“I met him, fifteen years ago. I was told there was nothing left; no reason, no conscience, no understanding; not even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, of good or evil, right or wrong. I met this six-year-old child, with this blank, pale, emotionless face, and the blackest eyes…the devil’s eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply…evil” -Dr. Sam Loomis
Michael Myers. Perhaps the single greatest icon of the horror film. His debut appearance as “The Shape” in Halloween (1978) saw the beginning of a new era in the genre . The film established John Carpenter as a cinematic genius, established the “rules of horror,” and kickstarted the slasher film sub-genre that reached somewhat nauseating heights in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Halloween has since become a staple of not only horror culture, but pop culture in general and still frequently places in the Top 3 or 4 horror films of all time from diehard fans to Fangoria to AFI.
October 31, 1963, in the quaint, all-American suburban utopia of Haddonfield, Illinois, an unseen figure watches a teenage girl engage in a “romantic dalliance” with her boyfriend. The viewer is placed in the figure’s mind, the camera moving as his body moves, the screen his vision. We move into the house where both a large kitchen knife and a ghoulish clown mask are acquired. Then, now peering through the hollowed eyes of the mask, we move up the stairs and into the girl’s bedroom, where she sits at her makeup table. She turns, and is stabbed repeatedly. The assailant is revealed to be six-year old Michael Myers (Will Sandin), and the victim, his older sister Judith (Sandy Johnson).
The now famous opening sequence of Halloween, inspired in part by the opening crane shot in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958),was not the first moment where a filmmaker put the audience into the eye of a maniac, but it become one of the most well-executed and well-known. It’s unsettling, even now, to watch and become an unwilling participant in the first of many Michael murders. And this is just the beginning of a relentlessly suspenseful film with a tight plot and an energetic pace. Fifteen years after Michael stumbles onto his front lawn to greet his parents with a bloody knife and a blank face, he escapes from Smith’s Grove Asylum, where he has sat, without speaking. His psychiatrist, Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance), tracks him back to Haddonfield, where Michael (Nick Castle) begins to stalk a trio of babysitters, none of them aware of the danger that has inserted itself into their community. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) proves the only one resourceful enough to fit back against this faceless and pursuant evil.
Halloween became one of the most profitable horror movies of all time, a well deserved but surprise success given that it had a budget of about $350,000. This attracted the attention of a number of filmmakers and studios who began to mimic Halloween and thus the slasher film became its own out of control vehicle, dominating horror well into the 1980’s, though none were near as skillful and inoffensive as their muse. As a scare machine, Halloween is virtually flawless. Carpenter’s memorable score alone has been known to send chills down people’s spines, even if they haven’t even seen the film. The tension is always high, and makes use of pantomime scares made possible by the Panavision format, a somewhat rare indulgence for a low-budget film at the time.
Everything from the set pieces to the neighbors pulling down the blinds and shutting out the lights as Laurie runs from house to house showcase Carpenter’s technical and visual flair. Michael Myers does not only stalk the streets of Haddonfield, he stalks the imaginations of the viewers, a villain so cold and brutal there is no way he won’t imprint himself on the psyches of anyone who watches him do battle against the wily Laurie Strode. Speaking of which, if Michael is the quintessential horror movie villain, it should be noted that four of every five horror fans will name Laurie Strode as the greatest horror movie heroine of all time. Jamie Lee Curtis was cast in the movie as the ultimate tribute to her mother Janet Leigh legendary star of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), and she remains the reigning scream queen of the horror genre, having belted her way through this and other great classics such as The Fog (1980), Terror Train (1980), and the original Prom Night (1980).
Given that Halloween is looked at as the birth of the slasher sub-genre (though truly the genre has origins in the splatter films of the 1960’s, Italian gialli films, and Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974)–among a few other lesser-known sources), it must also be looked at as the beginning of the “rules of horror” that equate sex, drugs, and partial nudity with death. And turning your back on the seemingly dead killer with unreal physical abilities is also a big no-no. This formula was adopted wholesale by later slashers, and has been something that both Carpenter and Halloween have come under fire for–Michael kills his sister after watching her fornicate, and strikes down several other teens either after sex or while preparing to have sex, but the virginal Laurie survives.
Carpenter has defended this pattern as being a realistic portrayal of how teenagers behave. Laurie survives less because she is a virgin than because she has less to distract her as the ill-fated Lynda (P.J. Soles) and Annie (Nancy Kyes). In fact, the characters in Halloween are fairly well-drawn and sympathetic, almost nothing like the mindless drones that populate the abundance of Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street sequels. We care about the characters in Halloween because we are given true insight into their lives.
Even for all of it’s realism, the film never loses that eerie emptiness that hangs over the streets and seeps through the glowing pumpkins, turning the whole town of Haddonfield into a menacing neverland. As the film progresses, Michael Myers becomes less the archetype of an escaped lunatic and more the sinister boogeyman so feared by the film’s two child characters, Tommy (Brian Andrews) and Lindsey (Kyle Richards). Though not as blatantly obvious as the sequels, something about Michael rings of a supernatural indestructibility, and there is no better evidence of this than the haunting final montage.
The much beloved Donald Pleasance, who would collaborate with Carpenter on several future projects after Halloween, delivers his lines with an admirable, albeit creepy, elegance, and gets at the heart of why we so fear The Shape–his pure, unsaturated evilness. There is something deeply frightening about a monster not the product of a dysfunctional family or warped society, but one who is filled with a malice and a darkness that cannot be reasoned with or explained.
It is this fear that slowly crawls over the viewer as they take in Halloween, elevating the movie to heights beyond babysitter murders and inefficient police backup. As the film ends, cutting from empty street to empty house to empty school, the heavy breathing of Michael growing louder and deeper in our ears, the audience is left with the sensation that Tommy may have been right, and thus wonders, what if? What could happen on Halloween this year, the night when the barriers between the living and the dead are thinnest, and we enter a world not of our own–a world of masks, knives, and ominous shapes?
- 5 – Totally Terrifying
4 – Crazy Creepy 3 – Fairly Frightening 2 – Slightly Scary 1 – Hardly Horror