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Halloween

As a film critic, I’m called upon to take a firm stance on matters of opinion on almost a daily basis. Who was the most gifted director of all time, and which beloved filmmakers are actually not as talented as advertised? What sequels are actually worthy of their predecessors, if any? What “classic” films are overrated, and which forgotten flops deserve to be revered? Which great actors should be stars, and which big stars are actually terrible actors? When one takes it upon one’s self to undertake critical analysis of the cinematic arts as a profession, it is inevitable that one will regularly make empirical statements that stir controversy, ire, and even outright hatred in other filmgoers. No critic can ever be truly objective, and no movie review is totally free of the personal tastes and biases of the reviewer. Further, no matter the film or the position one takes on it, there will always be someone eager to argue passionately to the contrary. A review is ultimately just an opinion, and there are more opinions than there are grains of sand on the Atlantic coastline. To each, as they say, their own.

That being said, John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN is the scariest movie ever made. Period. There is simply no room for debate.

We all know the story… Fifteen years to the day after six-year-old Michael Myers brutally murders his older sister with a butcher knife on Halloween night, he escapes from Smith’s Grove Sanitarium and returns to the little town of Haddonfield to terrorize a teenage babysitter and her friends. The one man who truly understands just how dangerous Myers is, his psychiatrist, is the only person that stands between evil and the unsuspecting residents of the quiet community. It’s a bare bones plot that has been borrowed, imitated, and flat-out stolen by hundreds of other films of varying quality since, yet it remains as simple and powerful today as it was in 1978. Imagine yourself alone, on a dark night, looking out the window at a quiet street you’ve traveled a million times before. Now imagine someone on the other side of the street, someone just far enough away that you can’t quite make out their face, standing like a statue, staring back at you. Imagine the terrifying realization that death is in your neighborhood, right outside your door, and you’re the one it’s come for. This is the essence of HALLOWEEN.

In the wake of six direct sequels (and one unrelated entry) which liberally add and subtract elements to and from the mythos at will, it is often debated by fans and film historians just what the real appeal of Michael Myers is. Is he an immortal, elemental force or a creepy voyeur in a mask? Is he supernatural or just deranged? Does his enduring power to terrify stem from his role as faceless, indestructible, mythical boogeyman, or from the notion that the murderer behind the mask could be your next door neighbor or your Chemistry teacher or some other ordinary person you might meet on the street and never suspect of being capable of truly evil acts? The answer is both, and much more. Michael Myers is death in whatever form it may take, the darkness within us all running free in the most innocuous of settings (and one where, ironically, it quite often rears its ugly head in the real world) – suburbia.

Despite its reputation as the seminal “slasher” film, more than half of the original HALLOWEEN involves Michael slowly and deliberately stalking Laurie Strode and the people closest to her. His presence is utterly pervasive, the Shape (as the character is billed and referred to in the script) appearing in the background, foreground or just outside a window or door in virtually every scene involving the protagonist and her friends right up until his climactic attack on Laurie. Carpenter uses the image of his killer in much the same way that Steven Spielberg used the murky ocean in JAWS and James Cameron would later use futuristic technology in THE TERMINATOR – no matter where our heroes go, no matter what they are doing, death is always right there with them, watching, with the potential to strike at any second. The quiet tension of the first hour or so of the film is every bit as brutal and relentless as the final act of the original TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, but without any of the frenzied bloodletting or outright sadism. Though we don’t get a really good look at Michael until the end, we are never allowed to forget his presence for even a second, because we can physically see him throughout the entire narrative. This is an incredibly effective technique that few filmmakers who have attempted to cash in on the success of HALLOWEEN have had the skill or cinematic savvy to duplicate.

Dean Cundey’s masterful cinematography is perhaps the most unsung virtue of HALLOWEEN, yet it is an absolutely essential element of the horror. An abundance of wide shots of still, mostly empty streets lined with ordinary houses create an ominous sense of dread that heightens the terror further when the Shape appears somewhere in the distance or in the immediate foreground to shatter the normalcy of the tableau. The camera often tracks characters as they move, allowing Michael to slip silently in and out of shots with such subtlety that the viewer might miss him if they aren’t watching closely. Nearly every frame of the movie could pass for a point-of-view shot (and many, including the fantastic opening involving young Michael and his sister, are just that), making Cundey’s camera almost a silent participant in the action and placing the audience right there in the middle of every scene. It would be impossible to overstate the value of this innovative shooting style to a film which is built on the fear of evil invading the safety of our everyday lives.

