John CarpenterHalloweenCharles CyphersP.J. Soles
Halloween (1978)
Remade as: Halloween (2007)
Medium: film
Year: 1978
Director: John Carpenter
Writer: John Carpenter, Debra Hill
Keywords: horror, slasher
Country: USA
Actor: Donald Pleasence, Jamie Lee Curtis, Nancy Kyes, P.J. Soles, Charles Cyphers, Kyle Richards, Nancy Stephens
Format: 91 minutes
Series: Halloween >>
Website category: Horror 1970/80s
Review date: 16 May 2008
The Halloween franchise up to 2008 is as follows:
Halloween (1978)
Halloween II (1981)
Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)
Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)
Halloween 5 (1989)
Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995)
Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998)
Halloween: Resurrection (2002)
Rob Zombie's Halloween (2007)
Halloween (1978) is the one directed by John Carpenter that I'll be talking about here. It exists in two versions: the theatrical cut (91 min) and an extended TV version (101 min) with less gore but twelve minutes of additional scenes shot alongside 'Halloween II'. I liked both versions. The original is hardly splattery, so it's not as if they're burying the film's heart at a crossroads or anything. Besides, it's always good to see more Donald Pleasence. The most significant additions involve Loomis at the asylum, but watch out for Lynda coming over to borrow a blouse later. You'll know it because Jamie Lee Curtis has a towel on her head to hide her 1981 hairstyle.
That original is a genre-defining classic and completely unlike the rest of the franchise. 'Halloween II' continues straight on from it (as in "thirty seconds later") and lets Michael Myers carve up a hospital. Halloweens 4-6 are the Loomis/Jamie sequels, with their respective high points being Donald Pleasence at his doomiest (#4), a willingness to play with the slasher movie format (#5) and conspiracy theory shit (#6). The next two are the "Jamie Lee Curtis and a rapper" sequels, with #7 being quite classy and #8 unfortunately being the webcam one. Recently we also had the Rob Zombie remake, which is everything you'd expect from a horror fanboy director.
You'll notice I didn't mention 'Halloween III'. It's better that way.
Coming back to Carpenter's original, the fascinating thing about it is how fundamentally it differs from everything else in the series. Everything after this would be the Michael Myers show. We know him like a friend. He's a horror icon, the rock on which the franchise is built.
However this movie doesn't star him at all.
Oh, he's certainly back in Haddonfield and murdering teenagers. Nevertheless the whole point of the film is that Laurie's new-found stalker is a mute, faceless shape who could have been anyone. That's how Carpenter referred to him: the Shape. For the film's children and teens, he's the boogeyman. Arguably the most successful horror films are those which threaten us with something we're already afraid of and here Carpenter's scaring us with something very specific... that man over there who's watching you. Where? Who, him? No, I could have sworn I saw something. Was it him standing outside the window while I was getting undressed? Or was that him when I was alone in the house late last night and I thought I heard something downstairs, but wasn't quite sure?
Everyone knows what that's like. We've all been creeped out by our own paranoia and the phenomenon of the suspicious-looking stranger, even when we're wondering if it's all just our imagination. That's why it's crucial for us not to know this film's Michael. He has a name, a backstory and a mad doctor chasing after him, spouting pronouncements of doom, but at the end of the day he might have been anyone. Soon he'd be shrugging off bullets like Superman, but that would have ruined this film. It's more intimate than that. The deaths aren't bizarre setpieces. Laurie's climactic fight for her life involves weapons no more effective than a knitting needle and a coathanger. Watch him carefully. He's even a bit wobbly when getting up after Laurie's third attack! There's nothing cartoonish about this, but on the contrary everything's realistic and meant to hit close to home. You can imagine yourself in that situation throughout.
This film's message isn't "Michael Myers is coming", but instead "Maybe that creepy guy on the corner really is what you think he is". Coathanger attacks are exactly what the situation called for. However at the end he gets shot repeatedly by Loomis and even then gets up and walks away, which in this film manages to be far more significant than the usual "he's not dead!!!!" For once it's not a cliche. On the contrary, it's overturning the audience's assumptions by taking us to a whole new level of paranoia. 1. Stalkers are bad. 2. Maybe they might want to kill you. 3. Or maybe, just maybe, they're something even worse. 4. Sleep well.
