If I made a mulligan on every review here that I think does not hold up, this blog would be going nowhere at all, even by the standards of how much my posting here has slowed to a crawl. Nevertheless, there’s been no movie previously reviewed that I found more deserving of a second go at than John Carpenter’s 1978 classic horror film Halloween – 8 years after having shared an insufficient split-post with fellow mulligan’d horror masterpiece Night of the Living Dead. This is partially because Halloween is one of the movies I think about most often, a point of intersection between my love for slasher cinema, for movies that make minimal resources feel properly big, and as an example of peak fundamental form.
And I guess the only better context to revisit this classic than Shout! Factory’s current 4K re-release of the original franchise is the imminent “finale” of at least the recent David Gordon Green trilogy, Halloween Ends, a title which makes promises certainly not going to be kept as long as it keeps money in Carpenter and Malek Akkad’s pockets. And it’s a context that compels me to review the full feature film franchise from 1978 all the way to 2022.
But let’s start from the beginning: obviously not the beginning of slasher cinema as we know it, given how Halloween is preceded by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Black Christmas alone (and if you’re even snootier about the starting line, there’s Psycho, Peeping Tom, Blood and Black Lace, and Bay of Blood but I don’t think those are correct), but the starting line of addressing what Halloween is outside of the legacy it made as the most profitable picture of its time, as a recognizable horror brand, and as a foundational blueprint for the slasher boom in the 1980s. Because you take away all that context – including the developments that the sequels provide to the characters, which we will complain about when we get to them – and what you have…
… is a simple straightforward yarn: One Halloween in the sleepy Illinois town of Haddonfield, an indistinct shape of a man (Nick Castle) is following a young babysitter with stoic obsessive focus. That nutshell summary is basically all the essence needed for this movie, a stripped-down elemental tale scripted by Carpenter and his long-time producer Debra Hill of predator and prey and the dread that is pulled out of such a random and evil occurrence. Given that that man is the subject of his own frantic chase by his doctor Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence), we have the context to know this man is Michael, who 15 years earlier as a child (Will Sandin) murdered the teenage Judith Myers (Sandy Johnson) before being institutionalized and escaping the night of 30 October 1978. And that context is probably more information than we should want to maintain this story’s mystique except for two things in its favor…
To begin with, that murder is portrayed to us from the very first scene with a miraculous first-person Steadicam shot (made up of two, but there’s an extremely well-disguised cut) as we watch Judith make out with her boyfriend from outside through a window, enter the house after her boyfriend has been satisfied by like… 3 minutes of action it seems (teenagers…), follow the stairs up to her room, stab her to death (with an awkward stare at the stabbing hand at one point), and exit the home in time to have his mask removed in a chilling cut that reveals him staring off absently into the night. And the uninterrupted smoothness of that ambitious camera movement is more than just Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey showing off how much they can get done in a take: it’s a very cinematic way to portray the fixation of a patient assailant to just have the camera lock onto a character and never waver or cant. It’s a discomfort putting us in the headspace of that violent individual and feels no less alien seeing things through Michael’s eyes than watching in horror from the third-person. Compare that to the brilliant hypnotic low-level shots of fellow Steadicam exemplar The Shining and it’s fair to say horror cinema exhausted the capabilities of that game-changing tool.
But the other thing is that this cold turkey open into an act of random violence feels no more explicable than Michael’s sudden stalking of Laurie in the movie itself proper. There’s no explanation, no motivation, barely any discernable dialogue and only the smallest identifiers of the characters. It is fully impossible to comprehend the thoughts behind Sandin’s vacant stare as the camera hovers away and above the scene.
And that’s the launchpad for Michael Myers as character and performance, at least in terms of the 1978 film. He’s fully unknowable. Nick Castle’s performance of the character as adult is an understated masterstroke of minimizing any motion that could betray the possibility of relating to this giant figure, to the point that the famous moment where he stares at a body he just pinned to the wall and cants his head back and forth only furthers the distance between the viewer and this force of evil, daring us to figure out what thought process is communicated by that shift. Certainly it helps prevent reality from interfering with Loomis’s doom-laden monologues on how Michael was identified by him as “pure evil” since childhood and making him look like a terrible psychiatrist. You can’t dehumanize a figure that the movie treats as inhuman, even when Michael appears otherwise grounded. We can’t see him as flesh and blood for most of the film: just his characteristic all-white William Shatner mask and faded dark boiler suit. Hell, even his actions don’t seem corporeal as – outside of Judith’s killing with a large splotch of stageblood – none of the kills are particularly bloody. The production explanation is probably based on the limitations of this admirably low-budget picture, the contextual basis is probably in how most of the deaths are by Michael’s firm hand rather than a knife and the one on-screen knife kill is bathed in darkness. Whatever the case, the aftermath is nevertheless dissonant from the vicious brutality performed.
