Halloween (1978) - Film Review
While in no way a conservative film, Halloween resonated with the rise in conservative sentiments raised by up and coming politician Ronald Reagan. The end of the 1970s saw a very dramatic rise in the religious right, as a new breed of politically savvy and vocal religious fundamentalists that would come to dominate American culture. True to this form, the horror films of the 1980s overwhelmingly would be dominated by the repetition of John Carpenter’s tale of a punishing “bogeyman” pursuing naughty promiscuous teenagers through suburbs, campgrounds, and even in their own dreams. Like Dracula, Carpenter’s film entails a kind of Gothic return of the past to haunt the present. Halloween is driven by sexuality, in particular female sexuality, and while Michael’s punishing look is vastly different from the seductive gaze of Count Dracula, both films gain momentum from the cultural boundaries around the “perversity” of sexuality. In a way, Carpenter’s simple tale of a familiar American horror genre fit with the simplistic condensed version of this cultural politics promoted in the 1980s and resonated their horrors surrounding it.
It’s about the silent masked killer, Michael Myers that stalks baby sitters on Halloween night. It’s often credited as being the first slasher flick, but that’s not really true. In fact, it’s not even the first holiday slasher flick with 1974’s Black Christmas. It is responsible however with bringing the slasher genre into the mainstream, and spawning countless imitators. It’s also been said that the film is the first Halloween themed movie, but that requires a little bit of investigation. It’s safe to say though, that this was the first feature length Halloween themed “horror” film. It takes the realistic approach, where the monster is not a vampire or a werewolf, but a human being. This has been done before with Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, both inspired by the real life murderer, Ed Gein. But in those movies the victim goes to the killer; they visit the Bate’s motel or they travel into a desolate area of Texas. Halloween is a movie where the killer comes to them.
It takes place in an ordinary small town. We get familiar with this town very quickly. There’s the Strode house, where the main character Laurie lives, there’s the house where she babysits, and then there’s the house where her friend babysits, which are both right across the street from each other. This relationship between all of the houses sets up a feeling of reality, which I think helps create the tension and suspense. At last there’s the abandoned Myers house, it’s another thing that feels familiar to us. Every neighborhood seemed to have a house that was haunted someplace where a bad thing happened. It’s something that puts us in a child’s perspective, and captures our spooky imagination. The movie takes place in the fictional town of Haddonfield, Illinois. Co-writer and producer Debra Hill based her idea on this town from the real life of Haddonfield, New Jersey. But the filming took place in California, in South Pasadena and West Hollywood. Wrap your head around all that. That house that was used for the Myers’ house no longer sits in the same location today. It was moved down the block, repainted and turned into a Chiropractor’s office. I’d be a little scared to get my neck cracked there.
John Carpenter was a huge fan of the 1951 classic, The Thing From Another World. This is obvious even before he made his remake in 1982. All over Halloween, you can see the characters watching it on their TVs. You can tell he was influenced by The Thing, for all the right reasons. He took the same basic concept about people being stalked by a monster, and building up anticipation of when the monster will strike next. Michael Myers is like a ninja, but as a viewer, we’re waiting for when he’ll sneak up next and this intensifies our anxiety. It’s an old trick from Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense. In interviews, Hitchcock always used this example, you have a scene where two people are sitting at a table talking about baseball, we see underneath the table that there is a bomb. We know it’s going to go off, but that characters are too busy talking. John Carpenter knows how to use the old tricks. He managed to take familiar elements and cliches from older movies and combine them all into something that’s fresh and new.
Jamie Lee Curtis plays Laurie Strode, she’s the daughter of Janet Leigh from Psycho. This promoted Jamie into her new status as “Scream Queen.” Donald Pleasence plays the role of Dr. Sam Loomis. It can’t be a coincidence that Sam Loomis is a character in Hitchcock’s Psycho. Loomis was Michael Myers Doctor when he was in the Asylum, and is now hunting him down. It’s like a battle of good and evil, the same way Van Helsing would come after Dracula. In fact Carpenter’s first choice for the role was Peter Cushing, but Cushing had just been in Star Wars the previous year, which made him unattainable for an independent, low-budget film.
As for Michael Myers, there is no one actor associated with the role. He was played by several people in the first film alone. I’ll try to list them all but it’s not a hundred percent confirmed. Nick Castle is the best known, he’s listed in the credits as “The Shape” and played Michael through the majority of the film. Then there’s Tony Moran, who’s used for the unmasking scene. Whenever Michael was destroying something, like smashing a closet, he was played by production designer and co-editor, Tommy Lee Wallace. When he was shot and falls off the balcony, he’s played by stunt man, Jim Winburn. When he kills the dog he’s played by a dog trainer. The young Michael in the beginning is played by Will Sandin. The arm during the long POV shot is played by Debra Hill, and it’s rumored that John Carpenter himself played Michael Myers somewhere.
But if there is any one actor that can be identified with Michael Myers, it’s William Shatner. That’s his face on the infamous Michael Myers Mask. Since this was a low-budget movie, they didn’t make their own mask. They went to the store and bought any mask they happened to find. They went with a Shatner mask, removed the eyebrows and sideburns, messed up the hair, and painted the face white. The original store mask was created by Don Post in 1975. The same year a movie came out called The Devil’s Rain, starring William Shatner. His face in the film looks eerily identical to the famous Michael Myers expression. The Don Post mask was said to be labeled as a Captain Kirk mask, though it’s rumored that the lifecast was taken from Shatner on the set of The Devil’s Rain. Strangely, Shatner even does the famous the famous Michael Myers head-tilt in the film. If there’s no connection whatsoever, then it’s one hell of an eerie coincidence.
When Halloween came out on television, it fell a few minutes under the time slot they needed, so they had to film a few extra scenes while they were in production of Halloween 2. Fans of the first movie might want to check out the extended TV cut for curiosity’s sake.
Music plays a big part in creating the haunting atmosphere. It was composed by John Carpenter. Without this music, and shrieky sound effects, it probably wouldn’t be as scary. I think part of the reason it’s so scary is because it’s starts out kind of slow. It lets your guard down, it builds up, and then it hits you in the face.
I think there are many boring scenes in the first half, like when the girls are walking around and talking. Except for Laurie, they act so ditzy and use the word “totally” way too much. Some of the dialogue is down right awful, but it’s hilarious and in the long run, it makes the ending more terrifying because you’re not really expecting it. The final chase scene with Laurie is still one of the best in the Slasher genre. The chase goes across the street back to the house she’s babysitting, and has multiple false endings. By the end, you’re exhilarated, and it works with every repeated viewing.
There’s something special about this movie, because it low-budget, and not over produced. Ever subtle thing about it, like the dead leaves blowing across the street, it just feels all so real and legit. I try to make it a tradition to watch it every October, ideally on Halloween night. That’s the perfect mood, let me set it up for you:
Turn out the lights, light up some Jack-o’-lanterns near the TV, start the movie while the night is still early enough so that trick-or-treaters are still coming to your door, but don’t answer the door because you’re watching Halloween. Put out a Witch’s kettle full of candy and let those little guys help themselves. The sounds you hear at your door will set up the perfect ambience. By the time you’ll get to the final chase scene, you be completely immersed. As the movie ends on one of the greatest cliff-hangers of all time, get up, take a peak out your front window looking out onto the quiet night street. With the eerie music from the credits filling the background and the sounds of Michael breathing, you’ll swear he’s out there, somewhere.