I never saw John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) at a young, impressionable age so it never imprinted on my psyche like The Birds (1963), Night of the Living Dead (1968), and Jaws (1975), which continue to this day to creep me out because they make me regress instantly to the little kid who saw them through fingers barely covering my eyes. That being said, Halloween is still an unsettling experience because Carpenter created such a well-crafted scare machine.
And he gets us right from the start as we see the world literally from the point-of-view of a young Michael Myers (Will Sandin) as he spies on older teenage sister Judith (Sandy Johnson). Dean Cundey’s flawless steadicam work creates a sense of unease as it glides smoothly through the Myers house. In a nice bit we even see Michael put on a mask before he brutally kills his sister. The real punch to the gut comes when Carpenter cuts from Michael’s P.O.V. to an omniscient angle as we see his parents arrive outside the house just as the boy emerges with a bloody knife. The mask is pulled off to see the slightly blank, slightly surprised expression on the child’s face. I don’t know how Carpenter got that expression from the boy, but it is a fantastically complex mix of emotions (or lack thereof) that plays across his face.
The film jumps from 1963 to 1978 and it’s a dark and stormy night as Dr. Samuel Loomis (Donald Pleasence) drives to a psychiatric hospital in Smith’s Grove, Illinois to take Michael to another facility. There’s this great shot of several patients wandering the grounds in the middle of the night. What are they doing there? We’re barely able to ponder this when Michael suddenly appears, commandeers the car and like that he is on his way back home to Haddonfield.
I love how Carpenter is confident enough of a filmmaker, even this early on in his career, to show Michael (Nick Castle) in broad daylight, like the initial, over-the-shoulder shot of him observing Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) as she walks down the street. Every time he pops up, it is unsettling in the way he almost casually appears, like when Laurie spots him across the street from the school standing behind the station wagon he stole, almost defiantly as if daring her to call attention to his presence. And then, after a few looks, he disappears. Michael prowls the neighborhood in that car, driving by Laurie and her friends who seem blissfully unaware except for her who senses that something isn’t right. The creepiest shot of these daytime sequences is when Laurie and Annie (Nancy Kyes) see Michael down the street, standing by a hedge. There is something disconcerting about a killer like Michael being so brazenly visible during the day despite Loomis and the police looking for him.
The contributions of producer and co-writer Debra Hill can’t be underestimated enough as evident in the scene where Laurie and her friends, Annie and Lynda (P.J. Soles), walk and talk about boys and babysitting – mundane things that pretty much anyone can relate to and this humanizes these characters. We start to get to know them as their distinct personalities surface. They’re not just cardboard stereotypes to be senselessly killed off later on in the film. When it does happen their deaths have more of an impact because we’ve come to identify with these characters, even care about them. This is certainly the case with Laurie whom we spend the most time with and who comes across as the most sympathetic.
Jamie Lee Curtis plays Laurie just right. She’s not naïve or entirely innocent (we see her smoking a joint with Annie), but there is definitely something good about her. She lacks experience because of her youth and this fateful night is a coming-of-age of sorts for her, which Curtis conveys so well. There’s a nice exchange between Laurie and Annie as they drive around town. They talk about the upcoming school dance and Laurie admits that she doesn’t have the courage to ask someone even though she admits to liking a specific boy. This is a telling scene that sheds light on her character. Laurie may be something of a bookish wallflower (in these early scenes she always seems to be carrying around her school books), but she has aspirations to be more assertive. It is this wish fulfillment that gets us to empathize with her.
Donald Pleasence hits all the right notes as the obsessed Dr. Loomis. He is Ahab and Michael is his great white whale that he is compelled to pursue come hell or high water. Having spent years with Michael he knows just how evil the man is as he lays it out for Sheriff Leigh Brackett (Charles Cyphers): “No reason, no conscience, no understanding. Even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, of good or evil, right or wrong.” And this is from Michael at six years of age! Loomis tried to help the boy for eight years and then realizing it was no use, spent another seven making sure Michael never left the institution because, as he puts it so well, “I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply evil.” Pleasence delivers this beautifully written monologue brilliantly; transforming what could have so easily been perfunctory exposition dialogue into a chilling account of just what is stalking the tree-lined neighborhoods of Haddonfield. The veteran actor doesn’t oversell it, resisting the urge to go over the top with the role. When Loomis loses his cool it’s with good reason. This speech conveys all we need to know about Michael in the intervening years from ‘63 to ‘78, which was needlessly fleshed out in Rob Zombie’s remake. I also like how Pleasence shows that Loomis is scared of Michael because he knows how evil the man is and what he’s capable of. This helps humanize the good doctor. He’s not some stereotypical infallible hero, but someone trying to do the best he can under trying circumstances.
Carpenter and Hill tell us just enough to let our imagination run with it, allowing us to fill in the gaps ourselves and in doing so be active participants in the narrative – something that countless imitators, wannabes, and even subsequent sequels often failed to do, instead of spelling things out and upping the gory body count. In comparison, Carpenter’s Halloween is downright subtle, like when Michael kills a neighborhood dog. All we hear is the poor animal whine and then a shot of Michael gently dropping its limp body to the ground. There’s no need to rub our noses in it as Carpenter conveys all we need to know through an economy of style. Another haunting shot (one of many) is when a little boy named Tommy Doyle (Brian Andrews), whom Laurie is babysitting, spots Michael across the street carrying Annie’s dead body around the front of a house at night. Perhaps it is the voyeuristic aspect that makes it so spooky or it’s the matter-of-fact way Michael goes about his business.
There are many reasons why Halloween still holds up after all these years. It’s more than being an expertly crafted, efficient scare machine. I think it also taps into some pretty primal fears that most of us can relate to – it took a ruthless serial killer and set him loose in an average, all-American suburb – symbols of safe haven in the 1970s and 1980s. Suddenly, with this film they weren’t so safe anymore. As a result, Halloween helped spawn a whole slew of suburban slasher movies, but few, if any, have stood the test of time like Carpenter’s film.