So, everything vague about Halloween as a situation is anchored to Michael himself and that’s something the movie wields gloriously. But that vagueness especially cuts deep when dropped into the specificity of a plausible real-world town targeting plausible human characters. Which is where the cast comes in: I’ve mentioned Pleasence’s heightened alarmist take on Dr. Loomis but he seems more like an urgent element than a source of naturalism in the cast (though his screen partner for the latter half, Charles Cyphers, reacts to him with due skepticism of an everyman). It is in Curtis’ exemplary example of a horror movie final girl in Laurie Strode – the babysitter Michael locks into his sightlines – with her down-to-earth personality and intelligence that provides that anchor to reality as she plays into a lengthy wariness at the figure she sees in the distance. And aiding that even with their stock type characterizations are PJ Soles, Nancy Kyes, and Brian Andrews portraying believably clumsy sex-obsessed teenagers. We’re not talking about 1:1 psychological realism here, merely characters we’d buy as a first impression walking by them on the sidewalk.
And the city they populate is just as well something we’d recognize as a small town, the arena in which Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey show their best hand. First, there’s the application of Panavision’s anamorphic width to stress the depth and distance of that shape staring at us from behind the hedge or beyond the window. In the lines of the hedge, windows, and streets through those “Michael watching” shots, we have perfect visual parallels to the frame’s length or height so that the interruption of that far-off figure stands out and captures our eye, aligning with Laurie’s suspicions so the viewer feels eerie too.
And then there’s the coloring, which is probably the most fun thing to talk about. The story of Carpenter and Cundey’s problem-solving is endearing to me: having to shoot summertime Pasadena for autumnal Illinois and inspired allegedly by one of the great cinematographic representations of midwestern Halloween Meet Me in St. Louis, they decided to color correct the shit out of the daytime scenes to orange and the nighttime scenes to the deepest blues which doesn’t make Haddonfield more recognizable but does make it moodier in a strong way reconciles the realism of the setting with the mythic element of Michael, especially during the night scenes that Carpenter openly confessed were inspired by Suspiria. Halloween‘s colors aren’t illogical the way Suspiria‘s are, but the blues are affective with a profound spookiness. And I guess the 44 years of home video releases since have given Cundey multiple chances to just continue playing around with the sharpness or color tones of those visuals (the variety has to be deliberate at this point, since there never seems to be an exact match to what played in 1978) and this excites me when a new release comes. In this recent 4K Shout! Factory release’s case, Cundey opted to wash out the daylight oranges with whites which is extraordinarily different from any other version and actually starts to resemble the pre-winter chilliness I feel when I walk my dog on the street as I close up my 2nd year living in Chicago.
When it’s shots that Michael and his prey get to share together, it’s even stronger in expressing the relationships between the teenagers and the unknown: a two-shot of a frightened Laurie in a darkened blue hallway with a doorframe filled with black before a key light illuminates Michael watching in the darkness, just enough to recognize him without separating him from that inky abyss. Another two-shot of Laurie completely shaken in the foreground as Michael sits upright after being prone in the background. A shot of a woman strangled through the haziness of a dark car windshield in a garage. A single bedsheet ghost standing upright in a doorway staring directly at us as we sit in the perspective of his next victim. All of which gets stronger in the context of indoor sequences that call attention to the walls and their angles against the frame trapping these characters with Myers in dreadful fatalism.
And of course – even at the risk of derailing my train of momentum – one can’t possibly close out an accolade of Halloween as a work without acknowledging Carpenter’s immediately iconic score and what it does for the movie’s suspicious tension, a result of how strange it is: minimalist in its reliance on a synthesizer’s high tones, abnormal with its odd 5/4 time signature, fast-tempo’d in a manner that influences the heartbeat of one who hears it, and particularly used in a sharp way to stress Michael’s appearance as an audible premonition of an evil deed to come. It’s a properly uncanny accompaniment to the Shape (as Castle is to be credited as in the cast) and the final layer to connecting the spare storytelling to the specifics of who and where that is to be forever marked by this grave presence.
So that’s the power of Halloween put together by the cast and crew behind it: a bedtime story monster brought into a setting that could reasonably be identified for the street right outside your door and attacking people that your could have bumped past a few days ago without realizing. An “it happened in your neighborhood” sort of fable of mysterious doom fixating on otherwise unexceptional people. All of these brought together by poetic technique applied to mundane real-world lives. None of this is particularly innovative in the wake of Hitchcock or Black Christmas or the endless gialli and Carpenter never pretended otherwise. But like Citizen Kane – a movie that wasn’t the first to do the things it did but instead found the most exhaustive ways to use the tools it was adopting – so too did Halloween basically give final form to what the quintessential slasher movie is by simply knowing the vocabulary of tension and violence and fear from those influences and getting the best mixture of those ingredients to never be surpassed again. And as Laurie and Loomis confirm when their paths finally converge in the final minutes of the film, the end creation is the boogeyman.