple of years. She’s distanced herself from the horror genre since, but comebacks like Halloween: H20 and the TV show Scream Queens show that she has never completely forgotten her roots. Although not a fan of horror movies herself, she still praises Halloween for its artistic merits. The film unfortunately has become cliché in the wave of imitators that copied its formula over the years. But when comparing it to them, this one still has a certain flair that they were never quite able to replicate.
The night the grades came home.
*Story? Simple but it works. We don’t know why Michael is stalking these girls. We don’t know what makes him tick. We don’t even know if he can be stopped. That’s what makes it scary. C+
*Characters? It’s possible to argue that Laurie Strode is actually a proto-feminist role model. True she does accidentally reinforce some unhealthy stereotypes (evil slutty girl gets killed, pure virgin survives) – but if you look at other horror films before this, women were usually helpless distressed damsels. Laurie fights off the killer three times and does whatever she can to protect the children. And this is a full year before Alien gave us Ellen Ripley. B
*Performances? Jamie Lee Curtis is definitely more suited to comedy than drama, but she makes a character that could have been vanilla at least somewhat likeable and entertaining. Donald Pleasance was fine in his different role. PJ Soles was wickedly cute and fun. B
*Visuals? Carpenter makes great use of wide tracking shots to really put us in Michael’s perspective – as well as giving the impression that the characters are constantly being spied on. Some great use of shadows and light in the third act. That stuff is like Halloween candy for film geeks like myself. A
*Special Effects? Well this was one of the first movies to employ a blue ‘day for night’ filter and it looks great. Granted, I’m not an expert but the effect was pulled off well. The fact that they kept gore to a minimum and relied more on what we didn’t see to scare us is getting a big thumbs up from me. B+
*Anything Else? That theme! Besides the awkward talk with the school bullies, all the dialogue felt very natural. Carpenter and Hill came together on this one. A
Fair is fair because up next is The Legend of Billie Jean.