Thus it's important that Laurie isn't yet Michael's sister. That was a plot twist dreamed up for 'Halloween II', thanks to which Michael ended up becoming a relative-hunting monomaniac. Here though he's nothing but a stranger. Admittedly he's carved the word "sister" into his cell door, but that's probably his older sister Judith whom he killed fifteen years ago and whose grave he's going to desecrate. Besides, even that's only in the TV version, which signficantly was filmed alongside 'Halloween II'.
This Myers is an enigma. He hasn't spoken for fifteen years. Even when he's not wearing a mask, his face will be out of frame. "This isn't a man," says Loomis, yet there are definite mental processes going on there. Look at him dressing up as a ghost, or more obviously that room where he's put all the bodies. What's he doing with that gravestone? He clearly wants something. It's just that that something is alien, unknowable and deeply disturbing.
That's why the comparison with Rob Zombie's 2007 remake is so interesting. Zombie extrapolates from the Michael Myers of the entire franchise, i.e. horror icon and star extraordinaire, seemingly unaware that this is taking him as far as possible from the original. That Michael has the most horrendous childhood, while Carpenter goes in the opposite direction by allowing us no easy handles on his psychology. His family seems nice. He lives in suburbia. There's nothing to suggest why this Michael might have turned to murder, except for Loomis's deliciously florid variations on "he's just plain evil". He is what he is. It came from within. When a seven-year-old Michael removes his mask after killing his older sister, his face looks almost puzzled.
The rest of Carpenter's film is great too. I feel bad about having spent so much time talking about someone who hardly ever steps out of the shadows, since the girls get far more screen time and it's them who carry the movie. These teens are deliberately as ordinary as can be, but well characterised. Laurie's a good girl, modestly dressed and conscientious with her school books. She's clever too. Annie's a bit of a troublemaker, although her father's the sheriff. Lynda's like, totally, not very bright. What's more, it may be 1978 but they probably wouldn't turn too many heads in the 1950s. They're normal. They're you and me. I particularly like Jamie Lee Curtis, who has that Sigourney Weaver thing of having a characterful face with hard, surprising angles despite being only nineteen at the time. She does a good job, undoubtedly with the assistance of Carpenter's "fear meter" which he created to help keep track of exactly how terrified Laurie should be in any scene. I love that idea. "This scene's a 6, then after that a 9.5..."
This film has been criticised by idiots for its perceived rule of "those who have sex will die". Yes, it's undeniable that it adheres to the horror movie rule of killing its victims in an order dictated by their moral rectitude. Leaving the good girl until last makes it a bit predictable, yes, but then again this isn't a film particularly interested in surprising you. On the contrary, it has more of a nightmarish inevitability.
Child actors! Carpenter offers hostages to fortune in how much screen time he gives to his child actors. Surprisingly however they're all fine, except in one brief scene of bullying at school and it says a lot about the ordinariness of Haddonfield that it doesn't even have worthwhile bullies. You won't give a second thought to the child actors, which is always a good sign. They're doing their jobs and being natural. It helps that they're not being given any of the thespian heavy lifting, though.
This film also has more nudity than any of its sequels, although it's not within a million miles of the 2007 remake. That's true of the TV version too.
Have I praised Pleasence enough yet?
"Go up to him and tell him to buzz off." I had to laugh at that. Next time I rewatch the theatrical cut, I'll have to look out to see if that was always the line or whether they'd redubbed for TV or something. I don't believe Rob Zombie actually knows the word "buzz".
To be honest, I never found Halloween particularly scary until towards the end. That's just me, I suppose. I can however acknowledge how clever and well-made it is. It was pioneering in its use of steadicam for all those shots from Myers's point of view, for instance. This is probably John Carpenter's most famous film (runner-up = The Thing, 1982) and just on a technical level it pretty much annihilates everything else in the franchise. This man knows how to frame a composition. As always, his music is superb too. It's worth pointing out that this film outclasses all of its sequels on a budget far smaller than any of theirs. It also spawned the entire slasher genre, although film nerds might point out that a 1974 Canadian film called Black Christmas got there first. There aren't many few horror films that can claim to have redefined the entire industry, but this is one of them.