WARNING: For anyone who hasn’t yet seen John Carpenter’s iconic 1978 Horror/Slasher film “Halloween”, this in-depth analysis of the film will contain many SPOILERS. I also urge people who have a categorized bias toward the film to proceed with caution, as I aim to strip every element of it right back. Halloween is a Horror/Slasher film set in the small town of Haddonfield, Illinois and it centers around teenage babysitter, Laurie Strode (played by Jamie Lee Curtis) whose stalked on Halloween night by Michael Myers (Tony Moran), a knife-wielding maniac. The film also stars Donald Pleasence (The Great Escape) as “Dr. Loomis” Michael’s psychiatrist, Nancy Kyes (The Fog) as “Annie” Laurie’s best friend, P.J Soles (Carrie) as “Lynda”, and Charles Cyphers (The Fog) as “Sheriff Brackett”.
There’s simply no doubting that this genre-defining classic will forever have its place in the history of horror filmmaking. Released in October of 78′ and made on a budget of just $300,000, John Carpenter’s Halloween went on to gross 47 million dollars just in the US alone. It became the highest grossing film of the time, a record that it held for many years, but why was it so successful? I suppose in most people’s minds, up until its release, the only films that even slightly resembled what we’ve since coined “the slasher”, were the works of Alfred Hitchcock in the 60’s (Psycho). Genre greats, Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper, who were also young filmmakers at the time, had explored a much more exploitative brand of horror with their respective films, “The Hills Have Eyes” from 77′ and the groundbreaking “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” in 74′, but there was nothing quite like the idea of a cat and mouse game between young teens and a deranged psychopath… or was there? Because that’s not entirely true, is it? Bob Clark’s 1974 Horror film “Black Christmas”, about a group of sorority girls being stalked by a stranger on Christmas, may well have played a part in shaping Carpenter’s idea behind Halloween. Even still, horror, as we know it today, was uncharted territory in the United States at that time (minus perhaps The Exorcist). The Giallo (Italian murder mystery) was flooding the European market throughout the 70’s but there was very little in the way of genuine slasher horror until Halloween came along.
Groundbreaking for the time, Halloween’s consequent success was in big part due to its marketing and promotion. The studios cut a restrained trailer, designed an eye-catching one sheet, and the film was officially released just a few days before the holiday itself. Being born in 86′, I never had the privilege of seeing the film in the era it was intended to be seen in, so I’ve got fresh eyes on it I suppose. That said, I’m a proud cinephile and I love films of all genres from all eras and I don’t let pre-conceived notions affect my judgment or critique. Halloween is most certainly a slow-burn where very little slashing actually occurs. I can respect that it was a different time though, with different standards and methods for scaring audiences. Even with its lack of excitement and somewhat passive progression, the film never gets boring. Carpenter is able to sustain the desired atmosphere even when not a lot is happening on-screen. I’m a sucker for Horror against the backdrop of safe, small-town, American suburbia and that’s one of the best things Halloween has going for it, Haddonfield. The streets are clean, the trees are leafy, houses are unassuming and the neighborhood is quiet. Enter, Michael Myers, who was once a 6-year-old boy who stabbed his sister Judith to death and wound up institutionalized, now, an adult escapee patient looking to return to his hometown to kill again. That contrast of a peaceful and somewhat naive community going about their daily lives while a masked killer lurks in the shadows (or not in the shadows as is often the case here) is what makes Halloween appealing. With Michael Myers, Carpenter created one of the most memorable villains in the history of horror cinema. The combination of the mechanic’s jumpsuit, the William Shatner look mask, and the long kitchen knife, makes it all extremely unnerving, at least aesthetically speaking.
Let’s talk about some of the technical facets that make Halloween a memorable viewing experience. Carpenter’s regular DP, Dean Cundey shot the film on 35mm with a Panavision Panaflex camera and the end result in cinematography is impressive. It’s incredibly clean, the framing is expertly handled, and the use of shadows through lighting help to create some of the more memorable shots. Carpenter is always aware of how much or how little to show of Myers at any given time. So much so that Michael isn’t fully revealed to the audience until the climax and showdown with Laurie. Long takes of nothingness amplify the atmosphere, and clever gentle camera positioning and tracking gives some diversity to the presentation. Whenever you mention Halloween, it’s usually that iconic piano and synth motif that first comes to mind, made famous by Carpenter himself. It’s a great piece of music and it continues to live on all these years later. If I’m critical of one thing it’s that it’s overused throughout the film, and slowly but surely it negates the fear initially induced by the sudden appearance of Michael. The theme conveniently cues his arrival every single time when it really doesn’t need to, and in fact, the film would have been scarier had it not. Aside from some inventive daytime leering, the two best scenes in Halloween are the opening POV sequence (point of view) followed by the drive to the facility, as well as Michael’s final showdown with Laurie. Contrary to popular belief, the opening isn’t unique because of its POV element, which Bob Clark had previously explored in the aforementioned Black Christmas but didn’t get the praise he should’ve. No, the reason it’s so good is that you don’t know the context yet, the motive (if there is one), or who’s under the mask. What a great way to start a horror film. The unique nature of daytime stalking is great and it works surprisingly well here. The scenes in which Michael just stands off in the distance are incredibly simple but effective. I also like the way he uses a vehicle as a means of surveillance and doesn’t just do it all on foot.
