I should say up front that there may be spoilers for Halloween in this review.
“It’s Halloween, everyone’s entitled to one good scare”
“There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie. For instance, number one: you can never have sex. Number two: you can never drink or do drugs. And number three: never, ever, ever under any circumstances say “I’ll be right back.” Because you won’t be.”
These are the so-called “rules” from Wes Craven’s 1996 meta-horror Scream, outlined by Randy, the film buff of the film’s group of high school friends. It’s no coincidence that, at the moment he reels off this list, Randy is watching John Carpenter’s 1978 slasher Halloween, the film that established the clichés he’s talking about, and one that, with its devastating and visceral take on the genre, turned horror cinema on its head.
Halloween opens with an extraordinary point of view shot, showing the perspective of an as yet unnamed character. We follow this character around the outside of a house, looking through a window at a teenage couple kissing on a sofa. The camera lingers. So do we. As the unnamed character enters the house, he waits for the boy to leave and heads upstairs, picking up a knife from the kitchen. He gets to the door of the girl’s bedroom and picks a discarded Halloween mask off the floor, putting it on. The camera is masked, too, with the only vantage point being through the eye holes. The character approaches the girl and stabs her repeatedly, killing her, before heading outside. The character is met by a couple who remove the mask. The character is a young boy. He looks blank, empty. A monster. This is Michael Myers, his victim was his sister, and we’ll see more of him later.
This is the moment we realise that this isn’t simply a horror film, but a horror film made by a director who knows exactly what he’s doing. Take the moment Myers watches his sister and her boyfriend on the sofa. Why does the camera linger for so long? As it’s a point of view shot, we presume the reason is that the young boy – later noted to be six years old – must be fascinated by the sexual encounter happening in front of him. But as we are there with him, what does that make us? Even the film’s title card is privy to these voyeuristic themes. As the carved pumpkin slowly fades onto the screen, the camera gradually moves into its ever flickering eyes; are we watching a film, or is the film watching us? Is it the voyeuristic nature of cinema that keeps us coming back? It’s hard to say for sure, but Carpenter certainly wants us to think about it.
Fast forward fifteen years and Myers has escaped from the mental institution in which he was incarcerated and has returned to his hometown with a taste for the blood of teenage girls. One of these girls is Laurie Strode, an intelligent, wholesome babysitter, who, on Halloween, seems to see Myers everywhere she goes: in her neighbour’s garden, behind a hedge, in a car. Myers seems to be stalking her, giving the film a powerful sense of foreboding.
As I said earlier, Carpenter knows exactly what he’s doing in terms of direction, and this is reflected in his scare tactics. Carpenter takes an almost Hitchcockian approach to Halloween, drawing particular influence from Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) – a film that stars Janet Leigh, the mother of Halloween’s star, Jamie Lee-Curtis.
Carpenter’s use of music is particularly impressive; the eerie score sets an atmosphere of palpable intrigue from the start, and manages to sustains it throughout the film. It acts as an indicator that something is going to happen, and something always does. The real beauty of using music is how it’s perceived by the audience; if music is used to soundtrack a murder scene, it’s immediately given negative connotations that we relate to when the music is used again.
Carpenter, like Hitchcock, uses music to draw suspense out of what turn out to be innocent scenes. For example, the scene with Myers stalking one of Laurie’s friends, also a babysitter, at the house she is working at is, quite frankly, terrifying. The atmosphere is established through the use of music and the way in which we are shown occasional glimpses of Myers in the background. But, for a very long time, nothing happens. The girl is simply doing her laundry. At one point, we see Myers in the window of the door and the next moment, the door is locked and the girl is trapped in the laundry room. She tries to climb out the window, but gets stuck. She’s a sitting duck. We assume that she’s about to meet a gruesome end. But she doesn’t. At least, not yet. Like Hitchcock did in many of his films, Carpenter draws out the tension for as long as possible, and strikes when the audience has all but decided that if the Myers was going to kill the girl, e would’ve done it already. Of course, she eventually is killed, but Carpenter’s restraint in showing this makes the scene far more terrifying.
More terrifying still is the apparent invulnerability of Myers; he simply cannot, or will not, die. Myers seems impervious to pain and seems to get straight back up again after sustaining seemingly mortal injuries – he survives being stabbed in the neck with a knitting needle and, more impressively, being shot six times and falling out of a first floor window. This only serves to ramp up the terror: how can you possibly stop something that cannot be stopped?
Like all good horror villains – Freddy Krueger is a good example of this – the killer always has the last word. Here, after Myers falls out the window after being shot, Dr. Loomis, his psychiatrist and apparent killer, looks out the window to see if Myers is dead. He’s not there. Loomis looks on, horrified, but not surprised. He knows Myers is a monster, and he knows it’ll take more than that to stop him. Following this, the camera cuts to different locations around the house, all of which are deserted, and the ever-increasing sound of heavy breathing can be heard. Myers will always be a threat. Constantly watching his victims. Waiting to strike.
Often imitated but never surpassed, Halloween is, quite possibly, the greatest, most influential horror film ever made. John Carpenter’s film is a masterpiece of horror cinema, and one that will be tremendously difficult to surpass. It hasn’t been beaten yet, and it almost certainly never will be.