Every once and a while a movie comes along that is so successful, both artistically and financially, that it creates a new genre. With the current mini-renaissance that slasher films are experiencing, now is a good time to reassess the movie that started it all: Halloween. Halloween is the father of all slasher flicks. (If slasher flicks have father, we suppose they have a grandfather too. That would be Psycho, and if they have a great grandfather, it's Fritz Lang's M.)
Made in 1978, and at the time the most financially successful independent film of all time, Halloween packs an impressive punch today. It was directed by John Carpenter, who recently has struggled to come up with anything approaching a hit, but we keep going to his movies on the strength of his early creations. In Halloween, Carpenter opts to keep things simple, with no special effects and simple camera work. This conveys the utter normality of the town where the movie takes place, and makes the events portrayed seem more realistic. The music (composed by Carpenter) is simplistic and repetitive, but adds to the feelings of escalating fear, even when nothing is actually happening.
There are no intrusive flashbacks or distracting mysteries about the killer's identity mucking up the plot in Halloween. Everything is very straightforward. The beginning of the movie takes place in the past, where we see little Michael Myers, wearing a clown costume, killing his sister with a kitchen knife on Halloween night. Young Michael is committed to an insane asylum, apparently for the rest of his life.
Ten years later, on the night before Halloween, Michael somehow escapes from the asylum and heads back to his old stomping grounds of Haddonfield. He is being pursued by Dr. Loomis, played by Donald Pleasance. Pleasance, a fine British actor in his own right, is probably most recognizable as Blofeld from the Bond film You Only Live Twice. Sadly, he later became synonymous with the ever-deteriorating Halloween sequel franchise before dying in early 1995.
Dr. Loomis is convinced that Michael is "ultimate evil." "Just try and understand what we're dealing with here. Don't underestimate it," is the kind of statement that Loomis is constantly spouting. How or why Michael is evil is never explored in the film, but he does seem to be very motivated to continue killing high school students. "Death has come to your little town, Sheriff," Loomis warns the law enforcers. "You can either ignore it or you can help me to stop it."
"What I really want is to
work with John Cleese."
Which brings us to the victims. Other than the occasional Petticoat Junction or Charlie's Angels episode, Halloween was Jamie Lee Curtis' screen debut. And what a debut. Curtis is sweet with a sad, appealing edge as the murderous will of Myers bears down on her little town. Sensing early on that something isn't right, Curtis' character, Laurie, becomes jumpy and paranoid. Forcing herself to calm down for the sake of her evening baby-sitting charge, Laurie goes about her business, ignoring her subconscious knowledge of the evil that has come to Haddonfield.
She and her fellow high school friends are getting ready for Halloween night. Not trick or treating, but a night of gossip, baby-sitting various kids, and trying to get in some 'quality time' with their boyfriends. Of course today we know that any young promiscuous teenagers are going to be the first to get killed by the masked madman, but in 1978 no one knew that. Post-coitus death syndrome was defined by this movie. When you think about it, its a pretty bizarre attitude for a movie to take. This movie is aimed at teenagers, and teenagers like to have sex. So shouldn't movies aimed at teenagers be about teenagers having sex and then, oh, we don't know, receiving large sums of cash? As opposed to what happens in this movie, which is that they get pinned to wall with a carving knife through the chest. We leave further analysis in this vein to the experts.
Perhaps the scariest thing about Myers' return to the town is that the introductory scenes are so normal. Laurie and her friends have the normal set of teenage hang-ups (sex, boredom, alcohol), and Laurie's evening as a baby-sitter is typically mundane ("There's no such thing as the bogeyman...." "Let's make more popcorn."). When Michael does begin to kill people, it's in such an abrupt fashion and after so much buildup that you find yourself jumping out of your seat. Personally, we watch this film with one finger on the pause button. Seeing this movie in the theater must be a powerful experience, one we are sorry to say we've never had. We saw Psycho in the theater a couple of years ago and it blew us out of our seats, even though we knew exactly when every killing was coming.
If you've never seen Halloween before, you may watch it with a modicum of "so what?" in your mind. Halloween is the first of its kind, and there is very little here you haven't seen in the seemingly infinite number of slasher flicks that followed this one. But none of the films that followed this one were made with such careful craft or have a cast as good as this one. With Halloween, the slasher movie had been done. And no one has done it better to this day.