Something is rotten in the state of Illinois.
In 1963, in the small Midwestern town of Haddonfield (don’t bother looking it up, it doesn’t exist), six-year-old Michael Myers stabbed his older sister to death with a butcher knife. But the six-year-old Michael Myers was merely the mini-me to the Dr. Evil that is the 21-year-old Mike. Fifteen years after murdering his sister, Michael escapes from the hospital he has been detained in for a decade-and-a-half to stalk and kill local high-school students. Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) appears to be the main target of his rampage.
From Halloween’s extraordinary opening point-of-view shot, where we see Michael kill his sister after she sleeps with her boyfriend from Michael’s perspective, director John Carpenter leaves his audience in no doubt that they are in the hands of a formal maestro. What Halloween possesses in bundles is what is missing from many of the film’s ‘slasher’ imitators – an enduring sense of patience. Halloween and Texas Chainsaw are probably the two most influential slasher movies, and they follow a similar structure: lengthy exposition, followed by mass violence (minus the blood and gore).
But to me, the build-up in Halloween is infinitely more effective than the build-up in Texas Chainsaw. I would consider John Carpenter to be a better director than Tobe Hooper, because unlike Hooper, Carpenter does not need to clumsily crowbar irrelevant scenes of foreshadowing to create suspense. The exposition in Halloween is far more patient, albeit not entirely subtle, than that. While the teenaged hippies come across a hitchhiker who turns out to be Leatherface’s brother – a rather clunkily signposted moment – the teenaged friends in Halloween roam the streets of their town during the day as if it was an ordinary day.
Indeed, nothing seems out of the ordinary.
That is until we get creepily sporadic glimpses of Michael Myers, patiently waiting. Waiting for day to become night; waiting to elicit his carnage upon the innocuous town. Carpenter shoots these almost beautiful long-shots of Michael lingering in the distance – we can see his white mask is waiting behind a hedge, or under a clothes line. Like Michael, we too are patiently waiting. Waiting for day to become night; waiting for the horror to begin. Hence, from that opening point-of-view shot, we are interpolated to align with Michael’s perspective, and experience the true horror of his murders in a way that only the perpetrator can. While Jamie is undoubtedly our hero, Carpenter abandons her arc to show – on-screen –all the murders that Michael commits.
Just ignore the fact that the dialogue is as subtle as Leatherface’s chainsaw; Halloween is a personal favourite horror film of mine because of its simplicity, and the chilling austerity of its imagery. The images of Michael slowly sitting up behind a couch after we think he has been killed, and him wearing a white sheet with the glasses of one of his victims are unforgettable – these are simple images, created without histrionic flourishes or oblique angles, but remain engrained in your subconscious long after watching the film. The pace is extremely measured and precise, and almost rhythmic – at the start of the film, the brief glimpses of Michael in the daylight are regular and expected, but are always surprising; throughout the film, Michael’s murders are regular and expected, but are always shocking. The film’s terror comes from this taut and measured atmosphere, rather than jump-scares or gore. The constant long and languid takes that move from location to location are matched with the soporific rhythms of Carpenter’s Tubular Bells-esque score, imbuing the film with a consistently suspenseful tone.
The film’s simplicity is mirrored in Michael Myer’s basic characterisation. The sequels to Halloween try to make Michael’s characterisation more tangible and his motives more understandable, and in doing so this makes him less enigmatic and less scary. In the original film, he is not a supernatural character. He has no motive or prior relationship to any of the people he brutally kills. He does not have a clearly diagnosable mental illness. He is just unadulterated, unstoppable, unreasonable evil. Donald Pleasance’s Sam Loomis, the psychiatrist trying to locate the villainous Michael, says it all: “I spent eight years trying to reach him, and the another seven trying to keep him locked up…what was lying behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply evil”.
Years before films like Blue Velvet and American Beauty, Halloween and Tobe Hooper’s 1982 Poltergeist were exploring the sordid underbelly of suburbia. Using the microcosm of the horror genre, both Halloween and Poltergeist examine how the malevolence of others in the past can come back to haunt innocent people in the present. In Poltergeist, the protagonistic family happens to build their house on a burial ground where the bodies have not been removed – the fault of the land-owners and property developers. In Halloween, the teenaged friends at the centre of the film just happen to be entwined in the relentless evil of Michael Myers.
I want to ignore the sequels to Halloween and treat the 1978 as an entity unto itself, because I think the inexorable fear and paranoia that the film generates makes more thematic sense this way; thus, I’m ignoring the revelation later in the franchise that Laurie is Michael’s sister, because it is far scarier when Michael has absolutely no driving motive. When Michael has no motive, he is a mythic figure, whose crimes could happen to anyone. There is no way that, after Loomis shoots Michael multiple times at the end of the film, he could possibly survive. But when Laurie and Loomis look to see Michael’s corpse, he has disappeared. Obviously, Michael reappears in the sequels; but at the end of the first Halloween, Michael might have just crawled away to somewhere hidden nearby before bleeding out. Though the ambiguity of this ending, Michael transcends tangibility and becomes a mythic, elusive representation of sheer paranoia.
While Texas Chainsaw certainly foreshadowed the conventions and values of the slasher genre, it was Halloween that, for better or worse, engraved them in stone: the masked killer, the penetrative phallic weapon (the girls’ deathly screams in the film sound rather sexual), the final girl, the horrifying opening murder sequence. As Randy says in Wes Craven’s Scream when deconstructing Halloween, sex equals death, drugs and alcohol equals death, and you never say “I’ll be right back” when you’re in a horror movie.
All these tropes would become clichés in the future, but a cliché can’t be a cliché when it starts; something becomes a cliché when it is overused. Its staples became overused in its remakes, sequels and the awful films it inspired – most notably Friday the 13th – because they are so effective in Halloween. Halloween is truly one of the great scary movies.