John Carpenter’s Halloween is arguably the most bulletproof horror movie ever made, holding up when grouped with its ten sequels by sheer cognitive dissonance. Halloween is a thing of its own, the sequels are the obvious others. You know this, though.
The legacy Halloween created has surpassed the movie – which in itself is a simple, unassuming thing – for both good and bad reasons, depending on how snobby you are over slashers (which is fair, many are horrible and I am equally horrible for loving them). Many attribute Halloween as the birth of that particular genre and, I mean, way to blow off The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Black Christmas, both of which came out in 1974, but it’s disingenuous to say Halloween didn’t play the heaviest part by proving the genre was viable. And yet, compare Halloween to the wave of slashers that swept the 1980s. Hell, compare it to every other Halloween movie. All of them wished to replicate the success of Halloween, the most profitable independent movie ever made for a time, but none of them could understand how simplicity can beget perfection quite like Halloween.
And it really is simple, when you boil it down. Michael Myers (Will Sandin), a 6-year-old boy from an idyllic suburb town called Haddonfield in Illinois, remorselessly kills his teenage sister, Judith, on Halloween night after she has 30-second sex (the only thing you can really clock the movie for, and even then it’s so out there that why would you bother) with her boyfriend, and is locked away at Smith’s Grove sanitarium under the care of Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance), who eventually gives up rehabilitation as he realizes there is no hope for Michael. Years later, 23-year-old Michael (and played by Nick Castle, embodying the quiet, slow killer archetype quite unlike anybody ever since, portraying simultaneous nothingness and distinct purpose), escapes Smith’s Grove before Halloween and returns to Haddonfield, where he happens to spot teenager Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) placing the keys for his old house, up for sale by Laurie’s father, under the door. Michael decides to hunt her and kill her and those in the way. Laurie goes about her life, unaware that she’s been targeted for death as Loomis desperately tries to find Michael.
This has been beaten over and over, but it’s truly the most powerful concept: Evil finds an arbitrary target, Evil seeks to destroy said target no matter what, no matter the reason. Questions of motive are irrelevant, it’s just something that is. The terror of this is only exacerbated when you read real-life stories of similar happenings and realize it’s not that far-fetched.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Halloween is the surrealism that runs throughout the film. It’s primarily visual: the colours are pushed to the extreme, mostly due to shooting the movie in a California summer and needing to force the perspective of midwestern autumn, with daytime serving a strong orange and the nighttime a strong blue, as if everything’s reflecting a giant aquarium or the blue of a television screen, and it’s all similar enough to reality where it’s not unbelievable, but strong enough where it registers in a small part of your mind as odd but extremely pleasing regardless. It’s this atmosphere that absolves Halloween of guilts like having palm trees clear as day in Illinois, and instead allows them to add to the surrealist, not quite here state the film operates within. Even the acting, which is very 1970s acting, adds to the quiet little absurdities. Laurie’s friend Lynda (P.J. Soles) isn’t a real person in our world, but rather an amazing caricature of slutty teenagers, yet I can accept her without hesitation as a person in Halloween‘s world. It’s the type of world where the softness of film stock really helps – it’s a world that feels idyllic, a world where you can leave your door unlocked, a world where “bad” things are foreign, so it’s all the more jarring when Michael arrives and begins his hunt, the embodiment of Evil contaminating each frame. Suddenly those warm oranges seem menacing and foreboding, those blues outright threatening. No shot embodies that more than Michael’s mask slowly fading into view behind Laurie, one of the most iconic shots in horror history, if not cinematic history.
None of this would hold nearly as much weight if the characters were the lifeless sacks to follow in the genre over the next decade, but Halloween assembles a small roster of characters who you root for, each having particular souls and drives. These drives are basic things: for Laurie’s friends Lynda and Annie (Nancy Loomis), it’s about convincing Lindsey (Kyle Richards, a Real Housewife of Beverly Hills if that’s of interest to you) to stay with Laurie, who’s babysitting Tommy (Brian Andrews), so they can shag their boyfriends at Lindsey’s parents’ place. For Laurie, she’s unsure whether to ask a guy she likes to the prom. These are simple, quite like the film itself, but these are characters who lead lives independent of the movie, teenagers going about their days. They don’t obviously exist to die, even though you know some of them will. And the key to this success is how enjoyable Halloween makes these characters – Lynda is a delightful ditz, Annie is the biting sassy one, and Laurie is the one paving a way through life with quiet innocence, but these characters are written and portrayed so well, each riffing off and elevating each other, each having little details or mannerisms that imbue them with life. It wouldn’t take much effort at all to convert Halloween into a high school comedy, which is precisely why the horror – the creeping intrusion of Evil – works so effectively.
This characterization extends beyond the teenagers, as you really can’t go on without mentioning the lovable frump that is Loomis (the name being a Psycho homage), a strange man navigating a strange situation, spouting terrifically neurotic dialogue to Sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers), who’s also Annie’s father. We’re made to feel that Loomis is the only one with a chance to stop Michael, but Loomis’ words bear a hint of resignation that Michael can’t be stopped, and you can sense how this drives Loomis’ desperation to find him, to disprove what he already knows probably can’t be disproved. Contrast that desperation in the face of unstoppable evil with Laurie, whose most pressing issue of the evening is Annie asking her crush to the prom on her behalf. Curtis’ performance is sublime, skirting Laurie away from tropes of “nerdy Final Girl” into a fully-realized human being. Sure, she navigates the uncertainties of teenagehood, but she also flits between kindness, decisiveness, and confidence, capable of taking charge when warranted but still means the best for everyone. She’s somebody who could be your friend, so watching her life crack and fall apart in real time, for no reason, is wrenching. As she sobs at the end, Loomis looking down at the empty patch of grass where a bullet-riddled Michael fell to seconds before (confirming his worst, deeply-held suspicions), we know that Evil has won.
Despite all this, I wouldn’t say Halloween is something that keeps you up at night. Whether that’s due to cultural shifts over the last four decades or genre saturation is your call. Likewise, it’s not a stretch that many of those inundated with modern horror would watch Halloween for the first time and consider it merely plain – perhaps symptomatic of the misnomer that Halloween is The One that set the standard for its genre. But Halloween hues closer to Argento-ian Italian horror than its past and future American contemporaries, what with its relatively stately imagery that emphasizes fear through composition over body count. Halloween is a more bloodless affair than a first-timer would likely anticipate and that pays dividends: the violence is infrequent enough where those flashes of it are striking and feel more brutal than they actually are (in the context of the slasher genre). The legendary score by John Carpenter, blessing us with that eternally recognizable theme, does more legwork for the film’s creep factor than wanton death ever could. If you look at Halloween with the expectation of a “slasher” you won’t get much mileage out of it, but it’s rude to do such a disservice to a film that had no intention of meeting those expectations to begin with, and is more content to serve as a fundamental cat-and-mouse story about Evil targeting the unassuming Good.
Yeah, you could argue that Halloween popularized the “sex = death” trope and I won’t stop you, but I’ve never bought the theory that Halloween is trying to pose a social critique on promiscuity, or trying to suggest some vulnerability inherent to the virginal innocent. In fact, I wouldn’t say Halloween tries to make any broader point about our society and its functioning, for that is anathema to the elegant ballet it weaves. Because Halloween isn’t about sex, teenage debauchery, or the Final Girl. It’s about the evil lurking in the background of our lives and our powerlessness when it sees you or I or your friend or your neighbour, because Evil doesn’t care about what you do or who you are, it only cares that you’re there.