Okay. So now’s where things are going to get a little controversial. I haven’t done detailed research on the holiday itself or its initial inception, but I know it’s been around a long time. Halloween is a huge tradition embraced in many places around the world, and none more so than in the United States. Bringing me to the biggest weakness in John Carpenters film, the complete lack of attention to detail surrounding the night itself. There can be no denying that Halloween is simply void of any actual Halloween, and that’s a problem. In fact, if not for the title, a few jack o lanterns and Myers putting a bed sheet over his head to imitate a ghost, you wouldn’t even know it was October 31st. Hardcore fans are certainly set in their ways and refuse to acknowledge that the film is missing many crucial details that appropriately set the scene. Some argue that’s just being nit-picky and all the film is about is Michael Myers vs Laurie and the cat and mouse game between the two. I’d argue that you don’t have to delve deep at all in order to notice all the little shortcomings in Halloween, and they all add up. How can there be nothing but a few pumpkins to represent the holiday? I liken it to a western without horses or a saloon, A war picture without uniforms and guns. Would you believe that? With a $300,000 budget, I’m quite sure Carpenter could’ve set a small portion of it aside so as to authentically establish the foundation for the film, So the question is why didn’t he? And why has no one ever questioned it? There’s not a single decoration to be found throughout the movie. No cobwebs, no cheap gags, no toilet paper covered trees. Carpenter even introduces a scene at the school which is just one of a number of opportunities to hang some fake cobwebs, buy some cheap props and gags. It’s a school, a building full of kids (and kids love Halloween) and yet there’s no promotion. No costumes, no banners, not a single mention of candy, nothing. No matter how you spin it that’s incredibly poor for someone as good as Carpenter. If for whatever reason funds were tight, the simple fix would have been to establish that the film takes place on another night other than Halloween itself. Perhaps the eve of?
As I previously mentioned, it’s not like there weren’t opportunities to create some of these missing facets either. There are some kids at the beginning that could’ve later figured into events but don’t. Lindsey and Tommy, the two kids that Laurie ends up looking after, are the only ones given any screen time and they don’t at any point indicate anything Halloween Esq. Not to mention their acting is really weak. There’s a scene where Lynda and Bob are having sex and he leaves the room to go and get the beer, a prime example of good timing to perhaps introduce a trick or treater to help build the suspense. Is it Michael at the front door or not? Is he inside? If for no other reason than to give credence to the fact that it’s actually Halloween. What’s worse is that Carpenter indirectly highlights some of these problems through pieces of the dialogue and specific characters actions. Now, I’m not saying the audience needs to be shown absolutely everything, especially if it isn’t crucial to the advancement of the story, but how about something? Just one thing? Because I don’t recall any. Sheriff Brackett finds Dr. Loomis outside the old Myers house waiting on Michael’s return, and it’s understood that later he patrols the town looking for suspicious behavior. I suppose that’s fair enough, but he makes mention of just seeing the usual Halloween stuff, looters and such. Well, everything we’ve seen (or not seen) in Haddonfield up to that point suggests that there’s very little activity and there aren’t even many kids around as it is. Time would have been better well spent if Brackett actually informed his station of the escaped Myers and how much of a danger to the town he is. Though If I’m honest, that’s not really the issue because it’s all just passing dialogue between him and Loomis. The bigger problem is that awful line from Laurie as she looks out the window to a street with literally nothing happening on it and proceeds to say, “Everyone is having a great time tonight”….. ah, excuse me? What? Who is everyone? There’s no one around! The edit was odd, to say the least. I’ve been informed by fans that the blue van on the street (which apparently belongs to Bob) is the visual cue Laurie is referring to in regard to her friends being the ones having such a great night while she’s stuck babysitting. We’re never officially introduced to Bob prior to his scene with Lynda though so I’m not sure how we’re supposed to know it’s his van? If that’s what Carpenter meant to imply he could’ve easily had Laurie say the line to herself in frustration rather than showcase an empty street at the most inopportune time.