The acting and characterization are as vital to the film’s realism as the quaint Pasadena locations. Jamie Lee Curtis (PROM NIGHT, HALLOWEEN H20) has played a lot of roles since becoming a star in the wake of this film, but her wistful turn here as the repressed Laurie is probably still the finest work she’s ever done on celluloid. She is natural and sympathetic without being clichéd, due both to an understated performance and a well-crafted script by Carpenter and Debra Hill which addresses her social awkwardness in a credible fashion. Rather than surrounding their heroine with a lot of partying adolescent stereotypes and having her embarrass herself in contrived situations (as most teen-oriented films would), the writers allow her angst to come out through brief, believable conversations with her close friends (essayed well by P.J. Soles and Nancy Loomis, respectively). In doing so, they perfectly capture the feeling of isolation common in real teenagers and expertly set the stage for her one-on-one, killer-and-victim showdown with Michael in the final reel.

Donald Pleasance is magnificent as Doctor Sam Loomis, the psychiatrist who has been trying for years to convince his superiors that the killer is too dangerous to be treated like a normal patient. Fans have always held Pleasance in high esteem, but even his biggest proponents don’t seem to appreciate just how vital his performance is to the success of the original HALLOWEEN. Often wrongly characterized as “crazed” or “obsessed” (due in large part to his portrayal of the character in Parts 2 and 4-6), Loomis is actually just completely terrified by the notion that his long-catatonic patient is running loose. Mask, music and camerawork are all important to Michael’s ability to terrify, but it is the genuine dread in Pleasance’s delivery that really convinces the viewer that Myers is more than just your average escaped lunatic. The good Doctor tells us that what has escaped from Smith’s Grove is pure evil, and he is so convinced of it himself that we have no choice but to believe him.

In fact, the variety of fears displayed by the central characters is as crucial to the cultural impact of HALLOWEEN as the central object of their terror. Young Tommy Doyle sees Michael as the boogeyman, a manifestation of phantom noises under the bed and strange shadows in the closet. Laurie views him as a sexual predator, the embodiment of her own fears about the opposite sex and intimacy. Loomis, having seen him up close, knows that the murderer exemplifies the deepest, most sinister depths of the human soul, and perhaps even supernatural evil itself. As noted, Carpenter intended Michael to be all of these things, and the different outlooks of these characters from different generations allow him to touch deep-rooted phobias across a broad range of viewer demographics. Whether you are a naive child, an awkward teenager or a cynical adult, Michael Myers represents something that you are afraid of.

Though much of the movie’s strength lies in its real world approach to horror, Carpenter weaves some powerful supernatural subtext into his boogeyman. Michael moves like a phantasm, appearing one second and vanishing the next. He is seemingly indestructible, getting up time and time again after being stabbed, gouged, shot and knocked off a second-story balcony. When he skewers Bob to a wall with a knife through the belly, the victim’s upper body remains upright, defying gravity. Michael appears to open locked doors without keys, open and close windows and doors without touching them, and even make bodies suspended in dark corners fall out at just the right moment to terrify his next victim. Later slasher films would mimic these elements for cheap shock value (and to open up the possibility of sequels), logic be damned, but Carpenter and company use them in the original HALLOWEEN to quite deliberately lend mystic mystery to their killer. Death is no respecter of natural laws, and it cannot ever die.

There are some tiny flaws in the film. Early on, Laurie mentions that the house where she will be babysitting is just “three houses down” from the residence where Annie will be, yet the two homes are later shown to be right across the street from one another. Though it is the last day of October in Illinois, the leaves on the trees are clearly green, and we only see a smattering of leaves falling to the ground. It also doesn’t get dark until after 6:30 PM, unlikely in late fall in the Midwest. Loomis is staked out in front of the Myers’ house for hours before he notices the station wagon Michael returned to Haddonfield in parked right on the same street, less than a block away. Observant viewers may also catch a few other technical gaffes, such as visible equipment or the occasional fleeting glimpse of a crew member. These are all very minor gripes, though, because they ultimately do not undermine the horror or effectiveness of the movie in the least. For a low-budget film directed by a relative newcomer to the industry, HALLOWEEN is a remarkably seamless and professional-looking endeavor.

28 years and countless viewings after its initial release, HALLOWEEN remains the only horror film I’m still hesitant to watch alone late at night. From its unrelenting score to its nightmarish antagonist, it still strikes the same kind of primal chord that PSYCHO and JAWS hit before it, while at the same time having an edge on those films in that it brings pure, heart-stopping terror into the realm of the mundane, everyday world in which most Americans live. To be eaten by a killer shark or hacked to death by a cross-dressing motel manager (or decapitated by a hockey mask-wearing mongoloid, or ground up into chili meat by inbred cannibals, or impregnated by an acid-dripping alien, etc., etc., etc.), you would presumably have to leave the safe confines of your own living room. Michael Myers, on the other hand, could be right outside your window anytime, standing in the freshly cut grass and staring right in at you while you live your life, oblivious to the evil mere feet away. You can stay out of the ocean or avoid road trips through rural Texas, but what if an inhuman monster found its way to your hometown? The ad slogan for the film informs us that HALLOWEEN is “The Night He Came Home.” That sums it up perfectly. What could be scarier than finding death on your own doorstep? Nothing, as far as this critic is concerned.

Official Score