By Marc S. Sanders
Finally, I saw it. I had never seen any of the Halloween movies. At last, considering the time of the year, I chose to watch the original John Carpenter classic slash fest from 1978. Granted, I believe I have seen every scene of this picture by flipping channels or watching Netflix documentaries. I have just never stopped to watch the film from beginning to end. So, if the surprises didn’t grab me as much you, when you first watched, well my apologies for having an advantage. Let’s just say I can see why the picture is still regaled so much, nearly fifty years later. Nevertheless, I think Halloween is full of plot holes and short sightedness.
Understand reader, I know what to likely expect when I watch a slasher flick. Man in a mask who walks at even pace while the girl victim sprints as far away as possible. Still, the girl can’t get away, right? Well, normally she would be able to. This is a horror movie, though. The suspense is heightened in any film if the storyteller elongates what you fear as much as possible. So, yeah, it is much more effective to show the ominous killer as far away as possible while the camera cuts away to a helpless Jamie Lee Curtis fumbling with the lock on the door. Even more effective is if you have a pulse pounding soundtrack to get you fidgeting in your chair while you bite down on your last fingernail.
I think Carpenter’s film stands as the granddaddy of the modern-day slasher film (though not besting Hitchcock’s Psycho) because of the methods he adopts with his camera work and editing. The opening sequence is skillfully executed as we watch one Halloween night unfold in 1963 where a six-year-old Michael Myers, dressed in a clown costume, takes a kitchen knife to his naked older sister in her room upstairs. Carpenter gives us the literal point of view from the killer kid. We watch through his eyes from the outside of the Myers’ home, then as he enters, he picks up a kitchen knife, dons a mask and heads upstairs. Now we are looking through eye slips in the mask. Then he moves down the stairs and out on to the sidewalk. Carpenter then reveals we’ve been watching through the eyes of a child with murder on his mind while he holds a bloody knife by his side. For me, one of the scariest things I can think of is a murderous child. Children are made up of innocence, devoid of corruption. When you poison the mind of a child, it seems like the most heinous act a writer can take with a character. Look at The Exorcist and The Omen, as perfect examples in addition to Halloween.
Fifteen years go by to present day 1978, and Michael has escaped from a mental institution on the night before Halloween. This is where I lose my suspension of disbelief. He terrorizes his psychiatrist, Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) and a nurse driving in middle of a dark and stormy night and steals their station wagon. Michael is now driving back to Haddonfield, Illinois where he committed his first crime. You know I would have dismissed this trope of Michael being able to drive had I never seen the car again. However, Carpenter uses the car as a character itself, much like the rampaging truck in Duel. For the first half of Halloween, this car drives up and down the Haddonfield neighborhood stalking three high school girls as they walk to and from school. Where did Michael, who has been institutionalized since age 6, learn to drive a car????? The movie even asks the question at one point and I don’t recall getting a satisfactory answer. Every time I see this car, slowly keeping up with the girls walking the sidewalks or riding in their own car, I can’t help but ask how Michael so skillfully pilots this station wagon. I’m teaching my 15-year-old daughter how to drive right now. Maybe Michael should give me some pointers, because it isn’t going so smoothly.
The structure of the film centers on three teen girlfriends, two of which are babysitting on Halloween night across the street from one another (Jamie Lee Curtis, Nancy Kyes). The third (PJ Soles) is out and about with her boyfriend, ready to get laid. What’s appreciative of Carpenter’s craft is that the film is not occupied with buckets of blood spilling all over the place. Instead, the audience is repeatedly teased in a dark neighborhood, where trick or treaters appear on occasion, and these girls are being looked at from different angles. We all know Michael is there. His heavy breathing under his mask tells us that he is hungry for death. What messes with our senses is figuring out when he’s finally going to strike. Will it be when one of the girls finds herself clumsily stuck in a window? What about when a couple is having sex upstairs? A quick trip to the kitchen, maybe? New tricks are pulled with each attack and Carpenter wisely stretches these episodes of terror out.
Michael Myers never speaks. Other than at age 6, he is masked the entire length of the film. We really never get a sense of his physicality either. We don’t know why he has the urge to kill. The best we can count on is Dr. Loomis. Donald Pleasence does a good job of heightening the terror. He is not forgiving with his patient as he simply describes him as the worst kind of evil imaginable. He describes the black eyes that Michael has, and I couldn’t help but think of Captain Quint describing his experience with a man-eating shark in Jaws. The worst kinds of monsters are the ones you can’t beg and plead with; the ones who have no comprehension of compromise. If you are caught in their sight, you will be killed. That’s it.
Now, I’ve already discussed the deal with the car? I’ll never get past that. Never. It’s ridiculous. There’s also the fact that the parents/homeowners these girls are babysitting for seemingly never come home. This is one long night. Where the hell are mom and dad, already? I have to give up my grudge with these oversights. It’s not fair to the strengths of Halloween.
A magnificent third act involves Curtis’ character taking it upon herself to seek out what she fears may have occurred. She goes across the street to the dark house where her friends are supposed to be. Carpenter takes his time with his protagonist walking deeper and deeper into darkness, calling out her friends’ names. I’ve seen things like this before, but it works all the better, the longer the sequence plays out, sometimes in silence and sometimes with music cues from Carpenter’s synthesized soundtrack. What she finally uncovers is more terrifying than the killer we know has always been there.
When the chase picks up from that point, a horrifying moment with Curtis taking refuge in a closet is likely the scariest moment of the film. Carpenter focuses on the interior of the closet with the fragile wooden folding doors violently rattling and getting torn apart by the killer. When he’s able to reach inside fumbling with the light bulb, darkness is disturbed by intermittent light to toy with your senses. It shakes up your nerves. How does a helpless victim escape a narrow closet with a faceless killer standing in the way? An absolutely unsettling scene.
Michael Myers is referred to as the “boogeyman” in the film. We all have our cognition of what a boogeyman is. He hides under our bed or in our closet or maybe behind a bush or shrub. Carpenter’s film works like Spielberg’s Jaws where the environment is what is really terrifying. The ocean water is the first unsettling element before we encounter the monster that occupies it. In Halloween, a dark neighborhood with a haunted past keeps us at bay before it comes alive with a killer in its shadows. We know there’s a shark somewhere. We know there’s an evil, murderous presence somewhere too. When is it going to come out, and attack us already?????? This is where Halloween succeeds. Imitations that were made afterwards only set up the moments, one kill after another. Carpenter wasn’t setting up kills so much as he was preparing mood and darkness. There’s nothing to gain symbolically from Halloween. It’s three girls, with one having a sneaking feeling that something doesn’t feel right, a killer, and a man who dreadfully knows what’s to expect. John Carpenter assembles the elements together and we see what’s to come of it from there.
I’ll likely not return to Halloween anytime soon. Slasher fests are not my style. Yet, if anyone asks for the best of the best, I’m going to highly endorse Psycho first, and then I will turn their attention to the original Halloween. There have been gorier releases since. There have more jump scares since. All of that is nothing but cheap tactics lacking imagination.
Halloween chills you with its menacing approach.