I know it’s hard to believe, but I’ve never seen John Carpenter’s “Halloween”. Yes, I admit it. Despite my affinity for Teen Slasher films of all stripes and budgets, I’m sorry to say that I’ve never sat down to watch what many consider to be the seminal work in Teen Slashers. Personally I blame it on my status as a “child of the ’90s”, and as such I grew up on “Halloween’s” terrible sequels, which had the effect of making me not want to watch the franchise’s earlier films. The original “Halloween” came out in 1978, but the conventions it established is still being imitated ad nauseam to this very day.
Then newcomer Jamie Lee Curtis (“True Lies”) plays Laurie Strode, a teen in a sleepy suburban town that believes a shadowy figure is stalking her. The figure is Michael Myers, a brooding killer in a white mask, who murdered his sister 15 years ago and has just recently escaped the custody of one Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence). Back at his old stomping grounds, and just in time for Halloween, Myers is set to kill all over again. As Halloween night arrives, Laurie finds herself babysitting young Tommy Doyle (Brian Andrews), who claims he saw the “bogeyman” at the house across the street, where Laurie’s friend and fellow babysitter Annie (Nancy Kyes) starts to take off her clothes…
The rule of thumb in every Teen Slasher film is that the promiscuous characters die first. Sex is the kiss of death and taking your clothes off is like characters in a vampire movie taking off their cross. Our Fair Hair Lead is guaranteed survival because she’s not only virginal, but she’s a nerd to boot. She has no social life to speak of, and her friends kid that she must have a fortune in babysitting money because she spends all her free nights babysitting instead of going out. Besides Annie, the other friend/victim is Lynda (P.J. Soles), who has a bad habit of saying “totally” like, totally all the time. In fact, the late ’70s dialogue is pretty funny.
Did “Halloween” scare me? Well, no, for the simple reason that I have seen so many horror films from so many continents that a Teen Slasher movie can only elicit two responses from me: I will either be thrilled that the movie did what it did well, or not. “Halloween” thrilled me, but at the same time it didn’t impress me, mostly because the film uses all the usual tricks of the trade. Of course the irony doesn’t escape me that I’m faulting “Halloween” for using conventions when it’s the movie that defined those conventions in the first place. This “negative”, if you can call it that, is purely the result of hindsight, so take it with a grain of salt.
For the most part “Halloween” is a bloodless affair. Carpenter isn’t interested in gore and there’s very little blood throughout, even when Myers impales a victim with a butcher knife and embeds the poor sap to the wall. Most of the dead teens are seen post-mortem, but they’re always dressed and, again, it’s all very bloodless. Not that the movie is less effective for it. If anything, it makes the film more interesting, especially since it allows us to imagine the killings instead of having it exposed in gory detail. Also of note is Carpenter’s fantastic use of shadows and darkness to hide, reveal, and stage the killings. Shadows have never looked more deadly.
Which isn’t to say “Halloween” is a perfect film. The acting is palatable, if a bit weak all around. Fair Hair Lead Curtis has little to do until the film’s final 15 minutes, when she, as dictated by genre conventions, must go head-to-head with the killer by unleashing her Inner Badass. The treat is franchise star Donald Pleasence, whose character basically goes around making grand pronouncements about evil. Ironically, Loomis makes the type of statements that would make an unbiased third party think he’s rather, well, loony. Regardless, Pleasence is great in the role, and it’s easy to see how he became such a favorite among genre fans.
On the negative side, the script seems to have little ambition beyond its limited “killer on the loose” scenario. I’m told that future sequels do expose the reasons behind Michael Myers’ murdering spree, but if one only had the original to go by, there will be a lot of head scratching. In fact, Myers’ targeting of Laurie seems to be random luck (or bad luck, to her). He goes after her friends first, and then only comes after her when she stumbles into his nest. And what was the point of the sheriff character again? Oh right, so someone can listen to Loomis spout his crazy talk.
From a purely technical level, “Halloween” is a treat. Besides the visuals, there’s that familiar theme, composed by Carpenter himself. It’s so simple, and yet just so memorable, and so darn effective. With the possible exception of the “Terminator” theme, the “Halloween” theme just might be the most memorable theme music ever. Also, Carpenter uses a lot of first-person perspectives and what could be called “cheap” synthesizer music to inject a sense of dread into almost every scene of the movie. Even a sequence of Laurie walking to school is atmospheric to the nth degree.
Is “Halloween” scary? Not to me. But it is very thrilling, and to me that’s the height of success for a Teen Slasher.
John Carpenter (director) / John Carpenter, Debra Hill (screenplay)
CAST: Donald Pleasence …. Dr. Loomis
Jamie Lee Curtis …. Laurie Strode
Nancy Kyes …. Annie Brackett
P.J. Soles …. Lynda
Charles Cyphers …. Sheriff Leigh Brackett