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Happy Halloween: Halloween (1978) review

Updated on October 23, 2013

Director: John Carpenter

Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence, P.J. Soles, Nancy Loomis, Charles Cyphers, Brian Andrews, Kyle Richards


Synopsis:

Jamie Lee Curtis is Laurie Strode, an insecure high school student who is terrorized on Halloween night by an escaped mental patient named Michael Myers. Donald Pleasence is the heroic Dr. Sam Loomis, who follows Michael back to his hometown of Haddonfield, Il. in hopes of stopping him before he can kill again.

What's Good About the Movie?:

The film's opening is super creepy. It's starts in Haddonfield on Halloween night, 1963. We open up with a POV shot of a two story suburban house. We move closer and peer through the window to see a young girl making out with her boyfriend on the couch. As the two lovers move upstairs, we sneak in through the back door, move into the kitchen, and pull a butcher knife out of the kitchen drawer. The boyfriend leaves, and we move upstairs to find the young woman in her room, naked and vulnerable. Suddenly, she is stabbed repeatedly, over and over by the unseen attacker. As she falls to the floor dead, we run down stairs and out of the house, only to be stopped by the girl's parents.

The POV shot shifts, and we're not surprised to see that the girl's attacker is none other than Michael Myers. What is surprising is that...well, I'm choosing not to say, because when I first saw the movie, I was taken by surprise, and if you haven't seen the film, it's best if you discover the payoff for yourself. It's much more effective that way, and it does lead to what is probably the creepiest opening scene for any slasher movie. Ever!

Behind you, Jamie. Be-HIND YOU!
Behind you, Jamie. Be-HIND YOU!

Michael is locked up in a mental hospital for the crime, and has not spoken a word since it happened. Fifteen years later, Michael escapes on Halloween eve and heads back to his hometown. There, he sets his sights on teenager Laurie Strode and her two friends Annie (Nancy Loomis) and Lynda (P.J. Soles). He doesn't strike right away: He follows them as they walk home from school, watches them at home, and eventually stalks them to a residential area where Laurie and Annie will be babysitting for the night.

Because the movie is less about murder and more about a madman closing in on his victims as they go about their lives, Halloween gives itself the time it needs to develop its characters into people we can relate to and care about. Laurie is especially well written. She's a typical teenager with insecurities and fears that many people can relate to. She has a crush on another student named Ben Traymer, but feels too nervous to tell him about it. She experiments with marijuana with Annie, panics when they're almost caught by Annie's father Sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers), and gets even more worried when she assumes that he could have smelled the marijuana on them (“Didn't you see the look on his face!?” she shoots at Annie).

Her character really comes alive during the scenes where she babysits the children under her charge. Her main responsibility is a young boy named Tommy Doyle (Brian Andrews), who is bullied at school and who fears the boogeyman. The scene where Laurie comforts him about the boogeyman has such a warmth to it that it stands alone in the film. As the night wears on, and Laurie carves a pumpkin and watches scary movies with Tommy, we get a good sense of how much Laurie loves and cares for this boy. It adds heart to the movie, and increases the sense of risk when Laurie is chased by Michael in the climax.

The screenplay by Carpenter and Debra Hill also adds a layer of strength to Laurie instead of turning her into a whiny and whimpering heroine. Oh, she's certainly frightened and panic-stricken when Michael comes after her, but she puts up a good fight, even during the impossibly terrifying scene where Michael corners her inside a bedroom closet.

Dr. Loomis eventually shows up and warns Sheriff Brackett about Michael's return. He refrains from putting out an APB so as not to start a panic. They both make a quick stop at Michael's old house, which leads to Loomis delivering a spell-binding monologue about the fifteen years he spent as Michael's doctor. We never see any scenes of Michael in the hospital, and that's okay, because that monologue from Loomis is really all we need.

Yeah, I so would not want to be in that closet!
Yeah, I so would not want to be in that closet!

Director John Carpenter is a master at building tension to “Oh s**t!” levels. Consider the scene where Annie goes to pick up her boyfriend, forgets the keys inside the house, and returns to find that her car, which was previously locked, is now unlocked. Consider the scene where Laurie goes to check on her friends in the house across the street after receiving a fairly disturbing phone call from Lynda, or when Tommy sees Michael carrying a dead body inside the house across the street (a shot that is ominously scored by music from the 1954 film The Thing, which plays on TV). The scariest scene in the film has Laurie banging on a locked door while Michael approaches, getting closer and closer by the second. To this day, very few horror films are able to ratchet up the tension as well as that scene does.

Carpenter is aided considerably by cinematographer Dean Cundy, who successful in giving the movie an autumnal visual glow, in spite of the fact that the movie was filmed during the summer season. He also makes spectacular use of the background. A lot of the movie consists of everyday people in the foreground of shots while Michael lurks as a shadow in the background (some of the film's best use of the background happens when Annie gets locked in the laundry room). Carpenter contributes to the atmosphere with a musical score that's as chilling now as it no doubt was back then.

The performances are solid across the board. Soles and Loomis play their parts well, while Brian Andrews and Kyle Richards are likable as the kids under Laurie's care. Jamie Lee Curtis immerses herself in the role of Laurie Strode, but the best performance is, I'd argue, turned in by Pleasence, who conveys authority, fear, and determination as a man who may at one time have cared about Michael, but now considers him to be as fearsome as death itself.

Yikes! O_O
Yikes! O_O

What's Bad About the Movie?:

The critic in me has to pick at one scene: where Michael escapes from Smith's Grove Penitentiary. Loomis and a nurse named Marion Chambers (Nancy Stephens) drive to the penitentiary on a dark and stormy night to take Michael to a court hearing. When they arrive, they see all of the patients wandering around the premises. Loomis jumps out of the car and heads for the gate, while nurse Chambers stays behind. Suddenly, she hears footsteps on the roof of her car. Now, personally, if I was parked outside a mental hospital where the patients were all loose, and I heard footsteps on the roof of my car, I would not roll down the window and stick my head out just to see who was up there.

Eventually, Michael is able to get her out of the car, although it doesn't take a lot of effort. After grabbing at her and cracking the passenger's side window, she whimpers and hops out of the car. The nurse survives but is never seen again in the film, which is a blessing, because she really is the most annoying character in the film.

Verdict:

One ho-hum scene in an otherwise flawless enterprise is not enough to hurt this film's classic status. Halloween is a genre masterpiece, scary without being gory, and engaging without relying on false scares or horror movie clichés. Although Psycho is still the ultimate slasher film, the fact that Carpenter's film deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Hitchcock's classic is an extraordinary accomplishment.

Final Grade: **** (out of ****)

What were your thoughts on this film? :)

Cast your vote for Halloween (1978)

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