I found Halloween void of even an ounce of tension, nor were any of the performances believable. Two aspects that are of the utmost importance in a film like this. Had they been better, I might have not been looking elsewhere at all those little specifics. If the streets were at least semi-populated it probably would’ve been a great cover for Myers and raised the suspenseful component of the film. The one thing Carpenter does get right is the atmosphere, mainly due to the aforementioned cinematography and his eerie score. Unfortunately, atmosphere doesn’t translate to suspense. The body count is low and the on-screen violence is almost non-existent, so all that’s left is the scares. Now I’m well aware that this was violence in 1978 and people didn’t know any better, but now, such is not the case and that makes the viewing experience completely different. I can let Curtis’s emotionally strained performance slide somewhat, if for no other reason than it was her first time in front of the camera, but I have no idea how people see her as a scream queen (well a good one anyway). It’s all the little things like eye line and incorrect directional delivery that threw me off. All of Annie’s stuff is particularly bad. At one stage she’s having a conversation on the phone in her kitchen while she’s babysitting. Young, Lindsey sitting in the lounge which is to Annie’s right, yet when she calls out to her she does so facing the left, wherein a previous shot it’s established that to her left is the end of the house. Michael is also shown watching her straight through the window and in the very next shot he’s standing at the side of the garden bed and the window is now at an angle like he’s reapproaching. Those are just a couple of examples of things that had me scratching my head. Each of the performances is incredibly weak and despite what fans say, the era had very little to do with that. John Dall and Farley Granger were very good in Hitchcock’s “Rope” and that was in 48′. Anthony Perkins was impressive in “Psycho” and even Brad Dourif’s debut role in the masterpiece “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” 3 years prior to Halloween was great. They’re just a few examples supporting the fact that the time period had very little to do with it. I know we’ve come a long way but no one could ever convince me that the standard of acting in Halloween is anything other than bad. Even Donald Pleasence comes up short and he had 25 years experience prior to Halloween, I don’t know what happened here.
Carpenter missed his chance with both Loomis and Brackett, to make sense of why his version of Halloween night appears so inexplicably peaceful. Despite my earlier sentiments about changing the date of the film, all viewers really need is a reason as to why there’s nobody around. If Dr. Loomis was serious about Haddonfield and Myers (whom he claims is pure evil after having looked into his eyes) he would’ve insisted that Brackett’s station get a town-wide curfew in effect (much like Craven did in Scream), in turn, making sense of the empty neighborhood and all the absent particulars that one can’t help but question. Hell, even when Loomis appears on-screen in the latter part of the film he’s strolling up the street or standing around in one place. There’s no sense of urgency about any of it and there’s no excuse for that. Once again, the common response from fans is that they’re all nitpicky issues. For mine, nitpicking would be highlighting the credibility of a psychiatric facility without any security. There sure as hell doesn’t appear to be any when Loomis and the nurse discover patients outside the gate. I wouldn’t ordinarily even mention that scene because the lead into it through the forest and the heavy rain is so well done aside from that fact. Reaching would be emphasizing what a coincidence it is that Loomis finds the abandoned mechanics vehicle and white hospital gown right by where he just so happens to stop to make a phone call (doing so without any prior paper trail on Michael). Other things like not officially introducing Bob, something that would have made sense during the school scene, or even questioning where the parents are in all of this? Did Laurie’s parents go away? What about Annie’s mom? Does she have a mom? Maybe it doesn’t matter but all these little things better flesh out the characters. Otherwise what you’re left with is one-dimensional arcs all around, as is the case with Halloween. It’s painstakingly clear that Carpenter’s intention was to solely focus on Michael and Laurie, however, for that to occur, he left out too many things to make the film believable. For that reason alone I can’t see how Halloween could be the masterpiece everyone seems to think it is, it can’t possibly be.
So I’m well aware at this point that it probably sounds like I’m tearing into a film that has since become one of the most iconic films in the history of horror, but I’m really not. Hear me out, yes, I’m a self-proclaimed fan of “new school” horror more so than one of old and I make no apologies for that. With that said, I still like and respect the films that paved the way and ultimately made the genre what it is today. I’ve seen John Carpenter’s Halloween three times and there’s certainly a few things to like about it, but perhaps because I wasn’t there in that time and place I can’t truly get an accurate read on it. Now it may not be fair, but all I can do is analyze where it fits in the genre now and how it stands up by today’s standard. I’m sure that if Halloween were remade today (which it was and successfully by Rob Zombie) but followed most of the same aspects as Carpenter’s film but cleaned up all the easily rectifiable issues it has, it’d be a very impressive and timeless film. Unfortunately, I can’t see it in that light. Every facet of the genre has changed so much over the years, from the standard of acting, the technical capabilities, and even the writing, and I just don’t see a way in which Carpenter’s film holds up in relation to any of those things. I respect the hell out of the man and he’s made some great films over the years (some of my favorites) but I have to call a spade a spade and question the masses and what they’re seeing. Halloween is supposed to be a horror/slasher masterpiece and yet it’s got no real slashing, nor is it scary, not even close. If you do happen to find this film frightening I’d suggest perhaps seeking some professional help (I kid, sort of). Masterpieces are few and far between in any genre and even more so in horror. When I think of films that are the best at what they do though, I think of both Wes Cravens film “Scream”, a slasher that reinvented the wheel, and A Nightmare On Elm St, one that gave birth to an iconic villain in Freddy Krueger. The Thing (also from Carpenter), Argento’s “Suspiria” and even independent films like Bryan Bertino’s “The Strangers” and Mickey Keating’s “Darling” come to mind. Sad to say I just don’t think of Halloween in the same light, I wish I did.
My rating for “Halloween” is 4.5/10